The snack bar of a cinema on the Fulham Road seems like an unlikely place to meet Caroline Lawrence, whose Roman Mysteries series so beautifully evokes the tangy, salty bustle of Rome in the first century AD. Her new book this year Queen of the Silver Arrow, which retells the story of the warrior maiden Camilla from Virgil’s Aeneid; and her new sequence, Roman Quests, (set twelve years after the events of Roman Mysteries, and following a group of young people escaping to Britannia), tread similar ground. Widely read in classical literature (Lawrence has a copy of Ovid’s little known work the Fasti in her loo, she tells me), she aims for historical accuracy, clear language and tight plots in her work. Both commercially and critically successful, her books are loved by hundreds of thousands of children (and adults) – and (fortunately for us all) it looks like there are many more to come.
In person, Caroline Lawrence radiates enthusiasm, beaming through spectacles framed by frizzy hair, perching in a red coat on the sofa like a bird. Personable and witty, in another life she might have been the Latin teacher everyone wanted: (‘Rats!’ she exclaims at one point in her gentle American accent; at another, as we discuss some particularly horrible things the Romans did, ‘You know they were barbarians! Real barbarians! People are barbarians!’). As car alarms go off, muzac blares around us, and my phone keeps ringing, disrupting my dictaphone, her liveliness remains undimmed. Given her output, I suggest, she must have a really strong work ethic? ‘I can only write in the morning,’ she says. ‘I get up at five thirty, five and try to write for a few hours but then as soon as stuff starts coming in you get distracted, but it’s really hard, it’s like juggling balls, you know it’s like so complicated.
This particular cinema is her ‘home away from home’. This is unsurprising, given her deep interest in the mechanics of storytelling: ‘I love a well-made film that takes you and grabs you and tells a story and then leaves you changed at the end. I’m massively obsessed with story structure,’ she says. Her ‘breakthrough in writing’ came when a friend of hers told her ‘about John Truby, who had 22 steps of a great story, and of those 7 are essential – that was what I needed.’ These steps include ‘the desire, the inciting incident, the collection of allies, the visit to death – a lot of these go back to Joseph Campbell, Hero with A Thousand Faces. I needed train tracks or a framework to hang my ideas on because I’m not interested in plot, I’m interested in the setting, the world, but I needed something to keep the kids reading. If you’re writing for adults you don’t have to worry about plot, but if you’re writing for kids …it has to be strong.’
So much so, that though she ‘started out using structure just as a way to hang my ideas, but now having been writing for about twenty years – I’ve been trying to teach myself the craft – the more I learn, the more I think that structure is the most important part, because it’s how we live our lives, and it actually throws light on why we have struggles in our lives, and why we have opponents, and why we’re afraid of trying new things.’ The craft is one of her ‘obsessions’, particularly ‘story beats. One that I love is crossing the threshold – the Romans were obsessed with thresholds – the word limen [threshold] is all over Virgil.’ Adolescence is liminal, I suggest: ‘Liminality – yes, yeah, and seasons have liminality. The summer solstice and the autumn equinox, they have liminality.’ All powerful tools for stories.
Children’s books, then, for Lawrence, are a way of exploring life: ‘when I go to schools I talk a lot about structure … like crossing the threshold … so fascinating, because it’s when the hero leaves their ordinary world and goes into the world of adventure, and they have to go on their own usually. … I say to the kids, what’s the first time you crossed the threshold in your life, when you first leave your ordinary life and go into the world of adventure? Sometimes they say, first day of school and I say yes, excellent, but there’s one before that, and they get it – when you’re born.”
Given that she writes historical fiction, does she aim for a picture of reality? ‘You can’t make a picture of reality,’ she says. ‘So what you’ve got to do is find a balance of getting characters they can identify with and then putting it in a historical context – but I try to remind them of things. Like I have a character die in childbirth aged fifteen, and everyone goes, “Why did you do that?” And it shows them that childbirth was the main killer of women.’
Because Queen of the Silver Arrow is set in an ahistorical time, did she find it gave her more freedom in her writing? ‘What I tried to do is use the clues in Virgil, any clue… But there are huge gaps,’ she says, referring to the story of Camilla, which she has filled in herself. In terms of setting, ‘The bronze age did not have a lot of the wonderful accoutrements of Imperial Rome. They didn’t have iron … and they didn’t have mosaics or frescoes very much. So there are a few anachronisms, there’s a painted marble statue – it would have been archaic or something – they go into a bath of gold tiles – but you know, it’s that world, you want, I want to create a world that kids want to be in, that they want to explore, hopefully they’ll read more of Virgil. Go and find out for yourself!’ she says, exhorting an imaginary child and – there is no other word for it – twinkling.
Queen of the Silver Arrow was published by Barrington Stoke, who specialise in fiction for dyslexic teens: it taught her ‘to make my writing simple and clear. You can have simple writing and still tell a great story. I try to keep my grandsons in mind when I’m writing now and make it so my ten year old grandson can understand, you know, what I’m writing.’
Lawrence is passionate about the importance of literature for the young: ‘One of the great things that books teach kids is empathy – you know it’s extraordinary that you can read a story’, and be in someone else’s mind, she continues. Books are thresholds? I suggest. ‘Exactly’, she beams, ‘they teach you empathy which is a huge asset today.’
Her PK Pinkerton series is set in the Wild West, and I ask her about the linkages with Ancient Rome. ‘They’re surprisingly similar’, she smiles. ‘They’re both civilisations surrounded by barbarians, right, horse powered cultures, medicine was about the same’. She pauses, and the alarm continues to swell in the background. ‘Well, it’s a sense of scratching the veneer of civilisation, and you find barbarity. And that is the human condition isn’t it, that we’re half god and half beast. We can be either, you know. And that’s what life’s all about: trying to be more god than beast’.
Philip Womack is an author and critic. His latest novel, The King’s Revenge, is published by Troika Books and concludes the Darkening Path trilogy.
Roman Quests: Escape from Rome, Orion Children’s Books, 978-1-5101-0023-7, £6.99pbk
Queen of the Silver Arrow, Barrington Stoke, 978-1-7811-2526-7, £6.99 pbk
The Romany Mysteries and P.K. Pinkerton series area published by Orion Children’s Books