Mary Anne: Could you tell us a little about your fabulous book, Dawn Empress: A Novel of Imperial Rome (The Theodosian Women Book 2) and what inspired you to write it?
Faith L. Justice: Before I start, I want to thank The Coffee Pot Book Club for hosting this interview and sharing my story with all your loyal readers. I love to do interviews because it stretches my writing muscles. Soooo, about the book…
At it’s heart, Dawn Empress is a love story. A sister’s love for her brother, a saint’s love for her church, and an empress’ love of power. Aelia Pulcheria Augusta was a fifth century Roman Empress, sister to Theodosius II, and is a saint in both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. She led a remarkable life as a female political prodigy in a time when women—even imperial women—had little control over their lives.
I ran across Pulcheria and the other Theodosian women while researching my first novel Selene of Alexandria set in the same time period. When I realized this young empress took over the Eastern Roman Empire at the tender age of fifteen my immediate reaction was “How did a teenage girl outwit a court of seasoned political men to rule an empire?” I had a different book to finish, but she stuck in my mind. Several years later, I started on the Theodosian Women series and finally got to bring Pulcheria’s story to the public.
Mary Anne: What were the challenges you faced in researching this period of history and were there any unexpected surprises?
Faith L. Justice: Research into the fifth century—particularly into individual people—is difficult. Barbarians invaded the Roman Empire sacking cities, disrupting education and culture, and destroying records. This left only fragments of primary sources for future historians to argue over. I have no diaries, personal letters, or newspaper accounts that are sometimes available to writers about more recent historical characters.
But that limitation actually turned out to be a wonderful surprise. The lack of primary sources and disagreement among modern historians about the meaning or truth of some of those documents, left lots of room for my imagination. It allowed me to create complicated characters with flaws and strengths that could feel credible to modern readers.
Mary Anne: Do you think historical fiction authors have a responsibility to depict the past as accurately as they can?
Faith L. Justice: That’s my personal code. I write biographical historical fiction and feel I should come as close to history as I can. But in the end, it is fiction. I sometimes have to chose between conflicting interpretations of the history, leave out the boring bits, and make up the motivating events or reactions. I stay true to births, deaths, marriages, known historical events—the basic timeline—but make up the rest.
That said, I would not impose my code on other historical fiction writers. Everyone writes for different reasons and different audiences. For some writers the mystery, romance, adventure, or personal journey is the heart of their stories. They may not need as much actual history to accomplish their ends and satisfy their readers.
Mary Anne: Do you have any top tips for writers who are thinking about setting their story in Imperial Rome?
Faith L. Justice: When you’re researching, books are great for the basic history, but museums and site visits are better for the atmosphere and descriptive narrative. Nothing beats walking the famed walls of Constantinople, feeling the weather change when a storm blows in across the Black Sea, or marveling at surviving frescoes and mosaics in stunning fifth century buildings. I took the picture of this beautiful mosaic in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy and described it in my first Theodosian Women book Twilight Empress.
My favorite cool tool is an interactive website called Orbis, the “Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World.” Orbis provides travel data in the Roman Empire. Fill in the details and it tells you how long it would take an army to march from Constantinople to Aquileia in January: 26.5 days, covering 1588 km (987 miles) at 60 km (37 miles) per day. Do you have a post rider carrying an important message from Rome to Toulouse in October? How about a trader shipping exotic animals from Alexandria to Rome during the summer? The Orbis algorithms factor in the mode of transportation, the weather, condition of the roads, etc. and do all the work. Magic!
Mary Anne: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Faith L. Justice: Stick with it! In today’s Wild West of publishing, if you have a good story, well told, you can find an audience—but it probably won’t be through a Big 5 publisher. I came to writing fiction late, so my younger self was a mature woman. I didn’t have any starry-eyed expectations of instant success. However, after devoting a decade to learning my craft, writing three novels, and unsuccessful pitching to traditional publishers; I had to stop and take stock. How much more of my life did I want to devote to this? I took a five-year hiatus and concentrated on non-fiction writing.
