BackStory: Four Questions with Peter Burns

Illustration (pencil and water colour) of Lake Nemi by John Robert Cozens, circa 1777.

BackStory: Four Questions with Peter Burns
Author of Rex Nemorensis (King of the Woods)

What inspired you to write ‘Rex Nemorensis (King of the Woods)’?

The inspiration for this piece came, in fact, from Donald Trump refusing to accept defeat in the US Presidential election. It was after he had appeared on screen, demanding, in a quiet, slow and deliberate, authoritarian voice, that all the counting be stopped, that I, like most people watching I’m sure, saw the would-be-dictator peeking out more than ever.

This got me thinking about a story that could represent that moment, that feeling that although we, here in the UK, are a separate country, our culture is so enmeshed with that of the States we couldn’t help but be caught up with those events and experience, ourselves, the fragility of democracy. This brought to mind how the cultures of ancient Greece and Italy were as equally entangled as the UK and the States’ are, and so all these ideas relevant to democracy, Trump, and the hostile culture that had sprouted up around him, were suddenly jostling in my head for attention — The exile of King Tarquin the Proud and his family from Ancient Rome, leading to the beginning of the Roman republic; the foundations of democracy in Athens; and the story about the mysterious and barbaric cult of the Rex Nemorensis.

Were there any interesting facts, details, or turns of phrase that didn’t quite make the final piece?

There’s a belief that the Ancient Greeks brought the cult of Diana with them to Lake Nemi, where she was worshipped as Diana Nemorensis. The myth being that it was in fact Orestes, the son of King Agamemnon himself, who imported the cult, while on the run after a series of revenge killings, of which, of course, included his own mother. I would like to have brought this into the story, as a way of bridging the worlds of old Latium and ancient Greece, and in preparation for talk of Athenian Democracy.

How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?

For a background on the Rex Nemorensis figure, I reread the first chapter of J. G. Frazer’s famous book, The Golden Bough. I first read this when I was sixteen and was completely intrigued by it. I followed this up with web searches – Wikipedia has a wealth of information on this era in its pages and in the accompanying references / further reading.

I have to say I found myself caught up again in this fascinating period. For instance, I already knew much of southern Italy had been colonised by the ancient Greeks from the 8th century BCE onwards, but I didn’t know the Latin tribes had not only accepted that these lands were Greek, but also called the whole area Magna Graecia – Greater Greece. After Tarquin the Proud was deposed, he made pacts with both the Latin League of tribes and the King of the Greek colony of Cumae, near to modern day Naples, and initiated a series of failed attempts to regain his crown by force. So, Italy had been a melting pot of classical cultures and their myths, long before the setting of my story, in 508 BCE. I wanted to convey this with mention of Hades, a Greek concept, but one that has more resonance with the modern reader, than the use of Elysium (yet, still of Greek origin), which ancient Romans, such as Virgil, in his epic Aeneid, preferred as the name of the afterlife.

What is your favourite part of the writing process? Your least favourite?

Over the years my favourite part of the writing process, in regards to flash fiction, has become redrafting and editing. The first draft is an opportunity to get the characters, situation and conflict down on the page. But, it’s in redrafting that you can take this material and shape it. And editing, right down to the very sentence and word level, is so absorbing. The only problem is, coming up with new material, that elusive first draft.

What I particularly like about writing flash fiction is the ability to indulge in lyrical writing, with its attendant poetic devices. Of course you can do this in longer work, but, personally, I feel that with the compression flash fiction brings, language and imagery can be brought to the fore more immediately with the use of lyrical writing and poetic devices.

Peter Burns has previously been published in Flashback Fiction and FlashFlood Journal for UK’s National Flash Fiction Day. He is the winner of Flash 500, in autumn 2020, and was placed third in the Sentinel Literary Quarterly short story competition. He holds an MA in Creative Writing with the OU.

Illustration (pencil and water colour) of Lake Nemi by John Robert Cozens, circa 1777, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.