Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Interview with Brandon Wilson, author of ON THE TEMPLAR TRAIL

I'm breaking the mold here at Historical Boys to feature my friend, Brandon Wilson, an amazing world traveler and writer. Though Brandon isn't an historical fiction writer, history permeates his work and I've reveled in his thrilling accounts of his travels through some of our planet's most fascinating places, where the past and the present often collide with unexpected results.

Brandon's fascination with what he calls “deliberate travel” began when he and his wife Cheryl became the first western couple to walk a traditional Buddhist trail from Lhasa, Tibet to Kathmandu. A world adventurer and perpetual pilgrim, Brandon has walked six of the world’s most important pilgrimage trails: the Camino de Santiago and Via de la Plata across Spain, the St. Olav’s Way across Norway, and he was the first American to walk the 1150-mile Via Francigena from England to Rome.

In 2006, he pioneered the 2620-mile Templar Trail, walking a peace pilgrimage through eleven countries from France to Jerusalem along the route of the First Crusades. Brandon's Wilson’s book about that journey is Along the Templar Trail: Seven Million Steps for Peace. He is also the award-winning author of Yak Butter Blues: A Tibetan Trek of Faith and Dead Men Don’t Leave Tips: Adventures X Africa. His story about a year spent living in the Arctic, “Life When Hell Freezes Over,” appeared in They Lived to Tell the Tale: True Stories from the Legendary Explorers Club.

His photos have won awards from National Geographic Traveler and Islands magazines. His 50-photo essay on the Via de la Plata will be featured in Naïve and Abroad: Limping Across Spain, A Pilgrimage Through History by Marcus Wilder.

Brandon, a member of the prestigious Explorers Club, is a walker for peace and human rights. Ti learn more about Brandon and his work, please visit:

1. Congratulations on the publication of ALONG THE TEMPLAR TRAIL. It's an honor to have you with us. You've written two previous books about your incredible travels (YAK BUTTER BLUES and DEAD MEN DON'T LEAVE TIPS) but ALONG THE TEMPLAR TRAIL has special significance for you. Please tell us about how this marvelous story came about and what inspired you to take a journey of seven million steps to peace?
I have been infected with wanderlust for years now. It’s my “sweet addiction.” In 1992, during a walk across Tibet, what began as purely an adventure transformed into a journey with greater meaning. In Lhasa, once we learned that Tibetan people today are forbidden to walk to their sacred sites in Nepal, we vowed to make it in their stead. Walking across the Himalayan Plains became a transcendent experience. I was hooked on slow, deliberate travel, or travel with a purpose. Since then I’ve been fortunate to have the chance to walk many of the early pilgrimage routes across Europe. These trails provide a chance to wallow in history, art, culture, and cuisine. They also nourish a sense of brotherhood, connectedness with nature, physical and mental growth, as well as a Zen-like link to the spiritual.

In 2006, I was surprised by an invitation from an old pilgrim friend. Would I be interested in walking to Jerusalem with him? Although it was an odyssey much longer than I’d ever attempted, I instantly knew the answer. The historic path would take us over 2600 miles across eleven countries and two continents. Our route would follow that of the First Crusades and the first Knights Templar.

From the very start, I was determined to make the trek not only as a personal pilgrimage, but also as a walk for peace. I wanted to talk to folks along the way about the necessity of solving our problems in a more enlightened manner than resorting to war as we had the past millennia. To that end, I eventually hoped my book would re-launch this historic trail as an international path of peace that others could walk in brotherhood, regardless of nationality or religion, much as they follow Spain’s Camino de Santiago.

Eventually thousands will walk this same path each year, sharing blisters, food and conversation. Once they walk together, they’ll discover a connectedness, a personal peace. They’ll return to their families, jobs, communities and countries with greater tolerance and belief in our commonality as human beings. They will embrace the ideal of cooperation on our increasingly fragile planet.

