Writing 'A Gift for the Sultan'

Next Saturday, January 25, I will be reading the first two chapters of my new novel, A Gift for the Sultan, at the Brooklyn Arts Exchange, BAX, 421 Fifth Av. (near the 4th Ave. subway stop) in Brooklyn. Admission free. The program runs from 8 to 10, and I have a 20 minute slot. I don't know who the other readers/performers will be, but it should be fun.

Here's my proposed jacket copy for the novel:

In the summer of 1402, Constantinople, the greatest city in the Christian world, is betrayed to the Islamic horde at its gates, but a young princess vows to save it while other nobles, merchants, clergy, aristocrats, juvenile street fighters and foreign mercenaries prepare to profit, yield for a price, fight, or die in its defense. The fate of the city and its civilization depends on all of them and on the Turkish frontier raider who has sworn to deliver the city and the princess to his sultan, in time to prevent a fateful clash with an even more terrible Muslim challenger from the East.
This all came together in my head on the plane trip back to New York from Istanbul, after three weeks in Turkey, in 1996. I had to write this story. The city, Constantinople/Istanbul, and our sojourn through central Turkey had filled me with colors, gestures, and evidences of ancient pasts that had to be told. I had known almost nothing about the Ottomans beyond what I'd read in T. E. Lawrence (Seven Pillars of Wisdom), who projected his sadomasochistic desires onto them, and less than that about the people we call the Byzantines (Rumaoi, in their own parlance; they regarded themselves as the true Romans).

Two bits of history determined that my novel's critical moment had be July 28, 1402, the Battle of Ankara, when Timur ("Tamerlane") defeated the Ottoman sultan "Thunderbolt" Bayezid, and thereby saved Christian rule of the city for 51 years. The first historical bit was that, before the battle, Emperor John VII had secretly sent ambassadors with the key to the city to surrender to sultan Bayezid; the surrender was aborted by Timur's victory, which destroyed the entire Ottoman horde. The second historical bit was that on several occasions, Orthodox Christian emperors had sent their daughters to be married to Muslim emirs.

But why write about something that I knew so little about? Why not stick to the Latin American topics I knew well, and where I could read the relevant languages? The research alone, I knew, was going to be an enormous job.

Hard to say why. Part of the reason must have been that I was enchanted by the city of Istanbul, especially, and all of Turkey that we saw. Those ancient walls, the Hagia Sophia turned mosque turned museum, the whole urban palimpsest. Another part was that I had written my sixth book on Latin America and it was time for a change. Going to Turkey had been the Accomplice's idea (she especially wanted to see Hagia Sophia), and I had been so focused on final editing of Hispanic Nation that I hadn't even read a guide book. I'd presented HN at a conference in Mexico just a week before I arrived in Istanbul, and I was ready for a break from social analysis and from things Latin American.

There's another, deeper part of the answer. I had to prove myself, to myself, as a writer of long fiction. It's been something I've been trying to do for a very long time.

I'd written two earlier novels, neither of them published, both on Latin American themes. The first was very ambitious and experimental -- I'd been reading Pynchon and Barth, among others -- with a complex structure of two parallel stories. I called it "The Liberators." One of the stories was a fictional version of myself, a young American social worker in a Caracas barrio in the 1960s; the other was of another young man the same age, but a mulatto working-class Communist in the same barrio. I finished it on schedule, on my 40th birthday, in 1981 (I tend to literalize the concept of "deadline"). Some established writer friends who read it admired it. However, the agents said such things as "It's too Latin American" or "I don't like experimental fiction." I was very disappointed, though I was able to recycle several pieces from the novel as short stories. Some are in my collection Welcome to My Contri, and two others appeared in the now-defunct, once lovely journal Yellow Silk: Erotic Arts and Letters.

Welcome to My Contri got such a rave review in The New York Times that I felt sure I would be able to sell The Liberators. Didn't happen. I tried other things, and then wrote another, much shorter and simply structured adventure novel, Gerry and the Contras. It's very violent and angry, based on real atrocities of the Nicaraguan "Contras," but told from the point of view of a New York-reared Latino street tough who gets recruited into Contra ranks. I thought of him, Gerry (Gerardo), as "Huck Finn as a terrorist." I did have an agent interested in this novel, the same agent who sold Hispanic Nation for me, but she wasn't successful in selling it.

So I was ready for something completely different. I think the work is very good, better than I sometimes had expected. I really have a lot riding on it. Not just the six years it took me to write it (and learn everything I could about Constantinopolitan urban culture, Ottoman military practices, Turkish shamanism, women's roles in both cultures, and how much weight a camel could carry) but the effort in learning how to structure a very complex story, with half a dozen ethnic groups (English Varangian guards, a Frankish knight, several Serbians, a Russian slave, an Armenian merchant, Muslim and shamanist Turks, etc.). And my whole life's project.

So I hope many people will be there Saturday night, Jan. 25, to hear the first two chapters. You will be my first test audience.

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