Exsilium cover

Alison Morton writes award-winning thrillers featuring tough but compassionate heroines. Her ten-book Roma Nova series is set in an imaginary European country where a remnant of the Roman Empire has survived into the 21st century and is ruled by women who face conspiracy, revolution and heartache but use a sharp line in dialogue. The latest, EXSILIUM, plunges us back to the late 4th century, to the very foundation of Roma Nova. I read and enjoyed this novel, so I wanted to ask the author a few questions …

Hi, Alison and thanks for joining me. EXSILIUM, the latest in your Roma Nova series, is complex, thrilling and dramatic, like so many of its predecessors. But in contrast to the previous books, here our characters leave their homeland. What made you send them away?

Ha! The answer lies thirteen years in my own past. INCEPTIO, which I first drafted in 2010, begins the 21st century Roma Nova thrillers. The setting is a small central European country called Roma Nova, peopled by descendants of a large group of Romans who settled there in the dusk of the Roman Empire sixteen centuries ago.

Feeling satisfied that this gave the characters and setting some backstory, I wrote on in the 21st century. We all like to have a place to nest in history. For British people, the big moments are 1066 or more recently ‘the War’ with a capital ‘w’, i.e. 1939-45. For Roma Novans, it was that trek in 395 AD from Ancient Rome to Noricum. And they’re always referring back to it.

Well and good, I thought. Then my reading fans demanded I actually write that story of the epic trek that took place the 4th century. Hoist with my own petard! And as with the earlier books, it turned out there was a great deal more story for one book so I wrote two – JULIA PRIMA and EXSILIUM.

This is a different angle in that you choose to tell the story from three different perspectives: Maelia, Lucius and Galla. Why three voices and how did you manage to keep them distinctive?

I started writing as Maelia in my usual first-person point of view, but then realised that as a woman in the 4th century, she could never have been party to the complex politics that a man of senior rank would have been, so Lucius had to step forward. I’d already mentioned him in the earlier, modern books in the series. More than that, he’d figured as a main character in JULIA PRIMA, so he had to play a significant role in this one. But I also wanted to bring in Galla as she would be the first imperatrix of Roma Nova according to the legend I’d set up thirteen years ago.

I’ve always loved writing in different characters’ heads just to see how they handle the same issues in different ways. Three narrators provide opportunities to add complexity and confusion to those characters. Lucius was the easiest to define as a Roman male; he is also devout in his religion and has high moral standards. He desperately loves his daughters and will do anything to protect them. Maelia had a great deal of bad luck, but is quite tough and a mature woman in her thirties. Galla starts as more of an ingenue, naïve, but who learns to trust herself and take decisions, but still has shades of Lucius’s sense of duty. The key is to put yourself in their heads and act and react as they would.

Books by Alison Morton

One thing I’ve always enjoyed about your books, the alternative history and modern thrillers, is the female angle. Those girls are powerful.

Oh yes! In EXSILIUM set in the fourth century AD, we must never forget the society the female characters inhabit. By the end of that century, Roman women had more agency than their predecessors, although their rights such as seeking divorce, for no longer being obliged to remarry if they had birthed three children and for owning property outright, were under attack from growing Christian dogma. Women influenced and managed their society – some more than others – even though they had no public political power. Maelia had to managed her young son’s affairs, Galla as the eldest of four daughters grew into her role as her father’s deputy. Her sister, Lucilla, found fulfilment in a quasi-military role. 

Managing such an epic cast over so many novels takes some doing. How do you keep track?

 Spreadsheets and lists! I do carry most of them in my head though. The first four novels have one heroine – Carina – and her friends and colleagues and I age them over time. The same applies to the second strand of four which feature her grandmother, Aurelia, as a young woman. I love interweaving small mysteries and references across generations, although nothing essential that interferes with the story contained in each books.

The author in Virunum

Your own military experience must have been useful in world-creating for Roma Nova, not only in a strategic sense but the bonds that are built between people with a common purpose.

