Interview with Award Winning Author Helena Schrader

helena-schrader-bragI’d like to welcome back B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree Helena Schrader today to talk with me about her latest award winning book, Envoy of Jerusalem. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in history and is a career diplomat, but far from writing dry historical tomes, she conveys the drama and excitement of the events and societies described and delivers her stories through the eyes of complex and compelling characters—male and female—drawn from the pages of history.

Helena was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the daughter of a professor, and traveled abroad for the first time at the age of two, when her father went to teach at the University of Wasada in Tokyo, Japan. Later the family lived in Brazil, England and Kentucky, but home was always the coast of Maine. There, her father’s family had roots, and an old, white clapboard house perched above the boatyard in East Blue Hill.

It was the frequent travel and exposure to different cultures, peoples and heritage that inspired Helena to start writing creatively and to focus on historical fiction. She wrote her first novel in second grade, but later made a conscious decision not try to earn a living from writing. She never wanted to be forced to write what was popular, rather than what was in her heart….

Helena, thank you for talking with me today, Helena! Please tell me about Envoy of Jerusalem.

“Envoy of Jerusalem” is on one hand the third book in a three-part biography of the historical figure Balian d’Ibelin, and on the other hand it is a stand-alone novel describing the Third Crusade through the eyes of the natives of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. It covers the period from the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187 to the end of the Third Crusade in 1192. While the hero is Balian d’Ibelin, his wife, the Byzantine princess and dowager queen of Jerusalem, Maria Comnena, has an almost equally important role in this book. Furthermore, Richard the Lionheart, his queen and sister, and other more familiar historical figures are also important characters, while a host of fictional characters in “supporting roles” take the novel out of the palaces of kings and down onto the streets and into the taverns of Acre and Tyre. These characters together create a novel that is more than a description of historical events; it explores the human condition in the face of devastating set-backs and examines the fundamental values that define us all.  With radical jihad again challenging our security and our worldview, this book has particular relevance, reminding us that while technologies change human nature does not and the challenges we face today are not new.


The story that Hollywood made can you give me some of the fictional aspects?

A character named Balian d’Ibelin was the hero of Ridley Scott’s film “The Kingdom of Heaven.” The film depicted selected elements out of the life of the historical Balian d’Ibelin (e. g. the mass knighting, the negotiations with Saladin), but changed his biography so significantly that it is questionable whether one can say the film is about the historical Balian. One of the major deviations from history is that the Hollywood Balian is a bastard born and raised in France, and ― after the surrender of Jerusalem ― he returns to France to resume his life as a blacksmith. There is even a scene in the film where Richard the Lionheart tries to persuade Balian to join the Third Crusade, but Balian refuses.

Historically, Balian was born in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the legitimate son of a local baron. Although a younger son, through a scandalously good marriage to the dowager queen of Jerusalem, Balian became one of the wealthiest and most powerful noblemen in the Holy Land by the time Saladin invaded in 1187. After the surrender of Jerusalem, he made his way to the last remaining city in Christian hands, Tyre, and Arab chronicles of the time refer to him as “like a king” ― largely because the bulk of the Christian nobles were in Saracen captivity. His power increased after the death of Queen Sibylla in November 1190 because the crown passed to her half-sister Isabella, who was Balian’s step-daughter (his wife’s child by her first marriage). Under the circumstances, Balian played a key role representing the interests of the local nobility while fighting alongside the crusaders throughout the Third Crusade. By summer 1192, he had won the respect of Richard the Lionheart to such an extent that Richard appointed Balian his envoy to Saladin. Balian negotiated the truce that ended the Third Crusade, and thereafter until his death he was the premier lord in the restored Kingdom of Jerusalem ruled by his step-daughter.

So, far from being in blacksmith in France, Balian was a key player throughout the Third Crusade, a man who fought with and later represented Richard the Lionheart.

How would you describe Balian d’Ibelin -the man?

We know little about the character of the historical Balian beyond what he did. He rose from being a landless knight to being “like a king” and he negotiated like an equal with both Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. That sounds like a ruthless and ambitious man ― until you realize that he was willing to risk his life and freedom to rescue his wife and children from Jerusalem, and that he offered himself as a hostage for the tens of thousands of Christian paupers unable to pay the ransom Saladin demanded. Medieval noblemen devoted to their wives were not that common, but those prepared to sacrifice themselves for the poor were very scarce indeed.  Furthermore, although Balian was an outstanding commander and courageous knight, he was a man who repeatedly served as a mediator and negotiator. This means he was a man who could get along with others, find common ground, could be persuasive and above all earned the trust of friend and foe. He married a Greek princess and clearly had Saladin’s respect, both of which suggest he was no bigot, but a man who respected other cultures. Yet he was the ultimate Christian nobleman, as his willingness to place the interests of the poor and helpless above his own pride and self-interest proves.

