I’m sitting here eating crackers,
I dip ‘em in something bad for my liver.
The branches outside move in the wind;
And I reach for my sword when they quiver.
The Xboxes whir in the night-time
As I wait for the red ring of death.
I don’t suppose anyone knows
How long I can go without breath?
The creatures all over the mansion
Hide in the shadows when I look around.
But I feel their presence upon me,
And twitch upon hearing their mockery sound.
I don’t think the lights will stay on in the storm—
I don’t think we can get pressure on Brady—
I don’t like the fact that there’s ground on the snow—
I’m losing my mind for the love of a lady.
My paranoia has gone to extremes;
I think Wikipedia’s telling the truth.
I think that some monarchist penguin
Is judging me for the sins of my youth.
Mister or Miss, don’t misjudge or dismiss
This missive of awful inanity.
For as bad as it is living like this,
I’ve found I prefer it to sanity!
[The following is an email interview I conducted with Eileen Stephenson, author of Tales of Byzantium: A Selection of Short Stories. It’s a very enjoyable book, and a great introduction to an unjustly-neglected time period. Ms. Stephenson’s answers are very helpful for independent authors, especially those writing historical fiction. Enjoy!–BG]
Q: How did you first become interested in Medieval Byzantium?
A: It was all because of the 2-3 hours I spend commuting to the day job. I came to rely on audio books for my sanity. One Saturday at the library, searching the shelves I came upon John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium. I didn’t know much about them, and expected little. Then in the introduction, the author says that the one thing you could never say about the Byzantines is that they were boring. “Oh, really?” I thought skeptically. He was right, though, as the three bookcases I now have filled with Byzantine history will attest.
Q: The third story, “Alexiad” is about Anna Comnena writing “The Alexiad”. I liked that it focused on a woman as the central character. Can you tell me a little about women in Byzantine society?
A: Medieval women anywhere usually had few rights and less education. However, 11th and 12th century Byzantium saw literacy, even for women, become common down into the middle classes. There were women doctors – paid about half as much as the men, and expected to work twice as many hours, but still far ahead of western Europe.
The Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine) had three women ruling empresses. The first was Irene the Athenian, the 8th century widow of an emperor and mother of another emperor. However, her reputation is tainted by the fact that she blinded her son to take the throne. The next was Zoe in the 11th century. She was the oldest surviving child of an emperor and married three men who each took the title of emperor at their wedding. After Zoe and her last husband died, Zoe’s sister, Theodora, succeeded them and ruled alone for 19 months before dying.
During the Comnene era, from 1081 to 1185, women frequently influenced events, starting with the heroine of the novel I’m working on, Anna Dalassena, even if they never fully ruled in their own right. There were more than a few women of that period who left their mark in history.
Q: Both Anna Comnena and Constantine VII, who features prominently in the first story, seem to have been very notable because of their writing. Do you think that history is often, as you write in the notes to “Alexiad”, “told by the writer”? And if so, to what extent do you think that their perspective skews our understanding of history?
A: History is definitely told by the writer, although often the writer is paid by the winner. I think in Anna Comnena’s case she wrote partly because, with her intelligence and education, she needed something to do in the long years of her confinement, and partly to honor her father. Anna’s brother, the Emperor John II Comnenus, was a notably modest man and kept no historian on staff to record his accomplishments, so there is little history of his reign.
A better example of writers skewing perspectives is the 6th century historian, Procopios. A courtier in Justinian I’s reign, he wrote a typically bland official history and then he wrote his Secret History, a salacious retelling of every possible mistake and ugly rumor concerning Justinian and his wife, Theodora. I’ve never looked for a copy of his official history, but his Secret History is in paperback and still quite a read. That’s the one that people remember now.
Q: What is the most challenging thing about writing historical fiction? How do you balance historical accuracy vs. well-paced narrative, if the two conflict?
A: The most challenging thing about writing historical fiction is the writing. Grasping the elements of grammar is a start, but then there’s the need for a well-crafted story holding the reader’s attention. You can’t build a sturdy house just knowing how to hammer a nail.
Balancing historical accuracy vs. the well-paced narrative can be challenging but my reading of some stars of the genre – Sharon Kay Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick, Colleen McCullough – have provided examples of how to do it. Often it means having long periods of time pass between some chapters, while other chapters occur in close time proximity.
Q: What is the number one reaction you would like readers to have to your book? Do you want them to be more interested in studying history, or do you want them gripped by the story/characters?
A: Reading historical fiction as a kid made me want to learn more about the history. With the Byzantines, it was the history that came first, and when I found little fiction about them, I knew that was what I had to write. The reaction I hope my readers have is that the story and characters so grip them that they want to learn more about the history.
Q: What other authors in the historical fiction genre influenced you?
A: Sharon Kay Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick, and Colleen McCullough would be highest on that list. Others are Bernard Cornwell, Thomas B. Costain, Philippa Gregory. I’ve been fortunate to meet other historical novelists in the Historical Novel Society and many of them have been kind enough to share their wisdom with me. It’s been a great experience.
Q: If you were to write an “alternative history” story about Byzantium, what historical event would you like to change?
