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How reading Proust helped me write my four-volume historical mystery series about Irini of Athens

Discover how Proust helped Janet McGiffin write the Empress Irini Series. Words by Janet McGiffin, speaking at The New York City Proust Center at Jefferson Market Library, August 8, 2023.

Janet McGiffin presenting the first book in her series, Betrothal and Betrayal

When many people say they are reading Proust, they mean they are reading the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time—the story, the characters, what happens. When I say I’m reading Proust, I mean the man, what caused him to keep writing for twenty years this never-ending story about life in Paris, what writing did for him that nothing else could do, even though he continued to call himself a poor writer.

By some fluke of timing, eight years ago, I started drafting my book about the Byzantine Empress Irini of Athens about the same time that I started a two-year course studying Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. It was taught by Anka Mulstein at the Center for Fiction in New York City. Anka opened the door to Proust for me for which I will be forever grateful. I went from her course to joining a Proust Re-readers group where I still am. Anka approached Proust in her own way and she gave me the confidence to re-write Byzantine history in my own way. 

Very briefly, my story is an historical fiction account of a Byzantine Empress, Irini of Athens, who was born in Athens in 752 AD and died on the island of Lesbos in 803. She was 51 years old. When she was seventeen, she was brought to Athens by Emperor Constantine the Fifth to marry his son, Leon, who was her age. Within nine years, Constantine had suddenly died, Leon had even more suddenly died, and Irini was sitting on the throne as Empress Regent for her 9-year-old son. Who died at the age of 26 shortly after becoming Emperor, leaving Irini occupying the throne as Empress in her own right. 

The first books I wrote were mystery novels published by Fawcett here in NY a long time ago. So when I was reading about Irini of Athens, I was reading with the eyes of a mystery writer. Of course, I saw right away that those deaths were no accident. So I set out to figure out how she did it. I should tell you right now that Irini of Athens did nothing that any male Byzantine emperor before and after her didn’t do—she just did it with poison and they did it with swords. She was a woman of her times. And good for her, I say!

Which brings us back to Proust.

The characters in Proust’s books are based on people he knew. Scholars have covered a lot of PhD pages speculating on who they were. I read carefully to see how Proust did it, because every character in my story is real—with a few exceptions. One reference book, The Cambridge Companion to Proust, says, “What the poet needs to feed his imagination is memory experienced in the present, containing both the past and now. . .The slow accumulation of memories.” That’s what Proust did.  And that’s how I tried to write my story of Irini of Athens. 

We are all at the same time the author of our life, the narrator of our life, and the character who lives our life. We cannot be divided. At best, we can only be aware of which one we are at which particular moment. 

Like I said, every character in my saga is based on a real person with a few exceptions. The story is narrated by a nun. I based her on a real abbess who lived in a convent near Constantinople at the same time that Irini was in Constantinople. This nun got into history because she wrote hymns that were written down and stored in the vast archives of the Greek Orthodox Church. At that same time, Empress Irini was remodelling a convent on an island near Constantinople, where I have been. Ostensibly, it was her spiritual retreat. Really, it was her bolt-hole if she needed to escape. So I named this nun Abbess Thekla and I moved her into this island convent and she became the trusted confidant of Irini and the person who helps her escape. Abbess Thekla is the narrator who tells us the story of Irini of Athens. 

I tried to write it the way Proust did, looking backwards to when Abbess Thekla first meets Irini and then we follow her “slow accumulation of memories” until she finally sees Irini as who she really was.

One of the axioms of Proustians is that when we read In Search of Lost Time, we have to separate the author from the narrator from the character that the narrator is talking about. But as I wrote the story of Irini, I realized that these people cannot be separated. We are all at the same time the author of our life, the narrator of our life, and the character who lives our life. We cannot be divided. At best, we can only be aware of which one we are at which particular moment. 

So when I was writing, I tried to be aware of myself as author, and myself as Abbess Thekla the narrator, and myself as Thekla the character and Irini through her eyes. Because every character in a book is the writer. 

At the same time, I was made aware of myself eleven years ago when I went to Oxford and started my research, and aware of myself as I passed through those years, and aware of myself who I am now. And I think I can say that I have gained a more clear sense of that encapsulated time because I was trying all the time to be aware of Time.

