Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest T.S. Chaudhry author of The Queen of Sparta. T.S. was born in Karachi, Pakistan. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, a master’s degree from Harvard University, and a PhD from the University of Cambridge. Formerly a Pakistani diplomat, Chaudhry currently works for the United Nations on peace and security issues in Africa.
Norm: Good day T.S. and thanks for participating in our interview.
T.S. Thank you for having me.
Norm: Why have you been drawn to the study of ancient history?
T.S. I love all sorts of history from all parts of the world. However, ancient history has a more distant, yet alluring quality to it, where history blends in with legend and that is what makes it more attractive to me.
Norm: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?
T.S. I grew up in northern Pakistan very close to an ancient city called Taxila which was once populated by ancient Macedonians and Greeks. I have visited other places in my native land which not only had evidence of their presence in South Asia but also showed me how multicultural the world has been from the start. My interest in Ancient Greece (and Rome) was further heightened when I went to a boarding school in England, where Ancient Greek and Latin was taught and the education system itself was said to have had its origins in ancient pedagogy. Finally, the real inspiration for this book came to me when I first read, whilst still a teenager, the historian Herodotus (called variously “the Father of History” and “the Father of Lies”). It was his book the “Histories” (also known as the “Enquiries” or Researches”) which gave me the idea of writing this novel.
What served as the primary inspiration for The Queen of Sparta and what was the most difficult part of writing your book?
T.S. Herodotus’ “Histories” tell a tale of how a disparate group of mutually suspicious and quarreling Greeks to could mount such an effective resistance to a Persian invasion and prevail against the odds. Reading Herodotus carefully, and also in between the lines, I came to the conclusion that a case could be made that Gorgo the Queen of Sparta (working behind the scenes) lead the Greek resistance that secured their victory over the Persians.
The first problem was that we do not know much about Gorgo more than what Herodotus tells us. And she disappears from history (along with her young son) soon after the end of the Persian Wars, just as Sparta begins to descend into internal chaos and face external challenges. My biggest problem was to create a credible (and historically plausible) story of what really might have happened to her.
The second problem was to break with popular tradition. The sacrifice of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans looms large in the public imagination – both fiction and film – and overshadows much of what really happened during the period. The novel, in this regard, tries to locate the battle of Thermopylae in the broader military and political landscape of the period, trying to explain what really lay behind the Greek victory.
Finally, most of the novels I have read about this period give a one-sided view of these events. I wanted to be even handed and therefore the protagonists start the story at being on the opposite end of this major conflict.
Norm: It is said that writers should write what they know. Were there any elements of the book that forced you to step out of your comfort zone, and if so, how did you approach this part of the writing?
T.S. The first draft of the novel was written from the point of view of Queen Gorgo. The most difficult thing I had to do was, as a man, to write from the perspective of a woman who lived two thousand and five hundred years ago. Needless to say, that was a disaster. So I opted for telling the story in third person but using her point of view from time to time, which was not without problem. Friends who read the earlier drafts pointed out how awkward the Gorgo chapters appeared to the others. So that required some work.
The other problem was that fiction writers prefer the “show, not tell” approach. Because of the nature of the subject, I had a har the showing and the telling. There was no way I was able to “show” a story in less than hundred and fifty thousand words without some telling. So readers will find parts of the book heavy with background and facts, and also seemingly unpronounceable names. But because the story follows history so closely, that I could not deviate much from the facts and I could not change the names of people who actually lived and played a role in shaping the history of the period.
Norm: What was the time-line between the time you decided to write your book and publication? What were the major events along the way? Where did you get your information or ideas for the book?
T.S. As I mentioned, the broad outline of the novel was in my head since my teenage days. I just needed to put it down on paper. The first draft was quite quick but, as I mentioned above, it did not work at all. So I kept on re-writing and improving upon it. It took me a better part of three years to write it and it took another couple of years to get it published.
