Although I have the pleasure of calling author T.K. Thorne friend, I'd love her books every bit as much if I'd never met her.
T.K. has such a unique blend of fiction--literally unlike anything I've ever read before. She manages to blend historical fiction of the most ancient sort with spiritual themes that wouldn't frighten away even the most staunch of Atheists, and she does so all while developing captivating and heart-tugging characters that you aren't soon to forget. It would be unfair to say T.K. does any one of these things well because, in truth, she does them all superbly.
That's why I'm so excited to share the news of her latest book, Angels at the Gate, which will be released on March 5th.
For Birmingham readers, you can attend her launch party at the Harbert Center this Thursday from 4:30-7:00pm. T.K. will be on hand to sign copies--believe me, you want one!--and will be giving a presentation about the book over light hors d'oeuvres.
T.K. is no stranger to writing books. Her first novel, Noah's Wife, is an award-winning historical fiction novel that follows the protagonist Na'amah as she navigates ancient Biblical times with striking good looks, keen senses due to Asperger's, family drama of the wildest sort, competing affections between two men who love her, and being feminist in a time when feminism wasn't yet a concept.
T.K.'s second book, the nonfiction title Last Chance for Justice: How Relentless Investigators Uncovered New Evidence Convicting the Birmingham Church Bombers, was published, appropriately, in 2013, the 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing during the Civil Rights Movement. As a millennial, I was rather shocked to learn that all the church bombers hadn't been brought to justice until 1990--during my lifetime. I found Last Chance for Justice to be every bit as riveting as it was educational.
For T.K.'s third book, Angels at the Gate, she's returned to the familiar in a new and surprising way. Like Noah's Wife, the novel takes place during Biblical times and follows the tale of Lot's Wife.
From the synopsis on Goodreads:
Little is known about Lot’s wife, the unnamed biblical figure who was turned into a pillar of salt as she fled the destruction of Sodom. But for writer T.K. Thorne, just one reference was enough to ignite her imagination and form the basis for her dazzling new novel, Angels at the Gate. Like Noah’s Wife, Thorne’s highly praised debut, this book brings the ancient world to life through the eyes of an extraordinary woman.
Based on historical, biblical, and archaeological research, visits to the Middle East, and a large measure of creativity, Angels at the Gate is the story of Adira, destined to become Lot’s wife. A daughter of Abram's tribe, Adira is an impetuous young girl whose mother died in childbirth. Secretly raised as a boy in her father’s caravan and schooled in languages and the art of negotiation, Adira rejects the looming changes of womanhood that threaten her nomadic life and independence.
But with the arrival of two mysterious strangers – Northmen rumored to be holy or possibly even “Angels” – Adira’s world unravels. Raiders invade the caravan, and she loses everything she values most – her father, her freedom, and even the “Angels.”
Caught between her oath to her father to return to her tribe and the “proper life for a woman” and tormented by an impossible love, she abandons all she has known in a dangerous quest to seek revenge and find her kidnapped “Angel.” With only her beloved dog, Nami, at her side, Adira must use the skills she learned in the caravan to survive the perils of the desert, Sodom, and her own heart.
Angels at the Gate is a story of adventure and the power of love, exploring themes about choice – the importance of asking the right questions and walking the fine edge between duty and personal freedom.
My interview with T.K. follows.
Fixed Baroque: Angels at the Gate is your second novel where you've reworked a story from the Bible to have the protagonist be a feminist hero. Tell us more about how these stories and characters captured your attention.
T.K. Thorne: Noah’s wife and Lot’s wife were both unnamed women in the Bible and given only one line. The idea of telling their stories intrigued me. But, I have to admit that initially I rejected writing about Sodom & Gomorrah. Two things bothered me: 1) The story seemed so dark, and 2) I was perplexed about how I could use angels without delving into the supernatural. But curiosity wove its web, especially after I discovered a fascinating book written by two scientists that explored the possible connections between Stonehenge cultures, the Middle East, and angels. (Really.) Then I learned that the Hebrew for the word “angel” is actually “messenger,” and that angels appearing in Genesis were portrayed as physical men. (The popular envisioning of angels with wings and haloes came from paintings in the Middle Ages.) The more I delved into this, the tighter the web drew, until I finally gave up and started writing.
FB: Given the often very few story details in the Bible, did you find it challenging to pull these characters off the page and make them larger than life? Were you concerned with staying true to the character or were you excited to breathe life into a character we historically haven't known much about?
TKT: We know so little about Adira’s character from the Bible. Literally, the only information is given in one line—“But Lot’s wife looked back as she was following behind him, and she turned into a pillar of salt” (Genesis 19:26). In Jewish tradition, however, there are several stories, called midrashim, expanding on the Biblical text, and I drew from some of that, but mostly from my own imagination. In fact, you could say that this is my own midrash. There is much conflicting information about Lot’s character in the Bible, and I made conscious choices about how to portray him. The research was fascinating and had its own allure, but once I started writing, the characters came alive, had their own say and made their own decisions—one of the exciting, rewarding, and just plain fun aspects of writing fiction.
FB: At the beginning of the novel, Adira begins as a girl in disguise as a boy and later sheds her male persona to embrace her femininity. What were some of the challenges you faced in writing a character that lives oscillating between two genders?
TKT: Actually, it was a lot of fun. I even read a book about a woman who went undercover for a year as a man, but Adira’s situation was different. She was raised with that duality, so she didn’t have problem with it until she wanted to claim her birthright as woman. Then she began to realize what she was giving up. As a writer, the challenge for me was having that desire and conflict arise naturally within the context of the difficulties such a drastic change would bring about.
