The Deadliest Deceptions

Enter the world of first-century CE Roman Alexandria and join Miriam bat Isaac as she struggles to solve nine of her most baffling cases. June Trop, author of The Deadliest Deceptions, a historical mystery, shares insights on why this period of time so captivated her.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett


Q: How did your work as an author evolve?

A: I began writing professionally as an academic. I enjoyed that aspect of my work, especially over the summers when I had the time and energy to focus. My objectives were to communicate my research results briefly, precisely, and in the simplest language. After several years, however, I found myself wanting to color the language, to present my results more as a story than a report, to use the active rather than passive voice, to enhance the report with figurative language, and yes, even to stretch the truth a little. So, when I retired, I decided to write fiction.

Q: Were you an avid reader growing up? If so, what books might we have found on the nightstand of your adolescent self? And as a teenager?

A: I was not an avid reader until I discovered Nancy Drew, but I did make up stories with my dolls to entertain myself and create my own enchanting world. By adolescence, I’d discovered Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes and would go to the local library with a shopping bag. I remember the evening I was about to finish The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, my very first Agatha Christie. My hands trembled like blossoms in the breeze as I was about to find out the murderer. And so, that was the book that set me up for a life of crime. Even now, after having read thousands of mysteries, I still applaud the British Crime Writers’ Association for having named Roger Ackroyd as the best crime novel ever written.

Q: Which authors influence your own style of storytelling?

A: Aside from enjoying their work, I choose to read various authors to analyze their techniques. I read Lawrence Block for his ability to make the written word sound as if it were spoken, and Ross MacDonald for his metaphors. They, along with Sue Grafton and others, have created protagonists who, despite their exceptional courage, determination, and persistence, seem to be so genuinely human, even ordinary. John Grisham makes readers’ eyes slide down the page; Stephen King paints his stories with local color, and Frederick Forsythe creates heart-pounding suspense.

And for all the authors, I study their first lines to learn how they induct readers into their world and persuade them to stay.

Q: How did your previous work as a teacher inform your work as a writer?

A: Teaching is a verbal craft. As a middle school science teacher, I learned to be precise but brief. On my first day, I asked the kids to take out a piece of paper. Simple enough, right? No! Their hands flew up like an exploding flock of pigeons. “Lined or unlined?” “Yellow or white?” “Should we hold it horizontally or vertically?” Yikes, they taught me to be precise. But they also taught me to be brief because if I took longer than a minute, their attention would wander elsewhere. So, as a writer, I look for every opportunity to be precise and lean with my prose.

Q: First century CE Roman Alexandria is a fascinating choice for your historical mystery. What governed that decision?

A: I really had no choice. I came to be obsessed by a woman who actually lived there when I was taking a course on the historical development of concepts in chemistry. Upon my retirement many years later, I made her the model for my protagonist. No one knew her name because she’d been an alchemist, and the practice of alchemy was a capital offense throughout the Empire. So, she worked in secret. But four hundred years later, her contributions, especially her inventions, came to be recognized. She was dubbed Maria Hebrea, the legendary founder of Western alchemy, and held her place for 1500 years as the most celebrated woman of the Western World.

Modeling my protagonist, Miriam bat Isaac, on Maria Hebrea was a good fit because my Miriam would be both analytic and intrepid. Moreover, without a known personal life for Maria Hebrea, I was free to invent one for Miriam. So, I gave my protagonist a twin brother, a fierce athlete who’d become a famous gladiator; a tyrannical father, who’d press her to choose duty over desire; and a servant girl five years her senior. Phoebe would become her stubbornly girlish best friend, co-conspirator, and trusted confidant.

Q: What surprised you the most as you went about your research for this particular time period?

A: Each day is an adventure doing the research. In particular, I remember being surprised to learn the existence of volunteer gladiators. They were treated so differently from the criminals, prisoners of war, and slaves sentenced to the arena. True, the volunteers were regarded as the property of their gladiator troupe, but they were considered valuable property. They were locked in a cell, but they were also paid and trained. They were treated medically for their injuries and fought only a few times a year. Upon joining up, they had their debts forgiven, signed a five-year contract, and had the chance to be admired as a popular sex object.

Q: What were your primary sources for research about the city of Alexandria and how people in this era went about their daily lives?

A: I rely on the work of scholars. Hundreds have studied and written about every imaginable aspect of life in Alexandria when it was the greatest cultural capital of the Ancient World. Some of my stories have secondary settings in Caesarea or Ephesus, cities I likewise chose for their significance during the first century CE. The provincial capital of Judaea was located in Caesarea, and the apostle Paul made his Third Missionary Journey to Ephesus.

So, how reliable are the accounts of scholars? As an academic myself, I know that it’s not so easy to get a community of scholars to agree. They disagree, for example, on the width and pavement of Alexandria’s main boulevard; the precise location of the Museum, Great Library, agora, and warehouse district; and the number of steps to the summit of the Serapeum.

And how faithful have I been to their accounts? My accounts of the historical events are in accord with at least some of the scholars. As far as I know, I took liberties with only one character, a disfigured gladiator named Sergius, who, if he lived at all, was born decades after my story. So yes, the Alexandrian rioters stormed the Great Synagogue, reckless fans charged onto the track during a chariot race, and a tax collector brutally, slowly, and publicly had a fugitive’s entire family executed.

