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Author Podcast: Karen Essex

abstract:Join BookBuffet reviewer Dee Raffo in her very first author interview podcast. Dee speaks with Karen Essex (photo left), one of America's important contemporary historical fiction writers, who joins us from her home in Los Angeles. Karen is a mother, writer and we now discover, quite a feminist. She enjoys illuminating historic female protagonists with a view to educating readers on how far we've come in the pursuit of gender equality here in the West. Her captivating stories, exquisitely researched, bring history to life. The topic for discussion today is Karen's fourth novel, Stealing Athena published by Doubleday in 2008. It's a story where two characters 2300 years apart—one in ancient Greece, the other, 18th century Scotland—find themselves inexplicably linked with the Elgin Marbles, and the controversy and passion that surround them.


December 03, 2008

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Or click on the 'Part' links below.


  • PART I: How Karen Selects Her Protagonists
  • PART II: The Elgin Marbles Controversy
  • PART III: Connecting to Book Groups
  • One is instantly captivated by the beautifully illustrated cover of Stealing Athena, showing a work of the 18th Century French painter Marie-Geneviève Bouliard in a self-portrait depicting the Greek courtesan and philosopher, Aspasia.

    PART I: How Karen Selects Her Protagonists

    BookBuffet: This is Dee Raffo podcasting for and today I am speaking with author Karen Essex. Karen is a novelist, screenwriter and journalist who was born and raised in New Orleans and now resides in Los Angeles. After completing Tulane University and Grad school at Vanderbilt University she also gained an MFA in writing at Goddard College in Vermont. A lecturer herself, her works are used to teach courses in creative writing, history and women’s studies. Karen's works have been published in 25 different languages her profiles and essays have been printed in Vogue, Playboy, The LA Weekly, and LA Style. She is also in the midst of adapting two of her novels into screenplays for some exciting upcoming films. Today we are speaking to Karen about her forth novel, Stealing Athena This novel follows a stream of extremely successful books that have had a theme of illuminating a prominent female in history whose stories have been either lost, forgotten or mistold.

    Stealing Athena follows two character arcs. Twenty-one year old Mary Nesbit from eighteen-century Scotland marries the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and joins him on his quest across continents to obtain the great marble structures of the Greek Parthenon. The other side of the story is set in ancient Greece where Aspasia, a young girl, is gifted to Peracles a great Athenian statesman who builds the Parthenon to represent Athens' greatness to the world.

    I love the circular nature of the book where we witness the building and eventual destruction of the Parthenon, and I'd like to start by asking Karen if you could start by describing the two eras for our readers.

    Karen Essex: As you said, I tell the story from two different points of view. From the view of Aspasia who literally watched the Parthenon go up as she stood with Peracles at the center of construction of that controversial building. And then, my third literary conceit for it was having Aspasia watch the Parthenon go up, and having Mary Nesbit watch it come down, because I wanted to tell the entire journey of the Elgin marbles. And I wanted to tell the story through the points of view of these women who were so intimately involved with those treasures.

    My whole orientation, as you mentioned, is to provide the stories of women who have been forgot or misinterpreted. So when I found out that these two women were so intimately connected to the Parthenon, I just couldn't resist. As an author I include a tremendous amount of history in my books... telling it from the points of view [of my characters] allows me to put the reader right in the center of the action of the story, which is always more exciting than literally giving people a history lesson.

    BB: You know that is very true; I do enjoy reading this story more than picking up a historical textbook.

    KE: Yes, and sometimes as a novelist, as a historical novelist you have to literally stop and educate your reader a little bit, so putting the reader into Aspasia's story saved me having to do that and I think it's really fascinating for my readers - because they've all told me - that they've so, enjoyed seeing that intimate glimpse into a woman's life so many thousands of years ago.

    BB: Can you actually describe what it is like to be standing at the foot of the Parthenon, because I know that you do visit each of the locations that you write about.

    KE: It's thrilling. The only words I use would be the same words I use to describe when I stood at the foot of the great pyramid and so many Egyptian monuments when I wrote Kleopatra and when I stood in front of the painting of the last supper when I wrote about Leonardo DaVinci. It's just awe inspiring to be in the presence of that kind of artistic creation.