So over the last eight years, I read In Search of Lost Time twice, in various translations, and I read other things that Proust wrote, and books that were written about Proust and scholarly lectures about Proust that were deposited on You-Tube. And I tried to apply all this to writing my long story of Irini of Athens. And this is what I learned: 


1. I learned that it’s OK to write for a very long time and just go where the story takes you.  Proust took twenty years to write seven books. It wasn’t Lost Time—It was Time Regained!—through memory. At the beginning of his first book, he talks about how he took two different walks as a child—one was short and the other was long. As a child, he didn’t realize what we learn later, which is that they both ended at the same place. It’s a metaphor for Life. And this happened to me. I took many paths to writing this book and they all brought me--here!

2. The second thing I learned from Proust is that it’s OK to spend decades with your head in a world that doesn’t exist anymore. Proust says in the Captive & the Fugitive that he was “caught by the Muse of History.” One of his publishers said that the story makes the readers feel like they are wandering lost in a forest. He was right! You go here, you go there, you’re confused! 

I, too, was caught by the Muse of History. Nearly every character in my book was a real person and I spent years following their trails and putting more of them into my story until finally my editor emailed me—and more than once, “More story, less history!” 

Of course, what Proust did, and which was beyond me,  was to tie his meandering story together with profound and enlightening comments about human nature. I found these so comforting and reassuring that when I think back over In Search of Lost Time, these comments are what I remember, more than the story.

It seems to me that Proust is telling us that these myths connect us to our feelings and senses.

3. A great thing that Proust did for me was to bring me and my publisher together. My publisher is Scotland Street Press. Some of you know the founder and head of publishing, Jean Findlay Fraser. She came here twice to speak about her book about her great-great uncle Scott Moncrieff who translated Proust into English. I knew Jean long before she founded Scotland Street Press. I was living in Athens and had a little cottage on the island called Hydra and she came with her family and we were introduced. Later, I stayed a few days with her in London while she was writing her book. Then I was living in New York when it was published and of course she stayed with me. She looked at my bookcases overflowing with the Byzantine empire and she asked, “What are you doing?” So when I finished writing about Irini of Athens, I sent the huge document to her and asked if she knew a British publisher who might want it because I didn’t think any American publisher would be interested in the Byzantines. She said, “We are interested! And it’s not one book; it’s four.” 

4. Another thing that Proust did for me was to remind me how important it is to remember the influence that the ancient Greeks myths have on us. Proust scattered more than twenty references to these myths in Swann’s Way alone. Thanks to William Carter’s scholarly energy in his translation, we have them all annotated.

When I looked over them, I realized that they are references to our senses and feelings. It seems to me that Proust is telling us that these myths connect us to our feelings and senses and that is how he reached his memories—the famous Madeleine cookie—and he puts these mythic references in to tell us to do the same. I tried to bring this connection into my story. 

The books are set in 8th century Byzantium, which is 800 years into the Christian era in that part of the world. At that time, Athens was a tiny town on the edge of the Byzantine Empire filled with brick and stone Byzantine churches—some of which are still there. They were all built over shrines to the pagan gods. When Irini lived there, all these temples to the ancient gods on the Acropolis and in Athens were still standing. They were even still painted bright colours like the archeologists are now telling us, because the dyes had not been eaten away by acid rain from the factories of Piraeus. And the pillars were still standing because the earthquakes and bombings of WWII hadn’t happened yet. So Irini grew up with her feet in the ancient past. 

But then she moved to Constantinople. And Constantinople was a modern city. The outer walls, which you can still see in Istanbul, were only four hundred years old when she was there. This is about the age of New York, for us. And like New York, Constantinople was all about buying and selling. It sat on the trade route between the East and Rome and it had no connection to the past any more ancient than Emperor Constantine the First. In my book, Irini feels the lack of this distant past and she is homesick for how it connected her to something deep within her.  

5. The next thing I learned from Proust is that it’s OK to write about what may offend. Proust got himself banned in England for Sodom and Gomorrah. I could get myself banned for what I wrote in my book--in Florida! A colleague in my Proust Re-readers group lives in that place and she told me that no one in Florida will be able to buy my books because I used the word, “Shitter.” In my defence, the word is a direct translation from the Greek. It is what people called Emperor Constantine the Fifth. In the 8th century, people didn’t have last names—they had epithets. Constantine was called the Shitter because of what he did in his baptismal font. This Greek word puts my books on the Florida banned list! I am like Proust! 


6. Here’s another thing I learned: It’s OK that people think my books are different than I think they are. Some lecturer about Proust said that many French readers consider Proust to be light humorous fiction best read on an airplane. Even the publishers he brought his manuscript to didn’t know what he was writing. One said that he read a hundred pages and still didn’t know what the book was about. 

