Reflections on a firestorm (3 Questions for Sherry Jones, author of "The Sword of Medina")

Fourteen months ago, authors and others in the publishing industry were stunned to hear that Random House was pulling the plug on a six-figure, two-book deal, the fiction debut of journalist Sherry Jones, a matter of weeks before the first book was set to hit bookstores. The news touched off a firestorm of controversy, raised some tough questions, and threatened to drown the book in a flood of the very misconceptions and prejudices Jones had hoped the story would dispel. Ultimately, Jones reached a settlement with RH, and brave Beaufort Books stepped up and released The Jewel of Medina last October. This month the sequel, The Sword of Medina, is in bookstores.

From the press kit:

A'isha, the youngest wife of the Prophet Muhammad, charmed him with her wit and intelligence, eventually earning the confidence and respect of her husband and the community. When Muhammad dies without a successor, A'isha and her sister wives are devastated with grief and struggle in their new roles as Mothers of the Believers without his presence. Even worse, the Muslim community is thrown into turmoil as a Bedouin army threatens its very survival.
After losing his Prophet and then his beloved wife, Ali, the Prophet's only surviving heir, is torn. The newly chosen leadership of the faith is pressuring him to swear allegiance to them, while others urge him to seek power himself so he can lead the Muslim people as Muhammad intended. Ali fears if he does not take action, Muhammad's successors and their corrupt advisors could endanger the survival of Islam and all of its followers.
Before dying, Muhammad left his jeweled sword, al-Ma'thur, to A'isha, telling her to use it in the jihad to come. But what if the jihad is against her own people? After twenty years of distrust and anger, can A'isha and Ali come together to preserve the future of their people and their faith--or will their hatred of each other destroy everything Muhammad worked to build? This climactic sequel to the controversial The Jewel of Medina returns to 7th century Arabia to discover whether, after fighting a civil war, a people can ever truly heal.
It's been a big year, but Sherry found a moment to share a few thoughts on staying true and pushing through...

We have to start by catching up. How the heck are you? Tell us about the roller coaster ride you've been on since the enormous controversy over the publication of The Jewel of Medina.
"Roller coaster" pretty much sums it up. A year ago, I was getting death threats, directly and online, and trying to keep my British publisher after his home office was attacked. I got several nasty reviews from U.S. critics who, by and large, never even discussed The Jewel of Medina but focused on the controversy. I had hate mail from Islamophobes offended by my portrayal of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. But I tried to keep my goals in sight.

I wrote The Jewel of Medina not only out of a huge respect and regard for A'isha, the book's protagonist and the most famous and influential woman in all of Islam, but also out of a desire to demonstrate that oppression of women is not Islamic. The Sword of Medina shows how women's considerable rights under Muhammad were eroded by the male power structure after the Prophet's death. Both are feminist books. They're also books that I hope will help eliminate hatred by helping non-Muslims understand Islam and its founders. So even as I've been attacked by various factions for mostly political reasons, I've kept love and peace in mind. The result is that I've been able to rise above the nastiness and speak around the world about women's rights, women in Islam, Islamophobia, and, of course, free speech, which as a journalist I hold very dear.

The Sword of Medina continues the compelling story of A'isha, the youngest wife of Muhammad, after the death of the Prophet, taking us back to 7th century Arabia and tossing us into the middle of a civil war. You haven't backed down a bit from the story, but did the events of the past 18 months influence your approach to the material?

I wrote The Sword of Medina before the controversy erupted, and had turned it in to Random House before I learned of their decision to "indefinitely postpone" publication of both books. Since I'd already done most of the research and I already knew my characters, The Sword of Medina practically wrote itself. But in the wake of the controversy, I'm glad I made some of the choices I made for the sequel. I was aware, for instance, that Ali, Muhammad's cousin and A'isha's nemesis, comes off as a jerk in The Jewel of Medina. Of course he was much more complex than that, but the story is from the point of view of A'isha, who didn't like him. In The Sword of Medina, I included Ali's voice. As a result, both he and A'isha are deeper, rounder, fuller characters -- and the Shi'a version of events gets told as well as the Sunni version, which prevailed in the first book.

You must feel like you've climbed a mountain with these two books, my dear. A phenomenal way to begin a career as a novelist at a pivotal moment in the publishing industry -- and in the world. Where will you go from here?
I've always had many more ideas than time to execute them. The same holds true now. I'm working on another historical fiction novel and I have at least one more in mind after that, but I also have contemporary fiction in mind. The themes that seem to excite me the most are women's rights and the huge influence of religion on societies. I worked as a journalist for thirty years and I never lost my idealistic hopes of making a positive difference in the world. I hope to do the same now through fiction.

Visit Sherry's website for more.


Suzan Harden said…
Hi Sherry! Glad to hear "The Sword of Medina" is coming out. I was afriad it wouldn't after all the crap of last year.
Sherry Jones said…
Thanks, Suzan! I am very excited about this book. And no, nothing would stop me!
I love your attitude. You're certainly endured a trial by fire, but it speaks well of an author to provoke strong passion.

Congratulations and best of luck with the new release!
TJ Bennett said…
Fascinating interview. Thanks for sharing it with us.

Joni Rodgers said…
In a PS to this post, it was reported this week that Sherry Jones was mentioned as a potential target of the men arrested on terrorism charges in Chicago recently. Today Sherry issued the following statement in response:

"I was alarmed by news reports of two Chicago men arrested in connection with a Pakistani plot to attack Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard and Flemming Rose, the culture editor at Jyllands-Posten. One of the men allegedly wrote in a Yahoo! chat that he was “disposed toward violence” toward these men and toward me because of my books, “The Jewel of Medina” and “The Sword of Medina.” Like the staffers at Jyllands-Posten, I’d thought the danger to me was past. And perhaps it is. But even if it’s not, I refuse to succumb to fear. Courage -- moral as well as personal -- is what’s needed in these troubling times.

"Following the example of A’isha bint Abi Bakr, protagonist of my novels, I will continue to fight for what matters to me: a free and open society where love, not hate, prevails. To be frank, I fear more for our culture than I do for myself. Because every time Muslim terrorists kill, and every time they’re arrested on U.S. soil, the risk increases that we will repeat history and let hatred overrule our reason. We must not blame all Muslims for the actions of a violent few. Likewise, we must not let fear stop us from exercising, and defending, our freedoms -- such as freedom of speech and free expression -- in exchange for security.

"I have said many times that I hope my books “The Jewel of Medina” and “The Sword of Medina” will serve as bridge-builders between Muslim and non-Muslim populations. This latest incident demonstrates that we need these books, and others like them, more now than ever.

"'These times are too heavy for skittishness,' Sinclair Lewis once said. We must demand courage, and must demonstrate it ourselves, if we want to hold on to our right to free speech. And we must cast aside the temptation to scapegoat and to hate, and summon instead reason and, along with it, love."

Thanks again for taking time to talk with us, Sherry. Peace be with you.
Wow. You're really walking the talk on Freedom of Speech, Sherry. I wish you all good things.

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