Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Amy Lignor is talking with Helena P. Schrader, author of The Last Crusader Kingdom: Dawn of a Dynasty in Twelfth-Century Cyprus
FQ: You speak about one day putting together a history of the Iberlins. Can you tell us a bit about this particular project?
SCHRADER: I’m an historian by education and the first books I published were non-fiction: a biography of a leading member of the German Resistance to Hitler, a comparative study of women pilots in WWII, and a book on the Berlin Airlift. However, I have not published a non-fiction book on the crusades or medieval history. I started playing with the idea both as a means to keep my brain active and to lend credibility to my historical fiction set in the crusades.
When researching for my current novel, I was amazed by just how powerful Balian’s descendants were in the 13th century. His sons were regents of Jerusalem and Cyprus. Other descendants were constables and seneschals of both kingdoms at various times, baillies for the Holy Roman Emperor, barons of Beirut, Sidon, Caesarea, Arsur, and Counts of Jaffa and Ascalon. Daughters of the House of Ibelin married Kings of Cyprus six times! The Ibelins were scholars, whose legal opinion dominated the highly sophisticated courts of Outremer, and they were patrons of the arts. John d’Ibelin, Balian’s eldest son and the hero of The Last Crusader Kingdom, built a palace that stunned visitors from the west for its polychrome marble, realistic mosaics, fountains, windows and extensive gardens — and that in the early 13th century. In fact, no book about the history of the Holy Land can avoid reference to the Ibelins, yet no one has pulled all the fragments together to write an account of the rise of the House of Ibelin. That is a challenge I have set myself. It should keep me busy and intellectually challenged in retirement! The working title is: The Uncrowned Kings of Outremer.
FQ: Cyprus, for a small island, has always played such a major role throughout history. Can you tell readers what drew you to this particular locale? Have you visited Cyprus in person?
SCHRADER: One accidental trip to Cyprus literally changed my life. My husband and I had planned a holiday in Egypt when a terrorist attack made us cancel our plans. On short notice, we had to find an alternative destination — far from the cold and gloom of a German winter. We found a cheap package-deal to Cyprus and arrived without knowing anything about the island. I fell in love almost instantly — we landed in balmy temperatures just as a large copper sun slipped into the sea behind the palm trees. In the following week, I was astonished to discover that Cyprus had been ruled by Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, Venetians, and Turks. The layers of history fascinated me (I’m a historian remember), and the relics of these various periods are enticingly set in some of the most entrancing landscapes imaginable.
Because of this one trip, my life changed in two ways: First, my husband and I decided to retire to a Mediterranean island and spent the next fifteen years choosing the right one for us. Second, I became fascinated with crusader Cyprus and did extensive research leading to a series of novels set in crusader Cyprus of which The Last Crusader Kingdom is the second to be published. St. Louis’ Knight was the first of my Cypriot books to be published.
FQ: As an expert in this area, when you look at history – from Roman rule to others attempting to take over lands for their own treasure chests – how is it that the people of Cyprus have such extreme loyalty to their land? Do you find it unique that they constantly stood up against far bigger enemies? Is there another particular kingdom you would compare them to?
SCHRADER: I don’t think their love of their country is unique. It is quite natural. However, large islands have two natural advantages: 1) clearly defined borders (that foster identity), and 2) natural defenses (which deter many would-be conquerors). Palestine has been over-run by every civilization in recorded history because it has no defenses. The mixture of so many different invaders and settlers, undermines identity and unity. Cyprus, Sicily and England, on the other hand, evolved strong and unique identity as a result of having immutable borders and the ability to resist many attempts at conquest. Despite which, they have all been invaded from time to time.
FQ: As a diplomat currently serving in Africa, can you tell readers a bit about your current post? Is it a good place to be a writer?
SCHRADER: I’m currently serving in Ethiopia, which is an amazing country with a history that stretches back to Biblical times. Ancient Ethiopia maintained trading ties from Ancient Greece to India. Ethiopians claim that Balthzar was Ethiopian, and Ethiopia was the second country to make Christianity the state religion. Ethiopians were in Jerusalem in the 12th century, took part in the defense against Saladin, and to this day maintain a chapel in the Church of Calvary in Jerusalem, a gift of Saladin after he gained control of the Holy City. Today, although roughly 40% of the population is Muslim, Christians and Muslims live together in admirable harmony. Ethiopia has its own script dating to ancient times, a rich, written history and literary, artistic and musical traditions hundreds, if not thousands, of years old.
My experiences here have enriched my understanding of human nature, which is critical to writing good fiction set in any period. Indeed, my descriptions of refugees, insurrection, the impact of female genital mutilation, and much more are based on my personal experiences here.
Ethiopia has also been evocative of the Middle Ages in a number of ways. Just living in a profoundly religious society, for example, helps me understand the mentality of medieval men and women better. Likewise, being extremely rich and privileged in a country dominated by subsistence agriculture and poverty provides insight into the roles and responsibilities of as well as the responses to royalty in medieval Europe. Encountering donkeys, camels, and livestock on the streets or watching plowing and threshing with oxen makes it easier to visualize daily life in the Middle Ages too. I think rural Ethiopia is closer to medieval Europe than anywhere in the entire United States.
FQ: Jumping to the industry, itself, can you share a “day of writing for Helena Schrader?” Such as, do you need to work in a specific area, have it completely quiet, work better in the morning than the afternoon, etc.?
