- To begin, can you tell us what The Boy Who Stepped Through Time is about?
It’s about an ordinary Australian boy, called Perry, who goes on holidays to the south of France and finds himself having extraordinary adventures. I had lots of fun transporting him back to the time of the Roman Empire and thinking up all sorts of twists and excitements and funny situations for him.
- I always like to know where the inspiration for novels came from especially when it comes to historical fiction, so what inspired this particular story?
Well, for the main plot I was trying to work out how Perry could use his knowledge from the future to help someone in the past. Maybe he could save a sick person using modern medical knowledge or…
I asked my researcher Tamara, what was engraved on the tombs from Roman times. Did they reveal what people died from?
“No,” she answered. “On children’s coffins they put their exact age – three years, two months and six days, or whatever. But they didn’t say what they died of. And I don’t think you’d want to use a child’s coffin for your story…”
“Yes I would!” I cried excitedly.
As soon as Tamara mentioned the child’s coffin, the plot burst into my head.
Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter:
‘Don’t mention that museum,’ groaned Melissa. ‘I still can’t believe you and Mum spent two hours looking at dead people.’
‘It wasn’t dead people. It was ancient stone coffins. From Roman times,’ protested Perry.
‘Well, they were interesting. I found one of a girl who died when she was exactly my age: eleven years, two months and one day old. Her name . . .’Quote from Anna’s book, The Boy Who Stepped Through Time
You see, my plot idea was to have Perry see a name on a coffin in a museum, and then, when he goes back to Roman times, I’d make him meet a real girl with the same name – a girl who hasn’t died – yet!
- You took fifty years to write this story – I don’t think I’ve ever heard of something like that happening! What was it that about this story that took so long, and why do you think now was the right time for it to come out?
It wasn’t the story that was the problem. It was me! Back in the 1960s, when I was about ten years old, I read a book about the ancient Romans and became obsessed with them, picturing men in togas feasting on peacocks, and people sitting in huge, steamy bathhouses rubbing themselves with olive oil instead of soap, and scraping it off again with funny metal tools called strigils. I decided to write a novel set in ancient Roman times. I began with a boy dressed in a knee-length tunic, running down a cobbled street. The sun was shining and his feet thumped along the hot cobblestones. And then… and then…
I quickly realised I didn’t have enough information – or ideas – for a whole novel, and I went back to playing with my two younger sisters. The image of a Roman boy running down a cobbled street still haunted me though.
Jump forward about 30 years… After a short career as a teacher, I had become a writer and illustrator, mostly focusing on non-fiction. I was asked to contribute to a reading program for the education market, and I wrote and illustrated a series of little books about children from other times. One of them was called A Roman Day to Remember (Macmillan Education,1999). At last, I was done with my Roman boy.
Or so I thought!
Writing these imaginary little stories about the past had whetted my appetite for fiction and I decided to write a novel. At that time fantasy was all the rage, so I created Runestone (Allen and Unwin 2002) – a fantasy rooted in history.
Other ideas caught my imagination and demanded to be written – more historical fantasies, a story about my grandmother’s childhood (The Family with Two Front Doors, Allen and Unwin 2017), a story about my own childhood (52 Mondays, Allen and Unwin 2019)… but finally I realised I was still haunted by that boy in his tunic. So I turned to my sister…
You see, while I’d been growing up and becoming an author and illustrator, my baby sister Tamara had become a Roman historian and archaeologist. (I think I might have influenced her career choice with the games we played as children!) Anyway, I asked if she’d collaborate, and together we began to research and work out the full story of that boy from Roman times!
- What was the research process with your sister, Tamara like, and where did you start? How long did it take?
Tamara turned up to our first planning meeting at a café with a pile of books from the Melbourne University library. She’d started marking things she thought would be useful, but we soon discovered we had two different approaches. Tamara was an archaeologist looking for evidence and I was a creative writer looking for a story! However, we quickly learned to work together.
Tamara begged me to set the novel in a late Roman villa (a country mansion), something she had been researching. We had lots of fun planning the setting. Tamara found out about a real excavated Roman villa near a place called Taradeau in southern France and we used this as the basis for our fictional ‘Villa Rubia’. We drew plans of the whole villa and farm and worked out things like the location of the shrine, the toilets, and where each of the characters would sleep and work. It was just like being children again, when we used to create little villages for the card families from our Happy Families game!