Before I began writing, I knew Adira would have a problem with obedience. After all, she turned to look back at her burning city after being expressly told not to. Obedience was a much-valued quality in ancient times, especially in women. Even until very recently, women in our own culture were extorted to “love and obey” as part of marriage vows.
In the guise of a boy, Adira was able to more fully explore her capabilities. She learned the art of observation and negotiations at her father’s side. Her exposure to other cultures allowed her to learn different languages and expand her capacity to understand her world and eventually, herself. At the same time, she struggled with coming to terms with who she was, which in many ways is still our challenge as women, even in a modern society. We do not want our capacities to be defined by our gender, but at the same time we seek to embrace our unique strengths as women.
FB: One of the things that I love so much about your work is that you have a historical fiction novel that's set in the times of the Bible and has a Bible story as its underlying influence, yet religion is not thrust to the forefront of the novel. Tell us a little about what it was like navigating the attribution of natural causes (like fire erupting from the earth) to things that religious people have been attributing to a higher power for millennia.
TKT: Part of the intrigue about writing these stories was the challenge of uncovering the historical and scientific origins for the tales. Humans have been attributing the divine to natural events throughout prehistory and into our current day. Stories told in one culture are modified and retold to reflect another culture’s values and beliefs. Living in the highly religious milieu of the South, there was some trepidation on my part about writing from such a different perspective. There are also serious marketing challenges, as the book does not fit into what is considered the typical “religious” category.
As both a historian and a historical novelist, I have come to believe that both types of writing are about finding truths in our past, in terms of what actually happened, what might have happened, and the truths within the human heart. And the only way for me to tap fully into my own capacity as a writer is to write from my own truth.
FB: We know from ancient historical documents that the days of the Old Testament did not have Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, as we know them today. Tell us more about the polytheistic religion you depict in Angels at the Gate. What was your research process like? Was polytheistic religion depicted in the novel, at one time, a real religion?
TKT: Angels at the Gate takes place in the time of Abraham, the “father” of all three major religions of the West and Middle East. Prior to that, the religions of the area were primarily Egyptian, Canaanite and Mesopotamian. There are ancient texts that, combined with the findings of archeology, enlighten us about the religions of the time.
Israel was originally the land of Canaan and many scholars are now leaning toward the theory that the Israelites had their origin as Canaanites. My research took me to the earliest documents written on clay tablets or even stone, scholars’ interpretations, and the latest archeological findings. I spoke to a geologist and a chemist about the possibilities of what might have been happening beneath the surface of the Dead Sea, read books on various theories, and used my imagination to put together what seemed the best scenario for my story.
As I studied early religion, one observation ran throughout—that the need to have some control over their fate has driven people throughout time to try to influence their deities through sacrifice, incense, rites, praise, or pleading. The religious practices of the Canaanites were based on a belief in gods and goddesses that controlled the fertility of the land in a place where the timing of rain meant life or death. Understanding that gave me a different perspective of the life in Sodom & Gomorrah.
FB: What was your research process like? With the story being based in the ancient world, what were you hoping to find?
Several exciting things happened while my husband and I were in the Middle East researching this book, although I’m not sure “ exciting” would be the word he would always choose.
One was the opportunity to take a daylong trip into the Negev with a desert ranger. There was an area that I needed for my story, a certain configuration of a dry wash (called a wadi) south of the Dead Sea. We laid out a map the night before our planned trip, and the ranger made a small circle on it and said, “This is the only place where what you have described exists.” The next day he took us there, sharing his insights about the land, the soil, which direction the wadis would flood, etc.
Another time, we stumbled onto a small animal exhibit in the Negev desert and an enthusiastic young man who was from a Bedouin tribe. He was an expert in the desert plants and the creatures that flew, crawled, or crept in it. I got some wonderful details that I would never have known even to ask about. That was an unexpected gold mine. Another exciting moment was finding a Bronze Age bridle bit in a museum after a frustrating search for evidence that horses were domesticated in my time period. We took a dip in the Dead Sea and spent some time in a Bedouin tent. I remember looking closely at the black camel hairs visible in the material of the tent and thinking this was what my character would have seen. It hasn’t changed for thousands of years! I was halfway through my book, so I knew the kind of things I was looking for. I even talked our guide into taking us to into the volatile West Bank to the location where the Bible said Abraham had pitched his tents. An Israeli soldier decided we looked suspicious and pointed his M-16 rifle at us. It only lasted a moment, but it was a moment I’ll never forget. It was an experience I will never forget and it definitely enriched this book.
FB: Without giving it away, some aspects of the tale of Lot's wife are portrayed literally and others are portrayed figuratively. Tell us a little about your thought process in deciding which parts of the story to apply in what way.
TKT: Where I thought the literal aspects of the Biblical story could have reasonably happened (i.e., without supernatural influence), I used that as a framework. Much of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, was written after the first expulsion of the Hebrew elite from Jerusalem in the sixth century BCE, primarily for picking the wrong side in a struggle between Egypt and Babylonia. Believing God was angry with them for failing to make a break with Canaanite religious practices, the Hebrew scholars railed against the Canaanite ways and their people’s proclivity to practice them. With both Noah's Wife and Angels at the Gate, I wanted to present the stories as how they might have happened before the biblical authors told or retold them in a way that supported their agendas.
My intention in writing these novels has been to bring these unnamed women to life as real and complex human beings in a way that rang true to me. They traveled the same path we all tread—a journey of the spirit, one where we grow in our capacity for imagination, understanding, and love, discovering the divine in our world, in ourselves, and in our fellow travelers.
If you're as intrigued by T.K. and Angels at the Gate as I am, you can eet her and get a signed copy of the book at her launch party on Thursday, March 5th from 4:30pm to 7:00pm at the Harbert Center, located at 2019 4th Ave N #100, Birmingham, AL 35203.