Lindsey Davis has had a long and celebrated career as the creator of the Falco and Flavia Albia mysteries set in ancient Rome. But when she started out, publishers weren’t interested in the period. Nobody, they told her, wanted to read about ancient Rome. She persevered, brought ancient Rome to life, and created a whole new sub-genre in popular fiction with lots of authors following in her footsteps.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler, and today Lindsey talks about her remarkable series – first with 20 Marcus Didius Falco books and now 8 books in a follow-up series with a female investigator, Flavia Albia.
We’ve got the latest in the series, three eBook copies of The Grove of the Caesars, featuring a serial killer, yes, they did have serial killers in those days, to give away to three lucky readers. (And yes – this is the same book – this is the US cover, while we used the UK cover in the intro.) Enter the draw on The Joys of Binge Reading website, or on our Binge Reading Facebook Page. Draw closes August 22 so enter now!
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- Lindsey’s early and difficult apprenticeship
- Breaking through with Ancient Rome mysteries
- How going to Italy was part of her first contract
- Why its hard to ‘sell’ readers on the English Civil War
- The one thing she’d do differently
- The Emperor’s love affair that became her first book
Where to find Lindsey Davis:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
Introducing Lindsey Davis author
Jenny Wheeler: Hello there, Lindsey, and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Lindsey Davis: Thank you very much. I’m really pleased that you’ve asked me. It’s lovely to have contact with New Zealand.
Jenny Wheeler: You’re sitting in Birmingham.
Lindsey Davis: Birmingham, in England. Yes, the real Birmingham, the first Birmingham.
Jenny Wheeler: You’ve had a long and celebrated career as an author, but people always like to know where you got started. You had 13 years as a civil servant before you started with your writing, didn’t you?
Lindsey Davis: I did. I think it’s important. I think you need to have another job. Although some people do go straight into writing, I think like teachers and vicars are always better if they’ve done a different job first, the same goes for writers because you have to know what it’s like to wake up in the dark and think you’ve got to go out on public transport to some terrible office to do a job that you hate.
If you’re going to impose something like that on your characters, it’s simply a matter of experience and you have to gather information about life, so you might as well have a real job while you’re doing it.
Jenny Wheeler: You’ve got a great backlist of mysteries set in ancient Rome, twenty in the Falco series and now you’ve just published the eighth Flavia Albia book, The Grove of the Caesars. Why did you migrate from Birmingham to ancient Rome?
Lindsey Davis: It was via the English Civil War because when I was about 14, I wanted to write a novel about my hometown. The most exciting thing I knew of what had happened there was Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the dastard, but handsome, came and attacked our city because we were very left wing and making swords for the parliament and he was on the King’s side.
The road to Ancient Rome
I was taken along by my dad in my school uniform to the reference library where I read up on 17th century pamphlets. Nothing much came of that because I was only 14 and that’s much too early to start really. But I kept the idea for years and years and when I was starting to write, I wanted to write about the Civil War, but nobody would buy that.
That’s when I thought I must have a different product and the product I came up with was the Romans. But I never gave up on my Civil War idea and did eventually write a really long novel. (called Rebels and Traitors)
Jenny Wheeler: Falco was something new in his time. He was a spoof gumshoe in the ancient world. You brought those two ideas together of ancient Rome and the gumshoe investigator. How did that come about?
Lindsey Davis: Partly because I think Brummies, (slang name for people who come from Birmingham – ed note.) as we call ourselves, are a bit jokey like that. We’re not as famous for our sense of humor as Glaswegians and Cockneys but we do have a very dry sense of humor and original ideas appeal to us. I naively thought that a new writer should try to be original.
So first of all, I picked on this period of the Romans, because nobody else was writing fiction about the Romans. When you look at what’s available now, it’s almost impossible to imagine what time that was, when there was nobody writing popular fiction in the ancient world.
And it was very hard to get a publisher. Most of the main London publishers said ‘no’ to my first efforts. But it was the city that drew me for writing. You asked me about how I married the idea of the gumshoe. It was the city that drew me to it because I felt it offered a colorful, often struggling background where that kind of a gumshoe could flourish.
