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Author Interview: Helena P. Schrader

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Amy Lignor is talking with Helena P. Schrader, author of Envoy of Jerusalem: A Biographical Novel of Balian d'Ibelin.

FQ: After such a huge project as this trilogy must have been, considering the tremendous amount of research done, how does it feel for it to be over? Did you create that emotional link with your characters that’s hard to let go?

SCHRADER: Well, of course, it isn't really "over" because I now have to market the trilogy, spread the word about it, enter it in literary contests, etc. Also, you might have noticed that Balian isn't dead. He disappears from the historical record after the Treaty of Ramla (1192) and he last witnessed a royal charter in 1193, leading people to assume that he died shortly afterwards. But there could be other explanations -- like the records were lost, he had falling out with the king, he was traveling abroad on a diplomatic mission, he was on Cyprus, or he had taken Holy Vows and retreated to a monastery. We don't know, so I can't risk writing a "biography" about this period, but -- as you rightly surmise -- I am still emotionally attached to my characters (and not just Balian and Maria) and there is a wonderful piece of history still waiting to be explored: namely, the establishment of Frankish rule on the Island of Cyprus. Aimery de Lusignan was the first King of Cyprus, but not until after he rescued his wife Eschiva from pirates. Also Aimery later marries Maria's daughter Isabella, becoming her 4th husband and King of Jerusalem, while Balian's sons were both regents -- one in Cyprus and the other in Jerusalem. In short, I haven't let these characters go yet! I'm working on a book tentatively titled The Last Crusader Kingdom that will deal with what we in the State Department call "post-conflict reconstruction" and the founding of the Kingdom of Cyprus by the Lusignans and Ibelins.

FQ: You write so amazingly well I, as a reader, would love to know what is being worked on next. Is there a fiction or non-fiction project in the works we can look forward to?

SCHRADER: It means the world to me, Amy, that you think I write well and want to read more. In today's world with 4,000 books being released each day in the English language, the competition is fierce and it's hard to attract attention, much less fans. It's very easy to get discouraged and ask oneself "why bother?" But when readers react like this, it is all worthwhile. So thank you, Amy!

As for what's next, it is the book on The Last Crusader Kingdom mentioned above, which will focus more on Aimery, Eschiva, and John d'Ibelin, but with Balian and Maria in strong supporting roles. Then, unless something unexpected comes up, I'd like to write about the baronial revolt against the Emperor Friedrich II in the early 13th century. It was basically a war in defense of the rule of law and the constitution of Jerusalem/Cyprus against imperial tyranny. The revolt was led by John d'Ibelin, Balian's eldest son as a mature man, and his sons, supported by other barons.

FQ: Along those same lines, do you have a preference? Does fiction perhaps offer up a freedom that non-fiction cannot, because the latter is already solidified in stone?

SCHRADER: Actually, I find it much easier to write non-fiction because for non-ficton, all you have to do is get the facts right and then write them up in an engaging and fluent style. Fiction requires you to understand much more -- the society, religion, laws, customs, medicine, music, economy, geography, climate, and then to use your imagination to get inside various people's skins -- to walk around in their shoes and see the world through their eyes. You can't have just one "rational" perspective, you must be able to create emotional worlds that don't violate the historical record but go far beyond it by speculating about motives, feelings, fears, hopes, dreams etc. etc. I much prefer writing fiction because I love exploring human nature -- besides I do a lot of dry, factual writing for work. I use writing fiction as a means of balancing that rational work as I focus on the emotional world of my characters and try to imagine why people did what they did and what their relationships with one another were.

FQ: How do you feel about libraries in the U.S.A.? I ask this because of the research element and the love of writing you most certainly have, and the news that American libraries are growing smaller in number.

SCHRADER: Well, as it happens I'm living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia at the moment and don't have access to U.S. libraries. I have to order my sources on line. I have quite a library of my own as a result, and I'm always buying new books. For sources, I need real paper copies of the books. I can read a novel electronically, but if I'm going to use a book as reference material I need to be able to find things quickly, to flip back and forth, and trawl through the notes and the bibliography for more sources and the like. Those are all things I can't do with e-books, or not efficiently.

FQ: As a U.S. diplomat in Africa, can you speak a little about problems or issues of that particular country that people should be aware of? In addition, do you have any plans to perhaps write something set in that country?