For those of who are not familiar with the Horns of Hattin, what are they?

Saladin annihilated the Christian army composed of about 1,200 knights, 5,000 light cavalry and 12,000 infantries at the Battle of Hattin on July 4, 1187. The battle took place on a plateau above the Sea of Galilee that is bordered on the east by two dramatic hills that rise up from the valley of the Jordan. From a distance, these hills look vaguely like the horns of an ox. The term “the Horns of Hattin” is nothing more than a synonym for the Battle of Hattin. When I say that Balian “escaped from the Horns of Hattin,” I mean simply that he was one of only three noblemen, a few hundred knights and 3,000 Christian fighting men who survived the battle as a free man. The vast majority of the Christian host was either killed or taken captive.

He lived an extraordinary life. What fascinates you the most about him?

The fact that he was both an extraordinary diplomat and a courageous commander, and the fact that he moved among royalty like an equal yet never lost his humility and humanity.  It doesn’t hurt, however, that as a landless knight he captured the heart of a princess – something straight out of a fairy tale, or that he organized women, children and clerics into a fighting force so effective that they fought off the victorious armies of Saladin for almost ten days. Perhaps it is the fact that Balian was so multifaceted that fascinated me most.

When the Christians were enslaved by the Saracens, what did they endure?

Slavery is one of the most abhorrent practices known to man. It is equally repellent in the Ancient world, the Middle Ages, pre-Civil War America or today.  Regardless of place or period, slaves are first and foremost dehumanized, they are subjected to extreme brutality, contempt, cruelty, overwork, malnutrition, sadism and torture. What struck me as particularly repulsive the context of this book, however, was a passage written by Salah ad-Din’s secretary Imad ad-Din in which he gleefully delights and glorifies in the humiliations to which Christian women and girls captured in Jerusalem were subjected, “bringing a smile to Muslim faces at their lamentations.” (Source: al-Fath al-Qussi fi-l-Fath al-Qudsi, paragraphs 47 – 69.)  Mostly, he gleefully describes how “well-guarded women were profaned… nubile girls married, and noble women given away, and miserly women forced to yield themselves, and women who had been kept hidden stripped of their modesty, and serious women made ridiculous, and women kept in private now set in public, and free women occupied, and precious ones used for hard work and pretty things put to the test, and virgins dishonored and proud women deflowered” etc. etc. (This goes on for nearly a page.) Although not specifically mentioned, Muslim practice at this time also often included female genital mutilation of slave girls. I would like to highlight, however, that women trafficked today suffer similar fates. I urge readers not to take my word for it, but to investigate modern slavery, particularly in the Middle East.

Did you have any changing emotions while writing this story? If so, what were they?

I generally identify very strongly with my characters, following them on their, often tumultuous, emotional journey. That entails a lot of ups and downs. One thing I felt strongly with this book, however, was that it was my best ever. I’ve often said that my books are my children and I love them all, while recognizing that they each have their faults. “Envoy of Jerusalem,” undoubtedly has its flaws too, but I nevertheless feel that it is the most mature, profound, and significant of the books I’ve written to date.

What are your personal motivations in story-telling?

Good question. I wish I knew! I’ve been writing since I was in second grade and the compulsion to imagine the lives of others, to write them down in a way that engages the interest of readers, and then share those stories publicly has been a constant of my life ever since. Nor can I explain why one story appeals to me more than others. There are probably millions of true life stories – much less fictional stories – that are fascinating, educational, uplifting, fun, amusing etc. I don’t know why one historical figure ignites in me a passion to write about him/her, and others don’t.

However, looking back over what I have written, I’m clearly attracted to by the idea of correcting common misconceptions about an age or society by writing an alternative but accurate depiction of that society/age via an inspiring character. For example, most people think of Sparta as a brutal, barren place occupied by a bunch of uneducated thugs who take orders like robots. Not true, hence my six books set in ancient Sparta. Likewise, it is still commonplace for people to dismiss the crusades and crusaders as religious fanatics, cultural imperialists and brutal aggressors. Again, none of that is true, so I chose the truly inspiring character of Balian d’Ibelin to tell the truth about the crusader states in a (what I hope) is an engaging and exciting way.

