By Leslie Lindsay
[original interview posted March 2017]
With a perfect streak of over six New York Times bestsellers, and 1.5 million books sold, MARGARET GEORGE turns her gaze to the ‘bad boy’ Emperor of Ancient Rome.
THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO is meticulously researched, gloriously written, and transports the reader to the heart of Rome and beyond.
Margaret George burst onto the scene in 1986 with her historical fiction of Henry VIII…and she continued writing critically-acclaimed biographical novels of historical figures, including MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, MARY, CALLED MAGDALENE, CLEOPATRA, among others.
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“With conviction and flair, George looks past two millennia of bad press about Nero to reveal an intelligent man of justice and religious tolerance who takes refuge in artistic expression. This is the first of two novels charting his dangerous, outrageous life in first-century Rome; the second will be eagerly awaited.”
Emperor Nero. Many things come to mind at the mention of his name: Spoiled. Murderer. Tyrant. Pervert. Hedonist. Many of these caricatures are put in motion through Hollywood and rumors as ancient as the forum. Having come to power at the tender age of sixteen, THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO follow his life in a two-part saga (this is the first book; both are written to stand-alone). Enshrined in power and raised by a cunning and ambitious mother, Nero is the 5th Roman Emperor, the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty founded by Julius Caesar. We follow his young life from about age four to mid-twenties, just before the Great Fire of Rome.
Nero’s life is riddled with murderers, rivalries, plots, orgies, and incest. Sensational on its own—but the story is not just about revisiting these instances—there’s reclamation in Nero as an artist, a musician, an athlete. In fact, George’s book had me cheering for Nero at times, in fact, completely changing my opinion of him.
Today, I am so very humbled to welcome Margaret George to the blog couch.
Leslie Lindsay: Margaret, it’s truly an honor. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us about THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO. I’m so in awe of the breadth of knowledge, your impeccable research, and the magical way you are able to weave a deeply moving, stunningly visual narrative of Nero. Before we get into specifics, I am curious why Nero, why now?
Margaret George: I’ve actually been thinking of Nero for a long time—for over twenty years, in fact. I was all afire to do this back in the 1990’s. But all the stereotypes you mention above were in full force then, and people weren’t interested in exploring farther, they were so prejudiced against him. Since then the climate has changed; in 2003 there was a major revisionist biography, and three big Nero exhibits—two in Rome and one in Germany—have been outstandingly popular, the last one in 2016. His moment has come, and at last he can make his case.
L.L.: You’re known for your meticulous research. In fact—you’ll laugh; I’m no sybil—but I dreamed you researched this book for twenty years! In your ‘afterward,’ you list some amazing titles referenced in writing; do you have any research rituals?
Margaret George: Isn’t that funny, maybe you are a sybil. As I said above, I started doing research on Nero back in the 1990s and continued on even as I was writing other books. The research for HELEN OF TROY (early 2000s) in Greece was also Nero research because he was so nuts about Greece and made a big ‘arts tour’ there that lasted sixteen months.
I don’t have any rituals per se, but I do like to take things in a certain order. First read the books, then go to the sites, and last of all do the writing. It’s best to have done the reading research before going to the sites, because then I am more aware of what I need to notice. I also like to write out notes by hand because I think it registers in my brain better that way.
I take a lot of photos on site and buy any kitsch relating to my characters I find, because it shows they are still ‘real’ to modern people. As a result I have a 10’ x 4’ Nero flag, Nero candles, Nero matches (what else?), Nero rubber duckies, and Nero tote bags. There were even bottles of Nero wine at the German exhibit!
L.L.: Just like with the Internet nowadays, ancient Romans loved gossip. How were you able to tease out what was ‘real’ and not?
Margaret George: It’s hard after two thousand years to be able to sort out the National Enquirer material, because, well, even the National Enquirer has true material. (Remember the Bruno Magli shoes that O.J. was wearing, caught in a National Enquirer photo?) I had to take into consideration the source of the material, and whether it was ‘canned’ and repeated elsewhere about other people, or whether it was just unbelievable and obviously a character assassination. For example, any time anyone died Tacitus, Suetonius, or Dio Cassius (the main three sources for Nero) claimed it was poison, and that Nero did it. In many instances it made no sense—why would he poison Burrus, his Praetorian prefect? Often the gossip in one is contradicted in the other, for example, one historian says Burrus died of a throat ailment, not poison. Another silly piece of gossip is that Agrippina and Nero had sex in the royal litter, and when they got out, their clothes were wrinkled and stained, visual proof of it. In the novel I even have Nero commenting that, since he had a whole palace at his disposal, why would he resort to a litter in the streets in broad daylight?
L.L.: What details, if any, do you invent?
Margaret George: I actually do invent a number of details, if they are plausible. For example, the horse farm outside Rome where Nero selects the team he wants to train for chariot racing. Now, we know there were horse farms. We know his right-hand man, Tigellinus, was a former horse trainer and breeder. We know Nero raced chariots But we have no information about where or how he got his horses. So I imagined that scene, which I thought would show something about horses and the special training they underwent for chariot racing. And there are other scenes like that: his secret athletic training under an alias when he was a boy, his visit to the Roman brothel, his wedding night with Octavia.
