About Heather Bio | Interviews

The Map Thief

How did the idea for The Map Thief originate?
Not long ago, my brother Coley asked me if I’d ever heard of the 15th-century Chinese Admiral Zheng He. When I answered no, he was surprised. After all, he and I have each spent considerable time in China where the admiral is becoming legendary. Coley explained that, in the early 1400s, Zheng He had assembled a naval fleet so vast and so technologically superior that the Europeans’ ships of the same time period seemed like bath toys in comparison. The presumed prowess of this armada has inspired theories that Zheng He had discovered the world decades before the famed European explorers. I was intrigued. So, I pored over early world maps from this time period, and I learned something curious, a historical mystery of sorts. Several of the very earliest European world maps—dating from the mid-1400s and beyond—showed lands and bodies of water that would not be officially “discovered” by the Europeans for decades. My imagination soared. I wondered whether a scrap of evidence of Zheng He’s voyages might have survived, and whether that documentation might have reached the hands of the Europeans—perhaps a map. Thus, The Map Thief was born.

In The Map Thief, 15th-century Chinese ships discover the new world before the Europeans do, and evidence of their accomplishment reaches the hands of the Europeans before they embark on their own voyages. Could this be true?
I believe that it is possible. With Emperor Yongle on the throne, early 15th-century China had the nautical capacity for the discoveries. Yongle commissioned a navy of thousands of ships—with five-hundred-foot teak treasure boats at its center—that had the capacity to remain at sea for long stretches. The Chinese sailors had excellent navigational abilities—including a sophisticated grasp of astronomy, the ability to calculate latitude, and the use of the compass—and centuries of experience throughout Asia, the Middle East, and parts of Africa. By way of comparison, the next most powerful fleet of the time was that of the Venetians, who possessed around three hundred galleys at a size of one hundred and fifty feet at the longest.

Most importantly, however, the Chinese had the desire for world exploration of this scale. Yongle had just seized the Dragon Throne after four years of civil war. His father was the first native Chinese emperor after hundreds of years of foreign Mongol rule. Yongle stood on unstable ground internally and externally and wanted to prove to the world that a new political and economic force sat on the Chinese throne. The year he took the throne, 1404, he sent his first message by creating a sumptuous testimony to the primacy and openness of his reign—the Forbidden City—and he then undertook a systematic campaign to demonstrate his dominance. This included building his navy and sending it on voyages of discovery and missions to bring all foreign countries into his tribute system.

Are there other explanations for the fact that very early European world maps—dating from the mid-1400s and beyond—showed lands and bodies of water that had not been officially “discovered” by the Europeans for decades?
Some have speculated that Arab navigators could have been the original cartographers for the “undiscovered” lands and bodies of water that appear on the early European world maps. The Arab culture teemed with skilled mathematicians, mariners, and navigators with vast experience in the Mediterranean and Indian Oceans. In fact, Vasco da Gama relied on an Arabic pilot to help guide him to Calicut on his first voyage. And, of course, they had a presence on the Silk Road which may have been the vehicle for transmission of the geographical information.

How might it impact our current political and cultural climate—particularly with the 2008 Summer Olympics just around the corner—if we learned that the Chinese had “discovered” the world and then turned inward?
I think that the “discovery” that China charted the world first might cut either way in the current climate. As we all know, with the Olympics, China has unlocked its doors and flung them open wide in the hopes that its cutting-edge, green Olympic Beijing would eradicate the image of xenophobic Communist China. Yet instead of a warm invitation onto the world stage, China is besieged by challenges to its anticipated status. Perhaps if proof existed that China had discovered the world and had the chance to colonize it as the Europeans did, but walked away, the world might be more sympathetic to China’s attempts to solidify their position as a world player. Then again, the world might dig in its heels and say China already had a chance—and lost it.

Are there parallels between contemporary Beijing and the Forbidden City of the 15th century?
In many ways, the astonishing Olympic Beijing mirrors the historic Beijing that Emperor Yongle created nearly six hundred years ago and sends the very same message to the world: welcome to the progressive new China. Yongle needed to send that message. He was beset by confrontations from foreigners without and challenges from usurpers within and needed to prove that an impressive, forward-thinking force ruled China. Yongle constructed Beijing’s famous Forbidden City as the symbol of his reign and unveiled it the world on Chinese New Year’s Day, 1421 in an elaborate month-long celebration.

Modern China hopes that Olympic Beijing will demonstrate its rightful world place in much the same manner. Like Yongle, China is besieged by challenges—by human rights activists, environmentalists, differing governments, and financial competitors. The government wants the avant-garde buildings of Olympic Beijing—the “Water Cube” and the “Bird’s Nest,” among them—to replace the old image of China and with that of an open, international player. As in Yongle’s time, the ceremonial unveiling of this message—the Olympics—will endeavor to solidify that impression.

