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History Buff is a site for history lovers everywhere. It is also a site very interested in women of the past. Although I (sadly) no longer have time to continue these interviews, here is an archive of Q&As about women's lives in history. And please feel free to stop by History Buff's sister site for archaeological discoveries making news today. Enjoy!

Michelle Moran
Historical fiction author

As an historical fiction writer I am fascinated by news stories featuring the past as it's unearthed and reimagined and brought to life. I spend a
large quantity of time searching for news in archaeology and history. Once in a great while a new archaeological discovery will act as an inspiration for what I'm currently writing. But most of the time the news stories I read are simply interesting tidbits of history. Unfortunately, I have disallowed comments because I travel so frequently that I can neither monitor nor respond to them. But I would still love to share the history that I find fascinating each day. So welcome! And feel free to visit my website at or contact me at authormichellemoran at hotmail dot com.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Q&A With Historical Fiction Author Kamran Pasha

*Your novel, MOTHER OF BELIEVERS, tells the story of Aisha, who married the leader Muhammad and eventually became a leader herself. What drew you to this period in history?
As a practicing Muslim, I have always been fascinated by the stories around the birth of Islam. This was the defining period that shaped Muslim civilization, much like the Exodus is a pivotal historical period for Jews and the ministry of Jesus is for Christians. But unlike the earlier religions in the monotheistic family, Islam was born in the full light of history. The amount of historical data around Prophet Muhammad, his family and followers is staggering. We know facts as minute as how the Prophet tied his shoes and how he ate, along with surprisingly intimate details of his life with his wives. Much of this is due to Aisha, the Prophet’s youngest and most beloved wife, who is the central hero of MOTHER OF THE BELIEVERS. She transmitted over 2,000 historical accounts about her life with the Prophet and the early Muslim community, providing a wealth of detail that created an embarrassment of riches when I was researching the book. In fact, the challenge was trying to get in as much historical detail as I could while keeping the novel to a readable length. Had I followed my original story outline, the book would have been over 1,000 pages, and my publisher would probably have fainted. I had to drop many chapters I loved in order to make it more manageable. Still, the first draft came in at over 700 pages, and it took more painful editing until I got it down to a little over 500 pages. But as a result it is a better book. It’s tighter, and manages to convey the epic nature of the origins of Islam while still retaining an intimate feel.

*How much of MOTHER OF BELIEVERS is based on fact, and how much is fiction?
I state in my foreword that my novel is a work of fiction, as I wanted to make it clear that I am not claiming to present a textbook of Islamic history. Still, I tried to stay within the framework of the major historical events, partly due to my affinity for the underlying history as a Muslim, and partly because when it comes to the events I recount, truth is more remarkable than fiction. The birth of Islam is one of the most improbable and majestic moments in human history, filled with surprise twists and incredibly complex characters motivated by faith, passion, love and revenge. It is such an amazing tale that I really couldn’t “improve” on it with my creative imagination. The main area I allowed myself to indulge in speculation was in looking inside the hearts and minds of the characters, trying to imagine what they were thinking and feeling, what motivated them to take the actions that have been recorded by history. It is in that arena that my novel might generate some controversy, but my interpretations regarding the thoughts and motivations of these historical figures are well within the analysis of Muslim historians. There is really nothing in my book that cannot be found in the opinions of traditional scholars, although the choices I make might surprise some readers. In some ways, the book represents my own personal interpretation of Islamic history as a believer. I synthesized the world as my heart saw it. Perhaps we all do that every day when we look not only at the past, but also at our own lives and try to make sense of it all. The novel is written as a memoir, and I think all memory is a creative act. We remember events not necessarily as they were, but as they fit into our image of ourselves. So, in that sense, I think everyone is living a life that is historical fiction.

