The destruction of the ancient city of Pompeii by Vesuvius in AD 79 has inspired countless works of fiction and non-fiction over the years, but when I heard Sophie Perinot (of The Medicis’ Daughter fame) talk about A Day of Fire at this year’s literary festival in Newburyport, it piqued my interest.
Perinot is one of the authors of the novel, which is an example of collaborative fiction whereby several writers contribute chapters to a larger work with a continuous storyline (as opposed to a collection of short stories). A Day of Fire is divided into six sections that tell of the last hours of Pompeii as the bustle of everyday activities is brutally interrupted by the volcano’s epic eruption. Each chapter focuses on a different protagonist – including an anxious bride-to-be, a former soldier down on his luck, a tavern slave and a disillusioned Roman senator – but the characters appear in every section, which creates a fluid and complex narration that shows the city – before, during and after the disaster- from different points of view.
It is that multiplicity of perspectives that makes A Day of Fire a compelling read. For one thing, it allows us to see the unfolding events through the lens of the characters’ unique knowledge and experience. For example, Gnaeus Helvius Sabinus, who is an engineer, frets about the tremors that for weeks prior to the explosion had been affecting the region, while politicians shrug off his warnings of an impending calamity which creates chaos during the eruption. The different points of view also create greater psychological nuance as one protagonist’s understanding of events differs from that of another: we don’t fully find out until her story is complete that Prima, the tavern whore, uses young Gaius Caecilius’s infatuation with her to spy for Cuspius Pansa, a city official, so he would keep her younger sister off the prostitution rolls.
No novel is easy to write, but collaborative fiction presents its authors with particular challenges when it comes to creating a narrative that is coherent, reads smoothly, and avoids inconsistencies. By Perinot’s telling it required frequent conferences and a lot of note-sharing, a task complicated by the fact that the authors reside in different parts of the world (one of them, Ben Kane, is based in England). But dedication and modern technology have fortunately conspired to allow them to create a vivid and emotional tribute to the people – from prominent citizens to penniless slaves – caught in a disaster they had not seen coming, and against which they were powerless to protect themselves.