    BB: In view of the recent war in the Middle East and the destruction of so many important historic artifacts in that region, can you talk about the issues that surround the repatriation of the Elgin Marbles and their current status?

    PART II: The Elgin Marbles Controversy

    KE: The current status is that the British Museum is still refusing to return them. The Greeks have just built a very magnificent three hundred million dollar museum at the foot of the Acropolis, or rather just opposite the Acropolis. And the built this museum with an upstairs gallery facing the Parthenon. They built it expressly with the interest in calling for the Elgin Marbles to come back home. The British Museum has still refused to return them, however public opinion is starting to shift in England.

    There was a debate a few months ago at Oxford University, and overwhelmingly opinion came out on the side of returning the statues. I was very surprised at that, but I think it shows a big shift in thinking in England. I'm not just saying this because you are English, but I think there's something in the English national character that wants to do the right thing. And I think that eventually they will make some deal and return the marbles.

    BB: Karen, sticking with the theme of possession and ownership, the two women in the book, as you mentioned, are thousands of years apart, but share the same restrictions placed upon them by society. This is one of several issues that you illuminate in this book. Can you expand on the theme and explain why it is a recurring feature in all of your books.

    KE: As you know because you read my book, women had no staus - no legal status - in either of those time-periods. It's fascinating because those were both, now we're talking about the golden age of Peracles and in Mary Elgin's time we're talking about the Enlightenment. That's the time right after the French Revolution. And so these were time periods where ideas of independence and democracy and individual freedoms were being widely discussed, but in both time periods they neglected to include the women in any of these discussions. So it true, especially with Lord Elgin, he was trying to possess these statues, and he also was literally in legal ownership of his wife. At the time a man's wife and children were considered his chattle, just another piece of his property. And so it is true that that theme is reflected in my books. I really found it fascinating and ironic that both golden ages that we harken back to as far as our own present ideals, but we always have to remember that women were not a part of the conversation at the time. You know I always say that women have made more progress in the last thirty years than they've made in the last three thousand.

    BB: It does mention on your website that you've done quite a lot of lecturing. Have any of your [interactions] with students or fellow associates given you a new take on women's issues and how we stand today?

    KE: One thing that always intrigues me is that when I am speaking at a University I am speaking to younger women, and I am always fascinated by the fact that they seem to have no clue that just a mere twenty, thirty or forty years ago that their lives would have been incredibly different. I find that they don't acknowledge that in any real way. So I am happy that we have moved on and that women are integrated now into every aspect of civic, cultural and political life. But I'm a little unhappy that there is so little understanding of how limited life was in the past, and how, you know, if one isn't fairly vigilant it could go back the other way.

    BB: You have been quote as saying you exchange molecules with your characters, and one of my favorite quotes is that you feel like you've dated Julius Caesar. Could you tell us about your research process and how you come to pick and develop those characters that appear in your books.

    KE: Well my process is painstaking. First I will get in touch with scholars of the various periods I'm writing in to be certain that I am aware of all the pertinent scholarship. Then I also go back to any original sources that I can find because that really will tell you what people were thinking and feeling in the time period. So letters, journals, autobiographies. You know the courts of Europe kept records of what happened. Or criminal courts... although I do look at actual court records too. You know that in the Mary Elgin story she went through a very horrible court trial and I was able to use parts of that transcript in the book itself to create the court scenes. So things like that are just wonderful for a writer to find.

    So I do all the academic research and I'm just a nut. I'm the kind of writer who thinks, "If I don't know everything, I don't know anything!" So I always study what they ate and what they recipes wore, and how did the clothes feel and what were their religious beliefs and how often did they worship if they worshiped. I make a pretty exhaustive study of the period.

    Then comes the fun molecular part that you were talking about. With all this knowledge I will go to the places and I'll try to walk in the same spaces that they occupied, and that's the really thrilling part for me.

    BB: When you go to these places looking for these transcripts and these detailed things, is it libraries you go to, is it hard to obtain the things that you get so much research from?

