Manda Scott (MC Scott) is author of more than a dozen novels, including several contemporary crime thrillers, the four Boudica novels exploring the world of the legendary war-leader, and a new series based on imperial Rome. Rome book 4: The Art of War is out in hardback this month, and Rome 3: The Eagle of the Twelfth is newly out in paperback.
We’re thrilled that Manda very graciously took time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions for UK LesFic.
When did you start writing fiction? Which writers would you say inspired or influenced your work?
I began in the mid 90s. I was working full time as a vet, in the clinical department of the Cambridge Vet School and had an idea that I could combine full time veterinary medicine with writing. It wasn’t true, of course, but it took me six years to realise that.
As to influences…I’ve always been moved most by historical novels: Rosemary Sutcliff when I was young, and a slew of WWII RAF memoirs that my father kept in his study. Later, I found Mary Renault and fell in love with her depiction of Alexander (not with the man; I wanted to be him, which is quite different to falling in love with him, but her way of creating a world was and remains one of the best I’ve ever read). These two, without question, are my lasting influences. At the time I began writing, though, there was very little lesbian fiction and there’s no doubt that Val McDermid’s early crime thrillers were an inspiration – an indicator of what was possible. In a world where every other instance of lesbian fiction revolved around the angst of the protagonists’ sexuality, Val’s work showed women who were lesbian and it was simply part of who they were. I wrote the Kellen Stewart series very much in the wake of that idea; that I could have characters who were lesbian without being stressed about it. Getting those published was hard at first. Now, it would be a lot easier.
Your Boudica and Rome series include a mixture of historical and fictional characters. Which do you find easier to bring to life: people who are well documented in a variety of primary sources, those we know very little about, or those who are entirely your own creation?
Fictional characters are always easier than those who have any kind of anchor in historical ‘fact’. They (the fictional ones) can be moved around according to what I need, or – more often – according to who I am coming to understand they are, whereas the ‘factual’ ones have to fit what we know of their lives and so I have to do a kind of reverse development where I know what happened at certain points and have to try to work out who they could have been in order for their actions to fit some kind of internal logic. Everything I write depends entirely on the people driving the narrative so getting under the skin of each character is essential. It’s also easier to let myself leak into the fictional characters –I am much more visible in Bán/Valerius than in Breaca in the Boudican series, for instance, although in the end, she and I merged a lot more than I’d thought, but it was hard, and felt at times as if I was treading into her space.
Your Rome books also include people known primarily from religious sources, such as St Paul. Were you at all nervous about using Biblical characters? What has the response been like?
Was I nervous? Not at all. I think Saulos/Paul was one of history’s more dangerous psychopaths and the more people who understand that, the better. I didn’t just look at Paul, I looked at the entire historical basis for Christianity – in the course of researching what I thought was going to be a straightforward historical spy thriller, I unearthed the historical basis for Christ (three different men, since you ask: one was Judas of the Sicarioi (yes, it is an anagram) crucified as an insurgent having led a highly effective terrorist movement against Rome for nearly 30 years. One – that man’s brother – was a Nazirite, given to the Hebrew god at birth. He was a pacifist, celibate vegetarian and if anyone at all gave the Sermon on the Mount, it was him. He was stoned to death by the Sanhedrin for being too popular. He also prevented the war against Rome for another 30 years after his elder brother’s death.
The third man is the son, or possibly the grandson of Judas, named Menachem. He was an outstanding war leader and led a successful assault against the ‘impregnable’ rock of Masada. When the Romans took it back, they needed three years and the legions had to build themselves a ramp up the side. Menachem took it, defeated and slaughtered the garrison on the top, armed himself from Herod’s armoury, which contained enough supplies for a thousand men for ten thousand days (or ten thousand men for a thousand days, depending on how you look at it) and then led his victorious rebels back against the legions in Jerusalem. Having defeated them, he rode down the streets of Jerusalem on an ass, proclaiming himself king of Israel – which, in fact, he was. He had his own coins minted and raised his own taxes. If his own people hadn’t killed him for ‘behaving like a king’ he might have successfully held Jerusalem against Titus in 70AD – and the history of the world would be very different.
