Monday, June 19, 2017

Interview with Michael Johnston, author of Soleri

Please welcome Michael Johnston to The Qwillery as part of the of the 2017 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Soleri, Michael's solo debut, was published on June 13th by Tor Books. You may read a Guest Blog by Michael - My Inspiration for Soleri - here.

The QwilleryWelcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?

Michael Johnston:  I started writing when my wife and I moved to Los Angeles in 2003. Soleri is my first solo novel and my first novel for adults, so it’s obviously been a long journey. Fourteen years. Luckily I’m a patient fellow, which probably comes out of my training as an architect. I don’t like to put something out there unless I think it’s my best work.

TQAre you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?

MJ:  As someone trained in architecture, one would probably expect me to be the ultimate plotter but I think everyone is a hybrid. I write very detailed outlines. The outline version of Soleri was about two hundred pages and I worked on it for a long time. I think the writing of an outline is, in and of itself, a great exercise. It’s a place for the writer to work out their ideas, build their world, and decide their character’s fates. But when I start writing I generally throw the outline out the window or maybe just half way out of it. I need the freedom to improvise. I like to make changes and edit. So I don’t let the outline rule the work. I like to surprise myself.

TQ:  What has influenced / influences your writing?

MJ:  My education as an architect obviously had a huge influence on my work. I also read a lot of history. People are brutal creatures and there is nothing in any novel that is half as violent as there is in our own past. Humans are devious creatures and they’re far more vicious than any dragon.

TQSoleri is your first solo novel and your first novel for adults. How was your writing process different for Soleri than for your prior novels?

MJ:  For me, Soleri is my debut. It’s the first novel that I truly owned, where every decision in the final draft was made by me. It’s also a project that took many years to complete so it’s very special for me. Because I took such an extended period of time to write the book, the process was a little messy. I started with an outline, but the book really took on a life of its own and in the end I had to toss out most of what was in the outline and the first draft. Soleri came alive through writing and rewriting.

In the past I’ve collaborated with my wife. For years we worked together and helped edit each other’s work, so it was a natural part of that progression for us to co-author a novel. The series we wrote was for young adults though and I think I’m more of an adult writer, so the bulk of the work on that series fell to my wife.

TQDescribe Soleri in 140 characters or less.

MJ:  It’s King Lear in Ancient Egypt.

TQTell us something about Soleri that is not found in the book description.

MJ:  Almost everything. Honestly, I’m not a big fan of jacket copy and I wrote the copy on the novel. Jacket copy is a pitch, its advertising, and it doesn’t have much to do with the real novel. None of book’s detailed execution can be found in the jacket copy, none of the careful research or slowly building plot elements can be expressed in a few short words. Soleri is a novel that you absolutely have to read from cover to cover. There are secrets in the novel, big, world-changing secrets, but you have to read every word to understand them. I’d put the entire text of the book on the jacket flap, but I’m told that would require a really, really small font.

TQThe publisher description of Soleri states that it's "...the first in a new epic fantasy series inspired by ancient Egyptian history and King Lear." Were there other inspirations for the novel? What appeals to you about writing Epic Fantasy?

MJ:  Yes, there were quite a few inspirations. Most came from actual history, as it says in the description, but the novel isn’t just about Egypt. Solus, the city of the Soleri, is modeled on Rome and as the series progresses this will become more and more apparent, especially in the second book. There is also quite a bit of architectural history in the novel. I’ve always been inspired by visionary architects, men who drew and imagined impossible structures. I’ve included a few of those buildings in Soleri. I think of them as Easter eggs. Only the astute will recognize them. Beyond history, I’m influenced by all of the great SFF authors from GRRM to Ursula K LeGuin. Earthsea is a favorite. Dune is another. I also read a lot of graphic novels. I’m a visual person, so I’m often drawn to gorgeously illustrated books, which brings me to the second half of your question.

Why epic fantasy?

I don’t think there is another genre that allows the writer to picture events on such a grand scale with complete freedom to create the rules of the world. I suppose even a space opera is bound by some need to work within or around the laws of physics. In Soleri, I can bend every element of the world to create grand events, huge moments that defy expectation and at times even logic. The genre gives me the ability to astound the reader with a world of unimaginable detail and great yet inexplicable events.

TQSince King Lear is my favorite Shakespearean play what in particular inspired you from King Lear? No spoilers please.

MJ:  I can work around the spoilers. People die in Soleri, but I won’t name names. The novel is about the end of an empire. It’s about collapse, about something vast falling apart. King Lear is about a family falling apart and in Soleri I wanted to tell the story of the fall of an empire through eyes of the people who lived in it, so I needed a family structure that would mimic that of the empire. Lear filled in that structure. Honestly though, Shakespeare is just a starting point for the novel, an inspiration but a big one. Once the story gets going the book takes on a life of its own.

