‘Far Away Bird’: Six Questions for Douglas A. Burton [INTERVIEW]

Douglas A. Burton

Douglas A. Burton is a man fascinated by the role heroes and heroines play in our culture. Now he’s written a book about one of his favorites.

We don’t always advertise it as such, but we love a good hero story. Whether we’re watching the latest incarnation of Superman or Spider-Man or reading about more mortal heroes like Atticus Finch or Jack Reacher (although let’s face it, they kind of have their own brand of super powers), we love to have someone to cheer for. That’s one of the reasons we recently chatted with Douglas A. Burton, author of Far Away Bird, a novel based on one woman who made a big splash in history quite a long time ago. We hope you enjoy our interview as much as we did! —J&H


J&H: You frequently blog about heroic people. Are heroes important in culture and media today, and who are some of the heroes who have inspired you most?

DAB: Yes. In fact, I believe that storytelling through heroic figures is so much more than entertainment. I believe that powerful themes, cultural values, and models for heroic behavior are all conveyed in our stories. Since writing Far Away Bird, which features a heroine from history, I’ve focused more and more attention on heroine-centric stories. While heroism is universal and inclusive of all people, it’s interesting to see where heroines and heroes diverge in their stories and how certain recurrent themes may differ. Some of my favorite heroic figures are Luke Skywalker, Ellen Ripley, Neo & Trinity, Sarah Connor, Jane Eyre, Frodo and Samwise, Ahsoka Tano, Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai (from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon), Clarice Starling, Captain America, Ironman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Brienne of Tarth, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Rapunzel (from Tangled), Indiana Jones, Captain Kirk, Anakin Skywalker, Beatrix Kiddo, and of course, Empress Theodora.

J&H: Your latest novel, Far Away Bird, is about the Byzantine Empress Theodora. She isn’t exactly a household name. How did you discover her story and what made you want to dig deeper into her history?

DAB: I discovered Empress Theodora when I discovered the Byzantine Empire during a study hall back in 1993! At first, she was one of several historical Byzantine figures I deeply admired. There was Emperor Justinian, General Belisarius, and Empress Theodora. I spent most of my young adult life focused more on the first two. However, Theodora had major staying power. She had a past that can only be described as salacious and checked. And yet she goes in to influence a system of codified laws that overwhelming favor women. I always felt that her accomplishments on women’s rights were overshadowed by the blush-worthy tales of her as a prostitute and actress. So, she was part of an all too real institution that marginalized women. I really wished that someone could present Theodora’s past profession as the very source of her experience in reforming the law. Instead of two competing tales of Theodora’s early and later life, we’d have one coherent tale that reconciled both. And that’s the story I told. If my dreams come true, Empress Theodora will one day be a household name.

J&H: How did Theodora become such an influential force during her time and could other women relate to her?

DAB: I think that Theodora became such an influential force because of her undeniable intelligence and assertive will. She came up from the lowest rung in a society that valued class and status. She was a lone woman in a male-dominated government. She encountered a massive bureaucracy that didn’t know how to accommodate the kind of reforms she wanted. In many cases, she personally ensured the enforcement of certain laws and responded swiftly when the law was circumvented. She had a fighting attitude, a strategic mind, and an incredible daring to voice the concerns of women. She even dared to protect criminal women and prostitutes. In a theocratic government, her personal viewpoint ran counter to both the secular and the religious norms and yet she prevailed. She set some precedents. I absolutely think that Theodora is relatable. When I talk to other women about Theodora, she often feels like she could be alive today.

J&H: What is it about Theodora that makes her relevant even now?

DAB: So much! First, a woman who fearlessly confronts a male-dominated world by changing the legal system is NOT common for the Sixth Century. Her approach to change is more in line with modern Women’s Rights movement than the early Medieval period. To me, she bursts with a modern vibrancy of thought and actions. Secondly, as portrayed in the book, she was part of an institutionalized industry that viewed her sexuality as her greatest value. The novel features a powerful man with a lot of social clout who exploits Theodora at a young age. I cannot tell you how many women came forward and had their own stories. Honestly, way too many women had these stories and it broke my heart. The #MeToo movement began at the exact same time I wrote the book and suddenly, the horrors of my book got real. Too real. I sensed that Theodora’s tragedy and challenge were almost no different than what’s going on today. A LOT of women came forward and helped me get Theodora right. In fact, I could never have written this story by myself. It would be impossible. So, when you read about Theodora, you’ll find that she’s the culmination of multiple female perspectives and experiences happening in our time. Theodora never felt like a two-dimensional historical figure to me, but a living, breathing woman who faced utterly relatable situations and intended to find a way through. And she does find a way through. That’s why I think she’s ready to be a household name. She models heroic behavior that challenges society, challenges the beliefs of her male counterparts, and challenges powerful traditions. If Theodora can change my viewpoint and understanding of the world forever, then maybe she
can do so for other people too.

J&H: In recent years we have seen a growing number of female heroes in books, movies, and television, including the popularity of ones like Wonder Woman, Black Widow and even Lizbeth Salander from the Stieg Larsson books. Which ones are your favorites? And how do you feel about the trend of authors retelling stories about women who were formerly perceived as villains?

