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Sewickley Author’s Love of History Gives Her a ‘Map’

July 30, 2008

By Regis Behe, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 30–Heather Terrell is a lawyer by training. But even as she worked for a decade as a commercial litigator in New York City, the Upper St. Clair High School graduate fed her true interests: Art, history and the historical puzzles that sometimes link them.

“I always had this vision and desire, even though I became a lawyer, to unravel those historical stories and puzzles,” says Terrell, “even though I wasn’t sure how I was going to do them.”

Because she couldn’t drop her career in order to pursue the unsolved mysteries of the world, Terrell did the next best thing: She started writing. Her first novel, “The Chrysalis,” was the result of 10 years of squirreling away time to write when she was a lawyer.

Terrell’s new novel, “The Map Thief” (Ballantine, $25) has just been published. The release party is Friday at Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont.

Both novels indulge Terrell’s passions.

“I took classes, I traveled extensively, I did my own research,” says Terrell, who now lives in Sewickley. “It wasn’t until I started my first book … that I realized that could be my vehicle for delving into the past, delving into art and history, and solving those larger historical riddles.”

“The Chrysalis” ranged from lore about the Irish Book of Kildare and painters in 17th century Netherlands to present day New York where a lawyer, Mara Coyne, tries to determine the provenance of a forgotten masterpiece.

Coyne returns in “The Map Thief,” with two new characters. Ma Zhi and Antonio Coehlo are mapmakers separated by thousands of miles — Ma is in China and Coelho in Portugal. The map in question in the story was made by Ma, and may have been used as a template by Coehlo to chart Vasco de Gama’s travels.

Coyne is hired to find the map when it goes missing from an archaeological dig in China.

“They both have the desire, not only to explore, but commemorate and memorialize the world,” Terrell says of Ma and Coehlo. “Mara also has that in common with them, but she’s also more intent on making sure the discoveries and mysteries of time and artifacts that memorialize them end up in the right hands.”

The story — which posits the theory that Chinese sailors, under the guidance of Admiral Zhang He, traveled around the world — is based on historical fact. Terrell says there is indisputable evidence that Chinese fleets sailed throughout Asia and as far as the northern coast of Africa.

But there are also indications, based on Terrell’s research, that the Chinese may have traveled around the Cape of Good Hope and as far west as the Caribbean. The Chinese ruler, Emperor Yongle, was trying to establish China as a world power, and Terrell thinks the motivation to send the Chinese flights on long voyages fits in with the emperor’s world view.

“He put a tremendous amount of emphasis on having not only the nautical capacity to undertake voyages of this type — and the Chinese of this time period certainly had the technological and nautical capacity — but he also had a tremendous desire for a discovery on this scale,” Terrell says. “He wanted to prove to the world his might.”

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