ROMANITAS by Sophia McDougall
ROMANITAS by Sophia McDougall
ROMANITAS by Sophia McDougall
ROMANITAS by Sophia McDougall
ROMANITAS by Sophia McDougall

Sophia McDougall
Q and A

Sophia McDougall is twenty-four and studied English at Oxford.
She lives in London, where she also writes plays and poetry. Romanitas is her debut novel.


Why Rome? How did you come up with the idea for Romanitas?
It’s always hard to give a good answer to this question. I’m not a classicist or a historian. All I have – beside research done on the job - is Latin and Classical Civilisation, which I studied at school. My Latin has decayed with time, sadly, but I loved it - I loved the poetry and the way it made English make more sense. I think at the time I found the Ancient Greeks more romantic, but we weren’t taught Greek, so I suppose Rome seemed more immediate to me, because I could read their language. And in any case, the Roman Empire has so much in common with the modern world.

But really the idea just handed itself to me out of nowhere. I’d been living at home for a few months and my parents and I were walking home, after a tire on our car blew and left us stranded, and suddenly I said to my mother, “I think I’m going to write a trilogy about a modern Roman Empire,” “Oh, I don’t think that’s a very good idea,” she answered.

In fairness, she had changed her mind by the time we got home.

Where do you live? And why?
I now live near the stretch of Thames that is so important in the first chapters of Romanitas – although I didn’t while I was working on that section. I love the river and the bridges – and more oddly perhaps the railway viaducts around London Bridge. I find old, dark brickwork strangely pleasurable to look at. Of course London is wonderful, but I’ll go back to the country eventually – I miss noticing the seasons – they’re more remote here.

Where do you write?
In my living room, usually with the television or radio on or while talking to somebody. I like to be distracted. If there’s too much peace and quiet I can’t think.

Typewriter, word processor, or pen?
I can’t understand the romance that some writers plainly see in pens and typewriters –to me they’re just painful, clumsy and tyrannous. Of course my laptop is also painful, clumsy and tyrannous, but at least it makes clear, attractive text that I can bear to look at - and it plays CDs. Part of the reason I feel this way is that my fingers are very loose and double-jointed - happy and agile on a keyboard, but they contract into a cramped claw when I try to hold a pen. Whenever I can’t get at my computer and try and sketch out a scene longhand, I am so distressed by the sight of my own sprawling, uneven handwriting and the mess it makes of a page that I can hardly carry on.

Did you enjoy school? What is your most vivid memory of your school years?
Primary school was a brutal matter of continuous terror, bafflement and flight. Secondary school was better. I had some great teachers there. I was good at subjects I cared about, but I think I was a very frustrating student. Most vivid memory… A friend’s habit of jabbing me in the ribs under the desk to make me scream during Latin lessons. Accidentally setting my school skirt on fire while rehearsing a play.

How do you write each novel i.e. do you block out the narrative first, take each page at a time, create the central character, build a cast of characters?
Well, the idea of a modern Roman Empire came to me and within the first few hours, I think, I had the basic plot of the whole trilogy. At first I didn’t think I could begin writing until I’d done a lot more work, but within days I found I was just doing it. The sense of the characters who would become Una and Sulien came in the same moment as that first idea. I knew there would be a large cast around them, and having slaves as protagonists made it almost inevitable that there must be someone from the opposite end of society so Marcus came about ten seconds after they did. On the one hand, it’s almost a fairy-tale construct – he’s essentially a disguised prince – but it also allowed me to close inwards on this world from both sides. And I knew they had to run away somewhere – again, that just seemed obvious, I didn’t exactly decide that that was what I was going to do with them. But yes, I plotted out a reasonably complete storyline for book 1 at that time, before starting.

Of course, I’ve continued changing and adding to those original ideas. The plot for the one I’m working on now is more complicated, so it needed more precise planning in advance, which in practice means talking and talking and talking about it to anyone who will listen.

Location is very important in ROMANITAS – tell us a little about the travelling this demanded.
I was only able to write the chapter set in the ‘cave of hands’ (the Grottes de Gargas) thanks to an airport strike. I’d read about this place – it’s decorated with the prehistoric prints of hands, outlined in black and red pigment, as in many cave-art sites. But in this cave all the hands appear to be mutilated – they’re often missing fingers, one is deformed. When we reached the caves, however, they turned out to be closed to the public for the whole summer while lights, walkways, etc were put in – and there was no one there we could even speak to. But when the baggage-handlers left us stranded for two days, it gave us the time to try and talk our way in. At first Nicolas Ferrer – who was supervising the site but training to be a tour guide when it reopened – told us firmly, no, absolutely not, it is absolutely impossible – but after some begging and a few phone calls everything suddenly changed and he spent an hour guiding us around the caves. I’m so grateful to him, and so glad it happened that way. The caves very accessible now, but at the time the only way to see them was to stumble around in the dark, looking at the paintings by torchlight. It was just how the characters would have seen it.

I’ve since been to China, in preparation for Book II – I travelled fairly widely, although Kaifeng, Nanjing and the Yangtze River will be the most important sites as far as the book is concerned.

Have you started your next book? Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Yes, I am about a third of the way through Book 2. It will be called Rome Burning, and I can say that it begins three years after the end of Book 1, that the situation between Rome and Nionia (Japan) has changed significantly, and that the Emperor is ill.


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