Sometimes we encounter a series so different from our usual fare that we just feel compelled to learn more. Such is the case with Kate Quinn’s Empress of Rome series narrated by Elizabeth Wiley. That’s right – Ancient Rome. Up front, we’ll tell you that it may not contain that happily-ever-after ending time after time as the series is categorized as historical fiction. However, AudioGals’ reviewer Shannon thought Mistress of Rome, the first in the series, “quite romantic and, although a lot of historical detail was put into the story, I really felt like I was reading a historical romance.” You can see her review here.
I’m delighted to be chatting today with Kate Quinn and Elizabeth Wiley. There’s a lot to take in about a series set in a world so far removed from our own and so far in the past. I found myself fascinated with the author’s descriptions and background. And Elizabeth, who has been an official AudioGals Narrator Friend for some time now, offers us a narrator’s view. We also have a First Chapter Listen of Mistress of Rome as well as a giveaway of the series!
Tantor released the Empress of Rome series earlier this year and it contains four audiobooks – Mistress of Rome, Daughters of Rome, Empress of the Seven Hills, and Lady of the Eternal City. Now for more!
We’re giving away two download or MP3 CD sets of Kate Quinn’s Empress of Rome series (four titles) courtesy of Tantor Audio. Entry is simple. Just complete the easy entry form found at the bottom of the page by midnight (CST) Thursday, July 16th. No comments are necessary to enter although we’d love to hear your thoughts in our discussion area. You may only enter once – anyone entering more than once will be disqualified. We’ll contact winners on July 17th so watch your email as we must have acknowledgement of your win within 24 hours. If we don’t hear from you, we’ll select another winner. The giveaway is limited to those residing in the U.S. or Canada.
Chatting with Kate and Elizabeth
LEA Welcome Kate and Elizabeth to AudioGals! We’re thrilled to have you with us today.
KATE Thrilled to be here – thanks so much for inviting me!
ELIZABETH So excited to be here meeting up with you, Lea, a beloved AudioGal, and Kate Quinn author extraordinaire!
LEA Kate – I see your books are categorized as Historical Fiction although Shannon thought your Mistress of Rome was quite romantic. Do your books generally contain a thread of romance?
KATE Always. Romance is a part of life, past or present, so I always include a romantic thread or two in my historical novels. But I don’t always guarantee happy endings!
LEA Today, we are featuring your Empress of Rome series. We just don’t see this setting all that much and I thought it pretty fascinating. Can you tell us about the setup of series?
KATE It happened more or less completely by accident. I wrote Mistress of Rome when I was nineteen and off to college 3,000 miles from home, intending it to be a standalone novel. But then I saw that I had the potential for a prequel about some of the book’s older characters, and the potential for a sequel about the children when they grew up. And then the sequel turned into two books, so I ended up with a four book series.
KATE I do not recommend writing a series this way. I recommend planning from the beginning.
ELIZABETH OMG you wrote Mistress when you were 19!?! Author prodigy!!
KATE Lol, it was my sixteenth book! I’ve been writing my whole life. I wrote my first when I was ten (121 pages about a gypsy girl in medieval Ireland, terrible) and never stopped.
ELIZABETH I have to tell my 15 year old daughter. She may very well follow in those footsteps!
KATE (Actually it might have been my ninth or tenth book. I lost count; the previous ones are pretty much all dreck and I try not to think about them.)
KATE Oooh, good luck to your daughter!
LEA I must admit that although I’m a history buff, I know very little about Ancient Rome. Can you tell us the timing within the Roman Empire and how the four books are connected?
KATE Chronologically, the Year of Four Emperors happened in AD 69 (that’s the setting for the earliest of my books) when the Flavian dynasty ultimately came out on the throne. Jump forward about 15 years for Mistress of Rome, which takes place under the third and last of the Flavian Emperors. The next book picks up about five years later, as the second of the Five Good Emperors (Trajan) is in power. And the last book picks up with the reign of Trajan’s successor Hadrian – you know, the guy who took one look into Scotland and said “Hell no, we’re building a great big wall between us and THEM!”
