Recreating an Iconic Historical Character
By Dawn Ius
When you think about it, the Joan of Arc story is perfect material for a thriller.
In 1429, A 17-year-old French shepherdess became a national hero when she somehow convinced the king of France to let her take charge of his army. It was a good bet, because under her command, those soldiers not only racked up the victories, but turned the tide of the Hundred Years’ War.
Of course, that’s not where Joan’s story ends—not by a long shot—but the more Mark Alpert learned about this charismatic young woman’s transition from hero to martyr and saint, the more he wanted to write about it.
This desire became SAINT JOAN OF NEW YORK, a novel about a 17-year-old math prodigy who—after the tragic death of her older sister—becomes obsessed with discovering the Theory of Everything. Alpert’s latest book—his 10th—is a heartwarming, often humorous, and imaginative retelling that explores the question: if Joan of Arc were alive today, what battles would she fight?
In this The Big Thrill interview, he shares insight into the inspiration behind SAINT JOAN OF NEW YORK, the kind of research required for this type of retelling, and how he somehow makes mathematicians out of those of us who barely passed the subject.
I’d love to hear more about the inspiration for SAINT JOAN OF NEW YORK—and how you conceived the idea of making this a modern day retelling.
I started reading some of the great works about Joan, notably Mark Twain’s novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc and George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan. Although I enjoyed these books, I was left with the feeling that something was missing; I still couldn’t fathom her character, how she conceived and accomplished her divine mission of driving the English out of France.
Joan of Arc claimed she was hearing the commands of God, and this must’ve seemed perfectly believable during an era when religious faith was almost universal. Nowadays, though, readers are more likely to wonder if Joan had some kind of mental illness, maybe a high-functioning schizophrenia. I wasn’t satisfied with either of these explanations, and I realized that the only way for me to fully understand Joan was to create a whole new version of her, a modern-day 17-year-old genius living in New York City.
I wanted to explore Joan’s personality by giving her a contemporary teenage life and then retelling the Joan of Arc story from her point of view. My contemporary Joan goes through ordeals that are somewhat different from the ones that the original Joan of Arc faced; instead of leading a medieval army, for example, my Joan becomes obsessed with discovering the mathematical design of the universe.
But the mystery behind her mission—whether it’s inspired by divine will or human madness or something else altogether—is the same as the one surrounding the 15th-century Joan. And the battles my Joan has to fight, her struggles against heartless enemies who are eager to denounce and betray her, are also much the same.
How did you go about crafting Joan’s teen voice?
I’m very lucky to have a teenage daughter who was 16 when I started writing SAINT JOAN OF NEW YORK and 17 when I finished. She and I are very close, and I know her well enough that I can sort of guess how she thinks about a lot of things. As I wrote the book, though, the character of Joan diverged more and more from my daughter’s character. Joan, for instance, has a remarkable gift for mathematics—in fact, her talent and passion for math are the basis of the novel’s plot—whereas my daughter has different passions and talents. But both women have similarly strong opinions about their peers and teachers and society at large, and they’re both unafraid to express themselves.
Joan faces a lot of the same troubles that many teens face—loneliness, embarrassment, confusion, indignation. Over the course of the novel she confronts more dangerous challenges and extraordinary obstacles, but the ordinary emotions and concerns of teenage life never really go away. So I think young adults will enjoy the book. Like many other YA novels, SAINT JOAN OF NEW YORK has some romance and a few moments of yearning and intimacy, but no graphic sex, and no foul language either.
I imagine this book led you down some deep research rabbit holes. What was the most interesting thing you learned while engaged in that research?
My modern-day version of Joan loves math and physics, and I discovered to my surprise that the original Joan of Arc also had a knack for the new technologies of her time. The cannon was introduced to Europe in the 14th century, during the early stages of the Hundred Years’ War, and the armies of Joan’s time were still trying to develop tactics that made the best use of this new weapon. Many medieval knights disdained learning anything about the cannon; they saw it as an uncouth, unchivalrous weapon because it was built and operated by low-born metalworkers. But Joan of Arc was a peasant herself, so she had no such qualms. Her fellow commanders said Joan became expert at predicting cannonball trajectories, enabling her to make better decisions about the placement of the cannon during battles and sieges. On one occasion she predicted exactly where an enemy projectile would land and was able to warn one of her companions to step out of the way just before it hit.
