My guest this week is Alison Morton, whose background as a translator, historian, and British army veteran makes her uniquely qualified to write an alternate history of Rome, asking what would have happened had the Roman Empire survived into modern times … and it was ruled by women.
Alison's varied background gave her the opportunity to meet all kinds of people and observe them. And, as most writers know, what you experience in life, the characters you meet, is all part of your book research.
In this show, Alison talks about her obsession with Rome, how and why she chose to write an alternate history, feminism, and gives advice to other writers on how to create whole new worlds.
A few highlights from our interview:
On Creating Alternate History
Every book has its own world and you have to create that with detail, but not drop it in in great lumps. You've got to get your characters completely integrated into the world and drip drop information in. But you have to make it plausible, credible and consistent.
On Bringing Roman Times Forward
You can't have kick-ass feisty women who are heroines doing stuff in the ancient Roman world. So it basically had to come forward to the modern world. And to get it forward, we had to have a Roman society that had survived. .
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Listen to My Interview with Alison Morton
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About the Host
Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and has spent the last six years amplifying the voices of independent publishers and authors. He works with authors as a book editor to prepare their work to be published. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Daily Forward, and Longreads. Find Howard at howardlovy.com, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Read the Transcript
Howard Lovy: I'm Howard Lovy, and you're listening to Inspirational Indie Authors. I'm a writer, editor and multimedia manager for the Alliance of Independent Authors. And every week I interview a member of ALLi to find out what inspires them, and how they are an inspiration to other authors. My guest this week is Alison Morton, whose background as a translator, historian and British Army veteran, make her uniquely qualified to write an alternative history of Rome, asking what would have happened had the Roman Empire survived into modern times and it was ruled by women.
Alison Morton: Hi, my name is Alison Morton, and I'm the author of the Roma Nova thriller series, which you may or may not have seen. There are now eight books at the moment, and will be one more coming out on the 12th of September. So nine books, I've written a few words, I guess. I have a very varied background. I've worked in the city of London, which is the financial area, and done multi million pound projects. I've served six years in the military crawled all over the North German plane on NATO exercises. I've been a translator. I've owned a small business. So that's a fairly varied background.
Howard Lovy: This varied background gave her the opportunity to meet all kinds of people and observe them. And as most writers know what you experience in life, the characters you meet, is all part of your book research.
Alison Morton: I've always written. I am, by nature, a translator. I want to talk to people in the way that they want to talk to. So when I was a little kid, and we were in France, I'd get sent out to play with the rest of the kids. And to me, the interesting thing was how they did stuff, what they talked about, what they had. So basically, I was quite nosy.
Service in the Military
Howard Lovy: Alison's service in the military was an important part of her education as a writer. After all, if you're going to write about Romans, you have to know about your military strategy. But it was something more too. It was about her family legacy and giving back to her country
Alison Morton: It was very peculiar, really, I did most of my service as a reserve person, which means they can send you all over the place, and you live part of your life as a normal person. But you do all the training and you do any missions, if you like, when they send you. It just felt like something very natural. A little bit of giving back. My grandfather had been a reservist. My father was in the Territorial Army. He joined in 1937, which wasn't very good timing because 1939 he was in France, you know, my grandfather had been a reservist. Obviously, he was in the First World War. So it just sort of, we're very, we are a family that has served in the military on both sides. So it seemed a little bit of giving back. And like, hey, you get to travel everywhere at taxpayer expense, which sounds very bad, doesn't it?
Howard Lovy: Okay, so all this, her work in the military, as a historian, as a translator, it's all prepared her to write a great many genres. So why the subgenre of alternate history?
