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An Interview with Annelise Gray

I’d love to start off by finding out more about your thrilling Ancient Roman setting! What kind of research did you undergo for this? What’s the most unexpected thing you learnt while writing and researching your book?

I have a PhD in Classics and I used to work as a research assistant to authors and TV companies on books and dramas about the ancient world. But I knew next to nothing about chariot-racing when I started writing Race to the Death, although I had been to the site of the Circus Maximus in Rome. So my first port of call was the library – not exactly Indiana Jones, but that’s where the treasured is buried and I’m never happier than when I’m following a trail through the book stacks. I drew on a wide range of sources to create as authentic a portrait as possible, including accounts by Roman writers which give us a taste of what it was like to be in the crowd watching a race and the fanatical behaviour of some of the supporters. One of the latter was the Emperor Caligula, who features as a character in my book and really was an obsessive fan of the Green racing faction, as I describe him. Images from ancient art give us our best idea of how the chariots were designed and what the charioteers wore, while we also have inscriptions which tell us the names and colours of the horses and the career statistics of the best drivers.

But my favourite research moment – and the one that surprised me the most – was reading about some chariot games tokens that were found in the grave of a young Roman girl. It’s such a powerful image – the idea that perhaps this girl loved watching the races, and her family buried the tokens with her as a keepsake of a happy day. I really held that in my mind when I was writing Dido’s story.

Did you travel to Italy at any point whilst writing your book?

One of the perks of my teaching job is that I get to tag along on school trips. In non-Covid years, the school where I work runs a Classics trip to the Mediterranean every Easter, organised by a brilliant retired colleague of mine. So I did get to visit Rome in the early stages of writing Race to the Death – accompanied by twenty children – and I’ve been there quite a few times before. It’s always a wonderful treat, but my favourite place in Italy to visit is actually Florence. I’ve eaten some of the best food of my life there, and it’s the most heartachingly beautiful city. I’m also longing to go to Venice.

For readers wanting to travel in your literary footsteps, do you have any local and/or international hotspots or recommendations that inspired Circus Maximus? The chariot-racing stadium still exists in Rome today doesn’t it!

You can certainly still visit the site of the Circus Maximus and it’s very well worth it, although there’s not much left of the of the original stadium, just a huge grassy footprint of it, where locals like to have their lunchtime picnics. But it’s enough to give you some sense of the extraordinary scale of the original, which could accommodate as many as 250,000 spectators, five times as many as its more famous counterpart, the Colosseum, and double the capacity of any modern sporting ground. I’d also recommend a visit to the Palatine hill, which overlooks the Circus Maximus and from where the Roman emperors had direct access, from the imperial residence, to a viewing box high above the track, where they could watch the races in privileged comfort.

Circus Maximus, Rome

I loved the spotlight you gave to females in sport! Was this important to you? Have you always been passionate about horses?

I come from a sporty family and the TV at home was always tuned to cricket or football or similar. Given that I was never going to win control of the remote off my father and older brother, it was a case of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them.’ So I developed my own addiction to watching sport, everything from tennis to American football. And I realise now how important it was to have female sporting icons, women whose stories I could invest in and whose competitive spirit I could be inspired by. Two of my favourites were Steffi Graf – whose ice-cool composure under pressure just awed me - and Midori Ito, the Japanese figure skater, who was the first woman to land a triple axel jump in competition. I was watching her on TV when she did it and I still remember the euphoria I felt at seeing the joyful look on her face when she landed. And yes, I have always been passionate about horses – I was lucky enough to ride when I was younger – and so the three-day eventer Ginny Leng was another figure I looked up to when I was growing up.

Do you have any reading recommendations for sporty children’s books?

Most of the sporty children’s books I’ve read involve horses, I confess. The one I love best is National Velvet by Enid Bagnold – about a young girl who dreams of riding her horse to victory in the Grand National - which was a big inspiration for Dido’s story. For other horse-mad children, I’d recommend The One Dollar Horse trilogy by Lauren St. John and anything by the Pullein-Thompson sisters. But I’ve got several non-horsey sporting titles on my reading list, including The Dream Team: Jaz Santos vs. the World by Priscilla Mante, and Princess BMX by Marie Basting.

You also touch on the importance of equality, bravery and being true to yourself. What originally drew you to explore these themes and what do you hope readers take away from Dido’s story?

I have always loved stories about underdogs, about people who challenge others’ preconceptions about what they will and won’t be able to do. I’m a proud feminist and passionate about the rights of women and girls around the world. If my book has a message, it’s to try to be true to yourself. That’s what Dido has to keep sight of, just like Velvet Brown before her. Dido has all these people telling her she can never be a charioteer and she should do all the traditional things expected of a young Roman girl. But she knows where her passion lies and sticks to her guns in trying to make her dream come true, despite the risks.

