Interviewed by Sandra Parshall
Twenty years ago, Katherine Neville published The Eight, a novel with a mixture of history, adventure, mystery, and suspense that has proven remarkably enduring – since its initial publication, The Eight has never been out of print. Now, at last, Katherine has published a sequel, The Fire, which went on sale yesterday. Her other novels, A Calculated Risk and The Magic Circle, are also out in new editions. Recently, Publishers Weekly credited her early works with paving the way for "epic thrillers" like The Da Vinci Code.
In writing her colorful novels, Katherine draws on her long experience as an international computer executive and consultant in the finance and energy industries, which took her to six countries on three continents and half the states in the US. She has also worked as a model, commercial photographer, portrait painter, busboy and waiter.
She lives in Washington, DC, and rural Virginia with her significant other, neuroscientist Dr. Karl Pribram, and their pets, two cats named Tyger and Alfredo who were rescued after being abandoned, and a white rat named Rosie who insists on fresh banana nut bread for breakfast.
Q. Tell us about The Fire. Which characters from The Eight will reappear?
A. Cat, Solarin, Nim and Lily all appear in the modern part of The Fire. But now we see them from a different point of view--from the viewpoint of Alexandra, the daughter of Cat and Solarin, who has a very different part to play. And in the historic part, we also see Talleyrand and Mireille from the viewpoint of their son, Charlot, who is no longer a child prophet but now a grown man with an important role in the Game of his own.
Q. I’m sure all your fans are wondering the same thing: Why did you stop writing for so long? When did you start working on The Fire, and what inspired it?
A. Actually, I've never stopped writing. But as for why it takes so long to finish a book--I confess, I don't really write my books, my books write themselves--or at least decide when and how they want to be written. Or NOT written. For instance, I got the idea of how to do the sequel to The Eight more than a decade ago, but every time I tried to write it, some earthshaking event would happen--like September 11--to indicate that my book wasn't ready. It was only when I was halfway through writing The Fire that I realized WHY my book hadn't been ready to tell its story:
The Fire is set during the first week of April, in 2003. As it turns out, that was the very week that we entered Baghdad in the Iraq War. The Monglane Service--the chess set that I had invented in The Eight, which had once belonged to Charlemagne and Catherine the Great--had originally been created in the eighth century, in the then-brand-new city of Baghdad. In The Fire, that small detail was destined to play an integral role in the Game.
Q. Am I correct in thinking that The Eight has never been out of print? What do you think explains its staying power and its immense appeal to readers of all ages? Can we expect a new edition of The Eight when The Fire is published?
A. Yes, you are right! The Eight has remained in print in more than thirty languages for over twenty years. One of my good friends--the award-winning mystery writer Rhys Bowen--always jokingly calls The Eight "the book that never dies." My books will be released in new jackets with new author quotes to coincide with the release of The Fire. Other things that didn't exist when The Eight was published--like Readers' Guides and podcasts--will be available on my web site for readers who want to compare and contrast elements from the two books.
As for what has made it appealing to so many for such a long time, I think it's the same reason that this type of story has lasted and been cherished and read, over and over, since the dawn of storytelling. It has certainly always been my personal favorite to read--a genre that almost vanished in the previous century, during decades of war and pessimism, but I hope that it's now making a comeback. Today we call it a Quest Novel. But in fact it's the oldest story ever told: from Gilgamesh, seeking the elixir of life, to Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece, to Parsifal hunting for the Holy Grail, to Odysseus--or even Dorothy in Oz–all trying to find that place called Home. It's a story about seeking something that will make us better--or even if we maybe already possess whatever we are seeking without realizing it--of finding the ability to see it with new eyes. I think we all need that kind of inspiration right now. I think we have always needed it.
Q. Although The Eight is the book you’re best known for, you’ve said that The Magic Circle was your breakthrough book. In what sense? And do you feel that The Fire is another kind of breakthrough?