Throughout that time my characters kept calling to me, “Tell my story!” I finally gave in, indie-published my first book, marketed it, and waited anxiously to see if I could find an audience. I did. The champagne flowed! Nine books later, my biggest regret is that five-year dry spell. But, I can’t time travel, so I’m dedicated to getting my heart’s desire projects done in the time I have left. I have two more novels outlined and partially written, a novella and a children’s book ready for a final polish, a couple of short stories for anthologies…it’s a good thing that writers rarely “retire.”
From Chapter 1
Imperial Palace, Constantinople, October 6, 404
Pulcheria winced as her father’s hand ground her fingers together. She stepped on the hem of her night shift and stumbled. Father jerked her upright.
“Come, girl, when did you become so clumsy?” His voice was rough with wine, anger, and pain. Pulcheria had never seen him so distraught in her five short years of life. For the first time her father Arcadius, the Emperor of Eastern Rome, frightened her.
When he had awakened her moments before, her head muzzy with dreams, she knew something was wrong. Father never came to her chambers. The palace nursery, where she and her siblings Arcadia, Theodosius, and baby Marina lived, was the province of nurses and tutors. She only saw him on those rare occasions he ordered the children to accompany him on some outing. Her mother, Empress Eudoxia, inspected the nursery and questioned the servants about her children’s health and well-being when it suited her—which was not often. Now her father dragged her down the echoing marble halls toward a part of the palace to which she had never been.
They entered a sumptuous but disordered receiving room. A half-eaten meal of beef doused with fishy smelling garum sauce sat on a silver tray, the Persian carpet lay askew, and several cloaks lay carelessly on a gilt chair. The disarray only added to her chaotic feelings of fear and bewilderment. She tried to lag behind, but her father dragged her forward, nearly pulling her off her feet. Pulcheria whimpered at the pain in her hand and shoulder but refused to cry out.
Antiochus, the Chief Eunuch and head of the imperial household, sat near the door to another chamber. He rose, approached her father, and bowed low. “I’m so very sorry, Augustus, but your blessed wife is dead. She passed on to God’s good grace but moments ago.”
“More likely she passed on to the devil. She will make him a good whore.” Arcadius’ face went purple as he spat the words at the eunuch. “The child?”
Antiochus glanced at Pulcheria and lowered his voice. “He came much too early to save.”
“Better dead than another set of horns on my head,” her father muttered.
Pulcheria struggled to find meaning in the words of the adults. Her mother was dead? What child? Her father grew horns? She looked at his forehead with muddled curiosity but saw no bumps.
Father started forward, pushing at the eunuch’s chest. “Out of my way.”
Antiochus stepped back, but still blocked their path. His voice quavered. “Most Kind Augustus, is this really the place for the princess? Let us at least ready the body before she views it.”
Pulcheria tugged on her captive hand and cried, “Please, Father, let me go back.”
Father’s hand tightened on hers, but he turned and dropped to one knee to look into her face. “This is important, Pulcheria. You will be first lady of the land now. Show me how an Augusta behaves.”
Pulcheria steadied under his gaze. She wanted to make him proud. “Yes, Father, I will do as you wish.”
“That’s my girl. You’ve got a backbone, unlike your sniveling brother.”
A small flame of anger at this attack on her baby brother warmed Pulcheria’s chilled body. Theo was not quite three, and still a child. As the oldest, everyone demanded more from her, and she was proud to give it. It wasn’t fair for Father to compare Theo to her!
One look at her father’s angry face doused that flame. She had no way to fight for herself, much less her brother. Helplessness clove her tongue to the roof of her mouth. She nodded. Father’s lips curved into a smile, but he didn’t look happy; his eyes were red with tears.
Antiochus stepped aside, sparing a pitying look for Pulcheria. Arcadius straightened and led the girl into the bedroom. Antiochus’ words came rushing back. Her mother was dead. What did it mean? What would she see? A sense of dread knotted her stomach and slowed her steps, so that her father had to, again, tug on her arm.
As he opened the door, she heard the soft chanting of priests and the shriller murmurs of female servants. Burning musky incense failed to mask an odor that left a coppery taste in her mouth.