Web Exclusives:Features
a PAW web exclusive column

July 17, 2001:
Jane Shumate Alison '83 discusses her first novel, The Love-Artist

By Andrea Gollin '88

It's been 20 years since Jane Shumate Alison '83 first started thinking about the Roman poet Ovid — as a sophomore studying classics at Princeton she "became fixated on Ovid in exile," she says. Now, with the release of her first published novel, The Love-Artist, Alison has returned to her youthful fixation, although it's probably more accurate to say she never fully left it.

Sure, there have been other novels (two, unpublished to date), other preoccupations. She's held a variety of jobs ranging from editor to fundraiser to teacher and lived in many places (including, currently, Germany) but her interest in Ovid persisted. So, having become a fiction writer, she did what many an author's done before, and turned fixation into fodder.

The Love-Artist is set just prior to Ovid's banishment from Rome to Tomis (a desolate backwater on the Black Sea) in A.D. 8. Very little is known about why Ovid was exiled by Emperor Augustus, although the "immorality" of his Art of Love is often cited as a possible explanation. That's mystery number one. The second mystery is the missing Medea, Ovid's tragic play that was renowned in his time but is now lost, save for two lines. A third mystery is that Augustus's granddaughter, Julia, was exiled at the same time, also without explanation.

Alison has taken these circumstances and created a dense and lyrical novel that accounts for all three circumstances. Her story revolves around corrupted love, destructive creativity and a ravenous thirst for immortality. It begins when Ovid, unsettled by the cold shoulder he's receiving from Augustus and in search of inspiration, decides to leave Rome for a time and return after the publication of Metamorphoses, a work he hopes will salvage his reputation with the emperor. He journeys east to the Black Sea, where he meets Xenia, a young, mysterious woman with mystical powers: "she could hear and see the tiny particles that flew from people their thoughts, dreams, curses, and glimpses of their futures."

Xenia is enraptured with Ovid from his poems alone; Ovid quickly becomes obsessed with Xenia. In short order they return to Rome and Ovid sets about writing Medea. Xenia unwittingly serves as a sort of test laboratory; from Ovid's point of view she's not there merely to be his lover or even his muse, but to have the tragedy enacted upon her so he can observe and record her reactions. Ovid also acquires a patron, Augustus's granddaughter Julia, who detests the emperor and is waging battle against him in the only way she can.

The characters are all plotting, all secretive, and all have a single-mindedness of purpose that pushes aside any consideration for others. As the novel progresses Alison ratchets up the suspense and sense of impending horror while doing a masterful job of keeping each of the characters' machinations secret not only from each other but from the readers. As it plays out, Augustus seems entirely justified for banishing Ovid and Julia — in fact, exile seems lenient. Ovid is especially monstrous, which makes it even more interesting that Alison views him as her greatest influence as a writer, and says that, despite how she portrayed him in the book, "I adore him as both a persona and a writer."

Although the idea for the novel was years in the making, the actual writing of it took about two years. There was plenty of research as well, the highlight of which was imagining Ovid's home. To describe Ovid's house, Alison first had to envision it. To do so, she traveled to Rome with her architect husband. They spent a lot of time picking out the site of his home, then studied ruins to create the house itself. As for the furniture, they visited museums and engaged in what Alison calls "a silly, vicarious shopping trip."

Her book's been getting the kind of attention every writer dreams of: She's garnered favorable reviews in several major publications, including two reviews in the New York Times. As an added bonus, Sex and the City has requested permission to use The Love-Artist as a prop; what more could anyone aspire to? "I was worried that people would see Rome and Ovid and curl up," Alison notes. "I'm out-of-my-mind thrilled with the reception." She hypothesizes that some of the same forces that inspired her to write the book may play into the interest it's receiving: "I was tired of writing realistic, contemporary prose," she says. "Maybe this appeals to people because it's different a different time, a different world. I can only guess."

As for what comes next, Alison is at work on a new novel, this one set in modern-day New Orleans. For now, she's leaving Ovid behind, although one wonders whether she'll come back to him again, as she notes "he's in my head and in my blood."

Andrea Gollin is a freelance writer living in Miami. She can be reached at agollin@ix.netcom.com