Justine Saracen is a great author who combines romance, adventure mystery all wrapped up in a great historical bundle. She graced us with a few moments of her time.
What made you decide to change from teaching history to writing historical fiction?
Quite simply, I didn’t get tenure. Although the professorial life gave me many wonderful years, leaving it was the best possible thing that could have happened. I went on to work in classical music management, and met musicians and artists that sent me in a whole new direction (and eventually produced my first manuscript, Mephisto Aria.)
You have covered a lot of different periods in your novels from the crusades to world war 2. Are there any other settings you would like to visit?
A number of great historical settings still to call me. At some point, I’d like to address Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the massacre at Wounded Knee, the murder of the Romanoffs, and the Manhattan Project. These are all pivotal and world-changing events, but I sense that they are growing faint in the memories of my countrymen. I would love to bring them to light again while at the same time offering a good lesbian tale to my readers.
Do you feel it is important to spotlight LGBT contributions to history?
Of course. I repeat at almost every public occasion, that gay and lesbian people have been present throughout history. We were with the Pharaohs and the Caesars, in the Crusades (on both sides), and in the courts of the great kings, queens, czars, and sultans. We were among the workers who built the cathedrals, drove the enlightenment, created great art, advanced democracy, and furthered science. But because of the transgressive nature of our identities, we were necessarily invisible. I feel it is my mission to make us visible, historically, if possible, and fictionally if not.
Your books are thoroughly researched. Any tips for people wanting to get the history right in their writing?
You much research well, of course, and if possible visit the location you are describing. But I think it is more important to care deeply about your subject of your tale. Inhabit it. Consider its historical and moral implications. Do not just put costumes on your two main characters and obsess on how they find their way to each other. Tell the truth about things, reveal the moral gray areas and the complexity of human behavior. We owe it to our readers to counter the ignorance we all suffer, from superficial education and the fog of time.
Do you start with characters or events when you starting a new project.
I start with the event: The Fall of Jerusalem, the Crucifixion, Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the Battle of Stalingrad, the Berlin Blockade and Airlift, etc. That already gives me a handful of actual historical figures to work with, and then I fill the story out with my own characters, at least two of whom are lesbians. But if you are ‘using’ a historical figure, you need to research well and show him/her accurately and three-dimensionally. Otherwise you are creating a cartoon. Nowadays, with Google and Wikipedia, that is much easier to do, though it pays to also invest in a few actual books about the events you have chosen.
You have lived in many places all over the world, do you think that has affected your writing and if so how?
It definitely has. I identify now largely as European. Almost every novel is connected with a place I visited, either as inspiration, or research. A trip to Egypt with my partner at the time led to The 100th Generation. A week in Rome and view of the Sistine Chapel produced Sistine Heresy, Venice inspired a novel set during the Inquisition. Trips to Berlin, a Nazi concentration camp in Belgium, and the Normandy beaches made several of my World War 2 novels possible. When I moved to Brussels I found myself surrounded by artifacts and survivors (and their children) of World War 2 resistance and that compelled me to write Waiting for the Violins. Recently, trips to Finnish Lapland and the high Austrian Alps, gave me a new perspective of how it is to live in the snow, and led to my newest To Sleep with Reindeer. It is possible to recreate a place from the imagination, but vastly better if you can see, hear, touch, and smell it first hand.
What is your current project, where can people go to find more information about your works?
I’ve just finished To Sleep with Reindeer, about the Norwegian Resistance and the indigenous Laplanders/Sami, which will appear sometime in the spring. With my desk cleared, I’m now ruminating about something in music. I want to indulge my personal obsession with opera and classical music, knowing full well that the very word may cause some readers to run away screaming. My editor, Shelley Thrasher and I are also tossing around the idea of co-authoring a novel, which should be fun, since our styles and personalities are so different. All my available novels are available at the Bold Strokes website, boldstrokesbooks.com, and if you check in at the right time, you can sometimes get them on special one-day sales, for the price of a Starbucks coffee.
Final four questions –we ask everybody
Q) When the zombies take over the world where will you be?
I’ll be an easy target, since I will likely be sitting on my couch with my dog on my lap and earphones on my head, listening to Renee Fleming sing arias.
Q ) How do you identify Jedi, lesbian, Ninja, gay, vampire, bisexual, were-wolf, transgender, pirate, asexual, fairy, aromantic, sith, intersex, Spartan, non-binary, wizard, genderfluid, time lord , queer, …?
Basically, I identify as Grumpy old lesbian. I am of the generation that struggled to simply come out and to avoid condemnation, if not brutality. I marched in the first Gay Pride parade in San Francisco. All the subcategories you mention came decades later, and I have no idea how to apply them to myself.
Q) What piece of art, be it in the form of music, a book, a film or picture, do you think people must experience before they die?
If I can cheat, I’d say all of the following are critical to a rich intellectual life:
1. The three great Requiems: Mozart, Verdi and Brahms
2. An opera by Puccini or Mozart
3. ALL the great Renaissance, Classical and Romantic paintings.
4. Richard Dawkins’ books on evolutionary biology
5. Notre Dame (before the fire).
Q) Give one fact that most people would not believe about you?
I met Elvis Presley at the beginning of his career, when I was an adolescent and just beginning to ‘get’ rock music. He was quite pretty.