Please give a warm Coffee Pot Book Club
welcome to Historical Fiction author, Douglas A. Burton.
|Cover designed by George Free, Treehouse Machine Studios.
DB: Thanks Mary! My name is Douglas A. Burton and I’m very pleased to be featured at the Coffee Pot Book Club. I noticed that your site is one of the top historical fiction sites on the web. That’s no small thing!
MA: It is, indeed, no small thing! I had the pleasure of reading Far Away Bird last year, and I wanted to ask you what inspired you to write about Empress Theodora?
I’ve dreamed of writing an epic Byzantine novel ever since I checked out my first library book about the Byzantine Empire. When I first discovered this eastern Roman empire, which was confined to the Middle-East, the Balkans, and North Africa, my imagination filled with such rich and exotic images. There, on the library book pages, my mind’s eye witnessed eastern Roman emperors who dressed in silken and bejeweled robes, but in the fashion of the Orient. They spoke Greek instead of Latin and ruled over an empire of domed Christian basilicas instead of Greco-Roman pagan temples. Their military appeared more as a patchwork of chainmail-clad Crusaders rather than icon Roman legionnaires. They had political factions that revolved around chariot races at the Great Hippodrome, rather than fanatical Romans who watched gladiator matches at the Coliseum. And I felt like I, alone, discovered an exotic ‘second’ Roman empire because pop culture was silent on the matter. In the 1990s, I couldn’t find a single serious film with the Byzantine Empire as it’s setting. No TV shows. Nothing! No one seemed to know about this mysterious time and place.
Driven to the point of creative madness, I tried to bring this world to life many, many times. And failed. In 2009, I made my first serious effort at writing a Byzantine novel. I wrote the novel in the first person with Justinian as the main character. I found myself 500 pages and roughly 160,000 words in when I realized that I had no structure or setup. I studied archetypes, story structure, and worked on my writing craft extensively.
In 2015, when I switched to a limited third-person novel centered around Empress Theodora, the story took off. I used my knowledge of feminine archetypes and the hero’s journey into the fray.
MA: The Byzantine Empire is really overlooked, especially when compared with the Western Roman Empire. I have been fascinated with the Byzantine Empire for quite a while, and that was why I was so excited to read your book. Which leads me on to my next question, how did you come up with your setting and your characters?
DB: The setting was the Byzantine Empire by default. From the beginning, there was no doubt that Constantinople of the Sixth Century was going to be my primary setting. I determined that the underlying ethic to be solved was carnality. So, I used every possible setting where that ethic played out—a bathhouse, a brothel, arcades, and schools for prostitution, a concubinary, aristocratic sex parties, etc. And I made sure Theodora provided a substantive perspective throughout it all. In the end, her opinions and attitudes toward carnality change and lead her to develop a vision of the world where women are treated differently, where women have options, and where women may be viewed as equals instead of objects. Her entire journey matches up to the historical accounts very precisely. I think the only major detail I changed was her age when her father dies.
|Constantinople: Use by Permission.
As far as characters, I wanted as many historical characters as possible, but I didn’t want “historical figures” self-consciously acting out history on the pages. I wanted human beings. I wanted characters who felt real, relatable, and authentic. I also paid special attention to my portrayal of women in the novel. I studied heroic women…a topic that needs more attention by the way…and I included different heroic personality types and mythic archetypes for women. There’s actually a lot of heroic women in the novel. Lastly, I wanted a heroine who suffered. I did not want to sensationalize Theodora or give readers a Mary Sue. I wanted a heroine who took the full force history in a male-dominated world and found a believable way to overcome her role in society. Theodora loses and fails and suffers and self-destructs a lot before she makes a stand. But when she does turn and fight, I wanted it to be the convincing (and unforgettable) emergence of a future empress.
MA: Far Away Bird is a wonderful success, so I think it is a book that you should certainly feel very proud of. There are many books in the historical fiction genre. Can you tell us three things that set your novel apart?
