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Hadrian’s Wall QA

William Dietrich author

Q: Why is a newspaper journalist writing about ancient history?
Any good journalist studies the past to explain the present, and I simply enjoy looking further back than most. Covering science gave me a completely different sense of time, making me realize how all of human civilization is a mere blink in the lifetime of our planet. A life-long fascination with history has taught me that the motives of human beings have changed little since civilization first arose. In Roman Britain I saw numerous parallels to our time, as well as a period with the kind of epic ambitions and conflicting loyalties that make for good storytelling. It was an era of desperate combat, strong passions and high adventure.

Q: How much of “Hadrian’s Wall” is true?
Any student of the late Roman Empire is struck by both how much we do know, and how much we don’t. The Wall existed, but we don’t know exactly what it looked like. The Great Barbarian Conspiracy of 367 A.D. is recorded in history, but we know almost nothing of its details or battles. Women lived in the garrisons on Hadrian’s Wall, but even the simplest facts of how they spent their days or how they got around have been lost. This novel, however, is an earnest attempt to recreate as best we know the military and civil society of the period, the slow decay of the Empire, the competition between rival religions, and the world view of Romans and Celts. Its details, from the food served to the Celtic fascination with the heads of their enemies, are true. It was a time when the dress and mores of the ancient world were beginning to give way to that of what we commonly consider Medieval, and this flux gives an author opportunity for both imagination and error. Is the book based on the facts as we know them? Absolutely. Are our “facts” necessarily correct? So fragmentary is the surviving evidence that we’d need a time machine to ever be sure. The Rome of four hundred years earlier, the time of Julius Caesar, is far better documented than the Rome of “Hadrian’s Wall.”

Q: The battle scenes are brutal and bloody. Is this taken from history?
Rome was magnificent, but a cruel and ruthless society. While the Empire enforced relative peace for centuries, many of its residents were slaves, held in thrall by the threat of hideous execution such as crucifixion. The vast majority of its citizens were poor, and those in cities released their frustrations by attending games in which gladiators, criminals and animals were slaughtered by the thousands. Rome fought its ferocious wars of conquest and subjugation to the death, razing Carthage and destroying Jerusalem. In Britain, the conquerors were accused of creating a wasteland and calling it peace. Their enemies were no kinder. Three legions were wiped out in Germany and all that remained were a trail of bones.

Q: Most novels focus on Rome at its height, while yours depicts an Empire nears its end. Why did you pick that period?
I have always found ruins fascinating and have a morbid fascination, I suppose, with decline and survival. In books and film we seem fascinated with apocalyptic epics, a genre I would tongue-in-cheek call the disaster romance. It is perilous time that makes good stories, and this was a period in which the barbarian nations were beginning to press in earnest against Rome’s strained boundaries. I’m also interested in the cost of civilization as well as its benefits, the toll that stability takes in time and freedom. This period was one in which my heroine Valeria could look at Rome from both sides of the Wall.

Q: Was it a challenge having a woman as a central character?
Valeria and her handmaiden Savia give readers a perspective they would never get from a strictly military novel, and while challenging, it is also fun to try to inhabit the heart of the other gender. What is difficult is that women are largely ignored in much of his-story so that information about their lives and thought is hard to come by. I asked contemporary women how they might react to situations I placed my characters in, and their comments were always helpful and sometimes surprising.

Q: For a story of war and love, “Hadrian’s Wall” takes time to describe the British landscape as both forbiddingly wild and hauntingly beautiful. Is this important to you?
All my books, both fiction and non-fiction, have a strong sense of place, nature and geography. I live in the Pacific Northwest with an island archipelago to one side and a volcanic mountain range to the other. The influence of landscape on the human psyche is an abiding interest of mine. As Valeria travels north to meet her husband, she meets not just new people but new environments, and ultimately they infect her with desire that conflicts with duty. This is a novel not just about love between people, but love of a new land.

Q: Is this a theme in your other work?
I’ve covered the environment as a journalist for the Seattle Times and three of my books are non-fiction environmental histories about the Pacific Northwest. My first three novels are set in landscapes as forbidding as they are beautiful: two in Antarctica, which I’ve visited twice as a science reporter, and one in Australia’s Outback, which I’ve also toured. I shared a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which occurred in another dramatic, evocative landscape. People adapt to place.

Q: And your next project?
Is not about an environmentalist! It is a novel set in the time of Attila the Hun and is meant as a kind of sequel to “Hadrian’s Wall.” The ominous thunder that we experience in this novel of the Fourth Century becomes a storm that breaks with full fury in the Fifth. Stay tuned!

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