Sharon Kay Penman Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Sharon Kay Penman
Photo: © William Penman Jr

Sharon Kay Penman

An interview with Sharon Kay Penman

Sharon Kay Penman talks about what drew her to write The Land Beyond The Sea, and it's relevance to the contemporary world.

Many things drew me to write The Land Beyond the Sea. What first struck me was how timely and relevant the kingdom's last years seemed. A clash of cultures, suspicions aroused by conflicting religious beliefs, and the different ways in which people responded to these challenges will sound very familiar. Little has changed in the ensuing eight centuries; peace in the Middle East remains as elusive today as it was in the 12th century and tensions continue between Christianity and Islam.

This is a story of high drama, triumph, and tragedy and the battle of Hattin is viewed as one of the most significant military confrontations of the Middle Ages, drastically changing the history of both the Levant and Christendom. I felt great sympathy for Baldwin, stricken with leprosy as a child, forced to fight two wars—one he cannot afford to lose against Saladin and one he cannot hope to win against the lethal disease ravaging his body.

The role of women in the kingdom is also intriguing. Unlike France, which prohibited a woman from inheriting the crown, and England, which would not willingly accept a queen until the 16th century, Jerusalem would be ruled in turn by three queens, Baldwin's sisters Sybilla and Isabella and Isabella's daughter. While each woman would need a husband to rule with her and to lead their army into battle, their claims to the crown were accepted by their vassals and subjects, all the more remarkable in view of the fact that the kingship was elective in Jerusalem.

I know my readers will be interested in learning more about Saracen culture and beliefs as some noted their disappointment that Saladin never appeared on center stage in Lionheart, for I was constrained by history—Richard I and Saladin never met. In The Land Beyond the Sea, Saladin is a major character, as is his shrewd, pragmatic brother al-Adill, and I was able to give some glimpses of al-Adil's marriages and family life.

After capturing Jerusalem, most of the crusaders went back to their own countries. But those who stayed had to adapt to an utterly alien world, a land of blazing heat and exotic customs and enemies who were also neighbors. They were a small island in a vast Muslim sea and soon realized accommodations were necessary to survive. Exposed to Saracen culture, they began to change, to become a people who were neither Europeans nor Saracens. Unlike the crusaders, who burned with religious zeal and hatred of infidels, the native-born Christians had a more nuanced, less dogmatic view of these same infidels. They learned to respect Muslim medicine, to prefer Saracen cuisine, to form friendships and even occasional alliances. This horrified the crusaders, of course, who began to see these native-born Christians as the enemy, too.

But even in the midst of a holy war, enemies could sometimes find common ground. The history of the Kingdom of Jerusalem is also the history of such occurrences, and I hope others will find that as encouraging as I did.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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