Irene Soldatos gets the third degree

By Evangeline Jennings

I’ve been waiting for several years to read a book called Bad Bishop by a lovely and talented writer called Irene Soldatos. Now I can. And have. And it lived up to expectation. So what else could we do but invite Irene into our Interrogation Room? We began by talking about her book.

Bad BishopTell us about Bad Bishop. It’s an enormous book, so please, take as long as you want.
It’s about history, and people living through it, large swathes of it, experiencing it. Not just reading about it in books. It’s also about books though, books and learning, and how writing is fundamental for the transmission of knowledge. It’s about desire for power and, more importantly, desire for control: of the world around us and things that happen. It’s also about loneliness.

But that’s all in the background. In the foreground it’s creatures that have actually lived through history, it’s intrigue, spies, politics, war, and magic, but fundamentally, above and beyond anything else, it’s a crime mystery set in the 12th century.

Let’s not beat about the bush. Bad Bishop is also a vampire story – although your creatures are most definitely sparkle-free. What about them appeals to you?
About my vampires? That they are people. Not creatures.

And that they are the exact opposite of your usual vampires: they have more life in them – they are more alive – than ordinary humans.

What can readers expect from Bad Bishop?
Think of The Name of the Rose. Add strange creatures and magic and a lot of politics, and half a dozen cities across Europe. Then add some violence to that. Quite a bit of violence, if I’m honest.

What does it mean to you?
HA! What a question! Let’s just say it means a lot.

How long was it in the making?
Oh, a looong time. I first started toying with the idea and doing preliminary research when I was writing up my PhD. Writing for my own enjoyment through that is what kept me sane! I ended up with about 150 pages of material that bore zero resemblance to the current story and style. Which I then binned around 2006, and started again from scratch. Including all edits and changes, and polishing, the text was finalised around November 2012. So, this version of the story, 6 years. If you count the first aborted efforts as well, 8 years. A looong time.

And if Bad Bishop was a song, what song would it be?
I’m afraid I can’t reduce it to only one song. I could, if you’d ask me to, reduce the book to its bare bones, but that’s not what you asked and it might be misleading for readers. So, the best I can do is two songs – though, you know, if you wanted, I could do a whole playlist.

Song One

At one point you were going to start your own press and publish Bad Bishop yourself. What happened?
Ah, the friend with whom we were making these plans started having second thoughts about her ability to sell things to people. I don’t want to make it sound as though I’m confident I can sell things to people. I’m not. I probably can’t. Which is why I didn’t put up much of a fight. But, anyway, that happened.

How do you view the publishing game at the moment?
I think the opening up of the field with the new opportunities offered by the internet is a wonderful thing.

Gate keepers always end up set in their ways and functioning on the basis of a self-fulfilling prophecy. We think this will sell, hence this is what we’ll publish. Since that is what they publish, that is what people buy; so the prophecy is fulfilled. To which they then point and go, we know the market. But, you created the market!

You created it not only by choosing what to publish, but by not allocating the same marketing and promotional resources to all your authors. If you push the bestsellers, and only the bestsellers, how is it surprising that the bestsellers will be the ones selling, and books by the so-called mid-list authors will vanish without a trace after six months?

Publishing is in the same boat as all the other entertainment industries. It needs to embrace the new circumstances, and the internet, and stop worrying about pirates. Pirates are advertising. On these two subjects I suggest this article:

Traditional publishers need to start finding new business models. Here’s one, for example, that looks brilliant!: .

And this: .

I mean, seriously, who buys hardbacks any more – unless it’s a super-duper limited edition of a book that’s very close to your heart or you’re a collector, etc.? And really, if you don’t believe me about the internet and pirates, here’s research evidence from the London School of Economics:

I’ll get off my soapbox now … and, before anyone, indignant or otherwise, asks, no I don’t have the slightest problem with people sharing my work. In fact, please, please do share my work! Thank you!

Song Two

Now tell us about you?
In my head, I’m 29 and will remain so. For ever. I’ll be 80 and still playing D&D or VtM with my cousin and friends.

Here we had to pause for me to google VtM. Apparently it’s something called Vampire: The Masquerade.

Was that any kind of inspiration for your story?
Not directly. I did game a lot though, and very often ran games myself. I enjoy it immensely, both being a player and a storyteller, but it can get frustrating, because as a player you don’t always have control of the story, and, if you’re a good storyteller, you only have partial control of the story, leaving room for your players to influence the direction it’s going to take. Eventually it occurred to me that I come up with complex stories for games practically every other week, so I might as well start writing one, and there I’d have total control of the story. I can report that this is, in fact, immensely satisfying! But it doesn’t replace gaming; only complements it. 🙂

But I didn’t set off to write a story about vampires. What I wanted to write was about history and people. So I needed characters that had lived through history. I considered various other alternatives first, before deciding that ‘algul’ (my ‘algul’) worked best for what I had in mind.

