What follows is the first in our series of five seminars with visiting writers from Plagues, Witches and War. Our first visitor is Jane Alison professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia. She's the author of three novels as well as a memoir, "The Sisters Antipodes." She visited my historical fiction seminar here at UVA to discuss "The Love-Artist," her historical novel about the Roman poet Ovid, and about his exile from the city of Rome in the year 8 AD. Now we don't know why Ovid was exiled from Rome, the story behind the banishment of this great poet from his native in the capital city of Rome. He somehow displeased the emperor Augustus Caesar but it's always been a mystery exactly why he was sent to the shores of the black sea the very edge of the Roman empire. Ovid talks about his exile in a number of his writings including his letters from the Black Sea but never in detail and he never really tells us why he is where he is. So Jane Alison's novel "The Love-Artist" is an attempt to imagine the context and circumstances of Ovid's exile by telling a story about a prior trip he took to the shores of the Black Sea and what he found there. The novel's prologue takes place in Rome itself, at the very moment of Ovid's exile and his being cast out of the imperial capital, for reasons that the novel doesn't immediately tell us. Then chapter one narrates an earlier journey that Ovid took some years before to the Black Sea and much of the first part of the novel is about who and what he found there and who and what he brought back to Rome with him from the Black Sea. What I want to emphasize here is Jane Alison's geographical imagination in the novel, as Ovid moves from Rome to Pontus on the shores of the Black Sea. As you look at these maps of the Roman Empire, I'm going to read you a passage about this journey, and I want you to listen to Jane Alison's words as she describes the various parts of this voyage from Rome, the imperial capital, considered the very center of the universe in those days, to the shores of the Black Sea, the very edge of the known world. "It had taken two weeks in that first ship with its magnificent sails to get from Rome to Athens. Another two crossing the Aegean. Two again tacking north. That long even though the winds were favorable. No magpies swooped from the left. No one dreamt of black boars. And the bulls entrails were always clean. Once they reached Athens, Ovid took a jaunt around the city, had a look at all the ruined statues poking their heads from the fields. Remnants of Rome's last sacking. But the weariness of it all irritated him. How handled it had been. All the monuments, artifacts, sightseers guides, quackery, dust. Just seeing it made him dry up inside, made all inspiration expire. So after a week he made the rounds down at the dock and booked passage for Asia minor. But after a glimpse of Troy he shook his head. Troy, Troy, the very name made him tired, filled his nostrils with old, old dust. The woman, the thief, the great war, the poem. Who could ever compete? At that point, Ovid had sent his boy Lazar homeward, wishing to be alone for the rest of his blind adventure. This latest vessel, the one whose railing he gripped now as he stood watching the shadowy, green hills go by, had creaked through the Dardanelles, up the Marmara, through the Bosporus where the water flowed both ways and had at last broken into the Black Sea. It was a still twilight, clear and warm, as the ship sailed out of Trapezus and began to curve along the Black Sea's eastern shore, the outermost shore of the world. It sailed past shadowy hills and gorges, sheer black cliffs, pebble beaches, citrus groves. It moved easily silent as the current of this sea flowed counterclockwise. You could just go round and round. Ovid stood on the deck, long fingers gripping the railing, Roman gray eyes peering into the green hollows and mist." And so with all of that in mind, here's Jane Alison. >> Well thank you Bruce for inviting me, and thank you all for taking this class. This is, this is an exciting chance to talk about one's work, we always love doing that, but also to talk a little bit more broadly about this subject. Historical fiction is a term that you've probably already talked about a lot in your class, that, that can be sort of problematic, especially for those of us who write what is called that. When I go online or look in various dictionaries and I, and I find a kind of prefab definition of historic fiction this is the sort of thing I get. [COUGH] The fictional treatment of historic incident or figure, or fiction set not in the present. Okay, as definitions go, pretty open ended. But then I start thinking about it and I think, okay, fiction set not in the present. So what does that mean exactly? I mean from the time I started talking, we already have past. Right. The present is always dissolving right before our eyes. So, when something is not set in the present, what can that possibly mean? Does that mean anything written in the past tense is historic fiction? Does that mean only things written in the present tense, which is supposed to seem really kind of immediate and constant, only that is present. And yet by the time it's gone to press, and you've bought it and are reading it, it's already passed. So the idea of a present versus a past is already pretty complicated, I think. I think Margaret Atwood comes up with a closer definition, and she says, what is the past is before the author's consciousness. And I think okay, that sounds better. That's the kind of past. So before I was able to really think. So for me, being born in '61, I dunno when I started thinking, '64, something like that. so, but then I think well hold up, a minute. Because if what I'm writing that's set in my consciousness time people who read it like you, for instance, it's already historic right thinking that something in the 60's is going to feel historic to you. So, then what kind of a definition is this its so slippery. So that part of the definition that its something set not in the present its already a little bit weird. But then I moved to the other part of the definition, fictional treatment of historic incident or figure. Okay, historic. A problem again. Like, what does that