BP: What are you reading these days?
SS: For bedtime escape, my current very guiltily pleasure is an addiction to the Fu Manchu thrillers by Sax Rohmer, which were wildly popular starting a hundred years ago. His absurd racism is inexcusable, but occasionally his prose and plotting approach genius. In daylight hours, I spend a lot of time reading and rereading ancient authors, most recently the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and the First Apology, a failed attempt by Justin Martyr to convert the philosopher-emperor to Christianity.
BP: What books did you love as a child?
SS: The We Were There series, novels in which a boy and girl were put center stage at some famous event, such as the Battle of Britain or the Boston Tea Party. So I was a fan of historical fiction from an early age. Also the juvenile sci fi of Robert Heinlein, like Citizen of the Galaxy.
BP: What’s the hardest thing about writing?
SS: Knowing the exact moment to stop. If you’ve written yourself out, when you come back you’ll just be staring at a blank page. Always leave a thread hanging so you can find your way back into the narrative.
BP: What’s the best thing about writing?
SS: Writing fiction is a form of psychotherapy. All your dreams and nightmares and multiple personalities and murderous impulses are allowed to emerge (safely) on the printed page. It keeps me sane.
BP: What’s your favorite word?
SS: Pudicity. It sounds so dirty. But it’s not.
BP: What’s a sentence you’ve loved and remembered from a book?
SS: “But the freedom of Basil was naked and destitute…and he resolved to seek a more conspicuous theatre, in which every virtue and every vice may lead to the paths of greatness.” Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. As often happens with Gibbon, I’ve abridged it. What sentences that man could write!
BP: Do you have any weird writing habits?
SS: None that seem weird to me! Though I would probably be appalled and agog if someone installed a secret camera in my home office and I actually watched myself writing. Like the act of sex, writing is probably best left unobserved by the outsider.
BP: Who are your literary influences?
SS: First and foremost, Tolkien. His achievement was so extraordinary and immense, I never wanted to write epic fantasy myself—Tolkien had already climbed that mountain. Instead, I transferred that far-flung, world-creating fictive impulse to recreating ancient Rome. Also Tolstoy, Mary Renault, Gore Vidal, John le Carré, and all the Sherlock Holmes stories.
BP: What’s your favorite place to write?
SS: I’ve become habituated to writing for an hour or so on my laptop next to my favorite swimming pools after swimming a mile. Eating an apple or some other fruit also figures into this habit. I am most creative when I’m munching on an apple, a faint smell of chlorine is in the air, and the soundscape is the constant lapping of the pool. Some of my best work has been done at Deep Eddy (without the chlorine).
BP: What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?
SS: I’ve always admired painting, especially abstract expressionism. It’s the opposite of writing; when you stare mesmerized at a few square inches of a Pollack or a Rothko or a Hans Hofmann, there are literally no words for what you are seeing. If only I had possessed the aptitude for it, I’d love to have been a painter.