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Ami: First of all, let me tell you that I have been your fan ever since I read Marathon Cowboys. But this one is definitely my favorite to date (my previous favorite of yours was Legend of the Apache Kid). How was your experience writing it?
Sarah: Thank you for the kind words! I enjoyed writing this one very much, and tried out a couple of new techniques I’ve wanted to explore. I increased the pace of the narrative drive to increase tension, so it seemed like the action was moving faster and faster. I tried this to work on strengthening the conflict without having to resort to either silly misunderstandings as sources of conflict, or violence. With the structure of a romance novel being something of a known quantity, I feel like we can use conflict and narrative techniques to keep the interest high. Readers still like to be surprised, even when they know there is a HEA in the future.
I also wanted to work on a story line with crisis and dangerous, realistic problem resolution that did not involve the heroes pulling out bigger guns and blasting everything in sight. I wanted them to think their way out of trouble. That was my experience with the military when I was serving—leaders were much more likely to try and think their way out of trouble. Weapons, violence, is always a last resort.
Ami: Having said that, you don’t usually write sequels for your stories, what made you decide to write this one?
Sarah: When I originally wrote this story, I didn’t realize how complex writing about forming a family with this structure was going to be. I really try to be truthful in the stories I write, and I could tell fairly quickly that there was not going to be a quick or easy resolution if I wanted to tell the truth about Martha and the kids and how everybody handles things.
I also had an idea about telling a story where the main conflict was not about being gay – that sexuality was not the main focus and source of the conflict the characters had to work through. I love an exciting adventure, especially a rescue mission, and I want to start writing stories with gay characters where the issue of their sexuality is only one of the issues they face in a challenging world.
That seems more realistic to me, and paints gay characters more like their real human counterparts—complex, multidimensional, sometimes irritating, sometimes heroes, but in the end just men. It will be a happy day for me when we stop using the term gay men, and just say men. When we stop saying gay marriage, and just say marriage.
Ami: One of the things that made me uncomfortable with The General and the Horse-Lord was Gabriel’s infidelity. I saw how that also created strong reactions from readers. Some hated it while some saw Martha as the obstacle for Gabriel and John to get their true love. I wonder how was it for you when you wrote this, seeing that you are a woman, but need to voice the men’s journey to be together?
Sarah: More difficult than I was expecting! I’m retired from the Navy, and I spent most of my working life with military people. I didn’t realize how little the rest of the world knows about how close people get when they serve together, especially overseas. How small and closed that world is. Military people have two families, and there are times when their military units have priority in their hearts and minds. They are brothers, and could not be closer than real brothers. The relationship, especially developed over a lifetime, is very intense and has significant loyalty attached to it. So to me what Gabriel and John did was fairly typical of men who wanted to serve, and I didn’t paint that world as clearly as I should have, perhaps, because I assumed it was understood.
The other thing is, as a character, I know Martha pretty well. I know her back story and I know why she married Gabriel and I know what she is up to. I don’t particularly like her or share her values, but I still carry a very strong sister-feeling for her. What I didn’t realize is waiting for book 3 for Martha to plot her revenge doesn’t help explain her in this first book. I suspect many people will still and always feel she is the grieved party, and she is! But marriage is complicated and she wanted something from him, just as he wanted something from her. So it was very difficult to find my way. I guess I felt more loyal to the two of them as Army guys who gave up everything to serve, fellow veterans, than I did to Martha because we were both women.
Ami: But don’t you think that as warriors and noble men, they should also treat Martha kindly honorably? Or is it because they see Martha as not part of the brotherhood, even if she is a wife of an Army man?
Sarah: I think they are treating her with dignity and honesty. That is what they see as the honorable path forward. Gabriel loved having a family, taking care of everyone, being the daddy. He felt strongly that the time had come for honesty, because he realized that no matter how hard he worked, how hard he tried, he could never be the man that everyone wanted him to be. And he had to choose. It was the first time he really felt like the choice was all his, not dictated by the pressures of family and culture and expectations and society.
Ami: Okay, back to this book. I must say that I am very much charmed with the story of Al-
Jazari and The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. How much research did you do for this?
Sarah: I am in love with research—it never feels like work. It’s the most fun for me, following a trail of interesting ideas and books and music and museums around the internet. When I first saw the page from the book on the Met website, I knew immediately what Eli was holding in his hand, and why. When I saw pictures of ancient Carthage, I fell in love, and knew just what had to happen there. I tried hard to figure out a way for John to build a clock in Carthage, but my love of telling the truth quickly made me see that really couldn’t happen, not right now. Here’s a pic of the page:
In the story, Gabriel tells John about the books Kim downloaded to his Kindle to come on the op. Those are the books I read to get prepared!
Ami: I was quite gleeful with you using some “modern/recent” entertainment like Kindle or the TV show Spartacus: Blood and Sand, and Gabriel bringing a Spongebob Squarepants speaker while at the same time the book that Eli was obsessing about was written in 1206! Do you own a Spongebob Squarepants speaker? *laugh*
Sarah: No, I’ve never seen one, though I suspect they exist. I made it up! My son is a big Spongebob fan and I have to listen to the adventures of Spongebob and Patrick on a regular basis. I did watch the entire first season of Spartacus: Blood and Sand. And called it research!
Ami: There are a bunch of new secondary characters that became John’s team in The Wardroom in Tunisia. Who came to you first? Who was easiest to write? Who was the most difficult?
Sarah: I loved writing Jen, and I loved the way John gradually came to fall for her—her bravery and toughness and smarts. He is a man used to living around and depending on other men, and it was difficult for him to rely on her, to trust her. But he’s smart enough to recognize what he had with Jen!
