By Owen Keehnen

Most folks familiar with mystery novels will also be familiar with Steven Saylor and his novels set in ancient Rome. In my inexplicable but ongoing quest to de-mystify the gay and lesbian sleuth/ whodunit writers I was lucky enough shout "Hey Saylor" and chat a bit with the chalice and sandals series master--the author of such wonderful mystery books as Roman Blood, Catalina's Riddle, The Venus Throw, A Mist of Prophecies, and The Arms of Nemesis.

And there's additional exciting news for fans of the Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa novels ... the second novel in the series, The Arms of Nemesis, has been adapted for the big screen by scribe Donald Westlake (the Oscar-nominated writer, for adaptation of The Grifters). But as yet no further advancement has been made in the filming or production.

(This interview originally appeared in The Windy City Times and Out in Pittsburgh in November 2003)

Owen: What first attracted you to the subject of your ancient Roman mysteries?

Steven: I've had a prurient interest in ancient Rome and Greece from childhood, thanks mostly to the movies like 'Spartacus' (John Gavin in the baths), 'Cleopatra' (Liz in a million costumes), and of course those cheesy gladiator muscle-fests like 'Hercules' with Steve Reeves. My interest grew slightly less prurient when I went to college and seriously studied ancient history and the classics. A fascination with mystery fiction came later, when I read every word of the Sherlock Holmes stories from beginning to end and found I was hungry for more.

Owen: Do you get a lot of input from classicist readers?

Steven: Yes, and from all over the world, thanks to e-mail (and having the books translated into 13 languages, most recently Serbian). My Web site is easy to find ( ), and there are hundreds of scholars out there who know more than I ever will about some tiny aspect of Roman life, so I have to be very scrupulous about detail. But the academic world seems to have accepted me; a couple of years ago I was invited to give the commencement address to the Classics Department at UC Berkeley, which was a career high for me.

Owen: What do you think it is about your personality that especially suits your being a mystery writer?

Steven: There's a quote from Cicero: "Nature has planted in our minds an insatiable longing to see the truth." That applies very much to Gordianus, my sleuth, and to me, too, which I suppose explains my addiction to both writing and reading mystery fiction: a deep longing to see the truth uncovered. We live in a world so thick with lies (every gay person knows this from very early in life) that it's a great relief to escape into a book in which truth actually matters.

Owen: When you are working on a mystery what is the first thing you decide upon--the murderer, the victim, the motive, the means ...?

Steven: Since I write historical fiction, the very first element is the setting, and sometimes there's an actual crime for which we've got evidence from the historical record, and that's what I build the plot from. In that case, all or most of the elements you mention are already in place for me. But when I do have to make up the crime myself, those four elements all have to come together pretty much at once, simply to make sense and to resonate with the rest of the plot and the theme of the book. The crime and everything around it has to somehow reflect the message I'm putting across. I think that’s very important in a mystery novel, to elevate it above being merely a puzzle. When the theme, the puzzle, and the history all come together at the end of a book and all resonate in harmony, I think that makes for a deeply satisfying read.

Owen: And from all your experience writing what is the main thing you have learned that you feel has really helped improve your work?

Steven: That old adage, "Write what you know," doesn't mean you have to write about your everyday life or the town where you grew up; it means you've got to reach deep inside and find the kind of story that lights up the world for you, whether that's a Tolkien-style fantasy, or an erotic thriller, or stories set in the ancient world. If you're lucky, you'll find readers who like what you're doing and you'll be allowed to actually make a living at it, which seems to be what happened with me, for which I'm very grateful.

Owen: What mystery writers do you admire?

Steven: I cannot get enough of Ruth Rendell. She's a household word in England, but not as well known here. She's grim, darkly funny, and the absolute master of plotting. I was honored to dine with her last time I was in London, and was amazed to find she also keeps a busy schedule attending The House of Lords, where she's what they call a Life Peer, thanks to being named Baroness Rendell some time ago. I admire her amazing energy and drive, and her books are completely addictive.

Owen: What are you working on now?

Steven: The next book in the Roma Sub Rosa series is called The Judgment of Caesar and follows my sleuth Gordianus to Egypt for a fateful meeting with Cleopatra. I've been building up to Cleopatra for several books now, and I think my vision of The Queen of the Nile is rather different from the way she's usually portrayed. This was a woman who married her brothers, ruthlessly put her own siblings to death, and literally considered herself a goddess. "Mad, bad, and dangerous to know" might sum up the Cleopatra whom Gordianus encounters. The book should be out in spring 2004.

Owen: Thanks Steven and good luck with the writing as well as the "early stages" film adaptation.