First review is in! Kirkus Reviews called Wheel of the Fates “Entertaining historical fiction, overstuffed with bloodshed, drama and desire.” Click this to get your copy at: https://amzn.to/2RnWwMa
The following interview with me originally appeared January 21, 2014 on Flashlight Commentary (http://flashlightcommentary.blogspot.com).
Welcome to Flashlight Commentary. To start things off, please tell us a bit about Anvil of God.
It is a story about what happens to the family of Charles the Hammer when he dies. The power behind the Merovingian kings (recently made famous by Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code) Charles wants to take the throne for his children. Only one thing stands in his way. He is dying. He tries to bequeath the kingdom to his three sons and marry his daughter off to a Lombardy prince (to secure his southern border), but the only thing to reign after he dies is chaos. Son battles son, Christianity battles paganism and his daughter must choose between love and her family’s ambition.
What inspired you to write this story?
I had studied Charlemagne in college and read the Song of Roland, an epic poem about one of Charlemagne’s greatest knights. I remember thinking that it would the basis for a great novel. I always thought that if I were to write a novel, I would start there. Years later when I finally decided to write it, I had to decide whether to follow the true history of Charlemagne and Roland or follow the legend. When I did the research, I fell in love with the history.
What research went into Anvil of God and did you discover anything particularly surprising while investigating the background material for you book?
Researching that period of history is a bit of a challenge. There are very few sources that bring all the pieces together into one place. I had to research Bavarian history, Alleman (German) history, Thuringian (Flemish) history, French history, Italian history, Church history. Then, after I had put the timeline together, I struggled with where to start. I couldn’t seem to find a good place. I kept moving back in time to discover something compelling that would capture my (and the reader’s) interest. I found that the story kept getting more interesting, the further back in time I moved. I ended up so far back in time, that the Anvil doesn’t even mention Charlemagne – it is the story of his parents and the conflicts that led to the family’s rise to power.
What drew you to this particular period and why use it as the backdrop of your story?
One story in particular captured my interest. Charles the Hammer’s daughter fled his court to find love amongst his enemies. It was, according to some historians, the biggest scandal of the Eighth century. How could that have come to pass? How did they meet? When did they fall in love? How did she get away? How did she cross the continent on her own? She must have been quite a character. When I read her story, I knew I had found a place to start.
Another question from my research begged an answer. I knew that Christianity had become the dominant religion on the continent (the Merovingian kings converted two centuries earlier), but so much of the Church history of that time period had to do with converting the pagans (and/or suppressing the pagans). How could that be? St. Boniface, who is a main character in the story, made his mark doing missionary work in what is now Germany and Bavaria. If Christianity was so dominant, why was all that missionary work necessary?
That led me to make the conflict of religions (and the power associated with it) a key factor of the story.
The historic record for this period is sketchy at best. How did you approach composing a novel from a story with so many unknown elements?
Actually, by writing the novel, I got to fill in the gaps. I knew what happened, but I didn’t know why. And you can’t understand why unless you figure out what motivates the people who shaped the history. So, when you get down to it. Anvil is a story about a family. And by telling their story – what motivates them, and the choices they make – the history falls into place. I didn’t try to write the history, I tried to tell the story of a family in crisis. Only this family’s choices affect an entire continent.
You probably have many, but is there one scene that you particularly enjoyed writing?
I enjoyed bringing to life a religion about which we know very little. Having been raised in the Catholic Church, I was very familiar with the rites and prayers that surround that faith. What rites and prayers would bring the pagan faith to life? There is a scene about mid-way through the book with a sibyl that seemed to come out of nowhere for me. It was so otherworldly, that I took great delight in writing it.
What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author?
The sex scenes were difficult, at first. So much has been written about sex – and so much of it poorly – that I struggled with finding the right tone. I didn’t want to have the characters kiss and then fade to black. I felt like it was dishonest for me as an author to shutter such a big window into their characters.
But the language for sex has been so overdone, I agonized over the first scenes I wrote. A writing professor eventually helped me out. She said sex between two people is so intimate that people create their own language for it; they establish their own rituals. So, if you are writing about sex, it must be intimate to that character. It must use language that that character would use. Writing about sex should provide a unique insight into the character. If you are writing to titillate you reader (or yourself for that matter) you are doing it for the wrong reasons. After I understood that, it became easy.
Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the overall story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time with or expanded on?
There were a lot of scenes that never made the final cut. My problem, as an author, (or so my editors tell me) is that I like to tell ALL the story. I take out the mystery. You see the story from every perspective. What they’ve taught me, is that sometimes it is better for the reader to wander around in the dark – just like the characters – to build some suspense for the resolution.
Fortunately, I have some good editors. Unfortunately, some of my favorite scenes had to be cut.
If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why?
