Monday, March 17, 2014

Interview with Carol Strickland, author of The Eagle and the Swan

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Carol Strickland to Flashlight Commentary to discuss her newest release, The Eagle and the Swan.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Carol. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Eagle and the Swan.
For 1,500 years she has been cruelly maligned by history. Labelled as corrupt, immoral and sexually depraved by the sixth-century historian Procopius in his notorious Secret History, the Byzantine Empress Theodora was condemned to be judged a degenerate harlot by posterity. Until now. Due to a conviction that its contents would only be understood by generations of the distant future, a manuscript that has remained unopened for a millennium and a half is about to set the record straight. It will unravel the deepest secrets of a captivating and charismatic courtesan, her unlikely romance with an Emperor, and her rise to power and influence that would outshine even Cleopatra. This historical novel traces the love affairs, travails, machinations, scandals and triumphs of a cast of real characters who inhabit an Empire at its glorious and fragile peak. It’s the tale of a dazzling civilization in its Golden Age; one which, despite plague, earthquakes and marauding Huns, would lay the foundation for modern Europe as we know it.

What inspired you to write this story?
I became aware of the main characters, Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora, when I was writing about works of art and architecture (Byzantine mosaics and the Hagia Sophia basilica) related to them.  The more I found out about their back stories, the more surprised I was that they’re mostly unknown. Unfortunately for Theodora’s reputation, she’s been maligned by their official court historian, Procopius, who produced a secret account that paints her as a degenerate harlot and Justinian as a rabid revolutionary. His invective is so over the top, I knew there had to be another side to it. I read all the historical accounts of their reign containing just the bare facts. What I wanted to add was what those chronicles leave out: what the real people whose stories seem straight from the tabloids were saying and thinking and feeling. And how a guy who came from a pig farm in the middle of nowhere and a dancer from the circus became rulers of the Late Roman Empire at its pinnacle of glory.

What research went into The Eagle and the Swan and did you discover anything particularly surprising while investigating the background material for you book?
I read all the histories about this period, which gave me a grounding in the facts of their eventful reign. Then I did field research, traveling in Turkey (Istanbul and Late-Roman Empire ruins like Ephesus and Aphrodisias) to get a sense of what daily life was like: details like how does the air smell in spring or how spray feels from waves on the Golden Horn. It was thrilling to stand on the same mosaics that adorned the floor of their Great Palace, to see churches Justinian built, and to walk on the remains of the hippodrome where Theodora got her start as a performer. I was surprised to learn how cruelty and torture were absolutely routine back then and how assassination was an ever-present threat. I understood why Justinian never ate cooked food or drank wine, fearing poisoning, and where his guilt-induced nightmares came from. I got a shock when I sought out an ancient fresco of Theodora in a church in Rome. Although faint and faded after almost 1500 years, her piercing stare went right to my heart. It seemed like she was commanding me: tell my story; get it right. Even though she came from the gutter, in that image she has an imperial stare.

What drew you to this particular time period?  
I’m a native of a very fragile and vulnerable place--New Orleans--and I have a passion for crumbling ruins from bygone days. Ever since childhood, if I see a boarded-up house on a dusty road or an abandoned building, I want to explore it and imagine the life that used to animate it. When I visited Pompeii and Herculaneum, frozen in time after Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., I felt like I could hear ghosts of the former inhabitants whispering in the wind. That excited my curiosity about the Late Roman period, a time of flux that contained the seeds of our modern world.

You probably have many, but is there a scene you particularly enjoyed writing?
Without giving away a spoiler, I’ll just say that I enjoyed seeing Theodora flower into a woman who could defy the conventions of the day and stand up to men who had before determined the fate of the Empire. She’s been called the first proto-feminist and the first female co-ruler of Antiquity, which is probably why she so shocked the conservatives of her era.

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author?
There are some very painful episodes in Theodora’s life, when she’s mistreated, subjected to abuse, and loses people she loves. Those were difficult to write because I wanted to make them forceful and to convey the depth of her emotion. She also did some things that are not admirable, which I had to recount honestly, revealing her in an unsavory light. Truth hurts.

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 with or expanded on?
I wonder if I should have shown more colors to Justinian’s personality. He’s the one the history books praise for his considerable accomplishments in legal and military affairs. In my version he’s a flawed human being more than Justinian the Great. I kept seeing him as the impoverished kid from the provinces rather than the all-powerful ruler.

Historical novelists frequently have to adjust facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing The Eagle and the Swan and if so, what did you alter and why? 
I changed one name, because there were so many similar names and I was afraid the reader would get the characters mixed up. For some characters, nothing was known about their appearance or personality, so I had to invent individual traits. It’s known that Theodora had an illegitimate daughter but nothing more, so she’s someone I fleshed out. The one completely invented character is my narrator Fabianus, a scribe entrusted with telling Theodora’s story.

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?
I’d choose Theodora’s friend Antonina because she’s someone who’d never sugarcoat the truth. A real straight shooter, not intimidated by anyone, Antonina was intent on enjoying life on her own terms. She was flirty and fascinating to men, never bowing to notions of conformity or propriety. Any question I had for her, I’d get the unvarnished—and probably alarming—real scoop.

What do you hope readers come away with after reading your work?
I’d like them to see that there are many sides to history and that official accounts only represent one perspective. I also hope they understand why the values Theodora advocated—diversity and tolerance—are still necessities in society today. And that women who’ve been left out of historical accounts may have played crucial roles in shaping our world.

