Please welcome Kate Quinn with her new novel, Empress of the Seven Hills, and don’t forget to enter to win a copy below!
by Kate Quinn
“What inspires you?” is a question authors get asked a lot. It’s a nebulous question with any number of difficult answers, so I tend to toss off flippant one-liners: “the land of Oz” or “Walmart, aisle seven!” But I’ve done some harder thinking on that question, and the result was last year’s blog post for Luxury Reading, shortly after the release of my second book Daughters of Rome. That was when I realized that inspiration is often a murky thing: a writer might just intend to tell a good story, but often the subconscious gets in there and starts working out some issues of its own.
When I wrote Daughters of Rome, I thought I was telling an entertaining yarn about four sisters during the Year of Four Emperors – but looking back I can see that Daughters of Rome was really about family; about the roles women play in their families and how those roles change under the pressures of deaths, births, marriages, and other upheavals. Was it a coincidence that I wrote that book during a year when I got engaged, lost my grandfather, got married, then lost my father-in-law? I think not.
I concluded that blog post for Luxury Reading last year by saying, “I’m writing a third book now [Empress of the Seven Hills]. What inspired it? I probably won’t know till the book is done . . . that’s usually when underlying patterns start jumping out at me. I will go out on a limb and guess that the book’s original seed wasn’t just Emperor Trajan and the Parthian wars!”
Well, Empress of the Seven Hills is finished now, and as usual my subconscious has been having fun with me. On the surface, ESH is merely the sequel to my first book Mistress of Rome, continuing the story of brash young Vix and adventurous Sabina when they grow up and begin having adventures of their own. Under the surface, there’s another story going on.
“Funny,” my husband commented when he read through my first draft. “Your hero Vix is a lot like me.”
Me: “No, he’s not!”
Husband: (raising an eyebrow) “So it’s a complete coincidence that both your husband and your fictional hero are left-handed and quick with a sword, have freckles and a short temper, snore like a chain-saw, can’t sit still without one foot jittering, get easily irritated with idiots, turn to putty when one particular muscle under the left shoulder blade is massaged, are in the military, and have a habit of pissing off superior officers?”
Busted. My husband and my hero do share all those qualities – the most important of which is their status as dedicated fighting men. Vix is a soldier in the Roman legions, and my husband is a sailor in the US Navy. And during the six months I was finishing this book up, both my fighting men were deployed, ironically to the same part of the world: Parthia in Vix’s day, now simply referred to as “the sandbox.” Strange how the same conflicts keep raging through two thousand years of history.
Empress of the Seven Hills was my way of spending time with my husband while he was deployed: he might be a hemisphere away in the flesh, but his fictional counterpart Vix had enough similarities to make me smile. It was also a chance to explore the military experience through a historical lens, because that experience has some very universal bottom lines. Fighting men of either the 1st century or the 21st still hunker down at night to trade dirty jokes, complain about superior officers, admit that they miss their families, and observe that the local alcoholic beverages suck. Newly appointed officers struggle to learn how to command their men, whether they’ve just been appointed Legionary Centurion or US Navy Chief. Military families, whether a legionary wife like Vix’s or the wives/husbands of today’s fighters, still keep a stiff upper lip while knowing that at any time, at any moment, they may get the dread news that somebody is only coming home in a box. The rare communications are just as precious whether they come in the form of battered letters (“Hi, our siege towers broke through the archers at Hatra today!”) or emails that arrive at 3am (“Hi, if you hear something on CNN about our position getting fired on, don’t worry, nobody got hurt!”) Both legionary wives and Navy wives deal with the upheaval of dragging their families around after the latest posting, and the food sucks whether it comes from a mess hall or a campfire kettle in the middle of the Parthian desert.
Empress of the Seven Hills was also my good-luck talisman. I couldn’t control anything that happened to my husband, but I could control what happened to my fictional hero. I could make damn sure that he came home to his family safe and sound. He did – and maybe my good-luck charm worked, because mine came home safe and sound too. Which is why my greatest luxury, these days, is kicking back in the evenings with a glass of wine and smiling as my husband whirls around the kitchen with a spatula in hand, whipping up his special fettuccine alfredo so delicious it puts a pound on your hips per bite. I’ll take the pounds. I’ve got him back, and that’s the real luxe right there.