Introducing feisty Flavia Alba
Jenny Wheeler: Flavia, who is the one who features in The Grove of the Caesars, is Falco’s adopted daughter and the story of how Falco found her makes up the plot of one of the earlier Falco books. Unusually, she is English and in one of the Falco books he goes to England in ancient Roman times and brings back this adopted daughter, which is a lovely little touch in itself. She’s now an adult and she’s taken on the same job as her father, which is the role of the informer in Roman society. Tell us a little bit about that role, the informer.
Lindsey Davis: Yes. I should say that when I first started writing about Falco, I would have loved to have had a female lead, but I felt that introducing the public to Rome was enough and that to have a female lead in ancient Rome would have been one step too far. Now I’m more confident about it and more sure of the role of women.
Informers were very much despised. They were right down with gladiators and prostitutes and were surveyed by the Vigilies (city watchmen) as undesirable characters. This is because they spied on people and then prosecuted them, in most cases, for money. That was seen as very reprehensible. Bad emperors used them a lot to spy on people so that they could get the people’s estates by finding them guilty of crimes they possibly hadn’t even committed.
When we first meet Falco, which is just after the reign of one of the really bad emperors, Nero, that’s very much in the public mind, and there’s a lot of tension between Falco and the emperor Vespasian because Vespasian is supposed to despise informers but he needs Falco who acts as a kind of imperial agent.
Ancient Rome thru women’s eyes
When we come Flavia Albia, her job is slightly different. She’s finding information for people, mainly women, because that’s easier for her to do. She sorts out legacies for them, she finds birth certificates for them. She’s a researcher more than a fighting agent on the streets, but she does also deal with major cases, some of which involve serial killers.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, in The Grove of the Caesars you do have a serial killer there. The “serial killer” is a modern concept, but of course the pathology goes back to the birth of time.
Lindsey Davis: Indeed. If you think that people carry the possibility of it in their genes, although not everyone who has that kind of a gene will become a serial killer, but the possibility is there, it must always have been there, right back to the caves. So this is perfectly feasible. In fact, the very first story where we meet Flavia Albia is based on a reference in one of the Roman historians to someone who was killing people by using poisoned needles on the streets. That quite clearly happened more than once and was a serial killer.
Jenny Wheeler: You’ve got an interesting story about how you conceived the idea for this book. You were on holiday somewhere, weren’t you?
Lindsey Davis: Yes. I was in Sicily in the South of Italy on an archeological tour as a participant. We were going to see somewhere called the Cappella Palatina, which was in the evening. When we arrived, there was a function already there, just finishing, so the organizers put us in the gardens outside, which were not supposed to be open to the public so there weren’t very many lights and it was twilight and very gloomy and mysterious.
Serial killers in Ancient Rome
You couldn’t see people, what they were really up to, and it suddenly struck me that that would be a good setting for a murderer, in a grove of trees.
That became The Grove of the Caesars. It’s a book where I am also talking about the concept of serial killers and possibly there’s more than one. I don’t want to give too much away.
I’m also investigating that kind of situation and how the authorities would try and turn a blind eye as long as they could, because it’s too difficult. Flavia Albia weighs in and solves it, of course.
Jenny Wheeler: Flavia is always saying to other characters, don’t call me Flavia. It happens a lot in The Grove of the Caesars. Why is that something that irritates her?
Lindsey Davis: It irritates her because it partly irritates me. Her name when she was first introduced as a character was Albia. I didn’t know that she was going to become my next serious character, but she was in quite a few of the Falco books and her name was Albia, because she had been found in Britain, she’d been an abandoned baby in the Boudiccan Revolt.
I don’t know whether this is actually feasible, but this is the story – that she was found in the ruins of blazing Londinium and picked up by some people because she was a miracle baby alive and brought up horribly. Then Falco and Helena decide to save her from that horrible life and they equip her with proper citizenship.
She may very well have had it all along. We simply don’t know. One of the things that happened in the provinces, or if you were a freed slave too, was that you were given two names as a woman and if you only had one, the other name you’d be given would be the surname of the reigning emperor.
