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Author Interview with Ruth Downie

Interview with Ruth Downie by Jerelyn H. (I-F-Letty)


Jerelyn: I have wide and varied tastes in reading the one constant is history.  I had seen Medicus by Ruth Downie on several occasions, but at the time I was in my medieval phase.  One day last winter, the good folks at Amazon and Barnes and Noble put it up as a freebie.  I down loaded it, and fell in love with Gaius Petreius Ruso the medic (physician) in the Roman Army sent to Britain.   I immediately purchased the others in the series. Now there are other Roman era detectives.  But I love the wise cracking, reluctant sleuth, Ruso.  On that note I wish to thank Ruth Downie for joining us on the PBS blog.

Ruth: It’s a pleasure, Jerelyn.


Jerelyn: In reading the background on you, you say that you’re one of the rare writers who really didn’t set out to be a writer.  How did it all come about then?

Ruth: I read English at university, but left convinced that literature was written by people with special gifts who were usually white, male and dead. (Yes, it was a long time ago.) It wasn’t until many years later that I joined a creative writing evening class and discovered the fun of ruling your own world by the power of the Biro.

(Biro is a brand of pen in England and the word Biro has become synonymous for pen)


Jerelyn:  It always interests me how authors come up with their protagonists, where did Ruso come from?

Ruth: Ruso appeared while I was trying to write a ‘serious’ Roman-era novel (not very successfully) and I saw a competition to ‘start a historical romance.’ There was no way that book could be turned into a romance but there were two minor characters in the back story who argued a lot, so I wrote three chapters about how they met, with Tilla as an injured slave and Ruso having to decide whether or not to get involved and help her. Of course it was easy enough to bluff about ancient medicine for three chapters but when it became a whole novel, I had to do some serious research!


Jerelyn:  Will you also tell us about Tilla?

Ruth: I once read in a museum that ‘Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry, but they were allowed to have relationships with local women.’ That raises all sorts of questions, doesn’t it? We know almost nothing about these women apart from the occasional name on a tombstone, so I wanted to try and imagine what their lives would have been like. Luckily there’s evidence that British women were more independent than their Roman counterparts, so I can give Tilla much more freedom than would have been considered respectable back in Rome.


Jerelyn:  Do you have a favorite character?

Ruth: Apart from those two, I’m very fond of Albanus, the eager-to-please clerk. And Ruso’s friend and colleague Valens is tremendously helpful – he’s so full of himself that he usually seems to write his own dialogue.


Jerelyn:  Other authors I have interviewed say that they write what they like to read or what they know. Is this how it is for you?

Ruth: To be honest I haven’t always been keen on historical fiction, because I find some of it so stuffed with facts that it’s hard work. Things might have been different if I’d come across Rosemary Sutcliff as a child. Somehow she passed me by. But after I’d been writing Roman fiction for a while I discovered Lindsey Davis, who was already doing the things I was trying out – using humour and modern dialogue – and that gave me the confidence to continue.

As for writing what I know – oh dear, no. I knew nothing about Roman Britain when I started, but I’ve enjoyed finding out. I’ve heard it said that instead of writing what you know, you should write what you love. I think that’s good advice.


Jerelyn:  I also read that you did some mucking about on an archaeological dig.  Was this as fun as it sounds?

Ruth: Absolutely, the joy of digging is that despite all the technology, you never really know what you’re going to find.  When you find it, you’re probably the first person who’s seen it in hundreds of years. I dig with a team of volunteers supervised by a professional archaeologist, so after we’ve all had the fun of speculating about what we’ve unearthed, he comes and tells us what it really is.


Jerelyn:  Does it surprise you what has survived from the Roman Era in Britain?

Ruth: It used to, until I saw what they have over in mainland Europe – whole buildings and aqueducts, and bridges that are still in use today. But it is surprising how many ordinary-looking British fields still hold the traces of Roman buildings if you know what to look for.


Jerelyn:  I think these books would be perfect for say the BBC and Masterpiece Theater, are there any plans for that?

Ruth: Only in my dreams, but I’m open to offers!


Jerelyn:  What is next, when will the fifth book be released? Can you tell us about it?

Ruth: The fifth book is still being written, and will probably be published in the second half of next year. Ruso has wangled his way back into the Army, but he and Tilla are trying very hard to avoid all the hullabaloo around the Emperor Hadrian’s imminent tour of Britannia. Until now most of the characters in the books have been fictional, but this time they’ll meet some real people from history.