2. You've traveled to some amazing places that most people have only heard of, and your books are full of the wonder of discovering new places, as well as the travails of finding yourself in situations you were totally unprepared for. Of all your experiences in your travels, which has left its biggest impact? What challenges were the most difficult to overcome? What surprising or interesting historical facts did you discover?
Each journey leaves its mark. They have all been transformative. I never return home the same person. Walking across Tibet and doing what the Chinese authorities called “Impossible,” changed my outlook. It enabled me to never again give up—even while pushing the limits of survival. My wife and I were shot at, trudged through a blizzard, slowly starved, never knew where we would spend the night—or if we’d be taken into police custody.

Yet we learned to have faith, faith that the Universe would provide, that we were meant to be there, that there was some greater purpose to it all.

More recently, walking from France to Jerusalem brought us into contact with thousands of ordinary people. Many have struggled for centuries with the devastation of war on their doorstep. Its challenges were plentiful, even though the setting was more “civilized” on the surface. The basic necessities of eating, drinking, and sleeping were always in question as we tried to follow a thousand-year-old map. Weather varied from freezing snow to weeks of rain to months of shadeless terrain with temperatures hovering near one hundred degrees.

Politics turned out to be the greatest unknown. By the time we arrived in Serbia, Israel had bombed Beirut Airport, southern Lebanon was being evacuated, there was a bombing attempt on the US Embassy in Damascus, and Western travelers were gunned down in Amman, Jordan. Oh, and an Ebola-like virus raged in central Turkey.

Still, without exception, in every country, the people were curious and kind when they discovered the reason for our journey. Our message found great acceptance. The people are so very tired of endless war and some were moved to tears when they heard of our quest. Historically, we were reminded time and time again of our cultural connections. In places like Istanbul and divided Cyprus, we were told how Muslims and Christians had historically lived and traded in peace for centuries. Muslims would often add, “We are all descended from the same tree of Abraham, right?”

By the end of 160 days, I felt even more strongly that we all share the same dreams of health, education, opportunity, security, and need of a homeland. When we realize this, we release the fears and prejudice propagated by governments, corporate sponsors of destruction, and religious demagogues. It becomes more difficult to take up arms against each other. Every war becomes a civil war when all men are brothers.

3. You've encountered a series of interesting characters in your travels, in particular that madcap assortment during the first league of your African adventure. Indeed, I find when I read your books that I learn not only about the countries you've been in but also about the foibles and eccentricities of human nature. Whom have you met during your travels that you found most enlightening, and why?
Mark Twain once said, “You never really know whether you love or hate someone until you travel with ‘em.” Traveling as I do puts you into close contact with people—sometimes too close. It wasn’t the Africans we found frustrating. Travel is an intense experience and folks travel for different reasons. We were ready to wallow in the minutiae of African life—while our companions would have been just as satisfied staying at home with cold beer and a warm bed.

Wherever I travel I truly enjoy meeting and sharing with local people and learning about their lives. Ordinary people enlighten me: former monks in Tibet, African villagers, or army officers and Palestinians in Israel. I enjoy sharing their lives however briefly. I am inspired by their strength, faith, optimism and universal hope for peace. If only we can re-channel that fortitude, we can reshape our society, re-prioritize our budgets, and wage a lasting peace. As many reminded me, only our governments stand in the way.

4. Which country would you like to return to and why? Can you tell us about the country that proved most controversial for you as a traveler and writer?
There are many countries I’d like to experience again. Even spending as much as a month at a time in one area, you only begin to scrape the surface of a culture before you move on. It’s always enlightening to go back and see how it (or you) has changed in the years since.

I would like to return to the Middle East, as it has such a vast history and culture. Although it is wracked by tension, it has such great potential to present a positive example to the rest of the world. On the other hand, I have hesitated returning to Tibet. Since the completion of the railroad from Beijing to Lhasa, millions of Chinese visitors have arrived, outnumbering the local Tibetans. Soon, Tibetan culture will become a vestige of the past. Who will be left to give the eulogy? Tibet was the ultimate challenge to me as a traveler and writer. It is disheartening that a nation can be so ravaged while the rest of the world looks away—or worse, is more concerned with making money by peddling soft drinks and hamburgers to a billion Chinese.

