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Monday 15 May 2017

Interview with Alison Morton

Carol Westron talks with Alison Morton

Alison Morton writes alternative history based on the premise that the Roman Empire did not disappear but survives into modern times as the small but influential country of Roma Nova, which ruled by strong, dedicated, Praetorian, female heads of houses.
Alison has loved all things Roman since she was a child and holds an MA in history. Her alternative history thrillers are wonderfully authentic and blend her love of Roman history with her six years’ military service. Not only has she spent decades clambering over Roman sites all over Europe, she also cultivates a Roman herb garden in her home in France.
Three of the books feature Carina, a young New York woman who discovers she has a Roma Novan heritage. The other three books feature Aurelia, Carina’s grandmother.
 All of Alison Morton’s Roma Novan books have achieved critical acclaim. The first five books have been awarded the BRAG Medallion.
Successio, Aurelia and Insurrectio were selected as Historical Novel Society’s Indie Editor’s Choices.  Aurelia was a finalist in the 2016 HNS Indie Award. Retalio, the sixth book set in and around Roma Nova, is published on
th April 2017.

Carol: You have all the skills to write great historical novels and/or stunning political thrillers. When did it occur to you that you wanted to write alternative history novels? Was it something you’d always known or did it come to you out of the blue?
Alison: Thank you! The alternative history idea gripped me when I read Robert Harris’s Fatherland. It showed me history could set off on another path. Then I searched out other titles and found Keith Roberts’ Pavane and Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration among others.  My diet of reading growing up included shelves full of science fiction, crime, adventure and, of course, historical fiction, so the framework was there.
I’ve been a ‘Roman nut’ since I walked on my first mosaic in Spain, so any stories were going to be set in a Roman society. Enter a dollop of feminism; I questioned why there weren’t many strong women leading the action in stories about Rome and was determined to make my protagonist female. But women in Ancient Rome didn’t have agency (except as influencers), nor public identity nor voice, so when the novel writing bug bit, I brought my Roman heroines up to the modern age where they definitely run things!

Carol: It must take an immense amount of research and planning to have created Roma Nova and its place in the alternative history world. How long did it take to create your country, its history and its setting within the world?
Alison: Roma Nova had been building in my head for many years – a fantasy from my childhood as an imaginary Roman princess leading her legionaries. More seriously, I’ve been a keen student of the Roman world and clambered over its ruins for years. My MA is in history, and during my studies I acquired research tools and methodology that were invaluable.
The Roman world at its dusk is fascinating; why did it dissolve in the fifth century, what was ordinary life like then, what happened to the Romans themselves? Roma Nova’s pagan ancestors fled in AD 395 under threat of persecution by Christian emperor Theodosius – a reversal of earlier times. I took life, society and culture of the late 4th century, stiffened with more Republican values, as my jumping off point for research. This is why 21st century Roma Novans use solidi as their currency rather than sestertii. Then it was a case of applying historical logic to the next 1600 years!

A working knowledge of European history gave me background enough to know when I had gaps to research. The geography I pinched from Slovenia. The key to world building is to make it real for your characters. Walk them down a typical street at different times of the day. What do they see and hear? What sounds and smells are in the air?

Carol: You started the Roma Nova series in contemporary times with Carina living her life in New York as Karen Brown. At what point in the Carina novels did you realise that you wanted to go back in time to tell the story of Aurelia, Carina’s grandmother, or was that always a possibility in your mind?
Alison: The older Aurelia fascinated me from the start, but by the time I was drafting the third book of Carina’s adventures, Successio, I knew I had to write the story of Aurelia as a young woman. About halfway into Aurelia, it became clear that I had far too much story to tell in one book, hence Insurrectio and Retalio!

Carol: I must admit, as a reader I found it difficult to start, as I did, with Aurelia and then go to the Carina novels. Did you find the shift to the 1960s Roma Nova difficult to manage, both in practical and emotional terms?

