Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Interview with Russell Whitfield, author of GLADIATRIX

I recently had the good fortune to read GLADIATRIX, a girl-kicks-some-serious-butt debut novel set in the time of the Roman Empire and featuring a shipwrecked Spartan priestess who is sold into slavery and rises to fame as a gladiator. While the male versions of these fearsome warriors have been featured generously in film and books, the women are not nearly as well known. In fact, I had no idea that like their male counterparts, women fighters fought each other and could eventually earn their freedom if they proved brave and wily enough to survive the arena. Russell's novel was therefore an eye-opener for me, as well as an exciting journey into the violent, compelling, sexy, often lethal but never dull world of ancient gladiators.
Please join me in welcoming Russell Whitfield!

1.Congratulations on the publication of GLADIATRIX. It's an honor to have you with us. Set in the outlying areas under the Roman Empire, GLADIATRIX offers us a compelling look at women gladiators, following the story of Lysandra, a Spartan priestess who is sold into slavery and finds fame in the arena. What inspired you to write about the women fighters of this era?

Thanks very much – I’m sure it’s a bit of dubious honour, though! Inspirations for “Gladiatrix” . . . well, all sorts of things really. Like many people, I had been through the process of “writing a book” about thirty times: I’d start one, get a way through, have a better idea for something else, start that, have a better idea for something…repeat. Anyway, I dropped the idea of writing for a while, but anyone who writes will tell you it’s like a compulsion – you really can’t stop yourself. So I thought that the best thing to do would be to focus on things that I had always liked, not just the phases that I was going through (this week, I’m writing a fantasy novel, next week a vampire one and so forth).

Ancient history has been a constant companion for me my whole life – ever since I saw the movie “The Three Hundred Spartans” on the telly as a small boy. I just loved that film – I can recall crying when they all got killed at the end because I was so sure that someone would turn up and save them. Anyway, this sparked a genuine interest in Classical cultures that has stayed with me all my life. I knew I had a good grounding there, and really I just wanted to write something that I myself would love to read.

Then I saw the Channel Four documentary “Gladiator Girl”, and that had a small mention of the Halicarnassus stele that featured “Amazon and Achillia” the two female gladiators who were freed. Other than that, we don’t know anything about them, so I thought that there was enough largesses there to make a great story. It was serendipity, I guess, watching that programme just when I’d decided to give writing another crack. So, I just thought: What do I like? Well, Spartans, gladiators, tough warrior women…there has to be a book in that!

2. GLADIATRIX offers a fascinating look at the lives these women led both in and out of the arena, including the different caste structures and the fact that the fighters could eventually earn their freedom through their prowess in the arena. While violence and death overshadowed their existence, your novel also shows us their intimate relationships as well as the fame they could achieve in the higher echelons of society. What surprising or interesting facts did you discover about the gladiators of ancient Rome and how they were perceived in their world? Is there a famous woman gladiator who inspired your creation of your lead character?

The two women in the story, Sorina and Lysandra, are based on “Amazon and Achillia” respectively – that we no virtually nothing about the gladiatrices on the Halicarnassus stele save for their “stage names” was a great help to me as a writer.
Gladiators were an oddity in Roman society – at once they were revered as heroes but also despised for their low social status…people admired them and looked down on them at the same time. I guess we can draw an analogy with football – some footballers are held up as icons and heroes whilst at the same time they’re mocked (often unfairly) for their supposed lack of intelligence, class or taste. It must have been the same for gladiators.

The Emperor Nero was the first person we know of that had women fight in the arena, but under Domitian, the female combats took on some importance – we know that they fought “by torchlight” which meant that they were the main event of the evening. To keep going with the with the football analogy, the gladiatrices could be likened to the female footballers of today. Whilst the women’s game has its core of fans, it’s never going to be the global phenomenon of the male competition.

3. A key plotline within the novel is Lysandra’s struggle with her Spartan education and her innate sense of superiority to the other women, which eventually plunges her into a doomed love affair and forces her to question everything she believes in. Because your book is centered on a woman and often told through her eyes, how did you slip into Lysandra’s persona? Of the other characters in the book, which ones did you most enjoy creating and which presented the greatest challenge?
Maybe I’m just in touch with my feminine side! It’s actually a very difficult question to answer, and I’m not sure I even know “how” it works. I didn’t really put myself in the place of “a woman” but rather in Lysandra’s place. Obviously, I know her character well, so I tried to express how she would react to a situation that presented itself. The story also has women taking on the traditionally male role of gladiatorial fighting, so that made the job a bit easier I guess. And I was lucky enough to have two female test readers as well so I knew I could rely on them to point out anything that was glaringly “bloke.”

