The following Interview was conducted during my virtual book tour and this appears over at:
Hello, Rebecca. Thank you for stopping by. I have read The Grip of God and Solomon’s Bride. They were amazing books.
Thanks for inviting me. I’m so glad you liked both books.
What kind of schooling did you receive and how long did it take to learn this extensive history and become a senior teacher in Shambhala? I must say I’m impressed.
I received an honors BA in Russian and Chinese history from the University of California, Santa Cruz. I never went for further degrees because I was tired of not getting to read whatever I wanted to read, mostly historical fiction!
Researching and writing the three novels took about 17 years once I got going. I wrote the first few pages of what I thought would be one novel when still at university, but then I set it aside for years, promising to return to it someday.
Becoming a senior teacher in Shambhala came about because I wanted to pay forward the kindness of my teachers. After so many years of teaching Shambhala Buddhist meditation, I guess I finally got good at it and was appointed a Shastri, a senior teacher and mentor for other teachers. I had to retire from that role after three years in order to get these novels published. But certain core values crept into them from my Buddhist background, not only about meditation but about empathy and broad perspective.
What made you want to write about the Mongols? They were such a brutal clan. Were any of the Mongols in the story a part of history? And if they were, were all their conquests in the book in history?
I can’t imagine why I thought writing about Mongols was a good idea! I had no idea they were so brutal until I started seriously researching them, but my favorite period in my studies at university was Kyivan Rus’, which fell to the Mongols. And once I got into the heart of the writing, things began to take shape. By the final novel, Consolamentum, out soon, it becomes apparent how the entire story hangs together and why the Mongols’ brutality is integral to it.
All the major Mongol leaders were real historical figures, and many details about them are on record: like the color of Berke Khan’s boots! And the big quarrel between Batu and Kuyuk is what they actually said to each other. The surprise true historical figure is Argamon, though I invented his life and his family.
All the battles and conquests really happened as I described them. Or as close as my imagination could take me to how it would have been.
Sofia…what a beautiful soul. Is she written from history?
While Sofia is fictional, and also a rarity among noblewomen of her time, I tried to create a realistic picture of a young, sheltered princess embedded in that time and place, but who is also a typical teenager. She is both a dreamer/idealist and also quite sure of her moral high ground, which is a common phase in growing up. And when she grows older and loses some of her connection to the earth she loves so much: that’s something I’ve observed.
What’s truly uncanny about her is that I am related to her, as I have royal Rus’ ancestry, something I didn’t know when I was writing the series. I found that out when researching my family tree.
What rights did woman have in this era? It seems they were of a lesser human compared to the men of this time.
Alas, women were treated pretty badly then from our point of view, as they were more like childbearing property with few rights. Be a good child, wife, parent, and you are taken care of, so within those bounds you are powerful if you’re in charge of the household or some aspect of it. So it was a funny mix: everyone knew their place and noblewomen took pride in theirs, and maybe others did, too. But there were serious limitations, like the way men all across Europe assumed that beating their wives was a good thing.
Sofia was incredibly smart. Did she have special privileges to learn because she was a princess, or was that a good parenting choice from her father?
That was a good parenting choice, though Rus’ noblewomen would be literate enough to read the Bible. And being a princess was why her father educated her; on one side, she was all he had once he was widowed, and he was more sensitive than the average warmongering prince, more truly devout. On the other side, she was a bargaining chip for him in Rus’ politics, so polishing her up was a smart move. Motives can be pretty ambiguous.
Would Sofia lead a good life with Batu Khan or would it be a disaster? Did she make the right choice to flee?
Batu Khan truly did have so many concubines that once he’d tired of her, she’d have been seriously at risk for a dismal future. Certainly she wouldn’t have experienced the good things that came her way later, like her daughter. It would have meant a much shorter story for her to tell, though!
How did Sofia’s enslavement make her react in future situations?
She really saw the other side of life, and because of her tender heart, she identified with others’ suffering. So she became a champion for both justice and mercy, at least when she could. Of course that also led her into serious danger at times.
I always like to ask…what does your writing space consist of?
I don’t like to write in just one place. My husband and I share a big basement room that is office for him and computer space/art studio for me. But I also go outside with my laptop in good weather or hang out and write in our ‘cozy area’, a seating area with fireplace right next to the kitchen, handy for remembering to eat!
What advice would you give an aspiring writer?
Read, read, read and learn from the greats: how they frame a story, choose points of view, choose what to describe, etc. Then write, write, write, perhaps in the same style as your favorite authors, just for practice. Then write from your heart and fiercely edit from your intelligence. Some people think The Grip of God is a bit too long, but I cut out sooo much! Like how to cook marmot; I took it out because it didn’t promote the plot.