Alison and I ‘met’ on the happy occasion both our books were chosen as Editor’s Choices in the first Bookseller Indie Author Preview. Turns out we have a lot in common – indie authors, series writers, international women and feminists. So on International Women’s Day… meet Alison Morton.
Alison, I loved the premise of Roma Nova, the setting for your three novels. A society north of Italy where the decision-makers are women. How did you come up with that?
It goes back to my own history when I was eleven on holiday in north-east Spain one summer. Drawn in by the mosaics at Ampurias (a huge Graeco-Roman site), I wanted to know who had made them, whose houses they were in, who had walked on these floors.
After my father explained about traders, senators, power and families, I tilted my head to one side and asked him, ‘What would it be like if Roman women were in charge, instead of the men?’ Maybe it was the fierce sun boiling my brain, maybe early feminism surfacing or maybe it was just a precocious kid asking a smartarse question. But clever man and senior ‘Roman nut’, my father replied, ‘What do you think it would be like?’
My teacher mother, an early feminist, brought up my brother and me equally; we both learned to knit and sew, we both had train sets at Christmas. I never knew the ‘girls’ way’ to button my double-breasted school mac. Naturally, we both went to uni. And equally naturally, it never occurred to me why women couldn’t take on leadership roles or join the military, as I did.
When my need to express something about my life-long fascination with Rome pushed to the surface, my feminist values took over. Thinking outside the box wasn’t for me. I didn’t know there was a box.
Can you tell us where Roma Nova is, geographically speaking? Or is that a secret?
The Italian Federation is to the southwest, New Austria and Bavaria to the north, the Helvetian Confederation nearby and the Balkan Republics to the southeast.
I do let out of the bag which country’s geography I pinched [link: http://alison-morton.com/2013/11/26/roma-nova-world-building-2/] but Roma Nova isn’t that country!
The social structure of Roma Nova seems fully realised. How did you go about conceptualising that alternate world?
For instance, the structure of the ancient Roman world was patriarchal, although less enforced as it aged. However, subverting overt limitations, many women became strong influencers; nobody could, or can now, downplay Livia’s political advice and networking for Augustus.
Step 1 – we have some well-known examples of strong women from history.
Next, I gave the Roma Nova founders’ leader a tough Celt as a wife, Julia. She came from a society in which, although Romanised for several generations, women made decisions, fought in battles and managed inheritance and property. Their four children, all daughters, were amongst the first pioneers, so necessarily had to act more decisively and assume more authority than they would have done in a traditional Roman urban setting.
Step 2 – we now have female successors leading the society.
Given the unstable, dangerous times in Roma Nova’s first few hundred years, eventually the daughters as well as sons had to put on armour and carry weapons to defend their homeland and their way of life. Fighting danger side-by-side with brothers and fathers reinforced women’s roles and status.
Step 3 – women have defended their homeland in the most basic, but very Roman, way.
And they never allowed the incursion of monotheistic paternalistic religions.
Step 4 – spiritual values are nourished by a male and female pantheon of gods.
A country with a small population needed children, and patriarchal, legalistic ties were loosened to encourage this. Women chose their partners and as providers of the next generation increased their social weight. Copying Celtic practices where descent was through the female line, women’s line of inheritance assumed precedence. After all, it’s usually obvious who a child’s mother is…
Step 5 – the social power structure changed out of necessity.
What key characteristics of a female-dominated society make it different to the one we live in?
Roma Nova is more ‘egalitarian-plus’ rather than women-dominated per se. There is no bar on men’s roles; some professions, e.g. the military, have by their nature a higher proportion of men to women. However, the legal and social structures of Roma Nova in the 21st century are as entrenched as the paternalistic ones are in most western countries.
As attitudes, films, writing, politics, commerce and civic life are ‘normally’ seen here through the ‘male gaze’, so the Roma Novan equivalents are naturally seen through a female lens. I use the technique of gender mirroring in my writing to keep in the Roma Novan mindset if I am in doubt. Try swapping the male/female characters’ dialogue in any book or film, especially crime, thriller, mystery, sci-fi or fantasy fiction; it can be a revelation!
Geert Hofstede measured various cultures according to value dimensions. One of those was the Masculinity/Femininity index. Does Roma Nova correspond?
The masculinity side of this dimension represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive. Its opposite, femininity, stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented. In the business context Masculinity versus Femininity is sometimes also related to as “tough versus tender” cultures.
Neat question! Has that trickster, Mercury, been whispering in your ear?
For me, each person sits in a unique place along the masculinity/femininity scale. But much of that scale is too crude as are the general presumptions about masculinity and femininity in Hofstede’s description above. It would be better to use a 3-D model. The other question is one of natural instinct v. cultural value adoption. Ditto, needing a 3-D model.
Hofstede’s Masculinity/Femininity index is one of six that he uses to assess a culture; they’re designed to be used collectively to illustrate tendencies:
Power Distance Index
Individualism versus Collectivism
Masculinity versus Femininity
Uncertainty Avoidance Index
Long Term Orientation versus Short Term Normative Orientation
Indulgence versus Restraint
For Roma Novans, the other five value scales are probably more relevant.
In Western Europe, we have seen some women in power, but we’re still a long way from anything like equality. If you were Queen of Europe, what would you change?
Juno, what a question! I’d love to alter social attitudes and approaches to people and tasks because that would improve everything. In no particular order…
– gender neutrality in occupations; the only criterion being ‘fit for purpose’
– less grandstanding and more getting down to the work
– more cooperation, thus less waste of time, energy and resources
– less shilly-shallying and more decisiveness
– individuals taking responsibility for themselves and their actions
– not bleating on about entitlements and marginal complaints when there are so many more people without the basics who should have first call on help
A bit Roman here….
Having thoroughly enjoyed INCEPTIO, I’m now looking forward to PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO. Will there be more?
The fourth in series, AURELIA, is due out in May. It’s the first of a new three-book cycle featuring an important secondary character from the first three. We learn about a great enmity, why Aurelia is so driven and determined, and in the fifth and sixth books, what did happen in the Great Rebellion.
Thanks for your time, Alison, and I wish you and the Roma Novans all the best!
Even before she pulled on her first set of combats, Alison Morton was fascinated by the idea of women soldiers. Brought up by a feminist mother and an ex-military father, it never occurred to her that women couldn’t serve their country in the armed forces. Everybody in her family had done time in uniform and in theatre – regular and reserve Army, RAF, WRNS, WRAF – all over the globe.
So busy in her day job, Alison joined the Territorial Army in a special communications regiment and left as a captain, having done all sorts of interesting and exciting things no civilian would ever know or see. Or that she can talk about, even now…
But but something else fuels her writing… Fascinated by the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain), at their creation by the complex, power and value-driven Roman civilisation started her wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by strong women…
Now, she writes Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with tough heroines…