The Big Idea: Sophia McDougall
Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas series was written a number of years ago, but only this month is being released in the US for the first time. Today, McDougall recounts the where, when and why this alternate history series was created… and what it’s like looking back on that creation today.
It was early autumn, but it still felt like summer. My teeth were sticky from ice-cream. Boys were flying kites in the bright blue sky. It was the end of my first grown-up holiday, a week with my best friend in a greasy hotel on the Costa Brava.
There was just time freshen up before the bus to the airport. A TV was on in the hotel lobby and as we hurried through on the way to the bathroom, I heard something about the conservative leadership election. I brushed my teeth hastily and headed back. I wanted to know how it turned out.
Then my brain processed that what I’d actually heard was that the election results would be delayed … as a mark of respect …
And the lobby was unusually crowded, and everyone was staring at that TV…
I joined them.
And we all watched the twin towers fall, for the first of hundreds upon hundreds of times.
Like millions of others, I felt history shifting, splitting in two.
When I got home – also like millions of others – I picked up the habit of watching the same horrific footage over and over, as though it might somehow play out differently. Or as though, in the smoke, it might be possible to pick out the answers we were so desperate for.
What did it mean? Would it happen again? Would there be a war? Could we stop it?
What would happen next?
But now, as you read this, you have what not even the most powerful men on the planet had at the time: you know what happened next.
Perhaps you remember how that suspense felt then. You know how it still feels now:
Who gets to survive this? What can we do? Is it even worth trying?
When the books are written, the answers will be known. If the characters try to grab hold of any of history’s levers and pull, readers will know in advance if they succeed or fail. Exceptional writers can narrow this distance from historical figures – Hilary Mantel almost makes me forget that I already know the fate of Anne Boleyn, almost convinces me that this time things might be different.
Or you can use the distance to ramp up the suspense. Characters can run around shouting “this ship is unsinkable!”
But the fact that the past is now unchangeable makes it easy to forget that it was never inevitable. Things could always have been different. History, as it is lived, always can be different.
Two years after that last afternoon in Spain, I started writing the Romanitas trilogy.
Later still, when people asked why I wrote alternate history, I said, “Because it’s more like history than history.”
I didn’t mean to write a novel then. I was a poet. The thing about poems? They’re short. I was twenty-three and confident to the point of cocky, but I still knew I was nowhere near ready to write novels.
I assumed that in a few years, I’d write literary fiction. That was what I’d studied. That was the obvious next step. I overlooked the fact that I spent at least as much time saturating in Philip Pullman and Star Wars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as I did contemplating Sylvia Plath.
But one afternoon, I found myself daydreaming about the big epic fantasy trilogy I’d like to write – you know, for fun! – after the serious, proper books that would somehow materialise first.
A cast of thousands. Supernatural stuff. Characters who still had the chance to change a world whose history wasn’t known yet. Oh, and I always loved stories about people on the run!
And yet … would these books have to be set in a “magical world”? Wasn’t there a way to write epic fantasy, or at any rate something like epic fantasy, in this one?
And what would people be running away from?
Well, the Roman Empire was epic and scary and suffused with the supernatural. And it was a world I knew pretty well. I’d read their letters and poems and histories. I knew something about how they thought.
But everyone would already know what happened. There would be such immovable limits to what could happen. As if it had always been inevitable.
Unless … it was an alternative world. Recognisable, but different. A Roman Empire that hadn’t fallen. A modern Roman Empire.
Obviously I wasn’t going to write this novel yet, but immediately a lot of it arrived in my head.
Rome would be huge and inescapable and sometimes as seductive as it was horrific.
Romans with cars. And television. But also guns. And an arms race between Rome and … maybe Japan? And a wall across North America. And also slavery.
That’s what the characters would be running away from! A teenage brother and sister, and she’d save him from being crucified … and she’d hate Rome with everything she was – but could she ever really outrun it?
At the other end of the scale, there’d be the heir to the imperial throne … soaking in privilege, but in danger too. There’d be people willing to kill to prevent the changes he’d make to the Empire …
Well, I thought, that all sounded cool. But yikes! Definitely too demanding for a first novel! Maybe in ten years’ time, I’d be ready to have a crack at it.
Twenty minutes later I thought, “Oh well, I’ll just start.”
It’s only now – seventeen years since I started writing Romanitas and eleven years since I finished it – that the trilogy is finally reaching the US and Canada. Revisiting them now is strange – after all this time, you might think I’d be able to encounter them almost as a new reader myself, without knowledge what happens next. But I can’t. I remember everything. The parts I’d do differently now, the parts that feel more relevant than I’d like (that fucking wall isn’t the half of it) and the parts I lived so intensely that it feels as though I never really stopped writing them. For so long, they were the centre of my life, and they continue to shape so much of it. I definitely didn’t see that coming.