Author Interview: Michael Johnston

Today I am interviewing Michael Johnston, author of the new fantasy novel, Soleri, first book in a planned duology.

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DJ: Hey Michael! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview!

For readers who aren’t familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself?

Michael Johnston: I am debut adult fantasy author. I was trained as an architect and practiced for a decade before turning to writing. I started Soleri in 2010, so it’s been a bit of a journey, but I am excited to see it hit the shelves on June 13th. It was a long process and I put a lot of time and research into the work. I collected books on the history of ancient Egypt, on antiquity, on the food the people ate (bread and beer). I wanted to know what clothing they wore and what cloth they used to make their clothes. I needed to know what metals, and gems, and other materials that were available at the time. Soleri is high fantasy, but I wanted it to have a strong sense of realism. But it is epic fantasy, so I never let the research tie my hands. When the readers comes to Soleri I want them to feel as they were in a wholly original and completely plausible world.

DJ: What is Soleri about?

Michael: It’s a novel about family, about history and architecture, about primal and incomprehensible magic. It’s about the fall of an empire that is so old it has forgotten its origin.

Here’s the official description:

The ruling family of the Soleri Empire has been in power longer than even the calendars that stretch back 2,826 years. Those records tell a history of conquest and domination by a people descended from gods, older than anything in the known world. No living person has seen them for centuries, yet their grip on their four subjugate kingdoms remains tighter than ever.

On the day of the annual eclipse, the Harkan king, Arko-Hark Wadi, sets off on a hunt and shirks his duty rather than bow to the emperor. Ren, his son and heir, is a prisoner in the capital, while his daughters struggle against their own chains. Merit, the eldest, has found a way to stand against imperial law and marry the man she desires, but needs her sister’s help, and Kepi has her own ideas. 

Meanwhile, Sarra Amunet, Mother Priestess of the sun god’s cult, holds the keys to the end of an empire and a past betrayal that could shatter her family. 

Detailed and historical, vast in scope and intricate in conception, Soleri bristles with primal magic and unexpected violence. It is a world of ancient and elaborate rites, of unseen power and kingdoms ravaged by war, where victory comes with a price, and every truth conceals a deeper secret.

DJ: What were some of your influences for Soleri and the series?

Michael: Dune by Frank Herbert had a huge influence on me when I first read it and much of the material has stuck with me. Both Dune and Soleri are about desert empires and magical crops, they are filled with clever politics, bound by issues of family, and rife with betrayal. Soleri is Dune in antiquity. Foundation by Issac Asimov had equal influence. It’s a novel about the fall of an empire (not unlike the one in Soleri). When I read Foundation, I fell in love with imperial politics and monumental characters whose actions decided the fate of whole empires. It’s a short book, filled with more ideas than some authors pack into a ten or twelve volume series.

DJ: Could you briefly tell us a little about your main characters? Do they have any cool quirks or habits, or any reason why readers with sympathize with them?

Michael: Ren is the most prominent of the five point of view characters in Soleri. He is the son of a powerful king and heir to a kingdom. But there is a twist. The boy has never met his family. He grew up a slave and a servant of the empire, an imperial tribute. And when he is at last given his freedom and the chance to claim the kingdom that rightfully belongs to him, Ren discovers that the path to his throne might not be as straight forward or as easy to achieve as he had hoped. He has a strong will, but also a melancholy heart. The boy has suffered much. We experience the joy he finds when he at last achieves his freedom, and we feel his heartbreak as well when he discovers the challenges that lay before him.

Merit is the sister of Ren, but she’s led a very different life and so she’s a very different person. As a character, Merit was a challenge to write. She has a personality that is entirely different from mine, more assertive, bolder, so I based her off of someone I know quite well. I often like to relate each of my characters to someone I know in real life, it helps me keep each character consistent and it gives them a certain depth.

Arko, the king and patriarch of the Hark-Wadi family was probably my favorite charcter. His personality is actually the closest to my own. Given the character’s temperament and fate, some who have read the book may find this a bit surprising. He is a grim fellow and he suffers from more than one fault. But he is also the most realistic character in the book and the most flawed. He makes mistakes and he doesn’t always recover from his errors. He is a character who is sometimes frustrating to read and to write as well. We feel for Arko. We want him to overcome each of his flaws, but he doesn’t always have the will to do it. Arko is the sort of character most authors avoid. He fumbles, makes errors, behaves poorly and seldom redeems himself. Soleri is a book about collapse. It’s about the end of an empire and the end of a family. The two are tied. And neither have a happy ending.

The final two point of view characters are Kepi, the king’s younger daughter, and Sarra Amunet, the mother. Kepi was my favorite (among the women) to write. She is another version of myself. She has strength but just as much vulnerability. She’s suffered terribly, but never lost her sense of determination.

The last of the five is Sarra Amunet. She is the Mother priestess of the Mithra Cult, a powerful figure in the city of the Soleri and a clever politician. She was perhaps most inspired by the politics in Foundation by Asimov. I wanted to write a truly brilliant strategist, but I also wanted to create a real character. Sarra fails often, but she persists in her efforts, trying again and again to achieve what she desires.

DJ: What is the world and setting of the Soleri series like?

Michael: I haven’t put a name on the world. It’s a trend in fantasy, everyone wants to name their universe, but I think there is something unnatural about that. My characters live in a period similar to our own antiquity and in that mindset, they certainly don’t see the world as being much more than the earth, the sun, the moon, and the stars. They live in a smaller world and I don’t want to force our modern perceptions on that world. Soleri is local, it’s small (in a cosmic sense). It’s about an empire in a certain part of a certain world. Within that realm my world is defined in immense detail, but we don’t know about the larger world, the universe and neither do our characters. The geography of Soleri is actually based off of the geography of southern California. I lived in the desert for some time, near palm springs, which is only a two hour drive from the beach in Santa Monica or an hour’s dirve from the mountains, where they are tall pines, and deep glades. Soleri matches this geography, we have four ecologies in close proximity: the desert, the ocean, the mountains, the forests. There is actually a book by Reyner Banham called Los Angeles: The Four Ecologies, which details this unique geography. It’s worth reading for anyone who wants to understand the complex geography of Soleri.

Beyond geography, Soleri takes place in a world that is based on our own antiquity, primarily on ancient Egypt, near the time of year zero, but some of the architecture is drawn from roman models of the same period. Technologically, the Soleri are a hybrid of the two, but most of the details are derived from this period. I did take some liberties. This is fantasy and I wanted the book to have a certain sense of wonder, an air of unexpectedness, so there are moments where I stray from the strictly real.

DJ: The synopsis talks about “primal magic.” What exactly is that? 

Michael I have an aversion to magic systems. I enjoy reading about them and a lot of the books I read have amazing magic systems, but I don’t believe in them personally. Magic cannot and should not be explained. To explain a trick is to undo it. I don’t explain the magic in Soleri. I think that’s why I chose the word primal. I wanted to imply that magic was a part of the world, something intrinsic, almost elemental, a thing that could not be broken down into bits and described. Magic is about mystery and wonder and in a book that is all about secrets, it would be a tragedy to reveal the logic behind any of the magic in Soleri.

DJ: What was your favorite part about writing Soleri?

Michael: It’s the first book in the series, so I was able to lavish as much time as was needed to make a really great novel. I had no due date or schedule. I took my time, did research. I edited and made massive cuts, huge alterations and long revisions.

DJ: What do you think readers will be talking about most once they finish it?

Michael: Soleri is a book about secrets and with each of those secrets comes a twist. I think there are a few good ones in the book, particularly at the end, ones that will give readers quite a bit to contemplate.

DJ: Did you have a particular goal when you began writing the Soleri series? Soleri is only the first book, but is there a particular message or meaning you are hoping to get across when readers finish it? Or is there perhaps a certain theme to the story?