I’d be lying if I said math was one of my stronger subjects—but you write about complex math (and science) in a way that feels relatable. How do you create that balance of authenticity and relatability in your books? What was the hardest part of that process for SAINT JOAN OF NEW YORK?
The hardest part wasn’t describing the math, because I don’t get into any of the details of the equations that Joan is solving. No, the hardest part was explaining why Joan loves math so much. Some people have a pretty strong aversion to the subject, so I knew it would be important for Joan to describe her passion for mathematics and show how it influences almost everything she says and does. As Joan notes in Chapter 4: “The way I felt about math was like how baseball fans feel about the World Series, or how priests feel about Jesus. I loved thinking about it, talking about it, making jokes about it. It was so beautiful and true, I wanted to share it with everyone.”
I’ve read a couple of books in which the characters talk to a “god” and it feels like creating that relationship could be tricky. How did you navigate how you wanted to create that relationship for Joan?
Joan of Arc claimed that God’s commands were conveyed to her through the voices of Saints Catherine, Margaret, and Michael, who appeared to her while she was tending her family’s sheep or working in their garden. She was a devout medieval peasant, so it makes sense that she would automatically trust the divine instructions coming from three key figures of medieval Christianity. My modern-day Joan, on the other hand, is a skeptical New York City teenager who’s going to need a lot more convincing. She’s much more likely to assume that she’s going crazy rather than experiencing a supernatural visitation. In the end, the only language she trusts is the language of mathematics, and God will need to speak to Joan in symbols and equations to convince her of anything.
There’s an element of humor in this novel that frankly, I wasn’t expecting. What role do you think humor plays in this book—and in the “thriller” genre as a whole?
The humor in SAINT JOAN OF NEW YORK comes mostly from the honesty of the protagonist. Joan recognizes the absurdity of her situation. She can’t help but point out the ridiculousness of trying to win an argument with God. She makes fun of herself too, her obsession with numbers, her awkward attempts at flirtation, her inelegant wardrobe of “Smash the Patriarchy” T-shirts. The humor softens her a little, rounding out her character. Many thriller writers use humor in a similar way, to make their characters more likable and relatable. And believe it or not, the original Joan of Arc also had a healthy sense of humor. During her trial in Rouen in 1431, one of the judges asked Joan, “Doesn’t God also love the English?” Joan replied, “Oh, yes, He loves them—as long as they stay in England!”
What is the message you would like readers to take away from SAINT JOAN OF NEW YORK?
I hope the novel encourages readers to think seriously about the question of whether God exists. I don’t care whether you believe in God or not, or which kind of God you might believe in, only that you take the question seriously and give it the attention it deserves. Many philosophers have argued that reason and science can’t answer this question, because it’s simply a matter of faith, but in recent decades cosmologists—scientists who study the history of the universe—have been edging into metaphysical terrain. Some of them hypothesize that the universe has gone through eternal cycles of expansion and contraction. Others propose that an endless number of universes are constantly popping into existence. And still others maintain that time itself is an illusion and the universe is a Brute Fact that doesn’t require any metaphysical explanations. At this point, we can’t effectively judge the merit of these hypotheses, because we don’t fully understand the laws of physics yet, but as scientists gather more evidence—about the Big Bang and black holes and the fundamental forces of nature—we may get a better handle on how the universe was created. And maybe the answer to the How question will shed light on the Why.
Can you share anything about what you’re working on next?
I recently wrote a “novelette”—longer than a short story, shorter than a novella—that I’m trying to sell (the odd length makes it difficult to publish). I’m working on my next novel too, but I can’t say much about it yet. At the end of February, though, I’m heading down to Tampa, Florida, where all the students at a local middle school were assigned to read my YA novel The Six earlier this year. The school has organized a “literary symposium” centered on the book, with speakers talking about the various STEM subjects discussed in this thriller (artificial intelligence, robotics, that kind of thing). It’s a big ego trip for me, so I’m really looking forward to the event!