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Authorgraph No.218


T


he snack bar of a cinema on the Fulham Road seems like an unlikely place to meet Caroline Lawrence, whose Roman Mysteries series so beautifully evokes the tangy, salty bustle of Rome in the first century AD. Her new book this year Queen of the Silver Arrow, which retells the story of the


warrior maiden Camilla from Virgil’s Aeneid; and her new sequence, Roman Quests, (set twelve years after the events of Roman Mysteries, and following a group of young people escaping to Britannia), tread similar ground. Widely read in classical literature (Lawrence has a copy of Ovid’s little known work the Fasti in her loo, she tells me), she aims for historical accuracy, clear language and tight plots in her work. Both commercially and critically successful, her books are loved by hundreds of thousands of children (and adults) – and (fortunately for us all) it looks like there are many more to come.


In person, Caroline Lawrence radiates enthusiasm, beaming through spectacles framed by frizzy hair, perching in a red coat on the sofa like a bird. Personable and witty, in another life she might have been the Latin teacher everyone wanted: (‘Rats!’ she exclaims at one point in her gentle American accent; at another, as we discuss some particularly horrible things the Romans did, ‘You know they were barbarians! Real barbarians! People are barbarians!’). As car alarms go off, muzac blares around us, and my phone keeps ringing, disrupting my dictaphone, her liveliness remains undimmed. Given


Caroline Lawrence Interviewed


by Philip Womack


her output, I suggest, she must have a really strong work ethic? ‘I can only write in the morning,’ she says. ‘I get up at five thirty, five and try to write for a few hours but then as soon as stuff starts coming in you get distracted, but it’s really hard, it’s like juggling balls, you know it’s like so complicated.’


This particular cinema is her ‘home away from home’. This is unsurprising, given her deep interest in the mechanics of storytelling: ‘I love a well-made film that takes you and grabs you and tells a story and then leaves you changed at the end. I’m massively obsessed with story structure,’ she says. Her ‘breakthrough in writing’ came when a friend of hers told her ‘about John Truby, who had 22 steps of a great story, and of those 7 are essential – that was what I needed.’ These steps include ‘the desire, the inciting incident, the collection of allies, the visit to death – a lot of these go back to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. I needed train tracks or a framework to hang my ideas on because I’m not interested in plot, I’m interested in the setting, the world, but I needed something to keep the kids reading. If you’re writing for adults you don’t have to worry about plot, but if you’re writing for kids … it has to be strong.’


So much so, that though she ‘started out using structure just as a way to hang my ideas, but now having been writing for about twenty years – I’ve been trying to teach myself the craft – the more I learn, the more I think that structure is the most important part, because it’s how we live our lives, and it actually throws light on why we have struggles in our lives, and why we have opponents, and why we’re afraid of trying new things.’ The craft is one of her ‘obsessions’, particularly ‘story beats. One that I love is crossing the threshold – the Romans were obsessed with thresholds – the word limen [threshold] is all over Virgil.’ Adolescence is liminal, I suggest: ‘Liminality – yes, yeah, and seasons have liminality. The summer solstice and the autumn equinox, they have liminality.’ All powerful tools for stories.


Children’s books, then, for Lawrence, are a way of exploring life: ‘when I go to schools I talk a lot about structure … like crossing the threshold … so fascinating, because it’s when the hero leaves their ordinary world and goes into the world of adventure, and they have to go on their own usually. … I say to the kids, what’s the first time you crossed the threshold in your life, when you first leave your ordinary life and go into the world of adventure? Sometimes they say, first day of school and I say yes, excellent, but there’s one before that, and they get it – when you’re born.”


8 Books for Keeps No.218 May 2016


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