Please tell us a little about your new book, A Gift for the Sultan. A Gift for the Sultan is available as a paperback (388 pages) from Amazon.com, CreateSpace, or through your local bookstore, at a list price of $15.70. The e-book is available through either Kindle or Smashwords for $4.99. It is a story of Christians versus Muslims, cosmopolitans versus anti-urbanites, the conflicts within each group, and the surprising complicities between supposed foes, based on the true history of the siege of Constantinople in 1402 and the battle of Ankara. Its cast of historical figures and fictional composite characters include a Christian child-princess and several other important women, some Christian Orthodox, some Turkish Muslim and others skeptical of all faiths.
The story came out of a true incident, the attempt by the ruler of Constantinople to surrender the city secretly (so that his subjects would not rebel) to the Ottoman sultan during the siege of 1402 — an attempt interrupted by the sultan’s disastrous defeated by Timur (“Tamerlane”) in a great battle near Ankara. I imagined that, as had become common, the Christian ruler had sent a young princess (his bastard niece) to marry one of the sultan’s sons and seal the surrender deal, and that this treasure was entrusted to the captain of a band of rough Turkish horse-archers to deliver to the sultan. The novel tells the story of that journey and the evolving relationship between the 14-year-old Christian princess and the fierce, primitive but honorable Turkish war chief, against the background of the tensions in a once-great, now half-ruined city under siege.
What has your journey as a writer been like?
This was a challenging project for me. All of my previous books had been about Latin America, including a short-story collection (Welcome to My Contri) that had been very favorably reviewed by The New York Times. I had just completed a book on Latinos in the United States (Hispanic Nation: Culture, Politics and the Constructing of Identity. University of Arizona Press, 1997) when my wife and I visited Constantinople for the first time and I got the idea for this book. The Byzantine Empire and the early Ottomans were entirely new material for me. But the idea of a great city struggling against forces trying to destroy it, like Sarajevo during the Serb siege of the 1990s and many other examples today, was too powerful for me to let it go, and the theme of encounters between radically different cultures — in this case, Christian Orthodox and Ottoman Muslim — had always fascinated me. So I persisted, for all the years it took to learn everything I could about these cultures and their times and to make such a complex story work as a novel.
Why did you choose to self publish?
I started out trying to get a commercial publisher. I was no longer with the agent who had sold Hispanic Nation, so I queried others, and though several asked to see either a “partial” or the whole work, in the end none of them wanted to take it on. So then I looked into other options and saw many advantages to self-publishing. I liked the feeling of control, far greater than I had had in any of my previous books for HarperCollins and other commercial publishers: final editing, trim size, paper color, cover design etc. Through Amazon and CreateSpace, it is universally available and as a p.o.d., it will never go out of print. Distributing the e-book version had no additional cost (except my time, for formatting). Royalty percentage was far higher than any I had ever received before.
The downside, of course, is that promotion was entirely up to me, with the help of friendly websites like Amy’s blog. But with that assistance, and recommendations by readers and the accumulating good reviews on Amazon, Smashwords and Goodreads, the book has been selling. It won’t make me rich or very famous, but it is reaching the kinds of readers I had hoped for.
And then I had a stroke of good luck. When two Turkish friends learned that my wife and I were about to make a return trip to Istanbul last January, they arranged for me to give a reading to a club of English-speaking university graduates, and one of them, a professional translator, asked my permission to present it to his publisher. We negotiated a contract (the Authors Guild was helpful in suggesting terms I should ask for), the Turkish translation has now been completed and the novel will be published next month (October), in time for the big Tüyap International Book Fair (in Istanbul) in November.
Would you do it again?
My experience as a self-publisher has been entirely positive, except that a commercial publisher could have placed ads and got the reviews in places like The New York Times, the Washington Post, etc., such as I received for earlier books. But the publishing context is changing so fast that I don’t know what conditions will be like when I get my next novel finished. Maybe I’ll get an attractive offer from some bigger house, but if not, I wouldn’t hesitate to self-publish again.
Is there anything unique about yourself that you would like your readers to know?
Having worked for years on projects related to Latin America, I’ve become completely bilingual in Spanish and English and now live in southern Spain. I also speak passable French, a little German, and now — because of my experience with this latest novel — I’m learning Turkish. I think familiarity with other languages makes us more sensitive to the unique potentials of whichever one we are working in, in my case (usually) English or Spanish.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
I have too many: a nonfiction book (co-authored with my wife) under contract to W. W. Norton, some short stories I’ve promised my friends to write in Spanish, and pending book reviews, all of which I need to get out of the way before I get down to serious work on my next novel. This will also be a novel about a major social crisis affecting many lives, but far from Constantinople.
Please share some advice to help future authors.
Whatever I know about writing I’ve learned by reading and by writing, over and over, until I get it as right as I can. You may have to invent tricks to keep at it, such as imagining some specific person as your audience, because writing can get tough when there is no outside encouragement. But the only way to get good at this (or anything else) is practice, practice, practice. And when you’ve got something you believe in, you’ll want to make it visible to other readers to check whether it’s working the way you want it to. If that means self-publishing, that is now a very good and accessible way to go.