In my case, I thought I was writing an historical murder mystery. But when Scotland Street Press accepted my book and I got myself to Edinburgh to meet the committee, I discovered, to my shock, that they planned to market the books as Young Adult fiction. It turns out, which I did not know, that YA isn’t what it used to be. It is everything that isn’t serious literary fiction. Violence! Sex! A plot with characters who do things. Everything gets nicely tied up at the end. Mysteries are “high young adult.” Science Fiction is “high YA”.

This distressed me and I talked to my daughter-in-law about this. My daughter-in-law has a big job, a busy husband, and two lively children and she reads YA. She says that when she finally gets into bed at night, she does not have the concentration and the energy to fight her way through series fiction. She wants a nice plot with characters who make her smile.  

7. Which brings me to the most important thing Proust taught me: Wonderful things happen in groups. Proust was famous for his social gatherings and nights out with friends, all of whom he used as source material. I’m a solitary person by nature. I live alone, I travel alone; writing books is a solitary thing. But I look forward to my Proust Re-readers group, knowing that every two weeks we will meet on Zoom or in this library and read Proust aloud. During COVID, Proust kept us going. 

This also happened with my three Greek friends who helped me write these books. I’ve known these three women for over twenty years. During COVID we skyped every two weeks to make sure that we were all alive. Greece was having a terrible time of it. My friends asked how my book was going and I said, “I’m stuck.” They said, ‘We will help you. We are locked down in our apartments. We have no work, we have Time.’ 

Katerina Apostolakis is a simultaneous interpreter for conferences. She is the interpreter for King Charles whenever he comes to Greece. Susana Apostolaki is the office manager and English translator for an Athens law firm. She also translates museum exhibition and art gallery catalogues. Nellie Karras is the owner and director of a drama college. So they tracked down online articles written by Greek scholars that I couldn’t even find, much less read. Susana is a real foodie and she wrote all the Byzantine food in the book. Her research has got her writing a cookbook called “Byzantine Cooking for the Modern Cook.” 

I am supposed to read you something from my book.  Before I do, I brought some show-and-tell. This is a wood plank icon, and here is a tiny one that can easily be carried with a person. Part of the plot of the series is the issue of icons. When Irini was born, icons had been banned for sixty years by the previous two emperors. It was a period called ‘iconoclasm’ and it’s too complicated to explain here. Only to say that Irini managed to get icons brought back out of hiding and into churches and homes. For this, the Catholic church calls her a saint. The Greek Orthodox church does not, probably because of what she allegedly did to her son.

In my book, Abbess Thekla carries a tiny icon of Saint Thekla with her, secretly tied in her shawl, as her name saint and her companion. When I was in Athens last winter, I bought an icon of Saint Thekla in one of the many religious supply shops next to the churches so you could see what her name saint looked like. I also bought this tiny icon to show you what my narrator carried with her.  And I brought a tamata which is a small image made of gold, silver, or tin. This one is the image of eyes. The word tamata means miracle and in the Orthodox church you purchase one of these when you need divine help. You take it to a church and a priest hangs it under an icon of a saint whom you feel close to and you ask the saint for help. I bought these eyes, because the last book in my series is called “The Price of Eyes,” and also because it’s something of a miracle that I finished writing these four books and that they are published.

I also brought one of the only two histories written during the period that Irini was alive that tell us about Irini of Athens. When Irini was deposed and exiled, the next emperors destroyed every record of her. We only know about her from a few pages in this history by a monk, Theophanes the Confessor, who was five years younger than Irini and knew her in Constantinople. And this book by the Arab historian, al-Tabari, who wrote later but he included her reign in with the other Byzantine emperors in his volumes of Arab history. Another monk, Abbott Theodore the Studite, also wrote about her in his many letters. He was five years younger than her and knew her well.  

Now I will read the first page of Book 1 so you can know why my book could be banned in Florida.


So that’s my story of Proust and Irini of Athens. This talk was called, 'How Proust helped me write my four-volume historical mystery series about Irini of Athens'. Proust certainly did help me. He helped me understand human nature. He helped me bring my characters out of history. And he taught me to persevere. He kept writing for twenty years. I only wrote for eleven. But you don’t have to be a writer to benefit from reading Proust. Proust is for everyone. You do have to persevere, though. If you want to make it through all seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time.

contributed by

Janet McGiffin

contributed by

Janet McGiffin

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Discover how Proust helped Janet McGiffin write the Empress Irini Series. Words by Janet McGiffin, speaking at The New York City Proust Center at Jefferson Market Library, August 8, 2023.
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