I am excited to share with you an interview I was able to do with historical fiction writer Stephanie Thornton. She is the author of The Secret History, and the recently released Daughter of The Gods.
Hello Stephanie, and welcome to Seize The Moment. It is my honor to have you here, and I can’t wait to start the interview! How are you?
I’m thrilled to be here, Nassem! Thanks so much for having me!
Ever since your debut, The Secret History, on one of my favorite historical figures, Theodora, published, I have been hooked on anything authored by you. Your newest book, Daughter of The Gods, was actually written before your debut novel. How much editing went into Daughter of The Gods before it was published? Did you find anything out after Daughter hit the store shelves in further research that you wish you could go back and add in?
Daughter of the Gods is completely unrecognizable from its earliest forms! (I know this because my first readers read it again last month and told me it’s a totally different book.) I feel like I’ve been researching ancient Egypt all my life (to say it’s an obsession is an understatement of colossal proportions) so fortunately, the only things I discovered that I wish I could have added were minor details, like the Egyptians twined together flax coated in sheep fat to make candles and descriptions of nifty alabaster perfume jars I saw at a traveling Egyptian exhibit last fall.
This interview, I promise, will focus on the protagonist of your newest novel, Hatshepsut, but I would like to ask a little about Theodora, the main character of your debut. What first brought her to your attention? I know I admire her for her rise from poverty to leadership, but why do you hold her in your respect?
I first discovered Theodora’s story while teaching world history. Most textbooks mention a Byzantine actress-turned-empress who saved her husband’s throne during the Nika riots, but the story is usually restricted to a single sentence or a caption under her famous mosaic portrait from Ravenna. I did some extra digging and learned about Theodora’s rough beginnings as the daughter of a bear trainer and also that those same Nika riots resulted in the deaths of 30,000 rebels. I realized I had an amazing story on my hands and as I did more research, I was truly gob-smacked both by all that Theodora accomplished in addition to the love she inspired in Justinian. Plus, she survived an outbreak of bubonic plague, which is just darn cool.
Empress Theodora of Constantinople. Credit Here.
Egypt has had multiple female rulers, including the famous Nefertiti, and the uber-popular Cleopatra VII. Yet, Daughter of The Gods introduces a lesser-known pharaoh, Hatshepsut. When did you first learn of her, and all of her glory? What character traits do you most admire about this powerful woman?
I think Hatshepsut is lesser-known only because Egyptologists didn’t know about her for so many years. Her name was erased from the king lists and all images portraying her as pharaoh were hacked into oblivion, with the exception of a few that were difficult to reach (on the pinnacles of obelisks and whatnot). It wasn’t until fairly recently that they realized this was a case of ancient revisionist history and then they truly started to discover all she’d accomplished. The rebuilding of Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri also helped fill in the gaps, telling the tale of her supposedly divine birth and her expedition to Punt.
I first came across Hatshepsut during a junior high research assignment and the only information available in the encyclopedia (no internet then!) was that she had seized the throne from her stepson and all her monuments had been destroyed after her death. That stuck with me, because it was already apparent to me that this woman possessed the courage and daring to rule in a man’s world, and later research has proven that she did it better than most male pharaohs did!
Hatshepsut accomplished a lot in her life, as I learned from reading Daughter of The Gods. How do her achievements stack up compared to other successful pharaohs, like Ramses the Great, Nefertiti, and Cleopatra VII?
I’d say that of all those three, Hatshepsut and Ramses would be the closest tie, although Ramses might pull slightly to the lead when it came to his building projects, but only because he lived an extra forty-ish years longer than Hatshepsut! Both worked to strengthen Egypt’s territories and each was a master at propaganda, Ramses with the records of his extremely one-sided peace treaty at Kadesh and Hatshepsut with the story of her divine birth at Deir el-Bahri.
As for Nefertiti, the verdict is still out on her accomplishments considering that Egyptologists remain divided on whether she ruled after the death of her husband, Akhenaten. And don’t get me started on Cleopatra… She lost Egypt to the Romans!
Historians still argue amongst each other about if Hatshepsut and Senenmut were truly in love. What made you decide to go with a romantic relationship between the two in Daughter of The Gods? Is it frustrating to not have a solid answer on the question of their love for each other, or do you think it is how Hatshepsut would have wanted it?