ELIZABETH I’m sure you could concoct some interplay with Highland Romance authors here….haha!
LEA Now there’s an idea…
KATE And I know lots of them, first and foremost my A Day of Fire co-author Eliza Knight!
LEA Oh, wait a minute – A Day of Fire? Tell us more, please. :)
KATE It was released last November – a novel-in-six-parts collaboration I wrote with my co-authors Stephanie Dray, Vicky Alvear Shecter, Ben Kane, Sophie Perinot, and Eliza Knight, about the destruction of Pompeii. Each author’s story stands alone, but read in order it covers the complete tale of the city’s burial.
ELIZABETH Ooo it’s going on my list!
LEA: Yes, my list too!
LEA What inspired you to write about this ancient civilization?
KATE My mother had a degree in ancient and medieval history, so from childhood I was hearing stories about Alexander the Great and the Gordian Knot, and Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, rather than fairy tales. For a kid who grew up watching I, Claudius instead of the Disney Channel, gravitating to ancient Rome to write stories seemed like a logical progression!
ELIZABETH Fabulous! Kudos to your mom!
LEA And at nineteen to write Mistress of Rome… Still marveling over that.
LEA Did you have any formal classes in ancient civilization before then?
KATE No, just lots and lots of reading.
LEA Elizabeth, have you previously narrated a series featuring Ancient Rome? Is that as unusual as it seems to me?
ELIZABETH This is my first foray into Ancient Rome. What a pleasure to go so wonderfully deeply into these rich stories! And it’s the stories, the human stories, that make history interesting. I think many of us had to suffer through dry facts and figures in secondary school with history; this is the way to venture in – through good storytelling! Thank you, Kate!
ELIZABETH And so important for us to hear from the women, HER story!
KATE You’re welcome! So glad you enjoyed reading them. I admit, I heard these were being recorded and I thought “I hope the narrator enjoys them, because that’s a lot of pages to read if she’s gritting her teeth through every line thinking `Will it never end?'”
ELIZABETH These were hefty books, as a series, but I didn’t feel any of it superfluous. Rather, I appreciated that the whole story was revealed. Sometimes I feel when reading/listening to other authors/shorter books, that time is compressed too much and the book is over too soon. With well-written books, it’s a boon to know that you can live in this world for a while.
LEA Well, I’d like to quote Shannon in her review on that count, “It’s a little over fifteen hours in length, but the book seemed to fly by. The characters were compelling, and the plot never dragged. I was glued to my iPod, waiting to see how things would turn out for Thea and Arius.”
KATE Awww . . .
LEA Actually, the more history I can pick up in a book of fiction, the happier I am. That is… if written well and we know this one rates highly in that aspect.
ELIZABETH I agree! It becomes that much richer and can often re-focus the lens thru which we view things.
LEA Elizabeth – how does a narrator even attempt to accurately portray characters that lived centuries ago? How do you place an accent, etc? Or, since none of us really know, do you just ignore the possible influences to speech patterns of the time?
ELIZABETH A very good question, Lea! Yes, obviously, there’s no way to be “accurate” historically with how exactly the characters sounded. Kate does provide us with a sense of the diversity of peoples and languages – Greek, Latin, Aramaic, etc. But we do, I think, as listeners, want some coloring in the speech somehow when the author describes a character’s way of talking or accent as being foreign to the setting, or different than the others. I tried to hint at this when appropriate, hoping that readers “suspend their disbelief” as we say, and accept the choices as being for clarity and storytelling.
KATE You hear this question being addressed all the time with historical movies. People give Gladiator or Rome a lot of flack for all the English accents – but we don’t know what kind of accents the Romans had, so the actors have to go with SOMETHING!
