“Her hair is very soft”, says my photographer afterwards. I was about to ask if she’d actually reached out to have a feel, when the explanation came; “I felt it when she kissed me”. So, no feeling the hair quality, then. We’d been debating whether we would recognise Caroline Lawrence at the station where we were meeting. I felt that we would, as we’d met several times, although only once that I remember with Caroline wearing “normal” clothes. The rest of the time it was always Roman garb, which by default has become my norm for the author of the Roman Mysteries.
“You’ve seen my style, haven’t you? I get very tired of dressing up. You feel a little like a performing seal. The dressing up, demonstrating how the Romans wiped their bottoms; you get tired after 300 times. It’s not me. I like my comfy jeans, my trainers that I live in. That’s one of the good things about being a writer.”
Caroline keeps a book on Latin in her bathroom, as well as a pile of academic books. But she uses proper toilet tissue, rather than the sponge on a stick the Romans used.
It wasn’t hard recognising Caroline, and as we walk to her riverside flat we talk about British trains, before moving on to films. I’m sometimes surprised the Roman Mysteries get written at all, as Caroline appears to spend all her time in the cinema. She liked Twilight, and she really felt for Pierce Brosnan and his singing in Mamma Mia! and liked the film despite not expecting to.
In a very un-British fashion Caroline gets her husband Richard to give us the guided tour of their flat, while she puts the kettle on, so in no time at all we find ourselves in the bedroom, admiring the stunning view of the Thames. The very large windows are slightly angled in the different rooms to show the river to perfection in both directions. The Lawrences have what can only be described as an enormous bird table directly outside, and Richard explains that he has got quite knowledgeable about birds since they moved here. It isn’t a bird table, of course, more like some quayside contraption, which looks like a table at low tide, where all the birds hang out.
We make ourselves comfortable in Caroline’s study, and she pours the tea. Offers the photographer water to drink; fizzy or flat, warm or cold? We admire her selection of film soundtrack CDs, noticing the one from Wall-E, which is a favourite film with Caroline. “I just have to show you”. Taps on her iPhone, then shows us a cute picture of Wall-E. “I’ve been listening to it. It’s really good music because you don’t notice it the first time. It affects you, and then about the second or third view is a good time.”
While we’re on the subject of films I decide to ask Caroline for an explanation of The Wire, which I know she likes, and that I’d like to understand. “It’s a brilliant, brilliant American programme set in West Baltimore, which has the highest murder rate in America. It’s very rough, it’s about violence, politics, drug dealing. There’s a whole season about the schools, the primary schools. Apparently it was both John McCain’s and Barack Obama’s favourite programme. Everyone in politics like it.
The pilot is the worst episode ever, you can’t understand what they’re saying, and it introduces too many characters you’re not really interested in, so if you do watch it, I really advise you to start watching at least the first three episodes with the subtitles on so you understand. (We laugh.) They don’t pander, they use Baltimore speak of that period. It’s written by two guys, one of whom was a newspaper journalist who went along with the police to crime scenes, the other a retired policeman. The policeman spent a couple of years in the public school system, in Baltimore, and he said that in his whole life it was the most terrifying thing he ever did. More than being a policeman in Baltimore. ((Laughs) It’s a brilliant show. It’s five seasons and I think it’s going to go down in history as one of the best chronicles.”
When we meet, Caroline has recently returned from a visit to California, so I ask what it was like. “It was wonderful”, says Caroline, sounding dreamy and wistful. “Really good. It was in three parts. The first part was visiting my family in Northern California. They live in that area. And that was nice.
The second part was when I took a road trip with my sister, which I’ve never done before, and visited places I’ve never seen, like Mono Lake and Virginia City and then down the Eastern Sierras, which is the most stupendous landscape. You’ve got this beautiful amazing mountain range down one side, then the desert on the other. We went to Death Valley, where I’ve never been in my whole life. That was just stunning as well. We stayed one night at a beautiful Art Deco hotel. When we pulled into the parking lot there was a coyote about as far away as that chair is (about two metres). I took an amazing photo of it. My sister and I got on the whole week. We were very close in age when we grew up, and there was always a row, but ever since I moved away, 5000 miles away, things have been great. With my whole family, in fact. I recommend it.” (Laughs.)