    KE: It is hard sometimes. I will travel where ever I have to travel. That has been my commitment to my work. If I have to go to the British Museum reading library I go there. If I have to go to a university library to see something, I'll just go. Sometimes it's difficult to find [things] and other times, it's right under your nose.

    PART III: Connecting to Book Groups

    BB: As the quote kind-of goes, fiction is one of the best teachers we have and going back to one of your earlier books, Kleopatra is one of the more well known historical figures, and the main character in your first book. How do you feel you've contributed to people's understanding of such an amazing woman?

    KE: Well, my readers tell me (and this was my intention) they had no idea that Cleopatra had so much dimension outside of just being the lover of Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. You know people have no idea that Cleopatra spoke nine or ten languages or that she was the very first one of her dynasty, she was a Ptolemy and descended from Alexander the Great, and her family had ruled Egypt for about 300 years by the time she came along. And not one of them had bothered to learn the Egyptian language. So she was very dedicated to the Egyptian people, very dedicated to her four children, and dedicated to keeping Egypt free from Roman rule.

    These are things that people just don't know. Maybe they've watched Elizabeth Taylor movie, or they've read poems or looked at paintings, but Cleopatra was mostly remembered in popular culture for the men she slept with - and yet there was so much more to the woman.

    BB: Do you have a favorite historical figure or era, kind of time period that you just loved researching?

    KE: I love the ancient world. I particularly love the ancient Greek world, the time Aspasia that I've written about in Stealing Athena. I just have such an affinity to that time period... My favorite figure in history is Julius Caesar. I'll tell you why. You know how you hear that writers hear the voices of their characters and how the characters speak to them and dictate what to do? My strongest experience with that was when I was writing about Julius Caesar, and writing from his point of view. I just felt like he was talking to me the whole time. That's why I joke and say I feel like I've dated Julius Caesar because my experience with that character was just so weirdly intimate.

    BB: What is your next project? What have you got going on?

    KE: I'm stepping out of bounds just slightly, and I'm writing a vampire story from a female point of view.

    BB: Wow [laughs]

    KE: It will take place in Victorian England. I'm hoping it's something that my readers will want to go along with me on. I thought it was important to take the Dracula story and turn it on its ear. [laughs]

    BB: So are you in the middle of it, or just starting?

    KE: Oh, I wish I was in the middle of it. I'm doing the research now, and I am probably going to make my first research voyage to various parts of the UK in a month or so. I think we're shooting for spring or fall of 2010 to have it published.

    BB: Do you know what kind of locations you'll be visiting in England yet?

    KE:Yes! I'll go to London, of course. The seaside village of Whitby where quite a bit of the original Dracula took place. And I'll probably spend a little bit of time in Ireland as well.

    BB: Just to touch on another feather to your bow, what sort of screenwriting projects do you have on the go?

    KE: It's funny you should mention it. I do quite a bit of that work, and I haven't done so much of in the last few years because I've been so busy with my books, but just recently a very good director, I'm not going to name him here yet, is interested in one of my scripts and we're doing some work on it together before we take it to the studio to see if they'll finance it. So that's very exciting.

    BB: Well thank you so much for joining us today, Karen. I must say I've enjoyed discussing all the aspects of the book and also of Cleopatra. Both of these books have kept me up for hours. We wish you all the best for the future. If you could just tell us a more details about how to get in touch with you and your website.

    KE: Well first of all let me say that I am a big fan of BookBuffet and I'm very happy to be interviewed by you and to have a presence on your site. Readers should go to my site which is I've loaded lots of additional content about all of my books onto the site. And I give readers and book clubs the opportunity to do a phone chat with me. If their reading group is doing one of my books, they can phone up for a phone chat and if it works out with my schedule I am really happy to do it. I have a great time interacting with book clubs, so I welcome anyone to sign up for that.

    BB: Well that's wonderful to have the input of the author of the book that you've just spent a month or so reading and then to discuss it is a huge eye-opener.

    KE: I've heard from groups that having the author speak with them via the telephone has kept their book clubs on message. The conversation doesn't degenerate into talking about babies and boyfriends, so quickly.

    BB: That's perfect! Thank you again, so much Karen.

    KE: Thank you!



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