Author Interview: Helena P. Schrader

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Amy Lignor is talking with Helena P. Schrader, author of Balian d'Ibelin: Knight of Jerusalem (Jerusalem Trilogy).

FQ: Helena, I’ve certainly read a number of your books and interviewed you in the past, but I must ask: If you had to choose one battle or one noble figure that you’ve written about during all of these incredible books, which location or person would you have loved to see and/or meet, and why?

SCHRADER: Frankly, I'd be terrified of meeting any of the historical figures I've written about. I'd worry that I'd misinterpreted something, or that they were angry with me for the way I portrayed them. I doubt any of them would be terribly interested in me or my books either. They had more important issues to worry about. The greatest compliment I ever received was from a Battle of Britain RAF pilot, who read my Battle of Britain novel "Where Eagles Never Flew" and wrote to tell me I'd got it "smack on" the way it was "for us pilots." I still glow when I think of his words. That was the highest possible compliment, and I'm so proud. Because of his assessment, I consider that book the best of all my novels to this day. Yet while Bob Doe and I corresponded a few times after his first letter, I would still have been shy about meeting him face to face -- and I hadn't written about him specifically! No, I think I'll keep away from any possibly embarrassing confrontations with the characters in my books.

FQ: What was your life like being an American diplomat in Europe and Africa? Did this time give you a calling to write about history?

SCHRADER: I became interested in writing about history long before I got to college much less into the diplomatic corps. It was more the other way around, I think. My fascination with international history made me long for the opportunity to 1) live abroad in places with rich history (e.g. Ethiopia, Germany, Greece) and 2) witness ( and maybe in a tiny way influence) history directly and personally as a diplomat.

FQ: What intrigues you most about all you’ve learned while researching the Crusader states? Is there one thing that came as a huge surprise to you that you can share with readers?

SCHRADER: That the crusader states were inhabited predominantly by Christians at this time, but extremely tolerant of Muslims and Jews, enabling a very successful multi-cultural and multi-lingual society to thrive for nearly two hundred years. The inhabitants of the crusader states were anything but religious fanatics and bigots; they were savvy, flexible, adaptable and tolerant for the most part -- and astonishingly effective in retaining their position in a hostile world. The popular image of fanatics fighting constantly and brutally against the more civilized and enlightened Muslim world around them is based on ignorance and propaganda.

FQ: You must truly love the research facet that goes into creating these books. Were you always a researcher at heart? Is there ever a time when you get bored, or need a shot of energy when writer’s block sets in? If so, what do you do to reinvigorate yourself?

SCHRADER: I do love the research. When working on a particular project, I tend to immerse myself in an era as comprehensively as possible, including trying to find music, food, clothes from the era etc. What that means is that I rarely have time for reading for pleasure, especially books about different periods or places. I feared getting distracted from my topic and losing, not interest, but purity.

Most of my life, I worked full-time in a demanding job that filled more than 40 hours of every week. I also had a family. In short, my time for writing was very limited. Rather than being bored or experiencing writer's block, I usually had a backlog of things I needed to read and write. I never had enough time to get bored or suffer from writer's block. Even now, in retirement, I find I've over-committed myself with respect to two contracts for non-fiction books, overseeing (but not doing!) the translation into Greek of the last book of my Leonidas Trilogy, articles for history journals, re-issuing some of my older books (Hitler's Demons, Where Eagles Never Flew) and the re-write of Knight of Jerusalem. The result is I have not moved forward on the next book in the Rebels of Outremer series as I had planned/expected.

FQ: Is there some belief or attitude in today’s world – that existed in the past – you wish we’d gotten rid of by now?

SCHRADER: I suspect most historians would agree that nearly every form of evil we encounter in today's world has been with us for millennia. I remember reading a quote about corruption at and the disastrous environmental impact of the Olympics -- written about 500 BC. Political intrigue, bigotry, misogyny, racism, exploitation, egotism, greed -- you can find it all in the Iliad and ever since.

FQ: Will there always be, in your opinion, war? (Whether that be race wars, country vs. country, etc.)

SCHRADER: Yes -- thank God. Aggressors, exploiters, bullies, the most vicious tyrants and all forms of abusers of mankind would much rather just have whatever they want from whimpering and terrified slaves. War happens -- as Clausewitz wrote -- when the injured party, when the victim, says "NO!" It is self-defense not aggression that causes war, and I hope that some people will always be prepared to stand up for themselves and for the weak and the oppressed and abused around them.

FQ: What doors will be opened to readers in the next book of this trilogy?

SCHRADER: Well, it is important for readers to understand that the next book in this trilogy has already been published. It is "Defender of Jerusalem." I do need to makes some changes to that book in order to ensure complete consistency with the new edition of "Knight of Jerusalem." I hope to have those changes in print later this year -- certainly before Christmas. But there are no fundamental changes to the plot or characterization of the current version. As I noted in the introduction to Balian d'Ibelin, it is because we know so little about Balian's youth that I had to invent a past for him -- and felt I wanted to revise that. The period of his life covered in Defender of Jerusalem and in Envoy of Jerusalem is too well documented for me to take many liberties. As a result, the second and third books in the Trilogy stand as they are -- except for very minor changes I'll be making later this year.

For those who are coming to the trilogy for the first time, the next book in the series covers the period between the Christian victory over Saladin at Montgisard in 1177 and the surrender of Jerusalem to Saladin following defeat at the battle of Hattin in 1187. It was a period in which King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem was dying of leprosy and his sister and heir married a completely unsuitable man who rapidly alienated the barons of the kingdom. The barons were right: less than a year after this man usurped the throne, he led the entire army to an avoidable defeat that nearly destroyed the kingdom. These dramatic historical events form the plot around which the novel Defender of Jerusalem is built.

FQ: After Balian, is there already an idea brewing?

SCHRADER: I interrupted work on the Rebels of Outremer series to make revisions to Knight of Jerusalem. The Rebels of Outremer series covers the revolt by a significant portion of the lords and commons of the Holy Land against the illegal and tyrannical reign of the Hohenstaufens in Outremer in the thirteenth century. The rebels were led by Balian's eldest son, John, and after John's death by John's son -- another Balian d'Ibelin. I hope to return to that series by early next year. Meanwhile, however, I have the adjustments to Defender to complete and I'm re-issuing two older books, both set in WWII. These projects will keep me very busy in the short term -- not to mention my non-fiction history of the crusader states for Pen & Sword.

FQ: It was a great pleasure, as always, to read your book!

SCHRADER: Thank you, Amy! It is wonderful to hear from enthusiastic readers. Thank you, too, for the opportunity to answer some questions about my writing. It's always good to reflect on what one has done or plans to do.

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