Today on the Debutante Ball, I’m excited to welcome best-selling historical novelist, Margaret George, whose book, THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO, just arrived in bookstores this week. Here’s what it’s all about:
THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO takes us from the earliest childhood memory of Nero, when his mad uncle Caligula tried to drown him, to the Great Fire of Rome, which would test his emperorship as nothing before. The first of two biographical novels about the iconic emperor, we see him go from innocent youth to commanding statesman and artful showman, one of the most famous rulers of ancient Rome.
As someone who writes fiction set in ancient Rome (and has admired Margaret’s novels for years), I’m extra excited about reading this book! And guess what, you too can enter to win a copy by retweeting on twitter:
— The Debutante Ball (@DebutanteBall) March 11, 2017
Or by sharing our post on Facebook. We will select and contact the very lucky winner on Friday, March 17th at noon (US Only).
Now, on to the interview!
You have previously written books set in ancient timeframes, HELEN OF TROY, MARY CALLED MAGDELENE and THE MEMOIRS OF CLEOPATRA. This time you’ve chosen the politically complex world of ancient Rome. What do you love best about writing in the ancient past?
I love the artistic beauty of it, and the way people saw the natural world as infused with the spiritual, which would give you a very different world view. I love the extreme characters we know about who lived then; monsters though some of them were, they are now at a remove from us. We don’t have any living people whose relatives were mistreated by Caligula. Nor anyone who lost their husband at Troy. So we can approach them safely and without fear. The ancient world is like us, but also alien in so many ways; you truly land in a different but oddly familiar world. I suppose it’s the ultimate in escapism!
In my own novel, FEAST OF SORROW, the ancient gourmand, Apicius, is very fond of an ancient herb, silphium, which went extinct only a few decades later. In fact, it was rumored that Nero himself had the last sprig of the plant. Knowing what you do of Nero, how do you think he would have reacted?
Very interesting question. I may feature this in a scene—it’s a natural. I don’t doubt that someone sent Nero a stalk of silphium as an oddity. Someone else sent him a seed of a type of wheat that grew 360 stalks from one grain. He was fascinated by natural history and science. He probably ate the stalk to see what it tasted like. But was he aware it was the last one? If so, he probably wrote an elegiac poem about it.
In his later years, in Nero’s sprawling Golden House (Domus Aurea), he had a rotating dining room with an oculus in the ceiling that looked out to the stars. Petronius, the author of the novel The Satyricon, even parodies the feasts of Nero in his book. Do you think Nero had a true love of food or was this merely a display of his power?
I’m not sure The Satyricon is parodying the feasts of Nero. Trimalchio, the host of the dinner parties there, is a nouveau riche vulgarian, ignorant and with poor taste. Nero was extravagant but had exquisite taste, as the Golden House proves. I think his dining room was more an expression of his glee at architectural novelties. He wanted to astound people, impress them, and his rotating room with the oculus was meant to knock the socks off them (figuratively). It wasn’t about the food or even power, except in the sense of “I’ve created a marvel—look at me—what a genius I am!” One historian described him as ‘the greatest showman of them all’ and his Golden House was one of his magician’s props.
When you were a teenager, what did you think you’d be when you grew up?
I wanted to be an actress. I even had a secret stage name—“Deborah Collins”. My mother said, “You can’t go on stage. The klieg lights will damage your eyes!” What did she know? I never really found out as I didn’t pursue it very far. However, I remained fascinated by Hollywood and acting, and a high point for me was watching the filming of the Cleopatra miniseries ABC-TV made from my novel. I got to visit sets in Morocco (the outdoor scenes) and London (the indoor scenes), hang out with the film crew, eat in the company mess hall, and even have my own script. So that was the next best thing to being an actress myself. Although most of the characters were historical, there were a couple of purely fictional ones I had made up, so it was a thrill to see them enacted on screen. There was even a premier in Hollywood at the iconic Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, red carpet and all.
In the end, I think my ambition to be an actress was better fulfilled as a writer, because as a writer I get to play all the parts! And be the director as well. And I have no budget constraints. If I want an army of twenty thousand soldiers, hey, no problem. If I want the Golden House, well, words that paint the picture are free.
Share one quirk that you have that most people don’t know about
I love the color yellow and will buy something just because it’s yellow. The color just makes me happy. It isn’t even especially flattering on me! My house is yellow and my kitchen is yellow. And I have a lot of yellow things, (purses, vases, scarves, shoes) but not so many that people would notice. I am still flying under the radar with my yellow addiction. However, I am looking for a yellow car. There are not many of them around. I would love to drive around town in my yellow car. Plus, it would be easy to spot in a parking lot with all the gray, white, and black cars.
Have you ever met someone you idolized? What was it like?
I had a lot of near-misses with my idol, Elizabeth Taylor. The very first day I arrived in California to go to graduate school, I was in Monterey, and lo and behold! She and Burton were there on location filming “The Sandpiper.” They were having dinner at a restaurant on the beach, and a huge crowd was gathered around the restaurant. So my friend and I went in and were told we would have to sit down and eat if we wanted to stay. We were seated at a small table near the entrance and La Liz was nowhere in sight. So we watched with eagle eyes, hardly daring to look at the menu lest we miss her. After about an hour she passed right by us on the way out. It happened so fast. But my glimpse of her showed her to be as beautiful, if not more so, than her pictures. She was surprisingly small.
Fast forward to the late 80s, when she had launched her “Passion” perfume and was going around the country promoting it. She was coming to Chicago and if you bought a certain amount of her perfume (a stumbling block for me as I really didn’t like it, sorry Liz) you could meet her at Marshall Field’s for a tea time event. My practical side said, “Well, it’s 4 hours away, and you’d have to spend the night in a hotel, and it would take 2 days, and end up being very expensive.” So I didn’t go. I was always sorry! I dispatched my sister in DC to go to one of the events. She did but said it was a real zoo and she only did it out of love for me.
But I finally got to meet Elizabeth Taylor, sort of. I bought two things at the legendary Christie’s auction in 2011—a bracelet and a silver dresser set. My sister (the same one who had seen Liz in DC) said that every time I looked in the mirror I would know that once upon a time Liz’s face looked out from it. I haven’t seen her yet! But I know she’s there.
Thanks so much for joining us, Margaret! And congratulations on the release of THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO, now available in bookstores.
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, is published this 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.