On getting the last word
That’s why she’s called Flavia. Because Falco, Helena and Albia herself despise emperors, it irritates her for that reason. But to be honest, Jenny, the real reason she keeps saying it is that her name is Albia. It is the Albia series, but in America they have decided to call her Flavia all the time, so when she says, “don’t call me Flavia”, that’s me saying it to them.
Jenny Wheeler: I love the way you manage to get your own way in these things. That must have been something you learned as a civil servant.
Lindsey Davis: Yes, and the good thing about writing a series is you have always got the last word. If anybody says anything about anything, you can write another book and put in something different.
Jenny Wheeler: Pandora’s Boy, which is Book Seven in the Flavia Albia series, deals with the Emperor Domitian and you say about him that he was a paranoid despot who liked to be in control, and that you realized when you were writing the book that you were a little bit like that too. Tell us about that discovery.
Lindsey Davis: Before I wrote the Albia series, when I finished the Falco series, I was changing publishers along with my editor and the new people obviously wanted more Falco, but I felt I’d done enough of that. And we compromised. I wrote a straight Roman novel, a bit in the way that I’d done The Course of Honour about Vespasian.
I wrote a novel about the reign of the Emperor Domitian, which is full of good things to write because he did various naughty things that are really good fun to write.
The dark time of Domitian
In the end he’s assassinated, and I love the assassination because it’s organized by, in effect, a committee of civil servants, and as an ex civil servant, that brings me great joy.
It’s done for the good of Rome, not because there is somebody else coming up who wants the job, which is normally what happens when a ruler is assassinated. In fact, nobody would take the job. They have to go around begging people to be the next emperor, which is all good fun.
He’s very dark. There are reasons which, in Master and God, I try to explore, why he became paranoid. I think he’s a very interesting character in that respect, but he is the most powerful man in the world, and he lets it go to his head. Master and God is called that because that was a title he liked, even though to call yourself a god when you were alive was reprehensible in ancient Rome.
He makes a good dark background to the Albia series which is different from the benign Emperor Vespasian making the trains run on time that we had in Falco. It’s one of several things that are different. You’ve mentioned that she’s a woman and she comes from Britain, so she can view Roman society and Roman traditions as an outsider, which I very much enjoyed.
Jenny Wheeler: Domitian was Vespasian’s son wasn’t he?
Lindsey Davis: Yes. I didn’t even know this when I started but Vespasian was the one who built the Colosseum. He became emperor after a period of turmoil, partly because he had two adult sons. Titus Domitian is the one who appears in various rather strange operas. He was only Emperor very briefly and possibly was murdered by his brother, the paranoid despot Domitian. Domitian then ruled for about fourteen years. We’ve got quite a lot of Domitian doing horrible things to people.
Jenny Wheeler: It’s interesting that Vespasian is seen as the good emperor and then he has a son like that.
Two very different Emperors
Lindsey Davis: He has two sons and I think part of the Domitian’s trouble is that he was 10 years junior to Titus and Titus was very close to his father, almost a co-ruler with him. Titus was very charismatic and everybody loved him. Poor old Domitian, I think, felt deeply neglected and had a lot to live up to. For many years, he must have thought if Titus had children, he was never going to be Emperor himself, so once he was, it totally went to his head and he was full of glee and yet seemed unable to enjoy it.
Jenny Wheeler: You’ve been credited with bringing ancient Rome to life and the exchanges between the characters are very real, but you are meticulous about the historical part of it, aren’t you?
Lindsey Davis: I’m always meticulous as a historical novelist because I can’t see the point in doing it unless you try to give as good a picture as you can of how things were, otherwise you might as well write fantasy or science fiction. But if you’re writing a historical novel, this doesn’t apply to all authors who do it, but for me, the aim is to show what it was like as much we can.
We can’t ever really know what it was like to be a Roman 2000 years ago, but I think we can use as much evidence as there is and apply imagination where there are gaps. When people believe that ancient Rome was as I say it was, that’s something I’m desperately proud of.
‘Educating’ your readers
Jenny Wheeler: I gather you get good feedback from your readers on this aspect of things.
Lindsey Davis: I do. There was a time when they used to write and tell me what I’d got wrong, but by being very stroppy with them I think I’ve managed to get shot of all of those or most of those. Now I just get the ones who enjoy it.
Jenny Wheeler: Maybe you’ve got better.
