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Wednesdays with Writers: Six-times NYT Bestselling author Margaret George on her love for travel, history, poetry and how competitive sports is like writing in her new historical saga, THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO.

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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.”

—Booklist

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.220px-Nero_1

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 240px-Ritratto_di_claudia_ottavia,_da_roma,_via_vareseracing.  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.autobiography-of-henry-VIII

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 memoirs-of-cleopatra-1including everything, which reached its apex with CLEOPATRAI 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.

Circus_Maximus_in_RomeFor more information, to connect with Margaret George, or to purchase THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO, please see:

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Barnes&Noble Best New March 2017 Fiction 

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Check out this video of Margaret on her inspiration for Nero

Margaret-George-Hi-RES.jpgABOUT 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] 

BookS on MondaY: Mary Felciani shares her inspiration for her children’s book on friendship, THE MAPLE LEAF (hint: it was her hometown), the Roseto Effect, Cognitive Maps, and the magic of friendship

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By Leslie Lindsay 

You just have to mention the words “Italy” and “leaf” and you’ve got me. Throw in a story about friendship and I’m there. Having been an Italian aficionado for most of my life (don’t ask why, according to my Ancestry DNA results, I’m only 1% Italian), I was enamored with this children’s story by Mary Felicani, who I can assume is Italian, penned this charming story of a young Italian boy, Carlo and his quest for friendship.

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Set in another time (medieval), and another place (Italy), the message is universal. Yet it’s Mary’s deft use of sensory detail that brings the story to life, thrusting me back to an ancient time when the values of friendship and belonging were just as resonate then as they are now.

I’m pleased to have Mary back this week to chat with us about her book, THE MAGIC LEAF, her love for Italy, and how we can help our children cultivate friendship.

Leslie Lindsay: Mary, it’s a pleasure to have you join us again. Thank you! I’m just in love with THE MAGIC LEAF, mostly because I love Italy, but you’re Canadian…though guessing by your last name, you’re also Italian? Can you talk a bit about your inspiration for setting THE MAGIC LEAF in Italy?

Mary Feliciani: Leslie, thank you for having me back and making me feel at home. Yes, I am Italo-Canadian. I chose my hometown in Italy as a backdrop because the story has a meaning or a moral. It seemed reminiscent of a simpler time and place. I still had fond memories of the hometown that I left as a child.

L.L.: I had to do a little research and learned Roseto is indeed a real, southeastern roseto_valfortore_075_raboemedieval town in Italy. Like the book, Roseto is hill town nestled in an enclave of low mountains, winding roads, and thick-walled homes to keep out the heat. It reminded me a bit of Corniglia in the Cinque Terre, yet different.

Mary Feliciani: Leslie, I can’t believe how thorough you are. I was born in Roseto, Italy. My family immigrated to Canada when I was 6 years old. Subsequently, all my education has been in Canada. I understand Italian quite well, but like most people who leave a country when they’re young, my comprehension is better than my oral language.

When my children were small, our annual vacations were to the beaches along the eastern coast of the United States and provinces in eastern Canada. It wasn’t until 2011 that we took a family vacation to Italy. We returned again in 2013 visiting neighbouring countries as well.

The Roseto in Italy has a connection to the Roseto in Pennsylvania. If you like research, google the Roseto Effect, and you will learn of an intriguing study conducted there in the 1960s. I wasn’t aware of the Roseto Effect when I wrote THE MAGIC LEAF, but the more articles I read about it, the more meaningful my message of friendship becomes. Roseto is all about a sense of community. download-36

L.L.: I have to talk a bit about sensory details, for a moment, because you use them beautifully here—and I think that’s such an important part of children’s literature. Kids don’t often have the experiences adults have acquired, so we have to bring those experiences to them. Can you talk a bit about how you were able to bring that town to life? 

Mary Feliciani: Believe it or not, I still had a cognitive map of the town. I could visualize the town square and from that point of reference, see the location of my aunt’s house, my maternal grandmother’s house, my paternal grandmother’s house and my own home. I also recalled where my nursery school was and the uniforms we had to wear.

I asked my mother and my older brother to fill in same of the blanks. I also employed postcards, old photos, and made use of a magazine that is published by the town and sent to subscribers in other parts of the world. My mother still receives the town’s magazine.

Feasts in a small town were a really big deal back in the day. Everyone participated – even toddlers were part of the parade. Children would experience sights and sounds that wouldn’t be duplicated until the following festival.

L.L.: Those sensory details pair well with the illustrations. A children’s author has a particular challenge that adult authors don’t usually encounter: they need an images-7illustrator. I’m curious what your experience was like working with Tina Durocher? Did you have a vision for the illustrations, or did she bring those to you?