I could not have written the book without Tamara’s help. It was the first time in my writing career I’ve worked with a collaborator and it was fabulous to have someone to brainstorm with, and to find all the details I needed. We planned the book chapter by chapter, then before I started each new scene Tamara tried to guess what information I might need and prepared it all for me in a shared drive – the clothes, the furniture, the food, etc!
This was only the beginning though. As soon as I started to write the scene, I would flood her with questions. For example, when I was writing a chapter set in a grand bathhouse, I wanted to know:
- How hot was the water in the hot bath?
- Was the water in the bath clean? (It wasn’t, we worked out it must have been murky and disgusting with bits of hair and stuff floating in it!)
- Did they all walk around naked?
- Were the slaves and masters all equal in the bathhouse?
Tamara was amazingly fast responding to my flurry of texts and emails so I could stay immersed in the story.
It still took a long time though! We started in late 2018 and Tamara was still checking sources (she read more than 1000!) and making corrections when we were proofreading for publication at the start of 2021!
- Historical fiction often calls for exemplary research and facts woven throughout a compelling and accessible plot for readers – how did you pull these two aspects together, so you were true to the story and still managed to maintain historical accuracy?
Actually, at first it looked as if I wasn’t going to be able to do it! I started the book as a straight historical novel, brimming with all the wonderful details Tamara had found for me. However, when I trialled my first chapters in primary schools, the students couldn’t picture the scenes because they didn’t understand the historical terms such as lattice, chamber pot, tunic, and dung. I was flummoxed. How could I bring the past to life without the right vocabulary? Luckily, I had the idea of starting again, creating a modern boy and sending him back in time. That was the key to making the historical details accessible – I could reveal and describe the world of ancient Roman Gaul through modern eyes – and it also gave me lots of avenues for creating a more compelling story.
- How pedantic was Tamara when it came to the historical side of the story, and how do you feel this impacted the story overall?
Both Tamara and I were adamant that everything in the story had to be accurate, although sometimes her answer to my questions was “nobody knows”. Every time she corrected something or we found out a new detail that forced us to change the story, the novel just got better. The real historical information always improved the plot or the writing.
- What was the most exciting fact or artefact you and your sister found during the research process?
Oh, there were so many exciting finds, but I think the most thrilling one was the villa…
This is how it happened. When Tamara told me about the villa we would use for the story, all she had was a plan archaeologists had been able to draw from a few lines of stones in the ground. The villa was a ruin. Well, I wanted to be able to picture the setting it was in. Was the ground hilly or flat? Were there woods or rivers nearby? Even though it was 1700 years later, we decided to scroll through Google satellite view and see what we could find. I was thrilled to see it looked quite unchanged, a peaceful area full of woods and vineyards. Suddenly, I noticed a bare patch of ground..
“Zoom in, zoom in!” I cried.
And there it was – neat rows of ruined stone walls, just like we had on the archaeologist’s drawing, in front of us. We could actually see the villa! We danced around the room with excitement.
The next exciting find was something Tamara found in the archaeologist’s report: a mention of a huge stone from an oil press found in the villa ruins, that had an extra hole carved in it by mistake.
“It would be fabulous if you could weave that into the story,” Tamara challenged me…
“I will,’ I promised.
- What impact did this have on the story, and did you use it, or save it for something else?
I definitely used it! I was searching for a way my modern boy could prove he came from the future. I decided he could see this stone on display before he went back in time, and then… But I don’t want to give away the plot, so I won’t reveal the rest here!
- Roman life wasn’t always gladiators and kings – what were some of the grittier things you uncovered, and do you think that you could have lived during Roman times?
I am definitely glad I don’t live in Roman times! I could not imagine sitting on a shared toilet seat with other people, or having a bath with strangers, or living in a household full of slaves. Slavery was actually one of the hardest things to describe and deal with in the story. Although I chose to make the master in my novel a kind man who doesn’t whip his slaves, it was still confronting to deal with the fact that he owned other people and had that power over them. I was glad I was writing a time-slip story so my modern boy could express his outrage about this to his ancient friends, and there is a really interesting conversation in the book where three viewpoints collide – the viewpoint of a slave boy, the master’s daughter, and the modern boy.
