Today on The Fabulous Fictionistas, we are delighted to welcome New York Times-bestselling author Eleanor Herman. She dishes on pirates, palaces, and cats. Because cats are awesome. Watch for “Empire of Dust” coming soon!
Q: You are known for your nonfiction work, such as the New York Times bestselling “Sex with Kings” and its follow-up “Sex with the Queen,” in addition to your books on the Italian Renaissance. What made you decide to go with fiction – and specifically YA?
A: Since time travel isn’t an option—at least, not yet—the closest thing I can do to live in the past is write about it. With a journalism background, it was a no-brainer to write historical non-fiction. But I always wanted to create an entire world, not just report on it. And YA is the hottest thing in publishing right now. It’s exciting and fun and not just for Young Adults, but also read by tons of Old Adults, too.
Q: In “Legacy of Kings” and “Empire of Dust,” you use multiple point of view characters whose stories beautifully intertwine with one another. How do you decide which point of view you will use to tell the story? For example, you tell Kat’s story through Heph in places. What is the thought behind this choice?
It’s important that a character doesn’t exclusively tell his or her own story. We need to see each one through the eyes of the others because we as individuals often don’t have a clue how we appear to others. We can only get a well-rounded perspective on a character if we can see them in their own experience and as observed by those around them.
Q: There are so many effortless details in your books about everyday life in ancient Macedonia. It makes the contexts for Alex, Kat, Heph, Cyn, Zofia, and Jacob very tangible, and even in places familiar. What kind of research did you do to build this level of expertise, and how was it different from the research you do for your nonfiction work?
I don’t think the research is different, actually. For both fiction and non-fiction historical writing, I need to know what they wore and how it was made, what they ate and drank, how they lit and heated their houses, what they did for recreation, how they traveled, their religious beliefs, the politics, warfare, literature, medical care, and customs. Only when you have this base of knowledge can you write about it.
Q: While many readers are familiar with old castles and palaces in Great Britain and northern Europe, most will not have seen what an ancient Macedonian palace looks like. Can you describe Alex’s palace to us?
Alexander’s father, King Philip, took over Athenian silver mines and became enormously rich in a short period of time. Nothing is left of the Pellan Palace, but given Philip’s money and Olympias’s taste, I imagine it as luxurious—marble columns, mosaic floors, brightly painted wall frescos of mythological scenes, courtyards, gardens, furniture of ebony, ivory and tortoiseshell, and basement storerooms bursting with wine amphorae, olive oil, smoked meat and cheese. I’ve attached a photo of what one room might look like.
Every palace was like its own town. There was a massive laundry, numerous kitchens, herb gardens, wells, stables, blacksmiths, carpenters, chicken coops, cow barns, goat pens, pig pens, seamstresses, leather workers, weavers, barracks, and military training areas. I endeavored to bring that to life in the Pellan Palace.
Q: There’s quite a bit of travel in these books, especially for Zofia who basically starts out on the run. Was it common for people in the ancient world to travel such great distances? Also, how did you figure out how long it would take for them to go places, how they would travel, and what services were available along the way?
Zofia’s journey was made much easier because most of it was on the Royal Road, sixteen hundred miles of amazingly well kept highway from Sardis in the west of Turkey all the way to Persepolis in what is now Iran. Every fifteen or twenty miles there was a rest stop with a restaurant, baths, stables, and clean rooms. The Kings of Persia created and maintained this road to move troops, royal messengers, and trade goods. Soon after this, the Romans started copying the Royal Road and building their own fabulously efficient network of roads crisscrossing their ever-expanding territory. Other roads were really slow and poorly maintained at this time, however. And after Rome fell, the roads went native and were pot-holed, muddy messes for the next 1400 years.
Traveling by sea was speedy if the winds were good, as they were on Kat’s journey to Halicarnassus in “Legacy of Kings” and down to Egypt in “Empire of Dust.” Otherwise you could sit melting in the sun on the ocean for days without moving a mile, or get blown way off course by a storm and try to limp back.
Most people didn’t travel at all. Travel was dangerous—with robbers, pirates, illness along the road—and incredibly uncomfortable with bad food, dirty flea-ridden beds, and no reservations anywhere. Sometimes people found all the inns full and slept with animals in a barn or under a tree. In terms of distances and length of time for the journeys in my novels, I found some scholarly research online that was very helpful.
Q: Olympias is one of the few queens of the ancient Mediterranean world to be portrayed in the movies (looking at you, Angelina Jolie). She has also had a great deal written about her, with a lot of theories and interpretations. How/why did you decide to portray her as you did?
By all accounts, Olympias wasn’t a sweet, self-effacing queen. She was hard as rock, selfish, ambitious, and an overall nasty piece of work. She was responsible for the deaths of many whom she felt threatened her, her son, or his heirs, even babies. She worshipped snakes—I didn’t make that up—and even sacrificed puppies to the goddess of the Underworld. Many people thought she was a witch, and maybe she was.
Q: We know you can’t give us spoilers, but is there anything you can tell us about what to expect in the next book?
More travel around the Mediterranean! More magic! The potential for danger and heartbreak for all the characters! Twists and turns and shocking surprises!
Q: You are going on a two-week vacation to a desert island with no Internet connection and no phones. What books would you bring to read? What else would you bring?
The Lord of the Rings, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Bible, A Course in Miracles, Heart-Centered Metaphysics, Shakespeare’s Works. Bottled water. Sunblock.
Q: When you are not researching or writing, what do you enjoy doing?
I love going to the gym. I read YA fiction for an hour at a time on the cardio machines, then lift weights. Once a week I do yoga which is the hardest thing I do. I know it doesn’t look like much but it nearly kills me every time. I’m a queen mother of Cameroon and belong to a Cameroonian royal cultural group in the DC area. Africa has such rich traditions going back thousands of years while my own German-English culture has forgotten theirs entirely. I have spent months in the African bush and it helped my understanding of the ancient world so much. Hauling water, cooking outside, the friendship and camaraderie that our so-called advanced civilization is losing because we’re trapped in metal boxes in traffic staring at our phones.
I’m an elections officer in Fairfax County, Virginia, because voting is so very important and I wanted to understand how elections worked. I volunteer for the elderly, taking them to medical appointments, calling to cheer them up, and helping them around the house and garden. And I have four rescue cats. When I need to replace one, I always pick the most pathetic one at the shelter—old, blind, sick, or crazy—because I feel sorry for them and figure no one else will adopt them. My husband is a saint.
Q: Best piece of advice you were ever given. Worst piece of advice you were ever given. Which was more helpful?
Best from Mom: Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want splayed across the front page of a national newspaper with photographs.
Worst from Dad: Just do what you want and don’t worry about anything. Who the hell cares about what people think. Dad’s advice was actually better. I’ve worried way too much, it’s easier not to care what people think, and I haven’t been splayed anywhere yet.
Thanks again to Eleanor Herman for taking the time to chat with us!
The Fabulous Fictionistas review of Empire of Dust is coming! In the meantime, you can pre-order your copy of Empire of Dust here on Amazon! Don’t forget to pick up a copy of Legacy of Kings and catch up on the start of this amazing adventure.