Today I have an amazing interview with debut author Stephanie Thornton, who penned one of my favorite current books, The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora! If you have a love of women in history who have overcome great odds and helped change history, this book is for YOU! You can read my review from June HERE!
Now, Stephanie talks about inspiration for her novel, what other intelligent women she’s writing about, and why she’s telling aspiring writers to never give up! PLUS there is a GIVEAWAY and you’ll see that information right under the interview. Enjoy!
Hi Stephanie, welcome to Oh, for the Hook of a Book! I am so happy to feature you back on the site in celebration of your debut novel release, The Secret History: a Novel of Empress Theodora. How have you been taking it all in?
Stephanie: Thanks so much for having me, Erin. The last week has been a whirlwind of awesomeness, and I’m thrilled to be here!
Erin: I can only imagine your excitement! And well-deserved!! Let’s grab some coffee and start talking about everything under the sun, or at least as much as we can get to!
Q: The Secret History is your first published novel, correct? Where did you find the inspiration to write it?
A: This is indeed my first published novel. I’m a high school history teacher and was inspired to do some more research after reading a line in a textbook about an actress-turned-empress who saved her husband’s throne during riot by giving a rousing speech. That was Theodora’s famous speech during the Nika rebellion, but I soon found out there was so much more to her story!
Q: Given the amount of research, how did you undertake that task? How long did it take you?
A: The research never ends! (I actually found a new portrait of Theodora this week, hidden in a Roman church, and wish I could go back and write a scene about it for the novel!) I start my research by reading the available primary texts from the era, then move on to biographies of my main characters. Once I have the story, then I move on to the setting details that really make the era come to life. Those pieces tend to fall into place during my final edit, so I’m truly researching the whole way through.
Erin comments: You are very good at setting the scene with amazing details. I can picture all you write as if I am truly there.
Q: What was the most interesting tidbit about Theodora, or the people surrounding her, that you came across in your research?
A: I absolutely love that Theodora was the daughter of a bear trainer. I’m distantly related to the Bailey side of Barnum & Bailey’s Circus, so I like that we have a shared circus background!
Erin comments: That’s so cool!
Q: The cover art for your book is beautiful. Did you find much art, creative writings, tapestries, or the like from this time period in Constantinople? I know you described some beautiful architecture and art in your book. What other cultures influenced that empire creatively during the sixth century?
A: The Byzantine Empire was heavily influenced by the Italian Roman Empire, but was starting to diverge from the classic forms of architecture, as can be seen by the domes of the Hagia Sophia on the novel’s cover. (Which I love, by the way. I almost swooned when I first saw it.) It’s also interesting to note that Byzantine architecture spread out of Constantinople after Theodora’s time—St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice is considered Byzantine in structure. I’m not aware of many creative writings or tapestries from the time period, but fortunately for us, many of the stunning Byzantine mosaics survive to this day—one of the lasting impacts of Byzantine art as they truly excelled at mosaic-making. In fact, if you Google “Mosaics,” the first image you’ll see is one of Christ from the Hagia Sophia and another top hit is a portion of the mosaics from San Vitale in Ravenna, the site of Theodora’s famous mosaic.
Q: Women from these ancient cultures seemed to have great strength of mind and soul. Many times they seemed to be even revered by their male peers or significant others intellectually, politically, and romantically. How do you think this happened, even as sometimes women still struggle today with this issue?
A: I think it took a strong man to recognize these amazing women, as that was typically not the norm. Most ancient cultures viewed women as second-class citizens, so for a man like Justinian to realize Theodora’s strengths, and even fight to be allowed to marry her, speaks volumes as to the strength of his own character. Justinian battled laws forbidding his marrying a common actress, and also feuded with his aunt, who wanted him to marry a respectable girl (despite the fact that his aunt had also once been a prostitute). I think it was difficult for men to realize that they didn’t have to give up their power to allow women to also have their say, something that still impacts women today.
Erin comments: You’d think after thousands of years, that would be a simple fix (a man feeling weak when a woman is strong) but alas….it’s still a tad bit of a struggle in the modern world as well. Also, women like Justinian’s aunt who could take their success and use it to teach or help others, but instead of point fingers at someone else just because the finger was pointed at them, aren’t helpful either. Lessons for today many times are still spoken through history.
Mosaic of Empress Theodora
Q: Keeping in line with that, given the major lines drawn among social classes, the poverty in the city streets, and the actresses who were paid for their bodies, how did some of these women rise to the powerful legacies they become? It couldn’t have been easy.