Abdullah surprised me a bit, because he was so unhappy. I didn’t plan on it, but it felt like he was struggling against these situations the entire book. I could see fairly quickly this difference in how he and Kim saw this work would be a major source of conflict for them.
And I adore Eli and Daniel. They are refusing to go back to work. They’re both camped out in Albuquerque, and Wylie and Jackson are threatening to come, too. Where am I going to put everyone? Eli wants to put up a yurt in the General’s back yard.
Ami: That is definitely something to see. The family is expanding! Okay, one of the things that made this book my favorite was your way of including social issues in subtle and not ‘in-your face’ ways. Like Kim’s MFA project – that one was very intriguing and made me ponder. “Is racism really an extension of tribal culture, tribal identity?” What do you think of this?
Sarah: I spent a number of years living on the Navajo land- they call it Dinetah, not a reservation, and it is in fact sovereign land. But when I first got there, I was surprised to find that other women always saw me as white first, before they saw me as a woman.
I would be standing next to a woman my age, with a kid the age of my kid, and she would be surprised that I was as irritated with my kid as she was with hers. Like white people didn’t have to deal with the same issues. After I had been there awhile, I started to be seen as just another frazzled, exhausted working mom. But the isolation of the native lands, while important as a source of growing culture and language, keeps people from different races from really getting to know each other. Old ideas and prejudices become entrenched.
In the military, everybody works together. We all wear the same uniforms. We have a common mission. We don’t tend to judge each other on things like clothes and accents. My experience has been that while we are all more comfortable with others like ourselves, with just a little push we learn the differences don’t have any reality. That the things that separate us from each other are as thin as air, and we’re all more alike than we are different. Having a common mission really helps that process.
I think Kim’s project is a bit naïve, and he’s going to think on it further and then leave it for something else. At the end of this book, John tells him that Eli is their mission, that he is worth everything necessary. When they get back home, Kim and John realize Eli is still not okay, and Kim sets out to find a solution that he can also use for his MFA show.
Ami: Yes, Eli! I actually loved how you didn’t dramatize Eli as character, considering that it was easy to ‘sell’ his story in prison as angst and drama. But I was happy to hear that you would continue his story, knowing that he was not okay. Of course he wasn’t – he needed the journey to heal.
Sarah: I’m going to surround him with people who love him and support him. In the first book, Kim talked about using the camera, photography, and the other arts as healing. I believe in this idea, and I’m going to give Kim and Billy the opportunity to show how this works. They are both going to turn their eyes on Eli. And he’s such an easygoing guy I don’t think he’ll know what hit him!
Ami: Okay, another favorite quote of mine would be when John said “You are not Islam.” As a Muslim myself, reading this line “… Islam is a beautiful religion, full of gentleness and peace” was really nice. I always think that all religions in this world are peaceful – it is the people who easily use the words in the Qur’an or the Bible and misrepresent it for their own purpose.
Sarah: I agree. I really feel for the scholars and Imams who are trying to teach and lead in this very hostile and difficult environment.
Ami: I think about three quarters of this book took place in Tunisia – one other MM book that highlights the country and the Arab Spring movement that I remember is Neil Plakcy’s “Olives for Strangers”. Did you follow the news about the Jasmine Revolution and the Arab Spring movement at all?
Sarah: Oh, yes, I sure did. I picked Tunisia for this story because of Carthage, and the rich history of the country, all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the Bardo, but also because Arab Spring started in Tunisia.
I love the Mediterranean—when I was in the Navy, I lived on a small island between Corsica and Sardegna. Olives and sunshine and quiet and sheep’s milk cheese—I could happily live on one of the Phoenician’s old islands. When I look at a map of the Mediterranean, it’s like looking at a map of the beginnings of civilization- just trace around, with the ports—Malta, Cyprus, Istanbul, Morocco, Carthage, then Spain, Sardegna, Greece—where the East and West met and clashed and married and raided each other and traded books.
Why don’t we know more about the history of Islamic scholarship? I’m with Eli—I could read for years and just touch the surface!
Ami: Finally. Kim. He’s definitely my favorite character of yours. I am so very much in love with him. Will Kim get his own story?
Sarah: Yes, but I’m not sure when. He’s such a big part of this group of rescue heroes that I suspect he’s up for some massive stresses and changes, trying to reconcile his beautiful world-view with the reality of the work they’re doing- crisis management around the world. Plus Abdullah is not going to be an easy boy. I think his story is going to be first person, though. Kim is going to have to talk for himself!
Ami: Are there any more stories coming about The General and his Horse-Lord?
Sarah: Yes, for sure- I haven’t finished with this group! The next book is called The General and the Rape of Apollo, and is sequential- It’s going to cover Eli’s healing, and Billy, and Kim’s MFA show, and the revenge Martha has been plotting for John. Also I have planned for the group to go to Siberia, to work on uncovering the truth about the Korean War pilots who were sent to the gulag as POWs and never returned.
Ami: Intriguing title! Well, thank you so much for the interview, Sarah. It has been such pleasure
Sarah: Thanks very much for reading!
The General and the Elephant Clock of Al-Jazari is available from Dreamspinner Press in ebook and paperback
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Sarah Black is a fiction writer living in beautiful Boise, Idaho, the jewel of the American West. Sarah is a family nurse practitioner and works in a medical clinic that takes care of homeless folks (they have lots of great stories). Raised a Navy brat, she’s lived all over the country. She and her son James recently moved to Boise from the Navajo reservation in Arizona. When she isn’t writing, she’s doing something with wool. She learned weaving out on the reservation and now has her eye on an antique circular sock knitting machine.