“Then the third part was down in Southern California where they’ve had those terrible fires, visiting with my son and his wife. They live in these beautiful mountains outside Los Angeles, and there are amazing rock formations, that you’ve seen on Star Trek, or in the film Cars. These jagged kind of rocks coming out of the earth and you’ve seen them in any western you’ve ever seen, and that’s only twenty minutes away. My little grandson, the one who’s two and a half, loves cars, that’s his favourite thing, and he said ‘ Doc goes there’.“ (The character voiced by Paul Newman. Caroline went on IMDb, and ‘sure enough that was one of the things they’d used to film it.’)
I mention that I saw the football video of her grandson on Facebook. “That was so bad. I had this amazing camera, and I didn’t realise I could take films with sound. I could have had close-ups of him, I could have had the baby. Oh, gosh. I got this brand new camera at Heathrow. I kind of got sucked in this consumer madness (laughs); I got this really amazing camera. I’ll show you it, my little friend. (Rummages in drawer.) And I can take a photo of you taking a photo of me. The light from the river is a really good light. So anyway, this is my waterproof Olympus (which is a suitable, Godlike name). It’s black. That’s why I bought it. I bought it because it’s black. I didn’t know it’s got all these things”. (laughs).
I wonder if she went over for the birth of her newest grandchild. “I’m probably the most un-maternal person ever. I didn’t know how to help. Brooke’s mother’s in Australia, so I said ‘How can I help? Can I come over?’, and I got a kind of resounding silence. I made sure I stayed in a hotel and not in their apartment. I went when the baby was about two or three weeks, so it was timed well. Brooke was still breast feeding the little baby, so she couldn’t really do anything. The only thing I could do to help was I baby sat one day but she took the little one with her. The next day Simon (Caroline’s son) sat with the toddler while Brooke and I went to see Twilight.”
How often does she go to America? “I think every, nearly two years. Not that often. And especially because you can fly to Rome for £15. One of the best things has been to travel to research the books. That’s been just so much fun. It means you have a focus, a sort of treasure hunt to do and you have your senses open looking for characters, and you’re looking for food they may have eaten in Roman times.”
Having always wondered how Caroline deals with the local languages on her many research trips, I ask how she does it. “I always try to learn the language, which is why in the little travel guide I say to learn a few phrases. So I can speak a little Turkish, I learned Egyptian Arabic. Just a few phrases, and the numbers, which are fascinating. I think they just like it so much when you can say hello and goodbye. And I can speak a little bit of modern Greek and a little bit of Italian. The scholars usually speak good English. The other thing I look for is the way life hasn’t changed much; what I call peasant life. You can get that just by looking; if you’re in a coach driving and you go by a mud village where a woman carries bread on her head, fresh from the bakery, or someone squatting in a pine grove over a fire, and someone sleeping nearby. People still riding mules and donkeys.
The best, my most fun, has been going to the Hamams, the baths in Turkey and Morocco. I’m sure that’s what the Roman baths were like, probably almost exactly. The best Hamams are the ones that are open to men and women at different hours, because when you have the men’s Hamams and the women’s Hamams, the women’s are going to be not as nice, although the Hamam in Istanbul, which is 800 years old, has a separate women’s and men’s and they are both just as opulent. That’s listed as one of the thousand things to do before you die, and that’s probably the only one of the thousand I’ve done.
The one thing I don’t want to be, is the ugly American who comes in and speaks loudly and hopes that people will understand. It’s been so much fun. I think Morocco was probably my most favourite place.”
“When Richard and I went to Morocco two winters ago, we didn’t go on a package. We booked our own flights and we went on trains and it was an adventure, you know. If your train is late and you don’t speak the language, and the station looks closed, and it’s raining. I remember clambering up to this really cold train, heaving the suitcases, hoping it was the right train. Since then we’ve been on kind of package tours. With my sister, we just got in the car and went, and we didn’t even have an itinerary. We vaguely knew where we wanted to go, but it’s the best kind of trip where you just go. You have amazing adventures when you’re not tied down.