Lindsey Davis: Or maybe I’ve got better at dodging the problem issues. I always think it’s very sad when people read a novel in order to find if there are any mistakes in it. Surely the idea is to be absorbed into that world and carried along with it and not mind if there are one or two things you disagree with. A lot of people who point out mistakes are actually not right. That’s always good fun to reply to.
Jenny Wheeler: Your first book, The Course of Honour, was about the Emperor Vespasian, the love story of his life. Tell us about the genesis of that book. I think it was the first that you wrote but it certainly wasn’t the first you published, was it?
Lindsey Davis: No, it wasn’t. As a publishing story, this is quite interesting. I wrote it when I was desperate for a subject that would find a publisher and I decided to try ancient Rome. It’s a straight historical novel, it is the story of his rise as Emperor but seen through the eyes of his mistress with whom he had a relationship that swings to and fro but I think it is true love. It’s a three Kleenex box novel. As I was writing it, I think that’s when I became confident.
I knew the material very well. I understood the material for two reasons. One was that Caenis had a job, she’s one of the few Roman women we know who had a job. She was the secretary to the Emperor Claudius’s mother, Antonia, and so she worked in the kind of Yes Minister office, the same as I had done as a civil servant, so I knew I could write her story through her eyes.
An Imperial romance that lasted
The other thing is that it is the most wonderful romantic story and I am at heart a romantic novelist so when the two things came together, I knew how that book should be written. I think it shows. It didn’t find a publisher for a long time purely because publishers are very scary people and they didn’t want the Romans. They thought the public couldn’t cope with the Romans. We now know that is absolutely ludicrous.
In the end it was published 10 years after I’d been writing Falco and disguised as a Falco in fact in its first edition. But it’s still much loved by many people and it was my mum’s favorite.
Jenny Wheeler: It’s a midlife story because they have a relationship as young people and then they get back together in midlife. I wonder if one of the things that put the publishers off was that it was old people.
Lindsey Davis: It might have been. I used to say that I cursed Prince Charles and Camilla because originally I was able to say how rare it was for a man to go back to the girlfriend he’d had in his twenties and take up with her and for her to take him back. But then of course, Charles and Camilla prove that’s not as rare as you think and spoiled my story. I’m now viewing it as a much older woman and I can’t see why anybody would not think that was perfectly okay.
Jenny Wheeler: You have mentioned your passion for the English Civil War period and you have written a Civil War saga called Rebels and Traitors. I know you are very proud of this book but once again, the Civil War period is one that still hasn’t quite managed to find its place.
The English Civil War book
Lindsey Davis: No. I can see why in some ways because it was absolutely horrible for the people involved in it. It was like the sort of things that are going on in the Middle East now and that doesn’t suit romantic novels. It doesn’t altogether suit crime type stories, though people have attempted it. The background of what is going on is just so horrible.
I think it’s interesting because I come from a very left-wing family so I think the issues involved in it are not only very important but also very interesting to write and read about. It was one of the things that I learned though when I was trying to become a writer, which was that politics aren’t allowed in novels very easily, certainly not popular fiction, certainly not romantic fiction. That was why it was very hard to get published, writing the sort of things I’ve wanted to do.
When it was eventually published, it didn’t get much critical notice. It is amazing that it is still being read and in a way, it’s having a new life. People find it and then write to me and say how extraordinary a book it is. I am very proud of it. But it is very long. One lady did say that it fell off the bedhead, hit her husband on the head and he claimed it gave him concussion. It’s that size of a book.
Jenny Wheeler: You sound like you’ve got readers who have got a good sense of humour as well.
Lindsey Davis: I do. I think my readers are particularly nice though maybe all authors think that, but I’m convinced it’s true in my case.
Jenny Wheeler: In Falco: The Official Companion, which in its own right is a wonderful book, it’s a full background to the life, the times, the characters in the Falco series, and you have a wonderful introduction where you talk quite a lot about your own personal circumstances, where your family came from, that kind of thing. You say traumatic family events underlie your work and “in any discussion of my work, this is a defining issue.” I wonder if you could expand a little on that.