*Tell us about women's lives in 7th century Arabia.
Prior to the rise of Islam, women had a very difficult time in Arabia. It was a brutal wilderness with no central authority and a “kill or be killed” mindset that led the strong to prey on the weak. Women suffered tremendously, with no guaranteed rights, since there was no legal code. Arab men regularly performed female infanticide, burying unwanted baby girls alive in the desert. Kidnapping and rape were commonplace, and many women survived through prostitution. Although a few women had the protection of wealthy clans and were able to become prosperous businesswomen in the trading cities like Mecca, for most women pre-Islamic Arabia was a miserable environment. Islam in many ways began as a proto-feminist movement meant to alleviate the suffering of women and children in this chaotic world. Prophet Muhammad was himself an orphan and had grown up in poverty in Arabia after his mother died when he was six. He personally experienced the misery of life for the poor and the weak in the old system and he was very sensitive to the suffering of the less fortunate. And when the Prophet embarked on his mission to bring the Arabs to monotheism, his initial followers came primarily from that impoverished underclass. Women in particular were drawn to his new religion, as he banned female infanticide and started promulgating laws meant to make their lives easier. Muslim women secured the right own property and inherit from the beginning, rights that were not granted Christian women in Europe and America until the 19th century. The Prophet also worked to limit the pre-Islamic custom of polygamy and emphasized that multiple marriages should be undertaken primarily to help poor widows and orphans who needed the security of a family unit. These were remarkable reforms and Arab women flocked to the Islamic movement, which was finally bringing law and order to a barbaric world. And Muslim women continued to play major roles in every aspect of life in the Islamic community. Aisha, the Prophet’s wife and the main character of MOTHER OF THE BELIEVERS, is a remarkable example of an empowered Muslim woman. She was a scholar, a poet, a political leader, and a warrior who led armies into battle. In modern times, many Muslim feminists look back to her example as they fight for their own rights in the Islamic world. Unfortunately, Islam has gotten a bad rap as a misogynistic religion in the modern day, which is ironic considering that it began as a movement meant to liberate women and make their lives easier. But issues of sexism and oppression of Muslim women are very real today, and I hope that my novel will remind people of that liberating spark that is the heart of Islam. I hope that I can remind Muslim men and women what Islam stood for at its beginning and inspire believers to follow the best that is within the Islamic historical tradition.

*How did you go about researching your novel?
I looked at a large collection of historical sources that have been translated into English. I don’t speak Arabic and I had to rely on translations of early Arabic works by Muslim scholars. Thankfully, many of the most important sources have indeed been translated into English and provided a rich level of detail into the world in which Islam was born. As I mentioned earlier, the amount of historical information that is available on Prophet Muhammad is staggering, and the difficult part was not in finding material from which to write a novel, but in picking and choosing which stories to weave into the narrative. At the end of the day, I chose accounts that moved me emotionally, and I hope my love for these stories is evident to the reader of my MOTHER OF THE BELIEVERS.

*What are you working on next?
My next book, SHADOW OF THE SWORDS, is a historical novel on the Crusades. The tale follows the battle between King Richard the Lionheart and the Muslim sultan Saladin for control of Jerusalem. But at its heart, it is a love story with a young Jewish girl at the center who serves as a spy during the conflict. In many ways, I think the book will intrigue many people as it looks at what the Holy Land means to all three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And it looks at how the human heart can find love and beauty even in the midst of war and death. I think that SHADOW OF THE SWORDS asks some very profound questions about the nature of religious faith and human conflict, and is in some ways a direct analogy to some of the events happening in the Holy Land today. But it is ultimately a story of hope, reflecting my own desire to see reconciliation one day between all the Children of Abraham.

Thank you Kamran! And feel free to visit
Kamran Pasha online for more information about his amazing new novel Mother of Believers.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Q&A With Historical Fiction Author Jack Woodville London
What prompted you to begin a trilogy set in a small town during WWII?
It is said that men who fought in WWII never talk about their experiences; it certainly seemed to me that we didn’t hear a lot from the women who were caught up in that whirlwind either. Now, just as we are losing both the men and the women of that era at a rate faster than the war killed them, it is important that we not forget them. They endured rationing, separation, and wildly off-base expectations, such as winning the war and remaining chaste. Do we really know who our parents cared about before they married each other, what became of them, and, in the end, how we came to be who we are?