In Istanbul, Richard and I went on a tour and we only had an hour and a half of free time one afternoon, and no-one else wanted to go to the Hamam. I said come on, let’s go, and I had to rush there, and you’re not supposed to rush at the Hamam, you’re supposed to relax afterwards, but I’m so glad I did it. If you’re on your own you can be adventurous, because you’re anonymous. Yes, that’s the other good thing. If you’re in a tour group with people you spent the whole week with, you may not want to strip down at the Hamam.”
I mention that I’ve seen a map of countries and cities Caroline has visited, and noticed she hasn’t been to any of the Nordic countries. “That’s right. It’s on Facebook, where I’ve been. I’m bad, aren’t I? I think mainly ‘cos I love the sun, I love the sea. With Orion, I’ve been talking about a spin-off series partly set in Britain, and even that I’m kind of arrrgghh, I want to go to Italy, I want to go to Spain. For this last book I’m working on, The Man From Pomegranate Street, I went to Lake Albano, which is outside Rome, where the Pope has a residence and (Emperor) Domitian had a palace, and it’s beautiful (saying this with real feeling), so beautiful. It was September, and the weather was just like midsummer here. Green hills, just fantastic. I met this geoarchaeologist who lives on the Lake Albano. She met me at the hotel and she drove me around. She was showing me different caves and she’d set up her gps so that it tracked our route and at the end of the day she sent me an email with the map of our route, and different colours according to the different time.”
While on the subject of travelling, I wonder how many schools Caroline visited. “I didn’t count them. It felt like hundreds, certainly at least two hundred I think. When I do an event, I still get kids say ‘I heard you when you came to my school’. You’ve heard the stories, haven’t you? You go from the sublime to the ridiculous. One day you’ll go to a school and they will ask you to do all age groups, and no breaks, they won’t tell you where the staff room is, and with lunch they leave you to it. And the next day you go somewhere and they have people all hovering around you, and you get to meet the head mistress and you’ve got little kids coming with their little blazers and they sit very happily, and then you have lunch in the head mistress’ study with the chilled Chablis and hummus. You just don’t know what’s going to happen. The other thing is travelling. I had to get up once at 4.30 in the morning to go to Cheltenham, because they wanted me to be there in plenty of time, and I was treated to this really chilly bunch of Year eights and nines who weren’t even paying attention. That can be really hard. But there’s an art to doing it and I’m not really brilliant at that.”
But you’re a teacher. “Yes, I’m a teacher, so once I get them there, I can usually keep their attention.”
Somewhere I’ve seen a suggestion that Caroline’s next venture will be about Miriam’s twins. “Yes, that started as a spin-off idea. Miriam, as you know, has twins and dies in childbirth, because that was a real risk in Roman times. I’ve always loved the idea of twins separated, identical twins separated at birth.”
So we’re not going to find Popo? (The twin who is abducted in book 16.) “No, we’re not going to find him. Oops. No-one’s read them yet. My idea was that one of them can grow up in Roman Britain, and and the other one can grow up in Rome, maybe. Or Ostia. One’s growing up in a wealthy Jewish family, and the other one’s growing up as a pagan in Roman Britain. They would probably be Young Adult books, so it would start when they’re about fourteen. That would fit the timing very well, because it would take us up to about 94AD, and that’s coming up to the end of Domitian’s reign. He had a very interesting last few years, with all sorts of omens and prophesies and betrayals, and intrigue. He was a very interesting emperor. So that could be lots of fun, and I could even have guest appearances by my four detectives.
For this last book, I wrote the first paragraph, and it was actually out on the internet for a while. It starts off with Flavia married and with two kids and pregnant with the third, and her husband, and she says something to her husband, whom we don’t know. The first paragraph is in italics, and then she says something about the last case, and then it’s back to normal times, flashback to our normal time scenario. It’s just that first paragraph in italics, a flash forward to the future, twelve years on. At the very end will be a passage with a flash forward and we find out who she married.”
Here the photographer says she’ll just peep at the end. “You don’t want to do that, oh no,” Caroline sounds very happy, animated and indignant at the same time, “that’s what I’ve been enjoying more than anything, building up to it. It’s a good literary technique to have people at cross purposes.”
