Monday, December 21, 2015

Interview with Eileen Stephenson, author of Tales of Byzantium: A Selection of Short Stories

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Eileen Stephenson to Flashlight Commentary to discuss Tales of Byzantium: A Selection of Short Stories.

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Please tell us a bit about Tales of Byzantium.
This book is a collection of three longish short stories taking place in medieval Byzantium. They are my imaginings of how certain events came to pass – the events did occur, but my retelling is from the point of view of the main characters rather than just a clinical description of the event as you might read in a history book.

As a novelist, what drew you to this particular period?
I had always had it in the back of my mind to be a writer, but never found anything interesting enough that hadn’t already been written to death about. When I first started reading about the Byzantines, and realized the dearth of literature about them, I knew I’d found the subject I had been looking for. The particular era in Byzantine history I write about – the middle Byzantine period – I found most engaging because of the dynamism of the age, the many women who were important during it, and the strong characters who led the empire during its turning points in this period.

What sort of research went into Tales of Byzantium? What sources did you find most valuable?
The Byzantines of this era were highly literate – literacy reached down into the middle classes and included women. The Byzantines also loved to write and there are a number of histories (now translated) available to use as primary sources – Michael Psellus, Michael Attaleiates, John Skylitzes, and Anna Comnena who is the subject of the last of my short stories and is probably the earliest female historian.

You probably have many, but is there a scene you particularly enjoyed writing?
I don’t really consider myself to be much of a romantic, or a reader of romances, but the first of the three stories is a romance between a young emperor and his wife. It was fun writing the scene where they have their first tryst. I guess I must have a romantic streak down deep!

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author? Why was it troublesome and how did you work through it?
The second of the three stories is about a young general, Manuel Comnenus, and his successful efforts to delay a rebel army and free a city. I thought the way he did it was clever and funny, which is why I decided to write about it. However, never having been a soldier, it was challenging to get into that mindset. I worked through it by reading a few other soldier stories from that period, and just trying to stretch my imagination. It wasn’t easy, but I’ve gotten compliments on it, so it must have worked.

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time on?
Definitely. I’ve spent so much time over the past few years immersing myself in Byzantine history that I realize the way I am writing about events is a much-simplified version of it. This turbulent Byzantine period, just like today, has many different elements contributing to it. If I were to include everything, my short story would run well over 100 pages!

Historical novelists frequently have to adjust facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing Tales of Byzantium, and if so, what did you alter?
I am of the school that tries to be as historically accurate as possible. That being said, sometimes the history makes no sense, especially when it comes to birthdates. One character, supposedly in his early 20s, has a teenage daughter who is married and has a child. I also have seen a woman given a birthdate that would mean she was still having children in her fifties – not too likely 1000 years ago! 

And as I mentioned earlier, sometimes I have to cut events from the story, just to make the story move forward. We can’t get too bogged down in medieval politics!

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why?
It would have to be Anna Comnena, the subject of the last story. As I mentioned, she was a princess, was highly educated and is the earliest female historian in Europe. Her voice comes through so clearly in her book, The Alexiad, that it almost sounds modern. She was a mix of devoted daughter and a woman ambitious in her own right, who turned defeat into a lasting legacy.

Just because I’m curious, if you could pick a fantasy cast to play the leads in a screen adaptation of Tales of Byzantium, who would you hire?
Good question. I guess for the first story, “Ceremony of the Emperor”, maybe Jennifer Lawrence and a young Colin Firth. For the second story, “The Red Fox”, I think Bradley Cooper would be a good fit. As for “Alexiad”, I have always pictured Meryl Streep as Anna Comnena. 

Finally, what’s next for you? Do you have a new project in the works?
I am working on the first of two novels about a woman named Anna Dalassena who was Anna Comnena’s grandmother. There is a fair amount in the historical record about her since she was instrumental in getting her son onto the throne. When I read about her, though, I was intrigued by one comment that was always made about her – how she absolutely hated one particular man, who did end up as emperor himself for a number of years. A thousand years later and this was the comment about her? It took a little digging through family trees to finally find something that was a plausible reason for her hatred of him, but once I did I knew I had some good material.

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PRAISE FOR TALES OF BYZANTIUM

"Through elegantly described details, sharply observed characters, and especially crisp, modern-sounding dialogue, Stephenson takes these vignettes from the thousand years of Byzantine history, mixes them liberally with such excellent modern narrative histories as John Julius Norwich's A Short History of Byzantium, and manages to create three very intriguing windows into a part of history largely unknown to many readers." - Anne McNulty, Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews

"full of interesting detail about a time and place very unlike our own, and yet feeling any of us could identify with, which is the hallmark of a good historical story...charming and deeply felt" - Anne Perry, mystery novelist and author of The Sheen on the Silk, the William Monk series, and many others

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Eileen Stephenson was born in Fort Worth, Texas but spent most of her life in the Washington, DC area. She has degrees from both Georgetown University and George Washington University (neither involving the Byzantines) and is married with three daughters. Her interest in Byzantine history all started one fateful day when every other book in the library looked boring except for John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium.

Website ❧  Blog ❧  Facebook ❧  Goodreads


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