LEA Since I am one who rarely pays attention to accents in a narration (other than differentiation of characters), I found myself so curious about this question. I mean, Russell Crowe sounded exactly right in Gladiator to me!
ELIZABETH Right, and we’re not going to be speaking in ancient languages. Even English – think about how much it evolved from Old English to Middle English to Modern, not to even mention from decade to decade now. (OMG that’s so Last Year!)
LEA And you would know! I don’t know how many of our readers know you teach and coach acting. So I sorta consider you a real expert. :)
LEA No I haven’t – please expand!
ELIZABETH Because the language would have sounded so different (much more like our American English actually because of the r presence) with actors of the time speaking it. Language experts derive their ideas about it based on the meter and rhyme of Shakespeare’s verse. Very interesting. You get to hear some of the puns, for example, they really come out!
ELIZABETH It’s kinda geeky academically, but we have to remember that Shakespeare was written for everyone. And he really loved bawdy stuff. Aaaand, there’s our bridge back to Romance.
LEA Ahhh – yes!
LEA But geeky can be so much fun even sitting on the sidelines.
KATE I geek out on this stuff all the time!
LEA Kate – back to your series. Allow me to list the four books within the series for our listeners – Mistress of Rome, Daughters of Rome, Empress of the Seven Hills, and Lady of the Eternal City. Kate, please tell us just a bit about each so we can see an overview of how one leads to another.
KATE Mistress of Rome is the story of a Jewish slave girl, a tough-but-tender gladiator, and their struggle against a semi-crazed Emperor determined to see them both dead. Daughters of Rome follows four aristocratic women trying desperately to stay alive during the upheaval of the Year of Four Emperors. Empress of the Seven Hills follows the lifelong connection between a footloose senator’s daughter and a brash young legionary during Rome’s golden age. And Lady of the Eternal City is Empress’ direct sequel, when the senator’s daughter has found herself Empress of Rome and the young legionary has become her bodyguard, and they must rely on each other under the reign of an emperor who is poised between greatness and lunacy.
LEA Oh – that makes me want to listen to Empress of the Seven Hills and Lady of the Eternal City even more. Those two alone would give me 38 hours of listening!
ELIZABETH Totally worth it!!
KATE The hero and heroine are the two kids, Vix and Sabina, from Mistress of Rome. I knew they needed a story.
LEA Okay – I see it now!
LEA With the exception of Book 4 (which I assume one would need to listen to Book 3 first), can the other books each act as stand-alone listens or should the series be listened to in order?
ELIZABETH I’d say – if I may – that Book 1 and Book 2 could stand alone. But once you read one, you’ll want to read them all!
KATE They’re all written to be standalones, even Lady of the Eternal City which is more a direct sequel than any of my others. You don’t need to read one to read the others!
LEA Elizabeth – what other sort of challenges did you encounter in preparing for the Empress of Rome series?
ELIZABETH We already talked about the challenge of dialect, etc. But some of the other wonderful challenges include voicing characters who we first meet as children and then following them as they grow. You want to be true to the character, identifiable, and also to reflect the characters’ growth. Another challenge is voicing a male first person narration. I hope I did Vix justice! And finally, the stories do have some despicable characters that you love to hate. I have to make sure that I capture their nature but also using voices that won’t turn listener’s off. Loved every minute of it!
KATE You absolutely did Vix justice, Elizabeth.
LEA The change in age – it’s not something we see all that often (don’t know if I ever have) therefore I hadn’t considered that aspect. Usually the series we see have characters aging a few months or years rather than a decade or more.
LEA And, ohhh – those villains.
LEA I’m directing this question to both of you – did you find one character in the Empress of Rome series particularly fascinating… or challenging to either perform or create?
ELIZABETH Ooo so many to choose from!
ELIZABETH Well, there’s such a range among the women, from the schemers to the traditionalists, to the dreamers, the intellectuals… all marvelously strong!
