Hypatia of Alexandria
The Legendary Women of World History #8
by Laurel A. Rockefeller
Genre: YA Historical Fiction
Teacher. Philosopher. Astronomer.
Born in 355 CE in the aftermath of Constantine’s reign, Hypatia of Alexandria lived in a collapsing Rome Empire, a world where obedience to religious authorities trumped science, where reason and logic threatened the new world order. It was a world on the edge of the Dark Ages. As libraries burned, she dared defend the light of knowledge.
Born, raised, and educated in Lincoln, Nebraska USA Laurel A. Rockefeller is author of over twenty books published and self-published since August, 2012 and in languages ranging from Welsh to Spanish to Chinese and everything in between. A dedicated scholar and biographical historian, Ms. Rockefeller is passionate about education and improving history literacy worldwide.
With her lyrical writing style, Laurel’s books are as beautiful to read as they are informative. In her spare time, Laurel enjoys spending time with her cockatiels, attending living history activities, travelling to historic places in both the United States and United Kingdom, and watching classic motion pictures and classic television series.
Describe your writing style
Lyrical is probably the best word for it. I came into writing through my music. I was making up songs long before I could read. My songs helped me express myself and survive a very difficult and often very violent childhood. I was in my teens the first time my poems were published, including a sonnet, “Why Bilbo?” for the American Tolkien Society in the winter of 1991/2. So, it makes sense that my writing has a musical quality to it and translates so easily to audio books. Indeed, poetry and music is a common feature in most of my books, both fiction and non-fiction. “Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd” opens with an original poem called “Gwenllian’s Tears” and “Mary Queen of the Scots” opens with the original poem, “Of Scotland Forgotten.” There is plenty of period music in the narrative biographies and original music in the “Peers of Beinan” science fiction novels. You can hear me sing many of these songs on my youtube videos.
What makes a good story?
To me a good story has to pull at your heart strings. There are many very competent writers out there who know their stuff, but fail to really get you invested emotionally. If you aren’t empathizing with the characters or historical persons, then the author is not doing her or his job. With a good story you really truly care about these people and what is happening to them. You hurt with them at the difficult moments and you rejoice with them when they succeed at something. For non-fiction science, the aim has to be making whatever it is really compelling and interesting without sacrificing accuracy or reading comprehension. Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is an expert at this which is why he is one of my favourite authors.
What are you passionate about these days?
Immigration to England! As a very hands-on historian I feel I do my best work when I have walked the places I’m writing about and done many of the activities in my historical narratives. There is no substitute for direct, personal experience when you are writing. And while yes, it is possible to travel to the UK and the EU from the USA, such trips are too long and expensive to take on the sort of regular basis I need in order to do the best possible work I can. So I am engaging in this extremely long, difficult process called legal immigration.
Making my life more difficult in pursuit of this effort is the current anti-immigrant climate in both the USA and abroad. Ten years ago all you really needed to prove was that you were earning enough money to be self-supporting for the first three to ten years in your new home country. Today those skilled worker visas are extremely hard to come by, particularly for writers and other creative professionals. Everyone is presumed to be a potential terrorist or an economic threat to native-borns so the number of visas available has dramatically shrank and the standards for what skills you need have skyrocketed. It’s no longer good enough to be even in the top 25% of your profession to be considered skilled.
The good news for me is that with your help, I can and will reach England from which I will be better empowered to tell these stories of inspiring historical women. All it takes from you is a review or two on Amazon and sharing what you love about my work with others! So please, help me make my dream come true. Help me earn that visa!
What do you do to unwind and relax?
I have two beautiful cockatiels who are my pride, joy, and usually a form of amusement for me. Absolutely love my birds. I play a couple Facebook games on a daily basis. And of course, I’m a big movie fan, especially of classic films. Favourite television series include Doctor Who, Star Trek the Next Generation, Star Trek Voyager, the West Wing, Victoria, Sherlock, and Downton Abbey. For social activities, I enjoy fine food and drink (I’m quite the foodie at times), history tourism, and playing several outdoor games. I don’t generally exercise if I’m alone, but in the company of a small group I rather enjoy golfing (either the driving range or miniature golf), badminton, archery, frisbee/catch games, and sometimes a bit of football (soccer). Walking around zoos and botanic gardens is also fun too, especially if the trip involves seeing birds. Roses are my favourite flowers, especial white and fire-and-ice varieties.
What made you want to become an author and do you feel it was the right decision?
I don’t think anyone in this business really wants per se to be a writer. I think it is like acting and you are a writer from birth and then, through the trials and tribulations of life, finally learn to embrace your talent. As with acting, the road can be very long and convoluted and take decades before you take the plunge and decide to really go for it as a trade as opposed to a hobby you do for fun. Some published authors never take it out of hobby mode. I personally resisted making writing my profession. None of my family, living or dead, support(ed) the idea and I was pushed hard to pursue a “real” job. That’s a key reason I majored in Psychology while in University – my writing major was for me and my psych major was for my mother. History came about through my elective course options. By the time I was registering for classes for senior year my minor advisor in the history department told me I only needed three specific required courses to turn my minor into a major –so I did. History is really the hobby I made into a profession via becoming a non-fiction history author.