Lysandra was great fun to write – she was just so conceited and convinced of her innate superiority it was a blast. Almost of all of the feedback I’ve had and the reviews I’ve read mention her arrogance, which is really great to hear. It seems that her superciliousness almost endeared her to some as it was so heartfelt. It was also risky to make a lead character potentially unlikable, but this was the Lysandra I had in my head, and I couldn’t write her any other way. I think she has her redeemable qualities too – she’s not a total ego-maniac, but it is one of her major flaws, as is her naivety. The combination of arrogance and gullibility works well, I think, and certainly made it fun to write scenes where she’s congratulating herself on how clever she is without having a clue that she’s been outmaneuvered by the likes of Frontinus and Balbus.

4. Can you tell us about your journey to publication?

Well, after my own (largely useless) proofreading, I had the manuscript looked over by an agency called the Jacqui Bennett Writers Bureau who were reasonable and professional. Once done, I just started sending it out to agents and publishers. The very first company I approached asked me for the full manuscript, then asked me for a re-write and then decided that it actually wasn’t for them after all. Then I just kept going – I think I must have tried about 40 odd in the end, and I had just about given up. I decided that there was evidently some fatal flaw with “Gladiatrix” that I couldn’t see – there must be, as I wasn’t getting picked up, so I decided to write something else. The day day I made that decision, I got the email from my publisher Myrmidon. It was a Twilight Zone moment.

The one thing that the “How to write a novel” books can’t give you is the gigantic slice of luck you need for your manuscript to land on the right person’s desk on the right day when they’re in the right mood looking for the right book for their company. Sure, there are things you can do to increase your chances like researching the market, obeying the submission guidelines of the particular agency or publishing house, but ultimately…I believe that chance plays a big part in the journey to publication.

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

When I set out to write “Gladiatrix,” I was determined not to do what I felt was a typical gladiator story a la Spartacus. I didn’t want to have the reluctant slave chafing against the tyrannical yoke of Rome before leading his (or her!) fellows in an uprising. In the research I did, I discovered that the great gladiators were the David Beckhams of their day – real sporting superstars. I thought I would apply this to women as well, because – going back to the football analogy which seems to be working well here – you have David Beckham and in the women’s game, there’s Mia Hamm. What I’m saying in “Gladiatrix” is that women are just as competitive as men in both the sporting (or gladiatorial) arena and in their lives.

I think “Gladiatrix” has something for men and women. I think that struggles and successes of the 1st century gladiatrices will resonate with 21st century women on all sorts of levels. It’s saying that what these women did was equally as valid as what the men were doing, it meant as much to them and if they succeeded they would reap the rewards.

And for the guys, it’s an exciting adventure story with lots sexy, sword wielding warrior-chicks. Gladiatrices! Spartans! Life and Death struggles! What more could you want – it should come with a free six pack of beer or something like that. And pictures.

6. Please, tell us about your next project.

I’m working on “Gladiatrix II” at the moment. It’s not going as quickly as I’d like because I have a very hectic work schedule, but I’ve promised that I will really knuckle down in the summer now that the project season is finished at work for another year.

“Gladiatrix II” takes Lysandra out of her comfort zone and lands her much bigger arenas – both literally and figuratively. The stakes are much higher this time, and also she has to face her own failings and weaknesses. The world that she’s entering is far more dangerous than anything she’s faced before – and I can tell you now that even I’m not sure if she’ll make it out alive. One thing I’ve tried to do with “Gladiatrix” was keep it real, and the sequel will be no different. I think that you’re cheating the readers if you have one of those characters that can always escape, always live to fight another day and all of that. I don’t like Hollywood endings! But, nothing’s set in stone yet (or saved to hard disk). Suffice to say that Lysandra will return for a new adventure next year!

Thank you, Russell. I'm sure many of us are looking forward to reading more about Lysandra and her adventures. If you'd like to learn more about Russell and his work, please visit him at:

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The verdict on Catherine is in . . .

