21 April 2014

Author Interview: Iris Anthony

Iris Anthony is an award-winning author who has just released her latest historical novel, The Miracle Thief, which I will review tomorrow. Meanwhile, Iris is visiting today to tell us about her writing. Welcome, Iris!

First, please tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from?

I’m from just about everywhere! Before I graduated from high school, I had lived on both the East and West American coasts and in two Canadian provinces. After college, I married an Air Force officer and moved around some more to places including Paris and Tokyo.

It’s said that authors should write the kind of book they like to read. What is your favourite genre? Who are your favourite authors?

I tend to read quite broadly, though I prefer historicals in general. I grew up reading Louis L’Amour westerns but I’ll always go for a Cold War or World War II spy thriller. I loved Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series. I’ll always read Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell books and Lindsey Davis’ ancient Roman Falco and Flavia Albia mysteries. I wish there were more of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries. Inspirational historical authors I love include Maureen Lang, Ginger Garrett, Susan Meissner, Tamera Alexander, and Jody Hedlund.

You write under two pen names, Iris Anthony and Siri Mitchell. Why do you use two names? What kind of books do you write under each name?

I use two names because I’m writing two different styles of historicals. My Iris books are set in Europe (France) and stylistically, they’re more experimental and complicated. They also have more POV characters. So far, they involve stories of separate lives slowly becoming intertwined within a larger story. My Siri books are generally set in America as close to the 19th century as I can manage and they feature young women as their heroines.

Tell us about your latest book. Who will enjoy it?

The Miracle Thief takes place in what some historians call the darkest hour of the Dark Ages, as the Carolingian empire crumbled and the first glimmerings of modern Europe started to appear. It tells a story of faith and miracles from the perspective of its three female characters: a princess, a pilgrim, and a nun. In an era where God often seemed silent, people tried to discern his will in all kinds of ways and they believed in the intercession of saints and the power of their relics.

This story centers around three women looking for redemption, rescue, and healing from a relic of St. Catherine at the same time an archbishop and a band of Danes (Vikings) are trying to steal it. Women’s fiction readers who also enjoy historicals will like it. I think it will appeal to readers of Mary Bilyeau and Sharon Kay Penman.

Where did the characters and story come from? What were your influences?

I read a synopsis of Furta Sacra by Patrick J. Geary and it mentioned armies of monks setting out to steal relics from each other. I read further and discovered that stealing relics not only happened quite often but that it was also condoned. It was felt that if you successfully stole a relic, then the saint it had belonged to wanted to come with you. If you weren’t successful, then the saint wanted the relic to stay where it was. Honestly, I just wanted to find out what it would be like to live in a world like that.

Many of the secondary characters are pulled from the pages of history. Of the three main characters, one was an actual Frankish princess (if old legends are to be believed). The other two are based on conglomerates of two different kinds of women of the period: nuns and pilgrims. I was greatly influenced by the stories of Carolingian women, especially by Dhouda, author of Handbook for William which she wrote for her son. As much as women back then were controlled by men, they weren’t completely powerless. I’ve always believed that in any given situation, there is always a choice. They might not be choices we want or approve of, but they are there just the same. In my historicals, I try to let the reader see what the choices were for women in eras past.

What was your motivation for writing The Miracle Thief?

I wanted to find out what lies at the end of a journey to faith. If you cast yourself onto the mercies of God, will He catch you?

The Miracle Thief is written in the first person, from three different viewpoints. What made you decide to take this approach, rather than third person?

As much as I would sometimes like it to be, third person just isn’t my natural voice. It tends to come out flat for me. I once tried to change my writing voice, but the result wasn’t worth publishing. I had to rewrite most of that novel. After that, I decided to stick with what I’m good at. In sixteen novels, I’ve only used third-person once and omniscient once (in A Heart Most Worthy).

When I’m writing my stories, I don’t observe my characters actions, I literally hear them speaking. Sometimes, as with Ellis Eton in Love Comes Calling or Jackie and Joe in The Cubicle Next Door, it’s all I can do to keep up with them! The Miracle Thief is the novel of three individual stories being woven together. The world looked entirely different to all three women in it. To do them justice, I had to keep their stories separate and tell each of them from the characters’ points of view.

You’ve obviously done a huge amount of research for The Miracle Thief. What was the most interesting thing you learned?

Just how little the Dark Ages looked and felt like the Middle Ages. It was truly a world apart in every sense. From its politics, to its architecture, to its social structures. Some telling examples are the castle and the fireplace. Castles were mostly built of wood in a motte and bailey construction and they were surrounded, not by thick stone walls, but by wooden palisades. And there were no chimneys back then. Chimneys are a relatively modern invention. During the Dark Ages, fires were built outside or kindled in the middle of a room. Holes were left in roofs for ventilation. That realization changed the whole interaction of my characters and the blocking of some of my scenes.

