Friday, June 13, 2008

Interview with Karen Essex, author of STEALING ATHENA

Karen Essex is one of my favorite historical novelists working today. Her books describe those moments when desire and power collide, and her elegant prose brings a new dimension to the genre. Whether it's writing about the last pharoah of Egypt (KLEOPATRA & PHAROAH) or the battle between the Este sisters (LEONARDO'S SWANS) or, as in her latest novel, about the wholesale rapine of the Elgin Marbles and the women caught up in the construction and destruction of the Parthenon (STEALING ATHENA) Karen never sacrifices reality for sentiment. Her novels are enthralling, brilliant, and above all else, very entertaining. With her new book, Karen explores the lives of two women in two different eras: Aspasia, courteasan to Pericles of Athens, and Lady Mary Nesbit, the wife of the man who made it his life's mission to appropriate the priceless marble reliefs and statues of ancient Greece to save them from Bonaparte's maurading armies. In STEALING ATHENA Karen Essex paints a fascinating portrait not only of two distinct eras tainted by disregard for the rights of women, but also of the illusory value we place on objects and the spiritual sacrifices we make to obtain them.

Karen's international bestseller Leonardo’s Swans won Italy’s prestigious 2007 Premio Roma for foreign fiction. An award-winning journalist and a screenwriter, she lives in Los Angeles, California. Her books are published in twenty-six languages. Please visit her website at
Please join me in giving a warm welcome to Karen.
1. Congratulations on the publication of STEALING ATHENA. It's an honor to have you with us. Set in the 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars and the golden age of Athens under Pericles, STEALING ATHENA offers us two characters from different eras connected by the Elgin Marbles—Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin, who assisted her husband in his frenetic quest to save the artifacts of the Acropolis from destruction; and Aspasia, philosopher and courtesan of Pericles. What inspired you to write about these women and their link with the marbles?
I have been fascinated with the saga of the marbles since I first saw them in the British Museum in 2001. I have also studied women’s history—and specifically women of the ancient world— for decades now, and in all of my books, I try to illuminate both the female experience and women’s contributions to the world. This story, in which one very influential woman, Aspasia, watches the Parthenon being built while another powerful woman, Mary Elgin, watches it being disassembled some 2300 years later, was a natural for me to undertake. When Susan Nagel’s biography of Mary appeared in 2004, I realized that once again, a woman had made things happen but had gone unacknowledged in the historical record. That usually lights my fire.
2. STEALING ATHENA makes a strong case both for Elgin’s actions during his time, as well as for the return of the marbles to Greece. To this day, controversy rages over which country has the right to the marbles, and as an author, you’ve not shied away from controversial subject matter, whether it was a new interpretation of Egypt’s last pharaoh or envisioning the rivalry between sisters and the Renaissance preoccupation with immortality through art. What types of challenges did you encounter while researching this particular story? What surprising or interesting facts did you discover about these different eras in history?
The most overarching challenge was to hold the great breadth of history contained within the story all at once in my poor overtaxed brain. Stealing Athena encompasses the Golden Age of Pericles, the Napoleonic Wars, the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire in the days of George III, and—as the Elgins were Scots—the newly formed United Kingdom. I had to absorb a dizzying amount of information and then synthesize it into a coherent, unified, and compelling story. Luckily, the narrative came easily to me because the ways in which the two women’s lives resonated was almost haunting. Readers have said, oh, I love the way that you made the characters’ lives ad experiences reflect one another, but history did that for me.

The most startling discovery about those early days of the 19th century—which, remember, followed the Enlightenment, and all that great egalitarian thought—was that even though women had the veneer of more freedom and agency than in Aspasia’s day, when one got right down to the nitty gritty of the laws of Great Britain, females were no better off, really, than in ancient Greece, or even in Constantinople, where we learn in the book that the sequestered women of the harem had more legal stature than the women of England. For a woman of Mary Elgin’s status and wealth to receive such shoddy treatment both within her marriage and in a court of law astonishes the modern mind.
As far as surprises in the other story, it was amazing to discover the degraded state of Athens in 1803. Considering the energy and vitality of both the ancient city and the city today, to discover that it was once down to about one thousand inhabitants was shocking. The rise and fall of civilizations has always fascinated me.

