In the fantasy realm, it seems like most novels are set in medieval Europe-esque place (J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings), savage times (Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories), or the modern era (J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter). But for his new fantasy novel Soleri (hardcover, digital), writer Michael Johnston has chosen a different setting: Ancient Egypt. Though it talking to Johnston about this book, and the untitled series it begins, it seems he’d prefer Soleri not end up like Tolkien’s, Howard’s, or Rowling’s books as well.
Let’s start at the beginning. What is Soleri about?
Soleri is about family and empire. The two share a trajectory and a fate. It’s not a happy one. I dubbed my novel “King Lear in ancient Egypt” for a reason. I wanted people to know it was a novel about a family at odds with itself, and I wanted readers to know it was a tragedy, too.
Where did the original idea for both Soleri and this series come from, and how different is Soleri from that original idea?
Back when I was an undergraduate, in an art history lecture, the professor described Egypt as a kind of eternal civilization, one that had always been there and always would be there, or so its people thought. The civilization that grew up around The Nile River had a pretty good run. Three thousand years is nothing to scoff at, especially when we consider how long our frail little democracy has stood. To the people of ancient Egypt, their power and prestige was unmatched. Even when Julius Caesar came to Alexandria, his home city of Rome was more of a backwater compared to the sprawling metropolis of Alexandria. And the people there were no less sophisticated than their city. This notion of an eternal civilization fascinated me. Even if I knew it was a fallacy, it was enough to inspire me to write about one such civilization. Soleri is the eternal civilization, a people ruled by gods and an empire so old it has lost sight of its origins, forgotten more history than it remembers. We encounter this civilization just as it begins to fall apart, we see the first cracks and the shape of what will ultimately be its downfall.
In the press materials, it says that Soleri was, “…inspired by Johnston’s passion for and study of art history, his previous career in architecture, and the story of King Lear.” How often, in writing the book, did you find yourself getting too deep into the art history or architecture of the realm?
Soleri is high fantasy. It’s not historical fiction, but it is inspired by a lot of real art and architecture, by the history and culture of antiquity. I wanted the book to feel real. And I didn’t want to set it in medieval England. Read Tolkien or George R.R. Martin if you want that. They have done a wonderful job at depicting the middle ages. I wanted a different era and a different people and ultimately a different story to some extent, so I went back to antiquity, to Rome and Alexandria, and studied what it was like to live there two thousand years ago.
But I don’t think I ever lost myself in the research. I always knew that Soleri was a unique fantasy world, that it wasn’t Alexandria or Rome; it had its own identity. Though there is a lot of history in the book. A review in Publisher’s Weekly criticized my work, calling it a mix of modern and ancient sensibilities. But it actually is anything but that. In Alexandria, in the time of Cleopatra, a woman could choose her husband and choose to divorce him. She could own property and own a business. This was rare in antiquity, but it’s the period I am writing about. The reviewer, obviously not being well read, was ignorant of the period. I found it fascinating and the perfect place to set my story.
So how do you think Soleri is Shakespearian? Or, more to the point, King Lear-ian?
I’ve often dubbed Soleri “King Lear in ancient Egypt” simply because reviewers and publishers have asked me to to provide a tag line. But I don’t like over-simplifications. In fact, the very reason that I love books is because they can’t be simplified into tag lines. They are big complex entities with detailed plots that twist in many directions, characters that change and evolve, kingdoms that rise and fall. No tag line can capture a novel. But I’m often asked for one so I supplied “King Lear in ancient Egypt.” It immediately tells the reader it is a tragedy, as I earlier mentioned. The reader knows it’s going to be a book about a family set against itself. It works to some degree, so I use it. But it was never my intent to transcribe Shakespeare into ancient Egypt. That seems a rather dull task, nor was it my desire to rewrite King Lear. I think the original sits quite well all by itself. Soleri is its own unique story and all the better for it.
You’ve also said that, “There is a lot of history in my novel, but this isn’t historical fiction.” So then is it more like how George R.R. Martin took inspiration from the War Of The Roses — the real-life event, not the Kathleen Turner movie — for his Game Of Thrones novels?