SCHRADER: I like to work at a large desk with a pleasant view to the outside world and lots of natural light. I need to be surrounded by book cases filled with my research books. Immediately to my right are the books I refer to most frequently on my current project, including a dictionary and thesaurus. These books include primary and secondary sources, biographies of key figures, art books, books on the architecture, diet, fashion, and atlases and tour guides of Cyprus and the Holy Land.
I also need blocks of time to work, because I always reread the previous 2 chapters/sections before starting work. It generally takes me a while to get back in the mindset necessary for stepping into the shoes of my characters and telling their story. This means that as long as I have a full-time day job, I can only write on weekends and holidays. Because I need time to “prepare” to write, I do my best writing late afternoon and early evening.
FQ: As an author, is there one industry issue you feel should be addressed? What are your personal views on digital publishing?
SCHRADER: Digital publishing has been liberating for both authors and readers. It is wonderful to be able to have books to read loaded on an e-reader and be able to keep that in a purse and read them anywhere/anytime. That said, I hate the inability to rapidly flip back and forth between text and end-notes, maps or other supplementary material in an academic work. I no-longer buy non-fiction books in ebook format. In fact, I prefer reading paperbacks, but for travel I still download some books to avoid carrying heavy paper around.
In terms of industry “issues,” I’m inclined to think that the flooding of the market with 4,000 (or is it more?) books per day is, like a real flood, damaging. There’s way too much worthless trash out there and it’s almost impossible for quality books to find their way to readers’ attention. There is a need for a filter of some sort — but not a return to the system of agents and publishers preserving their individual, arrogant and narrow-minded vision of what is “literature” or should be “popular.” I believe that there must be some way to filter out patently sub-standard books without interfering with freedom of expression or effectively imposing censorship.
FQ: Along those same lines, your books are so well put together – substance, as well as editorially – could you share your views, if any, on how the editing “arm” has dwindled over time? What would be a piece of advice you would give to the new author out there who is also a fan of history, research and learning?
SCHRADER: First, thank you for the compliment. Editing is critical to quality, and finding affordable editing is a huge challenge for the independent novelist.
As for advice: With respect to research, when writing historical fiction it is not enough to get all the “facts” right. Fiction requires more research than non-fiction. You need to know about the architecture, art, cuisine, clothing, social structure, legal norms, religious practices (not theology or theory!), and more. I recently read a book set in the late 12th century in which the writer talks about lace garments and capes, neither of which were features of 12th century fashion. I’ve read other books set in the Middle Ages that feature carriages. Nonsense. That kind of stupid mistake jars your reader out of the story, and detracts from what might otherwise be a brilliant work of art. Worst of all, of course, are “medieval” characters with modern ideology and behavior. Superwomen riding around in armor and besting men in combat, priests questioning the divinity of Christ, kings suggesting democracy would be more fair and the like. That kind of thing completely discredits you as a novelist and guts the novel itself of any value.
Good historical fiction addresses universal themes (like the suffering of displaced humans, greed, passion, ambition, compassion etc.) without introducing anachronisms. In good historical fiction, anachronisms are unnecessary precisely because human behavior has hardly changed in 5,000 years, and so many of the challenges we face today were challenges to people in the past too. My motto is: understanding ourselves by understanding the past. The emphasis is on understanding — not trying to retroactively impose modern ideas on the past, much less altering the past to suit our current concepts of “correct” behavior.
With respect to writing: plan to re-write your book at least three times and, if at all possible, leave the book alone (don’t even look at it) for a month or two — or better six! — between each re-write. You’ll see many more flaws and be able to make more valuable corrections.
With respect to editing: if possible, have two different editors look at your manuscript. They will see different problems and correct different weaknesses.
FQ: Could you tell readers about the current works you have in progress?
SCHRADER: In the second quarter of the 13th Century, Friedrich II Hohenstaufen, the Holy Roman Emperor, attempted to impose authoritarian government upon Outremer based on his vision of himself as a “Roman Emperor.” He attempted to remove vassals from their fiefs by royal decree without due process, for example. His ambitions were opposed by the majority of the barons of Outremer — led by the hero of The Last Crusader Kingdom, namely John d’Ibelin, more commonly known as the “old Lord of Beirut.” The conflict is recorded in detail in a history written in the mid-13th century by a participant (and partisan of the Ibelins): Philip of Novare. The events described are dramatic and exciting with sieges, battles, negotiations, hostages taken, and dramatic escapes in small boats, amphibious landings, daring rescues and more — perfect material for a novel, or two.
The novel I’m currently working on will cover the events of the 6th Crusade (Friedrich Hohenstaufen’s crusade 1228-1229) largely through the eyes of John d’Ibelin’s eldest son and the latter’s future wife, Eschiva de Montbéliard. I’m a little nervous about it, because the principals are young, a little hot-headed, and not as heroic historically as Balian, Maria, and John d’Ibelin, but I wanted a change of pace and hope my readers will enjoy a new cast of characters.
FQ: Thank you for your time.
SCHRADER: Thank you for this opportunity to talk directly to readers! I hope readers will feel free to send me their personal questions either via my Goodreads questions page or by writing me directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org
To learn more about The Last Crusader Kingdom: Dawn of a Dynasty in Twelfth-Century Cyprus
please read the review at: Feathered Quill Book Reviews.