Wisdom from a Wordsmith – Episode 18

I am fascinated with the early Christian church and the historical events of the first century after Christ’s crucifixion. So, when I had the opportunity to read and review Susie Helme’s novel about the Great Jewish Revolt, I jumped on it!

I hope you enjoy my review of The Lost Wisdom of the Magi and my interview with Susie that follows.

“Set against a background of the Jewish Revolt against Rome of 66-70CE, this historical fiction novel tells the story of Sophia, a Babylonian Jew who learns ancient languages at the royal archives of the Parthians and secretly studies the magic on cuneiform tablets. She runs away from home, joining a Nabataean incense caravan, studies with the Essenes on the Dead Sea and joins with the militants of Qumran. As the Zealots battle to defend Jerusalem against Titus, she falls in love with a Greek freedman, Athanasios, a comrade in arms. Jews and Christians briefly unite with Samaritans and the People of the Land. But revolutionary Jerusalem is not the paradise of which they had dreamed, and messiahs may prove false. After the devastating defeat, Sophia flees to Alexandria, where she founds an academy for women scholars. These are her memoirs, addressed to her ‘disciples’, to whom she recounts her experiences, expounds her ‘wisdom’ and details her magical recipes. The novel reflects meticulous research on early Christianity, Jewish history and the history of magic, also weaving in fanciful material from Christian and Jewish lore.”

My review: Helme takes the reader back to the 1st century through the eyes of Sophia Zealotes, a well-educated Jewish girl whose wisdom may have been seen as prophetic power in first century culture. As Sophia aged, travelled, and formed relationships, I learned so much about the people and places of the time.

Susie’s style of writing is quite classical — I love her prose! There is a mystical quality to her work, even though her historical knowledge and deep research also shown through. Helme’s writing is beautiful with well-researched and vivid descriptions. She weaves in ancient writings, cultural, and historical information while giving her story a mysterious component. Her writing is deep and captivating.

As I can infer from her interview responses, Susie does not consider her writing Christian or Jewish fiction, but I recommend this novel to those of faith who want to picture what it must have been like during this time period.

What are some of your interesting and unique experiences?

Geographically, my life trajectory has been interesting, as I’m from Nashville Tennessee. I went to uni in Japan and married a Japanese man, so I learned everything there was to learn about Japan.

We moved to Paris and then London, UK, where I live now. I just love reading and learning, and when I was a teenager I decided that I wanted, like Aristotle, to learn all that there is to know in the world. Sadly, that’s not possible now; there’s just too much, but I keep trying. My specialist subject is early Christians and the 1st and 2nd-century Jewish Revolts against Rome, and I probably know as much about that as anyone currently living.

I’m also interested in genealogy, revolutionary socialism, etc. and I have an allotment (a bit of land where I grow fruit and veg).

I have two kids who are very different from me and from each other. My daughter lives (sadly, for me) in Cambridge Massachusetts where she works as an internal auditor. My son lives about an hours drive from me in East London. He’s a manager of the Stratford store of Holland & Barrett, a big health food company, and he recently got married.

As well as working on my novels, I work freelance as an editorial consultant, proofreading and editing other people’s novels, and I write book reviews for Reedsy DiscoveryKent Bylines, and Historical Novels Review.

What led you to want to write a novel?

My work background was as a journalist and magazine editor, so I always wanted to branch off into creative writing. The inspiration for The Lost Wisdom of the Magi occurred to me while listening with a friend to someone being interviewed on the radio who wrote ‘Christian romance novels’. What’s that? we wondered. Evidently, the ‘formula’ is ‘bang bang, kiss kiss, hallelujah’. We decided to write a ‘revolutionary romance novel’, and with me, because I’m a nut on ‘the olden days’, it was bound to be set in ancient history. (Though I’m the one who ended up writing it, he did give me lots of help along the way)

Tell us about your latest writing project.

I am writing my third novel, Dreaming of Jerusalem, a historical adventure story set during the early Ottoman empire. I decided to develop a new specialist subject, so now I’m doing ‘early Ottoman’. All three of my novels are different genres (which you’re not supposed to do if you want to make money). Book 1 is a historical fiction in the form of a memoir. Book 2 is a murder mystery in three timeframes. Book 3 is a historical adventure story.

What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

JOIN/FORM A WRITERS CIRCLE. I’m not joking. We formed Bounds Green Book Writers several years ago, and four of our members have now published novels. We meet monthly, critique each other’s work (and most of all encourage each other), take turns giving presentations on some writing techniques and we also do ‘homework’ exercises using the writing techniques presented.  We’ve also published an online anthology of ‘creative writing inspired by the coronavirus experience’ called Lockdown Lit, and we’re now developing our blog on Writing Advice, which we’d eventually like to publish as a book. Our next ambition is to become publishers. Check us out on www.boundsgreenbookwriters.com.

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