DB: Sure! One distinction is the use of mythical tropes and archetypes for both the masculine and feminine in the story. I also applied the hero’s journey in this novel…but allowed myself to break from conventions any time the story called for it. I also felt that the hero’s journey lacked certain themes that related specifically to women. So, I found major elements in mythology that dealt with the feminine and wove them all into the narrative. The result had a powerful impact on me as a writer, so I hope it has a powerful effect on readers.
Second, I think my book is distinctive in its style of visual storytelling. I made sure each setting meant something and provided critical details. Characters constantly interact with the world of Byzantium. I wanted scenes to feel cinematic rather than merely descriptive.
And third, I think my story is distinctive as a novel about Empress Theodora. I make a serious effort to reconcile her historical personality from a psychological point of view. In an unrelated non-fiction book, I encountered bizarre psychological case studies about female exhibitionists, meaning, women who have an aggressive tendency toward nudity. The psychologist Leon Wurmer pointed out that in many of the extreme cases, female exhibitionists partook in something called “counterphobia,” which is engaging excessively in a behavior that the person genuinely fears. His conclusion was that women who exhibited their body so determinedly did so out of an attempt to remove a trauma regarding their body, such an abuse. I wondered if Theodora’s historical infamy may have been rooted in traumatic abuse and feelings of shame. I suddenly saw her in a different light. The novel spends a good deal of time addressing the human experience of shame. And researching this topic unwaveringly opened my eyes to the fact that this problem is widespread and persists to this very day.
MA: Last, but not least. Can you tell us what you are currently working on?
DB: I’m working on two things. One is the sequel to ‘Far Away Bird.’ Book 2 centers on Theodora as she becomes an empress and attempts to assert her power and will in the Byzantine government. I plan on exploring the feminine power archetypes and power dynamics for women in male-dominated settings. I want her transition from an unwanted guest of the palace to one of the world’s most incredible female autocrats to be believable and carry real-world wisdom.
|The Heroine’s Labyrinth.
And finally, I’m working on an alternative to the hero’s journey. Writing about Theodora changed my entire world view about women and about fiction. I decided that the hero’s journey, while perfectly valid, is essentially a male-oriented hero arc. After studying so many heroic women, I realized that heroines consistently deviate from the hero’s journey and carry recurrent themes of their own. From Clarice Starling to Wonder Woman to Dorothy Gale, our heroines are modeling a different type of heroic behavior. Their enemies are rarely distant dragons who threaten the native culture from afar. Nope. Heroines tend to face masked minotaurs embedded from within the native culture. Heroines often model behaviors that break gender roles and traditions. They often physically interpose themselves in between a powerful enemy and a defenseless life. In fact, I’ve found a ton of recurrent themes in heroine-centric stories that I think form the basis of an entirely separate monomyth for narrative structure. I call it the heroine’s labyrinth. I’m very excited about it. If this sounds interesting to you, check it out on my website at douglasaburton.com. You’ll see a section devoted to the heroine’s labyrinth.
MA: I cannot wait to read the sequel to Far Away Bird! Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to chat with us today. If you would like to learn more about Far Away Bird and read a fabulous excerpt then you know what to do — scroll down!
Theodora gets an early lesson about power in Chapter 24.
Theodora and Macedonia stood side by side, sweeping through a series of dance stretches. “You must engage men directly,” Macedonia said. “This is not so easy for some women because it involves confrontation. But you must learn how to oppose a man and to let your opposition strengthen your position with him.”
“What does that mean?”
“There are three basic roles to any relationship,” said Macedonia. “A master, a servant, and a peer. These roles are very defined among men, but with you, he will always assume himself the master. The world has taught him this and now you must teach him otherwise. Put a man in conflict, and he’ll work his way out, one of their great strengths, but you’ll use it to your advantage. When you learn what drives each man, you must challenge him on his ground. You’re to become the impetus,” she said and pulled out of the dance stretch. She turned to Theodora and lifted her chin. “If he is arrogant, doubt him. If he is ignorant, correct him. If he worships you, command him. If he is timid, embolden him. If he is judgmental, discredit him. If he is broken, console him. If he is withdrawn, ignore him. If he is a dreamer, inspire him. If he is irritated, pester him. If he is demanding, deny him. If he is threatening, turn and face him,” she said. “Too many women challenge men
, using anger without power, and a
powerless woman will eventually falter. Men are prepared for confrontation, and
so too must you be. And when he responds to your opposition, you will remain composed,
unflinching, and assertive.”
