Mt. Laurel writer and author Jim Terminiello likes to play with history. He describes his new novel “Caligula’s Kitchen” as a historical comedy in the vein of British television shows “Blackadder” and “I, Claudius,” with a touch of the Broadway play-turned-film, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
The book, Terminiello’s first foray into novel writing, follows Caligula’s head chef Logos, a man whose position, while not the most influential, offers a vantage point from which he can see everyone and everything happening around him. He rubs elbows with some of the most powerful people in Rome without having any direct influence or power over them.
Terminiello’s version of the infamous emperor Caligula is “an imbecile and a child,” who often misinterprets things and is easily led, but also dangerously crazy.
“I said to myself, what would happen if there was one sane man in Rome during a period when insanity was literally the rule of the day?” Terminiello said of the impetus behind his novel.
As this lone sane individual, it is up to Logos to constantly put out fires and stand between his mad emperor and total disaster.
According to the local author, the practice of writers taking liberties with history is well-trod territory. He points to Shakespeare, whose depiction of Richard III as a hunchback is not supported by actual historical findings, nor are the villainous acts and characteristics attributed to him in the famous play.
“I want to point out that what we read in the books isn’t necessarily what really happened,” Terminiello said. “Caligula existed, he was an emperor, there were a lot of scandalous things written about him – some of them are true, some of them are not – I make up my own stuff. I have a lot of fun with the whole story.”
When it comes to his creative process, Terminiello says it all starts with the characters. Although he did not create Caligula, the character of his novel is an invention all his own. The everyman Logos acts as the perfect foil to this spoiled, child-like version of the historical emperor as a variety of problems, often a result of the emperor’s own stupidity, arise around them.
“If you create vivid characters, they tell you what to do,” Terminiello said.
The eye-catching cover art for “Caligula’s Kitchen,” by artist and graphic designer Matina Korologos Velez, recently earned an award from design publication Graphic Design USA.
Although it differs from Terminiello’s initial idea for the cover, which harkened back to the original poster art for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” the author deferred to his designer who felt the idea was a little complicated for a book cover. Together they came up with a concept for a new, simpler design featuring a bust of Caligula in a cauldron.
Given its recent accolades, it seems the artist made the right call about the design.
“It’s very, very vivid. It looks ominous, yet slightly humorous at the same time. I thought it was a brilliant idea,” Terminiello said.
“Caligula’s Kitchen” is currently available in paperback on barnesandnoble.com.