Historical crime fiction is my jam — well one of them — and while I mostly read books set later in history, I have a soft spot for books with a Roman setting. Ruth Downie’s Medicus series featuring Gaius Ruso is one that I wasn’t familiar with, but given that Vita Brevis is the seventh book in the series, I’ve got some catching up to look forward to. Today, I’m happy to be part of the Vita Brevis blog tour with an interview with Ruth and a giveaway for a copy of the book. I hope you enjoy Ruth’s answers as much as I did and do check out the other stops on the blog tour.
Let’s start with the basics. Who is Ruth Downie?
Career-wise I’m a bit of a drifter, to be honest. I always knew I wasn’t quick-witted enough to be a teacher but I had no idea what else you could do with an English degree, so I became a bad secretary with very good spelling. Then when our children were small I amassed a series of part-time jobs—three or four at a time—and took up writing as a hobby to try and remain sane in the middle of it. One of the jobs was with a TV and video production company who were brave enough to let me loose on scripts, and somehow I’ve ended up writing full-time and producing a series of seven novels. But there’s never been a plan.
How would you introduce people to Ruso and Tilla?
Ruso and I first met when he was a doctor serving with the Twentieth Legion in Deva (now Chester). He liked the work and the camaraderie—not to mention the freedom from family pressure to find another wife after the first one packed her bags and went home in a sulk. He was less impressed with the remote province of Britannia and its surly natives—but after he was tricked into buying a slave that nobody else wanted, she gradually opened his eyes to a way of life that wasn’t as uncouth as he’d been led to expect. He’s been alternately grateful to Tilla and exasperated with her ever since.
You’ve said your writing Romans was inspired by a visit to Hadrian’s Wall. Is the period that was an active border also your favourite Roman era?
Yes, absolutely. Partly because a solid border is expensive to build, which suggests that there was serious tension in the province at the time—and tension is always good news for fiction writers. Also, we know very little about what happened in Britain during the early days of Hadrian’s reign, so there’s plenty of scope for invention.
Having said that, though, we do know a great deal of random detail about military life on the border a few years before, unearthed in correspondence from the fort at Vindolanda. So while the broad sweep of history eludes us, we’ve got all sorts of little domestic details. We know how many chickens were eaten for lunches in the commanding officer’s residence, because it seems to have been somebody’s job to keep count. We know that one military wife sought the company of another to celebrate her birthday. We see a trader from overseas complaining that he’s been beaten by the soldiers as if he were a criminal, and there’s a plaintive note from an outpost saying that the men are very short of beer. It’s as if there’s a vast hall full of lively characters next door, but their voices are muffled and we can only peep at them through tiny cracks in the plaster.
Who is your favourite Roman emperor?
I suppose it really should be Hadrian. A man of great energy, intelligence and enthusiasm. But…
After years of working in offices, the man whose story makes me smile is Diocletian. He was an archetypal administrator who rose from humble beginnings to spend much of his reign organizing things. Most of what we know about Roman prices comes from his attempt to set maximum charges for everything (lentils, laundry, lions…) and his final act, having organized his successors, was to build himself a palace by the sea at Split and retire to grow vegetables. Not glamorous, but awfully sensible.
What does your research process for a novel look like? Do you still need to do a ton for each novel or is your base knowledge of the era so solid, that you only need to research details?
I wish! When the first book in the series came out back in 2006 I was so paralysed with terror that I wanted to run away and hide. I’d visited museums and read books and was the owner of an archaeological trowel, but I’m neither a classicist nor a historian. Who was I to presume to speak about Roman Britain? Fortunately people were kind and the terror has abated over the years, but I still spend a lot of time on research—partly because the more you find out, the less you realise you know, and partly because it’s fun.
Ruso and Tilla tend to move to a new location with each book, so naturally I have to go there too, and often in the course of the research some detail comes up that inspires the plot. Vita Brevis is the first story I’ve ever set in Rome itself, and there’s a scene involving twin balconies near the end that I would never have thought of if I hadn’t seen a reconstruction of Trajan’s libraries. Sadly they’re no longer standing, so I’m mightily grateful to Yale University for putting their Roman Architecture course up on the internet.
The ailments of Ruso’s patients have to be checked in the ancient medical texts that have survived, and then once a plot starts to develop there’s always some detail that involves hours spent trying to find out whether anybody actually knows, or whether the evidence just isn’t there and you can safely fudge it. Then there’s the research that never makes it into the book. Still, if anyone ever needs me to trim a horse’s hooves or determine the sex of a snake, all that time on YouTube will not have been wasted!
Thus far you’ve only written Roman historical novels. Are there any other historical periods you’d be interested in exploring?
I’m daunted by the amount of research that would be needed, but I do hanker after the Victorians. They were so splendidly robust.
You don’t just write historical novels, you write historical crime novels. What drew you to this combination of genres?
To be honest it wasn’t my idea. The series sprang from three chapters I wrote for a ‘start a historical romance’ competition. I’d never thought of writing romance any more than I’d thought of writing crime, but romance was what the competition required, and for a prize of £100 it was worth a try. When the chapters were published an agent got in touch and asked what the rest of the book might look like. She read my rather desperate attempt to describe it (it was only ever intended to be three chapters, for goodness’ sake!) and observed that it needed less plot, and a crime. I did gulp a bit at the time, but she was right. It gave the book the focus it was lacking, and now I really enjoy being a crime writer.
Is there something else you’re passionate about other than writing and books?
Every summer I don a pair of ancient jeans, grab the archaeological trowel and the kneeling pad, and head off somewhere to join a team hunting for our ancestors. It’s physical work in the open air, which is a complete change from writing, and I’m never happier than when on a dig in the sunshine.
As a book reviewer, I’m all about the book enabling; I can’t help but want to make people read all the good books out there. But I can always use help. What are your top recommendations of books we should look out for in the coming months?
Annelise Freisenbruch’s Rivals of the Republic is a great combination of scholarship and storytelling, and I’m looking forward to reading Fiona Veitch Smith’s second Poppy Denby book. The first, The Jazz Files, has been shortlisted for the CWA Historical Dagger award, so The Kill Fee is very high on my TBR list.
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
Ha! I worked in a library for years but don’t seem to have learned anything. The books are grouped by subject until the space runs out, then it all descends into chaos. If my former boss saw the shelves here, she would weep.
Bio: Ruth Downie is the author of the New York Times bestselling Medicus, as well as Terra Incognita, Persona Non Grata, Caveat Emptor, Semper Fidelis, and Tabula Rasa. She is married with two sons and lives in Devon.
If you’d like to win a copy of Vita Brevis, please leave a comment below with your favourite Roman historical (crime) novel and a way to contact you. The giveaway is open internationally until Sunday October 9 11:59 PM CET.