I’ve had one or two people throw hissy fits about this, but the historical data fits with what we know and it’s buried so deeply in The Emperor’s Spy that you have to look for it to see it. One day, I’ll write that story – of Yehuda and Yacov – and give it the space it needs.
It is very easy to get so caught up in your characters’ stories that one forgets the factual outcomes. Are you ever tempted to twist history and create a fictional world in which, for example, the Eceni defeated the Romans and forced them out of Britain?
I did write a short story called The Last Roman in Britain which is predicated on the idea that the Boudican forces won their final battle and drove the legions from Britain. I wrote it to go in the back of the paperback of The Emperor’s Spy and so it brought together Pantera, the spy whose name means Leopard, who has a back history in the tribes of Britain, and Bán/Valerius who is leading the tribes. It was enormous fun to write and I do, often, talk about the though experiment of ‘what the world would be like’ if the Boudican forces had actually won that battle. Nero might have fallen. Seneca might have taken over (that’s the reality in the short story), the druidic power base in Anglesey would have consolidated and been a political stepping-off point for the later rebellions in Gaul and Germany which were suppressed in our reality, but with a free Britain, and a weaker Rome, would have been a lot more powerful.
So by the time the Saxon wolves come in the fourth and fifth centuries, we would still be a warrior nation and less prone to letting them walk all over us. No Anglo-Saxon Britain, and so no battles with Harald Hardrada and so no loss at Hastings, and so no Norman conquest… and through it all, no imposition of the worst of Rome; the concept of marriage in which ownership of a woman passes from her father to her husband – that was completely foreign to the tribes as far as we can tell; no breakdown of the tribes – we’d still be living communally; no imposition of their new religion which was, in essence, the mores of Rome dressed up as if they were supported by a god. Perhaps hypocrisy and suppression of women would still be rife, but it might not be. Certainly the world would be a very different place.
Your Roman novels often have glimpses of characters from past books. Of your many characters, who has stayed with you the most?
That’s hard because a lot of the characters are outward expressions of archetypes that I work with in a shamanic way on a daily basis. So the Elder Grandmother is with me all the time, as is Airmid in her role as Nemain (or, we could say that Airmid is Nemain brought to earth and given form). And then they all have to take something of a back seat to make room for the world I’m inhabiting now, which is 15th Century France. I believe I know who Jeanne d’Arc really was, and it wasn’t a peasant’s daughter from Domremy. If I had to pick one, it would be the Elder Grandmother; she is my go-to source of wisdom and sanity.
Although the lesbian fiction market has grown in recent years and mainstream publishing has become more accepting of gay characters, there can still be a perception – rightly or wrongly – that “straight” books are an easier sell. Do you feel under any pressure to include straight relationships in your books, or is it purely personal choice to do so?
I’ve never been under any pressure either way; my publishers are immensely gracious and pretty much let me write what I want to write. And so that’s what I do: a long time ago, I went on a week long writing workshop on which Fay Weldon was the tutor. She taught me a huge amount, but two things stuck with me that I use daily: ‘find your voice’ and ‘write what you want to read’.
In the beginning, I wanted to read books about lesbian women who were doing other things than being screwed up about their sexuality. Back in the 90s, there weren’t many of those and I had read all of them (and all of the others, about being screwed up. It was a way of balancing out the rigidly heterosexual world of veterinary surgery that I inhabited).
As my writing grew – it’s always an apprenticeship, and each book, I learn something new – I found that I wanted to stretch myself and that writing of other relationships was a natural way to do that. In any case, I was writing history by then and it was necessary: the relationship between the Boudica and Airmid was central to the entire Boudica: Dreaming series, but we know that she was partnered in some way to Prasutagos and she had children, so I had to weave other relationships into the mix. In any case, my understanding of human sexuality, and of the way we were before Rome imposed its straight roads and nuclear families, is that we’re serially monogamous and everyone is somewhere on the span of bisexuality. When you live 80 people to a roundhouse, and your culture has no notion of ‘sexuality’ in any kind of definition, then relationships happen with the people you are closest to and if you’re a warrior, there’s a fair chance that one or two of those will be men: saving someone’s life on the battlefield is an intensely intimate experience.
