Thursday, 16 January 2014

My protagonists are women I admire!

Karolina Małkiewicz – the author of the Polish literary blog called I Visit the Universe – talks to Sherry Jones – the author of a few historical novels. 

Sherry Jones is both the international best-selling author of THE JEWEL OF MEDINA, THE SWORD OF MEDINA, WHITE HEART, and FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS and a journalist and public speaker of topics including free speech, the Middle Ages, Islam, and women’s rights. In particular, she aims to empower girls and women with her tales of extraordinary women in history. Her new novel about the tragic medieval lovers Abelard and Heloise, THE SHARP HOOK OF LOVE, will be published in October 2014. Learn more about Sherry and her books on her website:

Karolina Małkiewicz: Sherry, I am very glad that you agreed to take part in my interview and answer a few questions. You are the author of four historical novels: “The Jewel of Medina”, “The Sword of Medina”, “White Heart” and “Four Sisters, All Queens”, which Polish readers can read now. The protagonists of these books are unusual, strong and powerful women such as the beloved prophet Muhammad's wife – A’isha, the famous wife of King Louis VIII – queen Blanche de Castille and four other queens: Marguerite – the Queen of France; Eléonore – the Queen of England; Sanchia – the Queen of Germany, and Beatrice – the Queen of Italy. Why did you choose these women as the characters of your novels?

Sherry Jones: Did I choose them, or did they choose me? My protagonists are women I admire, for their strengths, their accomplishments, and their hearts. A’isha came to me as a single sentence in a book I was reading about women in Islam. She captured my imagination, and would not let go until I wrote about her. I love her wit, her loving nature, her passion, and her intelligence. The four sisters in KROLOWE intrigued me by virtue of how each dealt with power differently. Marguerite fought for it; Eléonore embraced it; Sanchia shied from it; Beatrice grasped it with both hands, and would have kept it for herself alone if not forced to marry. Queen Blanche, the evil mother-in-law in KROLOWE and protagonist of my novella prequel, WHITE HEART, had to deny her passionate nature in order to hold onto the power her husband’s death bestowed.

I’m interested in exploring how women find, and claim, their power in patriarchal societies. Each of these women did so in a different manner, but, ultimately, had to search within herself to find her strength. And each has something to teach us: Even Sanchia, the weakest and most fragile of my heroines, discovers in the last moments of her life that “God” — her spiritual power — is not an external entity, but exists inside her. That we are born with the resources we need to survive, and thrive, is a lesson many of us, men as well as women, need to learn and re-learn today.

Karolina Małkiewicz: Over the centuries history has been written by men, about men and for men. We evaluate history from the perspective wars and conquests; we get to know history through the eyes of men – and what about women? Is it worth looking at history through the eyes of women? Do you think that history told by women can improve our knowledge on this subject? And are they the protagonists of your novels just for this reason? Why do you want to break the stereotypical perception of history? Is it necessary?

Sherry Jones: In a college class I took about 10 years ago, the (male) professor said, “History is composed of wars.” My hand shot up, and I challenged him. “That’s men’s history,” I said. The fact is, while men have been engaged in the endless (and endlessly futile) struggle for power, women have been living life in much more intimate ways, concerned with survival, with love, with family, with community. This is the history that captivates me: the history of the human spirit, and of the heart.

But chroniclers through the ages haven’t concerned themselves much with what the women were doing. So little has been written about women in history, even queens. Much of my research has centered on the men in their lives, because there isn’t much information available about the women. So I am delighted to honor them by telling their stories, by bringing them to life through my books.

Karolina Małkiewicz: Do you think that the heroines like A’isha, Blanche or Beatrice can teach us or inspire us? Why are they so fascinating?

Sherry Jones: Yes, they do inspire readers all over the world. They fascinate us because they were extraordinary in their time — not just by virtue of their marriages, but also because of their own achievements. For me, they illustrate beautifully the idea that, if the world were a matriarchy, celebrating women’s power, instead of a patriarchy, it would be a much nicer place.

Karolina Małkiewicz: Which of the protagonists do you like most and why?

Sherry Jones: Asking me to choose one of my protagonists is like asking a mother to choose one of her children! How can I???

But — OK, I will try. I really love Blanche de Castille, the protagonist of my novella WHITE HEART. She isn’t very nice to Marguerite in FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS, but she had very good reasons for her bitchiness, as WHITE HEART shows. She had to become as tough as nails to rule France without a man by her side, and, by God, that’s what she did. She was smart, sharp, and shrewd, and really exciting to write.

