Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Diane Lunsford is talking with Helena P. Schrader, author of Defender of Jerusalem: A Biographical Novel of Balian D'Ibelin
FQ: This is such an amazing biographical saga. Can you tell readers a bit about how and when the idea of placing Balian’s life and times on paper first came to you?
SCHRADER: First let me thank you for this opportunity — and, yes, it is an amazing biographical saga! Historically, I mean, I am only telling a tale that is intrinsically exciting and inspiring.
I became intrigued by Balian when I saw the Hollywood film A Kingdom of Heaven staring Orlando Bloom in the role of Balian. It was a great film, but as a historian I was skeptical about how factual it was. So I did a little basic research and discovered to my amazement that Balian was indeed a historical figure. Furthermore, some of the more apparently incredible parts of the film were actually based on fact. But I also discovered that the story of the historical Balian was far more interesting than that of the Hollywood Balian. The more I learned about the real Balian, the more fascinated and the determined I became to tell his true story. What started out as a single novel rapidly mutated into a two-part biography and then a trilogy as I learned more not only about Balian but also the age in which he played such a dramatic role and his contemporaries such as Baldwin the Leper King, the “rogue baron” Reynald de Châtillon, the manipulative Agnes de Courtenay and the love-sick Sibylla.
FQ: You have a Ph.D. in History, so was the past always something you were interested in? Were you a born researcher at heart?
SCHRADER: I don’t know if I was born that way, but at the age of two my father was sent to Japan as an exchange professor, and on the way back we travelled by way of Hong Kong, Bangkok, Karachi, New Delhi and then Rome, where we rented a car and drove across the Alps, up the Rhine, and eventually to Paris, Brussels and Copenhagen. Naturally we visited the important historical sites along the way, and I can vividly remember the Colosseum in Rome where my father, knowing the official guides would bore a four-year-old, told me simply “This is where they fed the Christians to the lions.” Now that got a four-year-old’s attention! I spent the rest of the day trying to figure out where they had kept the Christians, the lions, and what means there might have been for escape! I think it was that early first-hand contact with history that made me so interested in it. By the time I was in Second Grade I had written my first “historical novel” and I never stopped. The PhD in History was as much to help me research for my writing as for professional credibility.
FQ: Your books have spanned various eras from Ancient Sparta to WWII, and others. Is there a personal favorite time period for you? If so, why would that be?
SCHRADER: That’s a difficult question. Fundamentally, any author has to be fascinated by the period they are currently writing about, so at the moment it is the late 12th century and the crusader kingdoms. But when I was writing my Battle of Britain novel, for example, I lived and breathed WWII — listening to the popular music of the time, watching the films, and, of course, reading every single memoir/diary written by an RAF fighter pilot from the Second World War that I could get my hands on. One has to be focused.
FQ: Is there a particular time period or person of note that you would like one day to write about?
SCHRADER: Glad you asked that! Yes! Some years ago I started a biographical novel of Edward the Black Prince and the love of his life Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent. They are both wonderful, complex and powerful personalities. I firmly intend to write a detailed, four-part biographical novel about Edward and Joan — or Jeannette, as he called her in his letters — before I die. It will be after I finish the Balian trilogy, of course, but whether it will be right after or only in three to four years’ time, I’m can’t yet say.
FQ: I’m sure you are working on Book 3 in this series; can you tell readers a bit about the finale, so to speak?
SCHRADER: Absolutely. As I mentioned earlier, I was inspired by the Hollywood film The Kingdom of Heaven which basically ends with the surrender of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187 and then had the Hollywood Balian “return” to France and resume life as a blacksmith.
Now one of the things Hollywood got very wrong was making Balian a bastard and a blacksmith; he neither, but rather the legitimate (but younger) son of a baron — and he was born in the Holy Land. When I was doing my research, I discovered that far from disappearing from history after the surrender of Jerusalem, he continued to play a very influential role in the crusader kingdoms — so much so that Arab chroniclers refer to him as “like a king.”
For example, he was instrumental in engineering the marriage of Princess Isabella of Jerusalem (the sister of both King Baldwin IV and Queen Sibylla) to Conrad de Montferrat and setting Conrad up as a counter-weight and rival to the horribly incompetent Guy de Lusignan. Even more striking, when Richard the Lionheart realized he had to return to England and was going to have to negotiate a truce with Saladin, he used Balian as one of his go-betweens. Perhaps most astonishing, Balian effectively founded a dynasty that was to dominate politics in the crusader kingdoms for the next three hundred years. Both his sons served as regents at different times, John in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and Philip in the Kingdom of Cyprus. His grandson John d’Ibelin was a famous constitutional scholar, and one of the most powerful and wealthy barons in the 7th crusade and it goes on and on.
