Michael Livingston, The Gates of Hell, and Writing Secret Historical Fantasy

livingstonAn award-winning writer and professor, Michael Livingston holds degrees in history, medieval studies, and English. He teaches at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. He has also added a pair of fantasy novels to that impressive C.V.: last year’s The Shards of Heaven and the just-released sequel, The Gates of Hell. We recently got a chance to talk to Michael about secret histories, name changes, and the challenges of writing the second novel in a series.

For those readers not familiar with you, could you please introduce yourself?
For those who don’t know me, in my day-job I’m a professor of medieval matters at The Citadel, where among other things I do a lot of research on the military history of the Middle Ages. In my spare time, though, I write fiction. My first novel came out last year from Tor Books: The Shards of Heaven, a historical fantasy set against the war between the future Caesar Augustus and the famed lovers Mark Antony and Cleopatra. And now here we are with its sequel, The Gates of Hell—an amazing journey!

So. Second book in the series! For some that’s the hardest. What were your challenges in writing the book? What did you learn from writing The Shards of Heaven in tackling the second volume? What are you carrying forward to the next book?
Writing a second book in the series presented quite a few challenges, for sure. At a really basic level there’s the issue of how to get new readers up to speed on everything that happened in Shards without boring my many fans who read and loved that book. It’s a really fine line to walk. 

Beyond that, though, there’s the challenge of timing. I wrote Shards over the course of years in no hurry at all. With Gates I had about four months. That was a tremendous challenge, but I learned a lot about making the muse work for me, which was a mighty useful thing not only for this book but for the coming book three — and hopefully many more books to come!

 Back when we last spoke, the name of The Gates of Hell was The Temples of the Ark. Why the name change?
Yeah, so that’s a funny thing. When Tor offered me a three-book contract I had only written Shards, but they needed titles for all three books for the contract. I knew the basic gist of my plot — a necessity given how densely woven the plots are with history and with each other — but I hadn’t thought through titles. So I made up some place-holder titles: for book 2, that place-holder was “The Temples of the Ark.” I discarded that title on my end pretty early, but the decision didn’t quite percolate through the systems at Tor, with the result that my turned-in manuscript said Gates but the first edition of Shards said “Temples” and for a time I myself didn’t know which it would be. 

Anyway, this spring I decided to resolve the confusion (or perhaps contribute to it!) by writing a short ebook entitled “The Temples of the Ark,” which is a prequel to Shards that features part of the backstory of Alexander the Great and the founding of Alexandria. Since that story came out afterwards — it’s available now for you ereaders out there — “Temples” sorta follows Shards just like that first edition of that book says — even if Gates is really the sequel novel. 

While Marc Antony and Cleopatra are at least vaguely familiar to most readers, Augustus’ campaigns in Spain are really known only by Roman historical enthusiasts. What prompted you to use that part of Roman history to continue the story of the shards? How do you handle historical figures that aren’t that well known?
So much of the Shards series is about filling in the gaps of history, giving an explanation of events where our sources fall short. This is true across the whole trilogy, which has been a blast as the story moves through time and across the ancient world: book three, for instance, finds the story in Jerusalem and Petra, among other places, which was tremendously exciting. 

Anyway, when I’m doing my research I’m looking for those intriguing gaps, and among them is just what’s going on in Spain during those campaigns. We know that Augustus became very ill during that campaign, for instance. But what was the illness? We know the legend of the outlaw Corocotta. But how did that really happen? And while archaeology appears to have revealed the probable whereabouts of the siege of Vellica, it also has given us questions — like why so much battle seems to have taken place outside the town’s walls. I’m honestly addicted to those kinds of puzzles as a historian, and the Shards series gives me the opportunity to have a lot of fun with making up possible solutions.

As for the characters, I obviously do everything I can to build from our primary sources. Where those fail, I try to triangulate from any other historical contexts we have at hand. And barring that … well, I just do what I think would be best for the book.

The characterization of characters feels to me evolved and grown since the first novel. Augustus, for example, feels much less like a villain as he came across to me in Shards of Heaven. How did you find growing and evolving the characters over the time between the first and second novel in the time frame of the book, and in the real time in writing the book.
I’m really glad to hear that it felt that way, because I absolutely intended for them to evolve — a process you will see continue in book three. Part of that is because I think a lot of fantasy writers in particular invite their readers to jump into a “good versus evil” dichotomy in their plots, and I wanted to push against that as the plots unfolded over time. Hardly anyone in history is truly evil, after all: relative to their own perspectives, most villains see themselves as heroes. In addition, Augustus in particular was a truly complex figure who very much grew into his own sense of self upon the world stage. I wanted to reflect that as best I could within the confines of my adventure plot.

Writing secret historical fictional fantasy is a tough high wire act to keep up. How do you balance the secret historical background with the real history?
So does that mean you think I pull it off? (Laughs.)

Honestly, navigating the path between the immutable signposts of history and the action-packed plot that I’ve built out of mythology has been both a joy and a headache. On the one hand, history can be a magnificent source of inspiration. The story of Corocotta welded so perfectly with my plots that at times I half-wondered if my fantasy was rediscovering a lost history. On the other hand, history could also get in my way: no matter how much I love a certain character, his or her fate is sealed by those same inspiring histories. 

In the end, I think it’s a wash. All writing is hard, and I wouldn’t dare to say that what I do is any more of a difficult act than anything else in the novel-writing circus. It’s just different.

What was your favorite real thing you just had to have in the book?
I’ve got such a great answer for this for book three, but it contains spoilers! 

That said, Gates also has some great historical Easter eggs for folks who do the research. My favorite is probably an artifact called the Meroë Head of Augustus, in the collection of the British Museum. It’s the bronze head of a statue of the Caesar, excavated in 1910 from beneath the steps of a Kushite temple in Meroë – far up the Nile beyond the borders of Rome. It’s an absolutely stunning artifact, and how it got to be buried in Meroë was something I enjoyed incorporating into the book. There are a lot of these little tidbits in the books, explaining artifacts, legends, and even features of the earth. 

It’s certainly not necessary to know all the real stuff I’ve used to build the novels, but having it all in there gives the series an extra dimension and texture for those who can see it.

So what’s next? What convention appearances do you have coming up? How fares book three?
 I am very pleased to report that book three, which is entitled The Realms of God, is complete and in Tor’s hands. Expected release is this time next year. 

With the Shards trilogy complete, I’ll be moving on to the next project, which may well be an epic set in a rich and dynamic fantasy world that I’ve constructed over the years. I have a few other irons in the fire, though, so we’ll just have to see where things stand when the dust settles.

As for conventions, I will be at JordanCon this year, and hopefully I’ll be making it to DragonCon and a few other events besides. If folks follow me on Twitter @medievalguy or check out my websitethey’ll know when and where I’ll be.

The first two books of The Shards of Heaven series are available now.

Follow B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy