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Nero - Background to the Book

Nero is the third book, not a Corvinus or even a whodunnit (or rather whywasitdun) like Ovid before it, but a straightforward historical. I wrote it because I’ve always had a sneaking sympathy for the emperor Nero. He wasn’t, I think, naturally mad or bad like his father or his uncle Gaius Caligula (although - see Professor Anthony Barrett’s Caligula: the Corruption of Power - a case might be made even for him); he was simply a man who was in the wrong job, at the wrong time, and in the wrong country, a natural artist/musician who through circumstances outwith his control became the most powerful man in the world. No wonder the poor bugger ended up a monster, which he undoubtedly did.

At least, that’s how I wanted to show him. My brother-in-law, who read the book shortly after it was published, commented that there wasn’t a single likeable character in it, including the first-person narrator, and generally speaking (I’d give Nero’s mistress Acte a vote, myself) he’s right. That wasn’t overtly intentional on my part from the beginning, but the characters do develop into independent entities within the stories, even the historical ones, and although I quite like Petronius - the narrator - myself he’s got a definite, black streak of callousness to him underlying his - again, to me - surface likeability. Petronius would make a very entertaining dinner guest (which is appropriate, since he wrote Trimalchio’s Dinner), but I’m not at all sure I’d like him as a long-term friend. He did, though, provide a good ‘half-way-house’ between the two colliding worlds, Nero’s and the Roman establishment’s, because he had a foot in both.

Nero - my Nero - I found fascinating. Despite his appalling childhood and family background, there was something terribly innocent about him which I tried to bring out through his relationship with Acte, who is also an innocent and very much a kindred spirit - even when he was making the shift from man to monster. As I said, what I wanted to do was to show how a congenitally weak-willed, sensitive personality whose interests and nature were completely at odds with Roman society of his time but whom events made the most powerful member of that society reacted to the world around him when he found himself handed virtually infinite power; and how in the end this destroyed him personally and was almost the ruination of Rome. Nero, to me, was a tragic figure in the true sense of the phrase. I hope that anyone reading the book will come out the other end fully aware that the man was a monster, but - like me - feeling a certain sympathy for him and appreciating that it was the inevitable result of a clash of personalities and viewpoints which never should have happened.

A press reviewer - I can’t remember which one, or where - said in his review: ‘It’s evident that Wishart enjoyed writing this book.’ I did, yes, but I also found it painful much of the time: Nero himself isn’t my narrative character, but for the story to work you’ve still got to get inside your characters’ heads (or vice versa, I’ve never been absolutely sure how it works), and Nero’s head is not a pleasant place to be. One little anecdote. I was on my own in the house - my wife works in St Andrews - writing the chapter where Nero has his mother murdered. It took me most of the day, and at the end of it I was literally shaking. Under these circumstances it’s no use talking to someone who isn’t themselves a writer (‘I’ve just spent five hours murdering my mother. Talk me down!’) so I phoned a writer friend, Eileen Ramsay, who lives not far away and explained. It took ten minutes of chat about nothing whatsoever before the shaking stopped: a good sign for the book, but as you can guess the process couldn’t be described as enjoyable.

I like Nero, but it isn’t a comfortable book.

David Wishart (May 2006)

read the 1st chapter

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