Stephanie: Hey, Gwen! Congrats on the B.R.A.G. Medallion! That is wonderful and what high praise indeed for your story. How did you discover indieBRAG?
Please tell your audience about your book?
Gwen: The Stone Lions is a multi-cultural fantasy that takes place in the late 1300s in Islamic Spain. As a minor note, it also teaches band symmetry so it is idea for the common core curriculum. It can be read as a pure fantasy or used to understand historic Islamic culture or teach symmetry. There are levels upon levels that it touches. Here’s the basic story:
In the last throes of the 14th century, Islamic Spain is under pressure from Castile and Aragon. Ara, the twelve-year old daughter to the Sultan, finds herself in the center of a political intrigue when her eunuch tutor is magically transformed by the evil Wazir.
Can a little girl save her friend and tutor with the help of a Sufi mathemagician? Intertwined in a mystery of math, art and magic, Ara races to find the seven broken symmetries before time runs out.
Stephanie: What genre would you say this falls under and why did you chose the middle age group to write the story for?
Gwen: The genre is fantasy.
I was asked to write a book for younger readers by a Dartmouth math professor that would teach band symmetry. As someone who is wary of any math, I wanted to make the math part so organic to the story that it didn’t feel like a lesson, but more of a mystery or a puzzle.
Stephanie: Are there any messages in your book you would like your readers to grasp?
Gwen: Perhaps two messages. One, that people throughout time and cultures have the same basic desires and hopes. And, two, that math is something other than numbers. Arithmetic is numbers, math is not necessarily so constrained.
Stephanie: Why did you chose Alhambra in the late 14h century for your period and setting for the story?
Gwen: I was visiting the Alhambra with friends when I started the story. I fell so in love with the place and the design work that it tumbled out from there. The patterning on the wall and floors and ceiling were inescapable and awesome. I chose the 14th century because it was a time of flowering for the Islam. They were ahead of their time then, women could inherit (which they couldn’t in Europe), they allowed other religions to exist (as long as they paid a tax), they bathed (European weren’t quite so clean). Interestingly some women in other area of Europe also were veiled during that time.
Stephanie: Tell me about the little Islamic girl named Ara, who is the Sultan’s daughter? What are her strengths and weaknesses and what is an example of her life in the palace?
Gwen: Ara is curious and a little impulsive. She’s a risk taker. She’s someone who has lived a life of privilege within the confines of her time and culture. And she wishes for more: more freedom, more learning and more knowledge. I picked her age as young enough to have some freedom within her world. She not reached the age when she is cloistered with the harem or required to wear a hijab.
Stephanie: How does art/math play a role in your story?
Gwen: The math is the heart of the story. The symmetries within the Alhambra are being broken and Ara must repair them or the Alhambra will fall.
Stephanie: What are the historical significances in your story?
Gwen: Gosh, so much. I tried to be true to the time and culture. Grenada was under pressure from all sides at that time. But it was a time of great beauty.
So many, many of the details that you see in there are lifted from information that I learned during this process.
Stephanie: How did you research the Islamic life in the period this story is written in? And what fascinates you about the culture?
Gwen: I read over thirty books on Islamic culture and history.
I went to museums here in California, in NY, in Spain, in France and England. There I was able to see what kind of art existed during that time period. I took an art history class on Islamic art.
I spoke to a Sufi and she read an early version of The Stone Lions for me. I joined the Medievalist History listserv and looked over their shoulders.
I communicated with an expert of the Alhambra who is a professor in Spain. He helped me with details of what the Alhambra looked like during that time.
During my travels I’ve discovered hidden gems of stories that we aren’t exposed to here in the states. Everywhere you go, whether it’s a small town in Mississippi or deep in the Scottish highlands there are stories waiting to be gleaned. Everyone has a story.
Stephanie: Tell me about the photo shoot of all the images in the original Owen Jones book on the Alhambra you did and how does this relate to your story?
Gwen: When I wrote the book, I realized I would need lots of images for the symmetries. I wanted them to have a connection to the Alhambra. Not all are, but my daughter and her husband helped me photograph each page of the Owen Jones book. Santa Barbara City College did an interlibrary loan for me so that I could have access to that book. I couldn’t remove it from the library but we could carefully turn each page of this delicate and huge book while one of us stood on a chair and photographed page by page.
Stephanie: When you spent two weeks in Spain, what are some of the sites you visited and what was your impressions of them. And did this help you with your story?
One of the cool things we did in Spain was live in a cave, the Sacramento Caves. You can rent them and they have bedrooms and a bath. It is very dark when the light are off.
We also travel to Cordoba and went to the Great Mosque there.
Stephanie: What was your writing process for this story and how long did you take to write it?
Gwen: At that time I worked as a systems’ analyst so I had limited time to write. I made sure to sit down three times a day for twenty minutes each to write. Sometimes I wrote on my lunch break. It took me about nine months to get a strong draft with all the images done. I was pushing a deadline as it was going to be used in a patterning class at Dartmouth.
Stephanie: Who are your influences? What are you currently reading?
Gwen: I read a lot of fantasy.
Stephanie: How much time weekly do you spend on writing and how much time do you spend on research?
Gwen: It depends on the book. The Stone Lions was the most intensive for research. I had to learn symmetry and Islamic history and culture. It took a huge amount of time. Fortunately, a number of my friends are professors of chemistry and math and they spend oodles of time teaching me symmetry so that I could, in turn, explain it to middle grade readers.
Normally I try to write every day, but I also do art, so many things via for time. When I am focused on a book, I do write every day. I drag my manuscript around with me wherever I go.
Stephanie: Have you ever come across anything unexpected or something that caught you off guard in your research?
Gwen: Many, many times. I hadn’t known the Lions’ fountain that is currently in the Court of the Lions was not the original one. It was stolen centuries ago.
Stephanie: How do you organize your research?
Gwen: When I research, I keep notes of anything that I find interesting. I’m not very organized. I do own a lot of books, so I can always return to them when I need a particular piece on information.
Stephanie: What is up next for you?
Gwen: The second book of The Stone Lions (The Jinn’s Jest) is almost ready to fly. I also have a book that is ready, The Dragons’ Chosen. I’m hoping this will be out soon.
Stephanie: Where can readers buy your book?
Amazon or B&N or most of the online dealers have it available.
Stephanie: Thank you, Gwen!
My romance with fantasy was started when at age eight I discovered libraries, in libraries were fairy tale books. After that, I always expected to find a fairy beneath each flower, each rustle of leaves.
From there I went on to Walter Farley’s Stallion books. But my love went into a full blown affair at an Outward bound trip when half-way down the Colorado River one of the men talked about reading the Hobbit. I’ve been hooked on fantasy ever since.
I’ve been the SCBWI co-coordinator for Santa Barbara County and still function as the listserve administrator for the tri-county region.
My degree in psychology has only been used to understand dragons.
I worked as a system’s analyst (Oracle databases) at Santa Barbara Community College but much of my outside work time is spent doing art of various sorts: stained glass, pottery, basketry, large boulder mosaics, silk wall hangings, etc. I have a B.A. in Psychology, a two year certificate in Computer Information Systems and many classes in Writing, Art and Art History. I bake regularly and garden seriously (I have over 40 different fruit trees on the property).
Reading is my passion as is notable by the walls of books in my house.
My golden retriever and my husband keep me active hiking and roaming the Santa Barbara hills.
A message from BRAG:
We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview Gwen Dandridge, who is the author of, The Stone Lions, our medallion honorees at indieBRAG . To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion TM, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, The Stone Lions, merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.