mean, historic? Past? We've already gone through that. What sense does that make? Or does historic mean real? Something like that, something that really happened, somebody that really lived? well, now, here comes trouble again, because how are we going to define what historic is, if it's, say, something real? Someone real, who lived once? For instance, I could write a novel about things that happened involving people I knew, including myself. And let's say this all happened in the 1990s, early 90s. And let's say I, think hard about those people I go and I revisit letter's they wrote me or that I wrote them or incidents and I go, I go the places in this case I did write a novel like this, it was set in New Orleans and Venice. I go New Orleans, I go to Venice and I do all kinds of research I take all kinds of pictures I really try and document it. And then what I finally produce, I'm sorry, it just doesn't feel like historic fiction because it was in my life, and it, it doesn't, it just I don't think anyone could really call that historic fiction, something set in the 90s in New Orleans or Venice. although Mary Gaitskill wrote a book called Veronica which was set in the 80s and that was called historic fiction. It just seems awful fishy to me. Okay, so then I think all right lets think about other real instances lets say in the 1960s again people I know lets say, my family, lets say I'm really interested in something highly mysterious my parents did in 1965 and I once again I, I research, I read all the letters, I look at all the evidence, I look at the photos, I interview. I go about it researching carefully. I have to imagine a lot and make things up because I don't know, you know, I wasn't there. I write something, I change the names, and yet this turns out to be memoir. You know. And it's so much like the process was just like the novel I did, and yet this one's memoir. Why? Why is this not historic fiction, because it's more real? I don't know. The other thing was pretty real too. and I even kept some of the names. All right, one more try. Here again, 1960s, in fact 1965 again, and this time I'm focusing on something mysterious that a famous architect did, Michael Busiey, something he did in 1965. Same process. I do all the reading I can. I read letters, I, I look at journals, I take, you know, I look at photographs, I go to the places, I document everything. and I write a narrative trying to make sense of a real incident that's highly mysterious, trying to make it as true as I can. And this one, lo and behold, is historic fiction. To me the process was the same for each of these things, really I'm trying to deal with things I know things I don't know, I'm trying to learn more, I'm doing the same exact kind of research and yet something is just a novel, something is memoir, and something is historical fiction. So what I'm trying to do here is trouble the idea of this, this term historical fiction in order to kind of make it harder to have preconceived ideas of what it is, or have expectations of what it might be as a genre. Because, I think ultimately to me, being a writer of anything, you know, you're always working with this same stuff. You're working with real data. And it's either, you know, incidents that were real, or just the way you're always looking at people, and looking at things, and trying to amass all of these little bits of data, that you can then turn around and use to create narratives that seem totally believable. It's kind of the same thing in all of these different, so called different genres. Fiction, the word itself, maybe you've talked about this, comes from the Latin word fingere, like finger with an e, meaning to model or shape as of clay. I really like those kind of plastic sense of fiction. but that, that clay, you know, whatever that stuff is. I mean, that is always something that's fairly real. You know, whether it's actual incident, actual people or just what you know to be true because you look and you watch and you document. And you, and you try and make what seems to be real based on all the things that you've seen that actually are real. In all these cases you know you're trying to get at, at truth. You know, and truth that is still present, whether its source was something that happened long ago or not. So once again I'm trying to kind of blur the distinctions and, and like make clear that from a writer's point of view all of this stuff can feel sort of the same. As long as what you're trying to work on is a way to dredge up from, whatever data or, or past that you've got, there's something still real and present about it whatever it is, an incident, a figure, something that happened, something that you saw. And, in the case of this book I wrote, which is the first one I wrote, The Love Artist, to me, Ovid, 2000 years ago, okay, he really lived, he really did things, really wrote things, really was banished from Rome, really don't know why. He still felt as real and alive to me as, let's say, a man I wrote about in the 1990s or a father I wrote about in the 19, you know living in the 1960s. Didn't really seem any different. I still hear his voice in my head. I still wonder, why was he banished from Rome? I still find him incredibly compelling, and so he was still present. So this idea of past, like where is it. He's present in my mind. He's as present to me, and I realize that my analogy might not work for you guys, but it's as someone like Mick Jagger. Now I realized oh, they don't know who that is, but they do! Who's that, I know so many people, who's Mick Jagger? I'm just not even going to go there, [LAUGH] you know, but. So he had that kind of just compelling charismatic mysterious quality that to me still lived. When I first read Ovid I was in college, I was 19 so this was some time ago. And when I learned, you know, when I read his words, and he wrote things like, you know, "I love you, I hate you, I can't live with you or without you, I don't seem to know what I want." I'm thinking, yep, I know this feeling, this is still true. So he seemed to me just palpable and real, and then I learned he had been banished from Rome at the height of his career, when he had written this really clever, difficult, erotic stuff, and also his "Metamorphoses." I just had to know