Author Interview with Annelise Freisenbruch
Born in Bermuda in 1977, Annelise moved to the UK when she was eight. She studied Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge, receiving her PhD in 2004. She released her first non-fiction book The First Ladies of Rome in 2010. Blood in the Tiber is her debut novel. Annelise sat down with us to talk about her writing process.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Absolutely, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I can’t imagine that there are that many writers who don’t say that. When I was a kid I was always making up stories. I used to write little limericks about my friends at school and I remember at university for a while I used to write very ridiculous, surreal stories about people in my university Classics department. Then I started writing a novel when I was about 19 – it wasn’t very good and I never finished it, but there was an idea there I might go back to one day.
How did you get into writing?
I did my PhD in Classics, then shortly after I finished I went to work for the TV historian Bettany Hughes. I was her researcher on her first book which was a study of Helen of Troy. It gave me an interesting insight into the process of somebody writing a book and the publishing industry in general.
After that I was taken on by Bettany’s agents Lucas Alexander Whitley. I sent them a book proposal, that didn’t end up getting written, but they took me on the strength of that. Then I had the idea for my first non-fiction book, The First Ladies of Rome, about the wives, mothers and daughters of the Roman Emperors. That’s how I got started. When I thought about being a writer, I always imagined being a novelist, but then it occurred to me that maybe I was a bit more qualified to write a non-fiction book.
When do you write?
Well, I’m a part-time Latin teacher so that I can write. Teaching is the perfect job for a writer, you have all those lovely holidays.
When I wrote Blood in the Tiber I was teaching at a prep school, where I was working three and half days a week. Now I’m at a new school where I just teach in the morning and write every afternoon. Writing and teaching come from a very similar place. What you’re trying to do is get an image from your head into somebody else’s and trying to find the right words for that.
And where do you write?
I write in a little bedroom at the top of my house, it’s got a fantastic view. I know some writers don’t like writing with a view, they find it distracting, but I really like having a sense of space and scope in front of me.
What is your greatest fear as a writer?
I suppose not being any good. That is probably what most writers think. Blood in the Tiber came out a week or two ago, and when you’re writing it you are so immersed in that world that it exists for only you. Then you send it off and all of a sudden you’ve got the book in front of you, and you realise, ‘Oh my God’ people are actually going to read this. It’s been very odd. You feel vulnerable and you worry, ‘What if people hate it?’
Are you an outline writer or a discovery writer?
I’m a bit of a mixture if I’m honest. For my first book, I researched it very thoroughly. When writing a non-fiction book the research comes first and then the story comes after to an extent. With Blood in the Tiber I had a very good piece of advice which was, ‘write the story first, and then do the research.’ And although with a historical novel that sounds risky, and a bit dangerous, I know exactly what they meant. You need the framework. You need the skeleton of history that you’re going to hang your story on, but actually it’s the characters that matter, it’s the story that matters. While you don’t want to do anything that is historically dishonest, it is the characters that matter.
So for Blood in the Tiber I started with a rough outline and then basically let the story take me where it would. I never understood when fiction writers would say that they were surprised by their characters. I always thought, ‘but they come from your head, they do what you want them to do.’ Now after writing this book I understand that your characters can surprise you. You can end up places that you really didn’t expect. They do take on a life of their own.
How much research did go into Blood in the Tiber?
The genesis of the book was the character Hortensia, it all started with her. I came across her for the first time when I was researching the education of Roman women for The First Ladies of Rome. There were references to a few women who were vilified for attempting to speak in public, which was seen as very much a man’s job. Hortensia was one of the very few women who was actually praised in the historical records for her ability. When I read about this, I had my character – a female lawyer in the politically tumultuous world of the Roman Republic. She came very strongly to my mind. I started by imagining her, then I looked into her family background – because Hortensia was so well-connected, it meant I could weave lots of the big narratives of Roman history into hers, and feature lots of Rome’s best-known figures like Caesar, Pompey and Crassus. And because I had written on Roman women before, be it in a slightly different period of history, I had a pretty good bank of notes about them, several boxes of them in fact.
One area I did have to do a lot of research on was Roman law and different case studies involving women and family law. That’s where the big court scene in the middle of the novel came from, it was inspired by an actual Roman trial and I just elaborated on it for the book.
So although research is a necessity for historical fiction there comes a point where you have to put the notes away and simply write the story.
So how do you keep track of all those details?
It was pretty much, make it up as I go along. I just sort of had a dishevelled assortment of notes around me. When I write my next book I will probably do it a bit differently. I’ve always wanted to have a crime board, like they have in police departments, where you have all your characters and their storylines mapped out.
What was your favourite scene to write in Blood in the Tiber?
I loved writing the courtroom scene. I enjoy watching a lot of courtroom dramas and films. One of my favourite scenes in film is in ‘A Few Good Men’ when Tom Cruise is just about to pull the rug out from under Jack Nicholson’s feet. I love it when the underdog lawyer turns the tables, as Hortensia does. I also enjoyed writing the action scenes, the swashbuckling bits involving Lucrio, Hortensia’s ex-gladiator sidekick.
If you were stranded on Desert Island and you had one book to take with you, what would it be?
It would probably be Middlemarch by George Eliot. Like many from my generation I had to read this during my A-levels. It was the book that introduced me to George Eliot, who I think is one of the most extraordinary writers who has ever lived. I’ve only read it twice in my life, once when I was seventeen or eighteen and again a few years ago. It’s probably the greatest and wisest book I’ve ever read. I would find a lot in it to keep me company.
What advice would you give to an aspiring novelist?
I’m afraid Nike was on to something when they came up with that Just Do It slogan. I think if you want to write and you want to be a writer, you just have to make yourself one. You just sit down every day and you write. You maybe set yourself a word count and you have to just keep going. You will have a book by the end of it. It may not be the greatest book and there will be tonnes of editing you want to do, but to be a writer you actually have to do it and not talk about it. Write no matter what. Write for you, write for others, but keep those words coming.
The body of a Vestal Virgin is dragged out of the River Tiber…
A senator bleeds to death in his bath… And as the authorities turn a blind eye, Hortensia, daughter of the capital’s most celebrated orator, feels compelled to investigate a trail of murders that lead to the dark heart of Rome.
Flying in the face of her husband’s and father’s attempts to protect her, rebelling against the constraints imposed upon her sex, she is drawn ever deeper into the corrupt underworld that lurks in the shadows cast by the city’s all-powerful elite.
When fires begin to rage in the slums and more key witnesses are silenced, only one man can save Hortensia from becoming the next victim of a conspiracy to destroy the Republic: Lucrio, the damaged ex-gladiator to whom she already owes her life. Then the secrets of his own tragic past threaten to subsume them both…