I point out that I’ve been under the impression that once the Roman Mysteries are finished, Caroline intends to take a long, well deserved rest, but with new plans already, it doesn’t sound as if that’s what she’s going to do. “I can’t lie back and do nothing”, she cries. She says she knows authors who can write more than one thing at a time, but “I can’t chew gum and walk at the same time. I like to focus on one book, get immersed in that. I will keep writing. I love writing. I’d love to do, not absolutely nothing, but just be thinking of ideas and stuff. But I have a nice routine; I write mainly in the morning, just for a few hours first thing in the morning. I met Louis Sachar in Cheltenham a few years ago, and he only writes for two hours in the morning, and I gather Anthony Trollope only wrote for three hours every day. That’s my morning, and then in the afternoon I will do my internet, my web page, answer emails or plan a school trip, or do some promotional thing. And I go to a lot of movies and read a lot of books.”
I wonder if Caroline sets herself a daily target of so many words,or hours. “I have never counted words until the book (The Prophet From Ephesus) you’ve just read, where I had to force myself to write a certain number of words a day. Until then I used to get up at about 5.30 to six and sit and write to about eleven or twelve, with a stop for breakfast and to get dressed, but pretty much at my desk. By the time the phone starts to ring and the post comes, you’ve got the best part of the day.
One of my downfalls is the internet. I click away, just one click on Facebook, and you just try not to go on and I keep having to change my parameters. Don’t go on the internet till twelve, and then I was aiming for 300 words a day, just to get stuff down. What I always do; I structure it first, I do my steps, my structure, and then I do a scene outline. Each scene’s got to do something, and you can see they’re colour coded. Blue is Flavia, green is Lupus, red is Nubia, and you can see there’s not much brown because Jonathan’s gone missing. I’ve got 88 scenes at the moment, so I’m on track. My aim was to get 45,000 words down and I’m now up to 47,0000 so I think it’ll come in at the same length as The Prophet. I have reminders like don’t forget Jonathan’s asthma, or remember the dogs.”
Will she tie everything up at the end? “I’ll tie as much of it up as I can, but will leave a few things. You have to leave a little bit, but as far as Flavia and Nubia are concerned people will be happy. Even Captain Geminus has happy ending, so that’s nice, because he’s gone through a lot, poor guy. Usually in kids’ books you kill off the parents, so the kids can have adventures. Because he’s around I have to put him into comas, or shipwreck him or something. (Laughs loudly.) Poor guy. We share a birthday, Captain Geminus and I. So he’s kind of me. I’m kind of all of them, in a way.”
Where does Caroline begin? Do the historical facts come first, or the mystery? “Well, the historical background, because that’s where I get my mysteries from. This last book, Titus had this mysterious death; he suddenly got a fever and died, in a day or two, and there was a lot of gossip at the time. Was it his younger brother Domitian? Because they didn’t like each other, or the Jews hated him because he destroyed Jerusalem, and there are some really interesting historical facts about his death.
The weirdest thing is in the Talmud, written about two centuries after my period. According to a rabbi they did an autopsy on Titus after he died, which was very strange, in Roman times. When they opened up his head they found something that looked like a mosquito the size of a bird in his brain. So my task (Caroline sounds very happy) is how I can fit all those facts together and see if I can solve the mystery? So I’ve got tonnes of fun stuff to work with. It’s so much fun now, there’s so much material out there, it’s just a treasure trove of material. I pick out all the fun bits about ancient Roman life, like the sponge on the stick.”
Why did Caroline introduce Christian baptism in The Prophet from Ephesus? “Well, I’m really interested in early Christianity. I grew up as an atheist, but my Dad was Jewish and my Mother was Unitarian, or at least their backgrounds were. They were both pretty much not believers. I didn’t know anything about my Jewish background, and then when I was 27 I had quite a conversional experience, where I went really overnight to have a faith, and it was quite astounding, you know. The world looked different and everything, and in a funny way I then discovered my Jewish roots.
There are so many different kinds of Christianity, and it varies from country to country, from person to person. Some of the ways now, to the Victorians, would be unthinkable. I often think if we actually saw them in the first century AD, their practices would be unthinkable, and their views. So I’m just exploring. In the early centuries it was really still a part of Judaism. Some of the experiences in that book I’ve had myself, and some of them people really close to me have had. I’m still exploring my faith and struggling with it in a way. I’m trying to just explore that and Flavia who is me, is the sceptic.
