Alumna Ann Chamberlin’s historical fiction imagines life beneath the surface.


In June 2000, Ann Chamberlin BS’77 stepped off a plane in Istanbul to discover that she had become a celebrity there. Fans cheered and cameras whirred as Turkish television crews covered her arrival. She was met by local dignitaries and whisked off toward the city.

All the fuss in a foreign land seemed surreal to a young writer—especially one born, raised, and educated in faraway Utah.

Chamberlin grew up in a family with strong ties to the University of Utah. Her grandfather, Ralph V. Chamberlin BS1898, taught at the U, as did her father, Richard E. Chamberlin BS’48, and mother, Francis E. Maude BA’50 MS’52.

A precocious child, Chamberlin jotted her first stories in blue books that her father brought home from work. “At first, I told my stories with pictures,” Chamberlin says. “The words came later. But even as a child I knew I wanted to write historical fiction.”

Chamberlin developed an interest in Islamic culture when she traveled with a BYU archaeology class to Israel to work on a dig. There, the class uncovered the remains of an Ottoman settlement, which included the grave of a woman.

“The arm bone was protruding from the earth, displaying a rusted metal bracelet inlaid with beads,” Chamberlin says. “I knew she had been someone’s grandmother, mother, or wife, and she became real to me.”

Later, the group relocated to the Sinai Desert, where it set up camp on land belonging to a Bedouin family. Chamberlin met the family matriarch—an Islamic woman wearing the traditional veil who, in spite of her hidden features, seemed to radiate a power and command a respect much greater than one might expect of a Muslim woman.

That moment was an epiphany for Chamberlin. She became intrigued with the notion of a woman’s role in Islamic society and decided to major in anthropology at the U, focusing on Middle Eastern culture. It was in Laurence D. Loeb’s anthropology class that she realized she could mix her love of novel writing with anthropology. As Loeb told her, “People who think anthropology is just a science are wrong; it is also an art.”

Chamberlin eventually began writing about Muslim women, advancing the theory that they once manipulated the harem system as a means to power, thereby challenging the traditional Western notion that harems were designed by men to keep women subservient. She theorized that women once used the harems to separate themselves from men and, by so doing, held sway over them. According to Chamberlin, Muslim women referred to the harem as “the wall of seclusion,” behind which they ruled. As time passed, however, their ideals became corrupted, and infighting led to a breakdown of the system. Ultimately, they found themselves at the mercy of the sultans.

Chamberlin’s book Sofia, the first in what came to be known as the “Ottoman Empire trilogy,” was published in 1996, followed by The Sultan’s Daughter in 1997—winner of the 1998 Critic’s Choice Award for Overall Historical—and Reign of the Favored Women in 1998. The stories proved immensely popular.

In 1999 Turkish author Solmaz Kâmuran discovered the books on Intrigued by the novelty of Chamberlin’s ideas and their cultural significance, Kâmuran offered to translate the books into Turkish. A deal was eventually struck with a Turkish publisher and the trilogy was released in Turkey in March 2000. Two weeks later they topped the country’s bestseller list.

“Ann’s books are everywhere,” says Kâmuran, “and people love her. When she visited Istanbul, some of her fans brought gifts and flowers; many hugged and kissed her.” Kâmuran and Chamberlin traveled together throughout Turkey to book signings and television and Internet interviews. An enduring friendship developed between the two writers.

Chamberlin’s interest in women in Islamic culture eventually led to an exploration of similar themes in a medieval saga called the “Joan of Arc Tapestries,” a trilogy of historical fantasies that recreate the world that spawned Joan of Arc. The first book, Merlin of Saint Gilles’ Well, was released in 1999; the second, Merlin of Oak Wood, was published in June 2001. Chamberlin is currently working on the third novel in the trilogy.

A devoted and systematic writer, Chamberlin starts her day at 4:00 a.m., working until her family awakes. After a busy day as wife and mother, she retires at 7:00 p.m. to read and reflect. Much of her research is done in the quiet of the night, a time when ideas for new novels come to her. A sentence, scene, or even a single word will make her wonder, “What if…,” and a story begins to take shape.

Chamberlin’s novel writing has also led her to explore the challenges of playwriting. The results? In 1998, her play, Jihad, won the Oober Award, given every year to an Off Off Broadway production. The play features three main characters, Saladin, Richard the Lionhearted, and a woman called the Goddess of the Land, who appears spirit-like throughout the play—a symbol of the historical importance of women despite the hidden roles they have often had to play.

Says author Kathleen Daugherty, who attended dress rehearsal and opening night of the play, “I already knew Ann breathed life into history through her novels. Now I see how her words bring the past into the here and now.”

Chamberlin’s fascination with writing and her love of history continue to fuel her insightful stories—those once hidden behind history’s veil.

Kathi Oram Peterson BA’00 is a former Continuum editorial intern, 2000-01. This is her first article for the magazine.