A few months ago I stumbled upon a mystery series set in Roman occupied Britain by author Ruth Downie. I read the first two rather quickly as they really caught my imagination. As luck would have it right after I finished the second Terra Incognita I was chosen by the publisher to review the third titled Persona Non Grata here in the states, and was taken by the characters Downie so wonderfully brought to life. After posting a comment on Ruth’s blog we started a correspondence. I asked Ruth if she would stop by my blog for an interview to answer some fan questions and she graciously accepted
Ruth Downie is the author of the Medicus series. You can find them listed on her blog site http://rsdownie.co.uk. The third, Persona Non Grata is now out in the U.S. Thank you Ruth for being here. It’s a pleasure! I love your series. Ruso and Tilla are so well written that I feel like I am reading about actual people. Your description of the Roman period makes this series stand out. Many of other fans I have talked to say they can picture whatever you are writing about and feel like they have stepped back in time.
I would love to ask questions about Persona Non Grata as it is my personal favourite but for my blogging friends who live in the UK and have not yet read the book I will refrain. That’s very considerate – thank you.
On your blog’s bio you write that you did not have a burning desire to write, rather you were given the opportunity to write a script for the company you worked for. So where did the idea for Ruso come from?
I’d written very little before I took creative writing evening classes when the children were small. It was a way of escape from everyday life. I don’t mean to insult the family, but sometimes it’s good to get a break – and not only is writing free, but you don’t need to organise babysitters. I’d had one or two stories published in magazines when my employers took the risk of giving me some scripting work.
I started trying to write novels just to see if I could do it, really. The standard advice is ‘write what you know’. The problem was, I’d had a very unremarkable life and didn’t feel I knew anything that anybody would want to read about. So I was on the lookout for a story when we went on a family holiday to Hadrian’s Wall. That’s where I read that ‘Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry, but they were allowed to have relationships with local women.’
It was one of those ‘light bulb’ moments. I knew I’d found a subject.
(Incidentally, I learned later that although the soldiers weren’t allowed to marry until well after the Ruso books are set, there seems to have been no such restriction on the officers.)
Why did you set your series in Roman occupied Britain? Are you a fan of this time period?
I was grabbed by the idea of the potential tension between the Roman Army and the locals – it chimed with stories my parents’ generation tell of ‘when the GIs were over here in the War’ and with the very difficult situation unfolding in the north of Ireland at the time. I think it also stirred memories of travelling on the school bus past the Roman walls of Colchester – the ‘Camulodunum’ that was burned down by Boudica.
At the time I knew next to nothing about Roman Britain, but now the family would probably tell you that I’m not a fan: I’m an obsessive. I tend to come at it through the archaeology – there’s very little written history of the Roman occupation of Britain but there’s a huge amount of evidence on and under the ground if someone shows you where to look.
The fans I have talked to about Ruso and Tilla are split on whether they want to see intimacy between the two. Did you deliberately write their relationship so that intimacy was implied or were you hesitant to have the series seen as yet another historical romance?
I have a bit of a problem with romance, in that I can’t write what I really don’t believe in. I’m not a ‘Mr Right will sweep you off your feet’ kind of person. Fortunately the Romans weren’t big on romance either. I wanted the relationship between Ruso and Tilla to be plausible in the context of their everyday lives. After the disaster of his first marriage Ruso is wary of women in general – and if Tilla had any illusions they’ve been shattered by her experiences with ‘the Northerners.’ They’re bound to approach any relationship with caution. In fact, given the cultural divide, being attracted to each other is outwardly very inconvenient for both of them.
As for physical intimacy –Roman literature and art is a lot franker than I am, but I wouldn’t be comfortable writing anything very explicit. I’d rather hint and imply – I’m sure people can use their imaginations. Besides, there’s a ‘bad sex’ prize for novelists over here and I’m guessing that the people who’ve won it thought they were writing great stuff at the time. I really, really don’t want to be one of them.
It is very refreshing to read about a woman like Tilla because she is very strong willed and seems to have a lot of self confidence; I would think Ruso needs her more than she needs him. Is this your view of how women should be? Is she modeled after anyone in particular?
I wouldn’t dare make any suggestions about how modern women should be, but luckily for Tilla – and for the story – there seems to be quite a lot of evidence that British women of this period could be relatively independent.
We don’t have written materials from the Britons of the time but we do have stories and codes of law that emerged some centuries later in “Celtic” areas not conquered by the Romans. It appears that women could own property, do business and command authority in their own right. Most people know about Boudica leading her warriors. There was also Cartimandua, the queen of the Brigantes – Tilla’s tribe – who finally betrayed the British rebel Caratacus to the Romans and managed to divorce her husband, marry his armour-bearer and lead one side of a civil war. Some of her contemporaries might have wished she’d been a little less confident and strong-willed and stayed at home doing the cooking.
Where do you see this series going? What can your fans look forward to? Do you have plans to write anything else?
I’m in the middle of writing the fourth book at the moment, with Ruso back in Britain trying to find a job after his trip home to Gaul. After that it’s up to the publishers, but if they’re willing then I’d like to see Hadrian’s long-promised visit to Britain (characters have been anticipating it since the first book!) and the building of the Great Wall.
There are no firm plans to write anything else at the moment, but I do have one or two ideas simmering in the very early stages.
Why is the UK edition of Persona Non Grata not coming out until late 2010? My UK friends are jealous that we in the states have already read it and are looking forward to the next.
I’m really sorry about this! It’s the same reason that each book has two titles – because there are separate publishers on each side of the Atlantic who each take their own decisions. The slightly good news is that the Penguin edition (UK) is now scheduled for April 2010. It’ll be going straight into paperback with a very smart cover that I’m probably not allowed to show you yet. It’ll be called RUSO AND THE ROOT OF ALL EVILS.
Again thank you for stopping by.
I’ve enjoyed it: thanks for some interesting questions!