Interview with Kate Quinn, author of Mistress of Rome

It is with great honor that I share this interview of Kate Quinn, author of Mistress of Rome, with you.

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Rita: Reading Mistress of Rome, I didn't feel like I was reading history. It felt more like a fantasy novel, and I had magically transported into a whole new world. What did it feel like for you, writing it?

Kate: Extremely immersive. No other words for it. Part of that might have been the setting in which I wrote “Mistress of Rome.” I was a freshman in college and I didn't have a computer, so I had to trek over to the university computer lab, which was just about the most cheerless place on earth: ninety computers stuffed in a basement with flickering fluorescent lighting and a lot of grad students hammering sourly away at their thesis. Somehow, though, it was the perfect blank slate for the imagination to take off. Rome really sprang to life for me – the colors, the smells, the sounds; everything seemed triply vivid. As I typed away, I was seeing the Colosseum and the palace and the forum much more clearly than I was seeing that windowless colorless cinder-block cell.

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Rita: As you wrote, did you ever second guess yourself, wondering what you were doing, questioning if you could find an agent, doubting you could pull this off? If so, how did you handle these doubts?

Kate: Did I have doubts/second-guessing moments with this book? Yes and no. No, because I'd been writing novels since I was ten years old – it was a way of life to have a project on the back burner. I wasn't really thinking about getting it published yet, just trying to write the story that was clamoring in my head. But also yes, there were some doubts and fears, because this book was the first thing I ever wrote entirely on my own. As a teenager I had my mom – classical scholar, voracious reader, and merciless editor; every writer should be so lucky – and I was used to bouncing my ideas off her, talking out my plotting problems, getting input whenever I got stuck. But when I wrote Mistress of Rome I was a freshman in college three thousand miles away from my mom or anybody else I knew. I had no help. So I just gulped down the worry and went at this massive project alone. A little scary at times, but exhilarating.

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Rita: For all of us who want to follow you, how did you find your agent and publisher?

Kate: At the time, I wasn't even trying to get Mistress of Rome published – that was sitting in my desk drawer while I touted around another novel I'd written about the Hundred Years War. I lugged Literary Marketplace home from the library and incurred astounding late fees on it while I combed through looking for agents willing to look at historical fiction. Not so many as you might think. I googled each one to make sure they were legitimate (I'd had a previous near-miss with an agency that, I realized just in time, was a scam) and sent off a round of query letters. I got a prompt round of rejections – and one “I like your style but this book isn't quite doing it for me.” That sounded encouraging, so I emailed the agent back and asked if she might like to see something else I'd written. She gave a somewhat unenthusiastic ok to that, and I shipped off Mistress of Rome. When she read that, she offered to represent me.

Later, I realized she'd taken a real chance on me. Mistress of Rome was in very rough shape – about twice as long as it is now, with twice as many plotlines. It needed a lot of work, and my agent took a gamble that I could edit it down to something marketable. I spent a few months cutting it up and putting it back together; she liked the result and sent Mistress of Rome off to several publishers. A few months later, I had an offer.

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Rita: What was the inspiration for Thea and Arius?

Kate: Thea's character fell into place once I realized I could make her a survivor of the suicide-massacre of Masada. Her various quirks – her dark view of the world, her cynical humor, her habit of cutting herself when things get rough – all flowed from that. I loved the idea of a heroine who is so cosmically troubled, yet still functional. We live in the era of therapists and self-help books which tell you it's okay to wallow in your traumas, but Thea didn't. She doesn't bother feeling self-pitying because she had a tragic childhood, or because her master treats her as a sexual convenience, or because she is a slave. She just copes as best she can, and goes on with her life.

Arius began as a challenge that I set for myself: could I make such a violent man into someone readers would still root for? During the course of the book, he does a number of fairly unpalatable things: kills women in the arena, for example, or beats up his son for becoming a bully. Heroes in books normally do not do these things; they talk to their kids rather than give them black eyes, and if they are told to kill women they find a way to say no. I didn't want to make things easy for Arius; he keeps having to do terrible things through no desire of his own. I don't know how my readers feel, but I adore him even in his black moments.

I felt bad for Thea and Arius for all the things I put them through, but at least I gave them each other. Their romance was another thing I tried to turn against the trend: they fall in love fast and hard in the first fifty pages rather than postponing the inevitable till Act III; they have the most unromantic settings possible for their romance (dank cells instead of luxurious beds), and when they first have sex it's Arius rather than the much-younger but much-preyed-upon Thea who is the virgin. Really, the two of them shouldn't be able to make it work – any normal person trying to love a man with such a short fuse or a woman with so many self-destructive habits would run screaming in the opposite direction. But they are both so screwed-up that they can look on the other's problems with complete equanimity. Hey, whatever works.

Rita, thanks for having me!

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