Monday, April 28, 2014

An interview with Phyllis T. Smith, author of I Am Livia

I'm excited to bring you this interview with Phyllis T. Smith, whose debut novel releases this Thursday, May 1st.  I Am Livia is a smoothly engaging account of Livia Drusilla, who became the renowned and reviled first empress of Rome as the wife of Caesar Augustus. Speaking in a clear, honest voice, she sets the record straight by revealing her story: her early life as the daughter of the Roman aristocracy, her arranged first marriage to Tiberius Nero, her unexpected attraction to Rome's ambitious young emperor, and much more.  No previous knowledge of the personalities and complex politics of the era is needed, since all of the details are well explained.  Readers who seek out fiction about intelligent, powerful women of the past will find a great deal to enjoy here I definitely did!

What draws you to ancient Rome as a setting? 

I remember as a child loving Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels set in Roman Britain. Later, I enjoyed I Claudius (both the book and the TV miniseries), which introduced me to Livia as a fictional villain. In college, I took a wonderful classical civilization course that exposed me to Plutarch’s Lives. The high drama of Roman history just spoke to me. Then, too, I’m struck by how in the later years of the Republic the Romans were dealing with problems that might have some parallels today. Reading Cicero’s correspondence, I feel much closer to him than I do to medieval kings when I read primary source material about them. From his letters, he could almost be a modern politician. But of course he wasn’t that. The Romans lived in a world which was similar to ours in some ways, but also profoundly different, which is what makes them so fascinating.

In your author's note, you mention that Livia is thought to be the most powerful woman in the history of ancient Rome. How much did this play into your decision to choose her as a subject?

It was a big part of my decision because I’m interested in women in politics. For most of recorded history, women have been limited to exerting influence through their relationships with powerful men. Now in many places they’re coming into their own and are increasingly holding high public office. I’m gripped by the question of what that means for the world; I certainly hope it means something good. There is evidence that Livia used her influence to make Caesar Octavianus’s rule more benign. She ultimately paid a price, in being defamed by some Roman historians who didn’t like the idea of a powerful woman.

It’s surprising how much Livia acted like a modern first lady, with her charitable activities and her going to comfort disaster victims. She had to project an image of ideal Roman domesticity, while helping to run an empire. The concern with a family-oriented image seems very modern. So in the book I was able to play with this question: What is different now and what is the same?

You present Caesar Octavianus from a viewpoint that readers don't normally see. What more did you discover about him as a character when envisioning him through Livia's eyes?

Caesar Octavianus knew how to be ruthless in public life. But there is no way to make his behavior with Livia psychologically comprehensible unless you assume he was capable of deep human emotions, including love. Looking at him through Livia’s eyes, I could see him as someone plunged as a teenager into a viper’s nest—Roman politics at that time. Not that he deserves a moral pass, but he lived in a harsh world. In the book, Livia sees all the ways in which he is vulnerable, including the fact that when he goes out to fight a battle there’s no guarantee that he’ll win or even survive.

The scene in which Tiberius Nero and his pregnant wife Livia invite Caesar to a dinner party at their home was one of my favorites, not just because it brings so many strong personalities together for a social event but also because it reveals new sides to everyone's character. Was it as enjoyable to write as it was to read?

I love hearing that you liked that scene! It was very enjoyable to write. In particular, I got a kick out of weaving in mythology. I knew that Caesar in later years tried to write a tragic play about Ajax, the warrior in the Iliad. (He decided he had no talent and threw the play away.) I wondered why he picked Ajax of all people as his tragic hero. No biography I read explained that. But in the Iliad I came across Ajax’s prayer for light on the field of battle. This fit in well with Caesar’s recorded reverence for Apollo, god of light and knowledge. In the dinner party scene, Caesar talks about Ajax, and people speak revealingly about their favorite deities. Meanwhile, the attraction between Caesar and Livia begins to sizzle, and that was fun to show.

author Phyllis T. Smith
I thought you did an excellent job bringing a human dimension to many iconic figures from the period. Were any of them more of a challenge to relate to, or to re-create on the page, than others?

