Author Interview: Helena P. Schrader

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Amy Lignor is talking with Helena P. Schrader, the author of The Emperor Strikes Back

FQ: As I get even further into these novels, I have to know: When you began, did you have the series (as such) outlined on paper, or at least in your mind of how far you would go with it?

SCHRADER: Not at all! Things always start small. A spark, an idea that grows into a book concept, then lots of research. Then when I start writing I either have a little novel or I discover I can't possibly do the characters justice in a novel that is affordable. I used to write 1,000-page novels, but big books just frighten readers away and require big price tags. So although it may be one idea and one story to me, it gets broken down into pieces to keep the paperback price around $20 and the ebook price close to $5.

This series is unusual, however, in that I was attracted to the civil war in Outremer -- the focus of the current series -- a quarter century ago, wrote a trilogy called The Lion of Karpas, and then shelved it as completely unmarketable. I then wrote about WWII (3 books), Ancient Sparta (6 books) and then got interested in Balian d'Ibelin the elder after seeing The Kingdom of Heaven. It was only after I was deep into the research for the Jerusalem trilogy that I discovered that the Balian who defended Jerusalem against Saladin in 1187 was the father of the "Old" Lord of Beirut -- the hero of the baronial revolt against Frederick II. So, all my interest in the civil war in Outremer was re-ignited and it made sense to build on the success of the Jerusalem trilogy by writing about the next generation of Ibelins.

The Last Crusader Kindom was a "bridge" book between the two series -- and a self-indulgence as I wanted to write that book to close out the story of Balian (the elder) and Maria Comnena, even though the story did not belong in the Jerusalem trilogy.

FQ: How, when and where did this particular piece of history grab you like it has and cause you to have your own crusade in the publishing world?

SCHRADER: A trip to Cyprus by accident. My husband and I had planned to go to Egypt, but political violence/terrorism there made us change our travel plans at short notice. We chose someplace that was still comparatively warm (we were coming from Northern Germany), and we found a package deal to Cyprus. I knew nothing about Cypriot history. We arrived and suddenly I discover that the Richard the Lionheart had been there, or rather, not just been there, he had conquered the island and established a kingdom that lasted three hundred years. Then I saw the castles and I was hopelessly lost in the history.

FQ: Is there one character in these books who has became “larger” than what you assumed they would at the onset; if so, who would that be and why do you believe the focus on them increased?

SCHRADER: This question can be answered in two ways. I really struggled with both my leading characters because there is less material about them. For Balian, I also had the problem that he was -- and had to be seen to be -- very different from his grandfather (the hero of the Jerusalem trilogy) and STILL be an attractive character. As I worked on developing him, I discovered things consistent with the historical record that I genuinely came to understand and admire. Eschiva, on the other hand, gets about three sentences in history and she was a complete invention. So simply because the starting baseline was so low, she grew even more in the course of both novels, but particularly in the second (The Emperor Strikes Back). Of course, as the hero and heroine, the amount of space devoted to them did not increase particularly

If the question is about a character who effectively butted in and took more space than planned, that would be Bella. Bella is literally just a name on a genealogy table, so her character is my invention as is her role in the siege of Beirut, but once I'd put her there, I couldn't abandon her.

FQ: Along those same lines, can you share with readers who is your favorite character and least favorite, and why?

SCHRADER: As characters or human beings? For favorite: if I wasn't a little in love with my hero I wouldn't be able to write about him, and the same goes for the heroine. But Bella and Hugh are close rivals.

For least favorite: Historically, I detest Frederick II -- particularly because I feel the usual adulation of him is so overblown and largely based on ignorance of the Holy Land, i.e. is based on false premises or a narrow focus on the West and his conflict with a series of even more bigoted and selfish popes. As a character in the book, obviously the most disgusting person in Sanuto -- the representative/incarnation of arrogant male privilege and the callous abuse of women.

FQ: What happens when this comes to an end? Have you thought about how extremely difficult it will be to say goodbye, so to speak? Or do you have another series already percolating that you’re researching now?

SCHRADER: I don't even want to think about the end. I have three more books set in the crusader states, two novels (the rest of the series) and one non-fiction, which will be the greater challenge. The point of the later book, tentatively titled Beyond the Seas: The Story of the Crusader States, is to create for non-academic readers a comprehensive picture of these unique political entities at the crossroads of East and West, on the interface between Christianity and Islam. There has been a great deal of academic research and many scholarly works have been published demonstrating how tolerant and innovative these states were, yet most people still equate everything having to do with the crusades with "genocide," bigotry and violence. I'm quite passionate about correcting that image, as you can tell, and know that doing a non-fiction book will take a huge investment in time. In short, I expect I'll remain in this era for at least another three years. I can't think beyond that.

FQ: Literary awards, graduating with honors, unending accolades – what is the most amazing thing that has occurred during your career? A moment in time, perhaps, that you were not expecting that literally had you stunned?

SCHRADER: Interaction with real heroes. I had the amazing opportunity to personally get to know some of the survivors of the German Resistance to Hitler -- Axel von dem Bussche, Ludwig von Hammerstein, Philipp von Boeselager, Marion Graefin Yorck, Nina Graefin Stauffenberg, Claritta von Trott zu Solz, Friedrich Georgi and, of course, General Friederich Olbricht's widow Eva. As a writer, however, the greatest "accolade" was when I received a hand-written letter from Wing Commander Bob Doe, who had flown fighters for the RAF in the Battle of Britain, in which he told me my novel Chasing the Wind was "the best book" he had ever read about the Battle of Brittain an that I'd gotten it "smack on the way it was for us pilots."

FQ: Do you ever get tired or exhausted by the research you have to do? (As a person who loves libraries, I can understand if the answer is “no.”)

SCHRADER: On the contrary, the research is energizing and always sparks new ideas -- sub-plots or minor characters.

FQ: Is there one thing in the literary world you wish would change? Whether that be a genre you feel needs more books or authors in it? Social media and the way it helps or hurts an author? Things like that.

SCHRADER: I wish filters would start to kick in to reduce the amount of trash being dumped on the market on a daily basis. I'm grateful for print-on-demand and self-publishing enabling greater diversity of titles and opening up publishing to more authors than fit the straight-jacket of the established commercial publishers, yet at the moment things have gone too far in the other direction. With 4,000 new titles every single day, far too many good books are being lost in the flood of sewage.

FQ: Of all the journeys you’ve had, is there a location you can say is a favorite of yours? Is there one that inspires you to write or investigate the past when you go and/or visited there?

SCHRADER: There are so many! Cyprus itself, Sparta, the castles of the Languedoc, the bastides of Southern France. Places have always played a large role in setting me on one track or another.

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