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PART OF THE Open Up ISSUE

‘It’s Irini’s life. We all live lives that, looking back, we can see how they are divided into separate books, but it’s still one life.’

Janet McGiffin has written an epic historical tetralogy for young adult readers with all four books coming out in a single year. She tells us about her journey to publication and answers the question, why did Scotland Street Press decide to bring out my four books of the Irini of Athens series in one year?

 

Betrothal and Betrayal (Book 1)
By Janet McGiffin
Published by Scotland Street Press

Poison is a Woman’s Weapon (Book 2)
By Janet McGiffin
Published by Scotland Street Press

 

Because people binge read. I binge read. Books are so readily available—I order them overnight or download them onto my electronic devices. Especially people who read books on their phones or on electronic devices binge read. I see them on the subway in New York glued to their phones or tablets or actual books. I have no patience for waiting a year for a sequel to come out; I want it now! Then I read the next and the next until there aren’t any more and anyway by that time, I need a rest.

But mostly, these four are coming out in one year because they are one book. It got long because there was so much to say about this amazing, gorgeous Byzantine empress and her world. I sent it off to Scotland Street Press as two books and Jean, Head of Publishing, said, it’s four books. But to me, it was still one book, divided into four parts. The very end of Book 4 (The Price of Eyes) circles back around to the beginning of Book 1 (Betrothal and Betrayal), just like the end of each book circles back to the beginning of that book. It’s Irini’s life. We all live lives that, looking back, we can see how they are divided into separate books, but it’s still one life.

I realized that for me to be true to my vision, that I was writing one story of Irini of Athens, all four parts had to be edited by the same editor and the covers and chapter illustrations had to be done by the same artist. Why? Because in many series that I have read, the later books feel different from the first ones—there’s a different editor or publisher with different ideas for the series so the characters don’t feel the same, or the plots go limp or fizzle out as the author runs out of ideas. I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted the final episode of this fascinating woman’s life to be even stronger than the previous episodes—a hard-told story of how she faces the consequences of her choices with her same determination and courage. I wanted all four parts to refer back to her previous decisions and previous consequences. Happily, Jean went along with this mad obsession and so did Paddy, my so-intuitive editor, and Harry the amazingly talented artist. Jean, with her enthusiasm and impressive ability, set a production schedule, and Harry produced four book covers in about same time as one, as well as wonderful chapter illustrations that would fit all four parts.

But really, how did this book get so long? Because, as I did the research at the Bodleian libraries in Oxford and later at the New York Reference library on Fifth Avenue, I was reading with the eyes of a crime novelist. I’ve always loved crime novels and years ago, I wrote a series of three for Fawcett paperback and then I went on to other work. But I always look for the real reason behind why my friends and colleagues do the odd things that they do, so I looked at the very sparce information about Irini of Athens and thought, why did she make those particular choices? She is accused of murdering her son. I decided that she didn’t do it. But let’s look at the sudden deaths four years apart of her reasonably healthy father-in-law and her husband, putting her on the throne as Regent for her nine-year-old son, the new emperor. Seriously? And then there were the two patriarchs who died a few years apart, letting her install her favourite power-broker as head of the church. Well, good on her, I say! Well done! She did exactly what emperors before and after her did, but they used swords and she used poison. At least, that’s what I say happened. And in these four parts, I spell out why she did it, and how. Ah, the joys of being a fiction writer and not limited to hard facts!

Of course, the real reason that the book got so long was because so much was going on during that century. Irini betrothed her son to the daughter of Charlemagne, broke that off and betrothed herself to the great man himself!  What courage. And then she broke it off for obvious reasons which any woman would know, but I spell that out too. She fought Caliph Harun al-Rashid over the long border between their two empires—he who was called a military genius at the age of ten. And then there was Pope Adrian who wanted the Byzantine territory in Calabria and Sicily and had the temerity to instigate a change in dating, from year one being Creation to our present dating. She spotted that as a ploy to control time itself. But what she is most known for is that she brought icons back into churches and homes after they had been banned for sixty-odd years.

My biggest hurdle, and what made the book long, was that I had to populate Irini’s world. Any Scots child who hears ‘King James’ could tell you who else was at his courts. But I knew nothing of who Irini lived among in the Great Palace of Constantinople. Happily, I came upon an online reference cited in many footnotes, the ‘Prosopography of the Byzantine Empire’. It was compiled at King’s College London, and it lists every bit of information about people of that period. I spent one year reading every single listing and figuring out who might have lived when Irini did, and if she could have known them. I found lots of people, and two were very important in her life.

And then there were my three dear colleagues in Greece, whom I have known for over twenty years, who took on scholarly research in Greek that was beyond me, and found swear words, blessings, medicines – and food – of the Byzantines. Over the two years of COVID we skyped every two weeks and they filled my pages with details. After COVID was over, we met again in Athens and ate all the Byzantine food that they had tracked down in the fabulous restaurants of Athens – where Irini was born and where Byzantium is very much alive and well.

 

Betrothal and Betrayal and Poison is a Woman’s Weapon by Janet McGiffin are published by Scotland Street Press, priced £9.99.

Seizing Power and The Price of Eyes will be released in October 2023.

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