Among the queens in KROLOWE, I enjoyed Beatrice the most. She was so irreverent, and very funny! She made me laugh out loud several times.

Karolina Małkiewicz: Are there other women in history who intrigue you? Which ones? And why exactly these? Would you like to write a book about them?

Sherry Jones: Princess Diana fascinates me — she captured the hearts of all the world except her husband, and dared to divorce him and strike out on her own to do good in the world. She was also very troubled — I recently read that she might have had a borderline personality.

Sukhayna, the great-granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad, was the first Arabic feminist. She refused to wear the veil, was married five or six times, and hosted what may have been the first literary salons in her home in Mecca.

Martha Gellhorn, one of the wives of Ernest Hemingway, was the United States’s first female war correspondent. She reported on six wars despite the U.S. government’s refusal to give her credentials. They refused her because she was a woman.

There are many more, too, including Eleanor of Aquitaine — but she has been written about many times. I have a long, long list of women I admire, and would love to write about them all if I can only live to be 110!

Karolina Małkiewicz: Which of your novels you have written was the most difficult to create and why?

Sherry Jones: My most recent novel, THE SHARP HOOK OF LOVE, is the most difficult work I have ever produced, but before that, KROLOWE was the hardest. Telling four women’s stories, in four courts with all those characters, and interweaving their tales seamlessly, was such a challenge! Plus, going straight from 7th-century Arabia, the setting for THE JEWEL OF MEDINA, to 13th-century Europe meant I had to do lots and lots of research.

Karolina Małkiewicz: Why are the novels about A’isha, prophet's wife, considered controversial?

Sherry Jones: The controversy happened because a U.S. professor told a Wall Street Journal reporter that THE JEWEL OF MEDINA is pornographic. Since the book hadn’t yet been published, people had no way to read it for themselves and see that her claims were false. A lot of people got very angry to think of a pornographic book about the Prophet Muhammad and his youngest wife. Of course, wherever these books, including the sequel, THE SWORD OF MEDINA, have been published, there have been no problems at all, because people can read them and see that they are respectful portrayals of a human prophet and his very human companions and wives.

Karolina Małkiewicz: “Four Sisters, All Queens” is a very interesting novel, but a bit too short. The dramatic stories of four women and only four hundred pages – it makes the readers a little disappointment. Is it true that your publisher limited the number of pages in the book?

Sherry Jones: For this book, my U.S. publisher had a budgeted number of pages. They do this to keep down costs, but also because they think readers prefer a shorter book. I wrote more than my allotted number of words, however, so they had to increase it — but my editor had to get permission first. So, yes, there was a limit for me. However, many readers have told me they love the book’s fast pace. Personally, I think it takes more skill to write a shorter book than to write a longer one, if that book effectively portrays its characters and their development.

Karolina Małkiewicz: If you could go back in time and be a figure from history, who would it be?

Sherry Jones: I would be Sappho, the Greek poet who lived on the island of Lesbos, or Sukhayna, the first Arab feminist and originator of the literary salon.

Karolina Małkiewicz: What are your favourite novels and authors?

Sherry Jones: My favorite authors are almost all women: Iris Murdoch (“The Sea, The Sea”), Eudora Welty, Ann Patchett, Alice Hoffman (“The Dovekeepers”), Hilary Mantel (“Wolf Hall”), Isabel Allende, Rebecca Kanner (“Sinners and the Sea”), E.D.E.N. Southworth (“The Hidden Hand, or Capitola the Madcap”), Ellen Gilchrist, Edith Wharton (“House of Mirth”). But I also love Edward P. Jones’s novel “The Known World,” “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy, and “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Karolina Małkiewicz: When did you start writing? Is it your only job today? When did you realize that you wanted to start writing?

Sherry Jones: Writing is my only job, but I divide my time between fiction and non-fiction. I have a freelance writing business in which I write for many clients. Book royalties are sporadic, so most writers need a steady source of income.

I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since the second grade, when I was 7 years old, thanks to the encouragement and praise I received from my school teacher. I have always loved to read; my mother taught me to read when I was 4.

Karolina Małkiewicz: Do you agree with Hemingway's words that no one should try to write before the age of 30? Why?

Sherry Jones: No, I don’t agree with this. I think anyone who wants to write should do so, no matter their age or experience.

Karolina Małkiewicz: Are you working on a new novel? What or who is the new story about?

Sherry Jones: Yes, I’ve just finished a novel about the famous — and tragic — 12th-century Parisian lovers Abelard and Heloise. It’s called THE SHARP HOOK OF LOVE, and it debuts in the U.S. in October of this year. I’m also working on two novellas, like WHITE HEART, about characters in my new book. After that, I’d like to write the third part of my “Jewel of Medina” trilogy, about Sukhayna, the great-granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad and the first Arabic feminist. It will be called THE STAR OF MECCA. But whether or not it will be my very next book, I don’t yet know. I have a long list of ideas to discuss with my U.S. editor. I’d also like to write a contemporary novel, if I can find the time!

Karolina Małkiewicz: What does Sherry Jones do every day? What are her dreams? What does she want to do? What is her hobby?

Sherry Jones: Mostly, I sit at my laptop writing. I read a lot, too — newspapers, history books, novels. I have a beautiful old house, built in 1909, and I spend time taking care of it. I study languages (French at present), play classical piano, and take long walks. Sometimes, I go for a run or ride my bicycle, but I’m pretty lazy and I don’t like to sweat. I do a lot of cooking and I’m very good at it, and I invite friends over quite a bit for dinner and wine. Because I spend all day alone, I visit with friends almost every evening — I am very social, and love parties and dancing and laughing out loud.

My goals and dreams: empowering women and girls to be their strongest, best selves. I’ve already achieved this in one sense: my daughter, Mariah, who will soon be 20, is an amazing, strong, feminist, powerful young woman who is sure to do much good in the world. She and I are very close, and I feel so fortunate to have her in my life.

I hope in the coming year to give more speeches about women in history and women’s rights, to become an advocate for the poor, and to help put an end to sex trafficking. I hope to use my writing talents for these causes, to raise awareness about these issues and the people struggling with them.

Karolina Małkiewicz: How does your ordinary day look?

Sherry Jones: I wake up around 8 a.m., make coffee, and read the newspapers. Then I sit down to write. I work for as long as my body will let me, and then I take a long walk if the weather permits or I walk on my treadmill. Then I write some more, study my French, play the piano. Often I don’t even get dressed until the late afternoon when it’s time to get ready to go out! (It can be quite embarrassing when someone comes to the door and I have to answer in my robe, haha!) Then I’ll visit with friends, either going out or entertaining at home. I’m a night owl, and often stay up until midnight or later reading or writing in bed. It’s a great life and I wouldn’t trade it for anything!

Karolina Małkiewicz: How do you think whether any of the modern women could become a character of the novel? Which one and why?

Sherry Jones: Oh, yes, many contemporary women could be heroines of my books, including Hilary Clinton, who will be our next U.S. President (or so I hope); Oprah Winfrey, who has done so much good in the world; Jordan’s Queen Rania; and Malala, the Pakistani girl shot on her way to school who has become an advocate for the education of girls. And there are so many more remarkable women making a positive difference in the world.

Karolina Małkiewicz: Have you ever been to Poland? Would you like to see our country?

Sherry Jones: I have not been to Poland. However, I have seen the films by Krzysztof Kieslowski — “Blue,” “White,” and “Red,” and recall marveling over the beauty of Warsaw as depicted in “White.” I think the Polish people must be incredibly resilient to have endured the invasion of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, then decades of Soviet rule before achieving your independence through revolution. Visiting Poland is one of my heart’s desires. Maybe someday soon it will happen!

Karolina Małkiewicz: Sherry, I was very pleased to talk to you! I am honored and delighted that you wanted to answer my questions. “Four Sisters, All Queens” – the novel which recently has appeared in Poland aroused a lot of interest among readers. I am sure that the readers of my blog will read with interest about the author who wrote this wonderful book! Thank you for your time, kindness and understanding.

Sherry Jones: Thank you for your thoughtful interview, Karolina. I am most grateful to you, to my readers in Poland and around the world, and to my publishers, Wydawnictwo Pascal and Wydawnictwo Otwarte, for translating my works into Polish and producing such beautiful books. I hope my fans will check out my website at and subscribe to my blog to keep up with my career as well as read about new historical fiction and tidbits from my historical research.

If you want to read this interview in Polish, please click here

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