Please welcome Stepahnie Thornton!
1- Stephanie you wrote an amazing novel based in Byzantium! Can you tell us about a few of the most fascinating things you discovered about this time and place, while researching?
I’m so glad that you enjoyed the novel, and am thrilled to be here discussing it today! When I first set out to write Theodora’s story, I assumed 6th century Constantinople was like much of the ancient world, where women were dominated by men and mostly forgotten by history. Although I’m sure Procopius is rolling in his grave to hear it, when I first read his damning history of Theodora’s rule as empress I was almost squealing with glee. Not only was Theodora an incredibly strong woman who ruled equally with her husband, but her lifelong friend Antonina had also risen from the gutters to marry Belisarius, the empire’s rising star of a general. Procopius slanders both women terribly, but between the lines you can see that these women were determined not to let anyone—man or woman—dictate how they lived. (Unfortunately for Belisarius, that meant his wife would go on to publicly cuckold him with her godson.) In a strange twist, Procopius’ vitriolic accounts ensured that we would forever remember both Theodora and Antonina, whose colorful lives would have otherwise gone mostly unrecorded.
That said, we also have to remember that Theodora and Antonina’s stories were uncommon for the time. I spent much of my time researching the lives of prostitutes in the Byzantine Empire, and the hardships they had to endure. There’s a line in my novel about how unwanted children could be disposed of in the drains of the public baths, which came from an archaeological article I read where a number of infant skeletons had been discovered in one such drain. Life in the ancient world was hard, and for a single woman, it was almost impossible.
2- Theodora has become my new favourite icon- What attracted you most to writing about her?
Let me just say that I love Theodora. I see her as one of those polarizing kind of personalities—either you loved her (as Justinian did) or you loathed her (like Procopius). Looking back at her position in history, it’s hard not to love her. This woman was the daughter of a bear trainer (really, truly) who became an actress/prostitute to support herself and her family. Her story might have ended then and there, but something about her attracted not just one, but two of the empire’s most powerful men. Not only that, but she survived one of the world’s worst outbreaks of bubonic plague! (For the record, I love bubonic plague. Writing about it, not having it, of course.) Procopius also recorded that while Theodora couldn’t dance or play music, she was a great mime, which was a sort of stand-up comic of the day. I don’t know any writer who could resist writing so colorful a character.
3- If you could compare Theodora to a woman of today’s times, who would that be and why?
That’s a toss-up between Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Thatcher. However, since Eleanor was born to privilege and Margaret’s dad owned grocery stores, I’ll go with Thatcher. (Fortunately, Margaret Thatcher never had to face an outbreak of bubonic plague.) Both Theodora and Margaret Thatcher fell into politics (Theodora because she caught Justinian’s eye and had traveled across the empire, which he had not; Thatcher was drawn into politics while studying chemistry at Oxford), and became polarizing figures while they were in power. Thatcher alienated workers and unions with her economic policies and Theodora was a staunch supporter of the Blues (a political faction of Constantinople), which angered the Greens. Finally, both faced uprisings and revolts; for Theodora, the famous Nika revolt left 30,000 dead and city in ruins. Thatcher faced discontent in her Conservative party that resulted in her own electoral defeat. Both were tough, determined women who did what they thought was right.
4- We would love to know about any future projects you may have- will there perhaps be a sequel to The Secret History?
I contemplated writing a sequel focusing on Justinian’s heir, Justin II, and his wife and Theodora’s niece, Sophia, but their story is painfully depressing. Justin II started a war with Persia and lost much of the landholdings in Italy that Justinian conquered. Then he went insane, biting his attendants from his chair and insisting that constant organ music be played in the palace at all times, finally necessitating his abdication from the throne. I like drama in my books, but that’s a lot of tragedy!
Instead, my next novel, Daughter of the Gods, is the story of Hatshepsut, Egypt’s first successful female pharaoh, and I’m currently writing The Tiger Queens, a novel of Genghis’ Khans wife and daughters. After that, I’ll be heading back to Rome, although Book #4 will be set in the ancient western Empire instead of Byzantium.
5- Lastly- this one is for all aspiring authors: Please share a motto, ritual, or habit of yours, that helps you with your writing.
Okay, I’m totally going to steal a quote from Winston Churchill here: “Never, never, never give up.” I know it’s simplistic, but no matter which authors you talk to, there have been times when they wanted to quit. I was told to shelve the first novel I wrote because no one would ever publish a book about some obscure Egyptian female pharaoh. Instead, I set it aside, wrote The Secret History, and now Daughter of the Gods will be coming out next summer. So, have patience, and never, ever give up on your dreams!
There is a timely Giveaway over at EBJ-Art & History Salon for a copy of THE SECRET HISTORY and one Byzantine Coin