Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Author Interview: Helena P. Schrader

Yesterday, I reviewed Helena P. Schrader's The Olympic Charioteer. Today, learn a little more about her and what went into the writing of this fascinating book! Don't forget to read the review.

Jennifer Walker: You obviously have a great affinity for Ancient Greece and its peoples. What piqued your interest in this subject?

Helena P. Schrader
: What drove me to start writing about archaic Sparta was learning about how Athenian women were treated much like women under the Taliban in Afghanistan today, while Spartan women enjoyed respect, education, economic power, and physical freedom. Because I had been raised on the usual fare of "enlightened" Athens and "militaristic" - not to say brutal and backward - Sparta, this discovery made me want to learn more about Sparta.  The more I read, the more I realized that there is a great deal of false information - or at least misconceptions about Sparta - in circulation today. I'm a bit of a crusader, who loves to take up "lost causes," and I have always used my fiction to draw attention to issues and perspectives that have either been neglected - as with the German Resistance - or misrepresented as in the case of Sparta. It was the great contrast between the scholarly evidence about Sparta and popular images that made me feel writing one - or more - good novels about Sparta would do more to correct misconceptions than yet another scholarly work.  I also developed a website aimed at laymen looking into the subject for the first time. This is "Sparta Reconsidered" at:

Jennifer Walker: You seem to have a lot of knowledge of chariot racing and horses. Do you have any real-life experience with this, or is it all based on research?

Helena P. Schrader
: I have loved horses since I was a child, ridden on four continents (North and South America, Europe and Africa), and I have owned three horses to date. I earned my Assistant Instructors certificate from the British Horse Society right after high school, and most recently I rode polo ponies in Lagos, Nigeria. While in graduate school at the University of Kentucky, I used to hot-walk race horses at Keenland racetrack to earn extra money. All this contributed to my understanding of horses, horse-breeding, training and horse handling. But I must confess I  never learned to drive horses. I'd love to learn. Maybe that's something I can do in my old age, when I'm too crippled to mount a horse..

Jennifer Walker: Are there other areas of history you are interested in?

Helena P. Schrader
: Absolutely! I earned a PhD in History from the University of Hamburg, Germany with a dissertation on a leader of the German military resistance to Hitler. I conducted hundreds of interviews with survivors of Nazi Germany for that work, but so much of the information gleaned from those interviews was not directly pertinent or suitable for use in the dissertation.  So I developed a novel instead, An Obsolete Honor. Yet even before I wrote that, I lived in England and became fascinated with the Battle of Britain. I read every single first-hand account I could lay my hands on and I don't know how many histories. The result was my novel Chasing the Wind, which RAF Battle of Britain ace Wing Commander Bob Doe called "the best book" he had ever read on the Battle. He wrote me to say I had "got it smack on the way it was for us fighter pilots." As a historical fiction writer, there is no higher compliment than to have someone who actually lived through the period of your novel say you got it "smack on." Being a best seller would not mean as much to me.  So, you can see, World War Two is another period I'm interested in.  Last but not least, I'm fascinated by late medieval England/France/Palestine.  I've written a trilogy of novels about the Knights Templar, but they are out of print. I've also written a trilogy about Cyprus under the Frankish kings, which I consider one of my best, but I've never really tried to publish it because the subject is too obscure to have much of a market.  Instead, I plan a biographical novel of Edward of Woodstock, more commonly known as the Black Prince, and his wife "the Fair Maid of Kent." That will be a really fun project!

Jennifer Walker: Do you do a lot of traveling? Where have you been, and was there a specific reason for it?

Helena P. Schrader
: My father was a professor, who was sent on an academic exchange program to Japan when I was two years old. We returned from Japan two years later by way Asia and Europe. In short, I had circumnavigated the globe by the age of five. Two years later my father went to Brazil. Again we traveled home the round about way, up the west coast of South America, sometimes traveling by train or boat.  At 15 my family moved to the UK for two years, and after finishing my MA at the University of Kentucky, I went to Germany to work on my PhD. There I  married and worked for 20 years before joining the U.S. Foreign Service. I am now a career diplomat and have served in Oslo, Norway as a Vice Consul and in Lagos, Nigeria as a Political Officer.  I will be heading for my next overseas assignment in August.

Jennifer Walker: What was the inspiration for this book? Can you talk about the historical significance of the characters and events?

Helena P. Schrader
: I read in Herodotus about the incident that forms the core of this book - the defeat of Sparta by Tegea and how the captives were put in chains. Then while reading Pausanias' description of Laceadeamon, he reported seeing these chains in a temple in Tegea hundreds of years later. I had seen the chains of the freed Christians in the cathedral in Toledo and something "clicked." I knew this was a story I wanted to write. But I also was fascinated by the fact that Sparta, despite its alleged military might and militaristic cult, ended up not going to war again but making a treaty with Tegea. This treaty then because the first of a series of non-aggressive pacts that ultimately led to the founding of the Peloponnesian League. Again, it struck me that while most people see Sparta as nothing more than an armed camp with a unidimensional focus on all things military, it was actually its diplomatic success that made it a power to be reckoned with. As a diplomat that naturally appealed to me. After I'd selected this incident in history, the story just fell together. I have very strong characters in all my books and I give them a great deal of freedom to see what they want to do within the parameters I set.  The whole section on Teleklos and his grieving for his son, for example, just wrote itself. I didn't have to think about it; just sit down at the computer, put myself in Teleklos' skin and the story flowed out. That was the section, incidently, that needed the least editing and polishing as well.