Lindsey Davis: I don’t want it to sound as though it’s a triumph over tragedy thing but what I meant is that my life was such that I didn’t get conventionally married and have children as I might once have expected. I think if I had, I wouldn’t have been able to be a writer, certainly not while I was a civil servant.
Even afterwards, I wouldn’t have had the scope to do what I did, perhaps rather selfishly, as a sometime single person, certainly after my partner died. I’m completely on my own. I can do whatever I want. I don’t even now have to worry about children, and it would also probably be grandchildren. I am free to write. That’s what I meant by that.
Jenny Wheeler: The first five years of your writing life were quite sacrificial weren’t they? You weren’t very well off. You struggled away there, almost the writer in the garret kind of idea.
Lindsey Davis: Yes. I left my job as a civil servant thinking I would have a proper job again, because you have to. Then I decided to become a writer and I lived partly on my savings and partly on part-time work while I tried to be a writer, thinking it’s now or never, I’ve either got to give up this idea that it will be good to be a writer or I’ve got to buckle down and try it and see if I can get published.
The long road to acclaimed writer
It did indeed take me five years and if I had known at the beginning that it was going to take five years, I still wonder whether I would have tackled it. On the other hand, I was so happy to have left the civil service under Margaret Thatcher’s regime that I might have anyway. In the end it worked. In the end it became a kind of fairy story.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. The fairy story turned into a career where you’ve been awarded many honors as an author, including recognition from the Italian Government. I wondered if there is one of those or even a couple that stand out for you in terms of the pleasure you received from it.
Lindsey Davis: There has to be two because one of them is the Cartier Diamond Dagger which is awarded in the crime writing fraternity by your peers, so it’s your fellow writers who know how to do the job by definition, who vote you into it. I’m very proud of that. (Lindsey was awarded this in 2011 for the Falco series)
But the Premio Colosseo, which I can show you if you look on top of my finger, if we’re having a video, that was given to me by a foreign country and any award from a foreign country has got to mean a lot to you. How rare it would be for an English city to award a major prize to an Italian or other foreign writer because they had written about an English city. I view that as one of the most moving things that has ever happened to me. Very, very proud.
Be blond, young and photogenic
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. You write jokingly in the Falco Official Companion that anyone planning to be a writer should start before they were born and plan to be blonde, stay young and be photogenic, or write in their eighties which “carries risks and leads to a short career.” I thought that was brilliant.
Lindsey Davis: That’s how you get published. I think the ideal age to be a writer is 35, because you’ve lived enough to have material and you’re mature enough to write strongly. We shall soon see whether I can write in my eighties, because I’m inexorably plodding towards it.
Jenny Wheeler: I know you’ve got some work to do yet. You also have been a regular tour leader of tours in Italy with readers and possibly non-readers who are interested to have the wealth of your knowledge about these places, but the pandemic is changing that. How has the pandemic affected you?
Lindsey Davis: It’s very bad in Britain generally and I have underlying health things, apart from my age. I am in the seventies bracket, so I have been in lockdown and I’ve not this year traveled anywhere at all. It is probably the first year since I was in my teens that I’ve not gone anywhere abroad at all.
Usually I would go to Italy three or four times, maybe more sometimes. So not to go is a huge change in my life and as things are, I can’t see when I’ll be able to resume the life I thought I was always going to have. That’s a bit of a stress.
On the other hand, for a writer to be in lockdown is actually like normal life when you’re writing a book.
Discovering Italy as a writer
Jenny Wheeler: Did you go to Italy before you started writing Falco?
Lindsey Davis: No. I was made to go. My editor, as he became, I’ve always had the same one, when he was considering taking two Falco novels, he made it a condition that I had to go because I always tease him. He published a novel set in Moscow that had a lot of mistakes so when he found out I’d never actually been to Italy, he said I had to go as a condition of the contract.
That forced me to take up the life of constantly visiting Italy. He came with me on one of the tours that I do, in fact, he came on two. He came on one to Naples and then one to Rome as well. After 30 years we both were there together and that was extremely good fun.
Jenny Wheeler: That first trip you made, what was the impact? Did you immediately like it?