Theodora sighed and asked the inevitable question. “But what if he becomes violent?”
“Then he seeks authority over you, Theodora. If he strikes you, stand tall and dare him to do it again.”
That wasn’t the answer Theodora was looking for.
“Remember, we’re speaking about a man with whom you’ve established some level of trust and rapport. He’ll be a friend, a relative, or lover. If that man should turn against you, if he should strike you, you
him immediately.” Macedonia repeated herself, but slowly. “Stand tall and dare
him to do it again. The power of violence is not the violence itself, but
whether you accept his sole authority afterward. And you will accept it. With each blow you defy him.
His authority is collapsing, even while he believes he’s enforcing it.”
“And if he kills you?”
Macedonia stepped in close again and grabbed Theodora’s robe. “Then let this be your burial shroud. Wear it proudly. If you desire power, Theodora, then you better know the price. You go all the way. The wellspring of all power in this world comes from a willingness to face death for your own autonomy in this life. That is the covenant. No person or nation has ever risen without facing this brutal and powerful truth.”
Theodora stared back at Macedonia, stunned, feeling the weight of her mentor’s lesson more heavily than normal.
Macedonia continued. “And why should women fear death? We stare death in the face to bring life into this world, and we do so willingly. So, tell me, which is the better burial shroud? The one you wear now, or the one you’ll wear as an old woman who feared death and died anyway? Because I say that a woman who dies on her feet never really dies.” Macedonia blinked and glanced above Theodora as if she saw something there. “She is swept up from the earth in a magnificent gale, and she’ll leave this world sovereign.” Macedonia reset her eyes on Theodora. “An unconquered woman.”
The smaller of the two Theodoras heard the word. She circled her thoughts around it. But like a wolf drawn in by a bright and mesmerizing fire, she feared to go any closer.
Far Away Bird
By Douglas A. Burton
Inspired by true events, Far Away Bird delves into the complex mind of Byzantine Empress Theodora. This intimate account deftly follows her rise from actress-prostitute in Constantinople's red-light district to the throne of the Byzantine Empire.
Her salacious past has left historians blushing and uncomfortable. Tales of her shamelessness have survived for centuries, and yet her accomplishments as an empress are unparalleled. Theodora goes on to influence sweeping reforms that result in some of the first ever Western laws granting women freedom and protection. More than a millennium before the women's rights movement, Theodora, alone, took on the world's greatest superpower and succeeded. Far Away Bird goes where history classrooms fear to tread in hopes that Theodora can finally take her seat among the greatest women in history.
Theodora seems impossible--yet her transcendence teaches us that society can't tell us who we are deep down. Before there was a legendary empress, there was a conflicted young woman from the lower classes.
And her name was Theodora.
The Coffee Pot Book Club
Read the full review HERE!
Far Away Bird
Douglas A. Burton
Douglas Alan Burton is a speaker, author, and expert storyteller whose work depicts heroic figures and their deeper connection to the human experience. Doug blogs about heroes, heroines, and villains in pop culture with some unexpected and refreshing perspective. He grew up in what he describes as “the heroic boyhood culture of late Generation X” that has gone mainstream around the world. He also shares strategies with fellow writers for writing compelling heroic characters in fiction.
Douglas recently began outlining a breakthrough storytelling model that reveals a fascinating “heroine-centric” model for story structure he calls The Heroine’s Labyrinth. He believes a powerful new archetype is emerging for women in fiction. His forthcoming novel, Far Away Bird, which centers on the early life of Byzantine Empress Theodora, won the 2019 Manuscript Content for Historical Fiction from the Writers’ League of Texas.