INTERVIEW WITH MARGARET GEORGE

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

11 Responses to “INTERVIEW WITH MARGARET GEORGE”

  1. Emilie Laforge Says:

    Thank you for the great interview, Sharon and Margaret! I’m just starting Confessions of a Young Nero and looking forward to the journey to the past and getting to know Nero.

  2. Beverly Martin Says:

    Excellent interview! It made me even more anxious to read this book! Thanks for posting!

  3. Carol McGrath Says:

    I loved this interview. I cannot imagine writing about Nero but the research would have been fascinating. Margaret, you do chose those who have seriously bad historian Press. I still have Henry VIII to read but I look forward to reading both when I get time. Finally, it was lovely to meet you at the HNS conference and I look forward to meeting you again in Portland and, you, too, Sharon. Both of you are fabulous authors .

  4. Susan Appleyard Says:

    What a treat! One great author interviewing another!

  5. Anita Hart Says:

    I enjoyed getting to learn this about Nero. It was very interesting reading. I will enjoy reading more in the future. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Debbi DuBose Says:

    Sharon, Thanks so much for writing up this extremely interesting interview. I’ve just received my copy in the mail and I am so excited to start reading it! I’m also looking forward to your next novel being published, also. Debbi

  7. skpenman Says:

    Happy St Patrick’s Day to everyone. I hope all of you who were in the path of Tuesday’s storm stayed warm and safe and dry. It was not bad where I live; I ended up with a lot of tree branches on my front lawn, but the snow was washed away by the heavy rains that followed it and I never had to break out the lanterns and blankets. The injuries people suffered seem to have occurred after the storm: falling on the ice, car crashes, being careless with snow blowers, etc. How many more days till Spring?
    Looking back, on the 11th of March in 1152, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the French king, Louis, were divorced and she returned to Aquitaine to start a memorable second act. It is interesting to imagine how different European history would have been had they remained married and she never wed Henry. Of course the thought of no Plantagenet dynasty always gives me a chill, for if I’d not stumbled onto Richard III’s remarkable history, I might still have been trapped as a tax lawyer!

  8. skpenman Says:

    I was horrified to learn of the terrorist attack in London today. My heart goes out to the victims and their families; ironically, it occurred on the anniversary of a terrible terrorist attack on the citizens of Brussels. There are people in our world who are truly evil. Please pray for the dead and wounded in London and for us all.

  9. skpenman Says:

    We often post fun quizzes on Facebook, along the lines of “Which medieval monarch would you have liked to be?” or “Which one of Henry VIII’s wives are you?” This one is somewhat different; if you take the quiz, they will tell you what your educational level is based on your answers. I scored 40 of 50, and they said that was a Master’s Degree level; I do have a law degree, so I guess that is close enough. In honesty, though, I would not have done as well if the questions had not been multiple choice! But here is the link for any interested in giving it a try. http://definition.org/can-guess-highest-education-level
    Also, I’d love to hear reviews from British readers who have seen the start of Season Two of Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom. Do you like it so far? Is it being shown Down Under at the same time as in the UK? And does anyone know when it will be shown in the US? I miss Uhtred!

  10. skpenman Says:

    I am sorry that my appearances have been so random lately, but I’ve had to spend a lot of time at my chiropractor’s. March was an active month, too, when it came to medieval events, so I am going to be very busy trying to catch up. Today I want to remind you all that there is still a little time left to enter the drawing to win a free copy of Priscilla Royal’s new mystery, The Proud Sinner. Just go to my blog and post a comment on the blog interview with Priscilla; as easy as that. And some of you may have missed my interview with Margaret George, who has a new novel out too: The Confessions of Young Nero. Now, on to medieval matters; since I’ve been absent so often, I feel that I owe you a lengthy post today and this one definitely qualifies!