Alison Morton: In the meantime, I set up and run a translation business because I was a qualified translator and one of my speciality was academic texts, not literary, I thought, “Oh, no, we don't do books. We don't do fiction, because it's far too hard. It's a completely separate type of translation. And I kept looking at history and I went to courses and I thought all this. And then in 19, let me get this right, the Berlin Wall came down. And three years later, Robert Harris brought Fatherland out. And then it was televised, and I think it's been made into at least two films. And I read this fantastic book, and I thought, “Hang on, you can do funny things with history.” And then I didn't do any more with it, I just thought “It's a fascinating idea, really fascinating.” And it was a great book and it was a mystery at the end, and blah, blah, blah. So that was a little spark.
I should have mentioned, there was another little spark there. I was a Roman nut from the age of 11. My father was, I have been over most of Roman Europe, believe you me, I can touch a piece of Roman concrete and just stand there for 10 minutes loving it. My husband thinks I'm a bit weird, but you know, there you are. And so this Roman thing has been in the background of my head for a long time. And I said to my father once, “What did the men do?” and soldiers and senators, and there was slaves, and there were traders, and it was a hugely complex thing. And so I've absorbed this from young child, young girl. I said, “What did the mommies and the children do?” “Oh, yes. Well, the mommy stayed at home, looked after the children”.
Now my mother was a feminist, and I'd been brought up saying there was nothing I couldn't do that my brother and I couldn't swap. So I said, “That's a bit boring?” I said, “Well, suppose the mommies were in charge?” I'm 11. Okay, I'm asking these silly questions. And he said, “Well, what do you think it would have been like?” So we have alternate history by Robert Harris in Fatherland, you've got the Roman thing, and why can't we have the Roman women in charge? So that's all going on. And probably like most people, we all have a little second life in the back of our heads. You know, I'd love to grow up to be the princess or I'd love to go to the moon or conquer space, or be Henry the Eighth or whatever. We've all been a little bit of funny world inside our heads as well.
And when my husband and I used to go to the cinema every Wednesday and you get two for one. We went to the local Odeon. And there's 12 films, right, should find something. But it was like a school holiday. So it was all rubbish. You know, varied children's films. Very run of the mill. I said, “Look, there's one. I will go to that. It's got Ewan McGregor in, rather nice.” So we went to it. 30 minutes in, I thought, “This is rubbish.”
I mean, Ewan McGregor's nice. The background is modern Rome. And the action scenes were okay. They were starting to come together. The dialogue was terrible. The continuity was bad, I'm glad I knew the story. And I whispered to my husband and said, “You know, I could do better than this.” So he turned around, said, “Well, why don't you?” So I came home, I was just in the middle of selling my translation business so I had some time. And in 90 days, I had bashed out 90,000 words.
Kick-Ass Feisty Women
Howard Lovy: Oh, and there's one more thing you should know about the alternate world Alison has created. It is ruled by women.
Alison Morton: You can't have kick ass feisty women who are heroines doing stuff in the ancient Roman world. So it basically had to come forward to the modern world. And to get it forward, we had to have a Roman society that had survived. They have a very strong set of values, and social structure. So that's quite a strong thing to hang it on. And it's a very complex mindset, and with a strong superstition, a strong sense of spirituality, but also of self belief. So you've got some very strong values there to bring forward.
And what it was, I went back to a pivotal moment in the very late fourth century, when Rome had fully Christian, well, nearly fully Christianized and anybody practicing pagan, traditional Roman religious beliefs could be executed, became a capital offense. So my ancestors of my Roma Nova, left Rome, and headed to the mountains. And this is the time when Rome is disintegrating, it didn't all fall overnight like it is in film. It disintegrated and, but if you like quotes, barbarian populations now lived in significant parts of the Roman Empire, and these people wanted to keep their identity. So about 400 of my Romans, my pagan Romans, trek north into the mountains, and they founded a new Colonia, as they call it there.
And by dint of being extremely tough they managed to survive, if you like. They didn't intermarry, they sort of brought people in from surrounding areas. And further, they luckily found some silver deposits in the mountains. But they were very tough. They were very high tech, they're descendants of engineers, only Roman engineers. So through the centuries, they have managed to tough it out. And today, they're a high tech, high finance small country, the women are, if you like, quite, not dominant, but equal, a little bit more than egalitarian.
