Friday, February 1, 2013

A Conversation with "Medicus" series author Ruth Downie


I have enjoyed Ruth Downie's "Medicus" series since I read her very first novel in the series "Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire" ("Medicus and the Disappearing Dancing Girls" for you UK readers).  I've followed her hero, Gaius Petreius Ruso, from Roman Britain to Gaul and back again, reviewing his latest adventure, "Semper Fidelis" just a few weeks ago.  Whenever I read a book with a Roman setting and a captivating protagonist, a number of questions about the author's interest in ancient Rome, some of her challenges in character development and research sources invariably arise.  This time, the author has generously offered to answer some of my questions and has allowed me to share her responses with you.

Ruth Downie, author of the "Medicus"
series of novels set in Roman Britain.
Image courtesy of Amazon.
Mary: What aspect of Roman civilization do you find most interesting?

 Ruth: What fascinates me is the contrast between the way Roman culture seems very familiar to us and the ways in which their thinking was so completely different. We can identify with the use of technology, the political bickering, the complex administration, the vast gap between rich and poor – and yet how could they accept slaughter as entertainment? And while there was some tinkering with the law to make the lives of slaves more bearable, the right of one person to treat another as ‘property’ was the basis of the economy and never seriously questioned.

Mary: Why did you choose the early 2nd century CE as the setting for the "Medicus" series?

Ruth: It was a trip to Hadrian’s Wall that sparked my interest in Roman Britain, so it seemed natural to write about the time when it was built. The first novel really didn’t work, but Ruso and Tilla evolved from two minor characters in the backstory. That’s why they ended up meeting some years before the wall appeared. In fact it’s worked out quite nicely, because in SEMPER FIDELIS they can slot into history and meet Hadrian on his only recorded tour of Britannia.

Mary: As a female author what aspect of your male protagonist do you find most challenging to capture?

Ruth: I’ve been racking my brains to remember the instance where I discussed a plot point with my husband, who said, “No, a man wouldn’t do that. A man would…” but I’m afraid neither of us can remember what it was!

Somebody once observed that when a man looks in the mirror he sees a person, whereas when a woman looks in a mirror she sees a woman. I don’t know how true that is now but it was certainly true for the male-dominated ancient world, and I do try to bear it in mind.

Mary: Did you use an historical Roman as a model for Ruso or a modern acquaintance? Who?

Ruth: The character of Ruso is imaginary but his meeting with Tilla was inspired by a real-life dilemma faced by two medic friends. They were stuck in traffic and realised there had been an accident on the motorway ahead of them. They had to decide whether to stay where they were and leave it to the ambulance, or abandon the car, run to the scene and try to help. The trouble was, they were only students, they knew very little emergency medicine and they had no equipment or backup (I left that part out of the novel). Fortunately in real life the ambulance got there first. I didn’t give Ruso that option.

Mary: Do you share particular character traits with Tilla? If so, which ones?

Ruth: Her cooking is possibly slightly worse than mine. Well, somebody’s has to be. Apart from that, she fulfils all my fantasies of one day becoming confident, assertive and decisive.

Mary: Now that Ruso and Tilla are married, how will you maintain the sexual tension between them?

Ruth: Whilst they are indeed man and wife, that’s not irrevocable - divorce was readily available in both their cultures. I think the cultural differences between them will continue to give rise to tensions and while Tilla is married to Ruso, he owes his first allegiance to the Emperor and the Legion. So in a sense she always has to compete for his attention, while he’s torn between his loyalty to the Army and his loyalty to his wife – and of course his duty to his patients.

Mary: In "Semper Fidelis", Ruso is temporarily demoted from an officer to a ranker. This was surprising to me since officers were typically of a higher social class and Roman society usually strictly observed social hierarchy in spite of legal infractions. Did you find an historical precedent for this type of disciplinary action during the imperial period? If so, could you describe the example you found?

Ruth: That’s an interesting point: certainly people of patrician status seem to have been regularly banished rather than suffer a more plebeian punishment. I haven’t found a specific example of demotion of legionary officers, but much of our evidence for military careers comes from tombstones, where failure is unlikely to be recorded. However commanders were able to use their discretion and one of the punishments available to them was demotion.

Secondly, although officers were generally of a higher social class than the men, doctors were an anomaly. Like many skilled trades, medicine was seen to be the province of slaves and Greeks, and its practitioners were rarely held in high esteem in civilian society. The elder Pliny had some very scathing things to say about them, and Ruso’s father was appalled when Ruso was desperate to go and learn medicine from his Uncle Theo rather than be a gentleman farmer. So although Ruso is in a position of authority because he has valuable skills, his social rank isn’t typical of officers – he would have more in common with centurions who had worked their way up through the ranks.

Another point here is that our sparse evidence on military doctors suggests that senior medics may have been appointed on short-term commissions as officers rather than having to serve the 25 years demanded of men in the ranks. There’s some dispute about this but the joy of being a novelist rather than an academic is that you can choose whichever interpretation works best for your story. So I’ve gone with the one that enables me to get Ruso and Valens very conveniently in and out of the Legion. 

Mary: You mentioned on your blog that you have participated in archaeological site excavations. What has been the most interesting site you have helped to excavate and why?

Ruth: Most of my time in the trenches has been spent on a long-term dig of a Roman villa in a scenic location in Northamptonshire – you can see the photos and read more about it at www.whitehallvilla.co.uk. Over the years, what had once been a stony field on a sheep farm was revealed as a large Romano-British villa site. We know from excavated bones that even then, the farm was breeding some very fine sheep.

My favourite day was when we finally dug below what appeared to a mass of rubble from a nearby bath-house and realised the tiles we were beginning to find were the tops of buried stacks. We had found the first heated room of a second, completely unexpected bath complex. Geophysics is a marvellous science but you never really know what you’re going to find until you start scraping away the mud with a trowel. 

Mary: What is one of the most surprising facts about the Romans or early Britons you have discovered in your research?

Ruth: Well, one of the medical textbooks regularly used in the Roman empire offers a cure for earache that involves popping in a boiled cockroach. I can’t say I’ve tried this. Nor have I yet tried to get rid of toothache by shattering the offending tooth with the sting of a stingray. If anyone does, I disclaim all responsibility.

Mary: Who is your favorite author and why?

Ruth: I fear I’m rather fickle – it tends to vary depending on who I’ve just been reading. But Martin Cruz Smith is a firm favourite. His Russian detective, Arkady Renko, is just so cool.

Mary: What Roman (besides Ruso) do you most admire and why?

Ruth: Hadrian. After a wild period in his youth he turned out be an intelligent, ambitious and hugely hardworking man. He was never liked by the Senate – the rumours of a faked succession and the murders of several opponents can’t have helped – but he was respected by his troops and made the effort to travel and see and improve the Empire he governed. Instead of embarking on crazy expeditions into territories Rome couldn’t hold, he drew back and tried to bring peace by consolidating what they already had.

 In the end he became bitter and unpopular, but that was the fate of most Emperors anyway. And I’m mightily grateful to him and his wife for saying insulting things about each other – marital tension is always a wonderful gift to a storyteller.

Enhanced by Zemanta

3 comments:

Marie Parsons said...

Oh I am loving the Medicus stories. I hope they can continue (or some like them).

Ruth said...

I'll do my best, Marie!

Ruth

MjH said...

@Mary - thanks for making me aware of this series - will have to check it out!

Roman Archaeology Timeline