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LINDSEY DAVIES Interviewed

Written by Ayo Onatade

 
Lindsey Davis Grilled By Ayo Onatade

Lindsey Davis was born in Birmingham and received an English Language and Literature degree at Oxford. A former civil servant, she has been writing for over fifteen years. She has always wanted to write historical novels and began her publishing career with romantic serials about the Civil War for Woman’s Realm. She is also a former Chair of the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain. Her series featuring a 40s gumshoe style character living in First Century Rome has a devoted following all over the world and has been translated into a number of different languages.
 

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Ayo: Who were your influences when you decided to start writing and what books influenced you as well?
Lindsey: Well, this is a bad start, but I am going to refuse to answer this question. I was brought up to look at what makes an author distinctive, not to corral them into sets of followers. When I started writing I deliberately chose to use my own material and to write in my own style. (I shouldn’t have to say this myself but nobody else seems to understand it): the reason my books are popular is that they are specifically NOT like any others.
Ayo: What was the very first crime novel that you read and who introduced you to the genre?
Lindsey: Who knows? Probably Norman and Henry Bones, the Boy Detectives, by Norman Painting (“Phil Archer”) Then we had an old-fashioned entertainment medium called the Wireless, which gave us Saturday Night Theatre on the BBC Home Service, and some weeks that was a detective story.
Ayo: What’s your normal work schedule like?
Lindsey: Book Jacket, A Body In The Bath HouseDon’t have one. What’s the point of being a writer if you have a ‘normal work schedule’? I think the people who say they get up at 6am and write three thousand words a day are either mad, or lying through their teeth. I write a book, 100,000 words, and a year. I have done it for seventeen years. If I haven’t written enough by the deadline, I stay in and write faster. If we can go back to why people like my stuff, another reason has to be that they can tell the books are written by someone who is happy in their work. Critics of our genre seriously underestimate fun.
Ayo: What do you find the most distracting when you are writing?
Lindsey: Nothing. When I am writing, I don’t notice anything.
Ayo: What part of the writing experience do you enjoy the most?
Lindsey: ‘Making things up’. Then hearing from people who have enjoyed it.
Ayo: Characterisation or plot, which do you think is more important?
Lindsey: Neither. I don’t quantify books that way. These are just tow of the elements in a novel, along with all the others, including (I’ll be controversial again) decent grammar and a wide vocabulary.
Ayo: Your first novel that you wrote set in Rome was The Course of Honour which is actually the true love story between Vespasian and his mistress Antonia Caenis. What was it about them that made you want to write about them?
Lindsey: 1. I needed to pay the mortgage
2. Nobody else was writing about the Romans
3. Theirs is a damn good story, with several emotional twists, what is clearly true love and a happy ending.
Ayo: How did the character Marcus Didius Falco come about?
Lindsey: 1. Nobody would publish ‘The Course of Honour’ and I still needed to pay the mortgage.
2. Nobody else was writing about the Romans.
3. Why waste good research material?
Ayo: Marcus Falco has an extremely dry wit and can be very sardonic when he wants to be but he can also be very sympathetic. Is his character an amalgamation of people that you know?
Lindsey: I don’t believe in putting real people directly into novels.
Book Jacket, The Silver Pigs Falco began as a literary ‘type’ (recognisable as the ‘classic’ private eye), but written in my way, which involves overturning stereotypes. He is put together from my knowledge of people, who are complex and may seem contradictory. But I happen to believe that to be truly witty you have to understand, and thus to sympathise with, the dark side of human society. Falco and I like satirical irony, where one thing is said but quite another is understood. He jokes - but we know he is raging at an injustice. The starting point is that the injustice should be so obviously wrong, that it doesn’t need to be stated ‘neat’. This presupposes a shared moral stance in author, reader, and character; neither my character not my readers seem to find any difficulty with that.
Ayo: Avid readers will realise that every other Falco novel is set outside Rome. Did you make a conscious decision to do this and if so why?
Lindsey: Yes of course, for variety. In fact, my novels are generally varied in content, style, and tone. It would be madness to write about the Empire, at its heyday, without exploring its different exotic parts; it also enables me to play with the idea of Falco as the essential Roman at home, whether he agrees with his heritage or not, then to put him up against other kinds of ‘Roman’ society and individual.
