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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
Stephen O’Shea is a bestselling writer and historian. He freelanced in Paris for over a decade (for magazines like Harper's Bazaar and Mirabella), was Variety's film critic there in the mid 1990s, and before that senior articles editor for American Elle. His books include Back to the Front, The Perfect Heresy and Sea of Faith. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife and chidren.
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Sea of Faith?
Stephen O'Shea: Two answers to this: on my work for The Perfect Heresy about the Cathars, I was brought closer to the shores of the Mediterranean and closer to the world of al-Andalus. There were tantalizing connections between the medieval Muslim world of Spain and Languedoc that have never really gone beyond the stage of rumor. My curiosity was piqued so I began traveling around the Med, in search of the fault lines between medieval Christendom and medieval Islam. Secondly, what finally got me off the fence, what finally gave shape to the book in my mind was the visit of Pope John Paul II to Damascus in the spring of 2001. Almost all the press backgrounder articles about Christianity and Islam dealt with one thing alone: the Crusades. I was thunderstruck. Had we in the West not just been bombing Serbia and Kosovo amidst handwringing articles about the irreconcilability of Islam and the West? Had no reporter at the Seville World Fair in 1992 noticed that the bell tower of that city's cathedral was, in fact, a minaret? Had we forgotten so quickly? So I realized that there was a huge gap in our historical memory, that the Crusades occupied our historical imagination to the detriment of all the other great interactions between the faiths all around the Mediterranean.
MT: Islam and Christianity seem to have been constantly at war, but is the "hidden political economy" of your book the fact that moments of peace have happened plenty of times before and can certainly happen again?
SO: There was a lot of war, both holy and unholy, but for the most part there was a watchful, peaceful coexistence. Muslim and Christian polities had to be neighbors, had to trade and, in some instances, share the same country and city. Wars make for more stirring historical reading, and in many places, set off great religious and social changes, but it should be remembered that peace, or at least the absence of war, was the norm -- even in such a feral period at the Middle Ages. There is absolutely nothing inevitable about a so-called "clash of civilizations." East met West, intermarried, intertwined.
MT: How long did it take you to write your book?
SO: Writing the book took about two years. There were four or so years of research and travel prior to the final sit-down and write period.
MT: How much research do you have to do Stephen? Do you relish the research or are you always impatient to get down to the actual writing process itself?
SO: Research, for me, is of two varieties: reading and travel. Both I enjoy immensely. I usually read bulimically, scouring notes and bibliographies for further reading. This necessitates travel to major libraries and long nights in the stacks. I enjoy it. It's less research than learning. You could, of course, spend your whole life researching any given area, but as a professional writer I have a sense of when I have a grasp of a period, enough information to shape a narrative without sacrificing accuracy and without skating over the historiographical controversies (there are ALWAYS arguments among historians). As for the travel, I have a sort of superstitious belief that seeing something -- a landscape, a monument, an old city, whatever -- aids a writer to make his or her prose come alive. Sometimes a trip of a week might yield just the right subordinate clause about the look of a place or the color of a rock -- the trick is to make a distant and disappeared past exist somehow in the present for the reader. Yes I am impatient to get down to writing, so I write while researching and traveling. Series of paragraphs, not chapters. And these paragraphs usually get trashed when I finally sit down to write the book on the computer.
MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
SO: I write directly into a computer, rewrite, print out, correct with a pencil, rewrite. It sounds tedious, but it's not. Once you're truly into your subject, no matter what you do -- watch a football game, go for a walk -- is somehow tied up with your subject and gives you ideas.
MT: What were the principle challenges of writing Sea of Faith and how did you overcome them?
SO: The challenge was to make the subject mine, that is, to take all the information and make it into a narrative that I think would hold the reader. i think the main failing of much non-fiction is a certain repetition of style and in ordering events. If writers would just sit back for a few days and figure out exactly how they can present the material in a different or at least a fresh manner, we'd save ourselves a lot of glazed eyes. And writers of non-fiction for a general educated public should always remember that they do not have a captive audience (ie, students assigned their text). that being said, one should avoid the flashy and the gimmicky, for that, I think, is a hindrance to an understanidng of history.
MT: Your book has been out for a little while now: what have you learned most from the feedback?
SO: People, of all backgrounds, have told me that they weren't taught this history -- and why not? there is a thirst out there for information, not opinion. especially in the current context of islam and the west, people are bemoaning a general lack of basic knowledge of the background to the present day situation.
MT: What do you do when you are not writing?
SO: I read a lot, both fiction and non-fiction. I travel and try to improve language skills. And I do book reviews, journalism, even script doctoring -- and some translations.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
SO: I hate to say it, but my ideal reader is me. I write what I would like to read.
MT: What are you working on now?
SO: With some writer pals, I am compiling an anthology of anti-patriotic writings from around the world. And I'm researching a project that deals tangentially with the medieval Inquisition.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
SO: Writers I have read and reread; Saki, Graham Greene, Flaubert. Among the living, I admire Alice Munro immensely. And for non-fiction I tip my hat to William Dalrymple.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!? Anything else you would like to say?
SO: For aspiring writers: all writing is good. Do journalism for a while, it's good for you. And remember that everyone needs an editor. One last thing; if a paragraph is not working, you should delete the metaphor or image that you are most fond of, and it will work.
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