“Violence is divine” — An interview on Dionysus, Rome and Writing with Alexandra Turney.
In Exile is a debut novel by author and teacher, Alexandra Turney. Its tagline — “Violence is divine” — is apt for a story that asks: what would happen if Dionysus, god of wine and divine ecstasy, woke up in modern Rome?
For a god that’s shrouded in mystery and over 3,000 years old, it’s been a good year for Dionysus…
In what may be the best adaption of Aristophanes’ Frogs to date, UCL charmed us back in February with the kind of Dionysus you’d love to befriend in the toilets at Soho’s G-A-Y Bar. The same month, things took a dark turn when KCL’s rendition of Frogs transitioned into Euripides’ Bacchae. A chilling silence descended as Agave slowly realised that the decapitated ‘head’ she was proudly brandishing to the crowd was not that of a mountain lion, but her own son — Pentheus.
Cult-worship of Dionysus in the ancient world was more widespread than people might think, with the Dionysian Mysteries of mainland Greece and Bacchanalia of ancient Rome.
But what really went on at these festivals? No one knows for sure. Rumours spread, however, that worshippers reached a “frenzied” state of intoxication and engaged in animal-like, violent or socially uninhibited behaviour.
So, good news is here for fans of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, because there’s a new Dionysus in town — and that town is Rome.
We tracked down Alexandra Turney, a teacher and author living in the eternal city itself, to discuss her debut novel, life in Italy and advice for aspiring writers…
This is your debut novel. Firstly, could you tell us a little about the book?
Think The Bacchae meets The Secret History… It’s the story of Dionysus’s re-birth in modern Rome, a city where he has no believers. He creates a new cult formed of three vulnerable teenage girls, who overcome their initial scepticism and fear to become modern maenads.
What inspired the idea?
It was a slow-growing idea. I read The Bacchae at school and fell in love with Dionysus, and the idea of bacchanals and maenads. The mixture of divine madness, sex and violence was fascinating to me. I also felt like Dionysus was an intriguing figure, rich in creative potential.
One day I was daydreaming on the metro in Rome, and I imagined Dionysus waking up in front of the pyramid in the Protestant Cemetery, disoriented and disappointed to realise that he’s alive again. That scene then became the first chapter of In Exile.
What made you set the novel in modern, rather than ancient Rome?
I specifically wanted to explore the idea of a god living in the wrong time, without believers. I liked the thought of Dionysus living in modern, Catholic Italy, disgusted by the idea that Christianity has “won”.
Describe your Dionysus in 3 words: Melancholy, sardonic, dangerous.
Do you think there is still a place for Bacchic worship today? What is/was the appeal?
It’s a difficult question to answer. If we’re talking generally about worshipping Dionysus through prayers, altars, non-violent acts of devotion then of course, why not? I identify as agnostic, but if praying to the Greek gods feels right to you, that’s just as valid as any other more mainstream religious belief.
I think Dionysus is particularly attractive to people who identify as LGBT — he’s an outsider god who has typically appealed to minority groups. For that reason, I think there will always be a place for Bacchic worship…but I think the same could be said of the other Greek gods.
Take a look at Tumblr and you’ll see that there are so many people — many in their teens or twenties — who claim to worship Dionysus, Apollo or others. While some are probably posturing a little, doing it for the aesthetic, I think others genuinely do believe, and like the inclusivity of pagan religions. I can understand why.
If you could pass on one piece of advice to an aspiring writer, what would it be?
Don’t just wait for inspiration to strike. Sometimes it happens and it’s magical — for me, that’s usually how something new begins. But after that, it’s often a question of forcing yourself and plodding along, creating a rhythm and routine. If you tell yourself that you have to wait to feel inspired to write, you’ll wait and wait and end up with a blank page. So stop making excuses and get on with it.
You studied English literature at university. Were you encouraged to read any classical authors during this time?
I remember some lectures on classical authors — or rather the influence of classical authors on later English writers. I felt lucky to have already become interested in Greek tragedy, Homer, Virgil, Ovid etc at school (I did Latin GCSE, then Classical Civilisation A-Level).
It was a starting point. So many writers have been influenced by the classics, and while no one can hope to understand every single classical reference, I do think you’re at an advantage if you have at least some familiarity with major authors and texts. Everyone should read the Iliad and Odyssey, at least, along with some Greek tragedy.
I wrote a paper on Byron and spent a lot of time on Swinburne and other late 19th century writers who were passionate about classical literature. Knowing some of their influences felt like a door into their world. There’s something beautiful about the chain of influence and inspiration continuing through the centuries, in such a huge variety of literature, from Renaissance plays to 21st novels by writers like Madeline Miller.
In our last bulletin, we recommended the books “My Brilliant Friend” by Elena Ferrante and “Imperium” by Robert Harris. Is there a book you have read recently, that you enjoyed?
I recently read a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. I went to Otherwise (an English language bookshop in Rome), and bought it randomly, on the recommendation of the shop assistant. O’Connor has an extraordinary talent for describing scenes and characters so that you can visualise them really vividly. She describes a little boy as seeming “mute and patient, like an old sheep waiting to be let out” — a description that stuck with me.
