I am delighted to post this interview with one of my favorite historical novelists, Margaret George. Her legion of fans will be just as delighted and new readers will soon realize what they’ve been missing, for as this interview vividly demonstrates, she is as amusing as she is eloquent. I do not think there is a single soul who will not laugh aloud when they read her quip about “Michael Corleone meets A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” So…..here we go.
SKP: Welcome, Margaret. Of course the first question is why Nero? Why did you want to write about him? What gave you the idea in the first place?
MG: I am very interested in ancient coinage, and Nero’s coins are known as the finest, artistically, that Rome every produced. They are also startlingly honest, in that he allows himself to be portrayed as his looks change from golden boy to the familiar double-chinned emperor.
That got me thinking about him, and feeling that he may be the classic example of the kid who wants to be an artist (actor, writer, painter, musician) but his parents say he has to go to law school or take over the family insurance business.
In his case, the family business was being emperor.
So there was always this tension within him of being pulled in two directions. I can’t think of any other emperor that had that stress. I wanted to explore this dichotomy, which was played out for very high stakes.
SKP: Before we go any farther we must address the stereotype: Nero fiddled while Rome burned. That’s what most people know of him. What is the real story?
MG: If you want a flip answer, it’s that the fiddle wasn’t invented then, so he couldn’t have played it. But seriously, the rumor that he started the fire in Rome, and performed his epic poem about the fall of Troy while watching it, got started early. The truth is that he wasn’t even there when the fire started, that his own palace burned down, and that he valiantly led fire relief efforts. But his later appropriation of large tracts of land in the middle of the burnt-out city started a rumor that he had burnt Rome so he could build his new palace. It was easy to attach the singing to the story. This has dogged him ever since. As you know, it’s hard to prove a negative. And there were no surveillance cameras then.
SKP: But back to his split personality, how did he handle that?
MG: Badly. He was only sixteen when he became emperor, and like any teenager, wanted to be free to ‘do his own thing.’ So from the beginning he was all about breaking boundaries and trying to exert his own will and pursue his own calling. Also like a teenager, he sought validation in those the establishment didn’t approve of—in this case, the common people vs. the senatorial class. So not only was he at odds with his station in life vs. his true calling as an artist, he was smack in the middle of class warfare as well.
SKP: So he saw himself as an artist. But how good was he really? Didn’t the emperor always have an appreciative audience, and win all the contests?
MG: His longing to find out how good he really was—as all real artists do—was thwarted by exactly what you say. He would always be applauded, always win the prize, because he was the emperor. All we can go by, in searching for any facts, is that after his death his compositions were gathered in a book called “The Master’s Book” and people still played them. Since he was dead they didn’t have to flatter him anymore, so that would be evidence they were pretty good.
His architectural designs and surviving building structures are quite amazing and have done much to salvage his reputation and indicate that maybe he wasn’t off base in his famous last words, “What an artist the world is losing!”
SKP: What was the biggest challenge in writing this book?
MG: The biggest one was finding—or imagining—his motivation for doing some of the things that shocked the world. He did kill his mother—but were there reasons for it? Solid reasons that would explain why he had no other choice? Why did he want to race chariots? Why did he ‘marry’ a eunuch? Things like that. He wasn’t your ordinary guy.
SKP: How do you reconcile these different sides of him?
MG: I think of him as “Michael Corleone meets ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.’ Michael Corleone in “Godfather I” thinks he is different from his Mafia family, but when the chips are down discovers not only is he not different, he can do what they do and do it better. So how can Nero or Michael Corleone come to terms with this? In my novel I give Nero three sides, not just two, and he thinks of them as different entities: the first, the daylight Nero that is dutiful and Roman ; the second Nero, the artist who performs; and the third Nero, who does ‘unspeakable deeds’ but necessary for the first two to survive. He has the illusion that the third Nero can be put in mothballs and stowed away, but that isn’t the case. If the first two Neros are to survive in Rome, the third Nero can’t be put out to pasture.
SKP: What did you enjoy most about this project?
MG: The extraordinary range of subjects I had to study in order to write it: the history of the first five emperors, architecture, the cult of the cithara players, athletic games, mythology, early Christianity, and chariot racing.
And, of course, I enjoyed very much meeting the man who’s been called “the greatest showman of them all”, “the Elvis of the ancient world”, and “the first mass market pop star.” And having the opportunity to liberate Nero from the burdens of misunderstanding and stereotypes that have plagued him, and to let the real one speak for himself.
SKP: This book begins when Nero is very young and takes him through the first ten years of his reign, but it ends just as he meets the challenge of the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. Do you plan to continue the story, or just leave the reader in suspense?
MG: For the first time, I am doing a biographical novel in two parts. So the conclusion, of equal length, will cover the last four years of his life, a very tumultuous time, that brought about the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and rang the curtain down on that extraordinary family. The title of the second is still in progress but it will have the name “Nero” in it for sure. And obviously, he can’t be ‘the young Nero’ although, actually, he is still pretty young.
SKP: I think your decision to “let him speak for himself” was inspired, for you’ve given him a very intriguing voice. I was fascinated to meet your Nero and I am sure that our readers will feel the same way. Thank you so much for doing this interview, Margaret. I hope you will come back after you publish the second half of Nero’s story.
March 10, 2017