I often find historical fiction difficult to read because of the way women are often considered little more than possessions, subject to the will of the men who rule them (and they rarely get their happy-ever-after endings). The Miracle Thief is no exception, but I was intrigued by Andulf’s comment that men had little freedom of choice either. What inspired this?

One of the things which kept appearing in my research was an explanation of the feudal system. It wasn’t quite fully developed back then, but at its most basic, it involved an interlocking series of relationships and debts from the lowliest serf to the loftiest of kings. In concept, it was like a pyramid. The serfs were its base and at its pinnacle was God. The higher levels looked after the levels beneath them and you owed the levels above you something in return for their protection (crops, or soldiers, or entire armies).

Because kings were thought to reign by divine favour, they owed their thrones to God, for which they tried to conquer pagans and took upon themselves the role of Defender of the Faith. In theory, everyone’s life and work was owed to someone else; there was no free agency in anything. But then everyone was looked after as well. In practice, it resulted in all the worst abuses and excesses of the Middle Ages. And eventually in the Magna Carta of 1215.

The Miracle Thief illustrates many of the differences between contemporary Christian faith and how Christianity was seen and lived in the middle ages. What do you think of these differences? Are they for better or worse?

People in the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages actively looked for God in just about everything. They expected to find his hand (Providence) at work in their everyday lives. I think we’ve lost that concept of Providence and the idea that God is constantly at work for our good and his glory. I don’t think that’s for the better.

The other thing that always strikes me in historical fiction is the hypocrisy around faith and politics. The Miracle Thief has a Christian cleric prepared to force Giselle into a relationship that’s clearly outside God’s plan for marriage, all for the sake of politics. What do you think the motivation was?

Power and fame. We think of the ministry as a calling. Back then, people thought of the church as a position. It’s an entirely different perspective. As I researched this book, I often wonder how history would have been altered if the church had not involved itself in politics. At the beginnings of the Carolingian empire, King Pepin declared himself the defender of Rome, pledging to fight on behalf of the church in the rough-and-tumble politics of the day.

What might have happened if the pope had called on the name of God instead of the name of the king? Imagine how different the spiritual climate of Europe might be today. As it was, politics and the church became intimately intertwined to the point that kings appointed bishops and archbishops and even popes and the church was forced to endorse all kinds of sovereigns that it might not have otherwise condoned. A career in the church became one of the best ways in medieval Europe to amass personal wealth and political power.

With historical fiction, it’s important to readers that you remain true to the historical record (as far as possible), yet still create a readable book. Do you find this constraining in any way? Why/why not? Were you ever tempted to change the story, to move away from the known facts?

With this story, there weren’t very many facts to work with so when I encountered differing facts or opinions, I gave myself permission to choose those that fit my story best. Most often, in my other novels, I’ve allowed history to shape my books instead of ignoring it. In my other Iris novel, The Ruins of Lace, quite late in the process, I ended up shifting the setting of my story from the reign of Louis XIV to the reign of his father, Louis XIII, due to things my research had un-earthed. I don’t find history constraining so much as I find it fascinating!

What are you working on at the moment? What other books do you plan to write as Iris Anthony? As Siri Mitchell?

I’m editing next spring’s Siri release, Like a Flower in Bloom. It’s set in 1850s Victorian England at the crossroads of faith and flowers, amidst the burgeoning science of botany. I’m also doing research reading for my 2016 Siri release which will be set at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, also in the 1850s.

What do you see as the main differences between fiction written for the Christian market compared with the general market?

The Christian market is nicely defined. If I can write a book set in America of the 1800s, with a heroine who is young and single (not yet married or widowed), and if I can stay within the bounds of the genre’s expectations and the publisher’s guidance, I have a decent chance of a good reception for my titles. Third-person sells better than first. A lighter mood sells better than a more serious one. It’s a market that has defined expectations and a well-developed readership that is looking for books with answers to life’s questions.

In terms of the general market, I feel like I can be more experimental with the style of my writing. My first Iris Anthony historical, The Ruins of Lace, had 7 POV characters. One of them was a dog. I can indulge my love for France in the general market and I suspect I have a broader range of time periods I can choose from. With my general market books, I can also feed my fascination for tough questions. I can write about Europe when it was wholly Catholic. I can even write a book about miracles which I could never hope to sell into the Christian market. (Sounds, paradoxical, but it’s true.)

Though the markets are different, I find my books are still quite similar. My Iris books may be more complicated and set in Europe, but under both my names, I write about the concept of worth. I write novels which are heavily researched and feature women in conflict with their culture.

Is writing for the Christian market harder or easier than writing for the general market? Why?

In some respects it’s easier because I know what’s expected. In some instances it’s more difficult because ideas outside norm and stories outside the expected time periods and settings are a harder sell.

You are a Christian but write books aimed at the general market under the pen name Iris Anthony. What is the appeal of the general market for you?

