I was so excited for another opportunity to speak to Dr. Michael Livingston. He was one of the guests at JordanCon this past April, and I was able to hear him on multiple panels. However, now that I've read his brilliant debut novel The Shards of Heaven, released November 24th, I was happy to discuss it in more detail with him.
Q: First off, you have an impressive background in history. How much did this prior knowledge help in thinking up the idea for The Shards of Heaven?
A: Very kind of you to say. You've probably heard me speak at JordanCon about how J.R.R. Tolkien created a myth behind the myths of our past, and how Robert Jordan in particular took Tolkien's project and opened it up to a wider range of world culture: the Wheel of Time is a myth made of myths past, present, and future. I've long been fascinated by these efforts, and their wondrous accomplishments have left me wondering what more there was to do. In one sense, The Shards of Heaven (especially when viewed as a series) is my answer. At its core, the story that begins in The Shards of Heaven is about creating a myth behind myths -- just like Tolkien and Jordan -- but it's a myth bounded by the very real limitations of historical places and times. I wanted to meld fantasy and history -- crazy as that sounds -- and erase the lines between them. So knowing a bit about history was a huge part of the project.
Q: When writing this fictional tale, was it easy to turn off the professor inside you? Or did you find you wanted to tell the story in a lecture format?
A: In many respects I don't see a fundamental difference between these modes. It doesn't matter whether I'm writing Shards or I'm lecturing on Tolkien's philological background or I'm writing a footnote-heavy argument about what happened at the Battle of Crécy … in the end, I am telling a story. The methods may be different, but at the heart it's the same thing.
Q: Would you suggest others who are interested in writing historically based novels to do the same sort of background research before starting?
A: I'll always be in favor of getting the history right! In addition to the pedagogical aspects of doing so, history is a goldmine of truths that are more amazing than anything we can imagine. Whenever I'm stuck in the plot of the Shards, for instance, I just do some research on the period or place and almost inevitably I find something extraordinary to push the narrative forward. There's an extraordinary example of this that I could give you from Book 2, but what it is you'll have to read and find out! :)
Q: As I read the novel, I was constantly tempted to look online about characters, places, and events. I refrained -- because I didn't want to be spoiled. Do you recommend readers have an understanding of that time and the events that historically transpired?
A: If I did my work well, it doesn't matter. Hopefully, even if you know the result of the Battle of Actium, for instance, what I've done with it will still be surprising and interesting. In fact, the more you know about the subject, the more you'll see the many little "Easter eggs" that I've woven into the book. For those who don't know the history, on the other hand, I hope they are so moved by my tale that they decide to find out a little more about the "truth" behind the story.
So, really, my recommendation is just that folks buy the book. Not that I'm, you know, biased or anything AT ALL.
Q: Your characters, though based on historical figures, were deeply believable. How did you get the ideas of such foreign cultures imbedded into them?
A: Please excuse me while I happy dance in the most professorial way possible.
Okay. It's cool now. Thank you for saying that. Capturing these characters was important to me, because so many of them were truly remarkable human beings. And frankly that's really the best answer I can give to your question. These were amazing people, and just giving them space to be who they were drove most of my characterization.
Q: Since much of history is lost or debatable, how did you decide how much to keep and how much to push into the realm of fantasy?
A: I tend to just trust my instinct: would I think this would be too far? If it is, I dial back. My colleagues in history know that I am more than willing to push the envelope, but that I always do so with my feet firmly grounded in defendable reality. That's essentially what I do in Shards.
Q: Along those same lines, do you plan to evolve your series as it continues, perhaps making it into an alternate history? Or do you want to keep it into something that could have happened in our past?
A: It is very much my intention to continue to toe that line between fantasy and history throughout the series. That said, you can certainly expect future volumes to move in some unexpected and rather remarkable directions. In Book 2, for instance, we learn that these characters have only just begun to understand the fantastical powers of the Shards. The artifacts are capable of so much more than they know.
Q: Juba may have been my favorite character. I liked that he was driven by revenge, but still seemed to be a good guy. He seems almost naive in his desire to avenge his father. Is there a chance he'll be able to find redemption? Or is it more likely he'll be consumed and corrupted by power?
A: Team Juba! We should start a hashtag war with the Team Caesarion crowd. Or the Team Selene folks. And the gods help anyone on Team Octavian!
Anyway, as for your question, I'd say that's exactly what I want of Juba: in Book 1 he's a good guy doing bad things for good reasons with bad results. As for his future, I'll say that I won't mess with the major facts of history, but that there's a lot of room between the lines in the textbooks. And power, while always tempting, is always corrupting.
Q: Cleopatra is a person who has been immortalized in film, television, books. How did you put your own stamp on her, turning her into a character of your own? It seems like that would be intimidating.
A: Cleopatra must have been a remarkable woman. She seduced two of the most powerful men of her age. She's powerful, brilliant, and oh so very dangerous … I would have loved to meet her!
And indeed that's pretty much the answer to your question: by the time I was writing the book I felt that she was someone who I could set on stage and know exactly how she would act.
Q: After this series is finished, do you have other plans to work in the historical fantasy genre?
A: That will be up to the readers! Tor Books bought a trilogy, and that actually represents the backstory to a much bigger epic: if sales are good, I imagine that will be the next thing up. Otherwise, I'll turn to the "traditional" epic fantasy that was nearing completion when The Shards of Heaven sold: that's a multi-volume secondary-world epic that my beta readers have said is the best thing I've ever done.
Q: Thank you so much for your time, Dr. Livingston! I really enjoyed this novel and I'm anxiously awaiting its sequel.
A: Thank you so much for having me, and for asking such delightful questions! And I cannot forego the opportunity to pass along my thanks to the entirety of the Wheel of Time community for welcoming me so so warmly.
The Wheel turns, my friends.
(Richard Fife, Michael Livingston, Saladin Ahmed at JordanCon 2015)
The Shards of Heaven can be purchased in Dragonmount's eBook store. For more information on Dr. Livingston, please check out his website (www.michaellivingston.com) or follow him on Twitter (@medievalguy).
If you're interested in winning a free copy of The Shards of Heaven, Tor has donated one to give away to a Dragonmount reader! Comment below and one winner will be randomly selected on December 8th, 2015. Only residents of the US and Canada are eligible for the free copy.