• JMR

What’s the book about, anyway?

I am so excited that Ancient Tales Newly Told is now available for purchase! Follow any of the links on my home page to order your copy.

Buying arts and crafts merchandise, such as a painting or jewelry, is easy. You see it and you decide right away whether you like it and want to buy it. Purchasing books is more difficult; you can’t know until you’ve read the whole thing whether you like it or not. And so book buyers generally rely on reviews, advertising, or word of mouth to influence their decision. Currently, I have none of those at my disposal. So here, then, is the introduction of my book, which tells you what it is and how and why it came to be. Maybe it will entice you to spend a little money and (hopefully) enjoy my two stories of historical fiction.

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Introduction

I never intended to write a novel, let alone two of them. Novels are works of fiction and fiction has never been my bag. I was born on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and my first post-Dr. Seuss books were biographies of Lincoln written for early readers. I grew up with a strong interest in history, and in college I majored in journalism. Eventually, I became a marketing writer and a freelance arts critic. The articles, reviews, brochures, white papers, web content, and such that I write qualify as nonfiction. It’s not like I never read novels but it never occurred to me to write one.

And then I was dared.

It was the end of October in 2006. My second daughter had been born two months earlier. In spite of that, my marriage was failing. Meanwhile, at work, a colleague came up to me one morning and asked if I was “doing NaNoWriMo.” I had never heard of such a thing. But it didn’t sound like a fun thing to do.

NaNoWriMo, she explained, stands for National Novel Writing Month, which happens every November. The goal of the effort is to motivate people to finally write that book they’d always been meaning to write. From November 1 to November 30, one is expected to put forth the effort to compose a 50,000-word novel; that comes out to an average of 1,667 words a day for thirty days.

I was right: It’s not a fun thing to do.

Furthermore, I didn’t have a novel in me I’d been meaning to write. But I was challenged to do so and so I figured, why not? The only problem was that November was just a day or two away and I had no idea what my novel should be about.

Fortunately, I soon came up with an idea. There was a song I loved with lyrics I always thought were particularly dramatic, and I’d long thought it could be turned into a play or a book or a film. (By someone else, needless to say.) The song was called “Matty Groves” by the legendary British folk-rock group Fairport Convention. It appears on their 1969 album Liege & Lief, and according to the album’s liner notes, it was one of the old folk ballads of England and Scotland collected by Francis James Child, an American scholar who published several volumes of these ballads in the late nineteenth century. This particular song dates back to the seventeenth century, and is officially listed as Child 81 (being the eighty-first entry in Child’s collection).

Wonderful as the song is, it has only four characters and all the action takes place in a single day. If I was going to novelize this song, I would need to create additional characters, conceive backstories for them all, come up with additional plotlines, and, of course, write the damn thing. This required research, something that I did as a journalism major and as a professional marketing writer. There were many questions to ponder: When does the story take place? Where does it take place? What does the area look like? What were the local customs back then? How did people talk, act, dress? While as a novelist I was expected to invent this stuff, it had to be believable, rooted in some not insignificant measure of fact.

It was around this time that I came upon the wonderful word verisimilitude, which is the quality of seeming real (it sounds like “very similar, dude”). The idea is that I couldn’t just let my imagination go wild; my story needed to appear authentic. So no cell phones, no pink elephants, no Martians. Again, this appealed to my inherent inclination for factual storytelling.

Anyway, the point is I began writing my novel on November 1, and was doing well for a couple of weeks. Then my infant daughter decided to stop sleeping through the night. When NaNoWriMo ended, I was barely halfway to the 50,000-word goal. I didn’t touch it again until January 2007. After some fits and starts, I started to regain my momentum, but then it again became plain to me that writing a novel is hard. Things that are hard require one to get psyched up in order to tackle them. And with a needy baby and an unhappy wife, there wasn’t a lot of time or energy or enthusiasm for me to get psyched up.

It took a while, but eventually my home life got so bad that I needed to focus my attention on something personal, positive, and productive, and that something turned out to be the novel. Being left alone night after night, I wisely chose to devote myself to the manuscript. It took three years, but I eventually completed it. Finally getting my own apartment (a room of my own, as it were), I spent another three years rewriting it while trying to interest an agent or publisher. Finally, in 2012, The Grave and the Gay was published by a small Indianapolis-based outfit called Vantage Point that I later learned specialized mainly in erotica. I gave away more copies than I sold, but it was a rush holding a book with my name on the cover, and it made my family and friends very proud and happy. Good enough.

Nobody dared me to write a second novel. I can only blame myself for that.

As with the first one, inspiration came from a song; in this case, “Solomon Sang” by the jazz singer Cassandra Wilson, from her 1995 album New Moon Daughter. From the lyrics, it was obvious that the Solomon in question was King Solomon of Israel, son of David, known for his wisdom and for many Biblical writings, such as the Song of Songs. I had learned all about Solomon in religious school growing up, but Wilson’s lyrics included a line about him laying down with someone named Makeda. I could not recall ever hearing a person with that name associated with Solomon.

Curious, I Googled “Makeda” and learned that it was the Ethiopian name for the queen of Sheba (she is not named in the Hebrew Bible, is referred to in the New Testament only as “the queen of the south”, and is known in the Quran as Bilqis). I learned that the Ethiopians have a sacred text called the Kebra Nagast (“Glory of Kings”) that is of immense theological and historical importance to them. In this telling of the meeting between Solomon and Makeda, the two rulers end up doing the dirty deed and having a son named Menelik—and further, that Ethiopian emperors right up to Haile Selassie I in the twentieth century traced their lineage directly to the fruit of that royal union. Once again, nothing I had ever learned from my Sunday School teachers.

I opened up my handy Bible and went looking for the section where Solomon and the queen of Sheba meet (I Kings, 10:1-13). In the all-of-thirteen verses describing their time together, there is nothing about them having sex. The whole story is just that the queen of Sheba hears about Solomon’s wisdom, comes for a visit bearing gifts and tricky questions for him to answer, he delights her with his answers, and she leaves for home with a bunch of loot from Solomon.

I decided that the Kebra Nagast’s story was much more interesting and that it would be fun to unpack their courtship, their intimate exchange itself, and the aftermath—chiefly, how was it that a queen from southern Arabia heard such great things about a king of Israel, what were their respective backstories, what was the basis for their attraction, and what was it like for Menelik to have two powerful parents—one of whom he didn’t meet until he was twenty-two years of age—such that he had to choose which throne to inherit? Toni Morrison once said, “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it,” so I realized I was not to be a one non-hit wonder in the fiction world.

I made an early decision that while the main bones of the story would come from the Kebra Nagast, I would make use of everything worth gleaning from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Quran, as well as folk tales and, of course, my own imagination. There are many Biblical writings that have been attributed to Solomon that he may not/probably not actually have written; aside from the Song of Songs, they include various psalms and the book of Ecclesiastes. I decided that I would make them Solomon’s anyway and use excerpts as things that he thought and spoke, as well as wrote, so long as they were relevant to the story, which I eventually titled King of Kings.

Because of all the research required and my life having become more stable and happier than when I wrote The Grave and the Gay, it took about twice as long to write King of Kings. Upon its completion, I realized I had written two books that work as a set. Both are based on ancient texts and are written so as to seem to be contemporaneous accounts. They both have unusual romances that lead to major consequences for the characters involved, and they both were inspired by songs. And so rather than publish King of Kings on its own, I decided to publish the two together in a single volume. I also took the opportunity to review the original manuscript of The Grave and the Gay to correct errors and make minor changes, so if you already own that book, it will be somewhat better this time around. I promise.

JMR

Boston, Massachusetts, 2019

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