Soleri, a new fantasy novel by Michael Johnston and published by Tor Books, features a kingdom torn apart by war, complex characters who are ambitious, ruthless, and rebellious, and mysteries upon mysteries. Every time the reader thinks he has an answer, he is drawn deeper into a multi-faceted and twisting version of the truth. The book traces its roots to Johnston's fascination with art history, ancient rites and mythology, and a bit of King Lear, yet is unique and original. Author Lev Grossman calls it, "bloody and utterly epic. A huge saga in a rich and deeply original world." Readers will truly be swept away into the Soleri Empire.
I had the opportunity to interview author Michael Johnston, to talk about the fascinating world he's created. Please welcome him to the blog!
Melanie R. Meadors: New York Time Bestselling author Cinda Williams Chima has commented that your new book Soleri is built around “an immersive world with elements of Egyptian and Roman history, myth, and religion.” Did you find it difficult to separate fact from fiction, meaning, did you ever find it hard to keep the world and story your own, rather than relying too heavily on history? How did you keep a good balance between history and fantasy?
Michael Johnston: Many of the ideas in Soleri sprouted from history. It was the seed. But such things are tender and easy to mold. I let history inspire me, but as soon as I start typing I completely let go of the history books. Remember, I don’t write historical fiction. This is a unique fantasy world that takes many of its cues from our own world but I’m not bound by the history I study. I read and research so I can produce an accurate world, one that resonates with the reader and feels real. But Soleri also has a bit of magic in it. I wanted the work to be infused with the inexplicable or some sense of the unknown. I love a strong sense of mystery, so I tried to make a world that was packed with mysteries, with secrets, and ancients of unknowable origin.
MRM: What are some books or authors that inspired you while growing up, and do these books still resonate with you today? Do you find that you write books that are similar to those you enjoy reading?
MJ: Dune was the first book I loved and re-read. And there is a lot of it in Soleri. They are both stories about family, about a father who is offered great power only to have it turned against him. For me, Dune feels like epic fantasy. There is a sense of magic, or at least the inexplicable, in the book (the spice), but its treated in a very realistic fashion. I tried a bit of that in Soleri. The magic is subtle, realistic, and always elusive.
MRM: What was something that really inspired you while your were writing Soleri, either something from your research, or some element of your story that perhaps gave you a “Eureka!” moment?
MJ: I’ve written about this in a couple different essays so I wont linger on the topic. My idea, the big one that really made Soleri unique, arrived in an art history lecture I attended as an undergraduate. The speaker was talking about Egypt and its history and they described a civilization that was so ancient that it could not conceive of its demise. Egypt had always existed and it always would exist. They were wrong ultimately, but they had a good run. Three thousand years in nothing to shrug at. The idea fascinated me. It stuck with me. The eternal civilization. In Soleri we meet that civilization, the one that has forgotten its origins, the one that is so old that its people can’t conceive of their own demise.
MRM: You used to be an architect. What made you switch over to writing, especially writing full time? Was it a scary decision for you? What has your family’s reaction to your career change been like?
MJ: Well, my wife is also and author so she was very encouraging and helped me throughout the process. It took a long time for me to transform myself from author to architect. For almost a decade I worked on novels (unpublished) while I was still an architect. It was a slow transition, and it times it was pretty painful. Switching careers is no small task and in retrospect it was a lot more work than I’d initially guessed.
MRM: What is the best writing advice you’ve ever been given?
MJ: Read and do it as often as possible and when you are not reading write as often as possible. Both are practice. Reading trains the ear and writing let’s us hone our craft.
On a completely separate note, I really believe in the “tip of the iceberg” theory of world building. We build vast worlds for our readers, but we only reveal knowledge selectively, as needed and where needed. The rest, even though we’ve labored hours to create it, is left to the imagination. They only glimpse at the depths we’ve created.
MRM: You use a lot of wonderful imagery in your work. “His intestines slithered out like a nest of snakes…” “…anger that congealed like sour milk in her stomach…” and even what would be mundane descriptions come to life in the reader’s imagination with the words you use. Things are very active in this book. Does this come naturally to you, or is it something you’ve honed with practice?
MJ: Writing is a skill a learned through practice, that I am still learning, and perhaps will always be learning. I wish the work came easily to me, but I work hard at it. I’m the guy who stays up until midnight on the keyboard.
MRM: What do you find to be the most difficult part of creating a story? What do you find to be the most rewarding?
MJ: The job is both the challenge and the reward. And depending on the quality of my work that day it can be either. It’s a joy to sit down write each day. I love it, but when the work isn’t coming together, when I know there is something wrong with the story but I can’t quite identify it, the work becomes a burden, a challenge, and possibly a source of outright frustration.
MRM: What do you do when you are not writing?
MJ: I am trained as an architect. And I still like to make things. I have a cnc mill and a 3d printer so I am always designing and digitally fabricating all sorts of interesting things. I read a lot and I love audio books. I never drive unless a book is playing on my car stereo. I also collect art and occasionally watch television. The Last Kingdom was amazing and I hope Netflix makes a third season.
MRM: Thanks again, congratulations on your new release, and best of luck to you!
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 and daughter. Visit http://michaeljohnstonauthor.com/ or follow him on Twitter: @mjohnstonauthor
Melanie R. Meadors is an author of fantasy where heroes don't always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She has edited two upcoming genre anthologies, MECH: Age of Steel and HATH NO FURY, and is the science and pop culture blogger at The Once and Future Podcast. You can find her at her website, melaniermeadors.com, on Facebook, and Twitter, @melaniermeadors.