It’s a fair comparison, though I believe Martin follows the War Of The Roses in some parts of his novel, whereas in mine, the historical research is purely inspirational. Here’s an example. The Egyptians invented the first effective yearly calendar. The better part of the civilization, its wealth and livelihood, depended upon the height of the yearly flood, so they took the matter quite seriously. So much so that they noticed that the star Sirius rose at the same time, roughly every three hundred and sixty-five days, and just prior to the flood. So accurate was this rising that the Egyptians actually built their calendar around it. They made a calendar with twelve months and each had thirty days. This left five days unaccounted for. I found this fascinating. I loved the notion that these five days existed outside of time. They had no name or number. It’s an interesting concept and one that inspired the opening act of Soleri.
You kind of already answered this, but what fantasy subgenres do you see Soleri fitting and why there?
Not a huge fan of labels. I write about what I love and I happen to have a passion for history, for art and architecture. I’ve always been an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy. I pour all of that into my novels. Essentially, I write for myself, I write about what I love, and hope other like it as well. Bookstores are free to label it as they please. Epic fantasy works for me.
Authors always hate talking about their influences, but I am curious: Are there any authors or specific books that you see being an influence on Soleri but not your writing style as a whole?
I love William Gibson, George R.R. Martin, Frank Herbert, Thomas Pynchon, J.G. Ballard, and Kurt Vonnegut. I read to enrich my mind and discover new things. I read a lot of art and architectural history, and I’ve always had a fascination with antiquity. I suppose all of this must be in my head, but when I write it’s my own voice that comes out. I don’t think I can break out any one influence more than any other.
What about non-literary influences, such as movies, TV shows, and video games; are there any of those things that you feel are a big influence on Soleri and the series as a whole?
Not a big fan of TV. I know, everyone says it’s improved, but let’s be honest, a really great cable TV show still isn’t half as interesting as an average novel. I think there is a lot of creativity in the graphic novel industry right now. I enjoy almost anything put out by Image Comics. Technology has enabled Hollywood to produce some amazing spectacles, and I do like to watch them, but I am more often than not left feeling disappointed by many of the films I watch. I enjoy the spectacle, but the stories often seem to fall short. There are exceptions. The Arrival was a well-made adaptation of a great story.
We’ve already talked a bit about how Soleri is the first book in this series. But how much of the series do you have figured out? Do you know if it will be an ongoing series, do you have a set number of books in mind…?
I don’t want to imagine it in the traditional form of a series. There is no series title right now, and I won’t add one unless I’m forced. I wrote a story that spans two novels. Soleri is the first part of that story, and I am working on completing the second half right now. I finished the outline to the second novel before I finished the first one so I’d know how the two would work as the two halves of one story. Indeed, if you read the second book, there are minor characters, some that seem unnecessary in the first novel, that spring to life in book two.
Beyond that, I have an idea for a long stand-alone novel and a novella. The stand-alone novel would cover a period of time that starts thousands of years before Soleri and ends after it. The novella would take place between the first two novels. And I have an idea for a second story that will wrap up some of threads that are not addressed in the first two books.
I also think it’s important to know where you are going as a writer, even if you don’t know every detail. I have an ending in my mind. I know each character’s fate and I know how they will get there.
Given what you said about TV and movies, I’m curious to see if there’s been any interest in adapting Soleri into a movie or TV show. Or a video game?
Honestly, I’d only want it for the publicity. If it helped sell the book, it would be great to have a TV show or a film. I have an agent who is actively selling the property, but no one has yet secured any of the rights. My agent thinks TV is the best place for the novel. I could see it as either a film or television series. I find the prospect of either to be both tantalizing and terrifying. Everyone wants to see their work on the big or small screen, but we hate to see it done poorly. No Hollywood budget can match the imagination, so any adaption would inevitably fall short of what I picture.
I also can’t picture Soleri as a video game, not my media. I’d rather it was a role-playing game. I grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons, and still love the game, so I’d love to see it as a role-playing game or a complex board game. I think there is a lot of creativity in that industry right now. That would be my preference for an adaptation.
Finally, if someone really enjoys Soleri, what would you recommend they read while waiting for the second book to come out, and why that?
If you want to read historical fiction, Bernard Cornwell is great, as is Robert Harris. I loved his history of Cicero [Imperium, Lustrum, and Dictator]. If you are stuck on epic fantasy, try N.K. Jemisin. The Fifth Season is amazing. Like Soleri, it breaks out of the traditional, medieval English mold. Ken Liu’s The Grace Of Kings is also quite original.