How I Decided to Write About Hypatia
Guest Post by K. Hollan Van Zandt, Author of
Written in the Ashes
I had decided I wanted to write a novel, and my long time pen pal, author Tom Robbins, was encouraging. I was contemplating what to write about. He told me, “It will find you.” Excellent advice.
I always had an interest in the Great Library of Alexandria. At the time, I was dating an Egyptologist who was studying at UC Berkeley. I asked him how the library burned, and he said that no one really knows, which I found impossible to believe.
“You mean to tell me we know what Caesar was eating for breakfast on the morning of his battles and we don’t know when the greatest library in antiquity burned to the ground?”
He seemed to think nothing of it.
I forgot about it.
Several years later I was watching a show on Discovery about Alexandria and a young boy who knew of the catacombs that ran under the city. I began to think about how the clay jars had been unearthed full of documents in Nag Hammadi. Someone must have known these documents would be in danger. Someone had the prescience to determine not only what scrolls to save, but where to hide them.
I met my character Alizar then, sitting at my kitchen table looking out the window at our apple tree.
At this time I hadn’t written anything for over a year. This was because of a challenge I had given the Universe.
I’d had a few false starts at writing a novel. These early efforts just petered out. Nothing really grabbed me. I was writing from the limits of my own imagination, and this was simply a bore. I wanted to be part of a grand conversation. I wanted to write and feel connected to something greater than I could imagine.
So I’d challenged the Universe by saying, “I won’t write another word until something finds me. Until something grabs me by the sash and whips me around and breathes in my face and will not be ignored."
A year passed and I refused to write, even in my journal, which was very unusual for me as I had been writing in a journal daily since I was about fifteen.
But then I met Alizar and began to think of him every day. I wanted to write about him.
When I finally got the chance to sit down and write a short story it was at my mother’s house in San Diego. But for some reason I couldn’t write about Alizar at all, only this young shepherd girl and her dream.
I was a mature enough writer even then to know you never start a story with a dream. And yet, this girl was having one hell of a nightmare. This was Hannah, and her dream was of a beautiful woman being chased through the middle of a magnificent library. The scrolls all around were burning, swirling up to the heavens like a million birds on fire.
The woman’s pursuers were these terrible men in dark robes. When they caught her, they raped her and then cut her into pieces. Then they burned her.
The vision was so real I had tears flowing as I wrote. It was so violent that I was deeply disturbed by the imagery. At the time I was teaching yoga, and so non-violence was an emphasis in my life.
I decided to put away the dreadful story – for two reasons. The first was that it was too violent, and I didn’t want to write something so ugly. The other reason was that I knew Hannah’s vision had been of a woman who was running the Great Library – like a headmistress -- and I thought I was crazy for appointing a woman the head of the Great Library when of course it would certainly have been a man.
I shoved the story in my desk for another year.
By coincidence I was researching something in the college library of the town I was living in, and I got to thinking about the Great Library again. I decided it might be worthwhile to research the librarians of the Great Library.
It turned out this was an insightful tack. The librarians all around the Mediterranean were fond of writing one another – you can imagine, “I will trade you one Euripedes for one Homer”; a bit like trading baseballs cards. They all stayed in touch. So somehow I knew if I found the last known librarian of the Great Library that this would be the way to know who burned the library, and when.
Imagine my astonishment when the last known librarian of the Great Library turned out to be a she and not a he. It was Hypatia. And not only was the library being run by a woman, but she died precisely like how I had written in my short story the year before – cut to pieces, burned, and by priests no less.
Well, I think I fell on the floor between the stacks. I sat there for a long time just in shock over what I had discovered.
I knew right then that I had a window into that world. That my imagination was connecting me to something more magnificent than I could ever have dreamed up. And I made my commitment right there to make a novel of it, however long it would take me.
I thought it would take three years. The first draft was finished in three. There would be nearly thirty drafts by the time the book was finished ten years later.
I’m not the only writer this kind of thing has happened to. Tom Robbins said it happened to him when he was writing Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Fans were asking him how he knew so much about a certain town he’d never visited, and he had just made it all up.
Isabelle Allende spoke about this kind of thing happening in one of her books about a character who was priest. In real life a priest came and found her, and he wanted to know how she knew secret things about his life she’d never told anyone.
I still don’t know what to make of this, except that it is beautiful, and shows me we are all far more connected than we think. Perhaps we are connected in the mind of God, or in the fabric of the collective unconscious. Either way, I hope that same rapturous muse continues to visit me in my work and honor me with her messages. It is a blessing.
Thank you Kaia for that wonderful post about how the muse found you! You can follow the rest of the blog tour at the Premier Virtual Author Book Tour site. You can visit the author at her website.
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