Emma Vanderpool, award-winning Latin teacher and the author of several self-published Latin novellas, carefully crafted these two books to appeal to students and to be readily comprehensible to beginning Latin learners. Editor Amelia Wallace was pleased to speak to her about her inspirations, writing process, and larger goals. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
AW: How did you choose the topic of augury for your novella series? What themes and key cultural ideas were you hoping to address?
EV: I was inspired by my first novella, Sacri Pulli: A Tale of War and Chickens, which focused on an instance of augury. I wanted to continue an exploration of this influential practice and its role in history, politics, and military endeavors. Its intersection with so many different areas seemed to make a great place to focus upon.
AW: One of the main goals of these readers is to draw in novice Latin learners with compelling and comprehensible material—a challenge since students may be using different textbooks or learning in very different settings. What strategies did you use to ensure that the language in your books met these two requirements?
EV: To make sure these novellas are comprehensible, I carefully structured the vocabulary so that I consistently utilized a core vocabulary from book to book while gradually introducing new words. To make sure these novellas were compelling, I added some levity and comedy in the dialogue while still maintaining a focus on the rather complex topic of duty. I hope the combination of these two things will draw different types of students in and keep them reading.
I focused on high frequency vocabulary, drawing on Dickinson College Commentary’s Core Vocabulary, but also did not shy away from incorporating short phrases or vocab words from Cicero’s extant texts that touched on augury. In doing so, I hoped to allow students to read the text, while still learning subject-related vocabulary.
AW: What sources did you draw on when writing these books? Did any of the material you learned while researching surprise you?
EV: I was able to draw upon my favorite author, Cicero, when researching these books, including his De Divinatione, De Natura Deorum, and De Legibus, to inform my understanding of augury. It was most surprising to realize how fluid the Romans’ understanding of sinistra and dextra was when deciding if a sign was secundum or adversum.
AW: What process do you use when you first begin writing a novella? Does it change depending on subject matter or intended audience?
EV: I always set out with an audience in mind. The clearer the audience I have, the easier it is for me to craft my story in terms of plot structure and to select vocabulary. Once I have an audience in mind, I make some “first draft picks” for vocabulary, words that I will need (or really want) to use. From there, I do my round of writing and crafting of the story before allowing any “second draft picks” for vocabulary to make their way into the text as I begin editing.
AW: In Augury Is for the Birds, we meet the character of Marcus, a Roman boy who is studying augury at the behest of his father. While this book takes place in an ancient setting, I couldn’t help but notice how relatable the central conflict of the story is for modern students. Marcus is at an age where he is exploring who he wants to be while also contending with his parents’ expectations. Did your own work with students around Marcus’s age inform this story? Any other key inspirations for the emotional core of the work?
EV: I definitely had a certain set of beloved middle schoolers in mind when I was writing this book and imagining the kind of wise mischief Marcus was getting up to as he tries to get his way. This audience shaped both Marcus’s perspective but also the kind of humor in the book.
While many existing Roman narratives have been dominated by a “good” son who knows his duty, I thought it important to imagine that for every son aware of his duty, there was also one who was still growing into that space. For every soldier willing to die for his country, there must have been another who was haunted by the horrors of war. While extant Latin texts have certainly shaped our views of the ancient world, those are only the ones we have left and not necessarily the only perspectives available.
AW: What are some of the features of Explore Latin: Avēs and Augury Is for the Birds? How will they enhance the reading experience for language learners (or the teaching experience for those using these works as a classroom text)?
EV: I think that the glossary is fairly innovative in the fact that it utilizes not only the traditional dictionary entry but also the different parsed forms, as students do not always recognize these forms as connected. I think this inclusion will make the book more accessible to students learning from different teaching styles [editor's note: look for an upcoming blog post that further describes these features].
I’m also excited about the grammatica section [in Augury Is for the Birds], which provides a written example of a “grammar pitstop.” These short explanations will help students to understand the grammar on a need-to-know basis in terms of their reading.
AW: Where will this storyline go in the future? What additional themes do you hope to explore?
EV: The next volume goes deeper into Marcus and his father’s story and their dueling views of the nature of war by looking at instances of augury within both a Homeric and ancient Roman history context. It explores further the possible tension between duty to family and duty to country. Although it may be focusing on the familiar topic of war and men, I hope to expand on existing narratives by adding layers of complexity to their characters and views.