In case you were wondering if I'd fallen off the face of the earth or gone to campaign for Hillary Clinton :), a quick update on recent activities:

I've heard from my editors at Ballantine and while they had lots of praise for my Catherine de Medici novel - tentatively titled THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI - they felt it was too long, and there were too many characters. Both of which are true. It's always a challenge to do justice to a person's life in a novel, particularly a life as tumultous and eventful as Madame Catherine's, and I did my best to be as inclusive as possible. Now, I face the new challenge of condensing my material into a more reader-friendly version, i.e., cut 200 pages from a 595 page manuscript. Not easy, but I've gotten enough guidance and encouragement from my editors and agent to feel I can do it.

I've already dug in, and eliminated 67 pages thus far. Of course, as I snip here, something unravels over there, so I'm having to proceed carefully page by page. I therefore might be a little more absent as I tackle the project, but I have some fun stuff coming up for the blog, including new book reviews, and interviews with Sandra Gulland about her new novel MISTRESS OF THE SUN and Russell Whitfield about his debut GLADIATRIX, both tremendously exciting books I had the good fortune to read recently.

Wish me luck!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Woman in power? Better watch your step.

As I watch the Democratic presidential campaign and realize with increasing dismay that it appears America will not get to cast its votes for or against the first female nominee, I’ve been thinking of how we as a culture, and history by and large, has engaged in a subtle, and, at times, not so subtle character assassination of women in power. Already, media giants proclaim Hillary is damaging the Democratic Party’s unity and should concede defeat; headlines scream she’s “Toast!” and focus on the fact that her male counterparts are beginning to show their testosterone-driven competitiveness and leaving her behind in the dust. Her tenacity to remain focused on the prize and her right to campaign until the Party announces its official nominee is seen as divisive and obstinate; she is the proverbial apple of discord.

In other words, girlfriend is not playing by the rules.

None of this is new, of course. What is it about a powerful woman that freaks us out? History is riddled with tales of ladies who’ve shaped and defied society by asserting their power, and of the men who did everything they could to destroy these women’s credibility – and, in some memorable occasions, their very lives. Such women are deemed rapacious examples of their sex, all for acting pretty much the same as any man in their position would.

Take Cleopatra, for example. She ruled Egypt. By herself. She did away with her enemies and forged alliances with powerful neighbors to protect her kingdom. Then she was crushed by the Romans and allegedly killed herself. Her deeds are heroic; yet her strength, intelligence, and superior capacity (she certainly showed more level-headedness than most of the men around her) have been eroded throughout the ages by posthumous depictions of her as that slinky vamp who used sex as a weapon. Ergo, she was a slut and got what she deserved, never mind that she had more humanity and culture in her little finger than Octavian displayed in his entire imperial career.

Then, there’s Juana la Loca, the subject of my upcoming novel THE LAST QUEEN. She inherited the throne of Castile from her mother Queen Isabella, who was a monarch in her own right, with more power and prestige than her consort, King Ferdinand. Juana, however, was married at the time to Philip of Habsburg and he wanted the throne all to himself. So, he engaged in a hostile takeover and very public, media-driven character assassination of his wife’s ability to rule– and all because she showed mettle and told him to get himself his own kingdom and stay the #*!! away from hers. To this day, Juana has been called la Loca, the mad one. She’s the proverbial histrionic wife because when a woman fights back with everything she’s got, well, she must be crazy, right? Never mind that her husband should never have messed with her business to start with; never mind that successive male generations of her descendants did their utmost to pretend she didn’t exist because they’d stolen her crown— historians still promulgate the posthumous diagnosis that she must have been off her meds.

And we have history’s poster girl for bad behavior: Anne Boleyn. She told an egomaniac of a king, “No, I won’t sleep with you until I get the ring, the castle, and my kids aren't bastards” – the requirements of any well bred princess. She then pushed this king to examine his laws and figure out why he needed to obey a pope when the answer to his dilemma (he was unfortunately married at the time) was within his grasp. In other words, get a good divorce lawyer if you want me. What happens? She gets accused of screwing around on him and they cut off her head. And then she proceeds to accumulate five hundred years of bad press. She’s the home wrecking witch, never mind that she changed the course of English history and showed more acumen, fierce determination, and sheer nerve than Henry himself.

Surely, these women deserve better. While men earn the equivalent of historical gold stars for swaggering about proclaiming their worthiness, consolidating their assets and engaging in occasional acts of rapine, women still labor under the male-propagated ideal that their place is in the home and at the hearth. Cleopatra, Juana and Anne were all good mothers by all accounts; and they kept a spiffy palace, I’ll bet. They also knew how to wield their brains.