    On March 29th, 1461, the battle of Towton was fought, a battle that changed the course of English history. Below is an updated version of the post that I put up on Facebook a few years ago.
    * * *
    March 29th, 1461 was the date of the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. It was a Palm Sunday, and was fought during a Yorkshire snowstorm near Towton. Medieval chroniclers’ estimates of army size were usually in the realm of fantasy; it was not unusual for one to blithely report that 200,000 men marched into battle while they actually numbered in the range of 5,000. But military historians believe that the numbers at Towton were huge, possibly 40,000-50,000 on each side. It is impossible to know the numbers of the dead, though some historians think that over 20,000 men may have died that day, most of them in the rout after the Lancastrian line broke. A mass grave discovered in 1996 gave graphic evidence of the brutality of the combat. The death toll was so high in part because soldiers are always more vulnerable once they are fleeing; moreover, both sides had agreed beforehand that no quarter would be given. Below are two links that are of considerable interest, one about the mass grave found and the other offering a video of the battlefield. The first video discusses a soldier who died during the battle; I found it very moving to read about the actual wounds he suffered. It reminded me of Richard III’s battlefield wounds, now documented in gory detail since the discovery of his body. The second video is very dramatic, too.
    http://www.economist.com/node/17722650
    http://www.towton.org.uk/the-battle-2/

    Towton was Edward of York’s bloody coronation, and he was still a month from his 19th birthday. I did not dramatize the battle itself, instead had the reader waiting with Marguerite at York to hear the outcome of the battle. But she was given a gruesomely vivid account of the carnage. Sunne, page 94-96 of the new edition.
    * * *
    “All is lost. The victory has gone to York.”
    It was what she’d known he would say. And yet the impact was no less brutal. She gasped, drew icy air into lungs suddenly constricted, unable to function, and cried, “How? We had the greater army…How?” She was as skilled a strategist as any man, knew how to wage war as other women knew how to manage households. She knew battles were not decided by numbers alone. Yet now she found herself repeating numbly, “How could we lose? Ours was the larger force!”
    “That did favor us at first, Madame. In the early stages of the battle, the Yorkists did give ground…But York was all over the field, in the thick of the fighting, and he held them, Madame. All day we fought, hacked at each other like madmen, and the dead…Oh, my God, Madame, the dead! So many bodies there were that we had to climb over our own dead to reach the Yorkists…only to find that they, too, were walled in by the bodies of the dead and dying. Never have I seen—“
    “What of Somerset? Does he still live?”
    He seemed unnerved by her interruption. “Yes,” he said doubtfully. “That is, I do believe so, Madame. We were able to escape the field at the last, when we saw all hope had gone…when the Yorkist reserves did suddenly appear on our right flank. The Duke of Norfolk it was, Madame; I saw his standard. We did fight on, but the battle was lost with his arrival, all did know it. We were pushed back toward the Cocke, into the marsh…and then our line broke, then the slaughter truly began!” He shuddered, not from cold, and then said bleakly, “My lord Somerset did charge me to give you word of our defeat, to warn you away from here. My lord Somerset said…said you must flee into Scotland, Madame. He said you must not let yourself or the king fall into the hands of the Yorkist usurper.”
    “What of the other lords? Northumberland? Trollope? Exeter and Clifford? Surely they cannot all be dead!”
    “We did hear the Earl of Northumberland was struck down in the fighting. Trollope, I do know to be dead. I know nothing of Exeter. It was a slaughter, Madame. Thousands must be dead…We did give the command before the battle that no quarter be shown and York was said to have done the same. For ten hours, Madame, the battle did last…ten hours! With the wind coming from the south and blowing the snow back into our faces till men found their eyes sealed shut with ice and our arrows were falling short and they gathered them up and used them against us…and the river….Oh, Jesus, the river! So many men drowned that a bridge of bodies formed for the living and it ran red for miles, like no water I’ve ever seen….”
    * * *
    Today I am posting additional passages from this scene.
    (Omissions)
    Marguerite was suddenly conscious of the cold again snow had seeped into her pattens until she could no longer feel her feet. Her skirt and under-kirtle were damp, too, clung about her ankles and trapped her in clammy folds as she struggled to rise.
    She was already up before the abbot could offer assistance, but as he shifted the lantern, he inadvertently brought it up to her eyes. Night-blinded, she was caught in its glare, just long enough to step back only a treacherous icy glaze. She had no hope of preventing her fall, landed with jarring impact upon the base of her spine. The abbot cried out, dropping the lantern as he reached for her and, when his own balance went, almost tumbled down on top of her. The soldier wisely stayed where he was and coughed to cover the startled laugh that was as involuntary as a sneeze and as devoid of amusement.
    Weighed down by her sodden skirts, unable to catch her breath, watching as the abbot floundered beside her in the snow, while her servant struggled to maintain his own footing and gingerly extended his hand toward her, Marguerite suddenly began to laugh, jagged bursts of strangled mirth, the sound of which nightmares are made.
    “Madame, you must not give way!” The abbot, less timid than her servant at laying hands upon royalty, grabbed her shoulders and shook her vigorously.
    “But it is so very amusing; surely you see that? I’ve a little boy and a sweet helpless fool asleep in your lodging and no money and I’ve just been told I no longer have an army, and look at us, my lord abbot, Sacre Dieu, look at us! If I do not laugh,” she gasped, “I might believe all of this were truly happening, and happening to me!”
    “Madame….” The abbot hesitated, and then plunged ahead courageously. “You need not flee, you know. York would not hurt a woman, still less a child. Your lives would be safe with him, I do believe that. Stay here, Madame. Entreat York’s mercy, accept him as king. Even if you reach Scotland, what then? Ah, Madame, can you not let it lie?”
    The lantern light no longer fell on her face; he could not discern her expression. But he heard her intake of breath, a sibilant hiss of feline intensity. Her hand jerked from his.
    “Oui, Monseigneur,” she spat. “On my deathbed!”
    * * *
    It is hard for me to believe that more than three decades have passed since Sunne was first published. The work of twelve years, I am so proud that it has stood the test of time and is still attracting new readers, some of them not even born when I was first caught up in Richard’s story. My only regret is that Benedict Cumberbatch did not read a scene from Sunne during the reinterment ceremonies at Leicester Cathedral! He is best known for his acting career, of course, but he also happens to be a very distant cousin of Richard’s.