I would love to meet Charles. The man was a force of nature. He literally conquered a continent and saved Christianity in Europe. Bradius would be my second choice because his character is so complex. I’d love to see the world from his perspective – as painful as it is. I’d also love to meet Sunni, but I doubt she would take time to bother with me. She too was a force of nature and didn’t suffer fools lightly.
What do you hope readers come away with after reading your work?
I hope they put down the book and say “Wow! What a great story.” Then, I hope they say, “I can’t wait for Book II.”
Finally, what is next for you? Any new projects waiting in the wings?
I’m about halfway through Anvil’s sequel “Wheel of the Fates” which picks up the story two months after Anvil’s conclusion. I’m also working on a novel that is somewhat closer to our timeframe and perhaps more familiar to readers. It’s called “Sin of Omission.” It’s the not-so-pretty story of Ben Franklin as a young man.
For those who wanted to see the whole review, here it is…
Anno Domini 714
Grimoald took off his helmet as he crossed the threshold of the candle-lit shrine of St. Lambert. The young knight’s long, dark hair was matted and the dust of a hard ride covered his face. He crossed himself, his movements constricted by the armored plates strapped to his arms, legs and chest and made his way to the altar. There, he knelt, placed his helmet on the floor and drew his sword. He held it aloft, kissed its blade and laid it before the altar with reverence, matching its placement to the arms of the cross. Next, he prostrated himself before the altar, spreading his armored limbs so that they too matched the arms of the cross. He began to pray.
“Veni Creator Spiritus, Mentes tuorum visita.” Grimoald had ridden all night in hopes of receiving his father’s last blessing, only to find that he had arrived too late. Pippin II had succumbed to dropsy just hours before Grimoald’s arrival. Distraught, Grimoald had chosen to find solace in the chapel of his mentor, the murdered Saint Lambert, where he would pray for the soul of his father.
“Imple superna grati quae tu creasti pectora. Amen.” It had been three years since the good saint had given Grimoald the gift of the Holy Ghost on the day he became a knight. Following three days and nights of fasting and prayer, Lambert had touched Grimoald’s forehead with the palm of his hand and opened him to the light of God. From that day forward, his sword belonged to the Almighty. He lay prostrate before Him now, in complete subjugation. He intended to remain prostrate all day.
He first dedicated his vigil to honor his mentor, the saint. His prayers begged St. Lambert to intercede on behalf of his father. But he also asked the saint to seek the Lord’s blessing and guidance for himself, because he, Grimoald, was about to become the most powerful man on the continent.
Dukes of every region swore allegiance to the king, but ultimately served his “mayors of the palace.” These were the King’s premier military and government leaders. As mayor of Austrasia, Grimoald’s father, Pippin of Herstal, had become the most powerful mayor of all time. He had subdued neighboring Neustria and lorded over the two largest regions of the kingdom. A powerful warrior and statesmen, Pippin had laid the foundation for combining the commerce of the Neustrians with the grain and landed wealth of the Austrasians. He next aligned their military might into one fighting force. Together, they were now financially and militarily the strongest force on the continent.
As the eldest of Pippin’s sons, Grimoald was next in line. “…in saeculorum saecula. Amen.”
News of his father’s death was something that Grimoald had feared all his life. But his father had schooled him against grief. Becoming Mayor was a moment for which one had best be prepared. And Grimoald was. He had known for many years what he wished to do as Mayor. He would become a warrior priest. He would dispel paganism and bring glory to God and the Merovingian Kings. And the Church, he believed, was the key to success.
The Roman Empire had failed because it had no higher calling. The rule of law had been based solely on the might of those enforcing it. And when the empire no longer had the might to enforce its rule from Rome, power had shifted to the landed estates and the empire cracked like ice covering the Seine. The vestiges of the empire remained in the houses ruling Gaul, but those who ruled were nothing more than warlords. Each served his individual interests under the king. Each served for the sake of power and succession alone. This doomed them all to constant war and bloodshed.
“I will be different,” Grimoald thought, unintentionally interrupting his prayer. “It will all be different.”
Grimoald regretted not having seen his father before he passed from this world. He had loved and feared the man. Yet, his father had also been weak in many ways. Grimoald had detested that Pippin consorted with a woman out of wedlock and fathered a bastard, an arrogant ruffian named Charles. There was even talk that the woman’s family had murdered Saint Lambert when the holy man had criticized his father’s affair as “an affront to God.”
A priest and his acolyte genuflected near the altar. From his prone position, Grimoald could only see the hems of their robes as they straightened to approach the altar. He heard the priest place the chalice on the altar and begin to pray aloud.
“In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spirtus Sancti. Amen,” the priest said. “Introibo ad altare Dei.”
Grimoald and the acolyte answered, taking up the familiar response. “Ad Deum qui laetificat iuventutem meam.” Grimoald felt his body relax. He closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against the cool stone of the floor.