Q: What do you think the Roman Empire can teach us in the 21st century?

A: Two lessons from the Romans stand out. One is about their engineering. They constructed their buildings and roads to last. Even more spectacular to me was their system of aqueducts that brought water to hundreds of thousands of people across vast deserts. Their aqueducts were gravity fed, that is, they did not require the use of energy to transport the water.

On a less positive note, their involvement in wars ultimately impoverished them.

Q: Tell us about your main characters in The Deadliest Deceptions.

A: My main characters are Miriam bat Isaac and her best friend Phoebe. Two childhood events affected Miriam. First, days after her birth, her mother died of childbed fever. And second, she witnessed the Alexandrian riots of 38 CE. Both tragedies made her sensitive to the suffering, perils, and losses of others and motivated her to find justice for them.

Her father, a well-to-do investment banker, gave her a tutor so she had the knowledge and leisure to work as an alchemist. But she also had the courage to do so. The emperors, afraid that in synthesizing gold, the alchemists would destabilize the currency and overthrow the empire, had decreed the practice of alchemy to be capital offense.

Otherwise, Miriam is exactly like me, obsessive behaviors and all!

Phoebe is Miriam’s foil. Five years Miriam’s senior, she entered Miriam’s household as a domestic slave. It was when Miriam’s father invited Phoebe to take lessons with his daughter that they became best friends. Then, upon her marriage, Phoebe agreed to her manumission so any children she might have would be free. Her husband, also a former slave, became the proprietor of a thriving bookshop. Accordingly, Phoebe was able to indulge her patrician tastes in rich foods, the latest Roman fashions, whether of Chinese silk or jasmine-scented linen, and the wigs, fancy shoes, and glittering jewelry to go with them.

As a former slave, Phoebe knows the places Miriam cannot go: the barber shops, brothels, and soup kitchens that are crammed with ruffians and ripe with gossip. Phoebe not only loves juicy stories, but with a flair for theatrics, she knows just how to embellish them.

Q: Plotter or pantser? And why does this method work well for you?

A: When I was first asked that question, I responded, “Whaaat?” I’d never heard those terms. Maybe you haven’t either. When referring to writers, plotters are those who plan out their story before writing it, such as with an outline. Pantsers are those who fly by the seat of their pants. Most people, of course, are Plantsers meaning they do both but probably lean more one way than the other. Plotters know where they’re going so they’re less likely to get caught in writer’s block, whereas Pantsers have the freedom to take their story anywhere, but, of course, they risk getting stuck. I haven’t counted, but the experts say that among published writers, about half are plotters, and about half are pantsers. In other words, there’s no right way.

If you know me, then you know I’m a plotter because I do everything else that way. I go to the store with a list, and before going to bed, I write out my objectives for the next day. In fact, I’ve never winged anything. Well, that’s almost true. Still, no matter which you are, it can be worthwhile to try out a different approach just to see what comes out. As I’ve gotten more experienced as a writer, I’ve dared to be more spontaneous. The result is my fifth Miriam bat Isaac novel, The Deadliest Thief, the first opportunity I took to be a Plantser. When I started—with my outline, of course—I knew who the thief was, but little did I know there’d come to be another more deadly thief. In short, a better story.

Q: How did you go about finding a publisher?

A: My long suits are patience and persistence. I restricted my queries to publishers endorsed by MWA and agents belonging to the American Association of Literary Agents. At the time, fifteen years ago, 100 queries was the average. I sent out queries to five of each at a time. And for each rejection, I’d send out another query. It took me a year, and all that time, I continued to polish my manuscript and believe in the story. John Kennedy Toole taught me the importance of believing in your story. He wrote A Confederacy of Dunces. Although several in the literary world appreciated his writing skills, his novel, despite his numerous revisions, continued to be rejected. Likely in part because of this failure, he committed suicide at the age of 31. It was his mother who after his death saw that the book got published. Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981.

So, believe in your story.

Q: Aside from a great read, what would you like your readers to gain from your stories?

A: My stories take readers into a world of scoundrels, whether in the splendid mansions of first -century CE Alexandria’s Palace Quarter or the sleazy inns of the city’s underbelly. Aside from making their blood flow faster as they enter that exotic world, I hope readers will see that justice can triumph even outside the boundaries of the law and that regardless of our time and place, race or creed, we all face the same problems.

Q: Best advice for aspiring authors?

A: You have a unique voice. That is your gift. Believe that you can make the world a richer place. Don’t hesitate to use a professional editor if you are not attentive to the rules of grammar. Be patient and persistent. Read the how-to books. And take advantage of the online classes. Many are free.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: I have a book in press, The Deadliest Returns, and one on my hard drive, but my next goal is to become better with the short story.

Q: Anything else you’d like to share?

A: Join a writers’ group and a readers’ group, or recruit members for your own group.
With a writers’ group you can give and get feedback, encouragement, and friendship. You can also get insight into other writers’ imaginations and cognitive styles. A readers’ group teaches you what people like and dislike in a story, how they bond to the characters, and come to be satisfied with the ending. And with technology today, you don’t even have to go anywhere.

One thought on “The Deadliest Deceptions

  1. June Trop says:

    Thank you, Christina, for working with me so generously, kindly, and patiently. I hope other authors will see how much fun it is to work with you.

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