By Wendy J. Dunn
Ellen Ekström resides in Berkeley, California with her husband, children, and parakeets, and where she is a deacon in the Episcopal Church. She is a medieval history enthusiast who prides herself on the care she takes with research and detail for her fiction.
Wendy J. Dunn: Ellen, big congrats on the release of your Medieval novelThe Legacy and good luck with its nomination for the 2005 Independent Publisher Book Awards! Tell us – when did you begin your journey to write this novel about Francesco Romena, the no ordinary knight?
Ellen Ekström: My journey with Francesco began as far back as 1972 – I was reading Giovanni Villiani’s history of Florence and came across an entry about the knight Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti. Buondelmonte insulted a knight of the powerful Amidei family at a banquet at which swords were drawn and as a result, the offended family pressured Buondelmonte to pay for the insult by way of marriage to one of their daughters. Legend has it that a woman from the Donati family saw Buondelmonte one day and convinced him to put aside his contract with the Amidei and marry her daughter, a more beautiful and wealthy girl. Buondelmonte agreed and when he should have been marrying the Amidei girl in the cathedral, he was across town at another church marrying the Donati girl. The offended family was even more incensed and conspired to kill Buondelmonte, which they did, on Easter Day in 1215-1216, when Buondelmonte was, all dressed in white, riding over the Ponte Vecchio.
Now, I could have written a story about Buondelmonte, but there was so little to go on, so I used the basic premise of the event and turned it into The Legacy.
W.J.D.: Fascinating, Ellen! Have you visited Italy to research this book? Did you base the characterisation of Francesco on any real historical personage?
E.E.: Yes, I did go to Italy – to Tuscany and the Veneto. I originally wanted to have the story in Verona, but I decided on Florence once I actually got to Italy and lived there.
I’d always wanted to visit Italy – my mother was part Italian – and I figured, if you’re going to write about the place, walk in the streets, smell the smells, feel the stones.
As for Francesco, I really can’t say who he’s based upon! I think he’s a composite of all the men in my life, past and present, but I hear a lot of, “I luuuuv Francesco!” from men and women alike. I wanted Francesco to be a flawed individual; someone the reader could root for, and share his agony and triumphs. I think I succeeded. I think it interesting, however, that at Allreader.com, my novel is compared to Hamlet and at Barnes&Noble.com there’s an entry that says “People who bought this book also bought” The Dolorous Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ by Emmerich. Francesco is indeed a tortured soul, but I wouldn’t compare him to Jesus of Nazareth! Let’s just say, Francesco Romena is the man I’ve always dreamed of — I couldn’t have him, so I made him up!
W.J.D.: I understand why you decided on Florence. The colours of the Tuscan hills had me searching out an Art supply shop on my second day there in ’93. It’s one of those places that just opens the door to creativity – on all levels.
E.E.: And- yes – that’s the fun part of being a writer – making our imagined people tangible to the reader! Can’t wait to meet Francesco!
W.J.D.: You not only work as a writer, but also as a legal secretary AND a deacon of a church. If this isn’t enough, you’re a mother too. How do you manage to juggle all the balls life has given you?
E.E.: Hmm… how do I manage? I get asked that a lot. I’m really no different than a lot of working mothers. I’ve learned how to manage my time.
Well, I didn’t choose to be ordained clergy, i.e., deacon, in the Episcopal Church (Anglican Communion) – it’s something you’re born with, a charisma, if you will. I dodged it for a while, but the call turned into a scream. Ever since I was a child I always felt at home in a church, I felt that it was the only place I belonged. Being clergy has been the latest incarnation of that who is Ellen. I’ve been writing ever since I could hold a crayon. I always wanted children. I guess I should answer the question, shouldn’t I?
I learned how to write first thing in the morning, before everyone is up, and after everyone goes to bed. When the children were little, I wrote while they played on the carpet beside me. I’m not a marathon writer, so this worked for me — it also helped while in seminary in doing homework, and now, when I come up on the rota and have to preach. Dialogue happens to be the most effortless part of writing for me — I give the characters dialogue I’d want to hear – and make it fit the time period I’m working in. When the screenplay version of this story won secnd place in the Writers’ Digest Writing Competition for Screenplays in 1991, one of the judges said I had a strong command of dialogue and a clear, colorfully vivid vision of 14th century Florence. I hope my readers think so – I write as if I were in a movie theater and watching the story unfold before me. All that’s lacking is the diet Pepsi and tub of popcorn.
