ST: Rubies of the Viper is set in ancient Rome. If you lived in this time period, who would you be? And why?
MM: Assuming I’d been born female in first-century Italy, I would be Theodosia, my 19-year-old protagonist. She and I (in my younger days) share many basic traits: strong-willed, independent-minded, impulsive, stubborn, and naive. Of course, I could point out an equal number of ways that we’re different, too.
At the start of my novel, Theodosia has just inherited a vast estate and a high social position, for which she is completely unprepared. She’s an easy target for ambitious men. As a child, her surrogate mother and only friends were slaves; now she owns thousands of slaves and struggles in her relationships with them. Her efforts to feel more secure by identifying her brother’s killer lead to trouble, as does her determination to buck social norms and live her life as she wishes. By the last third of the novel, she has dug a very deep hole for herself and can only rely on her wits and guts (plus a little help from her friends, both slave and free) to get out of it.
I enjoyed creating the character of Theodosia and hope that under similar circumstances I’d have been as courageous and clever as she.
ST: What drew you to this time period?
MM: I literally can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by first-century Rome. At age seven, visiting Rome, Pompeii and Herculaneum with my parents, I was certain I’d been there in a previous life. As a teenager, while my friends were reading Nancy Drew, I devoured—over and over—The Robe, Quo Vadis, Ben Hur, The Last Days of Pompeii, and other classic tales of ancient Rome. Those books influenced me more than anything else I ever read, so it’s no surprise that when I began to write fiction, that’s the direction I turned.
ST: You’re not only an author, but also a nature photographer. How does the photography influence your writing, or does it?
MM: Interesting question! Yes, my photography does influence my writing in both positive and negative ways.
The greatest positive influence is the fact that photography, like all visual arts, forces one to pay attention to the details of a subject and find ways to highlight what makes it special and interesting. I’ve tried to carry that into my writing. Whenever I read a review that praises the historical, cultural, and social details embedded in Rubies of the Viper, or applauds its word pictures, I know that’s my “photo eye” at work.
Another positive aspect is that the photo subjects I most enjoy—wild birds in their natural habitats—get me out into nature. And that forces me to forget about the book for a while, giving my subconscious a chance to process whatever information I’ve been chewing on. I often find that my writing comes easier and is more artful after I’ve spent a few days outside with my camera and 500mm bird lens.
The downside is obvious: when I’m spending time out in nature making images of birds and other wild creatures, I’m not sitting at my desk. Not writing. I’m a slow writer anyway, and having this other creative activity that I love doing makes me even slower. But that’s a price I’m willing to pay. Readers may wait a bit longer for my next novel, but it will probably be better for my escapes into nature.
—text copyright © Martha Marks—