Honor (And Other Things) Among Thieves :: Steven Saylor on ’Raiders of the Nile’
Steven Saylor isn’t your typical author of historical novels. Nor does the author, who splits his time between his native Texas and the Bay area with his husband, fit the mold of the cookie-cutter mystery writer. Rather, Saylor blends ancient history with mysterious elements that encompass both the superstitions of the time in question -- Ancient Rome, no less, a place and time fraught with myth and religious devotion to a pantheon of gods and goddesses, not to mention a healthy does of ancestor worship -- and the criminal enterprises of human perpetrators. More impressive than his signature plotting and characterization styles, however, is the level of scholarship Saylor brings to his works, imbuing his novels with a level of detail that re-creates strange old worlds on the page.
Saylor has completed two mammoth novels about Rome, "Roma" and "Empire," about the origins, ascent, and world domination of that great city. He’s also written two latter-day mystery novels, one set in the 1880s and the other in contemporary times. Under the pen name Aaron Travis, Saylor has also authored a wealth of gay erotica. But it’s the "Roma Sub Rosa" series -- the "Secret history of Rome" -- that comprises his best-known work. The series includes fourteen novels and short story anthologies that follow the adventures of a "finder," or proto-private detective, named Gordianus. The latest two books, "The Seven Wonders" (another story anthology that amounts to a novel and travel guide of the ancient world), and the just-released novel "Raiders of the Nile," are prequels to the series, and feature a very young Gordianus during his knockabout years.
"Raiders of the Nile," set in the year 88 B.C.E., is the focus of the latest interview EDGE had the pleasure of conducting with Saylor. (Our last chat together was in the year 2012, A.D., for those who keep tabs on such things.) It’s a book of a slightly different stripe, taking after the novels of Ancient Greece, which is appropriate to the setting (although the novel takes place in Egypt).
Chances are you didn’t know the Ancient Greeks had novels, but surprise: They weren’t all playwrights obsessed with doomed kings and women run wild. The Greeks had as bawdy and rambunctious a sense of literary fun as any modern reader, and indeed the elements we now associate with Shakespeare and Dickens (mistaken identities, outrageous coincidences) were much in use in the novels of Greek antiquity.
So it is with "Raiders of the Nile," in which Gordianus, living in Alexandria during politically tumultuous times, is compelled by the kidnapping of his beloved slave Bethesda to venture into the Nile Delta, a rural region where unwary travelers are as likely to be murdered in the night by unsavory hoteliers as to be seduced by lonesome, voluptuous innkeepers. His ultimate goal is to find the hiding place of a den of thieves who follow a leader known as The Cuckoo’s Child.
These are the bandits who have made off with Gordianus’ beloved Bethesda, but in order to save her, our Finder is going to have to pose as a cutthroat vicious enough to fit into their ranks, all while dodging real cutthroat criminals, the authorities, and the jinx carried by an accursed (if fabulously beautiful) ruby that’s fallen into his possession following events as deeply scarlet in hue as the ruby’s own mesmerizing depths.
Fortunately, our hero has a couple of allies in his quest -- a street-wise boy and a prophetess whose weird and bewitching ways seem three-parts show business mixed with a hair-raising jigger of genuine clairvoyance. Even in the hinterlands of the Nile Delta, though, political intrigue is the order of the day...
But let’s allow Saylor himself to relate the tale behind his newest novel.
"It was a challenge to see the ancient world though the eyes of a young man in his late teens and early twenties," Saylor told EDGE. "Young Gordianus is not as worldly wise, or as world-weary, as he will be later in life; he’s more interested in sex and travel than he is in politics or murder trials, so it’s suitable that this novel isn’t a wrenching courtroom drama or tale of wartime espionage; [’Raiders of the Nile’] is more of a freewheeling adventure, with cliffhangers, hair-breadth escapes, grumpy camels, vicious crocodiles, scheming innkeepers, a cursed ruby, and lots of romance. Oh, and there’s also a plot to steal the golden sarcophagus of Alexander the Great."
LOL, as the kids say. But hold on, what about this whole notion of Ancient Greeks having novels?
"Only a handful of the ancient Greek novels survive intact; I talk about where to find them in the Author’s Note," Saylor noted. "I’m no expert on the history of the novel, but people have been telling long stories in one form or another all through history, sometimes as epic poems, sometimes in prose. The ancient Greek novels are full of mistaken identity, hidden royal identity, lovers kidnapped by bandits or captured by pirates, fidelity tested (will the separated lovers succumb to temptation?), far-flung travel to exotic places, stories within stories, and last-minute revelations that lead against all odds to a happy ending. All of that is in ’Raiders of the Nile.’ "
At the same time, the new book has a contemporary feel in many ways, starting with the title -- which seems like a wink to certain action-adventure movies with Harrison Ford, for instance.
"Would you believe, when I started writing the novel, I did a Google search for ’Raiders of the Nile’ and didn’t get a single hit?" Saylor shared. "Amazingly, no one had taken that title - so I grabbed it! Yes, it does evoke ’Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ and I’m happy to draw on the same tradition of episodic storytelling that inspired Lucas and Spielberg. They paid intentional homage to the Hollywood movie serials of the 1940s, but that kind of boisterous adventure goes back to Shakespeare’s comedies and then back, back, back, all the way to the ancient Greek novels."
EDGE noted that "Raiders of the Nile" is a different sort of book than the other Gordianus stories. While the Finder’s deductive skills do come in handy here and there, the tale is propelled by straight-up action and adventure.
"I always try to do something technically different with each book I write; I’d get bored writing the same book over and over," Saylor noted. "I think my writing has become leaner and more honed over time, but I also hope I’m able to convey more imagery and atmosphere with fewer brushstrokes, so to speak. ’Raiders of the Nile’ may look as if it were a relatively simple book to write -- straightforward narrative, one adventure after another, everything tied up at the end - but in fact it was as technically challenging as anything I’ve done. If I succeeded in making it look easy, that was my intention.
