Cross Leaves Grisham in the Dust—in Germany

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Donna Woolfolk Cross CW’69 may not have achieved vast name recognition in the United States—at least not yet. But in Germany she is widely known for her 1996 historical novel about a ninth-century woman who disguised herself as a man and for two years sat on the papal throne.    
    As of January Pope Joan had spent 21 months as the number-one bestseller in Germany, selling nearly two million copies in that country. “It’s something of a publishing phenomenon over there,” says Cross, who doesn’t speak German. “I arrive at bookstores, and instead of the normal [situation] where you go and you’re the lonely poet in the corner sitting alone, people are literally lined up around the block for hours waiting for me to sign their book.” John Grisham, she says, is “eating my dust.”
    The Syracuse-based writer attributes her success in Germany to the popularity there of historical fiction, her novel’s Saxon setting and the huge publicity push that preceded its release in that country. Billboard ads for the book popped up along the highways. There was even a special bottling of Die Päpstin (“she-Pope”) wine. 
    In contrast, her book has sold a comparatively modest 100,000 copies in the United States. That figure could change, however, with plans being made to turn Pope Joan into a feature film. Harry Ufland (The Last Temptation of ChristSnow Falling on Cedars) will produce the film, based on a screenplay written by Cross; Uli Edel (Last Exit to Brooklyn) will direct.
    Ballantine, the book’s paperback publisher, has also added Pope Joan to its “Reader’s Circle” series, and Cross has made herself available to discuss the novel with reading groups by speaker phone (
    Cross, who had previously written several non-fiction books, found her inspiration for her first novel when she came across a reference in a French-written book to a pope named Jeanne. “I remember turning to my husband and saying, “Boy, is this a funny typo.’”
    When she later consulted a Catholic encyclopedia at the library, she was surprised to find an entry for Pope Joan. Though the encyclopedia dismissed her as legend, Cross became hooked on her story for a novel. In her research she found extensive documentation through the middle of the 17th century to support Joan’s existence; she believes Joan’s name was expunged from official records to prevent embarrassment as the Catholic church came under increasing attack by Protestants.
    Although Crown, the book’s hardcover publisher, sent advance copies to the Vatican, the Church has “maintained a deep silence,” Cross says. “But I think they’re about to be smoked out.” The former editor of The Catholic Herald has recently published a non-fiction book concluding that Joan actually lived; Cross hopes this will prompt debate on the topic.
    Regardless of any official reaction, individual Catholics have been counted among her most enthusiastic readers. “I’ve been all over the world and I’ve signed more copies for nuns than you would believe,” Cross says. “I’ve also had a good 
response from priests.”
    This month she heads for Germany, to complete another book tour; to Vienna, to speak at a literary conference; and to Paris, to conduct research for her second novel, set in 17th-century France. Says Cross, “It’s about another strong woman from history. Unfortunately, my agent will cut my tongue out if I say who.”

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