I’ve also found that I enjoy writing gay men. In the beginning, this was because I was writing of Valerius in the legions and he was moving around too much to give him anything other than a camp prostitute and I didn’t want to go there – he wasn’t that kind of person. And I’d read Mary Renault, and been so very impressed by her Alexander, that it was easy to write a fighting man who loved other men. That came out again in The Eagle of the Twelfth for much the same reasons: having realised I could write of an actual lost eagle in the timeline I was exploring (Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth which had so affected my childhood was based on a false premise; the Ninth legion never actually lost their eagle: the Twelfth definitely did – and got it back again) I also realised that the Twelfth moved around way too much for there to be any kind of serious intimate relationship with a woman. I also wanted Demalion to have something more to lose at the ‘last stand’ at Beth Horon than simply the legion’s honour. I’ve had more ‘how dare you?!’ emails about that than I have about the history of Christianity, but still not very many. Truly, the world is changing for the better.
Your earliest books – the Kellen Stewart series – were interesting takes on the lesbian crime novel. With Rome’s emphasis on a male-centric world, do you feel you have taken a step away from your lesbian readership? Do you have a particular audience in mind as you write?
See above. Tho’ the first two novels in the ROME series both have a lesbian relationship at their heart. The first, The Emperor’s Spy, has Hannah and Hypatia as back story and progressing into the present while the second, The Coming of the King, has Hypatia and Iksahra as crucial to the narrative. Given how absurdly patriarchal Rome was, finding roles for strong women, and allowing them to express themselves fully has been interesting, but it does matter. By The Eagle of the Twelfth, it wasn’t possible to give Demalion anything other than a relationship with another man if I was going to be able to build him as fully rounded as I wanted.
With the fourth, The Art of War, moving back to Rome and the Year of the Four Emperors, it’s been possible to bring women once again into the foreground, but in this case, the woman history records is Caenis, the freedwoman who became Vespasian’s partner and reigned with him as his Empress, for all that it was illegal for him to marry her (Senators could not marry freed-women). Pantera is the centre around which The Art of War turns, but it’s the women around him: Caenis and Jocasta particularly, who are crucial to the narrative.The new Jeanne d’Arc book has a dual narrative thread; part in the 15th Century, part in the present and I know already that there’s a lesbian thread in the present, that I suspect will be echoed, however finely tuned, in the past.
So to answer your question more fully, I write for myself, always; it’s all anyone can do and it means the books have an energy they’d lack if I was trying to write for someone else. I’m a lesbian woman and while I read lesbian books incessantly when I first began to be out in the world, I don’t any more, and I never read them to the exclusion of anything else. I think I long ago ceased to define a book by the sexuality of the protagonists and am looking, rather, for books that transport me, where the people in them live fully rounded lives. I’ve read four historical novels this year, all of which had lesbian protagonists, three of which were utterly dire (and one of those was written by a man, who had clearly never actually spoken to a lesbian woman in his entire life). One of them shone and is a remarkable work of art, but that’s not because of the sexuality of its protagonists, it’s because it’s a brilliantly written novel.
My publishers thought it would help to sell books – most men won’t buy a book if they know it’s by a woman. If the author is gender neutral, then they’ll pick it up and if they discover later that the author was a woman, that’s fine. So we go from 80:20 women: men to 50:50 as soon as it’s not obvious who I am. It’s entirely commercial. And, very sadly, it worked.
What can you tell us about your upcoming books? Do you have plans for further epic series beyond Rome, or will you be exploring different eras or genres?
I’m working on a dual-timeline novel of Jeanne d’Arc at the moment which will stand alone (tho’ I’ve so enjoyed the contemporary thread that we might create another around it – we’ll wait and see on that one). I’ve got a contemporary thriller in the pipeline, just waiting for me to finish it, and then I’ve got another dual-timeline novel planned in a different era. I have plans for books that stretch forward the next 20 years, but it may be that the digital revolution and Amazon in particular will have destroyed the publishing industry, so I’m not taking anything for granted. We have sold the film rights to various of the novels and they’re in development now, so that’s another interesting area to explore. I’d love to get more into film work.
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Anyone wishing to find out more about Manda and her writing, can visit her official blog here, and a big thank you to Manda for providing such comprehensive answers.