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[INTERVIEW] Michael Livingston on His Secret Historical Fantasy THE SHARDS OF HEAVEN

Author-Photo-Livingston-400x500A native of Colorado, Michael Livingston holds degrees in History, Medieval Studies, and English. He lives today in Charleston, South Carolina, where he teaches at The Citadel.

In his author life, he is a winner of the prestigious international Writers of the Future Contest (in 2005), and his novel The Shards of Heaven, the first in a trilogy of historical fantasies, will be published by Tor Books in November 2015. He has also published in a variety of other genres and venues, from a historical retelling of Beowulf to a brief story about quantum physics in the world-renowned journal of science, Nature.

In his academic life, he has published more than a dozen articles on subjects as varied as early Christianity, Beowulf, Chaucer, James Joyce, J.R.R. Tolkien, and digital and practical pedagogies (though never all of them at once!). He has investigated European maps of America that pre-date Columbus, found unrecorded Anasazi ruins and artifacts, and written about the handwriting of fourteenth-century scribes. He is the general editor of the Liverpool Historical Casebooks Series, for which he has edited casebooks on The Battle of Brunanburh (Exeter, 2011), the Welsh rebel hero Owain Glyndwr (co-edited with John Bollard; Liverpool, 2013), and The Battle of Crécy (co-edited with Kelly DeVries; Liverpool, 2015).

He kindly sat down for some questions about his debut, The Shards of Heaven

::inside, fanboy screaming:: Aaaaaaaah! I’m on SF Signal!
::outside, looking professorial:: Thanks for having me, SF Signal. I’m thrilled to be here.

Paul Weimer: For those readers unfamiliar with you, who is Michael Livingston?

Michael Livingston: I’d say that by day I’m a mild-mannered professor of medieval culture at The Citadel, but since I regularly bring medieval weapons to class and/or jump about on the desks and tables … my students know that I’m anything but mild-mannered. But I do study things like Beowulf and battles (good at parties), and I know a few dead languages as a result (not so good at parties). My most recent academic book, a study of the Battle of Crécy, came out at the end of September. I’ve also published on subjects as varied as early Christianity, Chaucer, James Joyce, J.R.R. Tolkien, and digital and practical pedagogies (though never all of them at once!). I’ve investigated European maps of America that pre-date Columbus, found unrecorded Anasazi ruins and artifacts, and written about the handwriting of fourteenth-century scribes.

Now, with the release of The Shards of Heaven, the first in a trilogy of historical fantasies published by Tor Books, I get to add “novel writer” to that list, which pretty much trumps it all.

Outside of all that writing business, I love to read, watch movies, go fly-fishing, and travel.

PW: You have a strong academic background and several non fiction books out. Why make the jump to fiction?

ML: I think a great many academics are closet fiction writers — perhaps most especially in the humanities, which is where I do my professorial work. So I’d been writing stories — and a bottom-drawer novel or two — for a long time before a couple of friends in graduate school read some of my tales and told me I should try publishing them. That led to my first big break in 2005 when I won the Writers of the Future contest (for my Science Fiction short story “The Keeper Alone”) and managed to get a story published in Black Gate Magazine (my Historical Fantasy retelling of Beowulf, “The Hand That Binds”).

It’s taken ten years to get from that point to having Tor publish my novel The Shards of Heaven, and as you note I’ve published a lot of academic stuff during that time. But I never really stopped writing fiction. Shards was written years ago, and I continued to publish the occasional short story.

More than that, though, I came to view my non-fiction work as simply another way of honing my craft as a writer. It doesn’t matter if I’m telling the dystopian tale of the last speaker of a Native American language (as I did in this summer’s short story “At the End of Babel” on or I’m explaining what happened when the sixteen-year-old future King Henry V was struck in the face by an arrow at the Battle of Shrewsbury (as I do in an article being published later this year) — either way I’m telling a story. I’m trying to convey meaning and a scene. I’m trying to have an impact on the reader’s perspectives.

PW: And in making the jump to fiction, why fantasy?

ML: I grew up reading Fantasy. From J.R.R. Tolkien back then to George R.R. Martin today, I have been continuously captivated by the power and the possibility of the human imagination and what it can teach us about ourselves. As I said in a speech posthumously inducting Robert Jordan into the South Carolina Academy of Authors, it is the power of a great Fantasy work that it can serve as “a vision that cuts to the heart of our cultural, political, and religious worldviews: it is not in the mirror, after all, that we see the truth of ourselves; it is in the eyes of strangers in unfamiliar lands.”

I believe that. I think it’s the reason that our greatest works of literature are Fantasies: from Homer to Shakespeare. And I wanted to see what I could do with it.

Paul: The breadth of Rome, from Romulus and Remus to Romulus Augustus and Odoacer and beyond is a long one with many possibilities for fiction. Why set your story during the Octavian-Mark Antony conflict?

