Today we're talking with Helena P. Schrader, author of Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer
FQ: The research for this series must have taken forever. Do you find Ancient History intriguing?
I do indeed. I think what fascinates me most is how relevant it still is. I remember, for example, reading an ancient writer complain about how youth "nowadays" are not well educated and are all rude. Or, more important: the treatment and status of Athenian women was appallingly similar to the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia today. When we see that certain aspects of human behavior have not changed in 2,500 years, I believe, we can assess what is happening in our own age more effectively. We can separate the impact of fashion and technology from fundamental human characteristics and focus on the essence of human nature.
FQ: You seem to have a great liking for Greek/Spartan history. What sparked your interest in this subject?
Good question! It was learning about the comparatively high status of Spartan women compared to women in the rest of the Greece. Athenian women lived in a viciously misogynous society, while Spartan women did not. But popular literature about Sparta focused on Sparta as a militaristic society in which youth were subjected to institutionalized pederasty. Now, psychologists can tell you that the victims of pederasty grow up to be misogynous men, which would have fit perfectly for Athens, but singularly and emphatically did not describe Sparta. So there was an obvious and serious disconnect between the historical record and the popular image of Sparta on this one point. This made me want to learn more about Sparta. The more I researched, the more I realized that the entire popular image of Sparta was seriously distorted. I was particularly lucky to run across works by the Dutch archeologist Conrad M. Stibbe very early in my research. His brilliant book Das Andere Sparta focused on the archaic period and meticuloulsy documented the high level of Spartan artistic achievement, its sculpture, bronze-works, architecture and music. Ancient societies weren't static, you know. Sparta existed as an independent city-state for roughly 700 years. I soon realized that modern perceptions of Sparta were largely formed by images and information that originated with Sparta's enemies and dated from the period of Sparta's decline, even from the Roman period, when Sparta was decadent and corrupted. On top of that there were all these myths and cartoon-like exaggerations of Spartan society. I'm a bit of a radical, or maybe I simply have a quixotic nature; I like fighting against misrepresentations and inaccuracies, so I started writing books that would depict Sparta as it was in its age of glory, the 6th century BC. I based my depictions of Sparta on serious academic literature, the archeological record, and -- this is most important -- on Herodotus, Xenophon, and Pausanias.
FQ: Have you traveled to the areas that you write about?
Absolutely! I find it very difficult to write about places I have not been. As soon as I started to research ancient Sparta, I travelled to the Peloponnese. What a mind-bending experience! It was as much the trip to the region that was once ancient Lacedaemon as the research that made me completely revise my own pre-conceived ideas about Sparta. Lacedaemon is not at all harsh, bleak or infertile. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. (And don't forget I'm a Foreign Service Officer; I have lived in Japan, Brazil, England, Germany, Norway, and Nigeria. I've travelled to South Africa, Egypt, across Latin America and througout Europe.) I have walked across fields in Lacedaemon and counted 33 different types of blooming wild-flowers within 500 paces. You can look through the palm trees up to snow-capped peaks. Drinking water gushes out of the mountain springs and cascades over the limestone beds of creeks. In short, Lacedaemon is and was beautiful and fertile -- as ancient historians well knew. The Spartans were surrounded by beauty and had everything necessary for wealth in an ancient society. I'm convinced this had an impact on their mentality and life-style. Anyone interested in what Sparta would have looked like in the age of Leonidas can check my blog SpartaReconsidered.blogspot.com on which I've posted several entries about the natural wealth and beauty of Lacedaemon. I've also published an article on what Sparta would have looked like in the academic journal Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History.
FQ: Do you have other hobbies that brought you to writing historical/fiction?