The Map Thief focuses on the stories of three primary characters: a Chinese mapmaker, a Portuguese cartographer, and a modern-day lawyer who specializes in retrieving stolen art and artifacts. Why did you decide to layer their stories, and what sort of research was involved?
The Map Thief tells the story of the very first world map and its journey—and impact—throughout time. Thus, it seemed fitting that I trace the map’s voyage as it passed from the hands of the early 15th-century Chinese mapmaker who created the map, the late 15th-century Portuguese cartographer and navigator who used it, and the present-day heroine who struggled to locate the map and return it to its rightful owners.

In terms of research, the book delves into Ming Dynasty China (including the Imperial and eunuch courts), the European Age of Discovery, the history of mapmaking, 15th-century oceanic expeditions, and the modern-day world of map thievery and stolen art legislation—so it involved detailed historical and legal research into all of those areas. I tried to consult original sources whenever possible, such as the journals of Ma Huan, the historian on board one of Zheng He’s journeys, as well as accounts from those on Vasco da Gama’s voyages. In fact, I ordered so many rare, obscure historical texts from my library that the librarians thought I was writing my Ph.D. thesis on eunuchs in Ming Dynasty China, and asked me to lecture about that topic—before they learned I was writing a novel.

What’s next for Heather Terrell?
As I wrote The Map Thief, I became intrigued by the notion that an object—be it a piece of artwork or an artifact—can tell a story, one that answers a historical mystery, as well as divulges something personal and secret about the creator of the object. So, as I cast about through time seeking another object that could tell a multi-layered tale for my third book, I learned about the lost Book of Kildare, an early medieval Irish illuminated manuscript so beautiful it was described as “made by angels.” As I delved into the research, it seemed that this Book might reveal much about the why the Virgin Mary’s portrait first appears in remote, early medieval Ireland and how her image and persona—indeed women’s roles—were shaped by society over time. This formed the impetus for my third book, tentatively titled The Book of Kildare.

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The Chrysalis

What was the catalyst for you to write this book? What part of the story did you have first?
During the early days of my tenure at a large New York City law firm, a close friend and then fellow associate asked me a question. Would I ever decline to represent a client on moral grounds, even though the client had a solid legal basis for the position it wanted to advocate? Over the weeks that followed, her question stayed with me. Then, I came across an article describing the emergence of cases in which families of Holocaust victims attempted to recover artwork stolen by the Nazis during World War II. I did some research and learned of some inequities inherent in the law. I had an answer to my friend's question: If I were ever asked to represent a client in its efforts to keep artwork from a Holocaust victim's heirs, I hoped I would decline, even if precedent supported the client's arguments. This moral and legal quandary seemed an interesting backdrop for a book, and it formed the genesis for the modern-day storyline of THE CHRYSALIS. The other two tales --- the story of the painting's creation in the 17th century and the account of the painting in the Nazis' clutches --- followed.

THE CHRYSALIS takes place in three different times and places: modern-day New York, war-era Berlin and the Netherlands in the 17th-century. Throughout the book you utilize a third-person narrative, but you use the present tense when discussing the past and the past tense when discussing events in the present. This had a very subtle effect in enhancing the movement of the narrative. What can you share about this technique?
I made the decision to utilize the present tense for the past scenes for two primary reasons. First, I wanted the historical scenes to feel timeless, and to me, the present tense conveyed that agelessness better. Second, I am intrigued by the idea that history and art resound in our everyday lives, in ways of which we may be unaware, and it seemed as though the present tense could bring the historical scenes forward in time to further that concept.

There are a number of storylines that are introduced in THE CHRYSALIS, not the least of which is the ethical dilemma that occurs when an attorney realizes that their client may have a firm legal position but a weak moral one. As Mara Coyne, an attorney representing an auction house, discovers in THE CHRYSALIS, there are no easy answers, and possibly not even a correct one. How much of you is in Mara, or is she modeled after someone you know?
I did draw on my years as a lawyer to create --- hopefully --- a realistic world for Mara Coyne to inhabit, though I have never been confronted with a similar moral conflict. Otherwise, Mara Coyne is a work of fiction, though if I were ever "called to rise" in the face of an analogous ethical dilemma, I hope I would achieve her heights.
You have noted elsewhere that Johannes Miereveld is a creation of your own. Did you model Miereveld and his life after any known painters? Were Miereveld's experiences more common than otherwise for painters working in the 17th century?

Johannes Miereveld is indeed a creation of my imagination, though my reading on the education, painting techniques, marketing and selling practices, and living habits of 17th-century Dutch painters in general informed his character and life. The biographical details of the unparalleled Johannes Vermeer were especially helpful given his Catholicism, though it affected Vermeer's life quite differently than it affected my fictional Miereveld. I attempted to model Miereveld's training and business practices on a typical painter in the 17th-century Netherlands, so I hope his experiences were fairly common --- though I altered certain aspects for dramatic effect or plot furtherance.