Michael: I don’t believe in preaching to the reader, especially in genre fiction. There are themes in the book, and the most prominent is family. I ask questions, but I don’t give exact answers. I provide evidence and I let the readers make up their own minds. I ask, what is family? What makes a family? What are the bonds that keep a family together? And what is a family when those bonds are broken or ignored? What happens when a family is set against one another? Can you make your own family? And I am not just talking about nuclear families. All of our characters are related in Soleri. There are five point of view characters, a mother and father and their three children. At its center, it is the story of this family. But it’s also about the Soleri, who are another family. It’s about an empire, which is also a kind of family ruled over by a Mother Priestess and a Father Protector. It’s also about the family of Saad, who are the heads of the state military. At every level, I’ve sought to define the story and our characters through the notion of family. My opinions on the subject are only hinted at in the story.

DJ: When I read, I love to collect quotes – whether it be because they’re funny, foodie, or have a personal meaning to me. Do you have any favorite quotes from Soleri that you can share with us?

Michael: May you share the sun’s fate. It’s actually an old Egyptian phrase, it’s carved at the top of a pyramid, which is pretty cool.

DJ: Now that Soleri is released, what is next for you?

Michael: Soleri is the first half of a planned duology. It’s a rare form, but Dan Simmons did it with Hyperion and I really enjoyed how those two books (as well as the second pair) worked together so I thought I would give it a try. I am busy at work on the second half of that duology.

DJ: Where can readers find out more about you?

Twitter: @mjohnstonauthor

Website: http://michaeljohnstonauthor.com

Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5806715.Michael_Johnston

Online excerpt of the book: http://www.torforgeblog.com/2017/05/17/sneak-peek-soleri-by-michael-johnston/

DJ: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to answer my questions!

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*** Soleri is published by Tor and is available TODAY!!! ***

Buy the Book: 

Amazon | Barnes & NobelGoodreads |Indie BoundKobo | Powell’s

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About the Book:

Michael Johnston brings you the first in a new epic fantasy series inspired by ancient Egyptian history and King Lear.

The ruling family of the Soleri Empire has been in power longer than even the calendars that stretch back 2,826 years. Those records tell a history of conquest and domination by a people descended from gods, older than anything in the known world. No living person has seen them for centuries, yet their grip on their four subjugate kingdoms remains tighter than ever.

On the day of the annual eclipse, the Harkan king, Arko-Hark Wadi, sets off on a hunt and shirks his duty rather than bow to the emperor. Ren, his son and heir, is a prisoner in the capital, while his daughters struggle against their own chains. Merit, the eldest, has found a way to stand against imperial law and marry the man she desires, but needs her sister’s help, and Kepi has her own ideas.

Meanwhile, Sarra Amunet, Mother Priestess of the sun god’s cult, holds the keys to the end of an empire and a past betrayal that could shatter her family.

Detailed and historical, vast in scope and intricate in conception, Soleri bristles with primal magic and unexpected violence. It is a world of ancient and elaborate rites, of unseen power and kingdoms ravaged by war, where victory comes with a price, and every truth conceals a deeper secret.


About the Author:

Michael Johnston was born in 1973 in Cleveland, Ohio. As a child and a teen he was an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy. He studied architecture and ancient history at Lehigh University and during a lecture on the history of ancient Egypt, the seed of an idea was born. He earned a master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University, graduating at the top of his class. Michael worked as an architect in New York City before moving to Los Angeles. Sparked by the change of locale, a visit to the desert, and his growing dissatisfaction with the architectural industry, he sought a way to merge his interests in architecture and history with his love of fantasy. By day he worked as an architect, but by night he wrote and researched an epic fantasy novel inspired by the history of ancient Egypt and the tragic story of King Lear. After working this way for several years, he shut down his successful architecture practice and resolved to write full time. He now lives and writes in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter.


 

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