Authors are famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, for writing their own experiences, friends and acquaintances into their narratives. Is there anything in The Eagle and the Swan that sprung directly from your personal history? 
One reason I was so interested in telling Theodora’s story was because of my own mother’s experience as an abused child. She came from a dirt-poor, rural background and was victimized by men as a child and a young woman. Ashamed of her past, Mother was unable to express what had happened to her and what made her who she was, so finally it tore her apart inside. In giving Theodora a voice—including narrating her sordid past—I’m suggesting that acknowledging the truth is the only way to escape its clutches. Keeping pain bottled up poisons your guts. On the book website, I wrote a blog about this underlying motivation for the book.

Okay, we've talked a lot about your book. Let's switch gears and talk a little bit about you. How would describe your writing process? 
Get up early, start the day with the New York Times, then retreat to my office and pound the computer until time to make dinner. When I’m in the grip of telling the story, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing and time whizzes by. Even revising is fun because I can constantly deepen scenes and add telling details or significant bits of action, dialogue, or description.

Two words: writer's block. How do you deal with it? 
I’m a journalist and so not allowed to have writer’s block. Deadlines are a writer’s friend. Otherwise, you might keep researching forever. I’m a former writing professor, and my advice to students was always: get something down on the blank paper. Don’t expect it to be perfect the first time but keep revising, transforming, and tinkering until you’re satisfied. Don’t let your internal editor red-pencil the first draft.

Who are your favorite authors? 
I love American authors like Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and the mostly unknown but marvelous Harriet Arnow. Among the classics, I revere Jane Austen, Dickens, and Shakespeare.

What are you currently reading? 
A new novel by Claire Messud called The Woman Upstairs.

What do you like to do when you're not writing? Any hobbies?
I enjoy cultural travel to see places that have significant history and art and architectural masterpieces, also gardening, cooking, and reading. I’m an ardent theater-goer and visitor to museums.

Where do you stand on the coffee or tea debate? 
When I was researching the novel in Turkey, I got enamored of the local favorite, apple tea. But my go-to energizing drink every morning is strong coffee, preferably chicory-infused as in my native New Orleans.

And finally, what's next for you? Do you have a new project in the works? Planning a vacation? Anything exciting and/or noteworthy? 
I’ve got some travel coming up. I’m just back from two weeks in Florence and Rome. Next I’ll go to New Orleans to see a retrospective by the activist artist Mel Chin, which I’m writing about for Art in America magazine. Then I’ll be in the Bahamas in April visiting friends, Berlin in May, France in July, and Maine in August. My next project, which I’ve already begun, is an enhanced eBook from my publisher Erudition Digital. It’ll be the first of a series called Masterpieces of Art and will be an overview of the Impressionist movement. I’d love to do another historical novel, and I already have my heroine picked out: another significant woman who’s been overlooked by history.

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Carol Strickland is an art and architecture critic, prize-winning screenwriter, and journalist who’s contributed to The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, and Art in America magazine. A Ph.D. in literature and former writing professor, she’s author of The Annotated Mona Lisa: A Crash Course in the History of Art from Prehistoric to Post-Modern (which has sold more than 400,000 copies in multiple editions and translations), The Annotated Arch: A Crash Course in the History of Architecture, The Illustrated Timeline of Art History, The Illustrated Timeline of Western Literature, and monographs on individual artists.

While writing on masterpieces of Byzantine art (glorious mosaics in Ravenna, Italy featuring Theodora and Justinian and the monumental Hagia Sophia basilica in Istanbul built by Justinian), Strickland became fascinated by the woman who began life as a swan dancer and her husband, an ex-swineherd.

Knowing how maligned they were by the official historian of their era Procopius, who wrote a slanderous “Secret History” vilifying them, Strickland decided to let the audacious Theodora tell her story. She emerges not just as the bear-keeper’s daughter and a former prostitute who ensnared the man who became emperor, but as a courageous crusader against the abuse of women, children, and free-thinkers.

Website ❧  Book Website ❧  Facebook ❧  Twitter ❧  Pinterest

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Format: eBook
Publication Date: November 7, 2013
Released by: Erudition Digital
Length: 556 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

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check out all the stops on carol strickland's the eagle and the swan virtual book tour

Thursday, March 13
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Monday, March 17
Review at Reading the Ages
Wednesday, March 19
Review at Unabridged Chick
Thursday, March 20
Interview & Giveaway at Unabridged Chick
Monday, March 24
Interview & Giveaway at The Maiden’s Court
Tuesday, March 25
Spotlight & Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Wednesday, March 26
Guest Post at Kelsey’s Book Corner
Monday, March 31
Review & Giveaway at Peeking Between the Pages
Wednesday, April 2
Review at Book Drunkard
Friday, April 4
Review at Just One More Chapter
Monday, April 7
Review & Giveaway at Historical Fiction Obsession
Wednesday, April 9
Review & Giveaway at Confessions of an Avid Reader
Thursday, April 10
Review & Giveaway at Curling Up By the Fire
Friday, April 11
Review at Svetlana’s Reads and Views
Monday, April 14
Review at Oh, For the Hook of a Book
Tuesday, April 15
Guest Post & Giveaway at Oh, For the Hook of a Book
Wednesday, April 16
Review & Giveaway at Broken Teepee
Thursday, April 17
Guest Post & Giveaway at Historical Fiction Connection

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