I’m a legal secretary to pay for this maniacal lifestyle. Kids gotta eat, you know! I also manage to get some writing done during lunch hour at least one day a work week. I also work for a firm that doesn’t require overtime or weekend work.
There are days when I can’t and won’t do it all, and there are days when I have incredible energy. A sense of humor helps, too. And diet Pepsi.
W.J.D.: Big laugh! I think better swap my sugared coffee for diet pepsi! I also always wanted to be a writer and a mother – and you’re very right, women generally learn to manage time well…
Hey – love to ask you as an author and ordained clergy, what did you think ofThe Da Vinci Code ? The book finally came my way via my daughter, who borrowed it from a friend. I’ve been pondering over the book’s great success ever since I finished it, and can only conclude that Dan Brown picked the right controversy to tap into. What do you think?
E.E.: I liked The Da Vinci Code – I couldn’t put it down the weekend I read it. It was my weekend off from church and I finished it in two days. I thought it was entertaining, the premise a bit too much, but it was fun. I do wish they could have picked Bill Pullman to play Langdon in the movie rather than Tom Hanks.
W.J.D.: The Da Vinci Code certainly struck a chord – a dissonant one. I find it very interesting that people think it’s historical fact, not historical speculation. There are times when I want to shout, “People! It’s a work of fiction!”
E.E.: The idea that Jesus was married is an old legend dating back centuries – in first century Palestine rabbis were customarily married. That Jesus did not marry would be bucking tradition, but then, Jesus was the perfect incarnation of God on earth for a reason and some rules didn’t apply to him. And if he did marry, we’ll never know.
Mary Magdalene may have been a rich widow who subsidized the Jesus movement and was a friend and follower of Jesus. The idea that she was a harlot came from a sermon of St. Gregory’s and it stuck like glue. She’s always been a favorite saint of mine, with George and Joan.
And, Mary Magdalene is called “The First Among Apostles”, because the resurrected Jesus appeared to her first. That would denote a special relationship, as the Gnostic gospels point out, such as the Gospel of Phillip. I am a traditionalist, however, and think they were not married, but, as with all the Apostles, friends and beloved by Christ, chosen by Him to do God’s work on earth and continue the Jesus Movement.
The good thing about The Da Vinci Code – people are going to church, picking up scripture and reading for themselves about this man named Jesus.
W.J.D.: Yes – one of the best things about fiction is that it can take people on their own journey to discovery…
And two final questions directed towards Tudor England…what do you think about Henry the Eighth and the reasons he set the wheels in the motion for the birth of the Anglican Church? Do you think the Anglican Church recognises the importance of Anne Boleyn in its history?
E.E.: I don’t think much of Henry VIII, to tell you the truth. The Reformist movement was well underway by the time Henry sought to break with Rome over the issue of his divorce from Katherine of Aragon. Theologians such as Luther and Huss were stirring up challenges to Rome, and the movement to reform the church wasn’t just a 16th century event, it was as early as the 14th century in England, with John Wyclif. His followers were called Lollards and were suppressed by Henry VI and Henry V in the 15th century. The Reformation was going to happen. Zwingli, Calvin and Knox were leading reformers and taking the Reformist movement in different directions than Luther and the English reformers led by Cramner, Ridley and Latimer.
The Anglican Church really didn’t get established until 1549 and the publication of the Book of Common Prayer by Thomas Cramner and Edward VI. The church was still very catholic in liturgy while Henry VIII was alive. He did not like the Reformers even after the split with Rome.
Personally, I think Anne Boleyn would have been more Lutheran than Anglican in her theology. I’d have to see her theological writings, if any, to make an educated guess as to whether she should gain some credit for the establishment of the Anglican Church. She certainly is a controversial and interesting woman, both shrewd politician and victim.
W.J.D.: Yes – I agree with you about Henry VIII. I tend to try to defend people. Sometimes I wonder about his two serious jousting accidents and whether these accidents impacted upon him in ways to make him a tyrant King – but then you see the pattern for tragedy began even from the first days of his reign. Time just released the blood hungry lion from its cage.
Thank you, Ellen, for giving me this opportunity to talk to you! I really enjoyed your answers to my questions and know my readers at Tudor England will too!
E.E.: Thank you for allowing me the opportunity, Wendy.
Wendy J. Dunn is an Australian writer obsessed by Tudor History. She now has a new passion: Medieval Castile. The author of the award-winning novelDear Heart, How Like You This?, Wendy is currently working on a trilogy based on the life of Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII.