Greetings, today I am interviewing Dolores McCabe about her book, “The Shadow of the Phoenix.” It was a true pleasure to learn more of this author’s thoughts, work and background.
Description: “Take a trip back into History and witness the final days of the Roman Empire as experienced by Rome’s Empress and her daughter. Taken captive by the Vandals, they must carve a new life for themselves in this hostile and anarchic society. One chooses to remain Roman; the other chooses to become Vandal.”
Available at Smashwords and other online distributors.
History is one of my favorite subjects, is it also one of yours? What made you choose the time period of the fall of the Roman Empire to write about?
Hello, Red, thank you for this interview. I absolutely love History. I hold a BA in English Literature and Philosophy, and I am also a musician. There is something magnetic about the Arts and how they reflect the interests and preoccupations in Humanity’s journey through time. History is especially fascinating because it is created by living people. We are all part of History.
I am drawn to moments in History when something new appears: something unexpected, something that quietly slips into human events and changes the course forever. These moments can occur in times of peace, such as the appearance of Christianity, or they can blow in on the winds of war, such as the rise of the first Germanic Kingdom. Consider the state of the world in which THE SHADOW OF THE PHOENIX is set. The Roman Empire had ruled the known world for nearly a thousand years (if we count the 500 years of the Republic and the 500 years to the accession of Odoacer). It had become a way of life for the human race. And yet, in a brief hundred years, it collapsed into anarchy. However, something new had been introduced as the Empire crumbled, and that was the rise of Feudalism: the Germanic Kingdoms. They set the course for human history for the next thousand years.
Who remembers that the Vandals under Gizeric were the first to tear themselves free of Rome’s domination and establish the first independent kingdom? Until Gizeric, the Goths and other invaders had been awed by Rome and content to “govern” her lands as “foederati.” Gizeric severed all ties with Rome and tore the Province of Africa from the Empire, declaring it the Vandal Kingdom. He then engaged in warfare with Rome on all levels, including military, religious, and diplomatic.
Is this your first book? If not, what other books have you written?
THE SHADOW OF THE PHOENIX is my second book in a series of four romance novels. In Music we would call these “Four Variations on a Theme.” THE SHADOW OF THE PHOENIX abounds in imagery of fire. The Phoenix itself is the legendary “Firebird” of Egyptian mythology, a beautiful bird that lived for a thousand years and perished upon a funeral pyre set by itself. From its ashes rose the new Phoenix. I felt this was a wonderful theme for my novel.
I have also written NORTHWIND, which uses the element of Air as its symbolism, AXIOS, which is Earth, and THE HIGHEST DESTINY, which uses Water. These four Alchemic symbols were appointed by ancient soothsayers to explain the constant death and rebirth of the elements, of humans, and of historic eras. I am fascinated by archetypal symbols: wizards, priests, druids, etc., to name one category. If anyone has doubts about the power of these pure ideas, ask yourself why every Age, every nation, every culture, knows about dragons but no one has ever seen one!
What are the genres you prefer to write in?
I love a good romance novel. English Literature offers memorable ones, such as “Jane Eyre” and “Pride and Prejudice”. Even Dickens has his romantic moments! Poetry is shot through with romance. I think there is a direct link between romance and the human capacity to dream. Who remembers Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott?” And yet Anne (of Green Gables) took a romantic boat ride down the stream, as did Viking funerals, Arthurian lore, and even today The Band Perry echoes the theme in their latest hit song. Romance in all its forms is what makes us human, don’t you think? It sets us apart from the rocks, vegetation, and animals as we search for that Other who will make us whole.
Veracity and credibility are important in historical fiction. Has your academic background helped with this? Would you tell us a little about this background?
My Liberal Arts background opened my mind to this opportunity to write. Unfortunately, the load of facts that a History teacher must present in any given class is so huge that much of the excitement, adventure, and living people who made History are completely lost in the classroom. We all learned that Charles Martel defeated the Moors at Tours in 732. And the point is…? Well, it stopped the expansion of the Moslem conquest that could have eclipsed the entire Western world. What does that mean for us today? What did it mean for the people of that time? How about the Magna Carta of 1215? Big deal, right? Well, that little document was the birth (or the rebirth, if you consider the ancient Greek civilization) of Democracy. Look around today’s world and think about what that word accomplished and what it is still doing! Fascinating, isn’t it?
You are quite correct to say that veracity and credibility are important in historical fiction. While the “formula” novels are entertaining in their own right, the imagination becomes impatient knowing what will happen next and how it will all end. I confess that I have also become tired of reading about bygone eras with a modern story-view. What do I mean by that? Let’s take a concrete example.
