Rachel Dax and the Legend of Pope Joan

28 Jun

Rachel Dax B&WThe Legend Of Pope Joan by Rachel Dax is a three-part, gender-bending, pansexual, theological extravaganza. Part 1. Frankia was released on Amazon earlier this year to rave reviews, and Part 2. Athens is out this weekend. To celebrate the release of Part 2, Rachel is offering Part 1 FREE from noon Friday 28th June – Tuesday 2nd July. (Grab a copy here or here) UKLesFic asked Rachel about this fascinating character and her new book. 

Pope Joan is a real historical character or at least a legendary character. Can you tell us a little about her and how you came across her?

There are very few ‘facts’ available about the real Pope Joan and all of these ‘facts’ are disputed. The evidence currently available asserts that Joan grew up in 9th Century Eastern Frankia (now Germany) but ran away some time during her early adolescence to Athens disguised as a seminarian, accompanied by a man. It is said that she stood out as an exceptionally intelligent and compassionate theologian and at some point, word of her skill reached Pope Leo IV and she was invited to Rome where she eventually served him as a Deacon, acting as his personal assistant. On Pope Leo IV’s death in 853, Joan was elected Pope and occupied the Papal Throne for two and a half years. I will not reveal what is said to have happened after this point, as it will ruin the ending for those who do not already know it!

I first heard of PopPopeJoanCover1e Joan when I was in my MA Philosophy and Religion class a few years ago and a fellow teacher-student said she’d pinned a picture of Pope Joan to her classroom wall to inspire her female students to ‘reach for the top’. I was shocked that having already done a degree in Philosophy & Theology at a Roman Catholic college (even though I am not actually a Roman Catholic) and having been an out lesbian feminist for several years, that I had never heard of Pope Joan. So I did some preliminary research and was amazed by her story. I was not a writer or filmmaker at the time so once my interest was satisfied, she went in a file somewhere on my mind’s hard drive and lay there, dormant for a long time.

It was actually eight years later, when I had to write a play for my Theatre and Media degree that she resurrected. As soon as I decided on Pope Joan as my protagonist, a narrative involving gender-bending and multiple sexualities came to me and after an hour of what can only be described as ‘automatic writing’, I had a clear beginning, middle and end with all the major characters, plot points and twists. Five years later, as I complete this trilogy, all of those original characters, plot points and twists are still there and in pretty much the same order, though many, many more have been woven into the narrative.

Do you think there’s any truth to the legend?

Yes, I absolutely believe she existed. I think that over the centuries, the Roman Catholic Church has done everything in its power to try and eradicate her from history but the story is too strong to be quashed. Around the time of the Reformation, the Pope Joan story was used by emerging Protestants to ridicule Roman Catholicism and demonstrate that the Papacy was not endorsed by God because a woman had become Pope, in spite of the institution not allowing female priests. Since then, the Roman Catholic Church has very conveniently argued that the Protestants ‘made up the Pope Joan story’ precisely for this purpose. However, there are various pre-Reformation references to her and I cannot believe that all those documents have been ‘doctored’ by Protestants!

There is also the matter of the ‘testicle checking chair’ that resides in the basement of the Vatican and is only permitted tosedia stercoraria be seen by a select few. It was created to ensure that the new Pope was definitely male so that no woman would take the Papal throne again. Peter Stanford in his work The SHE-POPE argues that it is not just a commode because there is a tilt backwards for legs to be raised in a fashion that allows easier access to genitalia. This chair, called the ‘sedia stercoraria’, features in the prologue to Part 1 of my trilogy.

I am unsure whether we will ever uncover enough information about Pope Joan to have a clear picture of who she was, but I do believe that eventually other sources of information will emerge. However, even if no such person ever existed, it does not matter for the countless Pope Joan stories out there to be worth reading. Particularly mine, of course!

How much time did you spend researching Joan and how closely does your story fit the legend?

