BlogHer Talks to Stella Duffy

5 years ago

BlogHer recently caught up with author Stella Duffy. We're reading her novel Theodora for BlogHer Book Club.

BlogHer: Despite her importance within the history of the Roman Empire, Theodora hasn't received the same amount of attention as some of the other women in history among the general public. Why do you think that is?

Stella Duffy: I think many women in history haven’t achieved the lasting prominence their lifetime status or achievements might have deserved. This is partly because for such a very long time, historians were men who didn’t see women’s lives - no matter how important - as worth recording, but I think there’s a more insidious reason with Theodora, to do with empire and colonialism and racism. The west (by which I mean western Europe in Theodora’s time, and modern day first-world countries in our time) have always believed themselves to be the centre of the world. You only need to look at British politics two hundred years ago or much of American and European politics today to see that large powers truly do believe they are all there is. In Theodora’s time, the accent was shifting from east back to the west. The east – China, Persia, Arabia - had always been both intriguing and extremely "different" to western eyes, which allowed for some exoticism in western writing and histories of the east, but when the Roman Empire finally truly crumbled, there were already great powers rising in central and western Europe.

Our modern-day histories (for those of us in the west!) are based on the comings and goings of those European powers, following on from the Roman Empire. Therefore, for us in the west, Theodora and many women like her – as well as many men – simply ceased to matter as the focus shifted back to the west. I’m sure that if we could read the Persian and Chinese and various Arabic languages of the time, we might have a very different sense of world history – those of us who only read English have to content ourselves with Euro-centric histories, written by men, from a time when the rise of the church (both Roman and orthodox) meant women’s voices were being ever more suppressed – no wonder it seems we didn’t exist in history other than as saints, whores or witches!

As for the issue of why Theodora didn’t maintain the prominence of other historical women ... well, Cleopatra famously "seduced" two hugely important men and then (apparently) committed suicide. History has always loved tarts with a heart who come to a bad and early end – Theodora, on the other hand, was faithful and devoted to Justinian – or at least, his actions in visiting her grave weekly for twenty years after her death, and in never marrying again himself, would encourage us to believe in their fidelity. Unlike Queen Elizabeth I, she was no virgin. Unlike Helen of Troy, she was, so they said, not especially beautiful. I also think there is the issue of western racism/anti-Semitism against darker-skinned people, people of Semitic origin, and there are suggestions that some of Theodora’s family might have been from Syria, or at the very least that she was no blonde, European-featured beauty. At a time when the west (Europe) was constantly at war with the east (especially over faith, and in the Crusades), I suspect a great empress who looked like the enemy wasn’t necessarily going to be considered worth remembering.

BlogHer: In your author video, you had some Theodora-esque pictures and things in the background. Do you surround yourself with things from your current novel’s time period while you are writing? What did you have for Theodora?

Stella Duffy: Because this was my first historical novel, I found that I needed to constantly be looking at maps of Constantinople and the Mediterranean/Middle East of the time so I knew not only where the characters were, but also the names of the places, names that are changed today. I also had – still have as I’m doing the final edit of the sequel – the postcard of Theodora that I bought at the chapel in Ravenna where I saw the mosaic that started off this brilliant journey.

When I’ve been working on other, contemporary novels, it’s been other things – newspaper clippings, notes to myself – whatever might remind me of what I meant to put in the book!

BlogHer: There are conflicting historical accounts of Theodora's life. Did you find that gave you more freedom to construct her as a character?

Stella Duffy: Absolutely. The fact that so little has been written about her, and relatively little fiction, meant I was able to try to be true to what I had found out – and surmised, assumed, decided – about the character, but also to go far further in creating new characters and situations for her than I might have been able to with a much more "known" character. The characters of Menander and Sophia, for example, are both entirely fictitious, but they serve useful roles in the book; (Menander as someone to fight against and also to develop the idea of a trusted teacher which Theodora finds again in both Severus and the Patriarch Timothy; and Sophia as a confidante, as a sidekick, and as someone through whom I could show different aspects of the backstage world).

BlogHer: Often when reading historical novels, readers find themselves deciphering historical language. The language in Theodora read more contemporary. Was that a conscious choice?

Stella Duffy: Yes, it was an entirely conscious choice. Personally I’m not much of a fan of the "thee” and “thou” school of historical fiction, I don’t want to be pulled up by language I don’t know or understand, I want to be able to flow with the characters and the story. For me, as a reader, that means I prefer contemporary language – not least because the thee/thou etc. were simply the common words of their time, so I don’t think it makes much sense to use them for a modern novel, not least because in this case they wouldn’t have been speaking English anyway! Another reason is that Constantinople in Theodora’s time was a polyglot city, people spoke street Greek, formal Greek, street Latin and formal Latin, they spoke Syriac, Aramaic, and any number of other eastern European dialects and more distant languages, but having both Greek and Latin was fairly common, especially for those in the court and the religious, or those from the western end of the Empire, like Justinian. Therefore, to try to differentiate the two (and because I can’t write in two distinct types of English) I have used more modern/contemporary language for what would have been street-Greek, especially when Theodora is among her friends, or backstage (and yes, that is why the characters swear on occasion; go backstage sometime – actors and dancers, in my experience, swear like troopers!), and then there is a more formal rhythm to their dialogue, though again in contemporary language, when she is in the Palace, or with priests, people with whom she is less comfortable. I don’t expect the reader to pick up on every nuance of this, but it’s certainly something I’ve been aware of and made efforts to be as rigorous with as I can.

BlogHer: You have also written a series of crime novels and numerous plays. Do you find your writing process changes depending on what kind of piece you are writing?

Stella Duffy: Yes and no. I still try to work every day, I still take each new piece of work seriously, but also try to play lightly with it, to allow it (story, character, ideas) to surprise me. Different subjects and different time periods have their challenges, of course, but I find with any piece of work there are great days when it flows and is simple and other days when it’s like wading through mud – be that in prose or theatre, a contemporary literary novel, a short story, or a historical fiction. The thing is, it’s my job. It’s work. I do enjoy it ... and while I certainly know I am fortunate to do this for my living, I don’t expect to enjoy every moment as I did when writing was a hobby. Now it’s how I pay my bills – and just as with any job, there are good days, good weeks even ... and bad! Which is how it should be.

Join us discussing Theodora in BlogHer Book Club!

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