A: It definitely wasn’t easy, and as it always does, luck played a huge part in Theodora’s uncommon ascent from the gutters to the throne. The Byzantine Empire allowed for some upward mobility, but only for a select few people. Life in the ancient world was brutal for the vast majority of the population, and there were often few choices for women. The fact is that Theodora’s determination, perseverance, and wit would have amounted to little had she not been able to attract a wealthy patron, something she would have been well aware of. Lucky for her, she managed to catch the eye of the future emperor, and was then able to use her talents to their full advantage!
Q: I know you also like a favorite quote of mine: “Well-behaved women rarely make history!” Can you expound on that notion and besides the fact that drama always is memorable, what else makes this true? Do you feel it is still true today?
A: That’s one of my favorite quotes—I have it on my webpage and also in my classroom! I think that in order for women in the ancient world to stand out and be remembered, they really did have to break the rules. If they didn’t, they were relegated to the background. Women like Theodora and her friend Antonina refused to let men call all the shots—even the men they loved—and weren’t afraid to voice their own opinions (or perform salacious and daring acts on stage). For Theodora, at least at Nika, that also meant that she was able to turn the tide of history. As for whether this is still true today, I think it’s a little easier for women to get noticed, but it’s still women who break the norms—Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Sandra Day O’Connor—who will likely end up remembered by the history books.
Erin comments: I agree. And though it’s sad that women standing up for beliefs, causes, or for their voice to be heard is considered risky, I applaud women who strive daily without fear and continue to work hard to change society
Q: What other women in history are you writing about? Can you talk a little about your next several books and the desire you have to bring to print “your forgotten women in history?”
A: My next novel, DAUGHTER OF THE GODS, is about Hatshepsut, Egypt’s first successful female pharaoh, and my personal idol since I was in the 7th grade. Hatshepsut financed major trade explorations, fought against foreign uprisings, and fell in love with a commoner, all while guiding Egypt into its Golden Age. My third book, THE TIGER QUEENS, will feature Genghis Khan’s first wife and several of his daughters. All of these women were integral to history, but sadly, have been largely forgotten. It seemed wrong that we all remember Cleopatra (who lost Egypt to the Roman Empire—I’ll forever hold that against her) and Anne Boleyn (who did give birth to Elizabeth I, but is mostly famous for getting her head chopped off), yet we don’t know about these other inspiring women who left such a legacy to history.
Erin comments: I agree! Hatshepsut has always been a favorite of mine and would love to see more books showing her in a positive light! Honestly, I have never even hear of Khan’s wife or family, so that will be really interesting!
Q: Besides the women you are currently writing on, what other women have you thought about featuring in a novel? Why?
A: I’m turning my eyes toward ancient Rome for my fourth novel, although I have yet to decide exactly who my new heroine will be. There are a couple of options, but I’m not allowed to start researching those women until I finish revising my third book!
Q: What words of advice do you have for aspiring female writers? How would you motivate them to pursue their writing dreams?
A: Never give up! It’s cliché, but also so true. This business will wring the blood and tears right out of you, but if you’re passionate about what you’re writing, you have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I believed so much in the first book I wrote that I went back and rewrote it from the ground up after finishing THE SECRET HISTORY. That book will release next year as DAUGHTER OF THE GODS, despite all the people who told me it was impossible to get a book on ancient Egypt published these days. You can achieve whatever you want to, but not if you stop writing!
Erin comments: Ancient Egypt is my favorite historical subject to read and there are so many stories of magic and wonder to be told.
Q: What has been your biggest challenge on your writing journey? Alternatively, what has been your biggest personal success?
A: I almost threw in the towel on the whole writing business in the midst of querying DAUGHTER OF THE GODS, (and having all those naysayers tell me ancient Egypt wasn’t “in”). But I love the women I write about, (I would go totally fan girl on them if I ever invented a time machine), and I knew I had to keep going. My biggest personal success was finding an agent, and then an editor, who believed that the world would want to know about these women.
Erin comments: It seems like such a no-brainer to me! It’s so sad to hear you had so much difficulty. As a reader, writer, and history buff myself, I have been on the look-out for books such as what you are writing! At least you are making this reader happy, but I bet you will many others too. Glad you kept going!
Author Stephanie Thornton
Q: With a family and a career as a teacher, how do you find the time to write? Do you “schedule” writing time on your calendar or just fit it in as possible? How do you gain support from your family for your writing time?
A: My only real writing time comes at night after my daughter is in bed. I have a wonderfully supportive husband who knows that for one golden hour, I have to hide away in my writing room and get the words into my laptop. I’ve gotten into the habit of writing everything by hand first and then typing it into my laptop, so with that system, I carry notebooks with me just about everywhere to take advantage of other random writing opportunities.