At least I know Hillary Clinton is in good company.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Interview with Susan Higginbotham, author of THE TRAITOR'S WIFE

I'm honored to welcome Susan Higginbotham, author of widely popular THE TRAITOR'S WIFE. Susan and I have been corresponding for a while now; she has interviewed me in the past and is an active member of the Historical Novel Society. Her first novel is set in fourteenth-century England, where young Eleanor de Clare, a favored niece of King Edward II, finds herself married to the notorious Hugh le Despenser, who eventually becomes the king's lover. Eleanor's own appointment to Queen Isabella’s household as a lady-in-waiting plunges her into the private feuds, intrigues, and tragic schemes that surround the king and her husband. While Edward II's story may be familiar to many readers, Eleanor's is not - and her voice is a refeshing, candid, and witty addition to the canon about this most unfortunate of medieval English monarchs.

1. Congratulations on the ongoing success of THE TRAITOR'S WIFE. It's a delight to have you with us. Set in 14th century England during the controversial reign of Edward II, THE TRAITOR'S WIFE is a dramatic and often witty account of Eleanor de Clare and her marriage to the king's intimate, Hugh le Despenser. While this era is not as well covered in fiction as, say, Tudor times, Edward II has an avid following a la Richard III, and your novel offers an interesting take on his life as seen through the eyes of a fiercely loyal woman caught, often literally, in the middle. You also have stated you hold a great interest in the War of the Roses. What inspires you about medieval England and why did you write about these particular characters?
One thing that constantly amazes and inspires me about the medieval period is how resilient people had to be. Modern women have devoted endless time and resources to complaining about things such as juggling work and family, but a medieval woman had to cope routinely with deaths of close family members, warfare, and struggles over property--and those were the women in the most privileged classes. It certainly makes some of our modern-day preoccupations look quite trivial.

I became interested in Edward II’s reign when one day while surfing the Internet, I came across an online version of Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward the Second. I’d read it years before in graduate school, but upon this re-reading, I became fascinated by the historical background to it and began reading everything about Edward II I could get my hands on. Along the way, I learned of Eleanor de Clare and her extraordinary life. One of the earliest things I learned about her was that her second husband had been one of her first husband’s captors. I wondered what had made her decide to marry him--or whether she had been forced into it--and as I continued my research into her life, I knew that she had a story that begged to be told.

2. THE TRAITOR'S WIFE offers some surprising moments, including a frank look at Edward II's homosexuality and Eleanor de Clare's devotion to a man who loves her and also loves the king. What challenges did you encounter while researching this book? What surprising or interesting facts did you discover about your characters and their roles in history?
I was very lucky in that as I was researching my novel, several nonfiction books appeared that dealt with various aspects of Edward II’s reign. That helped immensely, as did my access to well-stocked university libraries that offered inexpensive borrowing privileges to the public. I was still left, though, with the problem that very little had been written about Hugh le Despenser the younger and that still even less had been written about Eleanor de Clare. I dug through everything I could find in the English language about Edward II and his reign, looking for any reference to Eleanor, no matter how tiny. Sometimes I got lucky--it was a great day when I found a couple of letters by her. They were purely business letters, and they were probably dictated to a clerk rather than written by Eleanor herself, but they gave me at least a small sense of her voice.
One of the more intriguing items I learned as I did my research was that several scholars have suggested, based on some oblique references by some chroniclers and some entries in the king’s household records, that Eleanor might have been the mistress of Edward II, her own uncle! That speculation did find its way into my story.

3. An interesting storyline within the novel is Eleanor's compassionate relationship with Edward and her awareness of Edward's queen's growing resentment. Isabel de Valois has been dubbed the "She-Wolf of France" for her eventual role in Edward's demise; she's often seen as a conniving, thwarted woman who committed regicide. Many seem to forget how young she was when she first wed Edward or how ill equipped a princess in those times was to contend with an openly gay husband. Is there evidence to support Clare's relationship with the queen? Why do you think Isabel is usually portrayed unsympathetically?

Household records show that Eleanor was a lady-in-waiting to Isabella early on in Edward II’s reign, long before her husband gained any influence over Edward II. Presumably Eleanor got the position because of her close kinship with Edward; it seems likely that they were friendly in those early years. That changed, of course, after Despenser began to gain influence and power.

