Interview with Author Helena P. Schrader

HPS-sculpture (2)

Balian, the landless son of a local baron, goes to Jerusalem to seek his fortune. Instead, he finds himself trapped into serving the young prince suffering from leprosy, an apparent sentence to obscurity and death. But the unexpected death of King Amalric makes the leper boy King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, and Balian’s prospects begin to improve…
–Knight of Jerusalem by Helena P. Schrader.

It is a privilege to have Helena P. Schrader visit my blog today.

CS: Wow, Helena! To the general audience, Knight of Jerusalem sounds like incredible fiction: the third son with no prospects for land, title, or wealth, a leper king, and events leading up to the Third Crusade. The plot possibilities are endless. But what makes this story so intriguing is that it is a biographical novel. Balian d’Ibelin was a real person whose history might sound more fiction than fact. So let’s get down to your research and writing… 

Knight of Jerusalem centers on an era that is close to my heart and my own writing. Tell us about your book series. What inspired you to write Balian d’Ibelin’s fascinating story?

HS: The Ridley Scott film “The Kingdom of Heaven” starring Orlando Bloom. Knight of JerusalemAlthough it was a beautiful piece of cinematography, as a historian I was immediately suspicious that most of it was pure “Hollywood.” I did a quick check on “Balian d’Ibelin” — only to discover (to my amazement!) that some of the most unlikely parts of the film were historical fact. Furthermore, I learned that the historical Balian had a far more interesting story than the Hollywood Balian. The more I read about the real Balian, the more fascinated I became. I was soon hooked. I started out to write a single book and within nine months knew the story was too complex to handle in a single volume, hence the biography in three parts.

CN: It has been years since I have seen “The Kingdom of Heaven.”  I wasn’t a student of crusades history at the time, so the ‘fiction’ vs. historical fact likely blew right over my head. Was there one thing in particular that you couldn’t believe was true until you did the research? 

HS: Yes, the mass knighting. In the film, when Balian is organizing the defense of Jerusalem and Heraclius tells him they have no knights, Balian tells all the fighting men to kneel and proceeds to knight them all. That seemed pretty far-fetched to me, but it does have a basis in truth. In reality it was only 80 youths “of good birth” – the younger brothers and sons of the men killed or captured at Hattin who had taken refuge in Jerusalem for the most part – that Balian knighted, but he did have a mass knighting because he was the only knight in Jerusalem when he arrived. In my novel, I’m going to have him include men-at-arms he knows and trusts as well (as battlefield knightings of men of lesser birth were not at all unheard of.)

The negotiations with Saladin are almost verbatim what the Arab sources report, but that rang true even when I saw the film for the first time, so I suspected that was accurate.

The stupidist part of the film is how Balian alone survives a shipwreck with a horse who is equally uninjured and then he fights an important emir and wins in a “fair fight.” In reality, of course, Balian was born and raised in Outremer and never had to travel by sea to get there. Nor was he a blacksmith or illegitimate. But his brother had an affair with Sibylla before she married Lusignan and Balian himself married a former queen of Jeruslaem, so even the love affair with Sibylla had an indirect and tenuous relationship to reality.

CN: You weren’t always a novelist. How has your background and education played into writing fiction? 

HS: Well, I was almost always a novelist, I wrote my first novel in 2nd grade, but you are right to speculate that my background and education played a critical role in turning me into a novelist at a very early age. My father was a professor who went to Japan on an exchange program when I was just two years old. Two years later, we returned via Hong Kong, Bangkok, Karachi, New Delphi, Athens, Rome, and then by car up to Denmark before flying to London and from there home. Now, to keep a four-year-old amused on such a long trip my father deployed the simple device of simplifying the explanations of everything we visited into terms of interest to a four year old. Thus, in the Colosseum in Rome he explained succinctly: “This is where they fed the Christians to the lions.” Now that interests a four year old! I started looking about the ruins trying to figure out where they’d kept the lions and where they’d kept the Christians and trying to imagine how I would have escaped. I’ve been imagining what life was like in a different times and circumstances ever since. Living in England in my teens was hugely inspiring, feeding my imagination with stories – and then there were the trips to “Cathar Country” in the South of France, and Cyprus, and. . .you get the picture.

CN: What a life! Though I haven’t traveled that extensively, I am a firm believer in the benefits of visiting other places and experiencing other cultures. What about the locations that feature in your novel – have you visited them? 

