What's New

Josephine Grierson: Business hiatus produces epic Roman trilogy

Flagstaff Team

Intellectual journey… Josephine Grierson aimed to keep her novels historically accurate, learning a lot about ancient Roman culture

Josephine Grierson doesn’t flinch when asked if she wants to be remembered as a writer or a businessperson.

“A writer of course – I’ve always seen myself as a writer. Business was always a means to pay the bills.”

The Devonport resident fitted in writing poems and short stories around her business career, but never had time to give writing her full attention, until a mid-life crisis forced a rethink.

“I asked myself did I want look back on my life and say ‘was I happy not to have given writing a go?’ and the answer was no.”

She put the corporate world aside and enrolled in a creative-writing course at AUT. A 200,000 word thesis later, and Grierson found she had enough material for two books.

At one stage she was filing 10,000 words every Friday to her tutor and mentor James George.

“It was exhausting. It was a bit like weightlifting at times – I knew what I wanted to write, but was too tired to get another word down.”

Still, the end result was deeply satisfying,  with the launch this month of Rivers Ran Red, the first of a Last of the Romans trilogy. She finished the first book in 2017, but the production, editing and printing took two years.

The second two books in the series – Solas Story and Sinner but Saint – are in post-production.

Grierson originally wanted to write a New Zealand-based book. But the first chapter of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, published in 2004, contained her starting point: the slaughter of Moriori on the Chatham Islands.

“It was far better written than anything I could ever have done –  it put me off writing for 10 years.”

The genesis of her current work occured when she stumbled across a 1938 essay in French on Sidonius Apollinarias, which had been given by a schoolmaster to her former husband Bruce Ryrie.

Looking to brush up her French, Grierson began reading and found herself immersed in the final years of the Roman Empire. “From the first paragraph, I was totally hooked.”

Five years of researching and writing had begun.

The journey took her to Europe and a memorable winter trip with daughter Christobelle, retracing historic Roman settlements and battle sites throughout France.

She has aimed to keep her books as historically accurate as possible, including all the battle scenes.

However a point of difference from some other historical novels is provided by strong female characters, such as Sola, a retired gladiator; and voices from across the social strata, such as Ben, a peasant boy, who joins the army for a safe job and the prospect of a pension.

It has been a fascinating intellectual journey for Grierson. “I’ve learned a lot about Roman culture. I didn’t know gladiators were largely vegetarian, or that most women could read and write.”

Grierson  famously stood as a parliamentary candidate for the New Zealand Party in 1984, and then wrote The Hell of It about her year in politics. In 2002,  she took multimillionaire Eric Watson to court over a business deal involving the purchase of Bendon.

She is currently back in the business world, working in a software company and project-managing a development, but aims to carry on writing. A short story centred on the Navy Musuem has been published in the  Fresh Ink collection.

Her next longer-form work is likely to be “something contemporary,” she says.

• Rivers Run Red, launches on 29 November, 6 – 7.30pm, at Dear Reader, Richmond Rd, Grey Lynn.

This article originally appeared in the November 29 edition of the Devonport Flagstaff. Download PDF.