Author On the Bookcase: Ruth Downie, Author of Caveat Emptor
Author On the Bookcase
Welcome, Ruth Downie, to On the Bookcase. Ruth has written the fourth novel, Caveat Emptor, in her historical mystery Medicus series (Medicus, Terra Incognita, Persona Non Grata). The series centers around a doctor and defacto investigater, Gaius Petreius Ruso and his companion, (now wife) Tilla, in 2nd century Roman-occupied Britain. Ruth's entertaining series is full of history, mystery, culture, and a little British humor! Ruth sets the reader directly and competently in the era and place of the period. Caveat Emptor's Ruso is hunting down a missing tax man and brings to life death and taxes in that intriguing time.
Ruth writes that she is "constantly surprised by the gulf that can separate different readers’ views of the same novel." That's definitely is a reading group!
One of the best discoveries I’ve made in reading groups is that many good things lie beyond one’s comfort zone. I’ve frequently ended up reading something I’ve never heard of and wouldn’t naturally choose, but usually it’s been worth the effort. Over the years there’s only been one book I absolutely couldn’t bear. I thought it was hideously pretentious, although on reflection my description of it as ‘like wading through a bowl of over-ripe fruit’ wasn’t much better. Needless to say, the book won heaps of prizes and was acclaimed as a great work of literature.
I’m constantly surprised by the gulf that can separate different readers’ views of the same novel. I was deeply puzzled when several people whose tastes I thought I knew well didn’t share my ecstasy over Kate Atkinson’s Behind the scenes at the Museum. They agreed that it was funny and well-written, but they simply couldn’t see what the fuss was about. Only later did we realise that most of the enthusiasts in the group had shared the British childhood that was depicted in the novel. Readers who had been brought up elsewhere found it didn’t resonate with them in the same way.
Lolita, on the other hand, resonated all too well with the parents of young daughters: several of them found it impossible to finish the book and we spent much of the evening discussing whether it should have been published at all.
I suppose that, consciously or otherwise, we all interpret what we read in the light of our own experience – and it’s a deeply personal affair. Perhaps that’s why it can be so uncomfortable to hear disparaging comments about a book that you absolutely loved. (So if you’ve read A Town Like Alice’and didn’t swoon over the romance, please be kind enough not to explain to me what was wrong with it!)
I didn’t tell people in my first reading group that I was writing fiction in my spare time. It seemed both irrelevant and embarrassing: like announcing to a group of opera critics that you like to sing in the shower. Nor did I tell my fellow-diggers on a Roman Villa site that I harboured a secret passion for creating tales about the people of Roman Britain. Although they were very kind when I finally confessed, a tendency to make things up is not highly prized amongst archaeologists, for obvious reasons.
Besides, I wasn’t a born writer who’d been scribbling since childhood. I’d begun it as a hobby: a way to create some private space amid the demands of family and work.
When I finally began to send material out for others to read, it went to ‘safe’ places: competitions run by strangers whom I’d never have to meet. That’s how the early chapters of the first Medicus story were born. Only after they were published in a magazine, and one or two people asked where the rest of it was, did it dawn on me that it might actually be worth trying to finish the book.
The route to publication involved lots of very small steps spread over several years, many of them backwards. When The Phone Call finally came– the one all writers are supposed to dream about – I was somewhere between ecstasy and shock. I’d passed the test! Somebody liked my story! After all those years of warbling in the shower, I was finally being asked to perform in public!
A few minutes after I’d put the phone down came the awful realisation. If the book was published, people might read it. They would have expectations. Worse, they would have opinions. The gift of seeing of ourselves as others see us may be useful, but it’s also a very scary prospect. After all, I knew how impossible it is to predict whether people will enjoy a book. What if everyone thought my novel was dreadful?
All of this may sound remarkably dimwitted. Obviously books are published to be read, but the chances of it happening to mine had been so slim that I’d put the fear of exposure to the back of my mind, rather like a looming dental appointment.
I was lucky. Enough people liked the story about a Roman doctor and his British partner for the publishers to want more. The fourth Medicus novel, Caveat Emptor, has just appeared and I’m now working on the fifth. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing from readers who’ve enjoyed the books and the honour of being confided in by one or two who have found them a cheering distraction during exceedingly tough times.
However, when I’m writing I still try not to think too much about who will read it or what they’ll make of it. Not because I don’t care, but because trying to second-guess other people’s reactions is a quick way both to drive yourself crackers, and to crush any small shoots of originality.
It reminds me of the day I naively took my thirteen-year-old shopping for a winter coat. As the morning progressed but we didn’t, it became apparent that we weren’t alone. It seemed the whole of my son’s class was in the shop with us, invisibly peering over his shoulder, eyeing up the offerings on the racks and making comments on his taste – or lack of it. We finally went home with frayed tempers and the safest possible option, a coat as near as possible to what every other thirteen-year-old was wearing at the time.
On the other hand, when I worked in our local library, one of my favourite customers was an elderly man who always seemed to select his large pile of books with incredible speed. When I remarked on it, he confessed that he never bothered to look at them before picking them up. "I do end up taking home some awful old rubbish," he admitted. "Some of them, I just read a couple of pages and put them down." So why did he approach his reading in such a haphazard fashion? "Well," he said cheerfully, "When you’re willing to have a go at anything, sometimes you get a lovely surprise."
It seems to me that both as readers and writers, we can stay in our own comfort zone where the risks are minimal – but sometimes, a deep breath and a small step outside can bring rewards beyond anything we’d imagined.
Well-said, Ruth! Sometimes, members of reading groups forget to go outside their comfort and read something new and different. Thanks so much for the reminder to "push the envelope" a bit.
Praise for Caveat Emptor
"Superb…Downie excels in bringing the ancient world to life as well as making the attitudes and customs of its inhabitants accessible to a modern audience."—Publishers Weekly
"... Downie remains a peerless storyteller and a master entertainer. BBC's Masterpiece should take a long look at this series. It's a winner."— Kirkus Review
Ruth Downie, a part-time librarian, is married with two sons and lives in Milton Keynes, England.