HS: Usually the visit precedes the novel. I am somewhere, read a plaque or a guide book describing events that happened there, and my imagination starts to run wild. But the plots of novels often lead me to places I have not yet been. I then do everything in my power to get there, because I find a visit to a location makes a huge difference to my understanding of it. For example, I accepted the usual drivel about Sparta being a poor and barren place (see descriptions of it in “Gates of Fire” or “Isle of Stone”) until I came around the bend of the road from road from modern Tripoli to modern Sparti and saw the valley of the Eurotas (the heartland of ancient Sparta) spread out before me. It was one of the most stunningly beautiful – and fertile – places I had ever seen. The contrast between reality and legend was so great it started me down a road of investigation that soon turned up the fact that ancient commentators on Sparta described it as much richer and more fertile than Attica. After I’d revised my understanding of the physical Sparta, I started questioning all the cliches about Spartans being uneducated thugs, thoughtless automatons, etc. etc. I soon discovered that Sparta was a far more liberal and intellectual place than popular literature and TV make it – indeed, arguably more liberal and literate than Athens. (For those interested in the topic, they can visit my website Sparta Reconsidered or my blog: http://spartareconsidered.blogspot.com.)

But I’ve drifted off topic. Yes, I usually try to get to the places I write about but it’s not always possible. For example, the castle and medieval down of Ibelin has been completely obliterated over the centuries. Even the palace and tombs of the Kings of Jerusalem are gone. I couldn’t risk going to Nablus in the Palestinian territories and Kerak lies in Jordan, which I have also been unable to visit as yet. So, I do what I can, but it isn’t always as much as I’d like. For this book, I did, at least, get to the Old City in Jerusalem, to Hattin, Jaffa, Ascalon, Ramla, and Lydda.

CN: With all the traveling you’ve done, do you have a favorite place to visit?

HS: Yes, I’ve travelled a great deal and I’ve lived in Japan, Brazil, England, Germany, Nigeria, and now Ethiopia. The place I’ve chosen for my retirement, however, is an island off the coast of the Peloponnese (once part of Lacedaemon, i.e. the hinterland of Sparta). My husband and I are building a house there with a view across the Maleas Straits to the snow-capped mountains behind Sparta.

CN: That sounds absolutely gorgeous. A perfect writer’s retreat. Speaking of writing, what has been the most challenging part of novel writing for you?

HS: The most difficult challenge for me as a historian (I have a PhD in history) is giving precedence to literary cohesion over historical accuracy. I have a tendency to want to be 100% accurate in every aspect of a novel, but the best works of historical literature are not always 100% correct. Shakespeare’s “histories” are notoriously inaccurate! A great piece of literature captures the spirit and essence of a period, but it may condense events to make them more dramatic or combine characters to keep the book from being overwhelmed with personalities. I’m not saying a novelist can take any amount of license, but sometimes license is justified, and knowing when it is right and good to do so is for me often difficult sometimes.

CN: Do you do a detailed plot and outline?

HS: Because this is a biographical novel, my plot/outline is the historical record. I work from both a chronology and an outline. The chronology contains all the relevant historical facts of the history of the Crusader States (not just Balian’s own life, but also the political, religious, economic events that shaped his lifetime) from the estimated date of Balian’s birth to a couple decades after his presumed death. Based on the historical facts, including the known biographical facts about Balian, his brother, wife, sons, niece etc. I developed an outline identifying which facts I wanted to present in what context and then added the fictional bits around this skeleton.

CN: In the introduction to Knight of Jerusalem, you write, “A biographical novel…is a medium that can turn a name in the history books into a person so vivid, complex, and yet comprehensible that history itself becomes more understandable.” It’s been my experience that many historians look down on genre fiction. How can we convince them of the value of books like yours?

HS: Most historians are put-off, not to say nauseated, by the number of books out there that call themselves “historical” and then have time travellers, dragons, vampires and I-don’t-know-what- all in them. Nearly as bad are “historical” novels with characters who behave, think, and have the attitudes of modern people, or books that change basic, well-known, important historical facts for no purpose. Honestly, there is so much trash out there masquerading as “historical” fiction that it can be very, very depressing. At the same time, some of the greatest pieces of literature are historical fiction. What else, after all, was the Iliad? Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur? or Tolstoy’s War and Peace? In fact, in my experience, historians readily admit that good historical fiction can make a very valuable contribution to our understanding of history, and many teachers of history relish a good, accurate historical novel as a means of awaking interest and evoking history for often reluctant students. In short, historians are some of my best fans precisely because they appreciate the accuracy and authenticity of my works.

CN: When writing a novel based on an existing historical figure, we often need to extrapolate beyond what our research uncovers in the official written record. Did you ever have the need to bend the truth and get more creative to make the story work?