3. A key story within the novel is Mary Nisbet’s struggle to become independent, not only as a woman but as a human being. Her early years are devoted to her husband until she realizes she is, in fact, at odds with him emotionally and spiritually. Mary’s growth as a character also illuminates the struggle of Aspasia, her counterpart in ancient Greece, and reveals the gross inequities between the genders at these distinct times. Because your book is centered on women and told through the eyes of women, do you believe your story can resonate with male readers?
I’m glad you asked that question. I’ve always said that my books have two things that men really like: sex and history. I realize that the books are heavily marketed to women, but I do think they appeal to men. My male readers are always full of compliments for the work. I think it’s because even when I write about a dastardly male character, I try to give him his humanity. I am not at all a male-bashing female. I love the species…some might say too much! I also find the politics of whatever era I’m writing about utterly fascinating, and I know that I delve into these issues, as well into the battles, conflicts and military strategies of the day, more than some of my female readers would like. I think that my books offer a broad spectrum of delights for every sort of reader. Recently, a reader just walked up to me and said, “Your books are the perfect combination of scholarship and entertainment.” I considered it a great compliment because that is exactly where I aim to be. I don’t’ compromise on either front.
4. In this vein, much of today’s historical fiction is marketed for the female reader. Do you believe that an historical fiction writer today must deliberately choose beforehand the gender of his or her target audience? Do you think there are writers who bridge this difference and speak to both sexes? Is there anything in particular that you do in your books to address this issue?
It’s a bit of a shame because I would like to be considered in the vein of say, Mary Renault or Robert Graves, whose novels appealed to both sexes. But with the way books are marketed today, I don’t think it can happen, except in special cases. My book jackets are so deliciously beautiful and feminine that I imagine a male reader would have trouble taking them off the shelf. I just had this conversation with my publisher over dinner. Unfortunately, the male fiction-reading demographic is so small as to be almost nonexistent, save for the fans of a few male authors. Men don’t buy a lot of novels, and when they do, they don’t buy novels about women. So publishers rightly, in the commercial sense at least, market books about women to women because that is who will buy them. I don’t mind—I like selling books, and I need to sell them in order to be able to continue publishing them. Female readers are my life’s blood. But men are always asking, what do women want? What do women think? If they read the occasional book about a woman, they might actually find answers to these questions!
5. Can you tell us about any methods that you employ to give your characters authenticity?
I work very hard to make sure that I bring these characters to life beyond the factual information that the historical sources have given us. Of course, I read as many original or contemporary sources as possible, and this is invaluable because it tells us how the people of the era saw themselves. Letters, court documents, diaries, all these things are what truly reveal the subtleties of an era. After that, I study the culture that created the person. I read what they read; I study the ways in which they were educated; I find out what they saw at the theater. I spend loads of time figuring out what they wore and how they felt in those clothes.

My undergraduate work focused on costume design, so this is a particular area of interest for me. I also investigate the cuisine of the day, and most importantly, I study what they believed in terms of religion. Also extremely pertinent to my female heroines—what were the gender dynamics and customs of the day? What rights did women have, and what rights were they denied? I do a saturated study of the world in which these people lived until I feel that I can plausibly construct a psychology and a daily life for them. When all of that is done, I travel to all of the locations I intend to use so that I can do more hands-on research and take in the atmosphere. It’s an exhaustive process for me, but it is also my joy.

6. How do you think your novel speaks to today’s reader or how do the events you evoke resonate for today’s world?
Aspasia lived some 2500 years ago, and Mary lived 200 years ago. You’d think they had little in common with each other and little in common with us, but women’s issues and concerns remain constant through the millennia—relationships, birth control, pregnancy, child-rearing, the place of women in society, and women’s fundamental rights. I wrote about these two women because, firstly, their experiences resonate quite hauntingly, and secondly, because while women generally have more rights and status today, at least in much of the world, our concerns are the same as those women. Both Mary and Aspasia defied social convention, which also makes them extremely identifiable to women today who have lived through so much social change. I am absolutely passionate about illuminating the truth of the female experience, and for many reasons, that truth remains quite static, I’m afraid. I know that women of all ages find a lot to identify with in my characters.

7. Please, tell us about your next project.
My next book will incorporate lore, mythology, and metaphysics, reflecting my interests in all those things. It will again be historical fiction told from a female point of view, but it will also be quite a departure, though one that I believe my readers are pre-disposed to like. That’s all I can say at the moment. But my publisher has already bought it, and with great enthusiasm! And I am researching it and planning my travel around it as I write this.

Thank you, Karen. I'm looking forward to your new novel, as I'm sure are many readers. To learn more about Karen and her work, please visit her website.

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