He did not hear the knife being drawn from its scabbard. Grimoald only heard his voice joining that of the priest praying in the language of God’s holy mass. “Qui fecit caelum et terram.”
Likewise, he did not hear, but rather felt the impact of the dagger as it was thrust under his ribs. An explosion of air escaped his lungs through the newfound rent in his body. Before he could move, the attacker knelt on his back and the knife struck again. This time it sliced across the soft tissue at his throat, ensuring that Grimoald would remain prostrate throughout the day.
Grimoald’s murder sparked the civil war that marks the rise of the Carolingian Kings. His mother, Plectrude, imprisoned the bastard Charles and named her eight-year old grandson Theudoald as Mayor. Theudoald lasted a year. Charles escaped, seized his father’s treasure and declared himself, mayor. He spent the next ten years battling his father’s wife, allies and enemies, until the Neustrian opposition was broken.
The ensuing 17 years were no less violent as Charles brought to heel every region of the Frankish Kingdom. He shed the blood of the Alemans, the Burgunidans, the Saxons, the Sweves, the Bavarians and the Gascons of Aquitaine. Charles is most famous for stopping the “Saracen” invasion at Poitiers in 732. Since the Saracen were followers of Muhammad, historians have credited Charles with saving Christianity in the Western world from the Islamic expansion that had swept much of the Mediterranean and the African continent. It was at Poitiers that Charles earned his nickname “Martel” or “the Hammer.”
Although an additional three Merovingian Kings were elevated during the reign of Charles Martel, only one held any real power. The rest were considered “rois féants,”or “puppet kings.” When the last of these, Theudoald IV, died in 737, Charles did not bother to elevate another. At Charles’s death in 741, he ruled alone as mayor of the palace. For four years, the Merovingian Kings had been relegated to being little more than a memory. Charles lay claim to the allegiance of all the noble families from the Rhine to the Pyrenees and planned to leave the kingdom in the hands of his three sons, Carloman, Pippin III (the Younger) and Gripho.
When I was in the fourth grade, Miss Nichols introduced a new girl to our class named Laurie MacElhenny. She had brown hair, hazel-green eyes, freckles and more importantly, a father named, Hugh. Also known as “Crazy Legs MacElhenny,” Hugh MacElhenny, was a celebrated open-field running back signed by the New York Giants. They had just moved to our small town. The news of Laurie and her father rippled through Todd Elementary School in a wave of whispers that could defy the speed of any technology available today. And, of course, every boy in the fourth grade immediately fell in love with her, myself included.
This was no hormonal crush. I was only nine at the time – there wouldn’t be a whiff of testosterone until I was well into the eighth grade – but my “love” for Laurie was no less intoxicating. I, and the rest of the fourth grade boys, had a fixation on her that was all consuming. None of us ever spoke of this to her, of course. In those days, we loved from afar. But, she was all I/we could think about. I even wrote a poem.
Not a good idea when you have two older brothers.
I knew it was risky. They were always on the lookout for any sign of weakness they could exploit. But I was confident. The poem was safely hidden away, one among three hundred sheets of white, lined paper bound inside my mammoth, grey, three-ring, school binder.
“What were you writing the other day?”
“I saw you.”
“It was nothin.”
“Gimme that notebook.”
Still, I was cool. There was no way they would flip through every page. They didn’t have the patience. My face was a mask of unconcern.
Until they found it. And started reading it aloud. With every bit of drama worthy of Elizabethan actors. To this day I can still feel the flush of my cheeks turning crimson.
I learned at an early age that while our thoughts are our own, what is put down on paper is for everyone.
And therein lies the nature of writer’s block. You. Will. Be. Judged. In the mind, our thoughts are free to float and swirl with reckless abandon. Ideas ebb and flow like the tides. Suppositions and arguments twist with the winds of our subconscious. Distilling these myriad notions into one thought, one focus, one sentence is a declaration. It says, “This is who I am. This is what I believe.” Writing defines us.
And that can be a scary. When I first sat down to write Anvil of God, I didn’t know where to start. I tried to imagine a scene between Charlemagne’s father and the last of the Merovingian Kings…just to create some character interaction. Four hours later, I shut down the computer. I was shaking. The characters had run amok and the scene I had written was so disturbing that I couldn’t look at it for three days. I had written that? (It still scares me).
I understood then what writers talk about when referring to their “muse.” (Okay, mine is a dark muse, but it’s still a muse). When I had recovered from the shock, I knew there was no going back. Writing opens a window to the soul.
And yet we do it. We put ourselves down on paper, knowing that we will be judged.
It takes an enormous act of hubris. What could I possibly have to write that is worthy of being read? It’s a very high bar.
Hence the blank page.