It’s been a little while since I did an author Q&A, but I’m stoked to have fellow New Englander and historical fencer, costumer, and writer Angela “Ang” Costello to kick things off again. I met Angela through the SCA and was stoked to find out she also writes historical fiction. Last year she self-published her debut novel, Of Summer and Winter, a historical fiction story that takes place in the Byzantine Empire on the verge of the Medieval Ages.
Here’s the summary:
A dynastic shift in the Imperial line of Eastern Rome shakes up the life of Anna, a lady of the high court and princess by marriage. On her return to the capital a year after the murder of her husband, court intrigue takes little time to set in, and Anna finds herself a prisoner within the palace walls. There she meets Ragnvaldr, a Varangian guardsman assigned to ensure she does not attempt to escape. What happens next is a series of events that spiral out of control, until the chance to finally break free is presented. This isn’t just a tale of romance, it’s one of political strife, loyalties, and the vast cultural diversities of medieval Europe on the brink of the First Crusade. Proving that Constantinople was the very crossroads of East, West, North, and South.
She’s also working on the sequel to the novel and recently started a Kickstarter page to crowd source the necessary funds to publish it.
Angela took some time recently to answer a few questions about her writing, her other art projects, and her thoughts on the publishing industry.
I always like to start off with a softball question to warm folks up… so, what got you into writing historical fiction?
I hold a BA in History from the University of Rhode Island as of this month (YAY!) but I’ve been very much into history as a genre for quite some time now. I enjoy reading historical novels as much as writing them, though I have to admit that it’s quite challenging, since a great deal of time needs to be devoted to research, and then debating how much fact you want in with your fiction.
Your debut book, Of Summer and Winter, is about the Byzantine Empire, aka the “Forgotten Empire”. What inspired you to write about this particular time and place?
I’ve been a fan of the period for ages. As a child even in elementary school I had a fascination with the classics, and the Byzantine Empire, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire, is the medieval incarnation of the Ancient Roman Empire. It basically prolonged Rome’s legacy another millennium. It’s such an unsung period, full of really amazing and colorful history. During the 11th Century, during which my story takes place, it is constantly overshadowed in history books by the growth of Western European cultures such as the Normans and the German (Holy Roman, no relation to the Eastern Roman!) Empire. The reason for this, I’ve discovered, is that the Byzantine Empire has its own field of study, known as Byzantinism, no, I’m not kidding. Much like you have Classicists and Medievalists, there are also Byzantinists. There is just so much out there, but yes, it’s the “Forgotten Empire.” I’ve even had book critics ask me what it (The Byzantine Empire) was before! I find that to be completely absurd.
I’m getting a bit long-winded here, but as far as inspiration goes, this is basically a story that I concocted involving friends and I in the Society for Creative Anachronism. Without going into a wealth of detail, I will state that the writing of it was incredibly emotionally driven, and even during the primary composition phase, I had no real intent to go anywhere with it. It was through the urging of my friends who were reading the bits and pieces I was sending to them, did I decide to go forward with publishing.
What can new readers expect in Of Summer and Winter?
Of Summer and Winter can be described as historical fiction, but it also contains romance, but not to the point of a bodice-ripper, so to speak. Just enough to drive the plot, which is primarily suspense and action based. I tried to keep the historical fact department relatively simple, knowing that I was pandering to a niche market. The basic outline is that this takes place in Constantinople just a few years before the onset of the First Crusade. Tensions are high, and the government is, as was Roman tradition, corrupt. The characters are human, in the worst ways imaginable. I personally find no pleasure in the idea of the perfect hero or the Deus ex Machina gimmicks. I want my readers to see the broccoli in the teeth of these people, who are experiencing very real emotions and very real reactions to events taking place. Especially Anna, the main character, she finds herself thrown into a real nightmare.
From following you on Facebook, it’s obvious that you know a thing or two about Medieval history. How much research do you do for your novels before writing?
The most important part is getting into the period. Getting into the feel of what life was like in Constantinople in the 11th Century. So to do this, I had to find primary source material, or basically materials that were written during this time frame. A great source was Anna Komnene’s “The Alexiad” which is written about her father, Alexius I, who was emperor during the time period. He is not the emperor in my book, however. I actually stole bits and pieces of various traits from the line of Komnenos Emperors to get my character. To do that, though, I had to read about all of them. I had to learn about Byzantine relations with the Normans, and what the battlefront was like against the Bulgarians, the Pechenegs and the Seljuk Turks. There is an unbelievable amount of history I had to delve into just to get a couple of sentences here and there to set the scene.
What was the hardest part about writing Of Summer and Winter?
Like I mentioned previously, the story itself is emotionally driven. Like most artists, sometimes you need to be in a specific mood to create, and unfortunately for me, this mood was a dark place. Writing the book kept me from slipping, and in time, life did improve, as it always does, but there are still instances when I look back, and I can still feel the pain. In addition to slipping mentally, I was also watching my grades slip a bit. I was devoting so much time to busting out pages a night I started neglecting my homework. Which is partially why the sequel has been so delayed.
