Author Interview - Sarah Walton4th February 2016
Sarah Walton joined us as a guest in Pompeii a few years ago. During the tour, she was in the process of writing a novel and promised to let us know if it was ever published. We're very pleased to announce that her new historical novel Rufius goes on sale today!
We recently spoke to Sarah about her new book, her writing process, and the writers who inspire her...
1. What can readers expect from Rufius?
Although Rufius has been classed as literary fiction, it’s a fast paced action novel. The backdrop is epic: the fall of Paganism and the rise of Christianity. The story starts in the port of Alexandria a quarter century before the inter-faith massacres and destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria by Nicene Christian mobs in 391 AD. Much of the library, as well as the museum, was housed in the Serapeum, one of the most important pagan temples of the ancient world.
The reader arrives on a boat with Rufius Biblus Catamitus, the new director of the Scriptorium, sent to hunt out heretical books. Rufius, a learned and fleshy satyr, adds the comedy. This novel gets right up close to ancient Roman sexuality, which was oriented along the axis of ‘active’ and ‘passive’, rather than the modern poles of gay and straight. Ancient Romans would have called Rufius a cinaedus. Far from the hard, muscular Roman ideal, cinaedi wore make-up, curled their hair, plucked and painted on their eyebrows. Rufius could be thought of as an ancient Roman version of transgender. The laws that condemned these men became more severe under the Christian emperors, but Rufius is having none of it. He’s not ashamed of wearing his mother’s cameo brooches on his toga, and he’s not going to stop talking with a lisp because of a bunch of jumped up bishops!
But Rufius cannot hold back the rising intolerance of a society in the grip of religious revolution. In 390 AD, a law was passed condemning effeminate men to public burning. His orientation, once accepted even in its emperors – Julius Caesar was hounded by rumours that he was a cinaedus throughout his political career – puts Rufius’ life, and his household, in danger.The climax of the novel takes the reader into the thick of the street riots and the orgies of destruction orchestrated by the Bishop Theophilus. I won’t spoil the end and tell you what happens to Rufius.
Rufius would appeal to readers with a love of the “classical” world, an interest in the battle for orthodoxy in Christianity, and a curiosity about ancient Roman ideas of sexuality.
2. Where did you first find your inspiration for the book?
My inspiration came from the Askew codex in the British Library. Coincidently, at the same time, the Moscow Library of Foreign Literature was undertaking a fresh translation of the mysterious sentences which have stumped scholars since the codex was purchased by Dr Askew in Georgian London. I mused with Dr Nersessian (the curator of the manuscript) that the mysterious sentences which have defied translation might be Christian mantra – along the lines of Hindu or Buddhist mantra. We agreed that it was plausible for early Gnostic Christians to have used mantra to achieve gnosis (self-knowledge). Having been brought up a Catholic, I was compelled to understand why this book, with female teachers and positive role models for women, had been condemned. Who were the people who held this book sacred? In the novel, the Askew Codex is sacred to the Ophites. It could equally have belonged to another of the many groups of Gnosticism, such as the Valentinians.
It was during those long days in the Oriental Reading Room, poring over the Coptic manuscript that Rufius first spoke to me. I had a strange experience as I repeated the Gnostic words. I found myself transported to a scriptorium in my imagination and there – hobbling between the bookshelves with a codex in hand – was a fat, old librarian in a toga. The atmosphere was thick with doom. “Take the book, and run,” he shouted in a camp, urgent voice to a young scribe. Rufius’ voice followed me back out of my vision and stalked me until I wrote his story.
3. Tell us a little bit about your writing process.
Rufius was not my first attempt at writing fiction, but it was a novel that posed a huge challenge. The extent of my knowledge of Ancient Rome was Carry on Cleo and schoolgirl Latin. To write this novel I undertook a PhD, infiltrated the Classics community and immersed myself for five years in the everyday clutter of ancient Roman lives – from favourite recipes to remedies for genital warts.
4. Tell us a little bit more about you - what’s your background?
I read literature and linguistics for my bachelor degree, and studied literature at universities in France and Spain. In the early ‘90s I co-founded a dotcom and went to Silicon Valley to follow my other love: digital technology. I now advise government and businesses on digital. To write Rufius, I undertook a PhD, specialising in ancient Roman sexuality in literature.
5. Are there any writers that inspire you?
Umberto Eco and Hilary Mantel for historical fiction, and Steven Saylor for the fiction of Ancient Rome. My favourite new writer is D.D. Johnston. I love everything by Hemingway, Haruki Murakami, and Jeanette Winterson. If I had to choose one book to pack for a trip it would be Calvino’s Cosmicomics.
6. If I was to find you with your nose buried in a book, what is it likely to be?
Yourcenar’s The Memoirs of Hadrian.
7. You travelled with us to Pompeii - what did you think of the tour?
The Pompeii tour was fantastic. There’s a lot of material in the novel that was directly inspired by walking through the streets of Pompeii, sitting in the stadium, as well as the visit to Paestum. Aeson (Rufius’ lover) loses all his money in the stadium betting on a gladiator fight. I remember sitting on the marble steps and imagined a full stadium–the roar of the crowd, the blood splattered arena. The Andante tour made it feel like we had been transported back in time, which makes the job of a novelist much easier.
As Andante tour guides are academic experts, they not only brought the past to life in a fun fashion, but conducted erudite conversations over dinner which stimulated ideas, perhaps not dissimilar to an ancient Greek symposium. Our tour forged lasting friendships.
8. What can we expect from you next… do you have a second book in mind?
The next two novels are underway. The Hostess Detective is a crime novel based in the ‘90s demimonde. The other novel was inspired by reading the letters between Pope Damasus of Rome and Saint Jerome. It’s the story of Saint Jerome’s writing of the new Latin Bible, which takes the reader on a tour of fourth century Rome, Antioch, the Alexandrian Library and Jerusalem – his entourage of wealthy, anorexic matrons in tow!
Rufius is published by Barbican Press and is available from February 4th. Read more about Sarah on her website, sarahwalton.org