Mary Feliciani: Thank you for asking, Leslie. Not everybody includes the illustrator when discussing a children’s book. The illustrations are half of a picture book, and just as important as the text.

I was extremely fortunate to have found Tina. Her work is not only beautiful, but unique.  As a small publisher, I hire people that free-lance. Tina and I didn’t know each other before we collaborated on the book. We used to meet at a Tim Horton’s halfway between Toronto and Mississauga (where I live). So much happens at a Tim Horton’s, eh!

I would verbally describe the mental image I had for a specific illustration. She then drew a linear of what she thought that I wanted. The linear was just a partial illustration without any colour, and that is how I decided if we were on the right track. If I agreed to the illustration, then she would complete it. Besides Tina and my first printer, all the other people I have worked with have been online.

L.L.: Without giving too much away, can you talk a bit about the title? Is there, indeed a magical element to Carlo’s story?

Mary Feliciani: Some readers see the magic in the friendship. Other children can relate to a time that a friend has helped them feel better about a problem. Or, they have experienced time flying when they are with their friends. All three of these scenario can apply to the story. Some older children can see a placebo effect, even if they don’t know the terminology.

L.L.: I think friendship is kind of magical…when two people, whether young or old, there’s a bit of an unseen magical connection that takes place. Can you talk about that, please? download-37

Mary Feliciani: When I read the story to school children, I tell them that friendship is just as important as you grow older as it is in your childhood. Sometimes they are surprised I say that.  I wrote the manuscript for THE MAGIC LEAF  while I was at the University of Toronto studying psychology. As a young adult, I was very idealistic and was hoping to find the one theory or the one famous psychologist who had all the answers. But what I learned was that there wasn’t a theory which could explain everything, and even among psychologists, there were differences of opinion. I began to believe that having a good support system in combination with whatever theory one might subscribe to, was very important. I realized that friendships were necessary even as we grow older. Walking life’s journey with a friend makes everything easier.

L.L.: Before you wrote full-time, you were an elementary school educator with an emphasis in psychology. Did you see a “problem” with friendship at the elementary level? What might be done to help ease those years?

Mary Feliciani: I spent half of my career teaching various Special Education classes and the other half in the regular classroom setting (grades 1-6). Children are really good souls; they just want to be accepted by their peers and by their teachers. Some children have the social skills to make friends easily, while others may have a more difficult time. Schools are always encouraging students to be more inclusive in their play and attitudes.If there is a problem, a parent and/or teacher might be able to put it in perspective.

L.L.: Do you have plans for another children’s book? Can you talk about that, please?

Mary Feliciani: I think that bullying has been a hot topic for a number of years. When I write, it is the topic or issue that inspires me. I feel compelled to write. My latest eBook,BIG AND SMALL IN THE MIRROR, is about bullying that happens in the school environment. It is the first of a trilogy about bullying. I am currently writing the second book of the trilogy, THE INVISIBLE BOY. As always, there is a twist to the title.

L.L.: What should I have asked but may have forgotten?

Mary Feliciani: Your questions were wonderful! I have never discussed the setting of the story in the way that I  presented Roseto to you.

Leslie, I could talk to you forever. You are so good at making the conversion flow. We could talk about books, we could talk about teaching, we could talk about travel…

L.L.: Mary, it’s been a pleasure to read THE MAGIC LEAF and connect. Back to those sensory details…I could definitely use some warm Italian sun now that we’re smack in the middle of gray and dreary here in the Midwest.

Mary Feliciani: Well, I’m in Canada. Right now it is warm enough, but damp and cloudy. We are experiencing the same thing. Hopefully I can find the time to take a vacation this summer. Thank you so much for the opportunity to met you and your readers. I hope that we can chat again in the future.

For more information, to connect with Mary, or to purchase THE MAGIC LEAF, please see: 

IMG_2870.JPGAUTHOR BIO: 
Mary is a Canadian author, independent publisher and a former elementary school teacher. She attended UTM where she studied psychology and still lives in Mississauga, Ontario.
Mary’s background in psychology, work with children and passionate interest in the human condition, which stems back as far as she can remember, are all evident in her writing.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay here: 
Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1

image003-3Email: leslie_lindsay@hotmail.com

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[Cover and author image courtesy of M. Feliciani and used with permission. Author is in white at Piazza Navona in Rome, Italy. Image of Roseto, Italy stone houses retrieved from Wikipedia on 12.8.16. Image of newsarticle on Roseto effect from . Image of maple leaf from and hands linking image retrieved from, all on 12.8.16]