HS: Absolutely, but “extrapolate” is the operative word here. It isn’t about just making things up, its about looking at the historical record and trying to develop a logical explanation of why a historical figure might have acted one way rather than another. The more famous that person is, the more defensible and logical that extrapolation better be! It’s about understanding human nature and being able to put yourself in someone else’s skin and see the world through his/her eyes. It also means that there are multiple, alternative interpretations, all of which are equally legitimate — just like different actors can interpret the same character in a play very differently without altering a single line.

CN: How long did it take you to write Knight of Jerusalem?

HS: It took about nine months for the first, rough draft. Then I did a re-write, sent it to test readers and re-wrote again based on their comments, before it went to the editor. Altogether from the first scene to publication about 15 months.

CN: Did you plot out the sequels as you were writing the first book, or are those processes completely separate? 

HS: As this is a biographical novel, the skeleton of the book existed before I even started to write. But when I started, I thought it would be just one book only to soon realize that to do justice to Balian and the wider topic, I needed to include more characters and historical events and that it wouldn’t work as one book. Ideally, I should have finished the entire work before releasing Book I because ultimately things will come up in the later books that impact Book I, but for marketing/sales reasons it is better to release the books sequentially. I don’t know if that answers your question, really. Maybe it would be easier to say the rough outline is pre-determined by history and Balian’s biography; the detailed outline is worked out in ever finer detail as I get closer to writing that particular section, and ultimately during writing itself.

CN: Are there certain types of scenes you find harder to write than others?

HS: If I’m having trouble writing a scene then something’s not right about it. In which case, I have to step back and consider a different approach – maybe a different point of view, or skipping over the scene altogether in favor of something else and only referring to the events of the skipped scene in retrospect. There are lots of devices for telling key events/components of a story. It can be fun playing around with a variety of approaches to see what works best.

That said, if there is a historical character I simply do not understand, then I cannot write a scene from their perspective. Keep in mind, fictional characters are your own creation and if you didn’t understand them, they wouldn’t be there. But biographical fiction inevitably requires certain other characters to appear and sometimes I don’t have any particular insight into what made them do the things recorded in history. This is what has happened to me with Sibylla of Jerusalem. I simply do not understand what made her tick. I can’t get into her head and so I cannot do any scene from her perspective. One of my test readers considered this a serious flaw, saying that given her importance in history I had to explain her actions. Well, that’s a good point, but I can’t do that. It’s a flaw.

CN: I like your tips about various approaches to scenes. I know I’ve experimented, scratched out numerous scenarios, to find what will move the plot forward. Speaking of scenes, do you have a favorite one from Knight of Jerusalem? Which one & why? 

HS: Do you mean the scene I think was most effective? or the one that captivated me most? The sack of Ibelin while Balian’s sister-in-law and niece were trapped in the castle was something I wrote about several times because I became totally absorbed in what it must have been like for a woman with a young child in such a predicament — but then I ended up cutting the scene altogether because it didn’t work in the overall flow. I think the most effective scenes in the book are those with Baldwin IV, particularly when he realizes the leprosy is spreading again.

CN: Did you uncover any surprising historical persons, places, events or things in your research?

HS: So many! Balian himself, Maria Comnena, Reynald de Chatillon, of course, and the Leper King. I find the entire cast of characters fascinating at some level, and the historical events equally so.

CN: What writers have inspired you? Any favorite books? Are there any you’ve read multiple times, or that you would give as a gift?

HS: Joseph Conrad was an early favourte, Katherine by Anya Seaton and The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman are books I own and have read more than once, but also Under an English Heaven by Robert Radcliffe, and Champion by Christian Balling.

CN: When can we look forward to book 2 in your series? Does it have a title yet?

HS: I’d like to release the second book in the series, Defender of Jerusalem in September of 2015, one year after the release of Knight of Jerusalem. The goal is to release the third and final book, tentatively titled Envoy of Jerusalem in September 2016.

CN: What do you enjoy doing when you aren’t working or writing? Favorite past time?

HS: Riding. I have an Arab-Ethiopian stallion here, who is (I confess) too hot for me, but he’s got so much character I can’t give him up for one of the duller horses.

CN:  Helena, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. I look forward to your posts on Defending the Crusader Kingdom, and hope that others will add Knight of Jerusalem to their to-read lists! 

BIO/LINKS

Read more about Helena on her blog, http://www.helenapschrader.com. In addition to the Sparta site she mentions above, follow her posts on the crusader kingdoms of Cyprus and Jerusalem at Defending the Crusader Kingdom, http://defendingcrusaderkingdoms.blogspot.com

Helena has published numerous works of fiction about the Middle Ages and Sparta and works of non-fiction.

You will also find Helena on social media on Goodreads, Facebook, and YouTube.

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