3. How do you think your work speaks to today’s reader and/or how does it resonate for today’s world?
I like to believe my books bridge the typical travel genre by infusing a place with adventure, history, culture, the mystical, and social conflict. I avoid using broad brush strokes to describe a place. Readers have grown tired of hearing about another beautiful sunset or charming restaurant. And I can’t blame them.

Traveling slowly, often on a small budget, I experience the good, bad and gritty of each destination. That often brings out the good and bad in people—as well as myself. At the risk of sounding like a terrible person, I strive to expose it all. I keep copious notes. That way, all the ups and downs are remembered, as well as the small triumphs and laughs that make each day unique.

In a world of constant sensory stimulation, I like to remind people about the small joys that still exist in our world. I like to share moments of magic and serenity in secluded places. I like to dispel prejudices by reminding readers how much alike we are when it’s all said and done. I like to inspire others to see the world for themselves without hesitation or fear. I like to challenge them to discover a personal peace, and as Gandhi once said, “To be the change they would like to see in the world.”

4. Please tell us about your next project.
Only the wind knows—but my walking stick is calling to me once again.
Thank you, Brandon! We look forward to reading all about your next trip!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Valentine's Day greeting from my friend, the poet Joan Gelfand

Joan Gelfand

Cupid lies. With a full belly, and half smile
He dreams of the perfect shot, a bulls-eye of love!
A love that lasts a while.

One wing over his chest, one wing in repose,
Even in sleep, he cannot forget the lovers.
In readiness, he clutches his bow.

Cupid, our original baby, eternal angel
Relishes the job, don’t you think?
The challenge:
A skillful game of calculated alignment.

Or, does he dream of darker tasks --
Getting out of the business perhaps?

Oh, Caravaggio, did you really cry for love?
You sketched Cupid and legions of critics
Spent their lives unraveling your dueling passions
For a whore, and paint. Did Cupid do you wrong?
Did his arrow miss its mark?

Here’s the truth, or at least the way I see it.
Cupid was recruited for the job by his maker -- Caravaggio too.
Two destinies, one diabolical feast.

Inspired by “Amore Dormiente” by Caravaggio on display in the Pitti Palace, Florence, Italy
"Cupid" was recently published in "Oakland Out Loud" the PEN Anthology which includes such literary lights as Al Young, Ishmael Reed and Lucille Lang Day. To learn more about Joan, please visit:

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Interview with Sandra Worth, author of LADY OF THE ROSES

I am honored to welcome Sandra Worth, author of the recently published LADY OF THE ROSES. Sandra has won ten awards for her Rose of York trilogy, including the First Place Prize in the 2003 Francis Ford Coppola-sponsored New Century Writers Award. Her work has been translated for publication in Spain and Russia and she recently signed a two-book deal with Berkeley (Penguin.) A dedicated researcher and writer who brilliantly evokes the complexity of Plantagenet England, she lives in Texas with her husband and their new German Shepard puppy.
1. Congratulations on the publication of LADY OF THE ROSES. It's a delight to have you with us. Set in 15th century England during the terrible years of the Wars of the Roses, LADY OF THE ROSES is a vividly dramatic and romantic account of the lifelong love affair between Isobel Ingoldesthorpe and Sir John Neville, brother of the famous Yorkist leader Warwick, the Kingmaker. Though this period in history is amply covered in fiction, these characters have not been, and the intensity of their relationship offers a compelling contrast with the violence raging around them. You yourself have written about the later years of the Wars in your Rose of York trilogy. What inspires you about this era and why did you choose to write about these characters?

