Dinner with my Facebook Friend, Author Steven Saylor
This entry was posted on 9/24/2010 10:29 PM and is filed under Footnotes.
The capital of The Lone Star State is still drying itself off after a dousing by the saturated tentacles of Hurricane Hermine, which blew in from the Gulf of Mexico the night before. Over a foot of rain had fallen, flooding the creeks and blocking several roads, even causing loss of life. As I drive down Mopac I quietly congratulate myself for having chosen Wednesday rather than Tuesday for the meeting at one of Austin’s most popular eateries.
Chuy’s – pronounced ‘chew-ees’ – is an eccentric but archetypal Austin restaurant chain.(1) It is the 1950s diner re-invented for Tex-Mex cuisine. Its garishly coloured walls decorated with bold framed paintings contrast with shiny chrome wheel trims, which hang at angles from the ceiling. A wall of T-shirts for sale bear slogans like ‘Keep Austin Weird’ and ‘University of Tex-Mex’. There’s even a shrine to Elvis Presley in the entrance. The atmosphere inside is loud but friendly. Regular guests find the wait staff often remember what you ordered the last time you visited. A well-known local hot spot Chuy’s in Barton Springs Road shot to international prominence in 2001 when the twin daughters of President George W. Bush were arrested there for underage alcohol offences.(2)
I settle in to a booth in the basement of the low ranch-style building. The seats are covered in deep red vinyl and feel bouncy like an old Detroit gas-guzzler. The waiter brings chips and salsa. I ask him to bring the house red sauce and creamy jalapeño. I order a Corona – I know the brewery from a trip I made to Guadalajara, Mexico. I eschew a glass in favour of consuming the chilled beer directly from the bottle and wait slightly nervously but excitedly for my dinner guest.
I am here to meet Steven Saylor, The New York Times bestselling author of novels set in Ancient Rome.(3) His books have graced my bookshelves for several years and, as he is in Austin, he has gracefully agreed to join me for dinner. Steven Saylor arrives precisely on time at 7.45pm. I see him looking for me and I wave to him. He had alerted me that he liked to dress casual. He’s wearing a short-sleeved shirt with an attractive print of hand drawn Greek keys, squares and diamonds, and neatly pressed shorts. His youthful face is framed by short grey hair and a neat goatie. We shake hands and he makes himself comfortable. The waiter reappears and my guest orders a Modello Negro. Steven studies the large format menu. It is chilli season in Texas and Chuy’s is known for offering dishes spiced with the fiery green fruits. He orders tres verdes enchiladas, and for myself I order my favourite Elvis Presley Combo No. 2 (one chicken, one beef and one cheese enchilada with trimmings).
Steven is in Austin on one of his regular sojourns from Berkeley, California where he spends most of his time. He chose BookPeople, Austin’s largest independent bookshop, for the international launch the previous Wednesday of his latest novel EMPIRE.(4) It continues the story told in ROMA of the Pinarii, an ancient clan whose fortunes rise from the time of the foundation of the city to the death of Julius Caesar. As the republic dies with him and is replaced by the imperial system under Augustus, EMPIRE charts the Pinarii’s waning fortunes, through the succeeding decades down to Trajan and Hadrian when the Roman Empire reaches its zenith. Three years in the making, at the book signing Saylor admitted his writing was influenced by his feelings about the final days of the presidency of George W. Bush.
We talk about his childhood. Steven grew up in a small town north of Austin, Texas. He describes a happy period in his life and days at school where there were only twenty-five students. His brother, older by a year, moved to University of Texas at Austin and the following year Steven joined him. He chose history and archaeology and indulged his interest in the arts, as well as the nighttime attractions that the live music capital of the world had to offer. He met his life partner in Austin and they moved in together. He describes these days fondly. As a student he lived frugally, getting by on a small income. I reflect on the similarities and differences between his experience in Austin and mine at university in far away Birmingham, England.
Dipping into the chips and salsa he explains his life took a dramatic turn when Ronald Reagan became president. Steven and his partner decided they could no longer stay in Texas and they set off for San Francisco, California. There he decided to become a writer. He had written short erotic stories but it was when he submitted a story to a popular sub-culture magazine that his fortunes changed. The editor liked his writing and offered him a full time position on the magazine’s staff. Though it paid poorly, Steven now had access to other professional writers from whom he could learn his trade.
The entrées arrive. Our waiter disappears and then we find we have no silverware. I go in search of two sets. Returning with them I find him using a stake to 'ventilate' his steamy hot enchilada to cool it down. Steven explains Chuy’s used to assign the duty of packing each knife, fork and spoon in its sanitized envelope to a blind person. I confess I did not know that. We tuck into our food. It tastes good. We talk about writing. Steven smiles when he explains that the purpose of writing erotica is to get a response from the reader. He earned $100 for his first published story. The challenge in writing fiction in general he says is “to move the characters from room to room”. Writing as Aaron Travis he published several stories and novels.(5) They were released by small publishers and quickly gained a following. He smiles when he says original copies now go for fancy prices on eBay. He hopes to republish these early works in a single special edition e-book. He had hoped his partner might help, but so far it has remained a dream. I suggest it would make an excellent project for an intern with desktop publishing skills and he’s sure to find one in Austin or Berkeley.