  11. skpenman Says:

    There is one more chance to enter the drawing for a free copy of Priscilla Royal’s The Proud Sinner; just post a comment today on my blog interview with Priscilla. http://sharonkaypenman.com/blog/?p=670

    Now to start catching up on medieval events. March 24, 1603 was the date of death for the woman I always call (with a smile) “the only good Tudor,” Elizabeth I. She was sixty-nine and her death does not seem to have been a peaceful one. She is fortunate in that she has had two brilliant novels about her, which is more than many historical figures can say. Legacy by Susan Kay, covers Elizabeth’s entire life, and Margaret George deals with her last years in Elizabeth I, which I can’t resist thinking of as The Lioness in Winter. I highly recommend both novels.

    March 25th in 1306 saw the coronation of Robert the Bruce as King of Scotland.
    March 25th was also the birthdate of Blanche of Lancaster; 1345 is traditionally given as the year of her birth, but I’ve also seen it as 1346. She was a great heiress, and in 1359, she wed her third cousin, John of Gaunt. They had seven children, so she was usually pregnant during her nine year marriage, which is believed to have been a happy one. Only three of her children survived, but one would become the first Lancastrian king, Henry IV. She died in 1368, of what may have been the bubonic plague, at only twenty-one or twenty-two, and her husband grieved greatly for her. I tend to envision her as soft-spoken and fair, a lovely ghost who would haunt her husband’s memory with a rustle of silken skirts and a swirl of silvery blonde hair, an ethereal creature of moonlight, ivory, and lace, forever young. She inspired the major character in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, and was sympathetically portrayed in Anya Seton’s classic novel, Katherine. Katherine is, of course, Katherine Swynford, one-half of one of the more famous love affairs of the Middle Ages; she was governess to Blanche and John’s children and, after Blanche’s death, his mistress, and eventually his third wife, a marriage that scandalized his world and delighted all of us who are secret romantics at heart. Yet he requested to be buried next to Blanche.

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