Mark Antony was hard to relate to. I just didn’t like him much! Not because his love affair with Cleopatra made his wife Octavia’s life unpleasant, though it certainly did. But because he was gratuitously brutal and did things like ordering Cicero’s head and hands cut off in revenge for his oratory. I found Antony’s indifference to his supporters during the Perusian War repellent, too. His brother, wife, and two small sons (not to mention Livia) were in a besieged city and he did nothing to help them. But I tried hard to look at things from Antony’s viewpoint and also to imagine why Octavia stayed loyal to him, what she found appealing. I didn’t want him to come off as a cartoon villain.

Livia's sister Secunda, who marries a merchant rather than a politician, prefers to avoid the spotlight; she serves as Livia's foil and gives her insight into what the Roman people really think about her. Is Secunda a historical character, and if so, how much is known about her?

Roman historians recorded quite a bit about Livia’s father, but I found only scraps of information about other members of the family she grew up in. We know she did not have a biological brother because her father adopted an adult male relative with the goal of carrying on the family name. Livia may or may not have had a sister or sisters. If she did have one, that person apparently stayed completely out of view.

Roman women in Livia’s time were given the feminine form of the family name. So any sisters she had also would have been called Livia—confusing in a novel! Secunda was a nickname for a second daughter. I gave Livia a younger sister because she seemed like the big sister type to me. It’s not improbable that as a young woman she had some surviving relative around who could link her to her childhood, but we really don’t know if she did. I wanted Secunda to be a reminder of Livia’s past.

It was great to see that I Am Livia had made it as a finalist in the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition. Can you talk a little bit about what this American Idol-style writing contest was like for you as an author?

The ABNA contest is great for aspiring novelists because breaking in is so challenging and this is a way to get your writing noticed. After the initial pitch stage (entries first compete on the basis of a 300-word book pitch), there are three points at which you receive reviews of your work and may or may not progress in the competition. I think most people feel a certain amount of angst anticipating the reviews. I certainly did—it was a lot like waiting for Simon Cowell’s take on my singing. But the feedback can be valuable and the contest is a learning experience. A community has developed on the contest discussion boards where contestants share information about writing and critique each other’s work. The mutual support and camaraderie are amazing.

I had a fantastic time at the award ceremony in Seattle. The highpoint for me was giving a reading from I Am Livia at the Amazon campus. Being showered with gifts—books and more books, plus a Kindle—was nice, too. The people at Amazon, both those associated with the competition and those at Amazon Publishing—my editor Terry Goodman above all—have been enormously supportive of me as an author, and I’m very grateful.


Phyllis T. Smith's I Am Livia will be published on May 1st by Lake Union, an imprint of Amazon Publishing ($8.97 trade paperback, $4.99 ebook, 394pp).


  1. Wonderful post. This is the second review I've read of this novel. I was undecided as to adding it to my wish list, but after this interview I'm anxious to read the book. Plus, I tend to trust anything recommended on Reading the Past. I was relieved that you said one did not need an understanding of the complex politics of the era to be able to read and enjoy this novel.

    1. Hi Linda, thanks for your comments! I wasn't familiar with Livia's story before reading the novel, and I never felt like I was lost. It was a good introduction to the people and politics of the era.

  2. I never knew Caesar tried to write.

  3. Hi Shelley, he actually wrote an autobiography which unfortunately has been lost, and also at least one biography of another person. But he threw away the play he started, apparently because he just didn't think it was very good.

  4. Anonymous6:16 PM

    I really enjoyed this book! It is not a typical genre that I read but I really liked it. I was very sad to have finished it!

  5. I have been very interested in knowing more about this novel. Great questions, Sarah. I can't wait to get my hands on this book.