Jason talks with Michael Livingston, historian, author, and Professor of Medieval Literature at The Citadel in South Carolina. Michael’s fiction debut was recently released: The Shards of Heaven, a historical fantasy mashup set in the ancient Roman Empire. Jason and Michael talk about the worries of a historian moving into the world to fiction and his passion for the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Plus, we’re giving away a copy of his book to one U.S. and one Canadian commenter. See below for details.
Jason Golomb: You’ve written a lot of in-depth and detailed history like The Battle of Crecy: A Casebook and Owain Glyndwr: A Casebook. Tell us about your efforts involved in crafting non-fiction history versus historical fantasy/fiction.
Michael Livingston: That’s a really interesting question! Though I won the Writers of the Future competition a number of years ago, there’s no question that I am far better known in academic circles than in fiction ones — especially with the discoveries in the new Crécy casebook that you mention. And most people do tend to think of these efforts as entirely different worlds.
From my perspective, though, it doesn’t matter whether I’m trying to convince my non-fiction readers where the Battle of Crécy happened or I’m trying to convince my fiction readers that Juba II of Numidia once held the power of the Trident of Poseidon … in either case, I’m telling a story. The differences are just adherence to a mode of writing.
To put it another way, I don’t use the same speech patterns and vocabulary when I talk to my grandmother that I use when I talk to my college freshmen. But in both cases I’m still speaking, and I might even be trying to get the same point across.
So much of the academic world is tied up in hard facts and the veracity of information. Does your transition into the world of fiction create any credibility issues for you within the world of academia?
I am so happy to say that I’ve received nothing but enthusiastic support from my academic colleagues. I think many academics are closet fiction dreamers, and it’s good to see someone from our “team” make that dream real.
I sure worried about it at one point, though. When I first began to publish short stories, I pondered whether to do so under a pseudonym based on just this concern. One of my professors in graduate school had written a Star Trek: TNG episode, for instance, and she did so under a pen-name because she worried that it would lessen her standing with colleagues.
In the end, though, my feeling has been that my fiction is as much a part of who I am as is my academic work. So hiding it all under a pseudonym just didn’t make sense to me. Plus, Professors J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis didn’t hide their fantasy writings, and things went well enough for them!
Shards of Heaven combines strong elements of history with doses of religion and philosophy, as well as fantasy. How did you approach blending those elements into Shards of Heaven?
I mentioned earlier how I see my fiction and non-fiction writing as aiming for the same basic ends: to tell a story, and to do it well. The same is true of these narrative elements: history, literature, philosophy, theology, archaeology… I see them all as equal perspectives on the “real” truth I’m trying to create or convey. So I don’t know that I’d say I have a conscious approach to blending them together. To tell the story, to form the picture, I simply apply whatever useful tool I have at hand.
You’re currently teaching a class on J.R.R. Tolkien, and you’ve written that the “confluence of history, language, and literature is why I love teaching (and writing about) the works of J.R.R. Tolkien”. Tolkien must clearly be an influence on your approach to writing fiction. Can you tell us how you’ve incorporated Tolkien into Shards of Heaven? What and who are other influences regarding your fictional writing?
I have been profoundly fascinated by Tolkien ever since I read The Lord of the Rings as a kid, and I’ve gone on not only to teach his works but also to publish about them, which is great fun. And Tolkien has been a significant influence on my life: from instilling in me a love of the written word to showing me how a medievalist can incorporate his professional passions into his fiction output.
Perhaps the biggest influence specifically on Shards of Heaven has been in the genesis of the initial scope of the novel. I’ve long been interested in the ways in which Tolkien conceived of his Middle-earth, how it was really intended to exist as a kind of mythic past for the myths of our present. What he achieved in this is simply remarkable.
At the same time, it always bothered me that for all the successes in his composition, Tolkien’s world doesn’t quite fit with our past: not geographically, not technologically, and not culturally. To some extent this was intentional on Tolkien’s part, but it niggled at me just the same: I wanted a myth behind myths that was more real. Inasmuch as such a thing could be done, I wanted it to work. And that, in essence, is the story being born in The Shards of Heaven.
The Shards of Heaven is the first in a planned trilogy. This book has a solid conclusion in and of itself, but the story leaves a myriad of opportunities for readers to reconnect with their favorite characters and follow the historical seeds you’ve planted. Will you give us a glimpse of what you’re planning in Book 2: The Temples of the Ark?
The Temples of the Ark (due out in November 2016) begins a few years after the events of The Shards of Heaven, and it indeed gives us a chance to reconnect with the characters in the first book — plus a few more. Without giving too much away, I can tell you that the characters you’ve grown to love have only begun to scratch the surface of the powers of the Shards, and that their adventure ranges into some really amazing settings and thrilling events. There’s an amazing Roman land battle, a mission to a haunting temple in ruins, the discovery of a new Shard, and the arrival of the greatest threat yet. I’ve loved writing the book, and I think it really catapults the narrative forward.
It’s our tradition at Fantasy Literature to ask those we interview to share your favorite drink with us. I’m guessing that you must love a good Mead or perhaps Limpe? It can be either alcoholic or non – just something you love.
I do love a fine mead — and super extra-bonus points for a Limpë reference! — but the honest and unqualified truth is that my favorite drink is an Old Fashioned. The balance is just delightful.
Readers, comment below for a chance to win a copy of The Shards of Heaven. Include “U.S.” or “Canada” in your post. 1 winner will be chosen from each location.