We’re celebrating the launch of Issue 18 by talking about all sorts of “magics” (bold or subtle) with our authors, and what inspired their stories.
Lackington’s: Your story “Prima Fuit, Finis Erit” is clearly inspired by the poems of the Roman poet Propertius, who is said by some to be the originator of our modern concepts of romantic love. What was it about these poems (addressed to his seeming muse Cynthia) that fired your imagination?
JA: Propertius is my favourite of the Augustan elegiac poets. There are two main reasons for this: (1) the weird emotional dynamics of Propertius’s relationship with “Cynthia” (whoever she was, if she was even a real woman and not just a poetic fiction) and (2) the fact that, of all the elegiac girlfriends (e.g. Tibullus’s Delia, Ovid’s Corinna), Cynthia is the only one who gets to speak back. The poem that always sticks in my memory is 2.29b: Propertius, wanting to know whether Cynthia is unfaithful, sneaks into her bedroom early in the morning and finds her sleeping by herself. He is struck by her beauty and spends a few lines rhapsodizing over it—and then she wakes up and accuses him of spying on her, and ‘from that moment, I haven’t had a happy night’ (ex illo felix nox mihi nulla fuit).
Lackington’s: Propertius in your story believes he has been cursed by Cynthia after her death: that he is haunted by her spirit from beyond the grave because he did not mourn her properly. Is this idea (or the germ of it) present in Propertius’s actual poems? And if you could propose a short syllabus of Propertius’s works for those who may not be familiar with him, what would you include?
JA: There are only four books of Propertian poems, so it’s not too hard to read them all. For the first three books, Propertius declines several times to write epic (this is a common refrain among the Augustan poets, except Virgil): he prefers to write about love and sex and Cynthia. Then the fourth book opens with a mini-epic about Rome’s mythic origins and most of the following poems continue in a similar vein—as it becomes clear in 4.5 that Cynthia is now dead. Perhaps Propertius felt compelled to move away from love poetry; perhaps he got bored of writing about Cynthia; perhaps Cynthia was a real woman who really did die. We don’t know. I personally tend to lean against reading poetry as biography, especially ancient poetry, which is often intensely referential. But either way, in 4.7 Cynthia’s charred shade comes back from beyond the Lethe to have a few words about Propertius’s failure to show up at her grave.
I should probably say that there is a bit more than Propertius in here. Canidia, Folia and Veia come from Horace, and Erichtho belongs to Lucan. The full footnote is: Propertius, Elegies 1.1, 1.12, 1.20, 2.1, 3.8A, 4.3, 4.5-8; Horace, Epode 5; Lucan, Pharsalia 6.430-830.
Lackington’s: How important were mourning and funeral customs to the Romans? Every culture seems to have some superstition attached to restless spirits, magical transformation, or eternal life. Did the Romans have any beliefs that set them apart or influenced their actions towards the dead in a unique way?
JA: The Romans went in for ancestor cults, although I think this was in many ways very similar to Chinese ancestor veneration, so perhaps it’s not that unique. There were annual festivals to celebrate and propitiate the dead, and people would have ceremonial dinners in their family tombs and offer the deceased food and libations. Because corpses were polluting, the dead were buried outside the boundary of the city; this is why the Via Appia was lined with tombs. If you weren’t rich enough to have a family tomb, or lucky enough to have friends with space for you in theirs, you might join a society to guarantee yourself a niche in a catacomb. Most Romans were cremated (hence the funerary urns or cineraria which you can find in many museums; my favourites are the ones shaped like houses or temples) but certain families were traditionally inhumed, such as the Cornelii, one branch of which had a very famous burial site called the Tomb of the Scipios. One reason we know about the burial practices of the Cornelii specifically is that Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who was a major figure in the civil wars of the 80s BC, arranged to be cremated, contrary to family practice—because he was concerned his enemies would desecrate his body after his death.
Lackington’s: Is there something about unconventional modes of storytelling that you find especially compelling? Why do we need to make space for stories that don’t always work the way that readers have come to expect?
JA: I find short fiction ideal for experimenting with forms and styles: if it doesn’t work, you don’t waste too much time, but you almost always gain a lot from the technical exercise. And sometimes it does work and it’s all worthwhile. I am tremendously grateful Lackington’s exists and has given a home to several of my odder fragments!
Julia August owes this one to Propertius, Horace, and Lucan. As well as Lackington’s Magazine, her short fiction has appeared in The Dark, The Journal of Unlikely Academia, Women Destroy Fantasy!, PodCastle, Kaleidotrope, and elsewhere. She is @JAugust7 on Twitter and j-august on Tumblr and one day she may stop writing about necromancers (but not today).