Author Interview: Alison Morton

Please welcome to The Z-Axis Alison Morton, independent author of Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with strong heroines. She holds a bachelor’s degree in French, German and Economics, a masters’ in history and lives in France with her husband. Her debut novel, INCEPTIO, was shortlisted for the 2013 International Rubery Book Award and awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion. The next in series, PERFIDITAS, published October 2013, has also been honored with the B.R.A.G. Medallion. Alison is in the process of publishing the third in the series, SUCCESSIO, out in June 2014. 

INCEPTIOAlison, your Roma Nova alternative history series is far from conventional, but has earned you extensive praise and success as an independent author. Where does INCEPTIO fit into the range of literary genres and how does it fall outside of conventional typecasting?

Primarily, INCEPTIO is a thriller, but there are no dripping body parts or gratuitous violence. The tension comes more from threats and Carina, the heroine’s, reactions to them. The relationship between Carina and the enigmatic Conrad weaves in and out the action in all my books, and adds another layer of personal tension. Fictional life would be a little grey without the emotional pull of personal entanglement!

The setting of Roma Nova is entirely imaginary, a small country that could have survived if history had gone on a different, alternative path. So I combine these elements and classify my stories as “alternate history thrillers”.  

What drew you to alternative history storylines when you started writing INCEPTIO? 

I read Robert Harris’s Fatherland in 1982 and was caught. I never knew books could explore a timeline that was familiar to a point but which had followed a different path. And it was a tightly written, page-turning thriller, besides!

The juxtaposition of a tough Roman-style society and women leading that society – my feminist ideals coming out – was just too tempting.  Although ‘feisty’ heroines are around, they often depend in some way on the man in their lives. Carina doesn’t. She makes her own way, but it doesn’t preclude having a full emotional life as well.

Alternate history is a sub-genre of history (or perhaps of science fiction?) that allows the writer to expand beyond the standard framework of historical writing. In Roma Nova, the egalitarian nature of the society is taken as the norm which can be a little off-balancing for some readers. But then, writing wouldn’t be fun if it didn’t push the boundaries.

You’ve taken Roman history at AD 395 and extrapolated out what might happen if a small segment of Roman civilization had survived to modern times. How does history itself inform your world-building? 

Although the Roma Nova stories take place in the present, I had to research extensively around the point where the timeline split in AD 395 when Roma Nova history started. I researched food, costume and work, attitudes to crime, life, death, servants, masters, marriage, trade, property at the time of the split to ensure I had a firm knowledge base from which to develop my stories.

But writing ‘into the void’, you have to be careful to keep it plausible or you’ll lose the reader’s trust. One way I did this was to infuse the story with corroborative detail so reinforced the narrative. Even though my books are set in the 21st century, the characters say things like ‘I wouldn’t be in your sandals (not shoes) when he finds out.’

Human beings of all ages and cultures have similar emotional needs, hurts and joys. Of course, they’re expressed differently, sometimes in an alienating or (to us) peculiar way but they bind us into the story.

The hardest element is the conflict between projecting our timeline sensitivities and viewpoints on to people living in a completely different set of circumstances. The ancient Romans were very open about sexual matters as they regarded sex as allied to fertility and survival rather than embarrassment and guilt. And they would have given you a puzzled look if you’d suggested love was the main reason for marriage. In Roma Nova, women head the families and it is up to them to chose their partners and whether to marry them or not.

You’re a student of history as well as a novelist. As a student of history myself, I’m always curious what draws people to their chosen time period. What inspires you to study and write about Rome? 

Strange, isn’t it? Rome was founded in 753 BC by riff-raff led, according to the legend, by Romulus and Remus and ended in the west in AD 476. That’s an impressive 1229 years, seven hundred years of which Rome was the most politically important, richest, and largest city in the Western world. I don’t want to copy the John Cleese speech in The Life of Brian, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” so I won’t go on about baths, transport, trade, architecture, etc.

I admire the complexity of their civil and economic as well as military life, their multiculturalism and scientific engineering which never reached so advanced a level again in the West until at least the Renaissance and in some cases the Enlightenment.

The ancient Roman attitude to women was legally repressive, but towards the later period it changed considerable with much more freedom to act, trade and own property. Divorce was easy, although adultery could be fatal. More happily, there are many accounts of women owning land and running businesses of all types. As you know, history is not all it seems to be in the public perception and there is often more buried waiting to be discovered. And so it is with the Romans.

Alison MortonWhy did you decide to self-publish instead of pursuing a traditional publishing contract? 

I did pursue the traditional route for a while; this is what I had learnt during my three year writing apprenticeship. I made the classic mistake of submitting too soon, but had some encouraging replies. Several rewrites later and I’d received some requests for full manuscript, including one from a US agent! I had replies like “If it was a straight thriller, I’d take it on” and “Your writing is excellent, but it wouldn’t fit our list.”

From all this feedback and in my own head, I knew my writing was of publishable standard. I was (am!) passionate about my stories so I decided to self-publish with bought-in publishing services. I knew I didn’t have the skills and, being honest, I didn’t want to use writing time to learn them. Using very carefully chosen high quality professional backing (editing, advice, registrations, typesetting, design, book jacket, proofing, etc.), I’ve found it a fantastic way for a new writer to enter the market.

These days, these boundaries are in flux: many readers are surprised that the quality of my paperbacks is higher than much of the mainstream product; I have been interviewed on many sites which previously would not look at independently published work; my launches have been in commercial chain bookshops and I have been invited to speak at several events.  In my head, I am just “published”. End of.

You worked as a translator for many years before turning to writing fiction. How did your work as a translator affect your own writing style? 

Translators not only have to understand the words in front of them but also unpick the meaning of the message behind those words. Every sentence, even every phrase, has to be evaluated in its cultural and technical setting if you are to tease out the real meaning. Writers also know about the agonies of hunting out the exact word or turn of phrase to express their message.

The other glorious thing is that translation makes you aware of cultural connotations, and the difference between being “of” a culture and being “in” a culture. I confess, I loved making Karen face the cultural crossing and not just the linguistic one in trying to remember the Latin she spoke as a child.

A good translation is cohesive, not a collection of individual sentences which happen to be on the same page. A scene in a chapter should be the same and each chapter should be part of a cohesive document, i.e. your book. And you learn to self-edit like a demon with a side-order of extra ferocity.

Finally, what’s the worst advice you would give to any aspiring author?

Alison’s Five Worst Tips

  • Don’t bother getting anyone to edit your work

  • Always use standard software for your cover

  • Take the format offered online for your book interior and don’t bother about margins and white space

  • Don’t bother interacting with other authors – what do they know?

  • Stay all day on Facebook and Twitter – that’s research, right?

Thank you so much, Alison, for taking the time to answer all my questions. On Alison’s behalf, I’d ask that if you enjoyed this interview, you take a moment to connect with her via Facebook, Twitter, or on her blog