"With ’The Seven Wonders,’ young Gordianus traveled away from his native Rome and into the Greek-speaking world, which is older, more fun-loving and yet more philosophical, and full of exotic marvels,’ Saylor continued. "For source material I went from reading Cicero’s thunderous courtroom orations and the blood-drenched histories of Rome to reading Greek travel writers and erotic poets. I love those Romans, but the older, more cosmopolitan civilization of the Greeks (including Egypt, conquered by Alexander the Great) offered a new world to explore which seemed much more fanciful and light-hearted."
But even light-hearted adventure spiced with torrid romance and spiked with magic amidst a nest of killers and thieves requires a deep and detailed knowledge of ancient civilizations and mind-sets when said adventure takes place halfway around the globe and more than two thousand years ago. Luckily, Saylor has not confined his curiosity and scholarship about the ancient world to Rome and her citizens, but rather he’s cast a wide net, taking in information of the wider world as it was in that now-distant epoch.
"I never stop researching, whether I’m on the Web, or checking out books from the UC Berkeley library, or attending lectures on campus," Saylor disclosed. "In the Author’s Note I make particular mention of a book called ’Invisible Roman,’ by Robert Knapp, who’s retired from teaching at Berkeley.
"Travel is also a great inspiration, and not just travel to Europe or Egypt," the best-selling author added. "I’ve never felt closer to the ancient world than I did on a trip to a small village in the Yucatan peninsula. The route to the shrine was lined by vendors selling magical trinkets, throngs of worshippers approached on their knees, and inside the sanctuary, amid strange chanting and clouds of incense, I witnessed an honest-to-god chicken sacrifice. I felt I had traveled two thousand years back in time, yet I was only a few hours away from San Francisco by airplane."
All of which fed into a burning question: How hard was it for Saylor to maintain a balance, as a writer telling the story through the eyes of a narrator living in a very different place and time, versus being the writer who lives in our much more secular and rational 21st century?
"Gordianus narrates the novel, so it’s through his eyes that we see the evidence of witchcraft and curses around him. Gordianus may be young and a bit naive, but he’s also skeptical and not easily hoodwinked," Saylor pointed out. "Still, would you want to hang on to a ruby that seems to bring death to all its owners? The ancients were probably more superstitious than we can imagine, afraid to make even the simplest decision without getting oracular advice or asking for some god’s approval. A lot of their magic was either cursing enemies, or casting spells to make someone to fall in love with them. Wouldn’t we all like to have such powers? Magic is all about wish-fulfillment."
If one is objective about it, that doesn’t sound so different from the world we live in today -- a world where, even now, people are denied equality, protections, and opportunities, if not life and livelihoods, based not on laws designed to serve all, but rather on religious stories that congratulate believers on their special status while denigrating and excoriating those whose views might be different.
Saylor addressed this thought, saying, "These days, if a child has an imaginary friend, we nod a bit sadly and wait for him to outgrow it; but when an adult has an imaginary friend, that’s called religion. The modern world is filled with superstition. As long as it’s labeled as faith or religion, it’s perfectly acceptable to believe anything, and I have yet to encounter any notion so absurd that there’s not someone who believes it.
"There’s a quaint charm about the superstitions of the ancient world, because we see them at a safe distance," the novelist continued. "Our own superstitions are not so evident to us, because we grew up steeped in the particular beliefs and traditions of our [immediate] ancestors."
Unable to resist, EDGE segued here to another burning question: Speaking of prophecies, what did Saylor foresee in Gordianus’ future, whether in terms of further prequel novels or in installments of the "Roma Sub Rosa" books set after the events of "The Judgment of Caesar," a novel that brings the reader to the very eve of the assassination that changed the Roman Republic, and world history, forever?
"The book I’m working on right now will be the third novel about young Gordianus," Saylor revealed. "This time he’s lured to the city of Ephesus at the very moment King Mithridates is plotting to kill every Roman in Asia Minor overnight, about 80,000 of them. Dangerous times for the young Finder!
"As for moving forward in time, to the looming assassination of Julius Caesar, I finally may have gotten an idea for how to handle that story in a fresh way, thanks to an offhand comment from a Classics teacher I met at an academic conference in Waco, Texas, of all places. You never know where inspiration will come from, and for a historical novelist it pays to hang out with Latin and Greek scholars."
But readers who enjoyed Saylor’s essays into the modern world are going to have to wait for any such re-visitation to the present, Saylor said.
"If anything, I may eventually go further back in time," the novelist mused. "I have a notion to write a novel about the Greek Age of Fable, when people like wealthy King Croesus and the poet Sappho and Aesop the storyteller were on the scene. And there’s also the possibility of a third volume to follow my epic novels ’Roma’ and ’Empire,’ recounting the saga of the Eternal City from the reign of the philosopher Marcus Aurelius to the triumph of Constantine, the first Christian emperor."
And what about Saylor’s literary alter ego, Aaron Travis, creator of memorable gay erotic stories?
"Aaron Travis is alive and well and living in comfortable retirement, while I slave away to make all his stories available in new e-book editions," Saylor joked. "While I’m gratified that those vintage tales of masters and slaves still find an enthusiastic readership -- especially now, in the age of ’Fifty Shades of Grey,’ when everyone seems to be reading erotica or writing their own -- I don’t see Aaron Travis authoring new stories. But if I’ve learned anything in my career as a writer, it’s to never say never."
"Raiders of the Nile" is available now from Macmillan’s Minotaur imprint. Hardcover. 352 pages and two maps. $26.99