[The following is an email interview I conducted with Eileen Stephenson, author of Tales of Byzantium: A Selection of Short Stories. It’s a very enjoyable book, and a great introduction to an unjustly-neglected time period. Ms. Stephenson’s answers are very helpful for independent authors, especially those writing historical fiction. Enjoy!–BG]
Q: How did you first become interested in Medieval Byzantium?
A: It was all because of the 2-3 hours I spend commuting to the day job. I came to rely on audio books for my sanity. One Saturday at the library, searching the shelves I came upon John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium. I didn’t know much about them, and expected little. Then in the introduction, the author says that the one thing you could never say about the Byzantines is that they were boring. “Oh, really?” I thought skeptically. He was right, though, as the three bookcases I now have filled with Byzantine history will attest.
Q: The third story, “Alexiad” is about Anna Comnena writing “The Alexiad”. I liked that it focused on a woman as the central character. Can you tell me a little about women in Byzantine society?
A: Medieval women anywhere usually had few rights and less education. However, 11th and 12th century Byzantium saw literacy, even for women, become common down into the middle classes. There were women doctors – paid about half as much as the men, and expected to work twice as many hours, but still far ahead of western Europe.
The Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine) had three women ruling empresses. The first was Irene the Athenian, the 8th century widow of an emperor and mother of another emperor. However, her reputation is tainted by the fact that she blinded her son to take the throne. The next was Zoe in the 11th century. She was the oldest surviving child of an emperor and married three men who each took the title of emperor at their wedding. After Zoe and her last husband died, Zoe’s sister, Theodora, succeeded them and ruled alone for 19 months before dying.
During the Comnene era, from 1081 to 1185, women frequently influenced events, starting with the heroine of the novel I’m working on, Anna Dalassena, even if they never fully ruled in their own right. There were more than a few women of that period who left their mark in history.
Q: Both Anna Comnena and Constantine VII, who features prominently in the first story, seem to have been very notable because of their writing. Do you think that history is often, as you write in the notes to “Alexiad”, “told by the writer”? And if so, to what extent do you think that their perspective skews our understanding of history?
A: History is definitely told by the writer, although often the writer is paid by the winner. I think in Anna Comnena’s case she wrote partly because, with her intelligence and education, she needed something to do in the long years of her confinement, and partly to honor her father. Anna’s brother, the Emperor John II Comnenus, was a notably modest man and kept no historian on staff to record his accomplishments, so there is little history of his reign.
A better example of writers skewing perspectives is the 6th century historian, Procopios. A courtier in Justinian I’s reign, he wrote a typically bland official history and then he wrote his Secret History, a salacious retelling of every possible mistake and ugly rumor concerning Justinian and his wife, Theodora. I’ve never looked for a copy of his official history, but his Secret History is in paperback and still quite a read. That’s the one that people remember now.
Q: What is the most challenging thing about writing historical fiction? How do you balance historical accuracy vs. well-paced narrative, if the two conflict?
A: The most challenging thing about writing historical fiction is the writing. Grasping the elements of grammar is a start, but then there’s the need for a well-crafted story holding the reader’s attention. You can’t build a sturdy house just knowing how to hammer a nail.
Balancing historical accuracy vs. the well-paced narrative can be challenging but my reading of some stars of the genre – Sharon Kay Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick, Colleen McCullough – have provided examples of how to do it. Often it means having long periods of time pass between some chapters, while other chapters occur in close time proximity.
Q: What is the number one reaction you would like readers to have to your book? Do you want them to be more interested in studying history, or do you want them gripped by the story/characters?
A: Reading historical fiction as a kid made me want to learn more about the history. With the Byzantines, it was the history that came first, and when I found little fiction about them, I knew that was what I had to write. The reaction I hope my readers have is that the story and characters so grip them that they want to learn more about the history.
Q: What other authors in the historical fiction genre influenced you?
A: Sharon Kay Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick, and Colleen McCullough would be highest on that list. Others are Bernard Cornwell, Thomas B. Costain, Philippa Gregory. I’ve been fortunate to meet other historical novelists in the Historical Novel Society and many of them have been kind enough to share their wisdom with me. It’s been a great experience.
Q: If you were to write an “alternative history” story about Byzantium, what historical event would you like to change?
A: I think most historians would wish the outcome of the Battle of Manzikert to be different. But Manzikert was just the result of forces put in play thirty years earlier when Empress Zoe chose as her third husband a frivolous spendthrift who disastrously weakened the empire. So I would probably say my alternative story would be a better husband for Zoe than Constantine IX Monomachos.
[My thanks to Ms. Stephenson for her time and very thoughtful answers. You can get Tales of Byzantium here.]