My research for the book has been extensive. In terms of Joan herself, the main source I used was Stanford’s The SHE-POPE, although this really only debates the scant evidence we have for Joan’s existence and touches on the period enough to give a little context. I have a background in Theology and Philosophy of Religion so I knew a fair bit about the key players at that point in history and the intellectual debates of the time, many of which involve the same key questions still being discussed today. I did however have to do a lot of research into general Church history. I also had to extend my knowledge of The Middle Ages and European history with particular emphasis on Eastern Frankia, Athens and Rome. In addition to this, I did a great deal of research into Herbal Medicine and the differing approaches to it, even in the 9th century.

In terms of how well my version fits the legend, the great thing about the scant ‘set of facts’ outlined above, is that it is possible to put any slant on the story one wishes.

The She-PopeI have used all the said ‘facts’ but my version of the story is radically different from the many other Joan narratives already out there. For example, to my knowledge, authors of all previous novelised versions of the story have assumed that Joan was a heterosexual woman in disguise as a man. In my version, her identity is much more difficult to pin down. I wanted to create a character that could not be categorised as male or female, straight or gay, but rather, one who is all things at once and beyond definition. For me, this is the most exciting part of the writing. I want my readers to ask themselves: Is she female or male? Is she trans? Is she lesbian, bisexual or a gay man? And I want my readers to be thinking about this long after they have finished the trilogy.

Could you tell us a little about Part 1 and what we can expect from Joan in Part 2?

In Part 1. Frankia, Joan is an extremely bright and talented young woman with a strong relationship with her father who is a priest. (The rule against priests being able to marry did not kick in until a couple of centuries later). Her father was originally from England and aware of a time when women were priests and held positions of great authority within the Celtic Church. However, things changed when the Roman manifestation of mainstream Christian theology took precedence over the position of the Celtic Church and girls were from then on were no longer allowed to be educated beyond the age of 12 years old.

Joan’s father has continued to educate her and has regularly sneaked her into the prestigious monastery library in Fulda. However, at the age of 13½ Joan is discovered and told she is no longer welcome. At this point, her father caves into pressure and abandons her education in private as well as in public. Joan is totally despairing until her best friend Michael (who is about to be sent to a seminary in far away Athens after mistakenly propositioning a monk) suggests she should run away with him disguised as a boy. They are helped by a flamboyant travelling entertainer called Amadeus Reichenbach who teaches Joan how to ‘act’ like a male, without giving herself away. During the long journey through Frankia, Joan learns several key life lessons and experiences her sexual awakening. As the novel is set mostly on the road, Part 1 has the feel of a very bizarre but captivating gender-bending adventure story.

PopeJoanCover2Part 2. Athens has a slightly different feel to it, as it is completely set in one place. The energy and adventure come from Joan’s physical, intellectual, spiritual, moral and sexual development. This is where she meets Thea, the love of her life. Much of the book is dominated by Joan’s ‘coming to terms’ with the fact that she has fallen in love with a woman, having taken a vow of celibacy in addition to the problem of this woman believing she is a man. Joan also meets a powerful enemy called Benedict, whose jealousy towards her engulfs him to the point of wanting to destroy her life.

Part 1. Frankia has had some fantastic reviews. What kind of audience has it had?

I am very pleased with the excellent reviews I’ve had for Part 1. Frankia. It is exciting that people are enjoying reading such an unusual book set in a period which is, for most, largely unfamiliar. I am also delighted that people have enjoyed the theological aspect of the work. I know that some potential readers were initially worried that the book would be ‘too heavy’ for them and have then been pleasantly surprised by how accessible the theology actually is. I’d like to think this is because I taught Religious Studies, Philosophy Of Religion and Ethics for so many years that I have a knack of making the most complex ideas easy to understand.

My audience has been a real mix of people. Whereas my first novel After The Night is most definitely lesbian fiction, The Legend Of Pope Joan is ‘Queer Fiction’ and therefore gay men and transfolk have also found it appealing. Some LesFic purists have refused to read it on the grounds that it is ‘gender-bending’ and ‘pansexual’ rather than lesbian, but other purists have finally taken the plunge, read Part 1 and really enjoyed it. I have also had great feedback from several straight people who were surprised by how much they loved it too.