Jennifer Walker: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? How did you get your first book published, and has it gotten easier since then?

Helena P. Schrader
: I cannot remember a time when I did not want to be a writer and I wrote my first book when I was in second grade. The first book I published was my dissertation, and then during a period of unemployment I wrote a comparative study of American and British women pilots during WWII. I sent letters of inquiry with sample chapters to 18 agents and all of them rejected it because there was "no market for it." So, since it was finished anyway, I did my research and wrote to six specialty publishers with an interest in aviation, military or women's books. Three of the six were interested. In the end, I published that book, Sisters in Arms, with one publisher (Pen and Sword), and got a contract - with a substantial advance - for another book, The Blockade Breakers, from a different publisher. Ultimately, I sold three books to good publishers and earned very respectable advances on all three. Not surprisingly, perhaps, I also lost all respect for agents and never bothered with them again. This is the reason I decided to self-publish my novels. Very few publishers will accept unsolicited novels and this makes working through an agent a virtual necessity. I preferred the satisfaction and control of self-publishing.  The drawback is that I do not have the time or resources to market my books the way a mainstream, commercial publisher can. So sales are clearly far less than what they would be if I had gone the conventional route.  All of my non-fiction books, although only targeting niche markets, have sold better than my novels just by virtue of having a good publisher with a marketing machine behind them.  Every author must therefore decide what is most important to them. If they want to go for the "big bucks" and fame, they would be well advised to keep pitching to agents in order to get contracts with the majors. If , however, they are more interested in having greater control of design, covers, price etc. - and in getting more rapidly published  - then they might want to consider self-publishing. But they need to be aware that they will then have to invest their own time and money in marketing their books.

Jennifer Walker: What is your next writing project?

Helena P. Schrader
: I am completing a trilogy of biographical novels about King Leonidas, the commander of the 300 Spartans who died at Thermopylae fighting a Persian invasion in 480 BC.  The first book in the trilogy, focusing on Leonidas' youth and education in the infamous Sparta agoge (A Boy of the Agoge), is due for release this fall. In fact, I just signed off on the final proofs. The first draft of the second book, looking at his life as an ordinary Spartan citizen before he became King (A Peerless Peer), is finished, and I've received initial feedback from my editor. I hope to have that to my publisher next year.  I am working on the first draft of the third and final book (A Dispensable King), which will describe how Leonidas became king, his reign and death at Thermopylae.  Then I move on to the biographical novel in four parts of Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince.

Jennifer Walker: Do you have any hobbies outside of writing and writing-related activities?

Helena P. Schrader
: Aside from writing and horses, I am also a sailor.  When I was younger I crewed on the British Sail Training Association schooners Sir Winston Churchill and Malcolm Miller as a petty officer or Watch Leader. That was truly exciting, standing watches at night on the North Sea, or working aloft on the yards - these were topmast schooners with two square sails as well as standard fore-and-aft rig. Now, my husband and I just do a little day sailing in an old 26' boat inherited from my parents. We don't race or cruise the boat, but we have a lot of fun in some of the best sailing waters in the world: Blue Hill Bay, just the other side of Mount Desert from Bar Harbor.

Jennifer Walker: Do you have any influences on your writing career?

Helena P. Schrader
:  I'm not sure I know what you mean.  All of my writing reflects my experiences in life and my understanding of human nature. Every day, every person I meet, every spiritual encounter I have, every book I read etc. etc. influences me and so my writing in some way. As for my "career," I don't think I have one. I am driven to write because these stories are in me clamoring to get out. I have to write to remain sane. I think, however, that other people can benefit from reading them just as I have benefited so immeasurably from the good books of others from Herodotus on down, so I don't only write I also seek to get the books published and sold. However, I could never make a living from my writing, and I'm happy that way.  This way, I have a stable income and my work gives me unending new experiences and lessons about human nature that feed into my writing, making it better.

Jennifer Walker: Do you have any advice to share with other authors about writing or book promotion?

Helena P. Schrader
: First, write only what you are passionate about writing - what is in you, not what you think will sell. Second, learn to enjoy rewriting, polishing, editing, and rewriting again and again as much as you enjoy the initial rush of adrenalin when writing a scene for the first time. Third, don't write for the money or expect to get rich.

Jennifer Walker: Tell us about your family and pets.

Helena P. Schrader
: I am married with no children, and currently have no pets because my life-style of moving to different foreign countries every few years would be an unnecessary hardship on the animals.  I had to sell my dearly beloved chestnut gelding Wapiti when I joined the Foreign Service. However, I hope to own a horse again when I retire and to have cats and a dog as well. (My husband is not so sure about all this, but I'm sure we'll find a compromise.)

Jennifer Walker: If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?

Helena P. Schrader
: I think I'd start with goat's cheese and rosemary on toasted baguette slices drenched in olive oil, followed by steak and finish with Tiramasu. But tomorrow or a couple hours from now it might be something else - like fresh Maine lobster bits mixed with onions and mushrooms in a cream sauce on fettuccine with Parmesan cheese over it, and fresh raspberry pie with ice-cream for dessert. I love food!

Thanks to Helena for stopping by. It's been fascinating getting to know you!

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