Today Carol Strickland, author of The Eagle and the Swan, stops by The Maiden’s Court while on virtual tour. I had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her writing (both in fiction and non-fiction) and hope you enjoy the interview. There is a giveaway at the end too.
You have written several art history books (I’m a huge art history fan) – what led to the jump into fiction?
In my art history book, I wrote about the brilliant mosaics of Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora, masterpieces of Byzantine art, but I had no idea of the story behind the images. When writing a book on the history of architecture, I encountered the pair again, since Justinian was instrumental in designing the stunning Hagia Sophia church. Its dome was the largest and most daring in the ancient world. When its architects despaired that it would hold up, Justinian had faith in the engineering, which he was convinced was divinely inspired. The more I read about this couple, the more I realized their story needed to be told. They both came from nowhere: Justinian from a pig farm and Theodora from the circus. But where they went is what makes them extraordinary--to the pinnacle of power during the Golden Age of Byzantium. And what they did once at the top seemed to have all the elements of a crackling-good story. Their reign was fraught not only with scandal, intrigue, political and personal payback, but also crusading for social justice, motivated by their own humble backgrounds.
You have now written both fiction and non-fiction. Which is easier? Which has been more fun?
Non-fiction involves research and then boiling down the main points and framing the information in a style that's accessible and entertaining. I really enjoy learning about a complex subject and then presenting a summary of the need-to-know essentials. But there's not much room for literary flair in art history. Style shouldn't distract from the content. I have a Ph.D. in American literature and culture, and I'm a big fan of novels that employ symbolism and literary devices like figurative language, foreshadowing, and subtext. I got to play around much more writing the novel--to let myself imagine what these historical characters were thinking, feeling, and saying. Inventing is more fun than synthesizing already-known facts in non-fiction.
I only very recently learned about Theodora, how were you introduced to her and her fascinating life?
When I was researching the background of the Hagia Sophia basilica in Istanbul (built in an astounding five years in 532-537 AD), I read how involved Justinian was in its planning and how the capitals of the columns are carved with his and his wife Theodora's initials. The more I read from their court historian Procopius, the more intrigued I was with this couple. When I read that Theodora came "from the brothel," that piqued my curiosity. Procopius's Secret History (not published until centuries later) is full of malicious gossip about the pair, painting them as demons and degenerates. (Yet Theodora is considered a saint in the Greek Orthodox church!) Basically, I didn't want this mean-spirited back-biter to have the last word in defining the couple for the ages. I wanted to let Theodora speak for herself, to tell her side of the story and reveal herself as neither exclusively a saint nor a sinner, but a bit of both.
Do you have any more plans to write fiction? Anything you can tell us about your future writing?
I'd love to do another historical novel and I have some subjects percolating in my head. But my immediate project is to get back to art history--this time in the enhanced eBook format rather than print. With a print book, you can only show so many images that are often small or in black-and-white (because of budget limitations). With an eBook, you can have high-resolution digital images in full-color, and they can be enlarged to show details. You can have "hot spots" and links to click on for more information so readers can drill down to get as much detail as they'd like on art works, movements, or artists. My publisher, Erudition Digital, is planning a series of books called Masterpieces of Art. We'll start with one of the most popular movements, Impressionism. The trick is to make it come alive for the reader: to show the artists as human beings and as original thinkers and creators.
Oh that sounds very cool! I certainly agree that the enhanced book might make the subject much more accessible. I will keep my eye out for these books!
When you are not writing, what do you like to do in your spare time?
I just returned from a two-week trip to Florence and Rome, where I immersed myself in Renaissance and Baroque art. It was a busman's holiday in a sense, since I'm an active cultural journalist, but the chance to just look and not have to record my thoughts was liberating. Travel, museums, photography, reading, gardening, and cooking are my passions.
There are some beautiful works of art depicting Theodora. Do you have a favorite? Have you seen the mosaics of Theodora and Justinian in person?
I regret to say I haven't yet been to Ravenna to see the mosaics. I did go to Istanbul and Roman ruins in Turkey and Italy to get a sense of what life was like in the late-Roman Empire in which Theodora lived. A church in Rome (San Clemente) has an ancient fresco purported to be of Theodora, which I sought out. It's faded and faint, but her imperial headdress is unmistakable. And what searing eye contact! I felt Theodora was staring sternly at me across the millennia, sending out vibes that order me to get her tale right. I touched the stone wall--it was cold and damp--to let her know how she has touched me.
Carol Strickland is an art and architecture critic, prize-winning screenwriter, and journalist who’s contributed to The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, and Art in America magazine. A Ph.D. in literature and former writing professor, she’s author of The Annotated Mona Lisa: A Crash Course in the History of Art from Prehistoric to Post-Modern (which has sold more than 400,000 copies in multiple editions and translations), The Annotated Arch: A Crash Course in the History of Architecture, The Illustrated Timeline of Art History, The Illustrated Timeline of Western Literature, and monographs on individual artists.
While writing on masterpieces of Byzantine art (glorious mosaics in Ravenna, Italy featuring Theodora and Justinian and the monumental Hagia Sophia basilica in Istanbul built by Justinian), Strickland became fascinated by the woman who began life as a swan dancer and her husband, an ex-swineherd.
Knowing how maligned they were by the official historian of their era Procopius, who wrote a slanderous “Secret History” vilifying them, Strickland decided to let the audacious Theodora tell her story. She emerges not just as the bear-keeper’s daughter and a former prostitute who ensnared the man who became emperor, but as a courageous crusader against the abuse of women, children, and free-thinkers.
I also have a giveaway for you all. It is open internationally and I have 2 eBook copies. Entries are made through the Rafflecopter below. Giveaway ends April 6th. Good luck!
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