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Signs and ’Wonders’ :: Steven Saylor on His New ’Roma Sub Rosa’ Novel

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Jun 4, 2012
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Openly gay novelist Steven Saylor doesn’t live in the past, but he does work there, in a sense. Saylor is the author of a baker’s dozen books in the popular "Roma Sub Rosa" ("Secret History of Rome") mystery series, centered on the exploits of Gordianus the Finder, who is more or less a private eye of the ancient world.

Saylor has always drawn from actual historic events and brought real figures from antiquity into his novels, not only in the Gordianus novels but also in his towering epics "Roma" and "Empire," a pair of tomes that trace literally thousands of years of Roman history while telling a thrilling multi-generational story of passion, ambition, religion, and politics.

For his latest novel, "The Seven Wonders," the thirteenth in the Gordianus series, Saylor has jumped back a few decades to tell the oft referenced, but until now never detailed, story of how an 18-year-old Gordianus toured the ancient world. The original Seven Wonders, enormous monuments and other feats of human ingenuity such as the Colossus of Rhodes and the Great Pyramid of Cheops determine his itinerary. (The book offers an "eighth wonder," as well--it’s not the Lighthouse at Alexandria, though that famed structure also plays a part.)

Fans of Saylor’s work may have seen some or most of the stories included in this book, which is a novel consisting of eight self-contained adventures, plus a prologue and an epilogue. The stories each take place at one of the Wonders that Gordianus visits over the course of his year-plus long journey, but several over-arcing elements bind the stories into a single narrative... not least among them the question of just why Antipater of Sidon, Gordianus’ tutor and traveling companion, has faked his own death and is now roaming the world incognito.

Steven Saylor chatted with EDGE recently about the new book, the ancient world, and his plans for the future.


Heading into History

EDGE: As is often the case with your Gordianus books (as well as "Roma" and "Empire") you have folded historic figures into the action-most notably, Antipater of Sidon, who was a poet in the second century B.C. and who, in fact, wrote about the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Did you find it difficult to weave the stories that comprise "The Seven Wonders" around this historic personage?

Steven Saylor: One of the delights of researching this kind of historical novel is the opportunity it gives me to meander down some pretty obscure historical byways. Antipater of Sidon was one of the world’s most revered poets during his lifetime, but that was over two thousand years ago, and today you’ll only find very scattered information about him, and a handful of poems-including one that includes our oldest surviving list of the Seven Wonders.

His other poems also offer fascination insight into the mindset of the period, including the love/hate relationship many sophisticated Greeks felt toward their "barbaric" Roman conquerors. To bring him into the story, I made him Gordianus’ tutor and traveling companion, a sort of grandfather-figure. I suspect this is the first time Antipater has been depicted in a work of fiction.

EDGE: Gordianus and Antipater leave Rome in the first chapter of the book, but Rome is still very much part of the novel overall: Its presence is felt all over the ancient world, a war is brewing, and there’s a degree of unrest and anti-Roman sentiment in the air.

All this makes for another level of intrigue and gives the novel extra depth and texture. Were these aspects of the political climate part of the stories in their original form?

Steven Saylor: Rome’s conquest of the Greek world, the looming challenge from the half-Greek King Mithridates, and a brewing civil war against Rome in Italy itself form the political backdrop. Think of Europe on the eve of the World Wars--everyone can sense something huge and dreadful is about to happen, something that will change the life of everyone.

Gordianus is only 18, traveling the world, and having adventures; he’s pretty oblivious of the earthshattering situation looming over him, but like everyone else, he will be swept up by events sooner or later.


EDGE: This is not the first time you have created a Gordianus book out of short stories, but it seems to me that this is the tightest, most interlocking set of short stories so far to be collected into a single volume. You refer to "The Seven Wonders" as a novel, which it is, but it’s also a themed collection of short fiction. Are you inventing a new hybrid literary form here?

Steven Saylor: Logistically, this was a very challenging book to write. I wanted to publish each episode at a Wonder first as a short story, then provide a beginning and ending that would link the overarching plot and create a true novel. Getting each story placed in an anthology or magazine (including "Ellery Queen" and "Fantasy & Science Fiction") and written by deadline was a practical challenge; crafting seven different mysteries and linking them with a continuous plot that has its own mystery was a creative challenge.

But I always look for a new challenge, every time I begin a new book. I wanted this to be a fun book; all the research, planning, and writing was tremendous fun for me, and I hope it’s fun for the reader.