Besides, I actually have readers in many of the places where books have been set; it’s a compliment to them.
Ayo: Do you enjoy travelling to do research and has anything unusual happened to you while you have been doing your research?
Lindsey: As a traveller I am timid, easily tired, and worried about how much to tip… I have been down a sewer, which is now banned as too dangerous; at Syrian ruins, I have been given entrance tickets for my invisible companion, Mr Falco; I have been shown around Herculaneum by a dog; I have eaten ‘Libyan soup’, and lived.
Ayo: Is there anywhere that inspires you to be the most creative when you are thinking of plots?
Lindsey: At the breakfast table?
Ayo: Your books have won a number of awards. The Silver Pigs won the Author’s Club Best First Novel in 1989 and in 1995 you also won the CWA Dagger in the library (for the author whose work has given the most pleasure). In 1999 you also won a Sherlock Award for Falco for the Best Comic Detective and also the first Ellis Peters Historical Dagger. How pleased were you when you found out that you had won and how important are these awards?
Lindsey: Anyone who writes historical novels, or funny novels, is desperately happy to gain formal recognition because both are seen as somehow less important than others. Most of the awards you mention are specialised. How nice it would be to be recognised as a good writer, especially a good mystery writer, by the judges of a mainstream prize…
Ayo: Loyal readers know that Marcus is a budding poet, even though it is mainly Helena that gets to read his poems. Is there any chance he might get published?
Lindsey: In ‘Ode to a Banker’ he found out what publishers are like - and ran a mile. Perhaps it is enough for him that he wrote the Latin prototype for ‘Hamlet’.
Ayo: Your latest book is called Scandal Takes a Holiday? What did you consider to be the starting point for this novel?
Lindsey: In fact there are three:
Roman Ostia as a location
Answering the people who ask, was there really a Daily Gazette!
Wondering, if Pompey cleared the seas of pirates, what happened to them afterwards?
Ayo: Has your writing style changed since you first started writing the Falco novels?
Lindsey: I would be very disappointed if not! I hope it has improved; I think it is certainly more relaxed and more daring.
Ayo: You have occasionally put in a family tree of one of the main characters (not Falco) in some of the novels. Why at this stage did you decide to do one of Falco and his extended family?
Lindsey: In fact the Family Tree goes back to ‘Poseidon’s Gold’ (book 5). We put it in when it has had additions (or subtractions!) and when the story involves the family more than usual. I devised the original pretty well as soon as I devised (joke:) that my ‘loner’ lead character would be beset by an Italian family as one of my overturning stereotype jokes.
Ayo: Falco has evolved quite a lot and when we were first introduced to him he was likened to Hammett’s Sam Spade. However, he is a lot more vulnerable than he used to be and this is very apparent in Scandal Takes a Holiday. Are we seeing Falco heading towards complete respectability or will there always be that bit of a rebel in him that won’t conform?
Lindsey: Book Jacket, Scandal Takes A HolidayFalco and I will always be rebels. I don’t agree that he is more vulnerable, though he has other people to worry about. He always was a good family man (because he always was, at heart, a classical Roman). He still goes out knowing he is risking his life, when it is unavoidable (because he is, at base, a classic private eye). He is not Sam Spade, he is not Philip Marlowe, and he is not even Nick Charles of ‘The Thin Man. He is, I hope, a discrete character, who happens to be seven years older than when he started. In those years a great deal has happened to him, and after seven years of love, death, babies, corruption, and take-away snack-bar rissoles, it is not surprising that he bears some scars.
Ayo: Falco is in someway very much like his mysterious uncle Fulvius; they both do work for Vespasian. Are we likely to see more of him and is there a chance that now Camillus Aelianus has gone off to university that they might work together?
Lindsey: As Camillus Aelianus went to Greece, and as the next book is set in, wait for it, Greece, I don’t think this is likely. However, now Uncle Fulvius has stopped being ‘the one nobody talks about’, he may well at some point reappear.
Ayo: All the other characters in your books have changed as well as the books have progressed. Have they changed in the ways that you imagined?
Lindsey: I never pre-plan far ahead, so when a character needs to develop, it is up to me what happens. Any author who knows what they are doing will go for the unlikely rather than the obvious. In a series you have lots of scope - though you have to balance that against the risk of upsetting readers who hate to see a ‘nice’ boy develop a wild side, and the need, in my case, to satisfy the fan club of Anacrites the Chief Spy, women who wish this murderous snake to be given a happy life because he had a deprived childhood…