TQWhat sort of research did you do for Soleri?

MJ:  I have a huge stack of books on my desk. Some belong to the history of antiquity, others are just books about castles and armor and ancient food. There are quite a few books on the history of ancient Egypt, on the construction of their buildings and temples, on the daily lives of their people. I have one book that is absolutely amazing. It describes every material, every gemstone and metal, every type of stone, every kind of cosmetic and perfume, and every sort of grain and beer that was available in ancient Egypt. I use it all the time and it never ceases to astound me. Remember, bread and beer was the Egyptian diet! It sounds great to me.

TQPlease tell us about the cover for Soleri.

MJ:  The cover is by Stephen Youll who is an amazing artist. He has this image on the splash page of his website, so check it out. I think Soleri is some of his best work. There are no spoilers here. The cover is purely metaphorical; it doesn’t depict any one moment in the book but rather the general tenor of the novel. The cover depicts Sarra, the Mother Priestess, standing before the closed doors of the great wall of Sola, something we call the Dromus in Soleri. The image is about desire, about wanting access to knowledge and power and most of all…secrets.

TQIn Soleri who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?

MJ:  Arko Hark-Wadi was my favorite and the one who is most closely modeled on my own personality. At every moment I knew what he was thinking and how he would react. He’s a tragic figure, flawed, but unwilling bend. There is great strength in the man, but he feels unable to act or assert himself. He is a complex character and I loved writing him. Kepi is also a favorite, mostly because she gets to kick a lot of ass. Sarra was probably the most challenging to execute because her personality is very different from mine, but I admire her intelligence and cunning—they are what drew me to the character and made me want to develop her story.

TQWhich question about Soleri do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!

MJ:  I enjoy questions that challenge my perception of the work, but to do that you have read the book in a very detailed way. And Soleri is truly a book that needs to be read cover to cover. One of my beta-readers asked me about the fate of a minor character, Tye, who only appears on a few pages. I’d never contemplated her destiny and the question really made me rethink the character, so I welcome any such challenge!

TQGive us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Soleri.

MJ:  Most of the really great lines give away crucial parts of the plot, but I found one that stood on its own:

Madness seems to be our only occupation in Sola, Sanity, on the other hand, is a tremendous weight.

TQWhat's next?

MJ:  Soleri is the first part of a duology. It’s a big story and there certainly is room enough for a second and possibly a third duology, but I tried to wrap up all of the main elements of this first part of the story in the second book. In truth, both books have a satisfying conclusion and I definitely wanted to write a novel that could stand on its own but still fall within a larger series. I think Soleri accomplishes that. Right now I am hard at work on finishing that second novel. Lots of bread and beer.

TQThank you for joining us at The Qwillery.

MJ:  Thank you! It’s been fun.

Tor Books, June 13, 2017
Hardcover and eBook, 368 pages

Michael Johnston brings you the first in a new epic fantasy series inspired by ancient Egyptian history and King Lear.

The ruling family of the Soleri Empire has been in power longer than even the calendars that stretch back 2,826 years. Those records tell a history of conquest and domination by a people descended from gods, older than anything in the known world. No living person has seen them for centuries, yet their grip on their four subjugate kingdoms remains tighter than ever.

On the day of the annual eclipse, the Harkan king, Arko-Hark Wadi, sets off on a hunt and shirks his duty rather than bow to the emperor. Ren, his son and heir, is a prisoner in the capital, while his daughters struggle against their own chains. Merit, the eldest, has found a way to stand against imperial law and marry the man she desires, but needs her sister’s help, and Kepi has her own ideas.

Meanwhile, Sarra Amunet, Mother Priestess of the sun god’s cult, holds the keys to the end of an empire and a past betrayal that could shatter her family.

Detailed and historical, vast in scope and intricate in conception, Soleri bristles with primal magic and unexpected violence. It is a world of ancient and elaborate rites, of unseen power and kingdoms ravaged by war, where victory comes with a price, and every truth conceals a deeper secret.

About Michael

Photo by Cathryn Farnsworth
Michael Johnston was born in Cleveland, Ohio and is a life-long avid reader of science fiction and fantasy. He studied architecture and ancient history at Lehigh University and earned a master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University. After working as an architect in New York City, he switched to writing full-time. He lives in Los Angeles, with his wife Melissa de la Cruz and daughter. Visit or follow him on Twitter: @mjohnstonauthor


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