Today, I’m delighted to welcome Ruth Downie back to the Roma Nova writing world. She’s talked before about historic truth and donkey poo, and wrote a poignant account ‘from below’ at the court of Boudica as part of A Year of Ravens. Of course, Roma Novans know her as the name on the endorsement for AURELIA.
In 2004 Ruth was one of the winners in a televised short story competition, and the BBC’s threat to come back and see how her writing was going spurred her to finish her abandoned crime novel about a Roman army medic. To her great surprise that book—‘Medicus’—became a New York Times bestseller and The Times recommended it as one of their ‘Seven best thrillers for Christmas’. ‘Vita Brevis’, the seventh book in the acclaimed series, was published just recently. When she isn’t writing, Ruth’s happiest moments are spent grovelling in mud with an archaeological trowel.
Salve Ruth! Do tell us why you wrote VITA BREVIS!
Neither of my lead characters, Roman army doctor Ruso and his British partner, Tilla has ever been to Rome before (lots of ‘Roman’ citizens were born and died without ever seeing it) and I thought it would be fun to see what they made of it. Of course, there was a research trip involved, which helped… (Any excuse!)
Why do you think Ruso is like he is?
Poor old Ruso: he’s a man burdened with guilt. He’s the eldest son, but in following his own interests and becoming a doctor, he’s not only shocked his late father but landed his brother with the burden of the family farm — and the family. Perhaps he’s trying to make up for that guilt when he finds it very hard to say ‘no’ – to his patients, his woman, and to people who insist on presenting him with dead bodies and expecting him to do something about them. But if he doesn’t, who will?
Surrounded by men of ambition, he’s too honest to imagine himself as a success. The advances of modern medicine lie a long way in the future and like every other reputable doctor of his time, he’s aware that Fortune can be fickle and that there’s a huge amount he simply doesn’t know. Which is why charlatans who mislead patients with impossible promises make him very angry indeed.
What does he think he’s like?
Ruso sees himself as a man who’s doing his best in trying circumstances. He’s baffled by religion — especially his wife’s insistence on believing anything and everything — and tries to take consolation in philosophy, but people will keep interrupting.
He finds that being married to a native gives him useful insights into the minds of the Britons, which are not as clouded as his compatriots tend to assume. However, as the civilized member of the marriage he feels he has a duty to defend the superior values of Rome. This is more of a challenge than it needs to be because of Tilla’s stubborn insistence on asking awkward questions.
He’s not entirely comfortable in the company of women, having a vague suspicion they all know something he doesn’t. Being married to Tilla has helped with this, because he’s now beginning to think that whatever it is, Tilla doesn’t know it either.
Of one thing, though, he is certain. Every man has his limits. No matter what anyone else says, he is not going to make room for any more waifs, strays, unwanted slaves or other people’s unplanned babies. The Petreius household is full. (Oh, yes?)
What waits for us in Vita Brevis?
Ruso and Tilla and their new baby daughter have left Roman-occupied Britain for Rome itself. Their excitement is soon dulled by the discovery that the grand facades of polished marble mask an underworld of corrupt landlords and vermin-infested tenements. There are also far too many doctors—some skilled, but others positively dangerous.
Ruso thinks he has been offered a reputable medical practice only to find that his predecessor Doctor Kleitos has fled, leaving a dead man in a barrel on the doorstep and the warning, “Be careful who you trust.”
With Ruso’s reputation under threat, he and Tilla must protect their small family from Doctor Kleitos’s debt collectors and find allies in their new home while they track down the vanished doctor and find out the truth about the unfortunate man in the barrel.
“Masterfully draws out its suspense, painting a vivid portrait of ancient Rome that feels persuasive and authentic”
“Downie’s plotting is as engaging as ever… much more than a mystery novel”
—Historical Novel Society
“Reading Vita Brevis felt like catching up with old friends”
—Italophile Book Reviews
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