A HARPERCOLLINS INTERVIEW WITH NICOLE GALLAND
You’ve said that you don’t really write about history but, rather, you write about characters who happen to be trapped somewhere in history. That’s an interesting distinction; can you elaborate a bit?
I’m fascinated by how character and setting influence each other, but between the two, I love character more than setting. Lots of people who don’t like historical drama love James Goldman’s The Lion In Winter because even though it’s about a medieval dynastic dispute (yawn), it’s really about a dysfunctional family who deserve their own HBO reality series. They happen to be the royal family of medieval England, but you don’t have to care about medieval England to care about them. In Crossed, my main passion was to tell the story of my characters and their evolution. Primarily, the Fourth Crusade is there to help me tell their story; secondarily, they are there to help me tell the story of the Fourth Crusade.
Are there any real-life historical characters in Crossed?
Except for my protagonists and their entourage, ALL major character in Crossed are bona fide real-life historical figures. Dandolo, the Doge of Venice, would easily make the Top 5 list of Eye-Poppingly Impressive Medieval Personages. In depicting the real-life people (all men), I stayed as true as I could to the historical impressions of most of them. (The less I respected somebody, the more creative license I gave myself in depicting him, heh heh.)
Why did you choose the disastrous Fourth Crusade as the setting for this novel?
I’d promised myself that I would write “a crusade novel” only about whatever campaign was set in the era I already knew well. This turned out to be the Fourth Crusade – and when I read a synopsis of it, I almost fell out of my chair, because it reminded me so much of what was happening in Iraq.
A western military coalition, supplied and led by the leading capitalist power in the world (in their case, Venice), decides (uninvited) to “liberate” a rich eastern land (in their case, Constantinople) from a tyrant. This coalition’s purported intention had been, originally, a crusade against dangerous Islamic extremists farther to the east (in their case, the Holy Land), but they decide it was more important to take down this tyrant first, even though his is a secular government. Why? Well, the highest-ranking member of the coalition (Prince Alexios Angelos) bears a personal grudge against the tyrant – because the tyrant tried to hurt his father. When the western military coalition attacks, the tyrant – an unscrupulous man whose path to power was a bloody one – turns and flees without a real fight, leaving his land in the hands of these western “liberators.” Mission Accomplished! There is (briefly) great rejoicing on all sides.
However, the “liberating” military gets stuck there as an occupation force with no exit strategy, fighting a growing force of insurrectionists who do not care for the puppet regime the westerners try to set up. As I worked on the story, modern circumstances continued to mirror history: the puppet regime faces increasing resistance from the natives, while hostility against the western occupation forces grows so severe, the military suffers guerilla attacks from insurgents on a daily basis. And so on.
As well as the parallels with modern events, I was drawn to the Fourth Crusade because it’s just a heck of a story. As I’m fond of saying, it’s the Crusade Monty Python would have picked, because they’d hardly have to change anything about it to turn it into very dark farce.
Are there lessons to be learned from the events of the Fourth Crusade that may be applied to a current-day situation?
Yes, but we’re not likely to learn them. The biggest lesson is, to oversimplify: leave God out of it.
Jamila is a fascinating character; in many ways, a woman ahead of her time. Can you tell us a little bit about how you developed her character?
Developing characters is often a murky process; I don’t fully understand it. Sometimes – as with Jamila – it’s like making gazpacho: I knew what ingredients I wanted to include, so I threw them all together and let them season each other.
I love all of my female characters, but they are usually so defined by gender – even my one heroine who passes as a man is preoccupied with making sure she’s not perceived as female or feminine. I wanted to create a strong, capable, admirable, likeable, worldly character – who happens to be female. That aspect, more than anything, may be why Jamila is “a woman ahead of her time” – in that era, not many women had the luxury of being valued for their soul first, their sex second.