Alison:     The beauty of a break between the first and second trilogies is that you can start either in the present with Carina or in the late 1960s with Aurelia. I didn’t find it difficult emotionally to go back to the late 1960s. I was creating a younger version of an established personality so I already had an outline. Other characters in the books remark how similar Carina and Aurelia are, but Aurelia is tougher, more politically aware and a ‘blood-and-bone’ Roman whereas Carina lacks that inner discipline, but makes up with it in her ability to take a risk to the extreme.
The late 1960s of Aurelia and the early 1980s of Insurrectio and Retalio were challenging to research for different reasons from the first three books; I was battling my memory. While I remembered quite a lot from the 1980s, I made myself check everything! In the 1960s, I was a child so a lot of the change from the 1950s post-war stiff society to the freer, dynamic 1960s passed me by. Back to research per se!

Carol: Both the Carina and Aurelia novels are written in the First Person and it works really well. Did you ever consider writing them in the Third Person?
Alison: I love writing in the first person as I see the world from the character’s eyes, mind and emotions; it’s not always a reliable view, which means it sets up all kinds of conflict! I tried third person for both women and it didn’t work for these books. But in the future, who knows?

Carol: You must keep immaculate records of all that has happened in and around Roma Nova for the last fifty years. Does that level of research and record keeping come naturally to you?
Alison: This is a shocking admission, but apart from family trees, photos suggesting city and landscapes and a sketch map of Roma Nova, I have very little written record of Roma Nova. It’s all in my head! However, I do have files of research on aspects of Roman life, and a complex online archive of everything from Glocks, Roman courtrooms, Slovenian climate and crop rotation to Macy’s department store, 1980s fax and video machines and Myers Briggs personality tests. I even acquired a Federal Aviation Authority map of airspace above Washington DC for Inceptio. Yes, I keep the sources of everything I use. Call me paranoid, but most thriller writers are.

Carol: I have just read Retalio which I really enjoyed. One image that has stayed with me is when Aurelia is preparing to fight to regain Roma Nova. With your permission I’d like to quote a paragraph from that part of the book. ‘She handed me a pistol without a word. I was surprised how strange it felt as I began to strip it. But my fingers and some deep memory remembered how to pull the slider off the frame and release the barrel. The methodical cleaning and wiping was soothing, the smell of the cleaning lubricant sharp but not disturbing. Although surrounded by others carrying out the same task I felt a moment of isolation, of quiet. Nobody spoke; it seemed as if they were gathering in their personal strength. Once done, I carried out a function check and pushed the magazine in. A satisfying clunk. Yes, it was ready and so was I.’ It is a compelling image that resonates at so many levels. When you were writing it, were you aware of how symbolic it is?
Alison: I wore a military uniform for six years in a specialist role and experienced this feeling exactly as we were about to go on exercise, including on the North German Plain in freezing temperature. Everybody goes into a self-contained quiet just before action starts. You have to prepare yourself as if for the worst outcome even if it’s only a simulation. You catch your inner mental and emotional breath, then off you go. 

Carol: What comes next? Are you continuing the Aurelia story until it meets up with the Carina books? Or are you back to Carina? Or have you got a new protagonist in mind?
Alison: Now this trilogy is complete, I’m writing some shorter fiction, a novella about Carina, then a collection of short stories with some new and some familiar characters.  My next long fiction will probably be about the foundation story of Roma Nova, so back to the 4th century.

Carol: Have you got any advice for writers who are considering writing alternative history?
Alison: You can’t ‘alternate’ history without knowing it, so make sure you are well informed about the world of your point of divergence from the standard timeline. Keep to the conventions (e.g. no dragons or magic) or it risks looking like fantasy. If writing a thriller or crime story against this background, the story still has to be strong and the characters natural and consistent. Readers can download a handout about writing alternative history here.

Carol: Finally, a bit about yourself? What are your hobbies and how do you spend any spare time?
Alison: Spare time? I live in France, south of the Loire Valley, and enjoy tending my Roman herb garden, walking, reading, sleeping and drinking a glass of chilled local wine on a warm evening. Santé!

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her latest book The Fragility of Poppies was published 10 June 2016. Read a review of Carol’s latest book
The Fragility of Poppies

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