Although Bad Bishop is written in English. Irene is bilingual – English and Greek. As a child she moved between Greece and the UK, and after graduating in English from the University of Athens, she traveled to Leeds in the UK to complete a Masters and a Doctorate in Musicology.

Did all that travel have any impact on grand scale of your geographic canvas for Bad Bishop?

I suppose it must have. Travel broadens one’s horizons, helps one look at the world in a different way. I don’t think it would ever have occurred to me to write something like this had I not travelled as I have. You go from Yorkshire to Oxfordshire and you get a different temperament and different local character (let alone a different accent). Multiply that by n when you go from Yorkshire to Germany, or from Germany to Spain. Then raise it to the power of n if you also add the distance of different time periods to the geographical distance. And yet, underneath all that endless diversity, people are always, fundamentally, exactly the same. Both in their flaws and their virtues.

Everything about Bad Bishop is huge, including the cast. Do you have a favourite character?
You’re asking a mother to choose a favourite from among her children. I couldn’t possibly choose. I love them all. Even the nasty ones. In fact, some of the nasty ones are very close to my heart indeed.  Not because they’re nasty, but because there’s a lot more to them than that. Anyway, I wouldn’t want to prejudice readers. If I say, X character is my favourite, and these are the reasons, it would draw undue attention to him/her and readers would spend their time trying to identify these reasons in the text, and determine whether they agree with me or not, rather than just going with the flow and forming their own opinions – which might be the complete opposite of mine! Anyway, I truly don’t have one favourite. Truly.

Irene and Fyren, who was named for a character in Bad Bishop – though OBVIOUSLY NOT Irene’s favourite

Mine is Amarante. Early in the story, we see that she is very generous about granting access to her library. Knowledge was to be shared and disseminated, not hoarded and hidden. Discuss?

Let me put it this way and in modern terms: If Amarante were to find herself in the 21st century, she’d be all for an open, neutral, uncensored internet, and a reform of copyright laws so that we don’t have to wait 150 years before culture – literature and music –  and scientific articles or books enter the public domain. She’d love the internet, and would think it outrageous that something someone’s written gets to be monopolised by companies for 70 years after that someone is dead!

A little later, there’s a discussion between Amarante and Kyrus which focuses on perception and the nature of things. Does either of the characters speak for you?
No. Ontology and phenomenology is a vast subject and I can’t claim to have come to a considered conclusion for myself. The characters only speak for themselves, and I hope, through that discussion, reveal more things about their personalities and how their minds work (as well as how their magic works). I have to say, I was slightly surprised myself to find Kyrus taking the phenomenological part of the argument, and Amarante the physical ontology part. Going from appearances – almost always a mistake – I thought it’d have been the exact opposite. But, there you go. Just when you thought you had someone pegged… They almost always turn out to be more complex than you thought.

At one point in that discussion, Kyrus says, Words are important, as you know perfectly well. They embody notions, concepts, and fine nuances of meaning can carry great significance.

How careful have you been in your word choices? Did you agonize over them? Are you still?
Oh, yes! An hundred times yes! I’ve spent days on choosing the right word, sometimes. I also took extreme care with anachronisms. I’ve tried very hard to limit my use of anachronistic words to the absolute minimum necessary. To give an example, there’s just two occurrences of the word ‘pink’ in reference to a colour, in the whole 240k words. The one, I think was the only word that fitted both the image and the rhythm I wanted for that sentence. The other, I don’t think I could possibly have avoided. Every other time I’ve referred to something ‘pink’, I’ve used some other word to describe it. You’re probably wondering why. First recorded use of the work ‘pink’ to mean ‘pale rose colour’ is in 1733.

Are you still planning/writing a sequel?
I’m writing a sequel, yes. Though I haven’t done any actual writing on it for quite some time now. But yes, it is in the works.

You need to hurry up and write it. I’m not known for my patience.

Who inspires/influences you?
People like Cicero, Mary the Jewess (alchemist inventor of the bain-marie, apparently), Porphyry of Tyre, Epicurus, Hypatia, Darwin, Marie Curie, cosmologists in general, etc.

Three authors you’d love to sit down to tea with?
Hmm, I’m assuming you don’t just mean fiction authors. Gore Vidal, Machiavelli, and Lucian would probably make for lively, interesting, entertaining conversation.

What three words best describes your writing?
I think that’s for other people to say. What I can say is what I pay most attention to when writing: rhythm, visualisation, layers.

You inherit five million dollars the same day aliens land on the earth and say they’re going to blow it up in two days. What do you do?
I doubt there’d be much to do with 5 million at that point. I suspect the world would have descended into utter chaos, economies collapsed, and 5 million worth not very much. Assuming it were possible, I’d use the money to make sure I’m together with the rest of my family. Having said that, I’d like to ask the aliens why they want to blow the earth up. Making way for a new hyperspace bypass, or just because it’d be fun? It matters, you see. With one you can perhaps negotiate, with the other not.

Irene on the web

Bad Bishop


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