As for the small town, the icon of the home-front is Rosie the Riveter; the fact is that the US was still very rural and, except for those in the military or those who moved to work in the war factories, most Americans still had not traveled more than 50 miles from home. Very few rural Americans became Rosie the Riveter.

Your novel, French Letters -- Virginia’s War: Tierra Texas 1944, is set Stateside during the war. How did you research WWII Texas?
There is a tremendous amount of pure information about the Office of Price Administration (rationing), aircraft factories, military air fields, crops, census, that sort of thing in the source records. The color of ration stamps for what foods or goods, wooden sidewalks, what was on the grocery store shelves and what kind of medical treatment an old-school doctor could provide in the 1940’s, the text of the announcement broadcast in the middle of the night about the invasion of France – that kind of information is out there.

But the people – that required hard work, to get the sense of how they spoke to and about one another, slang, their daily lives – that took work. I spoke with dozens of people who grew up in that era and in small towns, looked at photographs and read snippets of their letters and four-page newspapers.

How much of the novel is based on fact and how much on fiction?
Tierra is fictitious. Virginia, Will, Poppy, all of the people are fictitious. Their stories in the novel are fictitious. But, the background to their lives and their town graded out with early readers as close to one hundred per cent factual. If in the novel a certain color ration stamp was sought for a certain food at a certain date, it is correct. Passing references to events such as freakish rainstorms, the kind of planes that flew from air bases in Lubbock and Clovis, where B-25 bombers were manufactured, how one might covet Lucky Strikes or a pair of shoes, those bits are on the money.

Tell us something surprising about the American young women that our soliders left behind during WWII?
One of the most disgraceful things a girl could do in a small town, worse even than rumored un-chastity, was to send a Dear John letter. It was expected that all girls were good girls who would wait for the soldiers they sent off to war. The fact is before they were our mothers and grandmothers, they were us. They had the same passions, inexperience, uncertainty, and naughtiness that we had when we were teens and twenties. They did not have the freedom we had – unequal pay, peremptory dismissal to give a man the same job, an expectation that a man was the head of the family and not to be challenged, and a very unequal set of rules for intimacy. There were no birth control pills and it was hard to argue that contraceptives were for anything other than sin. Even so, the soldiers who sowed a statistically staggering amount of wild oats, particularly in England during WWII, came home to discover that some of their pastures had been plowed in their absence.

What are you working on next?
Virginia’s War
is the novel of a young woman who was expected to wait for her soldier, Will, who was sent off as an army doctor to the war in Europe. I am working on the sequel, the novel of that army doctor, in France. The stories mirror one another.

Thank you Jack! And feel free to visit Jack Woodvile London online for more information about his latest novel French Letters, Book I: Virginia's War, Tierra Texas 1944.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Q&A With Historical Fiction Author David H. Jones

* While your novel TWO BROTHERS: ONE NORTH, ONE SOUTH is primarily about the Prentiss brothers of Baltimore during the American Civil War, what compelled you to integrate Hetty, Jenny, and Constance Cary so prominently into the story line?