If you could spend the day with Dido but in the 21st century (!), what would you plan?

That is such an awesome question. Thank you. First, I’d cook her pancakes for breakfast – she’s only ever had them Roman style so I’d like to see what she makes of them the way I grew up eating them, with butter and lots of maple syrup. Then – in the fantasy world where time, space and alternate reality makes all of this possible – I’d take her on a sporting odyssey. First, we’d go and watch Laura Trott and Katie Archibald win cycling gold at the Olympic velodrome. (I have a notion that Dido might enjoy cycling, something about the shape of the track). Next, we’d see Serena Williams clinch her 24th Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, equalling Margaret Court’s record at last. Then we’d nip back a few months and stand at the finish line to watch Rachael Blackmore win the Grand National. Finally, we’d magically finish up in Bermuda, where I was born, borrow a couple of horses and canter along the beach at sunset before Dido has to return home.

You studied Classics at Cambridge University and have worked as a historical researcher and Latin teacher, what brought you into writing for children? And what do you enjoy most about writing for a middle grade audience?

I had a couple of books published before Race to the Death – one fiction and one non-fiction - both on the subject of ancient Rome and both aimed at adult readers. But as soon as I started writing Dido’s story, I knew I was finally writing in my true author voice after many years of trying to figure out what that really was. Having said that, I wasn’t really sure what audience it would end up suiting. I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t even know the term ‘middle grade’ before I started writing the book. But I think the reason I feel so at home writing for this age bracket is these were the years which were the most formative for me as a reader and when I devoured books most fervently. So it feels really joyous to try to write a story that my younger self might have loved (though it’s very much for the adult version of me too).

What’s next for your writing journey? Will we be seeing more of Dido in the near future?

You certainly will, I’m happy to say. There is a sequel to Race to the Death coming in February, titled Rivals on the Track, and it follows Dido in the next chapter of her adventures, which will see her trying to stay one step ahead of the Emperor Caligula, who is trying to track down the mysterious female charioteer who absconded from Rome with his favourite horse. At the same time, Dido is learning more about her mother’s family and a closely-kept secret about them which has been hidden from her all her life. Meanwhile, Circus Maximus III is underway….and there will be a fourth book after that as well. So watch this space.

Do you have any tips or advice for aspiring children’s writers?

For me, the important thing has been learning to have faith in the workings of my own imagination and accept that there might be something in there worth sharing. The second thing I’d recommend is to trust in the intelligence of your young audience – I’d rather overestimate than underestimate it. Otherwise, if you’re finding the going tough, the best advice I can offer is to echo the words of James Baldwin, which I keep on a postcard on my desk for the many times when I need it. On the subject of writing, he says, ‘Every form is difficult, no one is easier than the other. They all kick your ass. None of it comes easy.’

This question is about your favourite children’s/YA books! What’s a book you loved as a child, a book you love now, and a book you can’t wait to read?

I’ve already mentioned National Velvet, but another book – or series of books - I was obsessed with as a child was Anne of Green Gables. It’s lovely to see more kids discovering it now as a result of the Netflix series Anne with an ‘E’ although my heart belongs to the 1980s TV version starring Megan Follows.

The book I love now is the classic, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. I only read this for the first time as an adult, a few years ago, and it immediately leaped to the top of my all-time favourite list. More than any other book I can think of, it absolutely captures the uncertainty, idealism and heartache of growing up.

The book I can’t wait to read is The Swallows’ Flight by Hilary McKay. I absolutely loved The Skylarks’ War and have bought copies of it for many of my friends and their children. One of the best books I’ve read in the last few years, children’s title or no.

If you could invite any five people – past and present, real and fictional – to a dinner party, who would you invite and why?

Nigella Lawson - so that we could talk about food, even though I’d be nervous about cooking for her. James Baldwin - because I can’t imagine there being a more interesting person to listen to. David Sedaris - because I love his writing and I imagine he’d be an excellent and entertaining guest. And Bruce Springsteen and Dolly Parton – because I love their music and maybe I could persuade them to sing a duet.

Annelise Gray was born in Bermuda and moved to the UK as a child. She grew up riding horses and dreaming of becoming a writer. After gaining a PhD in Classics from Cambridge, she worked as a researcher for authors and TV companies on topics as varied as Helen of Troy, Russian princesses and the history of labradors. She's previously published a history of the women of the Roman Empire and a crime novel set in the Roman Republic. Annelise's debut children's novel, Circus Maximus: Race to the Death, was published by Zephyr in 2021. Annelise lives with her husband in Dorset where she teaches Latin.


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