I can investigate all of my ‘why’ questions and wallow around in them for a while. I can portray different time periods exactly as they were, without apology or fear of offending readers’ sensibilities. I feel like I can look for corruption where it’s least expected. I can empathize with villains even when they’re completely and morally wrong. I can find out not only why good people do bad things but also why bad people do good things.

How does your faith influence your general market writing?

I’m still the same me. Back several years ago, I read a general market contemporary that was beautifully written, but completely nihilistic and hopeless. I decided then that whatever I wrote and whomever I wrote it for, my words would always evidence my belief in redemption and grace. Even if my characters don’t reach for it, I always want to hold it out to them.

As you know, I also reviewed Love Comes Calling, your recent Christian historical romance. The Miracle Thief is quite different in setting and style, but has a strong faith thread—perhaps even stronger than that in Love Comes Calling. Why do you think that is? Why is The Miracle Thief targeting the general market, not the Christian market? Does that have anything to do with the miracles of healing—something the contemporary church is divided on?

On the spectrum from ‘complicated and brooding’ to ‘light and zany’, The Miracle Thief and Love Comes Calling are at extreme opposite ends of the spectrum. The funny thing is that I wrote them one right after the other! I’ve always been very susceptible to the time periods I’m researching. One of the benefits is that it allows me to write novels that feel true to their setting. But one of the consequences is that I’m constrained by my characters’ culture. I feel like the verbalizations of faith in my stories is that of my characters’, not my own. My own faith comes out in the ideas behind the story and the theme of worth which undergirds them.
The practice of the Christian faith hasn’t come down to us from the apostles without alteration.

The idea of Assurance of Salvation, for example, was blasphemous to America’s Puritan forefathers. We take it for granted, but they worked their fingers and souls to the bone because they were never quite certain they could count on God’s grace to save them. The development of concepts like ‘quiet time’ and ‘daily devotions’ are quite recent. Because of this, the way my characters’ portray their faith doesn’t always resonate with my modern readers. In ages past when preachers were appointed due to their political connections, what kind of sermons were people hearing in church? Probably not ones they’d remember. Perhaps not even sermons that had much to do with the Bible.

Often the political was more important than the spiritual. In Tudor and Elizabethan times, practicing your faith in the ‘wrong’ way could get you killed. To be an outspoken proponent of either the Catholic or the Protestant Church would just make you a target when the next regime came to power. For much of the last millennia, church wasn’t safe. And it wasn’t necessarily Christian.

I also often write about characters in the upper classes of society. As with most people at those levels, they aren’t really in dire need of anything and they aren’t usually in obviously desperate straits. There isn’t, then, the fervent faith that people like immigrants or pioneers or those in tougher physical situations would have had. In the 1920s in the Northeastern United States, where I set Love Comes Calling, the most popular churches in high society were Universalist. It was a very humanistic creed that emphasized doing and giving instead of believing. Where spiritual conversations weren’t common, I find I just can’t write them.

In the Dark Ages, in contrast, God was everywhere and in everything. Everything you did, everything you saw, everything that happened. Faith is so prevalent in The Miracle Thief simply because it was such a part of the world in which my characters lived. The Dark Ages weren’t dark because of the loss of faith. They were dark because of the loss of learning and education and because of the attacks against the former Roman Empire by outside groups.

The Miracle Thief is targeting the general market because of its setting. The era itself hasn’t been used much in novels. The spiritual setting would probably also be an uncomfortable one for some in the Christian market: the Catholic church, the belief in relics, the idea of miracles, and the medieval practices of faith. That said, I do think many of my Siri readers would like it. Its natural fit, however, is really the general market.

Wow! Thanks so much for sharing, Iris (Siri?). 

Readers can find Siri at http://sirimitchell.com , on Facebook, on Twitter @SiriMitchell, and on Pinterest as SiriMitchell.

Readers can find Iris at http://irisanthony.com , on Facebook, on Twitter @IrisAnthony, and on Pinterest as 1risAnthony.


  1. Thanks for hosting me today, Iola! (And letting me 'talk' your ear off!!)

    1. Thank you for visiting, Siri, and for answering my endless questions. It was a pleasure to have you.

  2. Loved reading this interview! Thank you

    1. Thanks for visiting, Emily. Be sure to come back tomorrow and read my review of The Miracle Theif.

  3. Fabulous interview, Siri. I loved reading your comparisons between writing Christian fiction and for the general market. You expressed many of my thoughts/frustrations as well. I'm looking forward to reading The Miracle Thief. Hope you are doing well :)

    1. Hi Golden -- Great to hear from you! I am doing well. Hope you're doing the same.

  4. Always fabulous, Siri! Thanks Iola for showcasing Siri and Iris :) As a long time fan of Siri, and now Iris, I loved reading this interview.

  5. Thanks for sharing your additional pen name - now I can go get those titles as well!