Because in early days, of course, the men had to mostly defend the new colony. And after a while they ran out of bodies, if you like, there weren't enough men to defend, I mean, it's a very, very difficult time in history, especially early. So the young women, the sisters and daughters had to put on armor and stand with their brothers and cousins and fathers. So women, once they've stood side by side with their male colleagues, are never going to go back.
What the Alternate History Books are About
Howard Lovy: So now she's created her own world with alternate histories. Here's a little peek into what these books are about.
Alison Morton: It was all one series. I wrote one trilogy, and then I wrote another one. And then I started putting novellas, and all sorts of things. And so I've reorganized this. So there's two lots, I call them strands, there's a Carina strand, that's one heroine and an Aurelia strand, that's the other heroine and as an over arc, if you like, Carina starts off as Karen Brown, and she's been brought up in the what's called the United States, which is a bit different. North America is quite different from the one we know, you had the smallish US which goes up to the Mississippi that was eventually, initially a western United States. But that's sort of faded as eastern authorities took the whole thing over.
And then west of the Mississippi, you've got Indigenous nations lands. And then you've got the Spanish Empire on the west coast. To the north, you got Canada and the free country of Quebec. And down in the south of United States, you've got the independent country of Louisiana, which is a French, not a colony, a territory. So it's a little bit different. Anyway, Karen is brought up in New York, she knows her mother comes from Roma Nova, but she's been brought up as an American girl, and something happens. And I'm not going to tell you all that story, but she has to go to flee to Roma Nova and she knows she'll be safe there. Because her family over there want her grandmother, Aurelia, wants her to come and join them. And she's safe. And then the rest of the story plays out, because the bad guy follows her. And of course, there's lots of adventures and threats.
Also About Modern Society
Howard Lovy: Alison has not just created a universe in which you have to suspend disbelief, but one that can make you think about how modern society is set up.
Alison Morton: I want to show a society where women can live perfectly naturally, doing everything and anything they want. And it's just nobody even questions it that a woman should be a captain in the modern Praetorian Guard, just perfectly normal, why wouldn't she be? And this, in a way, is a little bit provocative. And it's meant to make people think, “Well, of course they can.” And I know we live in a what is supposed to be a society where women have every opportunity. But the truth is they don't. You know, they don't, they're not running the government. They're not at the top of industry. They're sort of getting into the boardroom but they're not there. I wanted to switch James Bond into Jamie Bond.
Advice on Creating New Worlds
Howard Lovy: After eight books and counting, Alison is all in with Roman Nova. Her advice to other writers who want to create worlds of their own, “Do your research.”
Alison Morton: I think every book has its own world, whether you're writing shopping at the supermarket, or a holiday romance or whatever, or you're conquering space. Every book has its own world and you have to create that with detail, but not drop it in in great lumps. Nobody reads pages of description, however beautiful places, I mean, you can go to the most exotic South Sea Island but nobody's going to read two pages of palm trees and beach and soft sand and all that stuff. What you want is the hero and heroin, fighting off the bad guys or something and the hot sand scolds their feet and the coconut drops on their heads. You've got to get your characters completely integrated into the world and drip drop information in. But you have to make it plausible, credible and consistent.
I know it's a bit name dropping. But JK Rowling had books, notebooks and notebooks full of her Harry Potter World before she started writing. Now you do it in your head or scribble in a book or type in files, whatever. But you really do have to have it all worked out. If you're writing holiday romance, you need to find out how long it takes to get there, what kind of hotels there are, what kind of things there are to do, whether it's horse riding or swimming or golf. And how you would meet somebody, is it a young person's resort or more mature or families resort? You've got to work all that out and not give your character silly journeys, all unbelievable things before you even start to write the story. So be thorough, be thorough.