Author Chat with Donna Woolfork Cross (Author of Pope Joan)


If you have been reading here at One Persons Journey Through a World of Books for any amount of time you know that one of the best reads for 2009 has been Pope Joan by Donna Woolfork Cross.  I loved the character of Joan, this strong independent woman born in a time when women were not considered worth much more than for birthing children.  I cant even put into words how I felt as I read this book and followed Joan from birth to Pope.

Through several email conversations, I have communicated with Donna Woolfork Cross about this book and about the upcoming movie of Pope Joan due out yet this fall!  I can not even imagine what Donna’s life must be like right now, I know she has observed filming and met with producers…. and yet, she took time to chat with me so I could share with all of you a little about Donna, Pope Joan, and whats next…

Please welcome the amazing Donna Woolfork Cross!!!

Sheila:  Thank you so much Donna for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat a bit with me.  I am so thankful for your kindness and continued communication.

Donna: Hi, Sheila!  My gosh, any author should be very grateful to have you on her side!  Thanks SO much, yet again, for your heart-warming–and energetic– support!

Sheila:  Donna, Pope Joan is an incredible historical fiction read that I for one (and I know I am not alone) could not put down.  Have you always been a fan of history?

Pope JoanDonna:   Thanks for the kind words, Sheila!   The truth is that I HATED history in high school and college, for it was so boring–filled with “memorized” information like dates and names of battles and lists of kings, etc.  As I was a good student, I faithfully learned these dry facts and put them down on my exams–and then promptly forgot them.  It was years later before I realized that history isn’t composed of dry old facts and dates and names;  it’s the most fascinating subject of all, for it’s composed of stories–of people who loved and fought and lost and grieved and sacrificed.  What could be more interesting than that?  Story-telling is a very primal act for humans; when we lived in caves we sat around the fire and told tales to each other.  Children crawl into our laps and beg, “Tell me a story!”

Historical fiction captures this story-telling essence of history.  It’s “You Are There” history;  it transports us in time, makes us feel that we have walked those streets, drunk that wine, worshiped those gods.  That’s why it’s my favorite form of leisure reading!

Sheila:  How did you come to the decision to write a book about Pope Joan?

Donna: I had written four previous books–non-fiction works about word and language.  They did well enough, but let me tell you, no one’s ever going to be able to retire by writing word books!  It was my daughter who suggested to me that I might want to write the kind of book she knows I most enjoy reading–historical fiction (for all the reasons mentioned above).  I was mulling that idea over–wondering if I could make the leap (no small one) from non-fiction to fiction, when I stumbled across Joan’s story in a piece of chance reading.  At first I thought it was a typo–an amusing accident that substituted the name “Joan” for “John”.

But a couple of weeks later,  I happened to be in a library.  And idle curiosity led me over to the the “New Catholic Encyclopedia”, just to check out that odd passing reference to a “Pope Joan.”  Tell you the truth, I didn’t expect to find anything.  But when I did find an entry for her in the NCE, I stood in that library with my jaw dropped open.  I couldn’t believe it–here was a story included in the work of  famous writers like Petrarch and Boccaccio and Platina, librarian to several Popes–and I hadn’t even HEARD of it?  I think I knew on the spot that it’s what I wanted to write about.  I thought then–hey, I still think–that it’s a “drop-dead” story.  I couldn’t believe I’d had the great good fortune to stumble across it!

Sheila: I think it is exciting enough to be a write (a dream I have always had!), but I can hardly imagine what it would be like to write something that is destined to be a movie.  Can you share a little bit how that happened and what that had to feel like?

Donna: If you dream of writing, Sheila, then you will one day do it!  For the simple truth is that writing is much more “perspiration” than “inspiration”!  Whether someone likes my novel or not, I can tell her this: it represents the very best I could do.   Over the long course of seven years of seven years of research and writing, I really came to care about Pope Joan, and to admire her, so I gave this story my all.  Naturally, I was nervous about what the movie version would be like (one fellow writer described optioning our novel to Hollywood as “handing your child over the the Charles Manson Day Care Center!)

Fortunately, I was lucky.  The movie stays true to the “female empowerment through learning” theme of the book that was so important to me.  And the acting is terrific!  Johanna Wokalek, a newcomer to U.S audiences is brilliant as Joan;  John Goodman is a PERFECT Pope Sergius;  and David Wenham (voted “Sexiest Australian of 2007) is very powerful in the part of Gerold (when he asks Joan to go away with him, giving up everything that she has become and achieved, you really understand her temptation!).

When I was standing on the set, watching scenes enacted that I remember writing in the privacy of my study, I was very moved.

Sheila:  What at this time as readers can we be doing to make sure the movie and the book, get around to where people all over the world can enjoy them?

Donna: What a dear and thoughtful question to ask, Sheila!   There’s two things one can do immediately:

1.  Buy the book in August!  For healthy book sales in August will help persuade U.S. movie distributors that there’s a broad audience for this story in the U.S.  Also,  if you purchase the book on or before August 9th, you are eligible for my unusual “Walk the Red Carpet” offer–an opportunity to join me and my family at the U.S. movie premiere.  Details are at

2.  Let U.S. movie distributors know if you’d like to see the movie open in a theater near you.  You can do this by going to   If you would attend with others, such as book group members or friends and family, mention that too.  Your words will go straight to the producer’s ears!

Sheila:  What’s next for you?

Donna: Just at the moment, I’m working so hard to promote Pope Joan, long labor and work of my heart,  that I’ve had to put aside my next novel for a while.  I hope to resume work on it this fall.  It’s about another strong woman from history, this time from 17th century France. I admire her for many of the same reasons I came to admire Joan–reasons best summed up with a quote from George Bernard Shaw. “Reasonable people,” Shaw wrote, “adapt themselves to the world the way they find it. Unreasonable try to change the world to fit their own vision of it.  Therefore, all progress depends on unreasonable people.”

Following that (in my view) very complimentary definition of the word, Joan was, in fact, an unreasonable woman. So is my next heroine, whose name, I bet you’ve noticed, I have artfully not mentioned (my agent tells me that she’ll cut out my tongue if I do!).

Sheila:  Thank you Donna so much for taking time to hang out with us here.  I am excited to see the movie come out and hopefully a push from my fellow book lovers can help move that along!

Please see my review of Pope Joan here

11 thoughts on “Author Chat with Donna Woolfork Cross (Author of Pope Joan)

  1. This was such an interesting interview-thanks so much:) Pope Joan truly is a fantastic book and such an insprational read.

    And now I’m very curious about your next novel…17thc…hmm right up my alley! I’m full of guesses:)

    Thanks Donna- Thanks Sheila

  2. What a wonderful interview. Can’t wait for the movie, and also very curious about the teaser for her next novel!

  3. Wonderful interview. What delightful people – both you and Donna. I am buying the book today from amazon. And I’ve added my name to ‘the map’. What a fun idea. My state, Utah, is sadly represented so I’m going to do a post encouraging more people in the rural communities to get on that map.

  4. Pope Joan sounds like a fantastic book, I always have my eye out for good HF! The author, Donna, sounds like a lovely person, and I love how she described happening upon the story of Pope Joan in an encylopedia.

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