Who is your favourite English author?
If I have to choose…Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats. I discovered them in my early teens, and I think the writers you get into at that age stay with you for life. I can read their poems again and again and always find something new. And they’ve influenced my life in all kinds of ways. Indirectly, they led to my decision to move to Rome.
You have lived in Rome since 2013. What inspired you to move?
I spent a few weeks in Rome while I was at university, doing work experience at Keats-Shelley House in Piazza di Spagna — one of the best periods of my life. I’d been to Rome before, but this was my first time in Rome as an independent adult, really getting to know the city.
During that trip, I decided to find a way to move to Rome after graduating, and that’s what I did. I graduated, spent a year living at home with my parents in London to save up, then moved to Rome and got a job teaching English. I didn’t know how long I’d stay. I planned to stay for at least a year, and see what happened. I loved life in Rome, enjoyed teaching, and then a couple of years later met my boyfriend, Valeriano, so that settled it.
If you could visit another period in Rome’s history, where would you go?
A predictable answer, but any time during the Roman Empire. I’d like to see a triumphal march, walk through a busy Roman Forum, and see monuments that are no longer standing (such as the Septizodium — a fancy decorative façade near the Palatine). I think medieval Rome would be interesting too. I read Matthew Kneale’s book Rome: A History in Seven Sackings, which made me curious about Rome’s less glamorous moments.
How do modern Romans feel about their ancient heritage?
I think the main way it manifests is in pride — Rome is the greatest city in the world because of its past, so Romans are the best. That’s the attitude. They’re very proud and defensive of their food culture too, though Roman cuisine is “old” rather than “ancient”… I guess one area where it comes out is in names — the popularity of Roman names like Giulia, Livia, and Flavia, for example. I’ve heard of the name “Spartaco” for a boy, but that’s gone out of fashion.
What is the most rewarding aspect of living in Italy? And the most challenging?
The most rewarding aspect is being surrounded by beauty and centuries of history everywhere you go. It’s impossible to get bored in Rome — the culture is so incredibly rich. I would be happy to spend the rest of my life travelling exclusively in Italy, as there’s so much to explore, from cities like Naples to small towns in Umbria. Everything is worth seeing.
The most challenging aspects are the things that everyone complains about — the bureaucracy, the quality of jobs (low salaries, lack of job security) and in Rome, the traffic and public transport. But the thing that bothers me the most personally is definitely the rubbish crisis in Rome. Whenever I go anywhere else, I’m always amazed by how clean the streets are. I have to remind myself that it’s not that other places are exceptionally clean — Rome is just filthy!
Have you been able to pick up Italian during this time?
When I moved to Rome my Italian was very basic. I’ve never had Italian lessons, but now that I’ve been living here for nearly 7 years, I’m reasonably fluent. I can understand books and films, have conversations easily.
What have you found most enjoyable or difficult about learning the language?
I enjoy learning new vocabulary and discovering regional differences, dialects, idiomatic phrases and proverbs. A Roman friend talking about how there would be “una pipinara di gente” (a lot of people) at the pool, for example, or Neapolitan sayings. Anything Neapolitan, really. Unfortunately, favourite things to learn are the words and phrases that I’m least likely to use in conversation…
I’m still self-conscious about my accent — I sound very English. Italians used to make fun of my accent…actually, they still do. Old habits die hard, and I struggle with Italian words that I learned before I learned Italian. For example, food words like “pesto” or “panino”. I can imagine myself living here for 20 years and sounding fluent and sophisticated until I ruin the effect by saying “puh-nino”.
Our Classics Abroad summer course is based in Florence. Have you been?
I’ve been to Florence a couple of times. I could easily spend a day in the Uffizi…Other highlights were exploring Oltrarno and some of the backstreets of the centre after dark. The centre is so beautiful, and it’s easier to pretend you’re back in the Renaissance when there are fewer people around.
Quick-fire Rome Questions…
Favourite neighbourhood? Testaccio, because it was home for nearly 5 years. It has everything. An oasis of calm and unpretentious local life in an area that’s central without being touristy.
Favourite restaurant? So many, but one is the Sardinian restaurant Bentu e Soi in Pigneto. The owner explains everything in detail, from the seafood antipasti to the bread. It’s the first place I plan to go back to now that we’re allowed to eat in restaurants again.
Favourite museum/gallery/site? Every museum in Rome is wonderful and worth visiting, but I particularly love the archaeological sites. The Domus Aurea and the Baths of Caracalla are two places I always recommend to visitors. And the Appian Way, of course — read In Exile and you’ll understand why.
Most memorable experience so far? A recent experience that will stay with me forever — walking through the historic centre of Rome during the ora blue (“blue hour”) one evening, having the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain practically to ourselves. There were no tourists because of the lockdown, and hardly any locals. It felt like we were in one of those old paintings — all monuments and ruins, vast architecture with no people.
Alexandra is currently in the middle (nel mezzo del cammin…) of writing novel #2, set in a Purgatory inspired by Naples.
In Exile is available on Amazon and other online book retailers.
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