Elissa Rubria Honoria is a Vestal Virgin-priestess of the sacred flame, a visionary, and one of the most powerful women in Rome. Vestals are sacrosanct, sworn to chastity on penalty of death, but the emperor, Nero, holds himself above the law. He pursues Elissa, engaging her in a deadly game of wits and sexuality. Or is Elissa really the pursuer? She stumbles on dark secrets. No longer trusting Roman gods, she follows a new god, Jesus of Nazareth, jeopardizing her life and the future of The Roman Empire.
LL: Vestal Virgin is set in ancient Rome. How did you become interested in this time period?
ST: About seven years ago (before my divorce, when I had some expendable income) I traveled to Rome with a group of writers. I fell in love with Italy, Rome in particular. A travel book I read contained a short blurb about vestal virgins; it mentioned they were sworn to thirty years of chastity and, if that vow were broken, they would be entombed alive. Ooooh, I thought, there’s a story!
My interest was further piqued when, on a tour of the Coliseum, a guide pointed out the seats designated to the vestal virgins. I found it interesting that, at a time when most women couldn’t read, the six priestesses of Vesta were educated-in fact they were in charge of all of Rome’s legal documents. Unlike most women, they were permitted private property and dealt with legal issues, making them extremely powerful.
LL: I see how coming into contact with such a rich bit of history would inspire a writer. Was it a long road from the initial inspiration to actually having a story?
ST: On my return from Rome, I began researching in earnest. And, as I researched, the story developed. I needed a time frame, and I decided the great fire of A.D. 64 would provide a dramatic backdrop. And I needed a villain. Nero, the Roman Emperor, fit the bill-through research, mostly extensive reading, I discovered Nero had raped at least one vestal virgin. The only record of her is the family name, Rubria. That was perfect-gave me lots of leeway.
A book I found added a new dimension to the story, The Faith and the Power-the inspiring story of the first Christians and how they survived the madness of Rome, by James D. Snyder. When I learned Paul of Tarsus had been in Rome during the year I’d chosen to write about, my story really came together. I read a number of books about Paul; the picture I got tended to be “larger than life,” and it took me quite a while to “get” him as a character-a real, live, human-being.
LL: What other sources helped you in your research?
ST: Another indispensable book I used was History of the Vestal Virgins of Rome, published in 1934 by T. Cato Worsfold. This book offers valuable information about the vestals’ daily life, their clothing, and their duties. Very little has been written about them. In my search for information I wrote to Colleen McCullough, and she was kind enough to write back. She gave me the name of an out-of-print book that I’ve used a lot, Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, by H.H. Scullard. I have shelves of books I use for research. One of my favorites is Deadly Doses: a writer’s guide to poisons. I also have a lot of books about herbs and natural medicines-and I’ve found great site online for researching herbs and poisons. This may sound a bit strange, but I love using the Eyewitness Books-extremely well-researched picture books designed for children. I have one called Ancient Rome, and I also have one about weapons. I like having the visuals right in front of me.
LL: It sounds like you have done a lot of work preparing to tell the story. In addition to all the research material, did you also use your own personal impressions brought from Rome?
ST: Yes. Actually, after writing my first draft, I decided I needed to get back to Rome, for the tastes, the smells, the lighting. I work for an airline, which allows me to travel inexpensively. In Rome I met with a scholar, who specialized in the year A.D. 63-A.D. 64, and he gave me an in-depth private tour of the Forum Romanum. He showed me where Nero’s palace had been before the fire, which really helped me visualize the setting for my story.
I’m originally from New York, so while visiting my family, of course I stopped off at the Metropolitan Art Museum and hung out in the Roman area. While doing research, I like to find things to make my experience tactile. That includes finding recipes from the time period and, if they aren’t too weird, preparing them. But I’m not about to attempt a dish using a hundred flamingo tongues or a swan stuffed with sea cucumbers-for that I’ll just use my imagination!
LL: I can certainly understand. J How did you deal with historical figures like Nero and Paul? Did you try to portray them as accurately as possible or did you allow yourself some alterations / additions to what is known from history?
ST: I read a fair amount about both of these characters. Nero’s actions are well documented, as is his physical description. I played the what if game-and then, through further research, I discovered much of what I imagined was in fact true. Some of what I write is pure conjecture, but those conjectures are rooted in psychology. I’ve studied psychology, and I’ve read a number of books about sociopaths. In some ways Nero is a tragic figure-he was thrust into a position he didn’t really want, but he became addicted to the power that position afforded him. As for Paul, we have his writings. But his character came together for me when I found physical descriptions of him. He was a short man, bow-legged, and fairly ugly-yet he exuded tremendous charisma. That physical description, combined with his words, allowed me to breathe life into his character.
LL: What was the hardest part or scene to write?
ST: The scenes with Paul were the most difficult. His words are so powerful that, at first, I allowed those words to dominate his scenes. It took a lot of reworking to make him come alive. Also, the scenes with Paul involve quite a few people. I find writing scenes with a group of people more difficult to write than intimate scenes between two people.
LL: How long did it take to complete the novel?
ST: If I had written it straight through, it would have been two years. In reality, I began writing this novel about seven years ago, finished the first draft about five years ago, did about three rewrites, shopped the book around, began another rewrite, and set the novel aside for about three years. Mine dear friend, Blake Crouch, convinced me to resurrect the project and publish it on Kindle. The last rewrite took me about five months. Hopefully, my next novel, Agathon’s Daughter, won’t take as long-although I started it before Vestal Virgin. My first trip to Rome sidetracked me.
LL: The book has great endorsements from several New York Times bestselling authors. How did you achieve that? And how does it feel to have them praise your work?
ST: I had the good fortune to attend the Maui Writers’ Retreat for six years. I put all my expendable income into attending that event, and working for an airline allowed me to travel to Maui for free. There I studied intensively (ten people in a class for about a week) with Terry Brooks (twice), Tess Gerritsen, Karen Joy Fowler, and Dorothy Allison. I also took classes with John Saul, Elizabeth George, Elizabeth Engstrom, and many other amazing and generous authors. And I traveled to Rome with the Maui Writers-Terry Brooks, Elizabeth Engstrom, Dorothy Allison and John Saul. I can’t express the depth of my gratitude to these writers.
LL: What about readers’ feedback? What are some of your favorite comments you have received?
ST: I’m delighted and amazed when readers like my work-especially fellow writers. For years, I shared very little of my writing. Publishing is a Gestalt experience, a completion. When people tell me that they couldn’t put the book down, I feel a rush of joy. That’s the experience I hoped to give my reader. I want people to be entertained, learn something, and feel curious about the people and the times I write about.
LL: You have released Vestal Virgin on Kindle. Is it going to be available in paperback?
ST: The book is being formatted for trade paperback right now. It will be released through Create Space by March at the latest.
LL: What do you plan to work on next?
ST: Agathon’s Daughter, suspense in ancient Greece. I won an award for the book based on the synopsis and the first fifty pages. So I have to finish it!
LL: Would you let us take a peek at this book?
ST: Here’s the description:
Born a bastard and a slave, Hestia has a gift-the power to read people’s hearts. This gift brings her notoriety and takes her on journey through the upper echelons of Athens. Sold to Lycurgus, a prominent statesman with sadistic tendencies, she becomes his consort. As Hestia’s wealth and fame increase, so does her despair. Determined to escape her cruel master, she confronts enemies at every turn, but the fiercest enemy she faces is herself. To gain freedom, she must unravel the mystery of her past and confront the demons in her heart.
LL: Thank you Suzanne for this interview!