Monday, July 1, 2013

Blog Tour Interview: The Secret History by Stephanie Thornton

Please join me in welcoming author Stephanie Thornton to Let Them Read Books! Stephanie is touring the blogosphere with her debut novel, The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora. I read it over the weekend and really enjoyed it-- check out my review! Stephanie was kind enough to sit down and answer a few of my questions about crafting a novel around such an amazing woman, and she's got some advice for aspiring historical fiction authors too! Read on, and enter for a chance to win your own copy of this scintillating novel!

Welcome, Stephanie! When did you first encounter Theodora, and what inspired you to write a novel about her?

I’m a writer by night, and a history teacher by day. My first serious encounter with Theodora came about five years ago when I was teaching World History. The textbook I was using had one measly section on the Byzantine Empire and briefly mentioned an actress-turned-empress who just happened to save her husband’s throne during the Nika riots. It was only a sentence, but it was enough for me to wonder what else was behind this woman’s story. Later, I learned that Theodora’s father was a bear-keeper who died when she was young—her entire life was basically a novel just begging to be told.

Can you tell us how you shaped Theodora's character? How much of her is based on fact and how much on your imagination?

My version of Theodora is intelligent, scrappy, and somewhat manipulative. Based on her rags-to-riches history, I knew this woman had to be fierce to survive her difficult early years, but she also had to be a sort of diamond in the rough in order to later attract Justinian’s attentions. The major events in The Secret History—the death of her father, her taking to the stage and traveling across the empire, and finally meeting Justinian are all based on historical sources from the time. I’ve tried to be faithful to known history, but I’ve taken some liberties to fill in the blanks that history doesn’t tell us.

Did you face any particular challenges in writing a novel about Theodora?

Yes—sex and religion! (Not common bed fellows, eh?) The fact that Theodora was an actress meant she was also a prostitute, and according to the historical sources, she didn’t mind flaunting her body. (You’ll have to read the Leda and the Swan scene to know what I mean—that’s all accurate!) Yet, as time went on, she also became a Monophysite, one of the Christian minorities at the time. She gave me more than a little grief reconciling how this very sensual woman also came to regard her faith as something very important in her life.

Can you tell us a bit about your research for this novel?  Did you come across anything that surprised you?

I focused mainly on Procopius’ The Secret History (I also borrowed his title) to learn about the main events of Theodora’s life. However, Procopius’ version is a nasty bit of propaganda that slanders both Theodora and Justinian (the historian was thoroughly convinced they were both demons) so while I kept the events accurate, I did tweak the supposed motivations for some of those events.

The thing that really surprised me when researching was the casual way in which Christianity worked alongside paganism during Theodora’s time. This was the 6th century BCE, and paganism was on its way out, but there’s plenty of evidence of blending the two worldviews, especially when it came to art in churches. I came across countless examples of Greek gods depicted in mosaics on the floors of Christian basilicas, and managed to weave them into the story to point out that this was a society in transition.

If you were able to sit down and have a conversation with Theodora today, what would you ask her?

This is assuming I haven’t gone all fan girl on her, right? I’d want to know what she felt her greatest achievement was, and if she had any regrets. (My version of Theodora has several regrets—I hope that in reality she got off easier.)

As a debut author, can you share any words of wisdom for aspiring historical fiction writers about the path to publication?

Write about someone (or something) you love! I can’t count how many times I heard from editors and agents that the women I was writing about—Theodora and Pharaoh Hatshepsut—were too obscure for readers to want to learn about. But I felt passionate about letting the world know how amazing these “forgotten” women were, and because I loved them so much, I was willing to keep writing and querying. I don’t know if I could have stuck with it if I’d chosen someone trendy like Henry VIII. (Who is also cool, but not necessarily someone I want to spend years working with.)

What are you working on now?

I just finished the edits on my next novel, Daughter of the Gods, about Pharaoh Hatshepsut, and am currently tearing across the Mongolian steppes for The Tiger Queens, a novel about the wife and daughters of Genghis Khan.

Thanks, Stephanie!
Doesn't she have some great answers? I know I'm glad she finally found a publisher who thought these women's lives were worth writing about!


Enter to win your very own copy of The Secret History and a Byzantine coin by leaving a comment or question for Stephanie on this post! Don't forget to include your email address so I can contact you if you win!

This giveaway is open internationally (yay!) and ends at 11:59pm Monday, July 15, 2013. Winner will be selected at random.

This giveaway is closed and the winner has been selected!
Check out my sidebar for current giveaways!

The Secret History is on a blog tour!
Click here to view the full tour schedule of reviews, interviews, guest posts, and giveaways! Click here to visit Stephanie's website!


  1. I love reading about real historical people who are less well known. This will be my first exposure to Theodora. Thanks for the giveaway.