- What Roman sports do you think would be fun to watch in modern times?
Romans only threw balls rather than kicking them, so in the novel the modern boy teaches his Roman friends to play footy. But we found out that the atmosphere at Roman chariot racing events would have been very like a footy match, with supporters dressed in their team’s colours and shouting and singing. In the end I couldn’t fit a chariot race into The Boy Who Stepped Through Time, but maybe it’ll find its way into the next book.
- Were there any whacky or unusual facts you and your sister uncovered about Ancient Rome that
We found out that remedies for a cough included horse saliva drunk with hot water, pigeon dung gargled with raisin wine, and ground millipedes mixed in vinegar and honey! Also, that when ancient Romans made a spell they wrote “Abracadabra”!
- 1700 years ago, feels impossible to imagine – what made you decide on that number, and what to you, were the key events and key people that made this time fascinating in Ancient Rome?
Well, I didn’t actually have a choice with the number because that is Tamara’s favourite time in history, and the one she has studied the most! However, I’m glad we did pick that date – 313 CE to 314 CE.
It is not your stereotypical period in Roman history so it’s not one you often come across in books. When people hear the words “ancient Roman” they usually picture a man wearing a toga and reading from a scroll. But they come from a much earlier period. I think it was more interesting and unusual to set our story in the early 4th century, when many things had changed. Men no longer wore the traditional toga, except for rare ceremonial occasions, and women wore robes with long sleeves. The rich were buried in carved stone coffins like the one in our story (earlier Romans cremated their dead) – so that gave me the opportunity to use a coffin inscription in the plot.
- A common phrase is ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ Did this phrase have any bearing on how Perry taught himself to act in Ancient Rome?
In this book, I decided to snatch a rather unadventurous, sheltered modern child out of his fun holiday and throw him into a daunting and challenging situation, being taken as a Roman slave. This gave me the opportunity to create some funny scenes where he makes mistakes and learns to behave like a slave. However, I also explore his feelings when he is confronted by the different attitudes of another culture, including their acceptance of the lack of rights for slaves and children. As the story progresses, Perry discovers hidden strengths and abilities, and learns to embrace new experiences. Interestingly, by the end of the book his friends from the Roman world have absorbed some of his modern attitudes, and he, himself, is not the same unadventurous, sheltered child of the first chapters.
- Which historical characters were you keen to have Perry interact with during his time in Rome?
This is a book about ordinary Romans, not historical figures. However, when Tamara found an ancient description of the Emperor Constantine visiting the city at the time of the story, I couldn’t resist including it!
- Did Roman religion come up in your research, and if so, how did it inform your plot and characters?
Religion was a large factor in Roman life, so it had to come into the story – but, again, it wasn’t the stereotypical depiction of Roman religion involving animal sacrifice, priests and temples. From our research we discovered that religion was an integral part of everyday life, that every home had little shrines and household gods, so I wove this into the plot, and into the characters’ belief systems. Tamara helped me compose appropriate prayers based on real Roman texts. When the main girl character prays on her birthday, asking her guardian spirit to keep her safe and give her many more birthdays, that is based on a real ancient prayer. I was so thrilled when Tamara found that form of prayer – it was so appropriate to the story! As the reader, and Perry, listen to her praying, they know she is really in danger and may not see another birthday…
- Finally, what do you enjoy about writing historical fiction, and what do you think it can teach us?
Usually when I write a historical novel, I have to imagine myself as a character from the past and I am restricted to trying to experience scenes through alien eyes. In this book, for the first time, I was able to ‘visit’ the past as a modern person, a version of myself. I could try to make sense of it, comment on it, and make comparisons.
This was such an eye-opening experience, and such a different way of looking at the past that I am now on a mission to encourage other people, especially students, to try the same experiment.
We always encourage our children to be empathetic, to picture themselves in another person’s shoes. As readers and writers that is what we are usually required to do. For this book, instead of asking the reader to imagine being another person, I am actually saying ‘how would you feel if you saw this, or if this happened to you?’