Ayo: There is a companion book to Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series. In my opinion your books would be equally ideal for a similar book. Is there any chance that this might happen?
Lindsey: Very likely, though I can’t say when.
Ayo: What do you think of the current state of historical crime fiction?
Lindsey: Excellent that publishers are prepared to give it space on their lists, ridiculous that they don’t weed out the dross. But don’t get me going on the other lot: the professors who write Very Pompously about Big Names from History (leaving out the women, except when they can be raped a bit). Or books that get a bog publicity budget and have a Sad Woman in a Velvet Frock on the cover.
Ayo: What types of books do you like reading when you are not writing or doing research?
Lindsey: Gardening and history of domestic architecture books; biographies; Terry Pratchett
Ayo: Recently BBC Radio 4 dramatised some of the Falco novels. Were you pleased by the way they turned out and is there any chance that they might do some more?
Lindsey: The Silver Pigs’ was dramatised in four episodes, and I thought it was a good adaptation in a real sense; it was the book turned into radio form. ‘Shadows in Bronze’ will be broadcast in February, and then I dare say others will follow.
Ayo: Which character from your books do you most identify with?
Lindsey: Antonia Caenis from ‘The Course of Honour.’
Ayo: What are your plans once you have decided to end the series?
Lindsey: I’ll have to make that decision before I know.
Ayo: Do you have a favourite book out of all of them and if so which one and why?
Lindsey: No, I don’t.
Ayo: Are you happy about the way your books have been received and in hindsight is there anything you would consider changing?
Lindsey: They always were received well by readers. In the end, nothing can beat that. Critical respect would be nice - but I’d rather write books the public buy and enjoy than get reviewed and not read. Every book I have written remains in print - in several countries. My readership covers the whole spectrum, young and old, male and female, all kinds of people, people who say they never normally read historical novels or crime novels but they love mine. Why would I change when that happens?
Ayo: Part and parcel of being a crime writer is the camaraderie that goes along with it. Do you enjoy attending conferences and book signings?
Lindsey: Book Jacket, The AccusersI have made some very good friends among my colleagues, but I don’t altogether agree that the famed camaraderie is part and parcel of being a crime writer. For one thing, there are more vicious cliques and serial backstabbers than in the average students’ union. Then for most authors, writing is a solitary task - which they chose because that is their nature. I am ambivalent about conferences but very keen on events (as opposed to signings). I didn’t become a writer to spend hours writing my name. But I have been more fortunate than most in being allowed/encouraged to give readings and Q and A sessions; meeting the people who enjoy your work is really what counts.
Ayo: Your website is one of the best and you evidently have a big and loyal fan base. How important is it to have a website?
Lindsey: I find mine is invaluable, though it needs careful keeping-up. Its main purpose is absolutely practical - to tell people what books are published and where (You might think publishers would do this, and they certainly think so, but they delude their dear selves). The mad folk who want to yell at you about howlers and typos (especially the ones they have got wrong) need an outlet for their spleen. The lovely folk who just want to say they have never written to an author before but they love your work, certainly need a channel to do so shyly - and as an author, you need a way to say thank you in return.
Ayo: Is there any book you would have liked to have written?
Lindsey: Apart from ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ and ‘Tristram Shandy’? Of course, but I may get around to it one day so I’ll say nothing.
Ayo: So, what’s in the pipeline now?
Lindsey: See Delphi and Die’, Falco 17.
Ayo: And finally, how would you like the character Marcus Didius Falco to be remembered?
Lindsey: As well-written, individual, and bloody good fun.
Lindsey Davis' Signature


Lindsey Davis Biblography

The Course of Honour

The Falco Series -

The Silver Pigs

Shadows in Bronze

Venus in Copper

The Iron Hand of Mars

Poseidon’s Gold

Last Act in Palmyra

Time to Depart

A Dying Light in Corduba

Three Hands in a Fountain

Two for the Lions

One Virgin Too Many

Ode to a Banker

A Body in the Bath House

The Accusers

Scandal Takes a Holiday

For more information about Lindsey Davis please go to her website:-

www.lindseydavis.co.uk

 

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