As for the right or wrongness of the decision, well it took me over 25 years to finally stop resisting my talent and go for it. In that time, I tried to make a living doing anything except write; the list is very long of the odd, usually poorly paid jobs I took. Now I have taken the big plunge and made writing my sole source of income, yes, I am happy with the decision. I’m finally doing what I was always meant to do.
A day in the life of the author?
I don’t think there is a typical day for me. I get up, check my email and social media, and go from there. I am very active on twitter and there are certain people I like to keep up with every day if I can. I love a good twitter conversation about history, birds, and so forth.
My work usually involves interacting with my translators on a regular basis and in truth I enjoy talking to them about both work and personal stuff. I may have writing or research to do that day or book promotion. It really all depends. When I’m doing initial research for a book I usually start with youtube in search of documentaries relating to the new project. Look through my bibliographies and you usually will find at least one video listed as proof of that.
One thing I always do every day unless I’m traveling is take a nap after my mid-day meal – usually with my cockatiels nearby. The mid-day nap time is often my main time to get in quality interactions with each bird because they are often most friendly with me then. What could be better than your cockatiel walking right up to you for a head rub or a kiss? Heaven!
Do you have advice you would give new authors or aspiring writers?
Learn everything you can. Nothing is irrelevant. When I was seventeen I never thought I would use my high school chemistry. Flash forward to 2011 when I started writing “The Great Succession Crisis” and was laying down the scientific foundations for my world-building and I was neck deep in three different versions of the periodic table of elements, tables I couldn’t have understood without that foundation from high school.
Another piece of advice: there is no substitution for either practice or hands-on experience. Writing is not something you can really learn in the classroom. You can and should master grammar and vocabulary, the technical parts of the languages you are writing in and that can be taught to you. But the creative part of writing, the instincts for plot, pacing, character, and so forth comes from experience and from reading a lot. Details matter a great deal in making your work believable which is why you must travel and experience life directly. The more you get out into the world and experience the breadth of what life has to offer the better your writing will be.
For example, in “Mary Queen of the Scots” there is an especially detailed dancing scene, a scene that reflects my many years dancing at Society for Creative Anachronism events. The scene works because I’m not imagining how people danced at Mary’s court; I know how they danced after years of dancing those dances myself. Likewise, in “Hypatia of Alexandria” there is an early scene with Hypatia trying to learn to spin with a drop spindle. Drop spinning is one of those medieval crafts I practice and do badly. So the scene is coming from real life. Drop spinning takes years of constant practice to master. Being mathematically inclined and with her talents being much more for philosophy and astronomy, I have zero doubt that Hypatia struggled with the “traditional” crafts women are expected to master just as much as I have all my life.
Those scenes work because I have broad experiences. Therefore allow me to encourage you to put down the tech and reach for all the different sorts of experiences you can.
What are you currently reading?
I am reading “Forgotten History: Unbelievable Moments from the Past” by Jem Duducu. Like me, Duducu brings history out of academia and into the hands of “the common man” though he goes about it quite differently and focuses much more on the military side of history than I do.
How long have you been writing?
I don’t believe you choose to be a writer. I believe writing chooses you. This is my entire life for my entire life. I began as a song-writer using my music to help me cope with a violent home life. Today we call that music therapy and recognize the healing power of music, but back in my childhood people simply thought I was a freak for constantly making up songs and singing to myself, despite my lovely voice.
As for making a living writing, that really started in the wake of the Great Recession and the loss of my salaried job as a commercial photographer and graphic artist. I resisted pursuing a writing career for decades; the familial antagonism towards the profession was simply that strong. I started numerous small businesses which each failed and threw me into debt. I really come into this career really kicking and screaming.
In August 2012 I published the first version of “The Great Succession Crisis” (it is now in its third edition). Five years out it is still not yet a commercial success, but that is fine because I am happy with the quality of my writing and I recognize that science fiction is a very crowded genre. People will discover GSC in time along with its prequels and sequels in the Peers of Beinan Series. As a literary social science fiction I am well-prepared for that.
Until then, I am very happy to continue to write the Legendary Women of World History series. There are currently eight titles in English. In 2018 I begin work on “Cleopatra VII” and on “Hildegarde von Bingen.” The series itself will probably finish after about 40-50 total titles meaning you can expect more great narrative biographies for years to come!
What is your writing process? For instance do you do an outline first? Do you do the chapters first? What kind of research do you do before you begin writing a book?
Whenever I start a new biography I usually begin my research by going as far back in time for that culture or nationality as possible and then working forwards in time. For example, on “Mary Queen of the Scots” I began by watching documentaries on ancient Scotland and the first known settlements in the highlands. With “Empress Matilda of England” I began with pre-Roman Germany and discovered that for all the differences between the Germanic and “Celtic” languages, northern Europeans were far more similar to each other than they were different. From there, the research propelled me into the Roman era, the formation of the “Empire of the Romans” (the term “Holy Roman Empire” dates to the Renaissance), and finally into the Salian dynasty and to Kaiser Heinrich and Matilda herself.
