K. Hollan Van Zandt Interview – The Great Library, Slave Trafficking, and the Emerald Tablet

What was the inspiration for this book? How long did it take the author to research all the colorful history woven into the story? Who was her favorite character? What are the author’s thoughts on self-publishing?

written-in-the-ashes-2016What was your inspiration for this book?
Many slender threads begin with romance and synchronicity, and so I started thinking about this novel while I was dating an Egyptologist. We had a conversation wherein I asked how the Great Library burned and he said that scholars disagreed, in fact, the window was about 700 years when the library could have burned, possibly even more than once. I found it inconceivable that we know what Caesar ate for breakfast on the morning of his battles and we don’t know when the greatest library in antiquity was destroyed. So I began some of my own research, which led to a short story about the character Alizar in the novel who is working to save the master works before the library can be destroyed. Strangely, in that story, before I even knew about Hypatia, I wrote about a young Greek woman who was running the library who was brutally murdered. Once I found out that indeed, there was a woman running the Great Library, and that she died exactly how I had penned it in the story before knowing anything about her, I knew I had to write the book.

Was it a common thing for slave traders to kidnap people in the 5th century?
Slave trading and the trafficking of women was rampant and legal in the Roman Empire for hundreds of years, but usually of “uncivilized” tribal peoples, (which just meant non-Roman) often imported from Africa, Gaul, or the British Isles. However, a woman of any standing could be captured and sold into slavery. She would not be as valuable as a male slave, who was more likely to be educated to read and write. While this sounds atrocious and antiquated, we cannot overlook the fact that the trafficking of women and girls is prevalent globally today, and even in the U.S. where I live. In fact, there are more men than women on our planet today because as many as 6 million women are missing… having been sold into brothels, as with Boko Haram, or into the Islamic State, trafficked to become slave wives and mothers.

How long did it take you to research the colorful history woven throughout your story? Did you make up any of the historical events? Which piece of history did you enjoy researching the most?
This is a wonderful question. It took 15 years and over 30 drafts for this novel to reach publication, and I was always doing research, often at university libraries, or by emailing professors or experts, most of whom live in Europe or the UK. with odd questions about money, costume, ships of the era, languages, and of course, the larger narrative about the rise of Christianity and the destruction of the Great Library.

I stuck closely to history for the main events of the story but fell in love with the legend of the Emerald Tablet, which I uncovered in my research. Here was an ancient alchemical tablet of the god Hermes Trismegistus, which has been well-documented as having existed. Even Newton did a translation of it! It was thought to protect whoever possessed it, and so, being a child of the 80s, I felt compelled to add a little Indiana Jones adventure to the book that would send Hannah, my protagonist, in search of the tablet to the last remaining oracles of the ancient world in Delfi and in Siwa, before they were destroyed by the Christians.

I love research, and it while it was all a joy, I was particularly struck by how much Alexandria resembled a modern day London, Paris or New York City—and how the extremist religious fanaticism that marked that era could have easily been ripped from today’s headlines.

Was Hannah the first character in the story that came to you? If not, which character introduced himself/herself to you first?
I met first met Alizar, the Gnostic Alchemist who becomes Hannah’s owner, in a dream. I felt a deep connection to him and found him easily accessible and able to answer most of my questions that arose during the writing of the book, often about the other characters. I did a lot of creative visualizations wherein I would pretend he was sitting in the front seat of my car, or at my kitchen table, talking to me about his life. I had been keeping up with the extraordinary finds of the Nag Hammadi library, and the Gnostic Gospels, and thought to myself: There must have been someone back then who knew these texts were in danger, and who went to great effort to try and preserve them. Enter Alizar.

Were any of the characters based on people you know?
No, although I did borrow certain personality traits or character traits from people I have known to make the characters more realistic. I sometimes get criticized for writing Cyril as a megalomaniac, but he’s more or less based on Hitler, with whom he shared many similarities including anti-Semitism.

How did you choose the names for your characters? How much did you know about your characters before you began to write the book?
Many of the characters except for those from history like Hypatia, Bishop Cyril, and Orestes went through name changes during the writing of this novel. My protagonist, Hannah, was originally an Arab named Azam. Then I decided in a later draft that her experience would be more powerful and relatable as a Jew, given that the exile of the Jews from Alexandria by the Christians happened while she was enslaved there.

I knew almost nothing about any of the characters when I started writing. We all went on an adventure together, surprising each other along the way. As I researched the history, I wove in my interpretations of the historical figures.
Hannah’s love interest, Gideon, had a hardly a mention in most of the early drafts of the novels. At one point I had even written him out of the book for over 7 years. Then he came sweeping in, something he’s very good at, and commandeered the story.

