Fiona Forsyth on Poetic Justice

Fiona Forsyth

The author discusses her latest novel, the story of the exiled poet Ovid.
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Fiona Forsyth, you have moved on from the Lucius Sestius mysteries to a new series. How does it feel to say goodbye to characters like Lucius?

When the story demands a certain resolution then it is easy to say goodbye. I’m not going to say I cried when killing off Lucius, though I came close. I was very fond of Lucius, though he would have driven me to distraction in real life. I think the reason I gave him a sister was that I could see he was a bit clueless, and she looked after him for me. From the beginning, I knew Lucius would not make very old bones, and sure enough once the Altar of Augustan Peace was started, it was time for him to go. What I found quite unsettling was when I realised for the first time that I had killed off Lucius when he was the same age as me.

Your books have now moved into the first century AD and your new hero is the love poet Ovid. What is it about him that makes him a good focus?

I don’t actually like Ovid very much! And to be honest, I don’t think readers will be too impressed at first, though I can say that he grows on you. What I had to keep reminding myself was that Ovid was being sent into exile to a small town on the edge of the Roman Empire, with little real hope of seeing Rome again. For someone like him this was absolutely appalling. When I was doing the research I read the historical Ovid’s exile poems and it became clear what sort of character I was going to introduce. The person I saw in the poems was self-pitying, not to say whiny. He was clearly very unhappy, and of course I felt sorry for him, but I did begin to think harsh thoughts as I started yet another poem of woe. And so my fictional Ovid was born – irritating, a little childish, self-centred but charming. You don’t write poems like the Metamorphoses and The Art of Love without knowing how to be charming!

What challenges did you face in starting this new series?

The big challenge was the setting, which was a Greek town on the western shore of the Black Sea. It is now the Romanian city of Constanta, and Ovid’s Tomis is gone, either buried under the modern city or vanished into the sea. I’d got used to dealing with a well-documented landscape, but once you get out of Italy, you have to be more creative. I was so grateful to the Archaeological Museum in Constanta, which makes many publications available on their website, often translated into English. Just reconstructing a very basic map of Tomis took ages, and we don’t really know where any important building was. I also discovered that I was setting the book at a time when Tomis was neither one thing nor the other – the Roman province of Moesia was just beginning to be formed but wasn’t formalised until Tiberius became Emperor. So I had no idea of relations between the Roman governor and the people of this old Greek town, who had run themselves for six hundred years without needing interference. I thought it unlikely that they were all thrilled at the prospect of Roman taxation, for example.

Now that Ovid has in Poetic Justice survived his first few months in Tomis, where do you see him going?

I think Ovid will get more settled in Tomis, though he will still write pitiful pleading poetry about it. In the next book, Ovid faces the reason he was exiled and I have neglected all sober academic research and come up with a theory that is a blinder, if I say so myself! More seriously, the book will cover the death of the Emperor Augustus, a time of great importance, because no Emperor of Rome had died before. Yes, Augustus had planned for a seamless transition of power, but it was also the opportunity for rebellion and restoration of the Roman Republic. A time of fragility and uncertainty is ideal as the setting for a novel so Ovid and his wife Fabia will risk their lives as they are embroiled in the aftermath of Augustus.

Fiona Forsyth is the author of Poetic Justice.