As I mentioned, most of the book is based on the works of the Greek historian Herodotus. I also drew from the works of other ancient historians such as Thucydides, Plutarch, and Livy, among others. So much of the story is based on and inspired by actual recorded history. I also had the good fortune of being supported by two of the greatest modern authorities on Ancient History – Professor Paul Cartledge from the University of Cambridge, and Professor Barry Strauss from Cornell. They had read earlier drafts of the novel and their comments were incorporated in the final version. Also during the course of writing this book I actually visited many of the locations that are mentioned in the book. Some of the chapters were actually written on location. Even though the landscape may have changed drastically over the years, being there at least gave me a sense of what people who lived there thousands of years ago might have seen or felt.
Norm: What was your main focus when you created Gorgo and Sherzada?
T.S. As I said, I did not want to be one-sided. So I created the character of Sherzada. He might appear unsual – a Scythian Prince, raised in the Indus Valley, fighting for the Persians against the Greeks and later from the Romans in Italy might seem to be a character out of fantasy. But given the fact that people travelled vast distances even then (which is borne out by much historical evidence) and the warrior culture of that era the existence of someone like him was not unusual.
Sherzada presents both the counterpoint and the complement to Gorgo – in other words, her foil. He is the only one who truly appreciates her genius and this is what we see through his eyes.
But Gorgo is a far more complex and interesting character than him Drawing largely on historical evidence, she is a prodigy- a woman with a brilliant, beautiful mind. Gorgo is daughter King Cleomenes, a man who constantly oscillated between genius and madness, and yet laid the foundation of a strong Sparta respected in Greece and beyond. She is in every way her father’s daughter, using realpolitik, including dirty tricks to promote Spartan interests. She is like her father a complex individual capable of ruthlessness and compassion in equal measure. However, above all she is a woman in a male dominant military culture and she has to play a role that is much greater than just being a Queen of Sparta.
Norm: What purpose do you believe your story serves and what matters to you about the story?
T.S. I believe that history leaves strong messages for us. Those who do not understand the past are condemned to repeat it might be a cliché but it is true. But history is also open to manipulation and can be a source of perpetuating grievances rather than resolving conflicts. I have Aeschylus’ famous quote: “In war, truth is the first casualty “and it is also true. I have worked in enough conflict areas to know effective history has been abused to generate conflicts and hatred. Even the Persian-Greek wars that occurred two and half thousand years ago are being used today to justify one culture’s superiority over another. I do not believe in that. I believe that history belongs to all of us equally and the real lessons can only be drawn if we look at objectively and not from one bias or another. That is the reason why I wanted to write this story.
Norm: In fiction as well as in non-fiction, writers very often take liberties with their material to tell a good story or make a point. But how much is too much?
T.S. I might actually be accused of just that – taking liberty with not only with history but even the truth. The fate of Queen Gorgo, the appearance of a werewolf, the Valkyries, an Indus Valley Prince becoming a Roman ambassador, might all seem farfetched but as I have mentioned earlier I have taken extreme pains to remain within the ambit of historical plausibility – and believe it or not all of what I have mentioned are not anachronistic. And I can justify how each of these is not unrealistic (the werewolf is actually mentioned in Herodotus but the novel tries to give a logical explanation for that). So taking liberties is very much a part of fiction but at the end of the day it needs to be plausible. But then again, often it is the individual reader who decides how much is too much.
Norm: How do you believe history can come alive in the classroom?
T.S. History needs to be made more relevant to students. For that teachers have to create a connection between the world we live in and the one of the past. I often found that bringing people, historical characters, to life fascinating. Talking about them as real human being who once breathed, walked and talked was trying to get to know a person. Knowing that they had both strengths and failings made them human to me but also more alive, more believable. History should not be about dates and random facts. It should about people and their lives and how whatever they did, right or wrong, good or bad had an impact on our life today.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and The Queen of Sparta?
Norm: What is next for T.S. Chaudhry?
T.S. I am working on the ‘prequel’ to the Queen of Sparta called Fennel Field, based on the events leading up to the Battle of Marathon which occurred a decade before the events described in the present novel. Many of the characters of the Queen of Sparta will make an appearance but some minor characters will play a major role and vice versa.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
T.S. No thanks.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.
TS.: You are most welcome! Thank you again for having me.