DAB: I love it. Stories that challenge our views of “the good” are great for all of us. I listed out some of my favorite female heroes above, but I’ll single out a few. One, Clarice Starling. I think she’s the heroine that affected me the most in terms of understanding the world from a female perspective. The film, Silence of the Lambs, makes a concerted effort to show all viewers that incredibly persistent layer of obstacles women face on a daily basis, from the subtle social cues to the horrifying reality of abduction and predation. Jodie Foster portrays her so convincingly, that images of Clarice never really left my mind. In terms of the modern era…I dare say it’s the Age of Heroic Women! There are many eras in our past that women have been front and center, such as Ancient Greece ad Victorian England, but I’m glad we’re getting a resurgence in my time. I think we’re getting a chance to see the woman as a cultural figurehead, and I think you can trace this shift in the way we tell our stories. That’s why I love storytelling so much. And it doesn’t have to be a zero sum game either, with strong women and weak men. I think culture benefits most when both men and women are equal and strength is matched with strength. My Top 5 heroines are Clarice Starline, Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, Ahsoka Tano, and Brienne of Tarth. (And I can’t wait for the upcoming Black Widow movie!)

J&H: Going forward, what are you working on next?

DAB: I have two major projects on deck. One is the sequel to Far Away Bird, which will follow Theodora out of the brothels and into the palace. I want to deep dive into her battle with the Byzantine bureaucracy, the power dynamics she employed, and finally, her drive to influence major changes in the legal system for women. He battle with society will be the ultimate conflict. The second project is my work on a narrative paradigm for story structure. I grew up on a steady diet of the hero’s journey. I believe it’s an incredible tool and completely valid today. However, while writing about Theodora, I found that she deviated from the hero’s journey in specific ways. Then I noticed that many heroines, like Theodora, also went their own way. While studying heroic women, I noticed a set of recurrent themes for heroine-centric stories. I think there’s an alternative to the hero’s journey, a parallel monomyth that writers should consider. I call it the heroine’s labyrinth. And far from a set of rigid gender stereotypes, I show that many female heroes actually model the behavior for breaking stereotypes as part of their journey. And whereas, the more male-oriented hero often faces a villain from outside the native culture, many of our female heroes tend to face villains right in the heart of the native culture, sometimes within the home itself. You mentioned the trend of former “villains” being portrayed from a different perspective. Believe it or not, another theme in heroine-centric stories is a sympathy and reevaluation for the stigmatized “other,” so it’s right in line with the age of heroic women. You can check it out on my website at douglasaburton.com. There’s a brief summary of the recurrent theme found in the heroine’s labyrinth as well as the general narrative structure I’ve observed in heroine-centric stories. It’s pretty awesome.

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Douglas A. Burton's FAR AWAY BIRD

Silent Music Press LLC
(Cover art illustration by George Frei)

ABOUT FAR AWAY BIRD

Inspired by true events, Far Away Bird delves into the complex mind of Byzantine Empress Theodora. This intimate account deftly follows her rise from actress-prostitute in Constantinople’s red-light district to the throne of the Byzantine Empire.

Her salacious past has left historians blushing and uncomfortable. Tales of her shamelessness have survived for centuries, and yet her accomplishments as an empress are unparalleled. Theodora goes on to influence sweeping reforms that result in some of the first ever Western laws granting women freedom and protection. More than a millennium before the women’s rights movement, Theodora, alone, took on the world’s greatest superpower and succeeded. Far Away Bird goes where history classrooms fear to tread in hopes that Theodora can finally take her seat among the greatest women in history.

Theodora seems impossible–yet her transcendence teaches us that society can’t tell us who we are deep down. Before there was a legendary empress, there was a conflicted young woman from the lower classes.

And her name was Theodora.

Far Away Bird is the Grand Prize Winner of the 2019 Manuscript Contest for Historical Fiction by the Writers League of Texas, the Bronze Medal Winner of the Best Debut Novel in Historical Fiction f and the Gold Medal Winner of the Book of the Year for Historical Fiction from the Coffee Pot Book Club.

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Douglas A. Burton

Douglas A. Burton

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Douglas Alan Burton is a speaker, author, and expert storyteller whose work depicts heroic figures and their deeper connection to the human experience. Doug blogs about heroes, heroines, and villains in pop culture with some unexpected and refreshing perspective. He grew up in what he describes as “the heroic boyhood culture of late Generation X” that has gone mainstream around the world. He also shares strategies with fellow writers for writing compelling heroic characters in fiction.

Douglas recently began outlining a breakthrough storytelling model that reveals a fascinating “heroine-centric” model for story structure he calls The Heroine’s Labyrinth. He believes a powerful new archetype is emerging for women in fiction. His forthcoming novel, Far Away Bird, which centers on the early life of Byzantine Empress Theodora, won the 2019 Manuscript Content for Historical Fiction from the Writers’ League of Texas and will be published in February of 2020.

Follow Doug on Facebook and Twitter and stay in the conversation, and follow his blog at www.douglasaburton.com.

FAR AWAY BIRD
By Douglas A. Burton
394 pp. Silent Music Press LLC. $16.95

Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours bannerPurchase Far Away Bird at one of these fine online retailers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Half Price Books, IndieBound, and Powell’s.

Far Away Bird is brought to you in association with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

Far Away Bird_Blog Tour Poster

About Jathan Fink
Jathan is a journalist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. He is also a travel junkie, foodie and jazz aficionado. A California native, he resides in Texas.

One Response to ‘Far Away Bird’: Six Questions for Douglas A. Burton [INTERVIEW]

  1. Thank you so much for this incredible interview! We appreciate you hosting Douglas’ tour!

    Amy
    HF Virtual Book Tours

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