You recently started a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the sequel to Of Summer and Winter and hit your goal in just over a week (impressive). Were you worried that a campaign like that would backfire at all? It seems like everyone is crowd sourcing nowadays, though you’re the first author I’ve seen to go that route.
Not really. Of Summer and Winter was funded on Kickstarter 2 years ago, so I had confidence that The Overcast of Autumn would also do well. I did not expect it to do THIS well, though! I had to come up with some cheesy stretch goals on the fly to help coax more donations, but that hasn’t worked so far, guess it’s time to try harder. But if anyone reading this is interested, they can check it out here.
The Overcast of Autumn, much like what it sounds like, is grittier and overall grimmer than its predecessor. It involves leaving Constantinople, and moving into the lands of Western Europe, including Andalusia and Norman England (written as Angleland). Aside from travels into these vastly different lands, a huge catalyst appears. One would assume it would be language, but it’s actually religion. The Catholic and Orthodox churches split in 1054, which is a few decades before the storyline takes place, and this causes a good amount of strife. Opinions of the Byzantines are not high in the Latin West.
Like myself, you’re also part of the SCA. How has being active member of that group influenced your writing (if at all)?
*chuckles* Just a bit. Anna is my persona! (Persona is the life of a medieval person a member of the SCA portrays.) Actually, prior to moving in the Byzantine direction officially, I had an Italian Renaissance persona for 10 years, but I had no love of the period, so, when the book was published last year, so was my official name change. I guess you can say that Of Summer and Winter and The Overcast of Autumn are my persona’s life story, but I like to think of it as one possible tale out of an infinite amount. A persona, much like any individual, is always changing.
What attracted you to self-publish your novel (and soon to be novels) instead of going the traditional publishing route?
I did pitch to some publishers, all with no avail. The main reason I chose to self-publish is basically instant gratification, haha. That, and the option for the books to be picked up by a label in the future is still there, since I do retain the rights to the work. Though I must applaud CreateSpace on being a well-run platform. The services they offer are just fantastic.
For the longest time, self-published authors were very much looked down upon as “lesser talent” in the world of literature, but that stigma seems to be changing. Have you ever run into anyone who’s said “You’re not a real author” because of that? And what’s your take on the current and future of self-publishing?
Self-publishing is probably the future of publishing. Once upon a time, anyone who had enough money could get their work printed, and it could very well have been crap. Now, with the newer platforms such as CreateSpace through Amazon, I get print on demand services as well as digital services. I’m listed on all the major bookseller websites and I have Kindle and Nook editions available. I will say that I worked for this, though. I have an actual editor, and she’s TOUGH. Fortunately my design degree allowed me to do all the layout and cover work myself, but that wasn’t easy either. It’s a very time consuming process to prepare a body of work for print. I’m no less of an author for taking a different route. In fact, I think I took the harder route, since I had to do everything myself AND I don’t exactly make a Times Bestseller royalty or advance amount, either. This was all done with the help of Kickstarter donators, and my very patient, generous boyfriend, who would rather see me succeed as a creator than stuck in a cubicle.
You do more than just write, and are very much into costuming and historical clothing reproduction. Tell us about that… how you got into costuming, what items you make, maybe a few pieces you’ve worked on that came out exceptionally good, etc.
I’ve been doing costuming now for about 12 years. I started as an anime cosplayer and moved into the historical territory once my skills were ready. Some of my favorite time periods to costume, aside from Roman and Byzantine, are 16th Century Ottoman Turkish, and the Roaring 20s. I attended the Jazz Age Lawn Party in New York City this summer for my 31st birthday in full 20s getup, and had an amazing time. Later on in 2014, once The Overcast of Autumn is out, I am going to be penning a book on Historical Costuming for Cosplayers, based on the lectures I do at conventions including Anime Boston and RI Comic Con, and upcoming at Figments and Filaments in Kansas City, Missouri in April.
And if sewing and writing doesn’t keep you busy enough, you also draw and paint, and have made some pretty cool artwork for the Providence Street Painting festivals. Can you talk a little bit about the recent artwork you’ve made for that event?
This was my 7th time at the Providence Street Painting Festival since 2006, and it was my very first solo win! A friend and I did manage to get 3rd place in 2009 with this interesting piece in which we had Persephone falling through a crack in the street, but this year I actually did a, yes, you guessed it, Byzantine piece. I took the mosaic images of Justinian and Theodora from Ravenna, Italy, and transformed them into soft pastel on the surface of the Bank of America skating rink downtown. After about 6 hours of work, rolling around on a dolly on my belly, I won first place in the adult division! I was sore for days, but it was totally worth it.
Lastly, anything else you’d like to throw out there for the blog readers to know?
You can purchase Of Summer and Winter at Amazon.com