But there is another motivation at work as well: my overall goal to inspire people to go on living by providing real-life examples of humans (not aliens, super-beings, fantasy creatures or fictional characters) who have overcome adversity, resisted temptation, demonstrated courage and compassion, found and given love, made meaningful sacrifices and changed the world for the better.

What are you currently working on?

“Envoy of Jerusalem” does not end with Balian’s death because thematically the book is centered on the loss of the territory and people of Jerusalem and the price of recovering both. With the Treaty of Ramla, both these issues find a natural conclusion. But lives and history continues.

The historical record for the period 1193-1204 in Outremer is far less complete than for the Third Crusade.  Even scholars who have dedicated their lives to a study of the Holy Land in this period admit to having many unanswered questions. That is a gold-mine for a historical novelist since I can extrapolate and hypothesize based on the few facts we have, but weave a story that suits my own thematic goals.

My work-in-progress pieces together a plausible story about the establishment of the Lusginan dynasty on the island of Cyprus and how the Ibelins came to be so extraordinarily influential there. (It is far more complex than most superficial or condensed accounts would have you believe!) Suffice it to say that the Templars had abandoned Cyprus because they were not strong enough to put down a rebellion by the Greek population. Although Guy de Lusignan “bought” the island in April 1192, in a little over two years he was dead, and it was his brother Aimery and Aimery’s Ibelin wife Eschiva (who readers will recognize as a stalwart secondary characters throughout the Jerusalem trilogy), who founded the Lusignan dynasty on Cyprus. Thematically, the book is about “post conflict reconstruction” (in modern political jargon), in which Maria Comnena, as a Greek princess, plays a crucial role.

Where can reader buy your book?

“Envoy of Jerusalem” is available from either or Barnes and Noble, or can be ordered at your local bookstore. I highly recommend the paperback, despite being somewhat more expensive, because of the genealogy tables, maps and glossary that can be hard to flip back-and-forth to in the ebook version.

Thank you, Helena!

Author Website HERE

A message from indieBRAG:

We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview Helena Schrader who is the author of, ENVOY OF JERUSALEM, our medallion honoree at indieBRAG. To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion ®, 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, ENVOY OF JERUSALEM, merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.


More about Helena Schrader:

Helena graduated with honors in History from the University of Michigan, added a Master’s Degree in Diplomacy and International Commerce from Patterson School, University of Kentucky, and rounded off her education with a PhD in History cum Laude from the University of Hamburg, awarded for a ground-breaking dissertation on a leading member of the German Resistance to Hitler. She worked in the private sector as a research analyst, and an investor relations manager in both the U.S. and Germany.

Helena published her first book in 1993, when her dissertation was released by a leading academic publisher in Germany; a second edition followed after excellent reviews in major newspapers. Since then she has published three additional non-fiction books, starting with “Sisters in Arms” about women pilots in WWII, “The Blockade Breakers” about the Berlin Airlift, and “Codename Valkyrie,” a biography of General Olbricht, based on her dissertation.

Helena has also published historical novels set in World War Two, Ancient Sparta and the Crusades. “St. Louis’ Knight” won the Bronze in both the Historical Fiction and Spiritual/Religious Categories of the Feathered Quill Literary Awards 2014. Her latest project, a biographical novel of Balian d’Ibelin in three parts, got off to a great start when “Knight of Jerusalem” earned a B.R.A.G. Medallion, and was selected as a Finalist for the 2014 Chaucer Award for Historical Fiction. The second book in the series did even better: “Defender of Jerusalem” took the “Silver” for spiritual/religious fiction in the 2015 Feathered Quill Awards, won the Chaucer Award for Medieval Historical Fiction, was a finalist for the M.M.Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction, and was awarded “Silver” by Readers’ Favorites in the category Christian Historical Fiction. It too is a B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree.

Helena a career American diplomat, currently serving in Africa. In June 2010 she was awarded the “Dr. Bernard LaFayette Lifetime Achievement Award for Promoting the Institutionalization of Nonviolence Ideals in Nigeria” by the Foundation for Ethnic Harmony in Nigeria.


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