Q: How do you find your character’s voice when writing? What are some character developing tips?
A: Each character is different, which is fun, but often challenging at the same time. Theodora is pretty snarky, and it was often easy to hear her sarcastic comments in my head as I was writing. I often have mottos for my characters to help determine both their voices and their actions. Theodora’s motto was easy: SURVIVE.
Q: What other books and authors do you enjoy personally and why?
A: I will read just about anything, but I love historical fiction. (Of course!) My all-time favorite novel is MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA by Arthur Golden and I’ve loved all of Kate Quinn’s novels since MISTRESS OF ROME came out. I love books with a killer plot, characters I love and want to throttle at the same time, and lush, exotic settings.
Q: The major question I really want to know is if you found any ancient secret baking recipes during your work? What might Theodora’s favorite dessert have been and what is your favorite?
A: Best question ever! First of all, I think it’s a tragedy that Theodora lived in a time without chocolate or ice cream. I’m not sure I would have survived. That said, I did come across a reference to a Byzantine dessert made of cream and sprinkled with orchid pollen. I’m not sure if it would have been any good (certainly not as good as ice cream), but I managed to include a reference to it in one of Theodora’s banquet scenes with Emperor Justin.
Erin comments: Oh, I am always about the food. And your food descriptions in your book were AMAZING!! I think I might even have to try that flower pollen…
Q: Where can readers and writers connect with you?
Erin: Thank you so much, Stephanie, for joining me today on the site. I absolutely adored your book and writing style and I can’t wait for your next upcoming novels! I wish you the best of luck with your writing and hope to have you back again soon!
Stephanie: Thank you so much for having me, and for asking such fantastic questions! I hope we can meet up again when DAUGHTER OF THE GODS releases next year. (That is, if you like hippo attacks, musty tombs, and Egypt’s greatest pharaoh of course!)
Erin: I am absolutely already super excited for Daughter of the Gods!! I want to be first on the reading list!!
The giveaway is for one paperback copy of The Secret History and open internationally! To enter, please leave a comment under this post, or at the link on the Facebook page when it appears at www.facebook.com/HookofaBook. You can also email me at hookofabook(at)hotmail(dot)com. Whichever you choose, please be sure to leave your own email so I can contact you.
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THE SECRET HISTORY, Synopsis~
Where Theodora went, trouble followed…
In sixth century Constantinople, one woman, Theodora, defied every convention and all the odds, and rose from being a common theater tart to become empress of a great kingdom, the most powerful woman the Roman Empire would ever know. But the woman whose image was later immortalized in glittering mosaic was, in fact, a scrappy, clever, conniving, flesh-and-blood woman full of sensuality and spirit whose real story is as surprising as any ever told…
When her father dies suddenly, Theodora and her sisters face starvation on the streets. Determined to survive, Theodora makes a living any way she can—first on her back with every man who will have her, then on the stage of the city’s infamous amphitheater in a scandalous dramatization of her own invention. When her daring performance grants her a back-door entry into the halls of power, she seizes the chance to win a wealthy protector—only to face heartbreak and betrayal.
Ever resilient, Theodora rises above such trials and by a twist of fate, meets her most passionate admirer yet: the Emperor’s nephew. She will thrive as his confidant and courtesan, but many challenges lie ahead. For one day, this man will hand her a crown. And all the empire will wonder—is she bold enough, shrewd enough, and strong enough to keep it?
Praise for The Secret History
“Stephanie Thornton’s Theodora is tough and intelligent, spitting defiance against the cruel world of the Byzantine Empire. Her rise from street urchin to emperor’s consort made me want to stand up and cheer. Her later years as empress are great fun to read, but it was her early struggle as actress and courtesan that really had me roaring: either with rage at the misfortunes heaped on this poor girl, or with delight as she once more picked herself up with a steely glint in her eye and kept on going.”—Kate Quinn, author of Empress of the Seven Hills
“Loss, ambition and lust keep this rich story moving at top speed. Stephanie Thornton writes a remarkable first novel that brings a little known woman to full, vibrant life…A sprawling and irresistible story.”—Jeane Westin, author of The Spymaster’s Daughter
“A fascinating and vivid account; in The Secret History, the life of Empress Theodora leaps from the page, as colorful and complex as the woman herself.”—Michelle Diener, author of The Emperor’s Conspiracy
Author Stephanie Thornton, Biography~
Stephanie Thornton is a writer and history teacher who has been obsessed with infamous women from ancient history since she was twelve. She lives with her husband and daughter in Alaska, where she is at work on her next novel.
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