Tuesday, 30 August 2011

This week's guest blogger

My guest blogger this week is Geoffrey Fox. He is the author of A Gift for The Sultan
   Anyone listening to my rambling will know that I live for Sci Fi, yet despite the absolute lack of laser toting aliens I was immersed within the first few pages.
   A gift For The Sultan is a part historical and part mythical account of the siege of Constantinople in 1402. A wide variety of engaging characters make this a novel which is difficult to put down. From mythical creatures to real characters and villains all seamlessly  interwoven with a fluid writing style that I both envied and enjoyed.
   Here are some questions I put to Geoffrey:

A Gift For The Sultan is a remarkably detailed book. How long did it take to write, or re-write the point where you felt safe to publish?
It took a very long time, from 1997 — when the idea first came to me on a visit to Istanbul — and 2010, when I finally published it. There were two huge difficulties to overcome: First, except for my chance discovery of the incident that triggers the story, I knew almost nothing about Constantinople, the Ottomans or their history when I started. The second was "getting the words right," as Hemingway put it, and even more than that, getting the complex narrative to come together coherently. I put it aside several times for long periods, writing unrelated short stories, articles and op eds. But I couldn't get it out of my mind, and I knew I had to overcome the challenge to make it come out right.

There is an intricate mixture of mythical and historical. Was it difficult to keep the two separate? And what were your sources for both?
The mythical parts are also historical, that is, those myths really existed and still exist. The story of the simurgh, the four-winged giant magical bird, would have been alive in the minds of characters such as I describe, and the simurgh and the dervish who turns himself into a dove and the Christian archangels performing other magic all gave me ways to describe events from a point of view far beyond that of any individual character. As for sources, I read everything I could find that might be relevant: history, sociology, legends. Fortunately, almost all the chronicles and legends have been translated into English or French, and one essential source is in Spanish (which I also read easily) — a sort of travelogue by a Castilian knight who was sent to negotiate with Timur and passed through Constantinople on his way.

When the idea came to me in 1997, I had just finished a book on Latinos in the United States and was ready for something completely different. The terrible siege of Sarajevo, a majority Muslim city, by an army of Serbian Orthodox Christians opposed not just to its religion but also to is cosmopolitan character, had recently ended. My wife and I made a visit to Istanbul — as a kind of reward for finishing that book on Latinos — and it struck me that that city (back when it was Constantinople) had a history of similar sieges, but with the parties reversed: Orthodox Christian urbanite defenders against anti-urban Muslims. I had written other books about roughly similar cultural conflicts, but in Latin America. The 1402 siege of Constantinople seemed a perfect way to explore such conflicts.
There are numerous characters in the novel. How hard was it to remain faithful to their perceived characteristics and not insert some of your own?
But I did insert my own characters. The Emperor Manuel II Palaeologos really did have bastard children, but not the little princess I invented. The gazi Arslanshahin and his band and his womenfolk are also inventions, though based on real types. The same goes for the Varangians, the Frankish knight, the Armenian merchant and most of the others. One total invention is the street gang of young toughs calling themselves "the Blues" — I'm a sociologist, and from what I know of cities, I'm sure that something like that gang must have existed.

Apart from the fantasy part of the novel how difficult was it to stick to the known facts and not simply let your imagination take charge?
The known facts gave me the framework, including the time-frame (from the lifting of the siege of Constantinople to the battle of Ankara). I was careful not to invent anything that could not have happened. But that still gave me a lot of room for my imagination: Yes, there really were gazis, Varangians, etc., but what were they like as individuals? And what might a fierce gazi's mother say to him if she suspected him of dishonorable conduct? I made up lots of stuff, but it all had to be at least possible given the traditions of the various peoples involved and so on.
You wrote somewhere that you are going to get this translated into another language. You must trust the person a great deal because so much could be lost if it were to be done badly.
What happened was that my wife and I re-visited Istanbul in January of this year, and a Turkish friend whom I'd met by e-mail got enthusiastic and arranged a reading for me before a club of English-speaking Turkish college graduates. I sent the club president the PDF of the novel and asked her to make it available to any interested members, and when I got there, most of them had read it. Among them was a professional translator and writer who asked my permission to present the book to his publisher. But of course I agreed! Especially since he has done many books for that publisher and in all our correspondence has been a very competent professional. The Turkish publisher (Nokta Kitap) purchased the translation rights and will be bringing it out late October to present it in November at a big international book fair in Istanbul. My wife and I plan to be there (so I'm now practicing to be able to communicate in at least basic Turkish).
What will be the subject of your next novel?
It will be another big, real event where the characters have to face complex decisions. I know what it will be, but I don't want to jinx it by talking about it — it's still too raw and vulnerable. It won't be Constantinople and it won't by 600 years ago.

I think of my fiction as sociological rather than historical — I'm not interested in just illustrating something that happened, but in testing our perceptions of how actors in different social positions respond to crises. But before I get into that, I'm committed to writing a set of loosely related short stories, which I'll do in Spanish. This is so my many friends here in Spain can get an idea of what I do and how I think.

    I would like to thank Geoffrey for his time and wish him well for a beautifully written novel that deserves to, and assuredly will do very well.

It can be found at:




  1. Great interview. I loved reading how he developed this and the difficulty in writing it. It sure sounds like a great read.

  2. 30% is free on smashwords. Have a look.

  3. Thanks, Roger, for your review and rating. And thanks too to DM for her comment.