SCHRADER: Ethiopia is a complex country with a rich history stretching back to the age of Solomon. It is mentioned both in the Old Testament (Moses' wife was Ethiopian) and in the Iliad (Ethiopia sided with Troy and Achilles killed the Ethiopian king). Andromenda was an Ethiopian princess. The Ethiopians believe that Balthazar, one of the three Kings or Magi, was Ethiopian. Certainly, Ethiopia was the second country in the world after Armenia to make Christianity the state religion -- before Rome. Ethiopia traded with both the Mediterranean world and India in the first centuries AD. In the period of my Balian trilogy, there was an Ethiopian prince in exile in Jerusalem. The Ethiopians received permission to build a chapel in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher from Saladin after the fall of Jerusalem, but the King also built a "New Jerusalem" at Lalibela in the highlands of Ethiopia -- a magical place so utterly different from the historical Jerusalem. I could go on and on, but I think you can already see what a fascinating history this country has. Yet for that very reason, I would never presume to write about it. Ethiopia is simply too complex, too multi-layered and different. Not only does it have this complex history, it has its own language, alphabet, music, Christian Orthodoxy, multiple ethnic groups, a large Muslim population, a more recent history of two varieties of Socialism, famines, floods, coups and military dictatorship. The most I could ever imagine is writing about a foreigner who visits Ethiopia and looks at it from the outside, but I would not dare to try to imagine the interior world of the Ethiopian psyche.

FQ: Is there one location that is at the top of your ‘to do’ or ‘bucket list’ (whatever you choose to call it) that is an ancient or historical locale you would love to see in person? If so, can you tell readers where that would be and why you have an interest in that site?

SCHRADER: I have been extremely lucky to have visited Jerusalem, Cairo, Luxor/Nile, Istanbul (Constantinople), Athens, Sparta, Olympia, Delphi, and Rome. I've also been to Cyprus multiple times so I have a good vision (and many photos) of Cyprus to feed-off while writing my next novels. After that, I'm tentatively planning a biographical novel of Edward of Woodstock, more commonly known as the Black Prince, and his wife Joan of Kent. I've visited many of the sites associated with them, but would want to go back again to his tomb in Canterbury, for example, or his castles at Restmorel and Hampsted. In fact, I'd like to follow in the Black Prince's footsteps, traveling the route of his two campaigns in France and the one to Navarre as well. Otherwise, I can't really think of anything. The ancient cities of the Far East must be wonderful, but they are culturally too strange to really attract me. I find I enjoy places best when I already know and can relate to the stories of people who lived there and walked their streets.

FQ: If you had to choose to award a medal to the greatest/most dangerous ‘villain’ history has ever produced, who would that be, and why?

SCHRADER: It's hard to compete with Stalin for that award. He was responsible for the deaths -- through cold-blood murder, slave labor, and starvation -- of tens of millions of people.

FQ: Same question as above, but this time the medal goes to who you feel was the ultimate hero in history.

SCHRADER: That's too difficult. I stand in awe of the heroes of the German Resistance to Hitler, but also of Leonidas of Sparta, who gave us an example of self-sacrifice for the greater good. St. Louis of France for his example of leadership and compassion in defeat and humiliation, and -- of course -- I admire the Leper King for doing his duty despite being slowly decaying, or Balian d'Ibelin for being willing to sacrifice his freedom for the poor. There are many heros and I wish people took a greater interest in them -- the real heroes -- rather than losing themselves in fantasy worlds with supermen, spidermen, witches and warlocks. I truly can't comprehend this interest in total fantasy when there have been such fantastic real human heroes over time.

FQ: (This was asked once before, but it remains a favorite with readers, and perhaps new readers would love to know): If you could have lunch with one historical figure, who would that be, and why?

SCHRADER: I think I said General Friedrich Olbricht last time with the reasoning that I would be able to communicate with him. Our worlds (early 20th century and now) are not so very different and we have a common language (modern German). I would not be able to speak with Leonidas (I'm learning modern not ancient Greek), or St. Louis, the Leper King or Balian -- they spoke Medieval French. I doubt a Plantagenet prince such as Edward of Woodstock would be particularly polite to an common woman like me. Also society has changed so much, starting with diet and table manners. I'm not sure lunch could be a success with anyone who lived long ago in the circumstances.

FQ: I want to personally thank you, again, for creating this series. I’ve been in love with it since the beginning and will go back and do it all over again.

SCHRADER: Amy, that is a lovely thing to say! It makes me feel very good and inspires me to keep writing. Thank you!

To learn more about Envoy of Jerusalem: A Biographical Novel of Balian d'Ibelin please read the review at: Feathered Quill Book Reviews.

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