I’m a hopeless romantic so there wasn’t much of a choice regarding the love story between Hatshepsut and Senenmut, plus I’m a big Senenmut fan! I suspect that Hatshepsut would have preferred the ambiguity regarding their relationship, simply for the fact that if there was any proof then it would have been easy for historians to pass off her accomplishments as a result of the “man behind the throne.” Each of them achieved amazing feats in their own right: Hatshepsut had her trade expeditions and building projects while Senenmut became one of the most titled man in Egyptian history in addition to building not one, but two impressive tombs for himself.
Pharaoh Hatshepsut. Credit Here.
I know that, like myself, you are a big fan of the strong female leaders of today’s world, like Hillary Clinton. Of the female leaders in today’s world, who do you think would be most like Hatshepsut?
That’s a great question, Nassem! I’m not sure if there are any modern leaders whose story fully parallels that of Hatshepsut’s (I’ve always seen similarities between her and Elizabeth I), but I think Hatshepsut likely possessed some of the statesmanship displayed by Madeline Albright and Queen Noor of Jordan. However, neither of those women ever seized power from their stepsons to rule on their own!
You run a full life…teaching a high school history class, being an author, raising a daughter, and more. How do you balance it all, especially to be able to fit in your research + writing? Do you set a time to write, or do you just do it “as the wind blows?” What kinds of things do you like to dabble in during your free time?
What?! Where is this mysterious “free time” you speak of? LOL! On a more serious note, I write every night after my daughter is in bed and I’ve been writing like a madwoman since school got out. When I’m not teaching or writing you can probably find me doing yoga, running, traveling or… surprise… reading!
Now that you have published 2 books to your name, what is the experience like? Was it different the second time around? What is your favorite, and least favorite, aspect of it? To aspiring writers, what advice do you offer for getting a book published?
The experience has been very similar with the book signings and blog tours, but I was a little better prepared this time around because I knew what to expect and how to better manage my time. My favorite aspect is when readers contact me to let me know how much they learned about Hatshepsut (or Theodora). My least favorite aspect is probably just that I wish there was an extra hour in every day to get everything done! And for aspiring writers, I will always love Winston Churchill’s advice: “Never, never, never give up!”
I know it is a cliche question, but seriously, what authors influence your writing most? And a similar, but possibly different in answer, question: what authors do you like to read most?
I think every book can leave a lasting impression on a writer, be it good or bad, but I was inspired after reading Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers to widen the scope of my upcoming novel, The Tiger Queens, to focus on four women in Genghis Khan’s life instead of just one. And when it comes to authors, I greedily gobble up anything written by Kate Quinn, Michelle Moran, Kate Furnivall, or Stephanie Dray!
Your third book, The Tiger Queens, is going to hit the shelves November 4th. Could you tell us a bit about this exciting upcoming addition to your powerful women series, this time in Genghis Khan-era Mongolia? What makes it different from your previous titles?
The Tiger Queens is more of a sweeping family epic in that it covers the lives of four very different women, spans almost 80 years, and moves from Mongolia to China to Persia to Vienna and finally back to Mongolia. (Those Mongols were busy!) I’ve chosen to focus on Genghis’ first wife Borte, his wild-child daughter Alaqai, a Persian slave named Fatima, and Sorkhokhtani, Genghis’ daughter-by-marriage and Princess of the Hearth. It’s a pretty wild ride!
Finally, what social impact do you hope your books are able to accomplish? Do you ever consider the possibility that your books are in the hands of a future female leader, learning how to be independent from the historical characters you are writing about? Is this the true legacy of any author, if their prose affects the very soul of a reader?
My whole goal in both teaching history and writing about little-known historical women is to inspire readers to learn more about them. People often bemoan the lack of strong women in history, but they’re there if you know to look for them. And while I’m not sure if any future female presidents or prime ministers will read my books, I do love the idea of girls today learning from the stories of women like Hatshepsut, Theodora, or Sorkhokhtani. I know I certainly find their lives inspiring!
Thank you so much for being here today Stephanie! I appreciate your insightful answers, and it truly was an honor to interview you.
Thank you so much for having me, Nassem! It’s been an absolute treat!
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.
The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora is available from NAL/Penguin and Daughter of the Gods: A Novel of Ancient Egypt hit the shelves May 6, 2014.
The Tiger Queens: A Novel of Genghis Khan will publish in Fall 2014.
For more information, please visit Stephanie Thornton’s website. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.