Bestselling Author Constanza Casati Tells Us About Lions, Dust and PTSD

Interview: Andrew Tucker
Friday 21 June 2024
reading time: min, words

The twenty-nine year old author's mythological retelling 'Clytemnestra' was a Saturday Times bestseller - now she's back with the heroic follow-up, 'Babylonia'...

We caught up with her ahead of her epic journey to Nottingham Waterstones on the 3rd of July.

Black Closed Sign Landscape Poster (1)

Let’s get the most important question out of the way: which Mesopotamian god would you swear allegiance to?

Well, the answer is quite easy for me. I'm gonna go with the goddess Ishtar, simply because the main character of Babylonia, Semiramis is slightly inspired by the Goddess Ishtar - she was the goddess of love and war - a very positive figure but also threatening. Her animal is the lion and lions play a big part in the novel.

You know, ancient Mesopotamian gods and goddesses change all the time, they have different names. For the Sumerians, for instance, Ishtar was known as Inanna - so, for some she is the Queen of Heaven, for others Anu is the King of Heaven. So it is a bit tricky…

Your first novel Clytemnestra was rooted in your love of Greek classics - what took you back to Babylonia next?
Well, the character Semiramis was a spark of inspiration herself. I found out about her a few years ago - I was reading the Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio, he was a contemporary of Chaucer who wrote the first collection of women's biographies in Western literature. So, I read about Semiramis, I thought she was a fascinating figure; Boccaccio calls her very spirited and skilled. But he also says that there was one wicked sin that stained all her accomplishments - the fact that she was burning with desire and ambition. 

This ancient Greek historian called Diodorus of Sicily wrote a very detailed biography of Semiramis and calls her ‘the most renowned woman of whom we have any record’ and almost compares her to Alexander the Great as an historical figure. So I was intrigued. And then I found out about this tragic love triangle that eventually made her queen - that was the moment when I knew I wanted to write about her because for me, an interest in a character is not really enough - I need an emotional hook, and this love triangle and the tragedy it brought was that for me.

This was three or four years ago, but then I had to spend months and months doing research because I knew a little bit about ancient Mesopotamia, but not enough to write a whole book about it!

What’s that research process like - are you the sort of person that’s surrounded by post-it-notes?

My research process was similar for Clytemnestra and Babylonia, in the sense that I focus first on the research that allows me to understand the culture and the mindset of the people. So, reading the ancient epics, in this case specifically the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is the first epic ever, written a thousand years before the Iliad and the Odyssey. Or reading proverbs and love poems, and trying to understand what that meant for these people, for instance, what their underworld was like, that kind of thing.

Then the other kind of research that I do is more practical, more detailed. It allows me to understand what the palace was, like, how it was structured, the kinds of positions that women could hold politically in the empire, war tactics and studying the bas reliefs on the walls…

That is quite organised! Then, as I'm writing, the research becomes quite messy - I'm more focused on the scene, and I try and research everything that I need for the scene. I’ve read somewhere that when you're writing historical fiction, you only know that you've researched enough when the setting starts to feel like a memory…

Ah! So do you ever find yourself dreaming about Babylonia?

Yeah, maybe not dreaming about the setting. Because that would be quite traumatising [Constanza laughs]. But about the story.

When you're writing historical fiction, you only know that you've researched enough when the setting starts to feel like a memory…

Black Closed Sign Landscape Poster (2)

Clytemnestra has a relationship between sisters at the centre. In Babylonia, there’s a story of brotherhood. Even though it's not a sequel, there's continuity…

Absolutely, and that was not intentional. So it's great that you actually picked that up. I mentioned the Epic of Gilgamesh before, and that is the story of two friends and brothers, and what happens when one of them dies. But they are kind of lovers as well, similar to let's say, Achilles, and Patroclus, right? And the relationship between the governor and the king in Babylonia is heavily inspired by that relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Enkidu is called the double of Gilgamesh, his second self, and so there's this idea that none can live without the other.

And that is very true for Onnes and Ninus in Babylonia. It was really fun to build this love triangle with Semiramis because of that - usually, in fiction at least, two male characters fight over the third character. But I really liked this idea of having a love triangle where every single character is involved with each other at some point.

There's a feminist perspective in the book and underlying class issues too - Semiramis has deliberately elevated herself to a higher station, and her slave Ribat gets a lot of development too. Do you set out to kind of focus on those things, or do they develop organically as you go?

That's a great question. The novel is told from three different POVs, Semiramis and Ninus [the king], and the third perspective was originally the Princess of Urartu. But then one day somewhere during my first draft, I suddenly thought of the first line of Ribat’s first chapter: ‘he has learned to read on the scars of his mother's back’. And once I had that line, I just had the character. 