A. I must preface this by saying that EVERY book is a breakthrough for me in some way.
With The Fire--my first-ever sequel--I had to write not just two, but FOUR books at the same time--because, while the modern and historic plots were moving forward in The Fire, we readers still needed a recap of the events in The Eight that are related--but this time we see it all through other people's eyes. For instance, Lily and Nim describe scenes they were present in, in the prior book, but which we'd only seen previously from Cat's POV. So all of that--the multiple points of view, multiple takes on what happened in the first book--all that, of necessity, provided new and surprising twists and turns.
But the biggest breakthrough for me in The Fire took place when Vartan Azov pulled it all together by bringing Russia and Baghdad--Orthodox Christianity and Islam, along with the chessboard--all together in a way that even I had not really expected.
Q. You’ve said that you try never to write an action scene based on something that you haven’t experienced first-hand. Is that true for The Fire? What exciting experiences of your own can we look forward to reading about?
A. The main character's first-person viewpoint has always been relatively easy for me in earlier books, because I'd done the jobs they did, and I'd skied the mountains they skied. But Alexandra Solarin is such a departure--a heroine who spent her youth in cerebral contemplation, a former chess prodigy--while I was never a prodigy at anything.
When it came to action scenes in The Fire I let Alexandra's sidekick, Key, take the reins. I've never flown a plane (though I did fly a hot-air balloon) but living as I did in the west, most of my friends own and fly their own planes--and I myself am intimate with many of the early bush planes that Key flies through such difficult conditions in The Fire.
Q. How arduous is the research for the sort of world-encompassing novel you write? Does the research itself spark ideas that you end up using?
A. Absolutely. That's my most frequently-asked question from readers: How did you do the research for this? How did you find that out? My answer has always been: Life is Research.
As they always say, there is no substitute for experience. That's clearly true of every job--but more than with any other job, it's true of being a writer. Whenever I speak to young people who are aspiring writers, and they ask what is the best preparation for being a writer, I always tell them: Get a job and get a Eurail pass.
I was lucky--though I confess it didn't always FEEL so lucky--that I had to work for a living and take what jobs were available--wherever they might be, whatever the pay, whatever the work. My willingness to do this took me to many places, pleasant or unpleasant, that otherwise I never would have seen. For instance, I was living in Germany when the Berlin Wall came down, and in Russia just after the Soviet Union collapsed; I was working in the banking industry (1980s) when the last major banking collapse took place; I was working in the nuclear field during the 3-Mile Island nuclear tragedy; I was working in oil in North Africa when the OPEC embargo took place.
Q. Turning to the business side of writing – Do you feel that publishing has changed greatly since the last time you published a book? What changes are you most aware of?
A. It has taken me on average 5 to 10 years to write each book--so not only has publishing changed each time I've surfaced--but all the players have changed! For instance, although Ballantine has been my publisher for each of my books, in each instance the editors, publishers--even the publishing owners--have been different!
As for industry changes, from my perspective, things have actually improved. When The Eight was published there were 40,000 new titles published per year--now there are more than double that--and back then, bookstores themselves were divided into sections like "Literature" versus "Fiction" while horror, sci-fi, and mystery were "ghetto-ized" on little wire racks at the back of the store, and romance was often relegated to the supermarket or all-night convenience stores.
Today, some of our top writers are successfully combining elements of all these genres. And with so many possibilities and so many books in print, it's actually easier to get published while doing something different.
Q. Will you be doing a book tour?
A. Whew--Mais oui! My publisher, Ballantine, has posted my tour schedule on www.KatherineNeville.com, which you can see if you click on "Events." I hope I'll see you all there--wherever there may be!
Q. Do you have another novel in progress or in the planning/research stage?
A. I have recently read my old clippings and interviews in preparation for updating of my web site. I have thereby learned--from a 1988 Publishers Weekly interview I did--that apparently I was already working on this next book more than twenty years ago! It's about painters in the 1600s.
I have got my easel and canvases out right now!