Jerelyn:  What are the challenges you face in your research?  What are the joys?

Ruth: Research is the way to discover vast tracts of ignorance you didn’t know you had! I try to get the background to the stories as accurate as I can, whilst weaving huge lies around the accepted facts – but the ‘accepted facts’ aren’t accepted by everyone, and besides, they change with time as new discoveries are made and new theories are put forward. And of course I don’t get everything right, but I hope people who know better will forgive me. Actually the toughest challenge is to stop hunting down useless information and get on with writing the story.

As for the joys – well ‘research’ is a marvelous excuse to visit nice places, to roam around museums and spend hours poring over obscure books.  Not to mention dressing up and playing with woad and brewing. It’s also been a joy to meet people with expert knowledge who have been remarkably generous with their time.


Jerelyn:  It must be helpful that you can visit at least some of the remaining sites of the Roman occupation, do you have a favorite?

Ruth: Absolutely, some sites – like Hadrian’s Wall and Maiden Castle, a hill fort stormed by the Romans – are stunningly evocative. And in Chester you can still walk down the street plan of the Roman fort. But my favorite, because I’ve been part of the team that’s excavated it, is a Roman sheep farm in central England – you can see the pictures at


Jerelyn:  What do you read for your enjoyment?

Ruth: I love Martin Cruz Smith’s Renko novels, Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum, Colin Bateman’s Dan Starkey books, and Roz Southey’s Charles Patterson series, but I’ve had to stop reading Roman detective stories – it’s too distracting. I do enjoy more ‘literary’ books on occasion but somehow three years of an English degree has left me feeling slightly weary at the prospect of novels that one ‘should’ read.


Jerelyn:  What books did you like as a child/teen?

Ruth: The Famous Five, stories about girls and ponies, Anthony Buckeridge’s ‘Jennings’ books (they’re comedies set in an English prep school, so they may not translate too well to the States), Biggles, and later anything by Nevil Shute


Jerelyn:  What inspired you to write?

Ruth: I was very uncertain when I decided to try a creative writing evening class, but the teacher and the other students were very encouraging. Really it’s just been a case of taking small steps and seeing what happens.


Jerelyn:  If you could visit any one period for a short time say a week what would that be?

Ruth: Oh, I’d like to be in Roman Britain when Hadrian arrived on tour!


Jerelyn:  What surprised you the most about becoming a published writer?

Ruth: I was convinced the book was actually terrible but that all the agents, publishers etc. had somehow failed to spot what was wrong with it. When readers who were total strangers said they’d enjoyed it, I was staggered.


Jerelyn:  Is there someone in your life that is a model for Ruso’s home improvement mad step-mother?

Ruth: Fortunately, no – so maybe it’s my own secret desires coming to the surface!


Jerelyn:  Are you comfortable with all the marketing a writer is expected to do?

Ruth: It did seem very frightening to start with – especially for someone who grew up with the notion that it was ‘not nice to put yourself forward’. But doing talks and meeting people who are enthusiastic about reading is a pleasure, and it’s great to be able to communicate with readers via the blog. Ruso and Tilla have their own Facebook page, but as they’re 1900 years old they find it rather baffling, and so do I.


Jerelyn:  What was your family and friends reaction when they heard you were to be a published author?

Ruth: Oh, they were more excited than I was – I was terrified! Unnecessarily, as it turned out.


Jerelyn:  Are you a fan of e-readers?

Ruth: Yes, definitely. They’re hopeless for the bath, but marvelous for reading in bed.


Jerelyn:  PaperBackSwap is a book trading site, but so much more it is a community of book lovers.  What is your thought on sites such as ours?

Ruth: All writers are readers, and I used to work in a public library where we were always desperate to find ways of encouraging people to read. Anything that helps people share and expand their pleasure in books is a Very Good Thing – libraries, reading groups, book swaps…


Thank you Ruth for your time.

Ruth: Thanks Jerelyn – those were great questions!




