Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Post by Maggie Phillips and Sarah Clement, Authors of Heart of Pompeii

7 November 2022

Special Guest Post by Maggie Phillips and Sarah Clement, Authors of Heart of Pompeii

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

The year is 70CE in Pompeii, Italy, and highborn Quintus Vistorius is about to break his family's heart when he runs away from home to escape society's obligations that he marry and have children. At the same time, Valens, a sheep farmer from the country, brings his new wife to start a life in the city. Already, his life is inexorably wound to Quintus' whose disappearance has sent shockwaves through the city. When they do meet three years later, it's in the Lupanar, Pompeii's most notorious brothel where Quintus is now a sex worker going by the name of Ignis. For Val, it's love at first sight. For Ignis, it takes a little longer as loving Val threatens the modicum of freedom he has found 
within the brothel's walls.

Heart of Pompeii is a historical fiction novel featuring LGBTQ+ characters set in, as the title suggests; Pompeii. The story follows the lives of two men; a minor government worker called Valens, newly come to Pompeii with his just as new bride, and Ignis, a native of the city who lives and works in the most popular of Pompeii’s brothels. Even before they meet, their lives are bound together in ways they can’t imagine but meeting transforms them in ways neither of them are prepared for. It’s a story about their lives and about the city they both love. Through their eyes, readers are able to see what life could have been like in one of Ancient Rome’s most famous cities. 

When Maggie and I met, neither of us were expecting to become best friends let alone embark on a publishing adventure that has led us to launch our debut novel; Heart of Pompeii, but here we are. When we announced that we were collaborating on a novel, the number one question was ‘how?’. Maggie lives in Portland, Oregon, and I live in Swansea, Wales which puts us in vastly different time zones where I live my life eight hours ahead of Maggie. Fortunately, Maggie is an early riser. Thus our days began at 7am/2pm and from the very start of the collaboration, we were both aware of the importance of committing hours to writing that we would have to any other job. 

Initially, we hadn’t intended to write the book we did. We hadn’t even planned to work together the way we would go on to. We were both playing with the idea of writing a novel. Both of us had very clear ideas about what we wanted the purposes of our book to be which was how it ultimately became so easy to collaborate. We both wanted to tell queer stories that have been traditionally erased from history and we wanted to root those stories in the human experience. History progresses, times change, but the human experience largely remains the same. This is exemplified in the earliest examples of graffiti which even thousands of years ago relate to the sexual prowess of the writer or the writer’s mother. Some things never change. 

While working on another project, Maggie decided that she wanted to write historical fiction and given that I spend my free time blogging about the history in historical fiction, it seemed natural for me to take on the role of researcher. The setting, Pompeii, had been established before either of us even knew we were going to write anything at all, separately or together.

It’s an interest we both share and it provided a great opportunity for the characters to meet with tragedy which is one of Maggie’s favourite things to write and something she does exceptionally well. One time, she rewrote a scene because she didn’t feel I was crying hard enough. That was a good day. Our main source of inspiration were the casts of ‘two maidens’ found in a garden in Pompeii. Initially thought to be two young women, it was revealed through various tests that the ‘two maidens’ were actually two unrelated men found to be embracing in their final moments. 

As we researched, the scope of the project became bigger and along the way we became co-writers. At the time, I was working on a project that Maggie was heavily involved in. Ultimately, I asked her to write it alongside me and we decided to take a character each and write chapters from alternate points of view. It worked great and that project became the practice run for our main event; the Heart of Pompeii. 

We had our story and characters were starting to take shape within it. We had dual protagonists and alternating points of view which meant we could easily divide the main characters. We chose one each to write from which ensured a consistent voice for each of them throughout the novel. We filled notebooks with planning and character ideas, ensuring that we were agreed on motivation, traits, relationships, and anything else we could think of so that the story remained coherent despite having two authors. 

Writing the story was actually the easy part. Making two styles of writing work as one was much harder. Maggie prefers to write through dialogue whereas I will avoid dialogue at all costs, choosing instead to write in long, meandering, flowery language with mostly unnecessary words. The two of us would spend entire editing sessions trying to make the pacing match which would see me telling Maggie that she really did have to add some environmental detail, while she would delete entire sections where I’d described the air temperature for two paragraphs. One of the most common exchanges would be me completely freezing on how to write a conversation while Maggie pointed out that as a human being, I had, on occasion, been known to have a conversation. 

Communication was vital and not just for the sake of the novel. If there were days when one of us was feeling particularly vulnerable or fragile about a section or a scene then the other would have to be gentler in their criticism. Throughout it all, we never lost sight of the fact that we were trying to help each other be the best writers we could be and nothing was being criticised out of spite. We were also quick to reassure each other that just because our styles are different, it didn’t mean that one was worse than the other. It was conversations like these that hammered home to me how I couldn’t have collaborated with just anyone else. 

The distance offered up another issue that neither of us had considered; the language barrier. When we first started writing anything together, we decided whether to write in British English or American English but neither of us appreciated just how different the language we speak is. We both speak English but we would frequently be using words or phrases that simply did not translate into the other’s cultures.

Words that mean something in Britain might mean something entirely different in America and vice versa. The issue of spelling consistently seemed to be the most minor of considerations when we would frequently stop and question each other just what the hell we were talking about, while the other shouted back that it was a perfectly normal phrase. Arguments would inevitably ensue and for the most part, they were hilarious. 

For me, the hardest scene to write were the closing chapters set during the eruption of Vesuvius. I wept. And Maggie decided that we needed a particularly emotional soundtrack to those scenes which only made me weep harder. It’s hard to type when you can’t see through your own tears. Maggie, on the other hand, was in her element. Far harder for her was when we came to write one of the birthday events, a scene which marked a turning point in the story for character motivations and development. It struck a little close to home given that we were writing during the covid years and largely isolated from anyone who wasn’t on the end of our laptops. 

With the book written, edited, edited again, and edited some more, we decided to attempt the traditional route of publishing via an agent. A benefit of collaboration was that whenever we received the inevitable rejection letters, we could face it together. Some hurt more than others and we never did discover whether it was better to market ourselves as a single writer under a penname than a collaboration. After almost a year of trying, we decided to go the self-publishing route and here we are! 

Having gone through the many, many, many highs and lows of self-publishing we feel pretty well prepared for our next project. Our ethos remains the same; to tell queer stories throughout history. The stories don’t have to be grandiose or groundbreaking, they’re just showing that queer people existed. They lived. Regardless of the time period, we’ve always been here. 

We’ve entertained a few ideas for our next work but we’re leaning towards something set during the Roman Conquest of Britain, focusing on the Demetae tribe of South-West Wales. Despite overwhelming odds, they resisted Roman occupation and maintained their identity. They would go on to found Ceredigion and Dyfed, from which generations upon generations of my family have sprung from, including myself. We’ve also considered solo works but have enjoyed collaborating so much, we’re in no hurry to leave it. 

Maggie Phillips and Sarah Clement 

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About the Authors

Maggie Phillips is debuting as an author, mixing her love of history and writing for the first time professionally as a full-time writer. She lives for writing and bringing queer stories out to the front of history where they belong. She lives in Oregon, United States with her husband. 
Sarah Clement loves writing about history and is finally taking the leap from her historical blog of many years to the world of printed historical fiction. She lives with her daughter in Swansea, Wales.  You can also find Maggie and Sarah on Instragram @wenglishwrites

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