So the third book in my Balian trilogy covers the period after the fall of Jerusalem, including the Third Crusade and the establishment of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. Remember, when Book II ends Balian is — as he says himself — “Baron of nothing in a kingdom that no longer exists.” So in Book III he has to claw his way back up out of total ruin. In this book Maria and his sons, particularly John, play a key role as they support him, but Isabella comes of age and into her own, while the oft neglected and underestimated Aimery de Lusignan — so very different from his ineffectual brother Guy — also plays an important role. He is married to Balian’s niece, remember. And last but not least the vibrant and brilliant Richard the Lionheart arrives and forces Saladin to surrender much of what he conquered in 1187/1188. So there is a lot of history, drama and strong characters to make “Envoy of Jerusalem” a great read — assuming I do my job as a novelist.
FQ: As a researcher, do you travel a great deal for your projects? Have you “walked” in Balian’s world?
SCHRADER: Travelling to the key venues of my novels is critical to understanding my characters and their world. I cannot say how important it is to have visited Sparta (for my books set in Ancient Sparta) and Jerusalem and Cyprus for the Balian series.
A trip to Sparta, for example, completely changed my understanding of Sparta because it is not a harsh and barren place as Steven Pressfield and other modern writers would have you believe. It is absolutely beautiful, fertile and verdant, with spectacular views of jagged, snow-capped mountains.
My travel to Jerusalem, Hattin, Ascalon, Jaffa and Cyrus likewise opened new insights even if the overall impact was less dramatic. No amount of book knowledge can replace climbing up a winding, rocky path to a medieval castle perched on a mountain top and seeing with your own eyes how much they could see from up there! Nor can a book replace walking in Romanesque cloisters and hearing plain song from the adjacent church. That experience brings you closer to the spiritualism of the medieval world as no modern church can — at least that has been my experience.
Travel often teaches you the unexpected — the local foods, the taste of the local wine, the color of the vegetation or the traditional patterns used on the pottery. These are things that can be used to add color and authenticity to a novel.
Remember, it’s not about boring the reader with facts but adding details that help them visualize a world that is strange to them because it was in the past.
FQ: Being a U.S. diplomat, can you tell us about your current post? And perhaps a little of what your focus is in regards to that country?
SCHRADER: I’m currently the Economic Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. You may have seen in the news that President Obama recently visited us. My job is principally about fostering trade, economic growth and development by encouraging policies and institutions that enable free private enterprise, fostering entrepreneurship through workshops and exchange programs, and supporting U.S. businesses considering investment here by providing them with information and analysis.
FQ: (Readers love this particular question, so I make sure it’s in every interview): If you could have lunch with one writer, alive or passed, who would that be, and why?
SCHRADER: Joseph Conrad because he inspired me so much when I was a young writer. He was also a sea captain. I would love to sit and talk to him about travelling the world, sailing in square-riggers (I crewed on topmast schooners in the past), and writing books that are both “literary” and good reads!
FQ: As an addendum in your case (LOL): Is there a specific historical figure you would like to have lunch with?
SCHRADER: That’s tricky because I suspect most of the people I’d like to have lunch with wouldn’t give me the time of day — much less a lunch date!
Of course, I’d like to talk with all the people I’ve written (or will write) books about: General Friedrich Olbricht (whose the only one, who would be delighted to talk to me and with whom I have common language as I speak fluent German), Leonidas of Sparta (who probably wouldn’t know what to do with a modern human), Balian d’Ibelin, the Black Prince, and their women, Gorgo, Maria Comnena and Joan of Kent. I’d like to meet them so I could get to know the better and so portray them more accurately. So I guess, it would only really make sense to meet with Edward and Joan because I still have a chance to revise my writing about them based on an encounter while with the others I could only get frustrated with myself for getting things so wrong.
Beyond that, I would love to meet and talk with Eleanor of Aquitaine simply because she was an exceptionally intelligent woman, who had a significant impact on her age as well as experiencing an unusually complex and long life. She was Queen of both France and England, had two very different husbands, two very different sons who became kings of England, and she travelled all the way to Jerusalem as well as across England, France, Spain, Italy and to Sicily. She divorced one husband, rebelled against the other, and yet had 10 children by the two of them. She was very much a woman of her times, but I think — if we could find a common language — she would find it easier than most to communicate with and share feelings and ideas with a modern woman.
FQ: Thank you for your time. I have been honored to read these incredible books. (In addition, my Mom is a huge fan of your WWII works. “Codename Valkyrie” was one of her favorites.)
SCHRADER: It has been my pleasure, and I hope your mother can be convinced to give my Balian books a try. I think they are some of my best.