1: What is the most productive time of the day for you to write?
I’ve almost always written better in the mornings. Since we’ve been living in this fishing village in southern Spain, we’ve adapted to the local rhythms: shops generally open at ten, close for 3 hours at 2 p.m. for the day’s main meal, and re-open at 5 p.m. until 9. So my routine now is to get my exercises and breakfast over early enough to begin writing at 10 and keep going until “lunch” (it’s really more like dinner) at 2. Then everything else (shopping, bills, gatherings with friends, etc.) is for for the afternoons and evenings.
2: Do you start your projects writing with paper and pen or is it all on the computer?
I like to work out my ideas with pen and paper in a notebook, and keep an index on the back pages so that later I can see what I’d written about characters, or plot turns and so on. When working on the computer, I usually have several files. For my latest novel, set during a siege and famous battle in Constantinople and Anatolia in 1402, I had one file with a list of all the characters and a brief description of each; another with the timeline so I could make sure that the timing of fictional events coordinated with actual historical events; other files with relevant background information (weaponry of the epoch, facts about Constantinople, special religious days for both Orthodox Christians and Muslims, etc.); and of course the file where I was developing the story itself.
3: What do you draw inspiration from?
Everywhere, everything around me, from personal encounters or things I’ve witnessed to world news to readings of fiction and nonfiction. For the latest novel, A Gift for the Sultan, my main inspirations were: First, the brutal 1990s siege of Sarajevo, a cosmopolitan but majority Muslim city, by anti-urban Christian Orthodox Serbs; second, the complexity of cultural exchanges in Istanbul and other parts of Turkey, which I saw during my first visit to the country in 1997; and third, readings of the history of that region, where I found disquieting parallels to contemporary conflicts, particularly the terrible struggles that great cities have had to wage (New York under attack in 2011, Sarajevo in the 1990s, Constantinople for several centuries) to survive against those who hate and fear their open, metropolitan character and want to destroy them. The 1402 siege of Constantinople seemed a perfect metaphor. Then, when I was already well along on the book, I discovered Ismail Kadaré’s novel The Siege where he treats a similar case, the Ottoman siege of (in his novel) a fictitious city in Albania, which simply confirmed me in what I was doing.
4: Do you set goals for yourself when you sit down to write such as word count?
I have a vague idea of the minimum word count I should produce once I get going on the story, which varies at different moments in the work, because sometimes writing a few words well is more difficult than writing many that are more or less adequate. At the very beginning, when I’m just sketching out the ideas with pen and paper, quantitave measures are not relevant — my goal is to find an idea strong enough to hold my attention and impel the writing. Thereafter, I’ll hope to produce anywhere from 500 to 1000 words per 4-hour work session.
5: Are you a published or a self published author and how do you come up with your cover art?
I have been published by HarperCollins (2 books), the University of Arizona Press (one book, now in its fourth printing), Barnes & Noble, and smaller publishers, and have had short works (stories and articles) in many publications. The new novel, A Gift for the Sultan, I published myself (CreateSpace) after trying and failing to get a literary agent to take it on. Now a major publisher in Turkey wants to publish it in translation, so it will soon be both self-published (in English) and commercially published (in Turkish). For the cover art, I paid CreateSpace for design, but the illustration is one that my wife (an architect with a very good design senes) and I found in a Wikipedia article; we worked carefully with the CreateSpace designer until we got it right.
6: What drives you to choose the career of being a writer?
Curiosity, mainly. I write to learn, to understand something better. The old advice, “Write what you know,” has always seemed to me terribly boring. Why would anyone want to do that? I write to discover new experiences. I wrote Hispanic Nation (the U. of Arizona Press book now in its 4th printing) because I wanted to discover what was happening with the growing Latino minority in the US. I wrote A Gift for the Sultan because I wanted to understand how a Muslim warrior or a besieged urbanite, then or now, imagined the world.
The other motive, besides curiosity, is the almost universal desire to call attention to oneself, to do something that others can admire. Or as Gabriel García Márquez likes to say, “ I write so that my friends will love me more.”
7: Do you own an ebook reading device?
Yes, my wife bought me a Kindle as a reward for finishing my novel. I love it! Though I still read mostly books in print.
8: Who are some of your favorite authors and What are you reading now?
I’ve just discovered a major Turkish novelist, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar (1901-1962) and am reading his beautifully written A Mind at Peace. Other than that, I’ve mainly been reading Spanish authors lately, and am particularly impressed by Manuel Rivas and Antonio Muñoz Molina.
9: What do you think of book trailers and do you have any plans to have any?
I don’t know whether they are effective and no, I haven’t planned to make one, but I haven’t discarded the idea either. I’ve posted a video on YouTube and on my Amazon author page where I explain how and why I wrote A Gift for the Sultan, and I think that does the same kind of job as a trailer.
10: How did you come up with the title of your latest book?
I don’t really remember, but it was almost immediate — the title”A Gift for the Sultan” came to me at the same time as the central idea of the novel, when I discovered that in 1402 the ruler of Constantinople was prepared to “give away” the city to the sultan who was besieging it.
11: What are you working on now that you can talk about?
I have ideas for two more novels that really excite me, but I don’t want to say more until I start writing. However I must first complete a nonfiction book that is under contract (to W. W. Norton publishers), a history of architecture and urbanism in Latin America. That will probably take me this entire year, so all I can do on either of the two novel ideas is jot down some quick notes.