A: I think most historians would wish the outcome of the Battle of Manzikert to be different. But Manzikert was just the result of forces put in play thirty years earlier when Empress Zoe chose as her third husband a frivolous spendthrift who disastrously weakened the empire. So I would probably say my alternative story would be a better husband for Zoe than Constantine IX Monomachos.
[My thanks to Ms. Stephenson for her time and very thoughtful answers. You can get Tales of Byzantium here.]
[See it at Scott’s website here.]
This is a good example of video game analysis done right. Scott’s description of the different levels of Deus Ex‘s story reminds me of (you guessed it) Gayden Wren’s style of analysis. You know how I love that.
As I’ve mentioned before, Deus Ex is one of my favorite games, and its atmosphere–which the game’s creator Warren Spector called “millennial weirdness”–was one of the major influences on my novella. I recommend watching this review for anyone who doesn’t play games to see what I mean.
Coincidentally, Spector tweeted this today (The embed tweet code isn’t working; sorry):
“When is a game going to win a Pulitzer Prize? Are we ready and deserving of such an honor? Can we at least TRY to be worthy of that? Please.”
Before watching Scott’s video, I probably wouldn’t have said Deus Ex deserved it, but having seen it, I realized that as a piece of “entertainment pseudo-journalism”, I decided it was.
Have you ever noticed that it’s a compliment to say that someone is a prince, but an insult to say that someone is a princess?
Weird, isn’t it?
As I touched on in this post, I approach drama criticism differently than many people do. I tend to criticize specific things like “I liked the performance, but not the writing”, rather than just say “I didn’t like that character”, for example.
I just realized the other day why I do this: it’s because I started in drama criticism by analyzing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, thanks to Gayden Wren.
For those who don’t know, there are only 14 Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. And Gilbert and Sullivan have been dead for over a century, so it’s not like there are any new ones coming out.
So, whereas fans of, say, Star Wars can always be looking forward to the next installment, G & S fans pretty much have to content ourselves with re-evaluating the existing body of work. This means watching performances, listening to recordings, and then critiquing and analyzing them.
Very quickly, a young G&S fan gets to know the core libretto and music pretty well. Then they have to start comparing different performances and actors. For example, I greatly prefer Martyn Green’s Ko-Ko in The Mikado to John Reed’s. Green always seemed spontaneous, (which must be really hard with material one has performed a thousand times)…
…whereas Reed seemed robotic. (In his defense, Reed did seem like a better singer.)
That’s only one small example. I could write an entire essay about why the 1973 University of Michigan Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s recording of The Grand Duke is vastly superior to the 1976 D’Oyly Carte recording. (And I am an Ohio State fan, so praising anything from That Light Opera Society Up North is difficult.)
My point is, when you get used to seeing or hearing different performances of the same lines, scenes, etc., you learn to separate acting from writing from directing from set design and so on. Being a G&S fan isn’t the only way to do this–I imagine Shakespeare aficionados are the same way.
But most people don’t evaluate works of drama that way. They just make a gut reaction judgment on whether they liked it or not.
This hashtag started trending on Twitter after Hillary Clinton’s speech about the Alt-Right movement. As some readers may remember, I’ve had lively debates with some Alt-Right writers in the past, so I was interested to see that the existence of this ideology is seemingly news to many people.
I started thinking about how I’d concisely describe the Alt-Right. The best I could come up with was “unabashed nationalism”, but that seems inadequate.
After thinking about it a bit more, I settled on this definition:
The Traditional Right got outraged about movies that they believed blasphemed against the Bible, like The Last Temptation of Christ and The Life of Brian. The Alternative Right gets outraged about a movie that they believe blasphemed against Ghostbusters.
It’s a rather awkward definition, but very revealing, in my opinion.
Well, Mr. Trump–and/or your advisors–if you’re reading this, and have now learned to follow my advice, I suggest you do the following things:
- Apologize specifically for your many past disgraceful words and deeds towards women, and never say or do such things again.
- Read David Ricardo to get some idea how International Trade works.
- Also read John Maynard Keynes to get some idea how macroeconomics works.
- In general, adopt a more cooperative tone–win or lose, it would be better if the country is not at war with itself when the election is over.
- Make a sizable donation from your own personal wealth to domestic violence shelters or other organizations that help women who have been victims of violence.
- Use your Twitter account only to post links to press releases and videos–not to insult random people.
- Quit constantly getting into fights with the Press. A Free Press is vital to the functioning of our Republic, and thus you should welcome their tough questions.
- Promise to reform and improve America’s Educational system, so that the next generation of young people can be competitive. As a first step in this direction, quit speaking in slang and improper English, and remove all vulgarity from your language while you are seeking public office.
- You have spoken in the past about the importance of hiring “the best people” away from the competition. Immigration can be used much the same way for a Nation–and indeed it has been throughout our great Country’s past. Remember that, and change your proposed policies accordingly.
I know what you are thinking, Mr. Trump. (If you’re reading this) You’re thinking: If I do all that, will I win?
I can’t say. But if you do it, you will at least be able to say you comported yourself honorably and intelligently in the last few months of the campaign. And if candidates for public office conduct themselves honorably and intelligently, it improves the quality of our political discourse generally. And if that happens, it will certainly help to make America even greater than it already is.
And that’s really what you want, isn’t it, Mr. Trump?