ML: As a series, the Shards of Heaven trilogy is about resolving a hidden “truth” behind the mythologies of our world, and the threads that I needed for this all come together in a fierce knot during the first century before the Common Era. So that’s where the story needed to be.

That fact aside, however, I know of few moments of higher historical drama, with more fascinating characters of rich complexity, than the end of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Augustus Caesar, Caesarion, Juba II, Cleopatra Selene … any one of these alone would be enough to fascinate a lifetime. Placed on a single stage, they are an incredible cast for a writer.

Also, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it’s pretty amazing to get to reimagine the Battle of Actium — this time with the Trident of Poseidon at hand!

PW: What sort of sources did you dive into to bring the time period to vivid detail and life? What can you recommend to non-scholarly readers?

ML: I was trained as a historian, and I brought that mindset to bear as much as possible during the writing of the book. I wanted to get it right, and that meant reading a great many articles and studies that might bring most folk to tears: from scholarly arguments about the construction of Roman triremes to countless ancient descriptions of places like the Great Lighthouse or the Tomb of Alexander the Great.

There are also some terrific general history books out there, though. For someone interested in the period, for instance, I’d highly recommend Adrian Goldsworthy’s Augustus: First Emperor of Rome. It came out too late to be a part of my research for Shards, but it’s an excellent place to start.

PW: The novel feels more like a secret historical fiction fantasy than an alternate history? Did you intend to hew close to real events?

ML: A secret historical fiction fantasy is an excellent description! Get that on the paperback, Tor!

I did indeed work hard to hew close to real events. As I said in presenting the book to the publisher, The Shards of Heaven is intended to fall in the gray area between legend and history. I’ve worked hard to create an epic that doesn’t change the facts of history as we know them, while presenting a hidden story that casts those facts in a very different light. So it isn’t alternate history: if the story of the Shards was real, what most of us think we know of our world wouldn’t actually be any different. It’s a book written between the lines of history.

As a work of fiction, then, The Shards of Heaven might as a result be simultaneously too fantastical for a pure historicist and too historical for a pure fantasist, but I truly think there’s a wide audience of people like me, who will really enjoy a fast-paced adventure with a foot firmly in both of those worlds.

PW: You’ve a number of famous historical characters appear in the book. How did you approach writing characters like Octavian and Cleopatra?

ML: With relish. (But hold the mayo.)

Almost every character in the novel is historical, and certainly that meant doing a lot of advance research to portray them as accurately as possible, down to the color of their eyes if I could manage it.

From that point, it was often a matter of letting them be, well, them. As I said earlier, these characters are just utterly fascinating on their own. Even after more than 2,000 years, what they did and who they were feels completely and complexedly real. People like Octavian and Cleopatra come down to us as living, breathing people. When that happens, you really only need to set them in a room and let them go. There were a lot of scenes that were difficult to write in this novel, for instance, but describing Cleopatra as she takes charge of Mark Antony’s staff quarters on the eve of one of the greatest naval battles in history was not one of them. Once you begin to understand this extraordinary woman who held the love of first Julius Caesar and then Mark Antony — two of the most powerful men in the world — well, she pretty much writes the scene herself!

PW: For viewers of the TV series Rome, they will be surprised to see Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo appear in the narrative (even though they are in Ceasar’s Gallic Wars and have appeared in other fiction too). How did you make your take on them unique and your own?

ML: The Shards of Heaven pre-exists my viewing of the HBO series Rome, so keeping them separate wasn’t a problem in the composition of the novel. There are definitely similarities, but they really follow very different paths. Both plots, for instance, place Caesar’s two legionnaires in Alexandria as the city falls to Rome, but in Shards they are both on Antony’s side (HBO has them on different sides) and they’re dealing with an entirely unique problem in fighting to save a great artifact (read to find out which one!) from the clutches of Rome.

All that said, after watching HBO’s series on the advice of a student, I went back and wrote a few details into my characterizations of Pullo and Vorenus so that they would better match the portrayals of them by the actors Ray Stevenson and Kevin McKidd. It had become impossible for me to think of my Pullo and Vorenus without picturing their faces, so I figured I’d help Hollywood out with the eventual movie by giving those actors the inside-track on casting.

Your move, Spielberg!

PW: What’s next for you, fiction and non fiction alike?

ML: In fiction, I’m busy polishing off The Temples of the Ark, which is the second book in the Shards of Heaven series. That’s due out in a year. My next big non-fiction project is a textbook on the subject of war in the Middle Ages, which should be great fun.

There are some other projects, too, but those books should keep me out of trouble until 2017.

PW: Where can readers learn more about you and your work?

ML: The central clearinghouse for all things me is my website: I’m on Facebook, and I’m on Twitter as @medievalguy if you want an odd mix of the medieval and fantastic worlds.

Thanks again for having me, SF Signal. Great questions.

And happy reading, everybody!

Thank you, Michael!

About Paul Weimer (366 Articles)
Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to SF Signal, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, Skiffy and Fanty, SFF Audio, Twitter, and many other places on the Internet!
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