Ribat’s perspective is so crucial to the novel, because a lot of the novel is about the consequences that war has on people, even the people who exercise violence and power and how they're changed because of this violence. But then I thought: well, I need the perspective of someone who has to endure this violence. Otherwise, we can't really understand it fully.

Both Ribat and Semiramis have this obsession with…I want to say power, even if that is slightly misleading. They're both very ambitious people, they both come from the dust and they slowly rise towards the high heavens. And what I love about writing those chapters is that they see culture as a way to escape their background. For Ribat, writing is a chance to obtain freedom while for Semiramis reading is a way to gain power. 

The theme of the quest for wisdom and immortality was one that I had from the very beginning. Gilgamesh has been called the epic of the fear of death, and in Babylonia the characters fear death more than anything else - fame is the way to overcome that.

Characters mention 'the land of dust' as the setting of their afterlife - if Semiramis comes from dust as you say, is it a bit of a cycle?

That was one of the first things that I became obsessed with. The House of Dust, the Land of Dust, the Land of Darkness appears everywhere in ancient Mesopotamian literature, and I thought - how interesting that these people in ancient Assyria were incredibly violent, constantly at war, but they fear death more than anything else. 

The first half of my first novel Clytemnestra actually set in ancient Sparta and Spartans did not fear death. But yes, there is the sense of a cycle because Semiramis started out as being a nobody, and for her that's literally like being dead. So she spends her life trying to make something for herself.

In Babylonia the characters fear death more than anything else - fame is the way to overcome that

Copy Of Black Closed Sign Landscape Poster

You're pulling from quite a lot of different cultural influences - you were born in Texas and you grew up in northern Italy. Do you find that Italian language and culture kind of feeds into your English writing?

I’ve never thought about that…definitely my Italian background helped with Clytemnestra in the sense that I studied English and Latin for five years. I attended a High School called Liceo Classico where classics are compulsory. So you do translations from ancient Greek for five years, it's very stressful! But it was really useful in the end…I used to read a lot of Italian literature, obviously in Italian when I was younger, so maybe that had some sort of influence, but I don't think I'm super aware of it as I write.

In your novels you choose a point of view in the present tense - what effect do you think that creates?

I thought that would help the readers immerse themselves into the ancient world. I thought, Babylonia is going to be a much bigger challenge than Clytemnestra in the sense that…I don't want to say ‘no one knows about ancient Mesopotamia’. But very few people are familiar with that world. So I need to make sure that they're able to understand it before the story kicks in, and they're going to do it through Semiramis’ eyes, so I need the present tense. There's a huge debate about writing in that style, and a few authors don't really like it, which I think is kind of funny. I love a good debate. But…my next novel is written in the past tense!

We love a good teaser…sometimes even the characters we’re attached to in Babylonia might do something that would be appalling in our own time. Is that a difficult line to walk, keeping it feeling alien while bringing it into the present?

Ancient Assyria was probably one of the most violent empires ever. If you go to the British Museum and go to the Assyrian section, and you see all those amazing bas reliefs that line the walls of those incredible palaces, they're beautiful, but they're all about forcing prisoners into submission, or it's about the lion hunt, which for them was a sport - you know, the kings hunted lions for entertainment and people watched, cheering.

If you write a book set there, you cannot avoid the brutality in the narrative or in the setting. So the question that I asked myself was - how do I find hope in the story? I tried to recreate a word that was brutal, but also quite beautiful. There are moments of tenderness and grace and beauty in it, and that was really important for me.

But it was also important to highlight the consequences that the brutality had - we know that some soldiers probably did suffer PTSD.  That was a big part of the novel, how the war in Balkh changes three of the main characters. I didn't want to gloss over those things and I did think a lot about putting trigger warnings at the beginning - though I think with ancient historical fiction, you need to be prepared for the brutality. It's also important for me that the violence isn't just there for violence’s sake, but for a reason. I'm quite curious to see how readers will perceive this…and if they will be comfortable with it, actually.

Final quick fire round - which of the characters in Babylonia do you think you'd most like to spend a day with? I know that's a tough one.
Brilliant question. I think I'm gonna go with Ribat, because I've grown so fond of him! He's so clever, an amazing survivor, and a very loyal character as well.

Constanza will be appearing at Nottingham Waterstones on Weds the 3rd of July at 6.30pm - you can book tickets here. Babylonia is available from the 4th of July.

We have a favour to ask

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion

Please note, we migrated all recently used accounts to the new site, but you will need to request a password reset

Sign in using

Or using your

Forgot password?

Register an account

Password must be at least 8 characters long, have 1 uppercase, 1 lowercase, 1 number and 1 special character.

Forgotten your password?

Reset your password?

Password must be at least 8 characters long, have 1 uppercase, 1 lowercase, 1 number and 1 special character.