I trace my interest in history and historical fiction to a visit to the Colossium in Rome at the age of four. My mother and sisters were taking the proper tour, but assuming a four-year-old would get bored, my father took me around himself. He said, "This is where they fed the Christians to the lions." My four-year-old imagination was instantly piqued. I looked around at everything with wide-eyed fascination, trying to image just where the Christians had hid and where the lions had lurked. Ever since, whenever I visit a historical site I try to picture the people living/working/fighting there. I was fortunate to live in England while still a teenager, and that, of course, gave me many, many opportunities to visit different kinds of fascinating and significant historical venues. English Heritage does an absolutely splendid job of providing excellent, accurate information and yet making historical sites come to life with tournaments, costumed narrators, opportunities to wear armor or handle medieval swords etc. etc. Visiting historical sites made me imagine life in other periods -- and that led automatically to making up stories set in these places and then writing those stories down. Meanwhile, I studied history, earning my PhD with a biographical dissertation on General Friedrich Olbricht, the originator of the Valkyrie plot against Hitler. As a historian, historical accuracy is as important to me as a good, compelling story.
FQ: I always ask this question. Do you have any pets? Do they keep you company while you write?
I dearly wish I had pets. However, as a Foreign Service Officer, moving every two to three years, my husband and I felt it would be unfair to the pets -- and on some assignments dangerous for them as well. The very hardest part of joining the Foreign Service was selling my 10 year old Chestnut gelding, Wapiti. I hope to have at least a cat and a dog when I retire (to Lacedaemon, by the way.)
FQ: I am an eager reader of WWII history. I find that you have written numerous books in that genre. What made you interested enough to write these novels?
I remember stumbling upon a reference to the German Resistance to Hitler while I was getting a Masters Degree in Diplomacy and International Commerce at the Patterson School, University of Kentucky. I had been raised on stories of the Danish Resistance (my grandfather was Danish) and I was flabbergasted to learn there had been a German Resistance. I asked my professor about it, and he pointed me to several good books on the topic. It fascinated me so much -- this idea of fighting not a foreign invader but your own government out of ethical and moral conviction -- that I read all I could in English. But that wasn't very much, so I went to Germany to learn German. There I met several survivors and relatives of the German Resistance who encouraged me to write about the German Resistance for the American audience. Meanwhile, however, I enrolled in the PhD program at the University of Hamburg, and earned my PhD with a ground-breaking dissertation on General Friedrich Olbricht. (Olbricht was an opponent of Hitler before he came to power, and involved in plots to remove him from 1938 onwards. He developed Valkyrie as a coup instrument in early 1942. He recruited Stauffenberg for the military resistance in 1943, and he was the first man to be executed on July 20, 1944. My dissertation was published in German by the renouned German academic publisher Bouvier Verlag in 1993, a second edition came out in 1994. I wrote an English biography of Olbricht, published by Haynes Publishing in the UK, 2009.)
FQ: I would love to read An Obsolete Honor. I donít know how I missed it. Could you tell us a little about the research for this book?
The research for An Obsolete Honor and for my dissertation were closely intermingled. I was working on both at the same time. I conducted literally hundreds of interviews with survivors of Nazi Germany including Nina Countess Stauffenberg, the widow of Claus Stauffenberg (made famous by Tom Cruise's film, Valkyrie), Ludwig Baron von Hammerstein, Philipp Baron von Boeselager, Axel Baron von dem Bussche -- one of the would-be assassins -- and many more. The novel draws on all these real stories and roughly ten years of research which included reading personal memoirs and letters as well as the Gestaop transcripts of torture. It is fiction because I amalgamated and pruned and merged individual accounts to create a coherent story, but the book is authentic. No historical figure portrayed in the novel is every anyplace he could not have been, nor does he/she say anything at odds with the historical record. The manuscript was edited, by the way, by Baroness von Hammerstein, a survivor of the period and wife of one of the minor figures in the military resistance.
For all that, if you will allow me, I'd like to note that I personally believe my best work is my Battle of Britain novel. This was first published in 2008 under the title Chasing the Wind. By chance it fell into the hands one of the few surviving RAF aces of the Battle, Wing Commander Bob Doe. A few weeks later, I received a hand-written letter in which he said my novel was "the best book ever" on the Battle of Britain and that it "got it smack on the way it was for us fighter pilots." As a historian, no compliment could have been greater, and it is because of this endorsement that I strongly recommend Chasing the Wind -- or the newly released Kindle edition under the title Where Eagles Never Flew to any readers interested in World War Two.
Thank you for the opportunity to share these experiences and thoughts with your readers.