Q. I am honored to have you on the blog, Sherry! First things first: let's talk about you and the way you started your writing career. Did you always dream of becoming an author of historical fiction? What sparked your love for writing?
- One particular woman in time, A’isha bint Abi Bakr, the youngest wife of the Prophet Muhammad, inspired me to write historical fiction. I’ve always been a reader of good writing, no matter what the genre — I love complex, descriptive prose and characters I lose myself in, but when I discovered A’isha I knew that I had to write about her. My love for reading, for words, and for great stories sparked my desire to write.
Q. Why did you decide to write a fictional account of Heloise d'Argenteuil and Pierre Abelard's love affair?
- I wanted to write a story that would portray love in all its messiness, its ambivalences and loose ends, its agonies as well as its ecstasies. Love is one of the most difficult emotions to write about, so hard to get right and so easy to screw up with cliche or with oversentimentality. Adding to the challenge was the fact that Heloise and Abelard have been portrayed so many times, in novels and plays and artworks and dance and poetry and nonfiction ann song — I wanted to do what had been done before, but to do it uniquely, in a completely new way.
Q. How did you balance historical accuracy and fiction? How much of the book sticks to true historical facts and how much is the fruit of your imagination?
- Everywhere there are facts, my books adhere to them. Where something isn’t known, I embellish or invent.
Q. Where did you do your researches for the book?
- I read Abelard’s own philosophy books, his letters to Heloise and hers to him — including 113 newly discovered “lost love letters” between them — as well as numerous biographies of the couple. I traveled to Paris and saw the site of the house where the lovers lived with Heloise’s uncle, Fulbert, and also their tomb at the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. I read an invaluable book on life in Paris in the 12th century, too, “Daily Living in the Twelfth Century” by Urban Tigner Holmes Jr. I toured a number of medieval museums, too, including Cluny in Paris and the Cloisters Museum in Manhattan.
Q. I am always curious to know how authors choose a title for their books. Why "The Sharp Hook of Love"?
- Not only does it refer, ominously, to a climactic scene in their tale, but it comes from a letter in which Heloise said her mind had been “pierced by the sharp hook of love.”
Q. I can't stop staring at the book cover - beautiful! Did you have any say in the creative process for the cover artwork?
- Except to ooh, aah, and gush rhapsodic, I didn’t need to say or do anything. The painting is called “The Kiss” (“Il Basio”) and it’s by an Italian artist named Francisco Hayez, painted in 1859.
Q. Did you uncover some unknown and interesting facts about Heloise and Abelard while conducting your researches for the book?
- I discovered fascinating theories about Heloise’s parentage, some of which I included in the book. I also found their “lost love letters,” incredibly eloquent and beautiful letters, poems, and fragments of letters first published in 1999 by Australian professor Constant Mews. I felt so thrilled to use these letters in my book. Your readers can see the first 10 of them, along with artworks depicting the couple, by signing up for my email newsletter at authorsherryjones.com/swag.
Q. The majority of scholars have interpreted the story of Heloise and Abelard's relationship as a tragic romance. Some others argue that Abelard used his privileged position to 'seduce' Heloise against her will (somebody mentioned 'rape' and 'abuse') . What is your take on this legendary couple? Do you think Abelard really loved Heloise? Was it about love, lust, or control? Were women actually free to love in the Middle Ages?
- I know they loved each other. Who could read the “lost love letters” and think otherwise? Whether Abelard “forced himself most brutally” on Heloise, as he wrote, is in dispute. He wrote it in his confessional, after all, in which he was supposed to portray himself as a wretched sinner saved, in the end, by God’s love, and so he would naturally want to make himself as degraded and debased as possible, to heighten the effect of his salvation. And yet, it wasn’t uncommon for men to simply take what they wanted from women. As for whether women were free to love — or, really, whether anyone was “free” at all during that time — let’s just say that, free or not, they did it. They loved, risking all for the sake of love, as humans have been doing since the beginning of time.
Q. What did you want to capture in particular about the time period and characters of your book?
- I wanted to look at women’s role in society and how it changed because of the Church, that most patriarchal of institutions. I also wanted to portray the growing creative tension between the secular and the sacred, which reached a kind of fevered pitch during the “renaissance” of the 12th century. I wanted, too, to show how the origins of clerical celibacy came not out of any exhortation to emulate Christ, but rather from the Church’s own attempts to hold on to its lands and money as priests and other clergy married and had sons to whom they left coveted titles and domains. It was all land grab, and had nothing do with Christ.
Q. Is there any iconic figure in modern history that reminds you of Heloise d’Argenteuil?
- I don’t know about icons, but every woman I know seems to have fallen at one point or another for a “bad boy” and given up way too much of herself for him.
Q. Of all literary genres, you are obviously inspired by historical fiction and historic figures. What draws you to write fictionalized accounts rather than build a story based solely upon your imagination and how the two writing processes (pure fiction vs. novelized history) differ?
- There is no such thing as a story that emerges solely from the imagination. Everything we write comes from memory, or dreams, or knowledge gained from reading or conversation or inner exploration. I began writing historical fiction because, as I said above, I discovered A’isha and wanted to tell her amazing story.
Q. Is there any other historical figure you would like to write about?
- My next novel is about Josephine Baker, the famous African-American dancer and singer who captured the hearts of Parisians in the 1920s and 30s. She went on to live an amazing, heroic life while also becoming the biggest star in Europe. As with so many, however, she never gained real popularity in her own country — a prophet is never without honor save in her own town, etc. I’m also at work on a memoir, “I’ve Had a String of Men,” about growing up the daughter of a religious, borderline-personality mother and an alcoholic, porn-obsessed father in the South. I expect it will be a comedy.
Q. One of your best-selling and award-winning historical novels, The Jewel Of Medina, was at the center of a national controversy for its treatment of a topic related to the Muslim religion. Has your voice changed in any way as a consequence of that diatribe? How do you react today to reviews and criticisms, if any?
- My voice has not changed, but I am a stronger person because of those very difficult years. I learned how to draw on the inspiration of my own characters, especially A’isha. Now that I have written five books, I have even more amazing characters to call upon when I need shoring up. They’re all a part of me, anyway, and were in me before I even thought about writing them.
Q. What are you passionate about, besides writing and history?
- Reading! Women’s equality, including the right to our own bodies. Food, music, love, and friends. Traveling. And anything French, including the beautiful language, which I am learning to speak.
Thank you for your time and for the lovely interview, Sherry!