One of the things we forget about today, is that in the Roman world we had sacrifice every week, every day, everywhere. Animals being killed left, right and centre. Blood here, blood there. Nubia who loves animals so much would be converted just by the fact that there’s no more need for sacrifice. It’s something people don’t think about today. As some people say, religion has done a lot of bad, but I think my faith has helped me be another person, a better person.”
But it seems very sudden, their conversion? “They do convert overnight in a way, but I’ve been planting it along the way for a long time. I’ve been setting it up for a long time, especially with Lupus, who hears the voice in the Colossus of Rhodes, and there are other things if you read again. I also thought if Nubia becomes a Christian and Aristo doesn’t, then I can’t get them together. I thought Lupus needs it most of all, and as for Jonathan he has already got his faith, but he’s losing it, he gets very angry with God after the fire.”
Did he really start the fire? “Well, he had the struggle with Agathus, but it wasn’t his fault. Again I think children often have a sense of guilt.”
Does Caroline ever hear from parents who find the books too advanced for their children? “It’s really funny, because I remember when I was young, I would watch films and not get it. When I was a teacher I used to show A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, to my Year 6 kids. I met one of them who’d become deeply Christian, who’s now 22, and he goes, ‘Miss Caroline; I saw that film the other day and I can’t believe you showed it to us!’ At the time they didn’t get any of that. What I try to do is either some allusions that the adults would get, but not the children, and I’m always careful so that when Floppy proposes to Flavia, he says ‘in a few years when you are ready’, you know. It’s kind of a balance with that Twilight age group that likes their love and their romance, but not being too explicit. But also, Rome was decadent. It is like walking a tightrope, and just pushing the envelope a little bit. Kids are getting more and more sophisticated.
I haven’t had any directly challenging emails, and I try not to hunt out message boards, because that can be just counter productive. Orion are quite conservative so they keep me in check. There are scenes they have made me take out. The Sirens of Surrentum; oh, that was my most romantic book and on my website I say this book is about sex and love. I did have fun writing that. I talk to kids who are younger and who don’t get any of the allusions, and stuff like the term bed wrestling which Domitian really coined, which I think is quite a good term. You’re gonna upset some people, but I have to say I have had more positive responses to The Sirens of Surrentum, than to any other book. More people, girls especially, write to say ‘I love your books and my favourite is The Sirens of Surrentum’.”
I admit that The Prophet From Ephesus is my favourite now. “Oh, really? Thank God, that’s so nice of you.” I tell Caroline that I like it both because the story is good, but also because the cover is purple. “It’s purple?” She laughs. “That’s not the cover I wanted… I had this dream once, one of those vivid dreams you never forget, and it was the dream Jonathan had of the sky, with these lights, and the constellation’s rising and it was a real apocalyptic dream. For the cover I wanted him (the artist) to do; you know when you see a long exposure, it’s like a wheel of stars, this sense of something amazing going on, and he said ‘no I’m not going to do that’. The artist has been really good, but he said it’s a photographic technique.
I picked this amazing photo from one of my research trips to Rome. I went in February, just for a few days to get the feel of what February is like. You know, what’s seasonal, what’s on the menu? I got up really early one morning and took this beautiful photo, of the wolf at dawn. It’s just the most amazing photo I’ve ever taken. I wanted the cover of The Man From Pomegranate Street to be like that. I wanted it to have that background; I think that would have been really good.” Caroline absentmindedly takes a sip from the photographer’s glass of water.
“Anyway, we’re getting a new look cover, a re-cover for the whole thing, but at least they’ve kept it all through the first series, which the collectors really like. In fact, I think Anthony Horowitz changed two thirds through; he changed covers, but he can do it. It is annoying isn’t it? Especially if you like the books on the shelf like that.”
Why did you change the design of your website? “It was getting a little bit stale, and people were commenting that it was. What do you think? Kids are more savvy aren’t they? Although my readership is a little bit young, and by the time they get to be computer literate, wanting to go on forums and stuff, they’re mainly starting to be into Twilight and Robert Muchamore and Sophie MacKenzie and stuff like that.”