Clearly, the remarkable battlefield experiences of Clifton and William Prentiss embody the quintessential "brother against brother" story of the Civil War. However, I wanted TWO BROTHERS to reveal a more comprehensive picture of American society during that turbulent period. To fully appreciate the story, it's important for the reader to understand the context of those times; the beliefs, attitudes, and motivations of a wide spectrum of participants, both military and civilian. Hetty, her sister Jenny, and their cousin Constance individually and collectively represent the transformation of women's role in upper class society, particularly in the South, due to deprivations caused by the war. Hetty and Jenny smuggle critical war materials across the Potomac and Constance blossoms as a writer of some importance; in addition to these contributions, they are the reigning belles of wartime Richmond. Known throughout the Army of Northern Virginia as the "Cary Invincibles" for their ardent patriotism, they make the first three pattern Confederate battle flags and frequently visit friends and relatives at military encampments. Hetty fearlessly crosses the lines on clandestine missions, barely escaping capture on several occasions. She is widely recognized as the most beautiful woman in the Southland and her romance with General John Pegram is a classic tale. It's no surprise that the poetic portion of Hetty's epitaph reads "Beautiful, Brilliant, Brave; Of Pure and Noble Heart, True and Generous Soul; In The Battle of Life Heroic, In Death Triumphant." How could I not want these three dynamic women to have a significant presence in this novel?

* How much of TWO BROTHERS is based on fact and how much is fiction?
The novel is closely based on real people and events; only a few characters and circumstances were created to benefit the telling of the story. As TWO BROTHERS was written as an historical fiction, I employed a strict criteria that there must be no evidence to the contrary regarding the imagined elements of the novel. Thus, the dialogue and scenes were written to be as historically accurate and authentic as possible.

* Tell us something surprising about Southern women in 19th century America?
Until the Civil War, traditional rules of American society prevented women from being conspicuous in public activities, as it was thought that such involvement would taint them and subject them to criticism, circumstances entirely unacceptable to their fathers, husbands, and brothers. Thus, women had to remain almost entirely within the domestic sphere. The emergence, by necessity, of women into the public sphere during the war forever transformed their role in society and helped set the stage for the women's suffrage movement that gained momentum later in the century. The prominence of woman in public endeavors also developed rapidly following the war with the emergence of ladies' memorial associations throughout the South. These powerful organizations were at the forefront of a campaign to recover the bodies of Confederate soldiers and arrange proper burial, something that Southern men could not accomplish due to constraints imposed upon them by Federal authorities. Southern upper class women achieved great success in this public forum and there was no turning back.

* How did you research the historical characters and events portrayed in TWO BROTHERS?
I discovered the Prentiss brothers story while researching the Civil War regiments of my ancestors. Clifton Prentiss served with my great great grandfather, James Touchstone, in the 6th Regiment of Maryland Infantry (US). I soon learned that Clifton Prentiss had a younger brother who served in the 1st and 2nd Maryland Battalions (CS) and that Walt Whitman wrote about the Confederate brother while a patient at Armory Square Hospital. My fascination increased dramatically when I found that both brothers were in close proximity on the same battlefield one week before Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox. I spent nearly three years researching primary sources such as military records, letters, memoirs, and period books and newspapers to document all aspects of the story. In the process, I became convinced that this was a story that must be told.

* Are you working on another historical fiction, and if so, what is it about?
Following publication of TWO BROTHERS, I learned that a descendant of another 6th Maryland officer compiled three journals in 1866 containing vivid accounts of his wartime experiences. In one portion, the battle on April 2, 1865 is described in detail and the officer reveals that he was close to Major Clifton Prentiss during the fighting. His firsthand account varies slightly with the novel's description of the climactic moment of the battle, which I had written consistent with the preponderance of available evidence. While I do not intent to revise the historical fiction, the rich details provided by these journals have me considering the possibility of writing a non-fictional account of the 6th Maryland Infantry throughout the war. It would essentially be a regimental history and I believe that it would be a good companion piece to my novel. Nevertheless, the finding of these journals demonstrates 1) that historical "fact" to subject to modification when new, credible information comes to light; and 2) that well crafted, authentic historical fiction is not that different from non-fiction, as both are based on the opinions and interpretations of historians. Our understanding of history evolves through various means; both historical fiction and non-fiction have a place in this process.

Thank you David! And feel free to visit David H. Jones for more information about Two Brothers.