- You are already a renowned New York Times bestselling historian and author of four nonfiction titles. What made you want to write YA—specifically, the untold story of Alexander the Great as a teenager?
- How has the process differed between writing your nonfiction books vs. writing LEGACY OF KINGS?
- LEGACY OF KINGS is the first book in a YA historical fantasy series…how do you as a historian draw the line between what is accurate, and what is fiction?
- Talk about the main characters for a moment: Kat, Alex, Jacob, Heph, Zo, Cynane and Olympias. What was exciting and challenging about writing from each of their perspectives?
- There are lots of strong, complex women in LEGACY OF KINGS. Cynane and Zo in particular are intriguing, because they are strong in vastly different ways: Cynane’s quest for revenge takes her to dark, antagonist-level places; and Zo, who starts the story as an innocent ingénue, is almost immediately sold into slavery and really has to fight for her survival. Why do you think it’s important to tell real female stories, not necessarily likeable ones?
- Between obsessive Game of Thrones fans to YA novels like Sabaa Tahir’s AN EMBER IN THE ASHES, Sarah J Maas’ A COURT OF THORNS AND ROSES, and Victoria Aveyard’s THE RED QUEEN hitting the NYT list, it seems like the fantasy genre is having a strong moment. What do you love most about writing fantasy? Were you an avid fantasy reader growing up?
- What’s the most unique and interesting historical artifact you own?
- If you were a character in the world of LEGACY OF KINGS, who would you be?
You are already a renowned New York Times bestselling historian and author of four nonfiction titles. What made you want to write YA—specifically, the untold story of Alexander the Great as a teenager?
- Alexander was the pivotal male character of the ancient world. His eastern conquests opened up trade and cultural exchange that transformed civilizations. In his wake, the great caravans heading between Asia into Europe brought luxury items, new foods and, more importantly, new ideas of government, religion, science, medicine, architecture—the list could go on and on. Ever since Alexander opened that door between east and west, the world has never been the same. With regards to his character, Alexander was known for unflinching courage, strategic brilliance, and overpowering charisma. In some ways, he was very modern. For instance, he showed extraordinary kindness to enemies who fought fairly and showed bravery, something practically unknown at the time when slaughter and enslavement ruled the day. He promoted diversity in his army, welcoming troops of non-Greek soldiers and often adopting their weapons, tactics, and clothing, which caused much grumbling among the Greeks. Like many of us, Alexander had a troubled home life. His mother was considered a witch. His father was gruff and often away. His sister wanted to be an Amazon, and his brother was mentally handicapped. Until his father’s death, he had no power, and because he was a teenager King Philip and the Council didn’t listen to him. It’s fascinating to picture what he was like at sixteen, with all his problems, on the cusp of becoming the man who would change the world forever.
- No footnotes! My other books averaged about 500 footnotes each—many in foreign languages I can read—and boy, was that a pain keeping them all straight! I was also terrified I might get a fact wrong and some wise-acre reporter would butcher me as incompetent. Another advantage to writing fiction is that there’s room for much greater creativity. You can imagine conversations, feelings, sounds, and smells that you don’t know for sure ever existed. However, that advantage can be daunting when you look at the proverbial blank page swimming with unlimited possibilities and have to choose something!
LEGACY OF KINGS is the first book in a YA historical fantasy series…how do you as a historian draw the line between what is accurate, and what is fiction?
- It’s a good question because the words “historical” and “fantasy” contradict each other. Obviously, in the royal court of Macedon in 340 BC there weren’t any flying horses or Hellions, Spirit Eaters or Aesarian Lords! These are the fantasy aspects of the novel. But in terms of what they ate and wore, how they provided themselves with heat and light, their weapons and warfare, the houses they inhabited, their superstitions and religion, I’ve been as accurate as possible. And if a historical fact really gets in the way of the story, I have to discard it. For instance, in Athens the women always ate separately from the men and didn’t fraternize with unrelated males. Not all other Greek nations were that regimented with regards to the sexes, and it’s not clear about Macedon. But if my male and female characters couldn’t eat together or talk, the story wouldn’t get too far!
Talk about the main characters for a moment: Kat, Alex, Jacob, Heph, Zo, Cynane and Olympias. What was exciting and challenging about writing from each of their perspectives?
- We have six teenage characters, three girls and three boys, all attractive, outspoken, and courageous, and yet they needed to be very different personalities, often coming in conflict with one another.
Kat is a nice person but has a horrific secret she has never told anyone. She can’t marry the boy she loves and get on with her life until she settles that old score once and for all—even though it might cost her her life. I needed to balance her innate kindness and likeability with the horrible crime she feels she has to commit. She’s stubborn, brave, smart, and strong. I think everyone will love Kat.