As a rule, I start with documentaries and then work my way into books, journal articles, and online published content. I’m very top-down, working from largest and broadest details to more specific. All this time I log my sources used and construct the timelines you see in every LWWH book since the second one (Boudicca does not have a timeline because we do not have precise dates for events in her life). In that sense I am outlining because with history I must present events in the sequence they happened.
I’m not outlining the story per se in the traditional sense, but I am logging what happened and when which in turn functions like an outline. The story telling itself (which events to include and how) does not get outlined. The bulk of what you see in the Timeline appendix in each book does not make it into the narrative. That adds to its usefulness.
With the main parts of the Timeline worked out, I usually begin with writing the opening prologue or poem that breaks the ice, that first 1-3 pages that most potential readers first see on retailer websites. Once perfected, a simultaneous process of writing, research, and editorial begins in earnest as I shape my list of historical events into a compelling narrative biography. Once I am satisfied with the core narrative, I finish by organizing, formatting, and polishing the appendices before uploading each book for publication.
Can you tell us a little bit about the historical persons in “Hypatia of Alexandria?”
Hypatia of Alexandria was born in 355 CE, just twenty years after the death of Constantine. The sixty years of her life saw some of the most sweeping changes of the late Roman Empire. It was a time of transition from the classical world to the medieval world. Hypatia lived right in the heart of it, in the intellectual capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. She was, for all practical purposes, the very last of the classical philosophers.
Two of Hypatia’s most famous students were Orestes and Synesius of Cyrene. Very little is known about Orestes. In the film “Agora” he is treated as a love interest for Hypatia, but in fact we have no evidence of that either way. The only mention to Orestes in historical sources tell us he was ’Praefectus augustalis’ which was the title given to the Roman governor of Egypt. Sources then go on to very briefly tell us of Orestes’ conflict with Patriarch Cyril in the events immediately leading up to Hypatia’s murder. After her death, Orestes disappears from the historical record entirely.
Synesius of Cyrene studied with Hypatia from 390 CE to 395 CE at which point he returned to Cyrene in modern day Libya to become its bishop in 409 CE. By this point, Synesius was married and had two sons which he refused to put away upon his elevation to bishop as was normal custom. Much of what we know about Hypatia comes from the surviving letters he wrote to her from Cyrene. He loved Hypatia deeply and to some degree continued her scientific work after he left, inventing numerous scientific instruments—some of them more successful than others. Synesius of Cyrene died heartbroken in 413 CE following the death of his wife and children. Contrary to the film “Agora” he never lived to see the brutal murder of his beloved “Philosopher” let alone contributed (as the film shows) to her death on the 15th of March, 315 CE.
Tell us about Hypatia – what makes her tick?
Hypatia of Alexandria was a woman both ahead of her time and yet very much a part of it. She was in many ways a classical philosopher in a classic sense with much in common in terms of upbringing and outlook as other greats from the classical period. She received both a Roman and Greek education, the Roman being very practical and emphasizing education to foster good citizenship and the Greek emphasizing arts, sciences, physical education, and music. The Greeks considered education a form of worship to the Gods which is one reason why Christianity so often took on anti-intellectual qualities. When Paul writes in Colossians, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ,” part of what he opposes is this Greek belief that learning itself is a form of worship. To Paul, philosophy was a form of idolatry, a belief that really empowers Patriarch Theophilus and his successor, Cyril, to go in and attack the intellectual communities and institutions that made Alexandria the educational center of the Roman world.
Hypatia’s world is literally falling apart around her. Everything she has ever known and ever believed in is under attack. But rather than turning a blind eye as those she knows and loves are taken off and killed, she puts her own life at risk helping and defending them, including many Jewish friends who were by this time facing extermination at the hands of the church leaders.
Hypatia taught anyone and everyone who came to her without concern for money, nationality, or religion. She put everything on the line to help and teach others. Truly a great role model for us in these turbulent times.
What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
Tough one because as a rule I love the research aspects of writing each of my books. But if I needed to specify one thing unique to Hypatia that is not present in the other books so far it is the astronomy which was really my first love growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska. Before the car accident that took my eyesight, I seriously considered a career in science. Getting back to my astronomical roots was a lot of fun and I have some very cool astronomy-related resources in this book’s bibliography along with an appendix providing the latitude and longitude coordinates for several Roman Empire cities. This appendix will help you look up star charts for each location so you can see first-hand how the night sky differs depending on where in the world you are. I also really enjoyed writing the big astronomy scene in chapter two where Theon is introducing Hypatia to what becomes her life-long passion with the stars. We forget that each of these constellations have stories behind them. It was a lot of fun researching and telling the stories of Ursa Major (the Big Bear) and Ursa Minor (the Little Bear) and exploring several of the Greek astronomical discoveries in the process.