why. I wrote in my Latin dictionary, "I need to know why he was banished, why he was exiled from Rome." And I haven't found out. But years later, you know, he stayed in my mind, I kept thinking about him, I went and learned how to write some things, I, I did various, I lived a little bit, and then years later, maybe 20 years later, I came, I came back to him and the, the starting point for this novel was, I was teaching at Bryn Mawr a course on ancient myth and contemporary fiction, and I had to come up with something to say about witches in the ancient world. And I thought okay, time to do some research. And I was just looking at a map of the Black Sea because Culcus on one side of the Black Sea is where Medea is said to have come from. And where a lot of witchcraft was said to be kind of centered. But then on the opposite side of the Black Sea was where Ovid had been exiled, to, Thomas. And just that moment looking at this map thinking about, you know, how do give a talk on witchcraft, ancient witchcraft, I, I, suddenly kind of have this kind of vision of this novel, and it was, he's on one side of the Black Sea, we don't know why he was sent there, on the opposite side of the Back Sea is where witches where from, in particularly Medea. One of the other mysteries about Ovid is, what happened to this thing that was supposed to be his best work, this tragedy he wrote about Medea. And so, all of a sudden, it's like, wow, I had this, I had this sort of, just a graphic thing that created a big connection. And so what I first thought I would do is write his Medea. I thought I would write the trajedy that was his idea. Luckily that idea died real fast. [LAUGH] but then you know the way you start writing things, it's a long strange process, it's almost like trying to, you know trace any decision you've ever made that took years and years. Somehow rather it got to be this story with this, you know with this pair of characters and the third character Julia so that was all the inspiration, these mysteries, these holes, based on someone who was real and was still real to me in many ways. And then, I wanted to set about doing the kinds of research I needed to do in order to make something seem palpable and real and present still. So, research was unbelievably fun. If you're ever writing any kind of fiction and you have a chance to research, just do it as much as you can, because it's actually easier then writing fiction. But so to do it I, I, I knew that I wanted to create a palpable believable world that still felt just, you know, now and alive. I did not want all of the kind of old fashioned stuff and I didn't want a sepia tone, I wanted it to feel present. So and I wanted to filter as much of it as I could through the consciousnesses of the characters, just as I would in a novel now. I'm not going to have, you know, sort of long baroque paragraphs describing things. I just want a person to be living, and experiencing exactly what they're wearing and where they are and, and what they're thinking, just as they would in any fiction now. But I was living in Europe at the time, which it made it easy so I could get on the trains and go down to Rome. And so it was a kind of wonderful research trip. Well, first, I reread Ovid, as much Ovid as I thought I needed to, not, not everything, but a lot of it, the Metamorphoses, the love poems some of the exile stuff. And then I read a lot of, of contemporaries in order to kind of fill out things that I didn't know just about little details of, of daily life and and science at the time. But then this sort of trip that was like a shopping trip, frankly, so first it was to Rome to decide where he would live. I mean, you know, we don't know where he lived exactly, and it was a matter of, it had to be within sight of certain monuments and, and within walking distance of other things, so I just went and walked all over the Palatine, and, and just hunted and hunted until I found a good spot. And then on down to to Pompeii and Herculaneum to look at houses, so what there remains of Roman era houses. And just studying all the houses, in order to see, okay, what would be plausible, how could I make a real, realistic house for him, that would be what I need it to be for him. And now, that was just fun. When you're going on a trip like that and you're sort of passive, it's hard to learn things, but when you need information because you're trying to make something, it is totally different. So, looking at houses and drawing them, and photographing them, and thinking okay, how can I, you know, how can I have this be plausible? I'm, I'm lucky in having a husband who's an architect and so he did help in his way. Then going to museums in Naples and in Rome in order to furnish the houses. So what kind of furniture would there be, what would be painted on the walls, what kind of floors would there be? So all of that, so that was all kind of the physical research. Then, let's see, I had to study ancient maps of Rome, and, and walk around Rome with a map that showed only Augustan Rome. So I would have to block out everything that was after. Which is an interesting exercise, you know, no do not look at that, I don't see that, I'm only looking at this, the remains of that. So in order to make sure I had the geography as accurate as I could get it. And then for the Black Sea, which is where Xenia, the other character comes from, I thought I'd go there too, but there was war going on, and it was far and expensive, and also when I did enough research I realized that there was almost nothing that remained the same. The coastline had changed, because the water gyrates in a certain way there that most of the coastline had eroded away completely. The architecture had been wood and it was all gone. Things that had been planted there were no longer planted there, it was now all tea which hadn't been there before. So I thought okay, don't need to go there. I can now, I can, I can rely on the accounts of travelers at the time. So people like Strebo who had written about going there at the time. So all of these different sort of points of, points of of information, along with what, to me, was the main thing, which was, you know, who was he, and who was she, and how am I going to make them come together here?