Some of the details that may sound invented aren’t. We know Nero had bad eyesight and used an uncut emerald held up before his eye to watch chariot races. (It probably didn’t work.) We know he had a special drink named after himself (the decocta Noroonis) made of boiled and re-cooled snow. We know he didn’t like wearing togas and switched to tunics whenever he could, including flowered ones.
L.L.: You do a beautiful job of reconstructing a stunning visual landscape for ancient Rome. Your visceral details are quite poetic lending to a tremendous sense of place. Instead of asking, ‘how do you do it’—what do you keep the saw sharp?
Margaret George: That’s very kind of you. I worry that I don’t have enough details! But I am a student of Ray Bradbury’s (figuratively not literally) and his writing is very ‘visceral’ or I would say ‘sensual’—of the senses. He explained it this way:
“Why all this insistence on the senses? Because in order to convince your reader that he is there, you must assault each of his senses, in turn, with color, sound, taste, and texture. If the reader feels the sun on his flesh, the wind fluttering his shirt sleeves, half your fight is won.” ~Ray Bradbury
I try to keep that in mind. Most descriptive writing is heavy on the visual but if you can bring in the other senses it gives a real feeling of being there.
L.L.: Can you tell us a little about your early writing days? What do you think you did ‘right?’ What do you wished you had done ‘better?’
Margaret George: It took me a long time to hit my stride, I think. My father read over my first handwritten draft of HENRY VIII (what a martyr!) and noted two things: one, that writing in the first person isn’t just writing in the third person and replacing all the ‘he’s’ with “I’s” which he said I did, and second, that I was best when I cut loose from the strict historical recounting and used my imagination.
I think he was right and I believe I corrected those weaknesses, after much trial and error. As to what I have done wrong, or wished I had done better—-I have gone overboard in including everything, which reached its apex with CLEOPATRA. I listened to it all on tape and realized as I did so (since you can’t skim with an audio) that, instead of standing the reader before a bulging closet and saying, “Here it all is!” I should have selected the best clothes for him or her. That’s the job of the writer—to select and present.
NERO is a lot more spare but I am pleased that you didn’t feel I skimped. Less is more…maybe. (Although Nero himself wasn’t known for his minimalism.)
L.L.: I have to believe Nero would be beyond proud of THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO. I know I was rooting for him! What might he say if he read the book?
Margaret George: Oh, I’d love it if he would say I had gotten it exactly right, and how did I KNOW? That’s what I strove for, to let him speak again and have it be true to character. I would love to know what he thinks, but I’d be crushed if he didn’t like it after all!
L.L.: What inspires you? What has your attention? It doesn’t have to be literary.
Margaret George: Poetry is a great inspiration—such economy of words to say so many things. I have a friend who said, “It’s friends and poetry that get you through the hard times.” She is right. Friends, of course, and travel, which is endlessly fascinating and the opposite of navel-gazing, an occupational hazard of writers.
Like Nero in the novel, I like sprinting—100 and 200 meters, because for those seconds the whole world vanishes and all you see is the finish line. The world of competitive sports is so different from the literary one, although there are similarities, too. Both have starting blocks, finish lines, medals, rankings, and prizes, and both require a lot of solitary hours spent in practice for just a little while in the spotlight.
L.L.: I’m curious what the next book entails. I have to read it! Can you give a glimpse?
Margaret George: The second part of Nero’s life is as tumultuous as the first. It opens with the Great Fire of Rome, the largest fire in antiquity, which burned for nine days and destroyed most of the city. Nero deals with the aftermath, rebuilds Rome according to new urban planning, builds his revolutionary Domus Aurea (Golden House), punishes the Christians, deals with a far-reaching conspiracy against him, involving some of those closest to him, holds his second Neronian Games, races in the Circus Maximus (image below), Poppaea dies, he stages a spectacular entrance to Rome for King Tiridates of Parthia, he goes to Greece for a year long round of music and athletic competitions, returns to Rome and is overthrown, finally committing suicide with his famous last words, “Qualis artifex pereo”—“what an artist dies in me!” And he was only thirty years old by then. What a life story!
L.L.: Margaret, it was a true pleasure. Thank you!
Margaret George: Thank you for having me, Leslie.
For more information, to connect with Margaret George, or to purchase THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO, please see:
- Barnes&Noble Best New March 2017 Fiction
- Check out this video of Margaret on her inspiration for Nero
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Margaret George writes biographical novels about outsized historical characters: Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots, Cleopatra, Mary Magdalene, Helen of Troy, and Elizabeth I. Her latest, The Confessions of Young Nero, will be published in March. All six of her novels have been New York Times bestsellers, and the Cleopatra novel was made into an Emmy-nominated ABC-TV miniseries.
She especially enjoys the research she has done for the novels, such as racing in an ancient Greek stadium, attending a gladiator training school in Rome, and studying the pharmacology of snake poison.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these social media channels:
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[Cover and author image retrieved from author’s website, as well as covers of Henry VIII and Cleopatra. Historical images of Nero, Octavia, Circus Maximus all retrieved from Wikipedia on 3.08.17. Special thanks to L. Burnstein of Berkley/RandomHouse]