The conversation is interrupted when Steven’s mobile phone rings. He apologises and answers. “I’m with Lindsay,” he says to the caller, “my Facebook friend”. The call ends and we continue our conversation. I suggest that I am almost a complete stranger, but he counters that that is not the case. We had met at the book signing and before that he had been able to see my other Facebook friends, many of whom we share, and they vouched for my character.
Mention Facebook to most people over 40 and you get a dismissive shrug of the shoulders and a comment to the effect it’s what their kids do in their bedrooms, wasting too many hours in pointless babble. The online social media behemoth has grown to 500 million users worldwide, which Wikipedia notes “is about one person for every fourteen in the world”.(6) Yet the complaint of those of Gen X and the Millennials is that the ‘oldies’ are taking over the site. The truth, as in all things, is probably somewhere in between. For the maturer social media user Facebook is gaining favour as a way to connect with family, work colleagues and old school friends, but some of the early adopters have been notables of the world of literature looking to connect with their fan base. It was, in fact, through Facebook that I met Steven Saylor. I had seen him on the site and asked to 'friend' him. He kindly wrote a personal note in reply and accepted my request.
I had known Steven for his book Roman Blood (1991). In it he introduces Gordianus the Finder, a private eye who lives in the heady days of the late Roman Republic.(7) M. Tullius Cicero employs the gumshoe to solve a crime and find the murderer of the father of Umbrian landowner Sex. Roscius. This compelling mystery is based on a true story of 80BCE. In it we are introduced to members of his unusual extended family and Bast, the pet cat. Through it we see Rome from street level, warts and all, its lowlifes and celebrities. It is his ability to bring Rome to life in readers’ imaginations that caused The Sunday Times of London to write of his The Judgment of Caesar (2004) “Saylor evokes the ancient world more convincingly than any other writer of his generation”.
We discuss the challenges of writing about the ancient world. I tell him that before I wrote my first book, a biography of Drusus the Elder, stepson of Augustus, I had tried writing about the same events as fiction. I quickly learned that writing good fiction is hard. We use many of the same research sources – Michael Grant’s several works (EMPIRE is dedicated to the great historian), and the excellent online resources Livius (written by Dutch historian Jona Lendering) and Lacus Curius (managed by Bill Thayer). Then there are the many ancient sources such as Cassius Dio, Livy, Suetonius and Tacitus. Fascinating to me is to understand how differently we use them. Livy (to whom ROMA is dedicated) he says is “great for stories, but light on descriptions of place”. (For how the city looked he highly recommends the Ancient Rome in 3D by Google). As a teller of tales, he reinterprets the great sweep of events as a backdrop and places his fictional characters amidst them. To tell my stories, I mine the sources for tiny details and try and make sense of them, assembling them objectively into a continuous narrative. Steven comments that he could not possibly keep all the tiny details in his head while writing the fictional story. He also comments on the differences in the American and British traditions of historical fiction. British readers are fascinated by war. Indeed, recent years have seen a boom in war stories of all periods, from Roman through Saxon, from the Crusades to the Napoleonic. He observes that there is nothing to match this outpouring in American fiction.
I reflect on this revelation and have to agree. America has the towering talents of Steven Pressfield, Michael Curtis Ford and Nicholas Nicastro, for sure, but they are few in number compared to their counterparts on the other side of the Pond. The first works of military historical fiction I read as a boy were Alfred Duggan’s Winter Quarters (1956), Rosemary Sutcliff's Eagle of the Ninth (1954) and Wallace Breem’s Eagle in the Snow (1970), all of which left profound impressions on me. My bookshelves carry the tomes of Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden, Ben Kane, Anthony Riches, Simon Scarrow, Harry Sidebottom and John Stack. Steven confesses he does not understand Roman military affairs all that well and the army only plays a minor role on the periphery of his stories. I reflect on the many days I wore replica Roman armour come rain or shine in the fields of Britain, and the unique perspective being a re-enactor gives me as an author, especially for Ancient Warfare magazine.
The devil is in the detail, we both agree. He tells me how he tried to establish precisely what stood atop Trajan’s Column for his scenes set in Trajan’s Forum. One source he read emphatically said it was a nude statue of the emperor. He searched yet he could not find the conclusive evidence. He closely studied images of coins but they were too small to be clear, save for a certain pose, which Steven dramatically displays with a balletic extention of the right arm and twist of the body without rising from his seat.