In my book, NORTHWIND, the Vikings had a ritualized form of execution used to settle blood-feuds when families could not offer sufficient recompense for the murder of a family member. It was called the “blood eagle,” and it was horrible. When you come with me and “enter another age,” there will be no excuses, no glossing over of the facts, and certainly no soul-searching by Eirik and his brothers. Einar killed their brother in a malicious ambush and Einar had to die. No excuses. No judge and jury (they didn’t exist at that time anyway). I love the Viking Age.
Most of us envision horned helmets and berserkers, but do we know that they formed the Varangian Guard that fought Byzantium’s wars and protected the Emperor? Do we know that their raids throughout Europe led to the end of the Dark Ages and the rise of Feudalism as armies were formed to protect towns? (Interestingly enough, these warriors were called knights, which hearkens back to the rise of the Roman Empire, when the Equestrians, also called knights, fought Rome’s wars for the patrician Families)? Do we know that they enjoyed a democratic type of absolute freedom that shaped the American dream? Do we even know that they accepted divorce and that women enjoyed freedoms the rest of the Eighth Century Western World couldn’t imagine? Why waste so much time apologizing for the way things were? Wouldn’t our reading time be better spent learning about the mindset and motivations, the dreams and harsh realities of the people who lived in this particular era?
For those of us who studied Western Civilization and other history classes, not simply because they were required courses, we were genuinely interested. I find it interesting you used the example of “blood eagle”, a kind of wergild, as I’ve found some people who feel themselves to be very educated in all academic main courses, and well-read, do not know what that involved. I use the raw imagery of blood ritual in my memoir, as its something first researched as a pre-teen.
This is a very ancient form of expiation. The “wergild,” or “price of a man,” is ancient Teutonic. These tribes understood that a human life, once lost, could never be replaced and that the man’s family had lost, not only his presence among them, but also his contribution to their – can I call it “financial well-being” – for lack of a better term? Since they understood that this person could never be returned to them, it followed that his killer should expiate his crime by paying the family the price that he would have contributed to them. Today we have life insurance. If the killer’s family could not make the “wergild,” then the “blood feud” followed. The dead man’s family was bound by honor to avenge his death.
You pose some very interesting questions which I believe directly relate to why history continues to repeat itself, and indirectly, reader response and variances in the writer’s market.
“Wouldn’t our reading time be better spent learning about the mindset and motivations, the dreams and harsh realities of the people who lived in this particular era?”
People read for different reasons, but many people continue to want to read a book which only meets their personal expectations. In some ways, it’s as if they don’t want to learn anymore, nor be introduced to something unexpected or formerly unknown.
Of course, reading has always been considered a leisure-time activity, except for text books and other “how to” learning tools. So when the reader pulls up an easy chair and a box of chocolates, the reader has certain expectations about what this novel will offer. Thus we have the various genres. Romance is difficult, because it has so many sub-genres, such as erotica, Edwardian, Christian, and so on. Many romantic novels have become “formulized”, a word I just made up, and by that I mean they have to have certain elements, settings, certain prescribed interactions between the beautiful heroine and the Apollo-like hero. There must be a villain who also has designs on the heroine, and so on.
Now if an author wants to create a romance between two people set within exciting times and also wants to re-create those times in all their truth and bare reality, then this author can expect to meet some resistance. It is too different, perhaps too raw, or it doesn’t present the main characters in ways the reader expects. For instance, many of the criticisms levelled against my writings have to do with “not enough sex” or “too many adverbs.” I don’t find these remarks helpful to me as an author with a message burning within me.
There is a certain amount of truth in your observation that people don’t want to learn anymore or be introduced to something unexpected or formerly unknown. We are comfortable with our well-worn forms and formulas. We don’t want to think that people are just that: PEOPLE! We don’t want them to behave in unexpected ways. That is too bad, because when we lost our sense of adventure we impoverish ourselves and stop growing intellectually. But as an optimist, I think that a well-written book with all the Aristotelian elements developed will eventually find its way into the mainstream.
You have to have a good plot, believable characters, an accurate setting, and a mix of dialog and prose to carry the action forward. Today’s reader gravitates toward dialog rather than lengthy prose simply because the modern media has made that the preferred form of communication. We are also competing with Hollywood and its slick scripts and awesome special effects, as well as the myriad story-genre games available out there.
One of the challenges of writing historical fiction lies in making it “ring true.” After you have researched all the facts, verified dates, events, and personalities, you still have to go back to the existing primary sources to dig into the mindset of your chosen era. Works of poetry, songs and epics can help. Imperial Rome had satirists, who are invaluable. The things that make people laugh are most revealing! Tacitus, Suetonius, and other historians are invaluable. After that, it is time to let the imagination run free. Then it’s back to checking the facts all over again, reworking, rewriting, rechecking. If you have the luxury of setting your work aside for a period of time and then re-reading it, you will discover many errors or weaknesses that you missed because you were too close to your work. This is the craft of the art of writing.