Military life is a strange one: structured, purposeful and disciplined, but it can be great fun. You can always tell when a writer or even a fellow passenger on a plane has served in their country’s forces – the experience cannot be synthesised. It changed me and gave me opportunities I would never have had otherwise. But there was also discomfort, hanging around and a significant amount of cold weather and mud. You just learn to put up with it all.

You and I both left our homeland to seek another life abroad, but I don’t think either of us would call ourselves exiles. What pulled/pushed you to leave and would you ever return as a permanent resident?

I’ve always felt at home in France even as a small child of seven. I speak French reasonably fluently and I’ve studied and worked here. I can get across France without a road map; I can’t do that in the UK. This tells me something. I enjoy the directness, the strange mixture of self-confidence and self-reserve and the impressive politeness (of most people!). Of course, the bureaucracy is legendary, but it’s all quite logical.

Only recently have a few shops started opening on Sunday – a pity – and at least here in the provinces le déjeuner à midi is still sacrosanct! Add in the cheese and wine…

Despite said bureaucracy, I went through the palaver of gaining citizenship. No, I’m not going back.

The journey from Rome

On the topic of geography, I had my atlas open while reading, trying to trace the route of the exodus. Do you have a map in your mind or on your desk?

Ah, I’ve added a map to the final digital and print editions. I make ruthless and unashamed use of Google Maps, the Digital Atlas of the Ancient World (https://dh.gu.se/dare/) and Stanford’s ORBIS (https://orbis.stanford.edu). 

I had the pleasure of visiting ‘Roma Nova’ last summer and took numerous photos some of which I’ve posted on my blog in a series of articles: https://www.alison-morton.com/2023/05/28/magdalensberg-virunum-before-virunum/

When trying to describe EXSILIUM to a friend, I called it a cross between an epic road trip, with all the internal and external tensions one would expect, and the founding of a pioneering community based on principles. Is that how you see this novel?

Certainly the journey part of EXSILIUM is that, but the first part showing the overbearing pressure of an evangelising and uncompromising religion on the characters is equally important.

The circumstances which triggered the families’ departure are relevant to contemporary events, not just in terms of displacement but conflicting beliefs. You’re not afraid of controversy, clearly.

Ha! Many stories centre around the Roman state’s persecution of Christians due to the strength of that religion and its grip on temporal power across 2000 years. Scholars are now discovering in a more secular age that repression of Christianity was not in reality as universal as reported nor the number who died as great. Much was made of a relatively small number of incidents. That earlier Roman authorities repeatedly ordered campaigns against Christians demonstrates that the cult flourished despite such persecution. But who writes history? The ‘winners’.

Very little is known or taught about persecution the other way round under the Christianised Roman state. Many late Roman Empire citizens converted as it was the way to ensure advancement; social pressure also played an enormous part. By AD 391, those holding to the traditional Roman religion like my characters were threatened with confiscation and execution. Peter Heather’s Christendom: The Triumph of a Religion is an excellent guide to this complex process. Yes, eyebrows have been raised.

What’s next for the Roma Novans?

I haven’t decided whether to write another story set in Roma Nova – there are eight modern thrillers already. My next project is a third thriller in the ‘Double’ series featuring Mel/Mélisende, an ex-French special forces heroine and her ex-London Met colleague who work for a mysterious intelligence agency. She’s a tough one, although self-doubting and has a French father and British mother. Like Carina, the heroine of my first modern Roma Nova thriller, who is forced to flee to another country, Mel never quite knows where she belongs.

Perhaps there’s an exile/dual identity theme in my writing emerging here…

Intriguing insights and a fascinating story that’s difficult to forget. To find out more about Alison’s writing, check out https://alison-morton.com

To read Exsilium, look no further.

Amazon: https://mybook.to/EXSILIUM (universal link)

Other retailers: https://books2read.com/EXSILIUM

    1 Response to "EXSILIUM, by Alison Morton"

    • Alison Morton

      Thank you so much for hosting EXSILIUM and me on your blog, Jill. We share that strange, but rather lovely state of choosing which country to live in rather than being forced to move. I did enjoy your questions!

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