Ruth’s books in order are






Medicus, U.S. title, though I prefer the U.K. title Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls


Terra Incognita  U.S. title again I prefer the U.K. title Ruso and the Demented Doctor 


Persona Non Grata U.S. title, U.K. title Ruso and the Root of All Evils


Caveat Emptor U.S. title, U.K. title Ruso and the River of Darkness



You can visit Ruth’s website at


Ruth has generously offered a copy of one of her books for a drawing for a member who comments on the Blog.  Come on don’t be shy!

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17 Responses to “Author Interview with Ruth Downie”

  1. Elva Moser says:

    ms. downie seems so down-to-earth.

    i have read only medicus and fell in love with the period. i love learning about that period. it’s fascinating to see how advanced they were. i quickly downloaded the second book, but haven’t read it yet. i admire tilla’s spunk and smarts…even if i’m a little bit jealous of her. valens is a perfect foil for the often clueless ruso.

  2. Vicky T. (VickyJo) says:

    Roman Britain is one of my favorite time periods, so I was thrilled to find a new series set in that era. Thanks so much to Ruth for taking the time to answer Letty’s (as usual) wonderful questions.

    Now, here’s my sad story: Book 3 (Persona Non Grata) is no longer available as a Kindle book! Does anyone know what happened? It was at one time.

    Anyway, another great interview!

  3. Deb B. says:

    Terrific interview — thank you both Ruth and Jerelyn!

    I haven’t yet started this series, but am eager to do so and have the books on my shelf and on my Touch. I just can’t decide whether to read them or listen to them (since they are narrated by one of my favorite narrators) — guess I’ll have to do both!!

  4. Jill H. (elinsmom) says:

    Great interview! I really enjoyed Medicus. I look forward to reading the next one soon.

  5. Ruth says:

    Hi Elva and Jill, it’s great to know you enjoyed ‘Medicus.’

    Deb, I’m beginning to realise Simon Vance has a whole army of fans out there! I was really lucky the publishers asked him to read.

    Vicky – agh, I have no idea what happened to Persona Non Grata for Kindle – I’ll ask the folk at Bloomsbury and see if they can get it fixed.

  6. Jerelyn H. (I-F-Letty) says:

    Waves at Ruth! Hello!

  7. Vicky T. (VickyJo) says:

    Ruth…thank you!!

    And yes, Simon Vance does have an army of fans; quite a few of them reside in our Historical Fiction forum. 😉

  8. Karin says:

    I am amazed everytime I read that some Roman artifact has been plowed up in a field somewhere in Britain. I have never heard of this series, and I’m definitely going to check it out. Although strangely enough I’ve heard how great Simon Vance is, even though I don’t have an e-reader!

  9. Bonnie (LoveNE) , says:

    Thank you for stopping by Ms. Downie. Your interview has given me a new author to try! I am fairly new to the land of HF. Jerelyn another great interview, thanks for turning us on to all these authors!

  10. Lori B. says:

    Great interview, Jerelyn. I love archaeology and hope someday to take a writing class. Ruth, can’t wait to read your books!

  11. (bookfan1) says:

    Interesting interview!

  12. ANNA S. (SanJoseCa) says:

    Wonderful interview Jerelyn! Thank you for introducing me to a “new to me” author. Ruth, I just added all your books to my reading list!

  13. Jeanne L. (bkydbirder) , says:

    Yes, another great interview about great books and a wonderful author. I still have the last two books in this series to read. I’ve really enjoyed them so far – especially for the fact that I find myself chuckling from time to time!I’d better get down to business and finish this series since there is another book to add to it on the horizon. Thank you both for giving me so much insight into you, Ruth, and how you’ve gone about creating this delightful series.

  14. Sianeka N Hollywood, CA says:

    Another great interview, with another inspiring author, who loves her work and puts forth most interestingly about her novels. I enjoy Stephen Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa mysteries, and am now anxious to read and contrast with Ruth Downie’s stories!

  15. Ruth Downie says:

    Hi Jerelyn – and Karin, Bonnie, Lori, Bookfan, Anna, Jeanne, Sianeka – there are some lovely readers on this blog!

    Vicky – I’ve had an email from Bloomsbury who are busy sorting out a technical hitch with Persona Non Grata. They’ll have it back up on Kindle a.s.a.p. Sorry for the delay.

  16. Glenda G. (pagg) says:

    I would love to win one of these books. Great Interview!

  17. Cheryl M. (hannamatt52) says:

    Another terrific interview with an author that has intrigued me for some time. Thanks for a great job well done Jerelyn!

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