EDGE: Did you start out with a master plan... an itinerary, so to speak, of the destinations young Gordianus and Antipater would visit and in what order, as well as what sorts of mysteries would await at each locale?

Steven Saylor: Just as form follows function, so the nature of the puzzle plot at each of the Wonders was dictated by something about the Wonder itself, or the site of its location.

Naturally, at Olympia, we have to attend the Olympic Games, and in Egypt we have a mystical experience inside the Great Pyramid. And it’s no accident that at the first stop, Ephesus--home of the Temple of Artemis, the great virgin goddess--Gordianus loses his virginity. In fact, he has a different sexual encounter at each of the Wonders, including his first gay experience when he goes to see the Colossus of Rhodes.

EDGE: Didn’t you write some about a young Gordianus in an earlier short story? You must have a fairly complete picture of Gordianus’ entire life story to have written this latest installment, which details his early adventures, and make it tie in so nicely with the other books.

Steven Saylor: In "A Gladiator Dies Only Once" there’s a flashback story called "The Alexandrian Cat," in which Gordianus recalls an episode from his younger days in Egypt.

Several times over the course of the series he’s alluded to the journey he took as a young man to see the Seven Wonders, ending in Alexandria. I’ve long wanted to go back and recount that journey, and the time finally seemed right.

On a personal level, I simply enjoyed "being" 18 again, along with Gordianus--not the seasoned, world-weary sleuth he’s become over the course of twelve books, but the wide-eyed teenager he used to be. I used to be a wide-eyed teenager, too!


EDGE: If "The Seven Wonders" is any indication, you could easily write any number of stories and novels about Gordianus’ pre-"Roman Blood" adventures. Do you have any plans to do so?

Steven Saylor: The next novel in the series, which I’m working on right now, picks up where "The Seven Wonders" leaves off, with Gordianus in his early twenties, living in Alexandria. The world war between Rome and Mithridates has begun. Egypt is neutral in the conflict, but about to come apart at the seams with its own civil war. The plot is an homage to the novels of the ancient Greeks, which were highly melodramatic. So we have kidnappings, secret identities, bandits, pirates, and a doozy of a heist--the theft of the solid gold sarcophagus of Alexander the Great, which really happened.

EDGE: Speaking of Gordianus’ entire life story, will you be proceeding with stories that take us beyond "The Triumph of Caesar?" I for one am itching to see what happens to Gordianus and company when Julius Caesar meets up with The Ides of March...

Steven Saylor: One of these days, maybe. But I’m sticking with young Gordianus for a couple more books.

EDGE: Another book I’m yearning for is a third installment in the "Roma" series.

Steven Saylor: I would love to do a third installment to follow "Empire." This one would span from Marcus Aurelius, the great philosopher-emperor, and his wayward playboy son Commodus (famous from the movie "Gladiator"), to Constantine the Great, the emperor who made Christianity the state religion of Rome. Along the way there are some incredible figures, including Elagabalus, the drag queen emperor.

EDGE: Here’s a fanciful question for you. Let’s imagine that 2,000 years from now, a historical writer undertakes a similar novel about the Seven Wonders of the (by then) Ancient World. What would likely be on the itinerary? The Statue of Liberty? The Burj Kalifa in Dubai, world’s tallest skyscraper? CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, or maybe the Very Large Array of radio telescopes in Socorro, New Mexico?

Steven Saylor: I should hope, 2000 years from now, that the seven most impressive Wonders would span across the solar system and maybe beyond--amazing monuments on Jupiter or Mars, or perhaps entire planets created by human technology.

EDGE: There’s a trendy thing nowadays called the "Places You Must See Before You Die" list. What are your personal Seven Wonders, and have you visited them yet?

Steven Saylor: I seldom plan a trip specifically to see something remarkable at a certain location; I find amazing things everywhere I go, like the whole city of London, or the Vigeland Sculpture Park in Oslo, which few people outside Norway seem to know about.

And like everyone nowadays, I do a lot of virtual traveling. Lying on my sofa with my cat and my laptop, I can go just about anywhere, and also travel in time. That’s a true wonder.


"The Seven Wonders" is published by Minotaur Books (http://us.macmillan.com/Minotaur.aspx). Publication Date: June 5, 2012. Pages: 336. Price: $25.99. Format: Hardcover Original. ISBN-13: 978-0-312-359-843

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network’s Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association’s Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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