The waiter returns to collect our plates. Steven has eaten only half his meal and asks for a box. The waiter offers desert, but Steven refuses pointing to the creamy jalapeño dip with a smile and says, “that was my desert”. While the waiter goes away to make up the bill, we talk about movies. Steven is a connoisseur of epic movies and owns a collection of both the famous and the obscure.(8) I share my frustration over the liberties producers and costume departments take with their historical productions. Steven laments HBO’s decision in its landmark series ROME to mess with recorded history and even mix-up characters. He says Cicero was “a missed opportunity”, Brutus was “interesting”, but he fails to understand the “sociopathic Octavian”. (The future Caesar Augustus as a sado-masochist? Not likely.) He was disappointed by the depiction of Antony as “a playboy”. The character of Caesar was “good” but why, he asks, did “they cut short his story?” Yet the genre is enjoying a renaissance. 2010 would see three epics hit the silver screen, he said. One was already on the circuit. I had brought a PAL format Region 2 DVD of the British-made film Centurion, which I say he can borrow. It is on limited release in the USA, but he politely declines my offer saying he would prefer to see it on the big screen in Berkeley in the next week or two. Epics really have to be seen on the big screen.
While we are waiting for the bill, I ask him if he will sign my copies of his books. He agrees. I note that I was surprised to find he wrote the preface to Rome at War (2005). As he inscribes his name, he tells me he was thrilled to be asked to do so, noting its contributors included the prolific Adrian Goldsworthy – who lives in Penarth, South Wales, not far from the place of my birth, I inform him. As he signs each volume, he tells me he has just reread his own books and, happily, “would not change much”. He studies the cover art of each book in turn. I ask which is his favourite book? I expect him to say “I love them all equally” but he surprises me by singling out The Venus Throw (1995) for its storyline, mix of sex and characters. He also admits his least favourite cover is the paperback of The House of the Vestals (1997). It shows a central character who looks more like a monk in a habit than a Roman of the first century BCE. He suggests the face looks like a younger Steven Saylor as he puts the book up beside his face. He had been told at the time that it was important to put a woman on the cover as “women's pictures sell books”. That being the case, he asks rhetorically, “why is there not a single woman shown here?” It does seem odd, to be sure.
The idea for ROMA came from his British publisher. They asked him for a “big book”. Steven decided to write a story of the city covering 2,000 years of its history. He started with the foundation of the city in the Bronze Age but quickly realized one book would not contain the sprawling story. ROMA covers 800 years. EMPIRE takes the story further another 130 or so years. A third volume, which he has researched, will likely take the story of the Pinarii to the time of Constantine the Great. The fortunes of the Pinarii will continue to be bleak, it seems, in the sequel. Current events do influence how an author writes, he says. For him, the truth is “the USA is lost, it's down to the Chinese now to pull us out. Our goal is to survive like the Pinarii in EMPIRE”. It is a grim and sobering thought.
But the sequel to the ‘big book’ will have to wait. His next project takes him back to Gordianus. He had the idea for a prequel, describing the life of the man as a 19-year old and connecting him somehow to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. A friend suggested that as a teenager he should get laid at each of the sites. Steven won’t tell me quite what he has decided to do, but it sounds like the young man will have the time of his fictional life. I wonder how much of the young Steven Saylor’s own experiences will be the inspiration for that character’s.
I offer to pay for dinner. He refuses, dips into his wallet and presents a $20 banknote. The bill, my credit card and the cash remain on the faux-marble laminate tabletop with its chrome trim until the waiter comes by. I insist that I pick up the bill. He remarks I should never offer to pay for an author's dinner: “I was a poor student,” he says, “the instinct for a free dinner remains. The author will always take a free meal but it will be hard to get him to pay for one.” He’s joking. Or at least I think he is. I recall a famous nineteenth century writer who was so impoverished that he stood outside restaurants in Paris reading the menus and letting his imagination flavour his morsels of stale bread.
We leave the restaurant at 10.25pm. Illuminated by the light of the neon sign, we hang around outside avoiding the puddles, and chat for a little longer about Facebook, and parallels with each other's lives. I sense it is time to part. He will be returning to California for the rest of his book tour. He says he will be back in Austin in spring of 2011, and I note that my own book will be launched on 23 March. We agree we should plan to meet again. He wishes me well. We shake hands and then, like his Roman gumshoe Gordianus the Finder, he disappears into the city shrouded in darkness.
EMPIRE: The Novel of Imperial Rome by Steven Saylor is published by St. Martin’s Press. Eager for Glory: The Untold Story of Drusus the Elder, Conqueror of Germania by Lindsay Powell will be released May 2011 by Pen and Sword Books and is available to pre-order now. Go to http://www.Lindsay-Powell.com for details.
1728 Barton Springs Road, Austin, Texas, USA
Chips and Salsas (House Salsa, Red Sauce, Creamy Jalapeño)
Indeed, the HBO Rome series is most infuriating not for what it got wrong (and there is plenty of that) but for the opportunities missed.
Of all the characterizations presented perhaps none is better than that by Ciaran Hinds as Julius Caesar. Hinds exuded the charisma that Caesar must have possessed in order to inspire his troops to the feats they accomplished.
Once again, thank you for an enjoyable read and best of luck with your book on Drusus.