Alex has just left school and is now the regent of Macedon in his father’s absence. He needs to prove to an entire nation that he is no longer a schoolboy but is on his way to becoming a great king. Most of the adults left in charge don’t see the rising threat of a very dangerous enemy, and Alex is frustrated that they’re not listening to him with the whole country at stake. I had to imagine the real Alexander at sixteen, much more brilliant than anyone else, and much less experienced, too! It must have been incredibly frustrating for him getting older people to really listen to him.
Jacob is just a salt-of-the-earth nice guy trying to be good enough for the girl he loves. He is hell-bent on forging an impressive career, a path to greatness so he can offer her something. Ironically, the path he chooses leads him far away from his girl. For Jacob I had to channel memories of working so hard to get something and then seeing it vanish like morning dew. There’s a certain sad beauty to it.
Like Kat, Heph bears a terrible secret from his past. He has lost his family and former life but managed to find a place for himself as Alex’s best friend and right-hand man. Yet this is all he has, all he can count on, and things happen in the book that make him feel that his position is unstable, uncertain. He wonders, if he isn’t Alex’s best friend, then what is he? With Heph I had to balance confidence and self-doubt in a way that makes his story believable and poignant.
Zofia is a pampered Persian princess who chucks her lavish life for love, and within hours finds herself in the worst possible circumstances. She uses her one weapon—her wits—to survive. It was fun to make her grow stronger, more confident, become a more compassionate, wise, and balanced adult. I had most fun, I think, with Zo, even though at the beginning I wanted to give her a good spanking.
To create Cynane, I had to channel the darkest parts of myself, which wasn’t too hard—I think they must lurk just under the surface! Cynane is manipulative, insulting, rebellious, and sarcastic. She hates that even though she’s older than Alex, she can’t inherit the throne or ride off to war because she’s a girl. But she’s also ferociously courageous and skilled with all kinds of weapons. I studied real-life Amazons to portray Cynane, and there were many of them to the north and east of Macedon. Archeologists are still uncovering tombs of “warrior kings”—with crashed-in skulls and arrows in their ribs, and surrounded by weapons—who turn out to be women! Though Cynane is a dark character, the bad girl, I really like her snarky loud-mouthed self.
There are lots of strong, complex women in LEGACY OF KINGS. Cynane and Zo in particular are intriguing, because they are strong in vastly different ways: Cynane’s quest for revenge takes her to dark, antagonist-level places; and Zo, who starts the story as an innocent ingénue, is almost immediately sold into slavery and really has to fight for her survival. Why do you think it’s important to tell real female stories, not necessarily likeable ones?
- If all the characters were really likeable, sitting around chit-chatting, it would be a pretty boring book, right? We, as humans, all have a dark, manipulative side and authors need to tap into the darkest part of themselves to get a decent story. If a particular quality isn’t in you at all—not one atom of it—I don’t think you can write about it in a believable way. Fortunately for authors—if not for the human race—we have the entire panoply of light and dark characteristics in our make-up and can draw on them for our work, even if we don’t act them out in our own lives.
Between obsessive Game of Thrones fans to YA novels like Sabaa Tahir’s AN EMBER IN THE ASHES, Sarah J Maas’ A COURT OF THORNS AND ROSES, and Victoria Aveyard’s THE RED QUEEN hitting the NYT list, it seems like the fantasy genre is having a strong moment. What do you love most about writing fantasy? Were you an avid fantasy reader growing up?
- Fantasy literature offers us a realm of rich creativity where anything can happen. It taps into a world of unlimited possibilities. The more we see the paths of our lives narrowing, the more we need fantasy as a liberating and necessary release.
I was an avid fantasy reader though the genre was hardly as rich as it is now. My mother pushed me in the direction of “the classics,” so I devoured everything by Jules Verne. I read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in 80 Days, The Mysterious Island, and his other novels. Oddly, some of his fantasy—such as submarines—became fact decades later. I also loved anything about ghosts, vampires, and monsters.
I’ve always felt that the world we inhabit isn’t nearly as limited and limiting as we are told to believe. Have you ever had a strange feeling about something and it came true? A dream that came true? Seen something out of the corner of your eye that shouldn’t be there? There’s magic all around us, and the only reason it’s still called magic is because science hasn’t caught up to it yet. And just because science can’t explain something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If that were true, nothing would have been composed of molecules until fairly recently.
- Three gold leaves from an ancient Greek funeral wreath placed on a corpse. Please don’t ask how I got them.
- Hmmm. That’s a hard one. It’s a toss-up between Queen Olympias wrapping men around her bejeweled pinky finger with a smile, or Cynane whacking them over the heads with her sword.