ELIZABETH Vix was a really interesting protagonist, because he was such an imp as a boy, and equally difficult as he grew, in making hard and sometimes questionable choices. Kate made him really complex (as she is wont to do with her characters) – lots of grey areas. Makes us examine ourselves and our moral integrity. Great stuff!
KATE How nice! Vix, as a character, I had no trouble with at all – he is based (at least in his adult version) very much on my husband, who is another fiery, freckled, left-handed, horse-hating military man with a short tolerance for idiots. (Though my husband is FAR less bone-headed and stubborn than Vix can sometimes be!) I didn’t base the character on him consciously, but when I was writing Empress of the Seven Hills, my husband was deployed to the Persian Gulf in much the same part of the world where Vix was fighting in the Parthian Wars, so maybe life was imitating fiction!
KATE For me, the most difficult character was Emperor Hadrian. Historically he is an extremely complex and contradictory man – he was lazy and energetic, artistic and scientific, cruel and kind – almost every trait he had was bracketed by its exact opposite! Trying to pin him down well enough to write him was like trying to pin down a handful of water.
ELIZABETH True! Hadrian was quite a contradictory man! You found how to tie it all in, get down to the core of the human being.
KATE And I have no idea if I got him right. But that’s the fun part about historical fiction – you can write your own “take” on a historical figure, but it doesn’t invalidate someone else’s if they take the same set of facts and find a different interpretation.
LEA My desire to listen to the entire series NOW (!) just keeps increasing.
KATE Oh, good. And please buy copies for all your friends and family. Every single one.
LEA Elizabeth – I see that you have added a healthy number of romances to your list of audiobook performances. Do you have any news to share with us about recent or future projects – romance or not?
ELIZABETH I do have some exciting balls in the air. I’m just wrapping up Hôtel on the Place Vendôme by Tilar Mazzeo, about the Ritz Hotel during WWII occupied Paris. Amazing life and death and scandal tales about the celebrities, socialites, and war correspondents who passed through – and sometimes lived at – the Ritz. I’m just starting a lovely little romance A Simple Amish Christmas. And a little later this month I’m doing historical romance again, Daughters of Versailles by Sally Christie.18th century. I love my work!
KATE Oh, goodness, more for my TBR list!
ELIZABETH Yes, romance to cover the entire range of preference!
ELIZABETH Or at least some of the range
LEA Hmmm – although the romances intrigue, I think I’m going for Hôtel on the Place Vendôme first! How fascinating.
LEA So Kate, it sounds as if we won’t be seeing more in the Empress of Rome series. Has it officially come to an end?
KATE I’m done with the Empress of Rome series, I think. I might do more in Rome in the future, maybe doubling back for an Early Empire tale… who knows? But right now I’m working on something very new and very exciting, completely different from anything I’ve written before. I wish I could say more, but my agent has sworn me to secrecy for the time being.
ELIZABETH Oooo – it’s always intriguing to have secret projects in the works. Bait bait…
LEA I (really) want to ask more. But I’ll just say that we’ll be watching!
KATE Thanks! As a project it terrifies me because it’s so different – a bit like setting out to sea in a cardboard boat. But it’s exciting, too!
LEA Thank you ladies for joining us today. We have a First Chapter Listen of Mistress of Rome immediately below our chat. And we can’t forget our series giveaway!
KATE Thanks so much for having me, Lea. And a huge thank-you to Elizabeth for doing such a wonderful job reading my whole Rome series and bringing them to such vivid life.
ELIZABETH This has been so much fun!! I love hanging out with the AudioGals! And Kate – you are awesome!
ELIZABETH Thx Kate – glad you approved!
LEA We always love having you Elizabeth! Please keep us updated on your romance releases. And thanks again Kate. I know listeners will be intrigued by our talk today.
ELIZABETH Thanks for orchestrating our chat interview, Lea!
First Chapter Listen
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Now that I have listened to Mistress of Rome, I’m anxious to continue. I hope you will be joining me in listening to the complete Empress of Rome series!