Some historians and novelists, and feminist ones in particular, have attributed Isabella’s unfavorable portrayal to the bias of male chroniclers and to a double standard for women who commit adultery, but I think Isabella’s own actions are largely responsible for the unsympathetic view of her. When she and Mortimer overthrew Edward II, he and the Despenser family were enormously unpopular, with good reason. Had Isabella and Mortimer settled for giving themselves some reasonable rewards and allowing Edward III’s council to govern during his minority, our judgment of them might be very different--they might well be regarded as heroes or liberators, and even Edward II’s demise might have chalked up to unfortunate necessity, as Richard II’s and Henry VI’s often are. Instead, the queen and Mortimer alienated their supporters, and ultimately the young Edward III himself, by showering themselves with grants and by shutting other members of the nobility out of power. They had the advantage of the Despensers’ mistakes to learn from, yet they repeated them--in Isabella’s case, even to the point of furthering Mortimer’s interests at the expense of those of her son the king.

5. The wit in the novel often helps to relieve moments of great intensity, a refreshing additive we don't often find in historical novels. Eleanor also has a very eventful life, including marrying the man who was responsible for capturing her first husband, Hugh. Then she's accused of marrying two different men at the same time. You mention in the afterword that your interpretation of this event is fictional, though historical records indicate that her marriage to Zouche was challenged. When working with such complex events of the past, which often lack definitive explanation, how do you go about making decisions as to how you'll depict them? Why did you think this particular event was important to Eleanor's story?
With the marriage dispute, we know that the case went before the papal courts several times and that judgment was given on one occasion in favor of one man, on another to the other man. So whatever the facts were--and it’s a fond hope of mine that there’s a relevant document in some long-forgotten Vatican file that might be unearthed someday--they evidently were very much open to dispute. So knowing the relevant laws on marriage at the time, I had to create a set of facts that could plausibly give rise to such a dispute, facts that at the same time could be argued either way by a medieval lawyer. I used the same approach with other unexplained events, trying to create a plausible scenario in light of what I knew about the parties involved.
I thought the marriage dispute was important to Eleanor’s story because as I saw it, her ability to form a loving relationship with William la Zouche after her first marriage ended so traumatically was part of her resilience--a quality that the historical Eleanor must have possessed in abundance and the one that drew me to telling her story. At the same time, her entanglement with Grey was part of another aspect of her character--her impulsiveness or recklessness, which historically is suggested by the episode with the royal jewels.

6. Can you tell us about methods you employ to give your characters authenticity?
One of the best pieces of advice I ever had as a writer was by a law school professor of mine who taught our trial advocacy course. When we were doing mock criminal trials and were assigned our defendants, he said, “Each of these people has a sympathetic side to them. It’s your job to show the jury that.” I think that applies to writing as well, the need to look at what motivates people, to show them as complex, multifaceted people instead of just being “good” or “bad” characters. I don’t think this has answered your question very well, though! Really, it’s difficult to articulate a specific method--I just try to be fair to my characters, to see their actions from differing points of view, and to make them creatures of their own time and place, not ours.

7. How do you think your novel speaks to today’s reader or how do the events you evoke resonate for today’s world?
I think modern-day readers can sympathize much more readily with Edward II, and even with Isabella, than their contemporaries could. We can see Edward as a decent man caught in the wrong job and Isabella as a passionate woman caught up in what must have been a frustrating marriage, at least in its last years. My intent in writing this novel, though, was never to explore parallels with today’s world. My interest was in illuminating the life of a courageous woman whose resiliency I came greatly to admire, and I think stories like hers have an enduring appeal. Hers is a quiet sort of heroism, but it’s heroism nonetheless.
8. Please tell us about your next project.
I’m about a quarter into a novel set during the Wars of the Roses that features Harry Stafford, the second Duke of Buckingham, who’s notorious for helping Richard III gain the throne and then for abruptly turning against him. It also features Harry’s wife, Katherine, who was a younger sister of Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s much-maligned queen. Though many have speculated, no one knows what made Harry act as he did or what if any role he played in the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower--and my challenge has been to create an explanation for his actions that’s consistent with the known facts and that is psychologically plausible. In doing so, I’ve come to like Harry and his wife a great deal, and I hope the reader will as well.
Thank you, Susan! We're looking forward to your next novel. Susan is also the author of Hugh and Bess: A Love Story, featuring characters who appear in The Traitor's Wife.