Another storyline of THE CHRYSALIS, which was fascinating and horrifying, was the looting of art treasures undertaken by the Nazis before and during World War II. Your description of the complex methods by which artwork was confiscated and later transferred to others was fascinating. What led you to this issue, and what were your primary sources in your research of it?
I began to research the Nazis' methodical, large-scale plunder of artwork during World War II once I delved into the legal battles that families of Holocaust victims faced in trying to recoup the artwork. I needed to understand the Nazis' processes in order to comprehend how their looting affected the artwork's provenance and the parties' legal positions. When I started this research well over 10 years ago, however, a tremendous amount had not yet been written on this issue. So, I explored legal files and certain United States government's World War II records relating to the recovery, administration and disposition of stolen art, like declassified documents from the Office of Strategic Services Art Looting Unit. And then, some wonderful nonfiction books on the topic were published that served as excellent resources.

You have been a litigator at two major law firms and for major corporations. Compare and contrast for us the similarities and differences between preparing for a trial and writing a novel. Now that you have done both, which do you enjoy more? While preparing for trial involves its own unique stressors, did you find yourself under your own self-imposed gun while researching, creating and writing THE CHRYSALIS?
Preparing for a trial and writing a novel both require a vast amount of research and a painstaking attention to detail. I found the time pressures of a trial to be more intensive than writing THE CHRYSALIS, given that I drafted the book over a 10 year-period during the rare downtime in my lawyering schedule. While I enjoyed practicing as a commercial litigator, I must say I enjoy writing more. It allows me to pair my love of art history, history and archeology with the issues I find most intriguing in the law.

Do you paint? And do you have a favorite painter?
No, I do not paint. Though I suppose that THE CHRYSALIS reveals my wish that I possessed those artistic gifts. As for favorite painters, I have so many. Of course, the incomparable Johannes Vermeer figures prominently among them, as do many Dutch Golden Age painters. I have such reverence for their use of light, their near-photographic attention to detail, and, most of all, the hidden stories beneath their deceptively simple scenes. That said, I adore many other painters from a variety of times and styles, such as Sandro Botticelli, Gustav Klimt, Frederick Childe Hassam, John Singer Sargent, and most recently, Nuno Goncalves, a 15th-century Portuguese painter whose masterpiece The Adoration of Saint Vincent plays a role in my next book.

Part of THE CHRYSALIS is set in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Is that one of your favorite museums? What others do you like to visit?
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is indeed one of my favorite museums, in particular, its Temple of Dendur, as you can probably tell from THE CHRYSALIS.  However, there are many superb museums I really enjoy: the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, where I now live; the Museum of Fine Arts and Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum in Boston, which I frequented as a student; the National Gallery in London; the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands; the Uffizi Gallery in Florence; the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. I could go on and on.

THE CHRYSALIS demonstrates your interest, and love, in fine art. When did you initially become interested in fine art and the sale and collecting of the same?
When I was a very young child, my aunt would take me to the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, to the Hall of Architecture in particular. And there, before the façades of architectural masterpieces from centuries gone by, I became entranced by the fine arts and began to perceive them as a window into the past. My interest in the business of art stems primarily from my research for THE CHRYSALIS when I was searching for the right setting. I became fascinated by the rarified world of high end art collecting --- the museums, auction houses, dealers and, of course, the purchasers --- particularly because they seemed cloaked in mystery.

You have indicated elsewhere that you are already at work on a second novel.  Will your next, or any future, novel involve Mara Coyne? If so, do you plan to concentrate on writing a series of works featuring Mara, or do you have plans for writing a stand-alone work in the future?
My next novel will definitely feature Mara Coyne. In this second book, a map is stolen from an archaeological Silk Road site outside of Xi'an, China. Mara, who now runs a business specializing in the restitution of stolen art, is hired to find it. The site's archaeologist claims that he unearthed a 15th-century Chinese map memorializing the voyage of Ming Dynasty Admiral Zheng He, an expedition in which he allegedly circumnavigated the globe decades before the famed European explorers. The search for the map forces Mara to unpuzzle an ideological, historical and legal riddle in a race with the Chinese --- who want to use the map for their agenda --- and the Americans and Europeans, who fear the ramifications of the revision of history. Woven into Mara's story is the tale of the gifted mapmaker who accompanied Admiral Zheng He on his voyage, and the narrative of the Portuguese mapmaker who sailed with Vasco da Gama. I have several other novels featuring Mara Coyne that I would love to write, as well as a few stand-alones.

Are there are authors who influenced your writing of THE CHRYSALIS?
Given that novels of mystery and suspense constitute my favorite genre, it would be difficult for me to single out just a few authors as my biggest influences. Certainly many current suspense novelists such as Arturo Perez-Reverte and writers of classic mysteries like Agatha Christie have served as inspirations. And, I've been fortunate enough to receive positive feedback from some of my favorite thriller writers.

What authors, regardless of genre, do you read for pleasure?
As I mentioned above, I just devour suspense novels, thrillers and mysteries. Outside of that genre, I always love Jane Austen, A.S. Byatt, Edith Wharton, Umberto Eco, J. K. Rowling and Michael Cunningham, among countless other writers.

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