Write It Sideways

Interview with Historical Fiction Author Elisabeth Storrs

Today’s post is written by Debra Eve of LaterBloomer.com.

All writers lead double lives.

They create worlds and cook dinner, slay monsters and do washloads, invent starships and stand in traffic, work their dreams, work a day job, and raise a family.

Bram Stoker, PD James, and David Seidler all wrote on the side until they could write full time.

Back in April, I profiled author Diane Capri, who considers herself a ‘recovering attorney.’ Her list of thrillers reflects those years of legal expertise. And her latest, Don’t Know Jack, which revisits her friend Lee Child’s first novel, has become a Kindle phenomenon.

In this installment, I interview Australian author and attorney Elisabeth Storrs, whose first novel, The Wedding Shroud, was published by Pier9/Murdoch Books in 2010.

The Wedding Shroud takes place in 406 BC Italy, over three centuries before the reign of Julius Caesar. It brings to life a mysterious, forgotten culture—the Etruscans, who gave Tuscany its name.

Teenage Caecilia of Rome is forced into a political marriage with Vel Mastarna of Etruria, a demon-haunted hero twice her age. In this era, Roman society sequestered women while the Etruscans allowed them independence. The Wedding Shroud explores themes of destiny versus self-determination and tolerance versus prejudice. As a former archaeologist, I can vouch for the stunning realism Elisabeth Storrs has captured.

Elisabeth Storrs has been a solicitor, corporate lawyer, senior manager, and company secretary. She currently advises companies on corporate governance. And she has raised two sons!

I’ll let her tell the rest of her story.

Elisabeth, you graduated from the University of Sydney in Arts Law, majored in English, but studied Classics. I’m guessing that you’ve been passionate about ancient Greece and Rome for many years. Why the detour to law?

I believe that tertiary education provides two opportunities: professional training and enlightenment. Degrees such as Arts/Law allow you to combine the two. My father gave me a great love for Classics and encouraged me to appreciate the value of knowledge for the purpose of broadening the mind.

However, I was also attracted to the drama of the courtroom which led me to studying law (although the reality of memorizing case law was far from exciting!) I guess my brain is both analytical and creative, which causes a constant tug of war within me. As to deciding on a career, I’m afraid the practicalities of paying a mortgage took priority. My analytical side won out.

A single image inspired The Wedding Shroud. You found a photo of a sarcophagus depicting an Etruscan husband and wife in a loving embrace. Why did this affect you so?

The impact upon me of finding a husband and wife depicted in such a way was profound.

In classical times women were the possessions of men. In Athens they were cloistered in women’s quarters. In Rome they were second class citizens restricted to rearing their children and household duties.

What’s more, Roman women were given only one name, that of their father’s in feminine form, and when they died, their ashes were placed in a man’s tomb. Women were not commemorated.

Knowing this put into context the extraordinary rendering of the couple on the sarcophagus and piqued my interest to discover what kind of ancient society would portray both a man and a woman in such a sensuous pose.

The answer led me to the Etruscans who were reviled throughout the ancient world as being decadent, wicked and corrupt because they afforded independence, education and sexual freedom to women.

Beyond their treatment of women, what most fascinates you about the Etruscans?

There are so many aspects to this sophisticated society that I love, but their religion is of particular interest.

Unlike the Romans, who did not codify their beliefs, the tenets of the Etruscan religion were set out in a series of sacred books that formed the Etruscan Discipline, with its complex branches of haruspicy, divination and most fascinating of all, the interpretation of lightning to predict the future.

In fact, their priests foretold that Etruria would end after ten sacred eras, which appears to have come true. The Etruscans also believed that they could delay fate, which became an essential plot component in my novel.

The Wedding Shroud took ten years to complete four years to write the first draft, three to rewrite per your agent’s recommendations, and three to edit. I’m guessing you performed a balancing act between family, job, and book. How did you manage? What was your writing schedule?

Balancing act is correct. It was no wonder it took me ten years to finish The Wedding Shroud!

When my sons were little I set aside two to four hours every week by hiring a young babysitter to look after them while I wrote. I researched at night, sitting up in bed reading history books into the wee hours. I tried to be disciplined by always setting aside a regular time to write and sticking to it.

How did Ursula Le Guin come to endorse The Wedding Shroud?

When I decided I would try to have the book endorsed by a well-known author I thought it would be best if I could identify someone who was interested in the subject matter of my novel, not just in history per se.

Around this time Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia was released. I was intrigued by the title of her book as I recognised it as the name of the wife of Aeneas, the hero of The Aeneid, an epic written by the Roman poet Virgil. I loved translating this story at school. It struck me that Ursula Le Guin must have a similar affection.

I looked at her website and found that she was prepared to write blurbs for books, but would only respond to snail mail. She also specified that overseas correspondents should include an international reply coupon if they expected a response. On the premise of ‘she can only say no’, I wrote her a letter.

In it, I explained how much I enjoyed Lavinia because of my fondness for The Aeneid. I also provided a one-page synopsis of my novel. To my utter astonishment, she responded a few weeks later to say that she had always been fascinated by the Etruscans and would like to visit Etruria through reading my book. Imagine my excitement when she then agreed to endorse it!

What an inspiring story about doing your homework and overcoming self-doubt! In closing, what can you tell writers with families and day jobs about keeping the faith?

When I was writing The Wedding Shroud, I was one of the ‘sandwich generation’ squeezed between raising young children and tending to elderly and invalid parents, as well as pursuing a career.

Writing was my way of escaping this pressure. Discipline is the key. And the four ‘Ps: passion, patience, perseverance and practice. I recommend setting aside a time, date and place in your diary. It is amazing how even one hour a week can add up over time (as well as thinking about your story at every available moment).

After all, the creation of my novel was like the development of each of my sons: from a little thing, a big thing grew.

Thank you, Elisabeth Storrs, for sharing your tips on balancing family, writing, and job.

If you love historical fiction, I whole-heartedly recommend The Wedding Shroud, which is available internationally at Fishpond, The Nile, Kindle US, Kindle UK and other stores listed on Elisabeth’s website. She is currently editing the sequel to The Wedding Shroud, due out in 2013.

Interviewer Debra Eve wrote the Kindle bestseller, Later Bloomers: 35 Folks Over Age 35 Who Found Their Passion And Purpose. She blogs at LaterBloomer.com. You can also find her on Twitter.