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April 6, 2009

Why I brought my Romans to America

Confession time: I’m a serial author. I keep coming back to the same people, time and time again, trying to squeeze a story out of a bunch of people who, over seven books, have grown, in my mind and those of my readers. The serialists among us face a perennial problem: where’s the novelty, where’s the spice? Every last one of us wants to avoid what I think of as Conan Doyle syndrome: getting so bored with your people you want to throw your protagonist off the Reichenbach Falls, only to have to resurrect him a few years later out of popular demand.

When an editor first looked at the original Nic Costa novel, A Season for the Dead, and said those fateful words ‘this is a series’ my mind immediately went into recovery mode. How do you keep stories set around a recurring bunch of characters fresh, for me as much as for you?

I take two tacks. Firstly, I write about an ensemble cast. While Nic Costa is the protagonist of most of the books, he’s not the only important character. The small group of Roman law enforcement officers around him, Leo Falcone, Gianni Peroni and the pathologist Teresa Lupo, are important too, which helps add variety. And I approach each and every book as a completely new project, looking to find a different style, tone and approach.

For the seventh in the series, Dante’s Numbers, I took a deep breath and did something I knew would get a few regular readers reaching for their pens. While the story starts in Rome, I put the crew on a plane for the first time. A third of the way through they fly to San Francisco, and stay there for the rest of the book. Shock! Horror! Have I sold out? Am I now writing contemporary American thriller fiction, not Italian stories that spring out of the rich well of Roman history?

Please. Give me a break. Of course I’m not.

The next couple of books go back to Rome, as do my cast. And Dante’s Numbers is, for me, bang slap in the middle of what this series is about: people struggling with the fractured modern world, and trying to deal with the way the past affects it. There are, I think, a few recurring themes in this series. One of the most important is this: history isn’t some dead, dry subject, locked in school textbooks. It’s alive, part of us, the good part sometimes, and on occasion the bad. The very bad.

Dante’s Numbers fits into that canon exactly. It’s just that it plays with the original idea somewhat, and throws the characters into a location that is, in many ways, like Rome itself: San Francisco, a set created as much by the popular imagination, as by ‘reality’. Come back over the next few days and I will try to give you some more insight into the thinking and the experiences that were behind this idea.

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