  2. Thank you for the chance to win this book. I am a historical fiction fan so I am looking forward to this book.

    griperang at embarqmail dot com

  3. This historical sounds captivating and very interesting. Thanks for this wonderful giveaway. elliotbencan(at)hotmail(dot)com

  4. I enjoyed learning about your writing and this fascinating character. Your novel would be memorable and special. Many thanks. saubleb(at)gmail(dot)com

  5. I remember reading a little bit about Theodora in World History class in college. She was fascinating woman that I really crave to know more about her. Thank you for this giveaway.


  6. I'm so excited to read this book! It's going to be amazing. You don't often hear from the women in history so I like it when authors give women a chance.

  7. I would love to read this book. I know nothing about this empress or this time period. Thank you for the opportunity.
    minoubazaar AT gmail (dot) com

  8. Sounds interesting!
    Historic-fiction novels about awesome women are my favorite!
    I love time-traveling through their minds.
    I´m looking forward to reading this book!
    Thanks for the giveaway

  9. Since I write historical fiction set in much more recent times, I'd love to read a novel set so long ago. TX for the opportunity.

  10. No need to enter me in the giveaway -- loved this interview. V fascinating to learn how she found and conveyed Theodora's story. Having gone to a panel at the Historical Novel Society conference on conveying religion in historical fiction, I found Thornton's comments especially interesting! Can't wait to read this one!

  11. I've never read anything about Theodora but I'd love to learn more about her. This seems like a good one to start. Thanks for the giveaway!


  12. I have been a fan of Stephanie's for a while now -- her historical fiction is so incredibly atmospheric, and it really transports the reader! I can't wait to read The Secret History!!! Also I really want to win one of those coins, I'm not going to lie.


  13. This looks so cool, definitely need to read this.

  14. This looks so cool, definitely need to read this.

  15. Thanks so much for having me, Jenny Q! And good luck to all the giveaway entrants!

  16. Don't know a thing about Theodora but this sounds like my kind of read. Thanks. nanze55(at)hotmail(dot)com

  17. First of all congrats to Stephanie and thank you Jenny for a great interview and review.
    I'd eat ancient history spread on toast if I could. Perhaps Stephanie and I should get together for breakfast.
    My question for you, Stephanie is: what was the one detail about Theodora you came upon during your research that you didn't see coming. How did that detail affect the story?
    Thanks much!


  18. This was already on my wishlist after seeing the cover and reading the blurb here on Jenny's blog, but now after reading her review, I MUST HAVE it. Excellent review and fascinating post...Hatshepsut is one of the most intriguing women in history. I'll be watching for that title. tchevrestt@yahoo(dot)com

  19. Camelia--That's a great question! (And one I had to think about for a while.) I think the biggest unexpected detail that really drove a big chunk of the plot was the mysterious reference in Procopius' The Secret History about Theodora's son. I can't say much more than that without revealing spoilers, but I hadn't anticipated that historical twist and it became an integral part of the book!

    Pssst, Tara... I absolutely adore Hatshepsut. I've been obsessed with her since I was twelve! (You can tell I was a really cool kid in junior high...)

  20. I've read historical fiction, but nothing like this! I would love the chance to win a copy and try something a little different!

    Laura Kay

  21. Theodora sounds like a fascinating character, can't wait to read about her!

  22. I would love to read more about Theodora.Thanks for the opportunity to win a copy of The Secret History!
    mamabunny13 at gmail dot com

  23. Reading your review and this interview has shot this novel right to the top of my wishlist! A great interview, and this period of history is fascinating. I only know about Theodora from Gillian Bradshaw's novel The Bearkeeper's Daughter. Also a great novel, but it's not told from the point of view of Theodora.

  24. I came across this book from an online ad and it caught my eye. Being a history/international studies major at UNC-Charlotte, I had never heard of Theodora before. My question is why do you think leading ladies of history like Theodora are barely known?
    And I also have to say that I know I'm going to love Stephanie Thorton. Her next book Daughter of the Gods is right up my alley.

  25. My take on Theodora is that she's not well-known because most Americans are unfamiliar with the Byzantine Empire. (Our textbooks really brush right over the subject, but strangely, most Europeans I've met are well-versed about both her and Hatshepsut.) I think if Theodora had lived in ancient Rome, Greece, or Egypt then she'd be as well-known as Cleopatra. I might be biased of course; I think Theodora's story is much more interesting than Cleo's!

  26. Wonderful interview would love to read the book.huge historical fiction fan

  27. I love Byzantine history. Why do you suppose women are so maligned by history?
    Thanks for the chance to win.
    kaiminani at gmail dot com

  28. I feel like Byzantine history is sort of glossed over. I'm so glad that Theodora is getting the spotlight, she sounds awesome! Thanks for the opportunity to win!


  29. Like this one. A period of history I know very little about. Thanks for the chance to win.



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