Lindsey Davis: Yes. I immediately liked it. I don’t actually speak Italian even after all these years, but I do feel very much at home there, to the extent that when I first went to New York, I felt at home in New York because it was like an Italian city. I love both the Bay of Naples area with its wonderful archeology and breathtaking scenery and that terrible hint that one day Vesuvius might explode again while you’re there. And I love Rome too.
Jenny Wheeler: Turning to Lindsey as reader, because this is The Joys of Binge Reading and obviously you’ve spent a lot of time in your life reading, tell us about what you like to read, what your taste in books is.
Lindsey as reader – favorite books
Lindsey Davis: The sad thing about being a writer is that that’s your job. You do it all day and so when you want recreation, you tend not to read as much as you once would have done. I grew up reading a lot and I was a binge reader. I read series, things like Hornblower. (by C.S. Forester.)
The day I was sent to the library by myself and came back with three Biggles books (W.E. Johns) and read them all in a day – that was my kind of binge reading. If I was to suggest something that has meant a lot to me as a writer, I would say Rosemary Sutcliff who writes for children, but adults can also read her. She introduced me both to the Romans and the English Civil War. She wrote about both, so I owe her a huge debt.
Other than that, part of the joy of reading for me is to find things out for yourself. I never liked being told what to read, so I’m not going to tell you either. Go into a bookshop, go online and pick up something thinking, I wonder whether I’ll like that. That’s the magic of reading, when you find you do. And if you find you don’t like it, throw it across the room, because there are far too many books to bother with things that are hard or horrible to read.
One thing Lindsey would change
Jenny Wheeler: That’s right. I used to feel compelled to finish books but now I must admit I don’t feel that compulsion any longer.
Lindsey Davis: I lost three years of my life when I was trying to read Don Quixote and I believed that you had to finish. I remember absolutely nothing about it, so I could have been reading things that would have been much more enjoyable.
Jenny Wheeler: Circling around and looking down the tunnel of time, because we are coming to the end, at this stage in your career, if you were doing it all again, would you change anything?
Lindsey Davis: The thing I would change is going to surprise you. I wouldn’t write under my own name. I would have a nom de plume, so that I could go around the world incognito. It is particularly difficult if I do what I like to do on holiday, which is go on archaeological tours. I can no longer be myself, I have to be the working author who is a slightly different person from how I am myself.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s interesting. In what ways is she different?
Lindsey Davis: She wears a suit and is authoritative, whereas I am sloppy and silly.
Jenny Wheeler: You’ve mentioned that you are engaged with the Flavia series. Where are you up to and what are your projects for the next 12 months or so?
Lindsey Davis: Well, although we’ve been talking about The Grove of the Caesars, I’ve written a whole extra book on top of that. I have written Book Nine, it’s with my editor when he bothers to read it, and I am thinking about Book Ten, I have a contract for 10 and 11, and I have as my business plan the idea that, as I did twenty Falcos, I will try and write twenty Albias. But I will be well into my eighties by then, so we can watch it one book at a time and see whether I get there.
Jenny Wheeler: You’ve already mentioned that England’s got a wonderful tradition of very talented women writers in their eighties.
Where you can Lindsey online
Lindsey Davis: They are in my mind all the time these days, along with a terrible fear, because I have seen one or two of them go off. A terrible fear that I’ll go off and nobody will dare to tell me because I have been writing for so long, but we’ll see.
Jenny Wheeler: You’ve had a website since 1986, so I presume your readers can find you online?
Lindsey Davis: They can. They go to my website and if they email me, I will certainly read it and, if you’re very lucky, I’ll answer you. Though I did answer one recently that was a year old, to the astonishment and joy of the person who had written it.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s a little warning. We’ll put all of those links in the podcast show notes that we publish online, so they will be there for ever more.
Lindsey Davis Contact details: http://www.lindseydavis.co.uk/contact-me/
Lindsey Davis: Thank you.
Jenny Wheeler: Thanks so much for being on the show, Lindsey. It’s been fantastic talking.
Lindsey Davis: Thank you very much. It’s been lovely talking to New Zealand. I think it’s the first time, so I’m really pleased.
Jenny Wheeler: Wonderful. Thanks.
If you enjoyed Lindsey’s Roman mysteries you might also enjoy Candace Robb’s York mysteries.
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