“I’m friends with Robert and he gets so much stuff through his website. I tried having a forum once and it just broke out into arguments. Mini despots. I was also reading in the authors’ magazine, there are new guidelines for author websites, making it safe for children, and forums is one of the least safe aspects. I’m not even touching that. I’ve got my blog, but I monitor all my comments and they have to go through me before anything is published. For a while I was doing movie reviews, then I realised it didn’t tie in with what I was doing for kids. It was more interesting for adults. So I thought I’ll do that on Facebook, and my blog I’ll keep just for Roman stuff.”
I recall seeing something about Caroline teaching for the Arvon foundation, and ask her about that. “Don’t double lock!!! (This to Richard, who’s on his way to tennis.) I only did one session. First I went as a student and loved it. By then I think they’d accepted my first book and it was in draft, and I remember thinking ‘I could teach this’, and then I went and did a session, yes. Except I’m really structured about the way I write, and the person I was teaching with wasn’t. We were always going ‘yes she should’ ‘no she shouldn’t’. That was fun in that it was a such a beautiful place, in Devon. Have you done one?”
Caroline is extremely well organised, and I wonder how she you keeps track of things so well. “I have my notes, my profiles, but I often re-read the previous books to make sure I’ve got continuity. The one I’m just re-reading is The Colossus of Rhodes, and I’m going ‘oh, yeah, there’s that which I can tie in with there, and I can bring so-and-so in here, and this is fun, this scene can take place in the same spot, you know, in the future, and oh yes, they said that and they said that. Just being familiar by re-reading the books. I like doing that. I know some authors never re-read their books, but I’m always reading it as a critic, and last night I was reading and went ‘oh my gosh that sentence is too long’ or chuckling at my own witticisms.” (Laughs)
“I used to read the Flashman books, you know? He had a cliff-hanger at the end of every chapter, and now I do it too, to keep the kids reading. Sometimes you can almost scoff at your own techniques.”
I refer to the literal cliff-hanger in The Prophet From Ephesus. “That’s amazing, the place in Turkey where I set that. That’s the other thing about travelling; you say ‘oh, I’ll set a scene there’. The calcite cliffs are just the most amazing. You go ‘ah, that would be a great place for the climactic scene’, and you have to get them there and get them back. If anything, in the last few books, to be self critical, there’s a lot of going here and going there. There’s a lot of travelling involved, but I also like the idea about a book that you can take with you if you’re travelling. ‘Oh this is where so-and-so was, and this is where this happened’.
I went to Lake Albano exactly the time of year that Titus died, September 13th, and you discover things when you go to the place. You discover the space, what it feels like. There’s this tunnel, from 400 BC, going from the lake through the mountain to the plain opposite the Appian way and the coast. There’s this wonderful story behind it that involves the Delphic oracle, and I went with this geoarchaeologist. We went to see if we could find it, and there’s this stone wall. I think I’ve got the picture, (searches on her computer) there’s a hole in the stone wall, and you go down steps, push the door, open it up and there’s the mouth of the tunnel. It’s ancient, 400BC. It’s called the Emissario, it’s the way for the water to go out. This is what it looks like, and this dragonfly came flying out at me. That was amazing, so I’ve got to work this Emissario into the story. I’ve got to have a scene in the tunnel. You can’t have a tunnel without using it.”
“Would you like a little cheese?” asks Caroline as the interview draws to a close, and she gets up to make us some lunch in her neat kitchen. Ever the great organiser she sends the photographer back and forth with food and colourful plates and glasses from kitchen to dining table. She makes salad dressing, using husband Richard’s secret ingredient, and finds all sorts of delicacies for us to eat. Some come courtesy of Orion, who must have sent Caroline a basket of food for Christmas. She urges the photographer to eat an “unwanted” Magnum ice cream, while the two of us demolish the lovely grapes.
Before we leave Caroline insists on lending me a box of DVDs. It’s the first season of Monk, because we just happened to get on to the subject of OCD. Then, showing us the piles and piles of translated Roman Mysteries in the hall, Caroline comes to the sensible conclusion that we can’t possibly carry any more, before walking us back to the station. She’ll get a fair bit of exercise if she always collects and delivers her visitors there.
(All photos of Caroline Lawrence by H Giles. Other photos by Caroline Lawrence, except the Emissario, which is by Antonia Arnoldus-Huyzendveld)