My guest today is James Conroyd Martin who grew up in a suburb of Chicago and attended St. Ambrose and DePaul Universities. He managed to keep writing while teaching high school English, Speech, and Creative Writing for thirty years. Retired from teaching, Martin lives in Portland, Oregon, and writes full time. After publishing Push Not the River, a novel set in Poland and based on the diary of a friend’s ancestor, three more novels with Poland as a background followed, along with a paranormal story, Hologram: A Haunting. His most recent novel, Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora, is the first of a duology that brings to life an extraordinary woman of the sixth century.
What or who inspired you to first write? Which authors have influenced you?
I enjoyed writing from grade school on, but it was in college when I read Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham that made me want to write novels. Other early inspirations came from Henry James, Edith Wharton, Emily Bronte, Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mary Stewart, and Mary Renault.
What is the inspiration for your current book? Is there a particular theme you wished to explore?
I was living in Hollywood when I started Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora. An agent had taken my first novel to send out, so she told me to start something else. I was taking an Art Appreciation class for fun at the time and we were studying the Byzantine mosaics located in Ravenna, Italy. The professor pointed to the likeness of Empress Theodora and said, “I’m not a writer, but if I were, that would be the woman I’d be writing about.” Boing! That was it. What a fascinating woman, much like an Eva Peron in the sixth century. I went down to the Hollywood Public Library and took out a dozen books on Theodora, Constantinople, and Rome. Strangely enough, the library burned to the ground the next week. Life interfered, but the project remained on the back burner through a couple of decades, until recently. So, I could site the theme of resiliency. Theodora always rose again after being struck down, just as this story was fated to come to light despite the interruptions.
What period of history particularly inspires or interests you? Why?
For now it’s the Byzantine period because of the times in which Theodora and her husband Emperor Justinian lived. My first book Push Not the River came to me by way of a friend who had a diary written by his ancestor, a Polish Countess in the 1790s, a fascinating time for Poland. That book led to a trilogy and then to a stand-alone novel on the Polish hussars at the Battle of Vienna.
What resources do you use to research your book?
The library, of course, as well as the internet and many purchased resource books. Often, too, I’ll e-mail experts on the eras. For instance, I was just trying to learn the exits and entrances of the Hippodrome in Constantinople/Istanbul.
How long did it take to finish the novel?
Hard to say since I worked at it during different eras, but all total, maybe six years.
What do you do if stuck for a word or a phrase?
I use a thesaurus, a Flip Dictionary, and an “Ultimate Visual Dictionary.”
Is there anything unusual or even quirky that you would like to share about your writing?
I’m not sure it’s quirky, but getting a scene down the first time is terrorizing. However, I love to go back and rework and edit. Revising? No problem.
Do you use a program like Scrivener to create your novel? Do you ever write in long hand?
No Scrivener or anything like that. I used to write in long hand, but now I just scratch a few ideas down for a chapter and then I go right to my desktop computer. However, I broke my leg in January and had to remain on the first floor, away from my second floor office. After a couple of days of no writing, I started writing long hand again. I’m glad to be back in the office again!
Is there a particular photo or piece of art that strikes a chord with you? Why?
The mosaics at the Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, for the inspiration they provided me for the current book, the first of a duology.
What advice would you give an aspiring author?
Read, read, read in the area in which you wish to write. Take classes, study, join critique groups. Most importantly, don’t be too impatient to get published! Know that you’ve done your best and hit your stride before you put it out there. Also, find good editors.
Tell us about your Poland trilogy.
My series The Poland Trilogy begins with Push Not the River, a family saga based on young Countess Anna’s diary written during the political upheaval in Poland at the time of the Third of May Constitution (1791). Against a Crimson Sky continues Anna’s saga as Napoleon comes calling, implying independence from her neighbors would follow if only Polish lancers would accompany him on his fateful 1812 march into Russia. Anna’s family fights valiantly to hold on to a tenuous happiness, their country, and their very lives. Set against the November Rising (1830-31), The Warsaw Conspiracy depicts partitioned Poland’s daring challenge to the Russian Empire. Brilliantly illustrating the psyche of a people determined to reclaim independence in the face of monumental odds, the story features Anna’s sons and their fates in love and war.
Tell us about your next book.
Too Soon the Night will conclude the amazing story of Theodora. From a little girl dancing at the Hippodrome, to an actress, prostitute, mistress, outcast, she becomes Empress of the New Rome and the civilized world.
Theodora: actress, prostitute, mistress, feminist. And Byzantine Empress of the civilized world. Stephen: handsome Syrian boy, wizard’s apprentice, palace eunuch. And Secretary to the Empress. How does this unlikely pair become such allies that one day Empress Theodora asks Stephen to write her biography?
From a very young age, Theodora, daughter of a circus bearkeeper in Constantinople, sets her sights well above her station in life. Her exquisite beauty sets her apart on stages and in the eyes of men.
Stephen, a Syrian lad of striking good looks, is sold by his parents to a Persian wizard, who teaches him a skill in languages that will serve him well.
By the time Destiny brings them together in Antioch, Theodora has undergone heart-rending trials and a transformation, while Stephen has been sold again … and castrated.
Discover the enduring bond that, however imperfect, prompts Theodora—as Empress—to request palace eunuch Stephen to write her biography.
“A historical novel set in sixth-century Constantinople charts the extraordinary ascent of a woman from poverty to royal power. In this ambitious novel, the author vividly brings to life the cinematic story of Theodora’s life, chronicling her rise, more halting than meteoric, to spectacular power. Martin’s command of the historical period—not just the chief political events, but also the nuances of its cultural mores—is masterful. Furthermore, he conjoins that scholarly rigor with novelistic excitement—the entire tale is intelligently conveyed with great emotional poignancy. [This is] a meticulously researched historical account presented in the form of a thrilling political drama.” KIRKUS REVIEWS
Thanks James – so delighted you’ve converted to the ancient world!
Haven’t subscribed yet to enter into giveaways from my guests? You’re not too late for the chance to win this month’s book if you subscribe to my Monthly Inspiration newsletter for giveaways and insights into history – both trivia and the serious stuff! In appreciation for subscribing, I’m offering an 80 page free short story Dying for Rome -Lucretia’s Tale.