One of the most common observations from my readers is that they feel like they are ‘with Joan’ in Part 1, and as a result they understand who she is, in spite of her not being easy to define. I think part of the appeal of the book is that it addresses the idea that we are all floating around on a series of spectra when it comes to sex, gender and sexuality and some people who find themselves in the middle area of all of those spectra can manifest as many things in the course of their lifetime. I do not believe that if Joan was just a ‘straight woman in disguise’ that she could have successfully pulled off living as male amongst males for years and years without being discovered.

Have you already written Part 3 and when can readers expect to see it published?

PopeJoanCover3Part 3. Rome is already written in draft form and will be available during the winter. I am reticent to give a specific date, as when I wrote Part 3 last September it was before I decided to turn the story into a trilogy rather than a novel in three parts. Chances are, that Part 3 may double both in size and complexity, just as parts 1 and 2 did when I came to the edit them as stand alone releases.

Your first novel After the Night (set in a women’s prison in 1960) is also historical fiction. What’s the appeal of historical fiction for you? Any plans for a contemporary story in the future?

I have a keen interest in many different periods of history and love reading and watching period drama. One of the appealing aspects of writing historical stories is that one can address the issues of the past and the present simultaneously. One of the greatest plays of the 20th Century, The Crucible by Arthur Miller, is a great example of the power of using historical events to deal with what is happening at the current time. The Legend Of Pope Joan explores: the role of the Church in relation to sex, gender and sexuality; the nature of God; the Problem of Evil & Suffering in relation to faith; and the role of Pope. All these issues are just as relevant now as they were in the 9th Century. After The Night explores: ‘coming out’ as a lesbian; societal pressures with regards to sexuality; homophobic bullying; prison conditions; and the Death Penalty -which again are topics still widely discussed today.

I do not see myself as purely a Historical Fiction Writer, even though my novels so far happen to be set in the past. I am a Storyteller working in multiple formats who, as part of my overall body of work, happens to have written a couple of historical stories as novels. All of the short films I have written and most of theatre pieces I’ve written or devised, have been set in the present day. Once Pope Joan is complete, there is a strong chance that I will turn my feature film script Banned Girls (a contemporary story about a female rock band) into an interactive novel. I also have an outline for another novel set in present day London that I hope to write within the next two years.

You’re also a filmmaker. Do you have any plans to dramatise any of your novels?

AfterThe Night book coverI would love to turn all my novels into films but with the current economic climate there is more chance my film scripts will be turned into novels. The issue is not desire or intention, but rather money and opportunity when it comes to making films. I can afford to make short films out of my own pocket but feature films are another kettle of fish. Banned Girls, even on the lowest budget, needs half a million to work as a big screen theatrical release which is why I will probably turn it into a novel so the story gets out into the world, irrespective of the state of the global economy.

If After The Night were turned into a film, it would need at least 2 million budget and The Legend Of Pope Joan about 5 million. (I had actually intended to turn the original play I wrote about Pope Joan into a feature film before I thought about turning it into a novel). Both of these stories would be excellent on the big screen because when I write novels, I imagine them being played out in cinematic form anyway. I have absolutely no doubt that they would make returns in terms of investment, so I am affirming that when the time is right the Universal Cash Machine will start pelting out notes in high denominations so I can make them!

Thanks Rachel for a fabulous guest post. Don’t forget to download the free Part 1 of The Legend of Pope Joan.

3 Responses to “Rachel Dax and the Legend of Pope Joan”

  1. rneyal June 29, 2013 at 12:30 am #

    Now I can’t wait until I finish up what I have to do so I can stretch out in bed and read. But I’ll have to limit myself because I have an early morning tomorrow.


  1. Link Round Up: June 21 – July 9 | The Lesbrary - July 10, 2013

    […] Rachel Dax was interviewed about The Legend Of Pope Joan at UK Lesbian Fiction. […]

  2. Articles & Interviews | Rachel Dax - July 12, 2014

    […] JUNE 2013 – Rachel talks to the UK Lesbian Fiction Site about her trilogy The Legend Of Pope Joan: https://uklesfic.wordpress.com/2013/06/28/rachel-dax-and-the-legend-of-pope-joan/ […]

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