An interview with Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn, a native southern Californian is a lifelong history buff who first became hooked on ancient Rome while watching I, Claudius at the age of seven. Still in elementary school when she saw the movie Spartacus, she resolved to someday write a book about a gladiator. That ambition turned into Mistress of Rome, written when she was a freshman in college.

Currently working on her third novel, set during the reign of Emperor Trajan, Kate very kindly found the time to talk to Snjezana Bobic in July 2011.

Have you always had a passion for history?

As long as I can remember. My mother had a degree in ancient and medieval history, so my childhood bedtime stories were all Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon and the intrigues of the Tudor court rather than fairy tales. By the time I was ten I couldn't sit down on my elementary school steps without pretending I was Elizabeth I refusing to enter the Tower of London. I could draw out the family tree of Emperor Augustus long before I could draw my own!

Do you find that much of history is repeated in this day and age, but in a new context that some cannot see?

History always repeats itself, because people remain the same no matter what era they are born into. Ambition, love, hate, jealousy, faith, family: the same passions continue to motivate people whether they live in ancient Rome or modern day California. My third book follows the adventures of a Roman soldier in Parthia – and while I was finishing it up, my husband was deployed to the middle east just a few short miles from the same place my fictional hero was fighting. Two very similar wars, two very similar warriors; the only difference is the two thousand years between them.

By far, you have to be the fastest writer of a world wide, multi language book, how does that make you feel? (How long did Mistress of Rome take you to write?)

I'm not sure I consider myself a fast writer at all – if anything, I wish I could write faster because I have so many stories in my head clamouring to get out! Mistress of Rome took about four months to write, over a semester's worth of Saturdays and Sundays during my first year in college. I'd just relocated across the country and knew absolutely no one in my huge university, so it was a treat to spend my weekends escaping into ancient Rome.

Spartacus was an inspiration for Mistress of Rome. Did you find that once you get into a history, there are many tales to be told, from many sides?

I admit I love kings and queens and emperors – the play of power at the very top is a subject that fascinates me, and always will. But what I find myself getting interested in are the people on the fringes of power; the people who surround a king or an emperor from day to day. Who are they? Does anyone notice who they are, or how important they can be? Often history will offer only tantalizing fragments of such people. During my research for Mistress of Rome found passing mentions of an Imperial bodyguard who inexplicably turned traitor against the man he was supposed to protect, a slave who risked his life to walk into a palace with a knife smuggled in a fake arm-sling, a boy in a red tunic who stayed by his Emperor's side through the gladiatorial games but vanished after the assassination. Who were these people; the bodyguard and the slave and the boy? History doesn't tell us, so I fleshed them out with characters, passions, and motivations in Mistress of Rome.

Mistress of Rome is an engaging and masterful tale of love and tragedy at the same time. Did you incorporate your own classical singing into the character of Thea?
Thea has a bit of me in her, as I suppose all my heroines do. I'm a soprano rather than an alto, and I sing opera as opposed to – well, we don't really know what Roman music sounded like. But I do know that music can be a comfort to the one who sings it, and that a beautiful voice can be a weapon: used variously to lull, to charm, to console, to seduce. Thea is a slave without much power over her own life, so I wanted her to have some source of both comfort and protection in her life.

Thea's own tale is inspiring, is that what you wanted to put across that no matter what, there is always hope?

What I believe in is endurance. Most people can scrape up courage for one act of bravery or defiance, but it takes a very different kind of courage to endure hardship or tragedy day after day after day. Thea has a bad lot in life and she comes close to the brink sometimes –but she never quite gives up the fight. I always like to hope that good people who endure bad times will eventually find their patience and their courage rewarded with something good at the end.

Do you find that the novels that follow Mistress of Rome have greater expectations of you as a writer?

As soon as you have more than one book out, people will inevitably start comparing them. Some of my readers liked Mistress of Rome better than my next book Daughters of Rome; others wrote to tell me they liked Daughters of Rome better. It's all a matter of opinion, so I feel the only solution on my end is to write so many books that there's a favourite for everyone!

Any advice to budding historical writers?

One word: read. Writers can't exist in a vacuum; you have to keep feeding your brain with other books so you have something to measure your own work against. Read historical fiction classics like Gone With The Wind and Anya Seton's Katherine;try to figure out why they've stood the test of time. Read trashy bodice-ripper historicals with Fabio on the cover; try to figure out why they're terrible. Read non-fiction on any historical period you can find, because you never know when an idea for a book might jump out at you from the sea of facts. Read other genres to keep your mind fresh – I got a great idea for a historical novel from reading an Orson Scott Card sci-fi book. Read everything.

Is the battle to survive by the ladies in your books a message to modern women today?

Play the hand you're dealt, and play it with flair. And appreciate that the hand you've got is probably better than the one so many women in the past were stuck with. Slavery, arranged marriage, sexual abuse, complete powerlessness – all things common to the lives of historical women, things that are a boon to me because they give me so much grist for a novel. But not things I would ever want in my own life, as I think just about daily when I write the lives of women in the past.

Thanks for having me!

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You can visit Kate Quinn's official website by following this link: http://www.katequinnauthor.com/

Kate Quinn books reviewed