At its apex, ancient Rome is believed to have had 1,000,000 inhabitants, monumental architecture and advanced infrastructure. It was also, according to Ron Singerton’s novel “Villa of Deceit” (Penmore Press, 2015), a dangerous labyrinth reeking of arrogance, corruption, abuse of power, and an environment where the fittest survived and others were trampled upon — a place of money, greed, magnificence and brazen brutality.
Many successful authors cite the challenges of writing a novel — how to organize it structurally and create characters whose lives, personalities and conflicts hold readers’ interest. But to take on the power and perfidy of Rome during the transition from republic to empire (70 to 36 B.C.E), to research the historical characters, places and events around which his fictional characters would circle — that requires levels of commitment, time and organizational ability few writers could manage.
Nevertheless, Singerton has written “Villa,” 526 pages, has the sequel “The Silk and the Sword” at 500-plus pages ready for publication in fall of this year, and he is already writing his third book, which takes place at the time of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05. “Out of probably 45 chapters, I am only nine chapters in so far,” said Singerton of his wartime novel “A Cherry Blossom in Winter.” And what is striking when talking with him, is his energy and exuberance not just for his writing but also for his art. When telephoned to clarify a point for this article, he said, “I’m up to my arms in clay.” Up to his arms in clay, nine chapters into his third historical novel and totally delighted to be doing it all.
Asked about the research and gestation period for the Roman novels, Singerton said it took more than six years. “Part of the joy of it was the research,” he said. “I walk every morning and come back with ideas. I have research files on the various aspects of life in Rome at the time — slavery, dress, foods, piracy, attitudes toward women — all of the things my characters would experience and I needed to research to give credibility to what they do, how to justify any particular action.” Asked how he could maintain focus while involved in such a herculean undertaking, Singerton replied, “One step at a time. What happens after a while [while writing] is the characters speak for themselves. I hear them and write down what they say. It’s like being in the front row seat watching it — you’re a recorder as much as you are a writer.”
Singerton, best known in Idyllwild for the gallery he and wife Darla maintain, has always had an interest in history. He taught art and history in public schools in the Los Angeles and Inland Empire areas, rode cavalry in Civil War re-enactments, and often depicted the early American West in his “cowboy” art.
While teaching in inner city schools in Los Angeles and contending with the lack of available supplementary reading material for his students, Singerton wrote a history of the United States in easy reading plays. “That was my first major writing project,” Singerton remembered. But the continuity was history — from the first writing project to the three discussed here.
Asked if he saw any parallels with the fall of the Roman Empire and the United States today, Singerton hesitated. “What killed Rome was continued expansion, mercantilism spread over an enormous geographical base, huge amounts of money being paid out to Legion veterans,” he said. “It couldn’t be sustained.”
Singerton will discuss his novel with Eduardo Santiago at 4 p.m. Sunday, June 14, on the deck of Cafe Aroma. A question-and-answer session follows the discussion and the author’s books are available for sale. There is no charge to attend the series.
Readers may sample Singerton’s first chapter-and-a-half of “Villa of Deceit” on Amazon.com.