1. Mr. Bell, thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed for my blog. Your new thriller DEATH IN THE ASHES came out yesterday. Tell us a bit more about this book.
DEATH IN THE ASHES is the fourth book in my series featuring Pliny the Younger and his friend, the historian Tacitus. It is set five years after the eruption of Vesuvius which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. Pliny was an eyewitness to that catastrophe. His uncle and adoptive father, Pliny the Elder, died trying to save people. Now Pliny has to go back to the Bay of Naples to help a family friend who has been accused of murder but won’t defend himself.
2. The characters in this novel have names of real people. How much of what your write about them is fiction and how much is fact?
The friendship between Pliny and Tacitus is fact. In the collection of Pliny’s correspondence there are a number of letters exchanged between the two of them. Tacitus wrote Pliny and asked for information about the eruption of Vesuvius. Pliny’s two letters in response are the only eyewitness accounts of a natural disaster that we have from the ancient world. They are still studied today by vulcanologists. I try to stick close to what we know about the chronology of Pliny’s life. There is also a reference in the book to Pliny’s engagement to the daughter of a woman named Pompeia Celerina. Pliny wrote several letters to this woman and calls her his mother-in-law. Oddly, he never mentions his wife’s name. He was married at least twice, possibly three times. His last wife was Calpurnia. Pliny wrote several letters to her grandfather and her aunt, who raised her. The grandfather is a character in this book, as is the Calpurnius who was the father of Pliny’s wife.
3. What kind of research did you do for DEATH IN THE ASHES?
I teach and write about ancient Rome, so the research I do for my courses and my academic writing is the basis of my research for my novels. I recently taught a course about the eruption of Vesuvius and the excavation of Pompeii. I have been to Italy and visited that area.
4. Why do you write? Why historical mysteries?
I write because I can’t seem to stop. My wife says she can tell when I’m not writing, or when it’s not going well, because I get grumpy. I am a historian, and historical fiction has appealed to me since I was in high school. Reading Steven Saylor and John Maddox Roberts and other writers of mysteries set in the ancient world prompted me to try my hand at one. I’ve enjoyed reading Pliny since I was in college. He has a skeptical, analytical outlook, so I thought he would make a good detective.
5. A word of advice for new writers?
I would advise new writers to develop patience and to join a good writers’ group. Patience because writing (and rewriting) is hard work and you’re not likely to have a lot of success. For every Dan Brown there are literally thousands of would-be writers that we’ll never hear of. And many of them are better writers than Dan Brown. A good writers’ group because you need feedback. I’m in a group that meets once a week. They tell me what works and doesn’t work. You need feedback from several people at least, not just your spouse or your mother or your best friend, people who aren’t afraid to tell you what’s wrong.
6. What are your writing habits? How long does it take you to research and write a novel?
I’m able to schedule some large blocks of time a couple of days a week. I can’t write a chapter on the subway or anything like that. I need a lot of time and a quiet place to work. I’m fortunate to have those. The pace at which I write seems to be picking up. I just finished the fifth Pliny book. It took me a year to write. That’s the fastest I’ve ever done a book. It’s usually a year and a half to two years.
7. What are your favorite pastimes?
I’m a collector of old baseball cards, especially from the 1950s. During the summer I get a lot of pleasure from my flower beds.
8. What do you like to read and what are you reading at the moment?
The philosopher Epictetus (ca. 100 AD) said, “If you would be a reader, read; if you would be a writer, write.” At this stage of my life, I seem to be writing a lot more than I read. Recently, though, I read NOTHING TO ENVY, a poignant examination of life in North Korea. A few days ago, after sending off the ms. of the latest Pliny book, I pulled an old Rex Stout mystery off the shelf.
9. What is your next book going to be about?
The book I just finished is called THE EYES OF AURORA. Pliny tries to help a woman whom his servant Aurora befriended, but he keeps getting thrown off the track by lies and conflicting stories told by the people involved. The next book after that? I’m not sure. It may be historical but not a mystery. One problem with doing a series of mysteries is that there are only so many ways to kill somebody and, without modern forensics, only so many ways to catch the killer. In EYES I found myself thinking, “Wait, they can’t do that. It’s too similar to one of the earlier books.”
10. What can readers hope to find in DEATH IN THE ASHES?
I hope readers will find in DEATH IN THE ASHES what Publisher’s Weekly called “engaging characters.” I like Pliny and Tacitus and Pliny’s mother and Aurora and I hope I’ve made them seem real. I’ve tried to give the reader a sense of what it must have been like to live in the aftermath of the eruption of Vesuvius. I hope they will also find a story that draws them along. I like to imagine a reader who says, “I’ll finish this chapter, then go to bed . . . . Oh, maybe one more chapter.” I invite readers to check out my web sites: http://www.albertbell.com and http://www.pliny-mysteries.com.