Q & A With Antoinette May on Pilate's Wife
Q: You've achieved creative and financial success as a biographer profiling a wide variety of subjects. Why this sudden plunge into historical fiction?
A: It really isn't so sudden. A half remembered sermon I heard as a teenager continues to tug at my imagination. The gist of that Easter homily was Pontius Pilate "washing his hands" of a difficult situation. Well, we've all done that sometime! I was far more intrigued by a random reference to Pilate's visionary wife, Claudia. Who was this seer with a dream so powerful that she sought to change the course of history?
Years later, a Stanford class in Roman culture brought it together. The project began in earnest in 1992.
Q: Then why not a straight biography?
A: Pilate's Wife began that way. First, six years in the classics department at Stanford studying the 1st Century worlds of Rome and Judaea. Then, steeped in the history, art, philosophy, literature, architecture and mythology of the time, I visited the remains of Claudia's world in Rome, Turkey, Egypt and the Holy Land. But the woman herself eluded me.
For the first time, conventional biography felt constraining. Soon Claudia and I were on our own.
Q: Is anything actually known of her?
A: Only that the name, Claudia, identifies her as a member of the Claudian dynasty-at that time the ruling family of Rome. Frank Slaughter, a historical novelist of the 1950s, wrote briefly of Pontius Pilate's wife. It was his plot device that she was the Emperor Augustus's illegitimate granddaughter. Subsequent writers have embroidered on his conjecture but I find it highly unlikely. If Claudia's connection to royalty was this close, St. Matthew would have referred to it in his gospel. All we know is that she was of the patrician class, the ambitious knight, Pontius Pilate, a social tier below her.
Q: Do you think such a story-a novel of the 1st Century-has relevancy today?
A: Very much so. This is a time of tremendous religious upheaval. People are either searching for new truths or frantically striving to nail down the old ones. The goddess movement, the extreme popularity of The Da Vinci Code , the sudden "rediscovery" of Mary Magdalene are all indications of a groundswell need to challenge traditional views that are no longer satisfying.
Pilate's Wife is a mosaic of the old time religion--really old time. Interwoven with Claudia's story are the roots of Christianity. I hope readers will feel a strong connection to a cast of characters whose names and stories are so much a part of our culture. It's high impact comes from the unexpected newness of the material.
Q: Claudia is virtually your own creation, but many better known historical figures play prominent roles in your novel: Tiberius, Livia, Germanicus, and-most significantly-Mary Magdalene and Jesus are major players. What about those characters?
A: The deeds and personalities of the Roman characters are a matter of public record. Social historians recorded their actions in writing literally as they were happening. The lives of Mary Magdalene and Jesus were immortalized initially through oral history and so are subject to interpretation and invariably controversy. A lesser known, but stubbornly persistent, tradition maintains that the two had a physical as well as spiritual connection.
Q: Do you believe this?
A: Yes, I do. Jesus and Mary were real people living in a real time. Evidence of their physical attachment endures today. Somehow their love evaded the warring factions of early Christianity, survived many political cuts and made it into the Bible as we now know it. All that mouth kissing had to mean something!
Q: Is love then the theme of Pilate's Wife?
A: To some extent. The love between Mary and Jesus is significant, the triangle involving Claudia, Pilate and the gladiator, Holtan central. But more important, I would call Pilate's Wife a saga of survival against all odds. The 1st century was a time of political intrigue, passionate family rivalries and alliances, assassinations and unmatched social upheaval. Audacious and independent, Claudia is the ultimate survivor.
Q: Isn't she also something of a mystic?
A: Yes, definitely. Her dreams had an uncanny way of coming true. Often she "saw" things, real things, fearful things, before they happened. In a time of goddess worship when potions were sold to elicit love or death, a mystical thread lead the rebellious Claudia to the temple of Isis in Egypt, to Pompeii's Villa of Mysteries, and to the snake pit at Pergamon where lost powers were thought to be restored.
Q: Is spiritual feminism then also a theme . . ..and where does that come from?
A: I'm an avid amateur anthropologist, fascinated by both archaeology and parapsychology. The conviction that spiritual connection comes through intuition rather than merely rational thought evolved in the course of profiling a series of renowned mediums such as Sylvia Browne, Anne Armstrong and the late Betty Bethards. Like Claudia in Pilate's Wife, I'm a dreamer and keep a journal. Mine aren't as dramatic as hers but they are sometimes prophetic.
Q: Are you saying that this is a book that wrote itself?
A: Nothing that takes twelve years writes itself! There was a kind of magic though, the thrill of discovering ancient shards that I could fit together into a grand mosaic of my own design-just like the ancient Romans did. As I slipped into another world, one by one the questions that were my reporter's stock and trade were answered. Slowly, almost shyly, Claudia revealed herself and allowed me to tell her story.