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Monday, May 13, 2013

People Watching in the Past: Interview with Author Lisa Yarde

Lisa Yarde's current project is Sultana: Two Sisters, the third in a series on the last Muslim dynasty to rule in medieval Spain. She has blogged on the project at The Brooklyn Scribbler. It will be released in June 2013. 

JK:  Tell us a little about where you grew up and what you do/have done besides writing. 

LY: I was born in Barbados and part of my love of history stems from childhood, where I grew up surrounded by relics of Barbadian history. By day, I work for a small non-profit in midtown Manhattan.

JK:  Tell us about your book and its intended audience. 

LY: In Sultana: Two Sisters, two lifelong friends become captives, sold into the harem of Sultan Yusuf of Granada during a turbulent period for fourteenth-century Moorish Spain. The friendship unravels and turns into a bitter rivalry. A young girl with a hidden heritage becomes Butayna, the Sultan’s beloved first wife, while her counterpart Maryam enjoys a life of pleasure and luxury at Yusuf’s side. Each woman bears the Sultan a son and finds diverging paths in a dizzying rise to power. The struggle between Yusuf’s wives threatens to destroy his kingdom. Only one heir may inherit the throne and one woman can claim the revered title of Mother of the Sultan.

This book is predominantly for women, adults and above, who enjoy tales of intrigue and adventure in varied settings. It takes place ten years after the events in Sultana and Sultana’s Legacy. Yusuf is the grandson of the protagonists in the two earlier books. I have incorporated many historical figures and the swift-changing politics of the time. The connections and disparities between the religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam have shaped the characters. Readers who are familiar with this period in Moorish Spain’s history or who have visited the Alhambra in Granada, Spain will find affinity with the setting and culture. For readers who are unfamiliar with the prior stories or Spain’s past, I hope Sultana: Two Sisters will convey a strong sense of medieval Spanish society.
JK:  How does real life affect your fiction? 

LY: As I recently explained to fellow members of the New York of the Historical Novel Society, I only write about historical figures. Real life and history shape my storylines. Two clichés often hold true; the devil is in the details and the victors often write the history. It is my duty as a writer to sift through the facts for the kernels of truth. When sources contradict each other, I often go with common knowledge, except if a very strong reason leads in another direction.

History provides the when, where and how, but the why is often missing. My focus revolves around the development of motivations for the historical figures who serve as my primary characters. I try to explain the course they decided on, within the realm of reason. Nuggets of personality traits, personal appearances and other information from chroniclers gets put to good use in my stories. My writing emphasizes the underdogs, people who by virtue of their race, gender, religion or personal defeats never left a record of their lives. Propaganda informs too much of what we know today.    

JK:  What is your favorite book? What other things influence your work? 

LY: Frank Herbert’s Dune series is still a favorite. The characters are unforgettable, as are their machinations. Herbert introduced the notion of world building to me, which I try to incorporate into everything I write. He inspired my love of intrigue and strong figures.

I love watching people. Basic human nature, our feelings and fears, have not evolved over centuries. I am often amazed at how the bloody politics of the medieval world mirror corporate maneuvers: bloodless, but still devastating. 
JK:   Do you have a favorite word?

LY: As in one I use too often? A word that always comes to mind when I am writing is ‘belied’ as it pertains to the dialogue and deeds of my characters. In this particular story, many of the characters rarely say what they mean, and their speech deliberately contradicts body language or actions. When the truth is more likely to place someone in danger, sometimes secrets are the wisest course for my characters.

JK: How do you use language to differentiate your characters and/or settings? 

LY: Throughout my novels, I tend to use some period terms or phrases. Sultana: Two Sisters features interactions between Muslim, Jewish and Christian Spaniards. Arabic, Hebrew or Spanish words are in the narrative and dialogue to reflect regional variations or convey my heroine’s immersion in another language.
JK:  In general, what is your inspiration? What was the specific inspiration for your most recent project?

LY: Love of a good story has always motivated my efforts. Historical fiction takes readers to another place and time, but good historical fiction leaves them engrossed in the storyline with fascinating details and memorable characters.

In college, I took a religious studies course on the history of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and learned of the Muslim presence on Europe. My series covers the history of the last Muslim dynasty to rule in Spain, from their palace of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Sultana: Two Sisters focuses on the turmoil within the Alhambra in the fourteenth-century, when Yusuf’s two wives vied to influence him and place their respective sons on the throne. This is a remarkable period filled with contradictions. Cross-border conflicts between the Christian and Muslim states occurred, while Muslim rulers relied on corps of Christian guardsmen for their protection and developed significant relationships with Jewish people.   
JK:  How much time a day do you devote to fiction writing? What is your work area like? 

LY: I write whenever I can. This means on the morning and evening commutes, at lunchtime and on weekends. When I am at home, writing takes place at a desk in my bedroom, with the door closed in complete solitude. It is a struggle to concentrate if someone else is in the room. Background music is essential. While writing Sultana: Two Sisters, flamenco, Sephardic and Middle Eastern music helped set the right mood.  

JK: When and why did you get started writing? What characteristics from your first efforts survive today?

LY: As a friend on Facebook reminded me, I started in junior high school with short stories of knights and damsels in distress. I have always had a fertile imagination, coupled with a passion for history, so writing historical fiction seemed a natural choice. When I started studying medieval times, the realization grew that the period was more fraught with danger, superstition and great discoveries. World building is still very important. My favorite books usually leave me completely immersed in a setting and time, an element I strive for in my stories.
JK:  What kind of feedback do you get? Are your family and friends supportive?

LY: Ah, feedback! Where would a writer be without it? I have been lucky over two years to receive letters from readers and several reviews. The emails relate how enjoyable a particular story was, the memorable characters, or requests for more information on the actual history. I love that last bit the most, because the research is vital to the idea of world building. It is difficult to convey the traditions, societal rules and religious beliefs of a period without detailed study. The library is growing and spilling on to the floor as a result, but I could not write effectively without guidance from history.

JK: Do you have a definable fan base? 

LY: My readership grows, but some attributes I anticipated still hold true. Those who have read my work, particularly the series which Sultana: Two Sisters belongs, tend to be predominantly adults. They are also women who share my fascination with the Alhambra’s history.

Family and friends are generally supportive. It took a few years, but my mother has now read all of my books, and has her favorite among them. I am grateful for the interest and support so many have offered.
JK: Thanks so much for stopping by today and sharing your amazing books.

LY: Thank you for this wonderful opportunity to connect with readers of your blog. I hope they find this post interesting. 

Find more about Lisa's books here: Website
Read her Blog 
and moderates at Unusual Historicals
Lastly, find her on: FacebookGoodreadsTwitter