Smith Debut Reveals Intrigue and Romance in Ancient Rome – 2014
An exclusive Authorlink interview with Phyllis T. Smith,
By Diane Slocum
Livia Drusilla is the teenage daughter of a high ranking Roman family when Julius Caesar is assassinated. Against her will, she is married off to a prominent military officer. She strives to be a supportive wife as Rome breaks into factions and civil war. Allegiances shift as one side or another prevails, but none seems more unlikely than the possibility that Livia will succumb to the charms of Octavianus, the man responsible for her parents’ deaths, who strives to become the most powerful man in Rome. With her help, he might succeed.
|“I didn’t knowingly depart from the major historical facts. I did make some small changes.”
AUTHORLINK: How did you do your research?
SMITH: I took a fantastic classical civilization course when I was in college and developed a love of Roman literature, art, and history. So I’ve been reading about Rome for years, and also enjoyed visiting there.
I consulted just about all the ancient sources that mention Livia—in English translation because I know only a little Latin. (I’ve tried to work around this by reading more than one translation of important passages to get a fuller sense of what was meant.) Then of course there are a lot of modern books about ancient Rome that shed light on Livia’s life.
There are three full length biographies of Livia that I did use as sources: Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome by Anthony A. Barrett, I, Livia: The Counterfeit Criminal by Mary Mudd, and Empress of Rome: The Life of Livia by Matthew Dennison.
AUTHORLINK: Even with comprehensive research, you had many gaps to fill. Did you sometimes stray from any known facts to keep the storyline? In your revisions did you find you had used too much history so that it distracted from your main storyline?
SMITH: I didn’t knowingly depart from the major historical facts. I did make some small changes. For example, there’s a scene in which Livia, her first husband, and their little son escape from a city under siege. The baby cries, almost revealing their presence to enemy soldiers. According to the sources, they nearly got caught this way twice. I only showed it once, to avoid repetition.
Under the category of “too much history” I’d place the material I cut about the proscriptions in Rome—an ugly period when Mark Antony and Caesar Octavianus ruthlessly eliminated their political opponents. There’s a story about Antony’s mother saving the life of her brother, clasping him in her arms and telling Antony’s soldiers they’d have to kill their general’s mother in order to kill him. It’s dramatic, but the mother and her brother never appear in the book before or after this incident. I took out that anecdote and others like it which had no important place in the overall narrative.
AUTHORLINK: There’s kind of a Scarlet O’Hara/Melanie Wilkes relationship between Livia and Octavia. How did you develop their personalities?
SMITH: Scarlet and Melanie—that’s a great comparison! With Livia and Octavia as well as other characters, my starting point was what we know about the crucial choices they made, the moments that revealed who they were as people. I tried to create characters with believable motivations who realistically would act as they did. Livia went after what she wanted. That happened to be marriage to Octavianus (even if they both had to dump their existing spouses) and also a whole lot of political power. She didn’t go in for self-abnegation.
Octavia, on the other hand, put up with bad treatment from her husband, Mark Antony—including his flaunting his liaison with Cleopatra—and never seems to have said a word against him. But she wasn’t spineless. When her brother, who ran half the Roman Empire, at that point, ordered her to leave Antony’s house, she refused. I see her as someone who tried to do what she thought was right, even at great personal cost. So I had to create a character who would act that way.
|“Of the five agents I spoke to, three were interested and one stood out, Elizabeth Winick Rubinstein.”
AUTHORLINK: How did you find an agent and publisher for your first novel?
SMITH: Some friends of mine who are wonderful writers struggled to find agents to represent them, which made me feel I had to do more than just send out queries. I attended a writers’ conference and had the chance to meet agents who represented historical novelists, and to pitch my work to them. Of the five agents I spoke to, three were interested and one stood out, Elizabeth Winick Rubinstein. She was personally impressive; her agency had represented literary giants like John Steinbeck; and to top it off she told me she’d spent a college year in Rome and studied Roman history there. After the conference, I sent her a query with sample chapters as she requested.
While waiting for her to read my chapters, I entered my book in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. If you make the contest semi-finals you get a Publishers Weekly review of your full manuscript. When I received a favorable review, I emailed it to Liz and she emailed me back, wanting to see the whole book. I Am Livia ultimately reached the finals in the contest, and I was fortunate enough to sign with the agent I wanted.
Liz submitted the book to a particular editor at Amazon Publishing. It wound up on the desk of someone else –Amazon senior editor Terry Goodman, who had a lifelong interest in ancient Rome and a special love for I, Claudius (the book and miniseries in which Livia is the villain), and who has a marvelous feel for historical fiction. Terry acquired the novel and it was ultimately published under Amazon’s Lake Union imprint.
|“The best advice I can give is to assume you can do it. A lot of what is called talent is desire plus hard work.”
AUTHORLINK: What advice can you give others who are hoping to publish historical fiction?
SMITH: The best advice I can give is to assume you can do it. A lot of what is called talent is desire plus hard work. There’s a craft to writing a novel and also some specific things you need to know about writing historical fiction. Some people may know what to do instinctively. But taking fiction writing workshops, reading books on technique, and attending critique groups were all necessary for me. I’d definitely advise exchanging work with other writers on a regular basis.
It’s important to read critically respected historical novels—including the great ones published decades ago. You don’t want to copy anyone’s style, but there are things you will pick up by osmosis that you really can’t get any other way. You have to find a time period that speaks to you and delve into the culture and how people looked at life—not just the physical details and the historical events.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?
SMITH: For years I’ve been haunted by the story of Gaius Gracchus and his wife Licinia. Licinia steps onto the historical stage for just one scene in Plutarch’s Lives, but it’s a scene unlike any other I know of in Roman history. So I had to write a novel about her and Gaius. He and his brother Tiberius were a little like an ancient Roman version of the Kennedy brothers, extraordinarily charismatic. They were aristocrats who advocated democracy and reforms to benefit the common people. Tiberius, the older brother, was assassinated and it fell to Gaius to carry on for him.
Licinia and Gaius’s love story is told against a background of great danger and political turmoil in Rome. A few of the questions I’m asking in the novel are: What is honor? What do you owe your country and what do you owe the person you love? I’m doing final revisions of this new novel now. After this work is completed, I plan to go forward with the story of Livia’s family, with a focus on the women.
|About Phyllis T. Smith:
After receiving degrees from Brooklyn College and New York University, Smith pursued a career in computer training, while still being drawn to the ancient world. She lives in Brooklyn
About Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.