Thank you. It's my pleasure to be your guest. You are correct. I began my career by writing about the later period of the Wars of the Roses. This story takes place earlier, in 1456, six years before the setting of my debut novel, Rose of York: Love & War. It is, in a way, a sort of "prologue." The reason I chose to go to go back in time for this book is that I received quite a few inquiries about John, Lord Montagu, after my debut novel came out. It seems he had touched my readers' hearts and they wanted to know if I was going to do a book on him. At the time, I had no plans since I was occupied with moving forward in the period. However, when the trilogy was completed, I decided to tell John and Isobel's fabulous, untold love story.
2. LADY OF THE ROSES offers meticulous attention to detail, including the daily household management of a manor, as well as a complex series of alliances. What challenges did you encounter while researching this book? What surprising or interesting facts did you discover about your characters and their place in history?
My greatest challenge was unearthing information about John and Isobel. Though he was the greatest military figure of his time and played an enormous role in the events that changed history, he has never been the subject of a biography. As for Isobel, there is even less information about her, simply because women were not really noted by contemporary chroniclers unless they were queens or princesses and played a significant role in politics. I had to creatively fill in the blanks in order to connect the complex historical events that took place. The most surprising-- and hopefully interesting-- fact I uncovered was that John and Isobel are the medieval ancestors of both President FDR and Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill! When you consider they were from the enemy camps of York and Lancaster, it seems a miracle that they were able to wed. It gives me pause to consider the terrible possibilities if FDR and Churchill hadn't been here to defeat Hitler. Our modern world might be a very different, and perhaps quite terrifying place. But Destiny seems to be have worked on our behalf.
3. An interesting storyline within the novel is Isobel’s relationship with Marguerite of Anjou, the Lancastrian queen who became a byword for evil. Is there any evidence to support Isobel's relationship with the queen and why do you think Marguerite of Anjou has been judged so harshly by history?

There is no evidence to support the relationship between Isobel and Marguerite d'Anjou because virtually nothing is known about Isobel. This has been my creative invention. As to why Marguerite d'Anjou has been judged so harshy by history, we merely need to look at her actions. As they say "Actions speak louder than words" even across the chasm of centuries.

5. LADY OF THE ROSES is unique in that your lovers are not star-crossed, but rather often the only anchor in each other's lives during severe tumult and the loss of family members and loved ones. Yet you admit in your afterword that almost nothing is known about Isobel, in particular. Why do you think she has been largely ignored by history?

It's not that Isobel was ignored in particular-- just that women were ignored in general during this time frame of history. Unless they were princesses or queens, and had some impact on policy, no one really bothered to record much about them. Other records that migh illuminate Isobel over the divide of centuries, like letters she wrote, or the will she left, have not survived. Even her tomb is lost.

6. Can you tell us about any methods that you employ to give your characters authenticity?

Research, and more research! What they did, what they said, all these throw light on their character. When such information is missing, as in Isobel's case, I take the events of the period and try to view them from the standpoint of the person I'm writing about and the situation they find themselves in at that moment in time.

7. How do you think your novel speaks to today’s reader or how do the events you evoke resonate for today’s world?

Interesting question! A reviewer wrote that Isobel's story has a contemporary feel. With your indulgence, I quote: "Readers will relate to the highs and lows of the relationship between John and Isobel, the forces beyond their control that act to determine their destinies, and their everyday struggles (including money problems and long periods of single parenthood) in a world divided between Lancaster and York."

8. Please tell us about your next project.
My next novel is entitled THE KING'S DAUGHTER: A NOVEL OF THE FIRST TUDOR QUEEN, coming December 2008 on Elizabeth of York. A remarkable women who was the daughter, sister, niece, wife, and mother of English kings, she led a dramatic life that took her through four reigns. As Richard III's niece, she witnessed the disappearance of her brothers, the Princes in the Tower, and as Henry VII's queen, she was privy to the possible re-emergence of her younger brother in the Pretender. Did she, or didn't she believe the Pretender to be her brother, Richard, Duke of York? And if she believed he was, how did she deal with his execution by her husband, Henry VII? It's quite a tale. I hope you'll read more about her on my website
Thank you, Sandra. We're looking forward to reading your next book!