Vicki Leon has found a niche in the nonfiction publishing world: Detailing the lives, events and peccadilloes of the rank and file who lived in the Roman-Greco world of 2,000 years ago.
A Morro Bay resident, she rules this roost like no other, as attested by the number of titles she’s churned out over a 30-plus-years career.
Talking with Vicki is somewhat like being around a pleasing-sounding stream; she bubbles and murmurs in easy currents. And then, as the rapids of her thoughts coalesce into an idea that grabs her imagination, she erupts in cascades of laughter.
OK, so much for torturing a metaphor.
The seeds of her writing career — which includes publication of 37 books — seem to have sprouted in the early 1970s when she took a Western civilization class while a student at Sacramento City College.
Vicki asked her instructor if she could do a paper on the “real women” of ancient Greece and Rome. The professor said she wouldn’t find much, which goaded her on.
Instead of relying on standard reference books that translated Greek to English and dealt with such philosophers as Ovid and Cato, she waded through lesser-known sources, such as inscriptions on the plinths of statues and gravestones of ancient cemeteries. Slowly she began to slip into the mantle of historical detective as she found tidbits like a Spartan queen winning an Olympic event, an odd bit of history because no one in ancient Greece wrote about women in the Olympics. Yet, Vicki, through equal amounts of curiosity and shoe leather, found that this Spartan had won three Olympic events.
She not only made the grade in her Western civ class, she also joined the ranks of a professional writer when she sold the story to Sports Illustrated for $450, “which was a lot of money back then.”
From there, she gleaned other stories from arcane sources of the ancient world and sold those to magazines, which “gave me a false sense of how easy a writing career could be.” But it also gave her the skill set to properly research.
“There’s an enormous amount of info on ancients, but it’s catalogued haphazardly,” she says. But she kept gathering information for what would become her “Uppity Women” series (which is down the road a bit).
She left Sacramento, moved back to San Luis Obispo, freelanced, and finally got a decent book contract for her book, “Money-wise Guide to California” in 1979. By 1983 she was working for Dick Blake at Blake Printery, where she penned a book on Hearst Castle for Blake. That led her to working on Ballooning magazine and then onto another book for Blake called “Scenic Highway One.”
She spent the next 11 years at Blake, leaving in 1994 as director of publications with 21 nature titles dealing with coastal flora and fauna, and seven travel titles under her belt. And, in an anomaly in the publishing industry, some 15 of those books are still in print or were brought back into print.
Yet the call of the ancients, especially women of that time, kept calling to her. She already had pertinent material that she’d stashed away of that age, and the detective skills of finding yet more information, but she kept finding more, and more and more, “thousands and thousands of documents from that era.”
She dug up the first poems of Sappho and documents dealing with everyday life, from soup to nuts. For example: An invitation to a birthday party from one woman to another; real estate contracts among women; love and crabby letters from mothers to sons and vice versa; love charms and love curses. As the late author/historian Barbara Tuchman noted, these documents are “unconscious sources.”
“The value of these sources is that they’re not written for posterity,” she explains. “It’d be like us writing a note or joke on email to a friend. It’s much more genuine and down-to-earth than a book of philosophy.”
Vicki then went through three agents and thousands of words and dozens of ways to write about these women, honing her style through insouciance, humor and strong research.
So, from Blake Printery — with travel and nature books behind her — she interested a publisher in her “Uppity Women” series with a “lighthearted, slightly impertinent tone” that was needed for a popular audience.
That series of books was published from 1995 through 2001, while she simultaneously published a tamer version of the books for young readers ages 8 to 12 called “Outrageous Women” for John Wiley Publishing. The “Uppity Women” stayed in print and afforded her a regular income. “Some books have a long life. If you find your niche in nonfiction — immersive nonfiction — they can have a long shelf life among readers.”
Her next step, and what brings us to her most recent book, which was released Tuesday, was a trilogy dealing with both men and women in the everyday lives of ancient Greece and Rome.
The first book was “Working IX to V,” a compendium of odd and bizarre jobs in which ancients toiled, which has been translated into eight languages. The second, “How to Mellify a Corpse,” was released in 2010, and deals with ancient science and superstitions. And the third, the above-mentioned release this week in bookstores, is “The Joy of Sexus.”
“My biggest problem,” she says “was getting the tone right: not too salacious, yet not too clinical or dry.”
Her latest effort includes a “bunch of myths because the Greeks and Romans were so sexy and sensual in how they lived their lives. To us they may seem absurd, childish or even threatening. But that’s how they lived with each other and their gods.”
If you want a fun read that should educate and enlighten you about the everyday ancients of Greco-Roman cultures, any of Vicki Leon’s books will tickle you to the maximus.
You can go: Vicki Leon will be signing copies of her book, “The Joy of Sexus,” at Coalesce Bookstore from 2 to 4 p.m. on Feb. 9. There will be door prizes and refreshments.