Sunday, 2 October 2016

Diana talks to - Ruth Downie

Ruth has very kindly offered a hard back copy of her latest book Vita Brevis to one lucky reader of this interview. To be in with a chance to win, please answer this simple question about the interview on the blog itself or comment on The Review Facebook page. All correct answers will go into 'the hat' and the first drawn will be the winner.

The question: Which character in her series did Ruth begin by loathing?
Ruth is the author of seven mysteries featuring Roman Army medic Gaius Petreius Ruso. The latest is VITA BREVIS.

She lives in Devon, England, and is married with two grown-up sons. A combination of nosiness and a childish fascination with mud means she is never happier than when wielding an archaeological trowel.

She is sometimes called R.S. Downie, but she isn't the person with the same name who writes medical textbooks, and recommends that readers should never, ever take health advice from a two thousand year old man who prescribes mouse droppings


If I had tried any harder to catch up with Ruth at HNS16, I fear I would have been accused of stalking. Sadly we never did manage to meet in person. Every time I glimpsed her, we were rushing in opposite directions - well, when I say rushing, Ruth was rushing, I was hobbling on my gammy leg! Ruth kindly agreed, however, to answer respond via email. Thank you Ruth.
Ruth, I am sure that you are tired of being asked the usual questions that would-be interviewers ask authors, so hopefully this interview is an interview with a difference and I have come up with some unusual questions!

Thank you!
If  VITA BREVIS was adapted into a TV show or a film, who would you like to play the lead role?

Ah, my fantasy world question! I’ve never come up with a satisfactory answer to this, although Dominic West’s been in the frame along with Guy of Gisborne (Richard Armitage) and Mark Strong. The problem is, despite featuring him in seven novels, I’ve never really described Ruso’s physical appearance, and people have developed their own ideas about what he looks like. So I’m going to stay firmly on the fence.
If, as a one off, (and you could guarantee publication!)  you could write anything you wanted, is there another genre you would love to work with and do you already have a budding plot line in mind?

Ha! If you could guarantee me it would never, ever see the light of day, I’d go back to the western I wrote for fun before this all started getting serious. I’ve never lived in the west of the USA and I know nothing about cows—or guns—but since nobody would see it that wouldn’t matter.
Do you have any rituals and routines when writing? Your favourite cup for example or ‘that’ piece of music...??

I start by making coffee in the most complicated manner possible, and then do a lot of pointless drifting around on the Internet.  I suppose you could call this a routine but it’s not one I’m proud of! As for music—the theme from ‘Gladiator’ is always good to get in the mood for the Romans, and for the Britons I’ve been known to use “The Storm” by Moving Hearts: a fantastic instrumental album by Irish musicians. Nothing with words, though. That would be like trying to ride two horses at once.

What is the worst book you have ever read? What made it unreadable for you?

I find I’m strangely reluctant to answer that—probably because I know how much work goes into writing a book and I’d hate to tread on anybody’s dreams. However—there are very successful books that I’m assured are marvellous, but I just can’t get into them. “Cloud Atlas” was one, and I’ve never managed to get past page two of anything by Henry James.
Other than writing full time, what would be your dream job?

I’d be an archaeologist. Some of my happiest moments have been spent on archaeological digs and I’m constantly amazed by how much the professionals know, and the way they can think on their feet even when mired in mud.  
Coffee or tea? Red or white?

Coffee and red, please. I can’t function without them.
If you had free choice over the font your book is printed in, what font/fonts would you choose?

Something easily read and not noticeable – fonts are something we aren’t usually aware of until something goes wrong. Just one stipulation, though—it has to be a decent size. I worked in a library for years and I know how frustrating it is for readers whose eyesight isn’t too great when they find the book they want, only to find they can’t read it.
Imagine that you could get hold of any original source document. What would it be?

Absolutely anything that recorded faithfully what the British tribes thought of the Roman invasion. Or indeed what they thought about anything. But sadly theirs was an oral tradition, and whatever they said has been lost.
Historical fiction authors have to contend with real characters invading our stories. Are there any ‘real’ characters you have been tempted to prematurely kill off or ignore because you just don’t like them or they spoil the plot?

That’s not usually a problem with Roman Britain! Outside the well-known stories we don’t know much about who was here anyway. There is one chap I’ve had to ignore, though. He was the Roman governor of Britannia during part of the time when my books are set.  His name was Falco, but he’s only ever referred to as “the governor”  lest readers of Lindsey Davis wonder why her leading man has wandered into my books.
Are you prepared to go away from the known facts for the sake of the story and if so how do you get around this?

I try not to, because I have to convince myself that what I’m writing is possible. And if I’m not convinced myself, it’s really hard to be convincing. Of course I may have departed from the known facts by mistake, but since I don’t know that, it doesn’t bother me. Well, not until later.
Do you find that the lines between fact and fiction sometimes become blurred?

Yes, but I wasn’t really aware of it until I worked on “A Year of Ravens,” a joint novel with six other writers about the Boudican rebellion. I had the job of ‘fact-checker’ and there were times when I wondered why the other writers hadn’t mentioned X, Y or Z about Roman Britain – and then I remembered that these were things I’d invented to fill gaps in the evidence.
Have you ever totally hated or fallen in love with one of your characters?

I started out loathing the hospital administrator in the first book of the series, “Medicus”—but then I realised he could say all the things I had always longed to say to people when I worked in admin. He was still an awful man, but I loved writing his dialogue. 
What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?

Really geeky archaeology books, books written by people who have interesting skills – farmers, medics, “H is for Hawk” – and modern crime. Martin Cruz Smith’s Renko books are great, and I’m also going through a Phil Rickman phase.
What drink would you recommend drinking whilst reading your latest book?

My leading man, Ruso, comes from a farm in southern Gaul where they have a winery. The wine is made in true Roman fashion, with grapes trodden by the feet of slaves and the juice nicely diluted with sea-water before being stored in open vessels lined with pitch. Just the thing if you can get hold of it.
Last but not least... favourite historical author?

That’s really hard… who to leave out? I’m going to chicken out and name the best historical I’ve read lately.  It’s The North Water, by Ian McGuire. Richly descriptive, cleverly plotted, full of suspense and—since it’s about the 19th century whaling industry—dreadfully gory. Splendid.
Wonderful, Ruth. Thank you very much.

About Vita Brevis:

Ruso and Tilla's excitement at arriving in Rome with their new baby daughter is soon dulled by their discovery that the grand facades of polished marble mask an underworld of corrupt landlords and vermin-infested tenements. There are also far too many doctors--some skilled--but others positively dangerous.

Ruso thinks he has been offered a reputable medical practice only to find that his predecessor Doctor Kleitos has fled, leaving a dead man in a barrel on the doorstep and the warning, “Be careful who you trust.” Distracted by the body and his efforts to help a friend win the hand of a rich young heiress, Ruso makes a grave mistake, causing him to question both his competence and his integrity.

With Ruso's reputation under threat, he and Tilla must protect their small family from Doctor Kleitos's debt collectors and find allies in their new home while they track down the vanished doctor and find out the truth about the heiress's dead father--Ruso's patient--and the unfortunate man in the barrel.
 © Diana Milne July 2016 © Ruth Downie, August 2016


  1. So sorry we never got to meet at the HNS conference, Diana - our joint stalking efforts were a complete failure!

  2. She loathed the hospital administrator in the first Medicus book.

  3. She loathed the hospital administrator in the first Medicus book.