How long did it take you to write this book?
Fifteen years from inception to publication.

Which character was your favorite? Which character was your least favorite?
I always enjoyed Gideon through the years of writing because he refused to be predictable, and brought a strong dose of Eros with him *swoon*. I loved Alizar for his stability, tolerance, and integrity. He espouses most of the wisdom in the story. I suppose I grew impatient with Orestes, who is a real historical figure, for his lack of vision and obsession with self-aggrandizement, a costly mistake for him and for all of history.

Which scene was your favorite?
I love the sex scenes and feel quite proud of the writing in the intimate scene between Julian and Hannah in the Pharos Lighthouse. The burning of the Great Library was also delicious to pen.

Which scene was the hardest for you to write?
All the scenes in the Siwa Oasis, and in the trek through the Sahara, but particularly those in the Temple of Amun-Ra when the caravan confronts the oracle.

Did you plan out the entire book before writing it?  Or do you just sit down and write?
I had the scaffolding of history to guide me, but with massive swaths of information missing. So it was fun to imagine how things might connect. I do not work with an outline as I believe that as the author if I don’t know where things will go or how they will turn out, neither will the reader. I go along for the surprises and tackle inconsistencies in later re-writes. Why would you want to know how the story will end when you’re only on page 45? I can’t imagine it as the writer or the reader.

Did you have a set time to write each day? Or did you wait to be inspired?
Are you ever inspired to brush your teeth, or do you do it out of habit? Haha. I write out of habit, but I’m almost always inspired because it’s my passion. I’ve never had writer’s block. Writing is a luxury, and one that often doesn’t pay well, so those of us who take it up do it because without it, we would go insane. Writing is my third lung. I write any time I can, any time of day or night. I love it when I have more than three hours to write, but that is rare. The novelist as a career is almost dead unless you’re famous and selling in the top one percent.

What are your thoughts on self-publishing?
I actually first self-published this novel in 2011, then it was picked up by Harper Collins, who believes that visionary fiction is a new emergent genre. Self-publishing was exhausting. True you keep the profit, but you also lose the ability to get editorial reviews, because no one takes you seriously if you’re self-published. I have an entire video series on my YouTube channel about the difference between the two experiences, and their pros and cons. You’ll never make money as a writer in either case, so it’s best to build an email list and sell other things, as well as the film rights.

When did you first have a desire to write? How did this desire manifest itself?
I’ve been writing all my life. I started with my first book in the second grade, called “The Good Witch.” It had three chapters and a who-done-it mystery ending. Then came decades of meaningless journaling where all I wrote about was unrequited love and feelings. Then I started writing my first novel in 2000. I have since written three more books and I’m working on a memoir.

Did you ever become bored with what you are writing? If you do, how did you get past that point?
When you commit to writing something, it’s a marriage. There are days you’re making love and it’s euphoric and days you want to kill each other, but you stay married because you made the commitment, you have history together, so you push through the hard times and keep the dream alive. I never get bored writing, but the frustration and disappointment, the despair with the publishing process, has been at times enough to keep me in bed for a week crying my eyes out.

What is your favorite genre in which to write?
Memoir and Young Adult, ironically. I don’t think I’ll ever write historical fiction again unless it’s about the Native Americans. This book ate my life!

What kind of books do you like to read?
Memoirs, mainly and almost exclusively. Also psychology, health, anything that wins the Pulitzer Prize or the Mann Booker. Anything by David Sedaris. I’m currently reading Born to Run, re-reading The Sheltering Sky (Bowles is one of my influences), and my favorite book of the year was H is for Hawk.

KVZ website head shot Meet KaiaHow do you manage to balance your time between family, friends, and writing?
By failing. I have no social life. I had to give it up to write and also to be a single mom. I socialize when I travel, so most of my closest friends are in foreign countries and cities, sadly. I hope to remedy that in my next stage of life.

If you could spend one hour with just one person, dead or alive, whom would you choose?  Why?
Garry Shandling. He was a student and a friend who died too young, and I miss him very much. Or Mother Mary. At the same table could be interesting. They’re both Jews so I think it would go pretty well…

Where can your fans find you on the Internet?
It has links to my YouTube and social media.

Recommended Article: Written in the Ashes – a Review

  2 comments for “K. Hollan Van Zandt Interview – The Great Library, Slave Trafficking, and the Emerald Tablet

  1. October 21, 2016 at 4:57 pm

    Thanks for hosting Kaia! Excellent interview! I am sad to read that she doesn’t plan to write more historical fiction as I was really hoping for a sequel!

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