My four books consumed thirty years. After all, what was the rush? I didn’t have the credentials for a publishing house to take me seriously. The POD (publish on demand) revolution was like an answer to a prayer. Then E-books and Smashwords happened. It was time. Some of the progressive booksellers welcome local authors and organize book signings for self-published authors. I had the opportunity to meet extraordinary, talented people with a passion for their work at these events.
What has been your experience as a self-published or independent author? One of the reasons I founded Flying With Red Haircrow, was the difficulty with obtaining reviews for indie work, as many groups auto-reject any such titles.
Being a self-published author is a lonely life. There are few venues for getting reviews. I have begged my family and friends to post reviews of my work on Amazon, but no one ever seems to find time to do it. I could pay someone to review my work, but logic tells me all I will get is a review that won’t go anywhere. I have tried to approach romantic writers’ websites, but it always comes down to self-promotion, rather than cooperative collaboration. I enter contests and rarely win. So what works?
I have a small business grooming dogs and I discovered that nothing can compete with “word-of-mouth” referrals. All the newspaper ads were a waste of time and money. Before that, I was an independent music teacher. Again, nothing could compete with that “word of mouth” referral. Students referred other students, and so my business grew. My goal now is to find a way to get that “word of mouth” referral for my novels.
They have “social media experts” now to promote songs and I suppose it could work for books as well. I am trying to develop a persona and a presence that will work for me. On the other hand, the social media network is huge, and it would be easy to get lost in the crush there. They say that “blogging” gets the word out, but my blogs go out into cyberspace and vanish. I often think about the great English novelists and poets, who all seemed to have “clubs” where they gathered to exchange ideas and to support each others’ endeavors.
I think that it’s the loneliness and isolation that discourages fledgling novelists more than anything else. It seems as if you are sending your story out into a vast void, a type of black hole that crushes your hopes along with your novel. It is hard to keep believing in yourself when no one acknowledges that you exist. I went through this dark period of despair and almost burned all my works. But I couldn’t extinguish that hope that one day I might see my work in print. I packed my books away. I moved and lost track of where they were. Finally, I happened upon them and stood there for awhile asking myself why I should bother. Eventually I re-read them. They were still really good. I re-wrote them and put up the funds to self-publish. I will never forget the feeling of holding my newly published book in my hands for the very first time. It was epic!
Do you currently have any works in progress?
I have just completed THE HIGHEST DESTINY. It covers the reigns of Claudius, Nero, and the terrible Year of the Four Emperors, a year of civil war after the death of Nero which resulted in the military takeover of the Empire. One might argue that Julius Caesar started it, but he was a Patrician, and so Rome was content to accept his Julian dynasty as Emperors. Vespasian, however, was an Equestrian whose military skill raised him to that moment of destiny in which he seized the ultimate power and became Emperor.
Naturally, there is a love-interest between a beautiful British woman and the leading legalist of the day. Both characters are created by me and dropped into First Century Rome. How many of us think of Rome and see gladiators, chariot races, and persecutions of the Christians? Do we even know that Roman law is the backbone of all Western law? Do we realize that, if we could speak with a First Century Roman, much of the conversation would revolve around the Law (and the price of corn)? Advocates, Censors, Vigilantes…and the Twelve Tables (have you ever read them? Very interesting!)…the list is endless.
I am currently working on a collection of my father’s memoirs. He is gone now and I miss him very much. His life story is the story of America’s “Greatest Generation,” the children of the Great Depression and WWII. He never said much about his life, but the little bits that he shared are like snapshots of an era that is totally incomprehensible to us today.
The New York he grew up in is erased. The war he fought in shaped him and through him, me. This work will be painful for me, but it won’t be silent and go away. I will have to write it, and it will open a new genre for me. There was the romance of my mother, but above all was the reality of survival. This will be a deeply personal narrative. After that, who can tell where my imagination will take me?
Could you provide us with links where we can find you online, and/or some of the sites you find interesting or advocate?
Sure. You can find me online at www.enteranotherage.com
I have found Authonomy.com very helpful, and of course Smashwords is a wonderful outlet for the self-published author. Amazon.com offers various forums that might be helpful. Createspace.com, hosted by Amazon, is another place to explore forums and independent publishing.
Selfpublishingreview.com is also helpful, and Podpeep.blogspot , Step-by-step Publishing also looks promising. Writersdigest.com is another possibility to showcase your work or to get ideas and leads.
I haven’t had the time to look into the Midwest Book Review or Kirkus, but I would tell all aspiring self-published authors to insist on an LC (Library of Congress) number in addition to the ISBN number supplied by all publishing houses. There is always an additional cost for this LC number, but it opens many more opportunities for your book.
Dolores A. McCabe holds a Bachelor’s degree in English literature and Philosophy from Chestnut Hill College. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in Applied Music, Piano from SUNY The College at New Paltz. She is the mother of six highly successful children and an independent businesswoman and owner of Eine Kleine Kennel. Ms. McCabe lives in the beautiful Catskills of New York State