Last month I had the pleasure of featuring Eileen Stephenson’s short story collection, Tales of Byzantium, in a couple of my National Short Story week posts. Today I’ve invited her back to talk about her collection in greater detail.
Welcome back, Eileen. Let’s get started, shall we?
Tell us about your book.
ES: My book is a collection of three longish short stories set in medieval Byzantium. The first two take place in the 10th century; the third one in the 12th century. The main characters in each of them are historic figures and their stories are my imaginings of how particular historic events came to pass.
What prompted you to write about this historical event/era?
ES: I’d always had it in the back of my mind that I’d like to be a writer, but the eras I knew and loved best – English and ancient Roman – seemed to be well-covered by writers better than I ever expected to be. One day, I picked up John Julius Norwich’s “A Short History of Byzantium” and found myself fascinated by this civilization. When I went looking for novels about them, however, I found precious few. Most of them seemed to be focused on either Emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora – admittedly an interesting topic – or were from the point of view of the Crusaders, who had little love for the Byzantines. It was then I realized that I had found what I would write about.
How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?
ES: My preference has always been for historical fiction to stick close to the historical record, and that’s what I’ve tried to do. Much of my research is done from contemporary Byzantine chronicles, some of them only recently translated by scholars. The Byzantines of this period were highly literate with many writers of histories, so I had some good primary source material to work with.
What research did you do for this book?
ES: For the past ten years, I have been immersing myself in every aspect of Byzantine history. For this book, I had to dig into specific dates when events occurred and try to make sense of how they meshed with what the history books say. For example, I found an age listed for one character in the first story, Christopher, as being in his mid-20’s at the time of the story. However, he also had a daughter who gave birth in the story, so he was more likely to have been at least in his early 30’s, if not older. One thing I’ve found is that when you write about such distant times, you have to really look at dates and ages to make sure they make sense.
Do you use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel? Which is more difficult to write? Which do you prefer and why?
ES: I focus on historic figures, using invented characters when the story needs them. For myself, I prefer reading and writing about actual people since I am always curious about why and how certain events happened.
In an historical novel you must vividly re-create a place and people in a bygone era. How did you bring the place and people you are writing about to life?
ES: This is a huge challenge – especially when writing about a time and place that most people will find difficult to imagine. There aren’t too many (if any) movies or TV shows depicting the Byzantines, the way there are for ancient Romans, or the Tudors, or World War I or II. It took several years of reading about the Byzantines myself before I could begin to get an image of them in my head. When writing a novel or short story, this becomes a delicate balancing act between adding enough detail to help readers picture the events, and not too much so as to avoid an info dump on them. I’ve tried to keep both sides in mind, and most of my reviewers have not complained about either too little background or info dumping.
There often seems to be more scope in historical novels for male characters rather than female characters. Do you prefer to write about one sex or the other? And if so, why?
ES: The sex of my characters is not as important to me as what they accomplish with their lives. Being a woman, I probably have more insight into a woman’s point of view, but my short story that had virtually all male characters has been complimented. Another advantage I had for my research was that the middle Byzantine period had more than a few strong women who made it into the history books, so I didn’t have to guess or make stuff up for them. The novel I am working on is from the point of view of Anna Dalassena, who has been given credit for maneuvering her son, Alexios Comnenus, onto the throne. After I have finished her story, I hope to write about Alexios and his son John who were both strong, enlightened rulers. For me, it is really more about positive accomplishments than about gender.
Thank you for answering my questions, Eileen, and enlightening me about a period that I’m not well acquainted with. Good luck with your short story collection.
About Eileen Stephenson: She was born in Fort Worth, Texas but spent most of her life in the Washington, DC area. She has degrees from both Georgetown University and George Washington University (neither involving the Byzantines) and is married with three daughters. Her interest in Byzantine history all started one fateful day when every other book in the library looked boring except for John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium.