Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Katherine Neville chats about The Fire

RHYS: I am thrilled today to welcome my dear friend Katherine Neville to Jungle Red Writers. Katherine is best known for her wonderful sweeping historical thriller THE EIGHT. It's one of those books that can't be categorized but is completely compelling. Finally, after years of pleading, she has written the sequel, THE FIRE.

RHYS: Katherine, you are known world-wide for your blockbuster, The Eight. When you wrote it did you ever think it would take off in the way it has?
KATHERINE: THE EIGHT never really "took off" in the way we usually think of bestsellers. The phenomenal thing about the book is that it has sold consistently for more than 20 years--and in nearly 40 languages--without ever appearing atop any major bestseller lists.
The other unique phenomenon I ought to mention, is that I have never met a person of any age--in any country--who has read THE EIGHT only once. It's the kind of book that people go back to over and over and get more from with each visit, and that they pass along to their relatives, friends and loved ones. I'm very fortunate to have written a book that has been cherished, more than it has ever been "marketed."

RHYS: What drove you to write a sequel--your fans or unfinished business with your characters?

KATHERINE: Well, given what I've just said above, it's a miracle that I was ever able to bring myself to do a sequel at all! My husband keeps telling people it's the bravest thing I've ever done--and in hindsight I'd have to concur. I had discovered how to do the sequel in 1992, and I tried to write it several times--but "Life just kept on happening" and events threw many detours in my way. Once I actually got going on THE FIRE, I immediately that it was the kind of challenge I really needed. I'm not the kind of writer who can just "recline on her backlist," as we say. And I always recognized that I couldn't "just" do a sequel. I never thought in terms of the book being "as good as" or "better" than THE EIGHT. But I realized that whatever might follow the story of THE EIGHT, despite being a continuation, at the same time had to be completely new, fresh, and different. The thing that readers have always loved most about THE EIGHT was that it was unique. It is still unique. I knew that I had to be unique again.

RHYS: Tell us a little about The Fire.

KATHERINE: We step onto the page thirty years after the events that we lived throughout THE EIGHT--both in the historic and modern plots. Right off the bat, we learn that an important piece of the chess set that was buried at the end of THE EIGHT has just--impossibly--surfaced (in Albania and Russia, respectively.) The children of the earlier characters have no idea what happened in the "Game" that had provided the previous plot. Alexandra Solarin arrives at her mother Cat's retreat in Colorado to learn that her mother has vanished and has left scattered clues for her, as to the underlying mystery. So far, we are in familiar territory: puzzles, encryption, chess, improbable characters, exotic locales...

RHYS: How would you describe the genre you seem to have created?

KATHERINE: Well, it's true that everyone like Publishers Weekly is now giving me the credit for creating the genre or "paving the way" for books like Da Vinci Code and other "esoteric thrillers" as they are calling them. But when THE EIGHT was first published no one could describe it--it was reviewed as history, modern, mystery, thriller, romance--even as sci-fi/fantasy by Locus magazine, and I was dubbed the female Umberto Eco, the female Alexandre Dumas, CHarles Dickens--even the female Stephen Spielberg!
However, I myself have never been confused about what I'm writing. It's the oldest genre of literature that we have in print: the Quest Novel. Just think of how familiar the quest is: Jason seeking the Golden Fleece, Parsifal's quest for the Holy Grail, Odysseus and Dorothy of Oz seeking "home" in their own ways. And the grandfather of them all: Gilgamesh, king of Sumeria in Mesopotamia--seeking the elixir of life! I'm very proud that my publisher put on the inside of THE FIRE, as the book category: "Quests-Adventures." It's time this wonderful kind of story made a comeback.

RHYS: How did your background prepare you to write this kind of epic novel. I know you were a computer whiz and you'd worked in North Africa, but do you also have a background in world history?

KATHERINE: I actually got terrible marks in history--and world geography too. And I never liked traveling very much--I still hate timetables and living out of a suitcase. The only way I ever learned about places was by going to live and work there. Luckily, (though it didn't always feel so lucky at the time) I had to work at a lot of jobs to support myself, which took me to live in a lot of places. I always tell young writers that the two bset ways to gather material for research: get a job and get a Eurail pass. "Being there" gives you a real sense of verisimilitude--like what you first smell when you enter a city--each city and quarter has its own unique aroma--tobacco or jasmine or hashish or diesel fuel or baking bread--and of what ingredients are in the foods, what the music is like, the clothes on the streets, the trees and plants.

RHYS: As a person who writes two books a year, it must be lovely to bring out one book every few years and have time to relax in between. Tell us how you divide that time (oh and mention the adorable Karl)

KATHERINE: Relax? What's that? Actually, it's been more like every TEN years per book, for me--though that absurd self-indulgence really must stop. (Ask my publisher.) My excuse: Life just keeps on happening. For instance, I live with the world's most famous brain scientist--Karl Pribram--who is an extremely distracting fellow. Karl is always taking off for some remote scientific conference in the inaccessible regions of "you-name-it." That's how we just happened to be living in northern Germany when the Berlin Wall came down, and in Moscow when the "oligarchs" were running things and the Chechen mafia did a "mob hit" at the table next to ours in a restaurant, and other unique episodes that I've managed to toss into my books over the years.
But the only way to write a book, as we quickly learn, is to stop running around, and to sit on your bottom at a desk all day--and WRITE.

RHYS: What is next for you?

KATHERINE: This incredible thing happened: just before THE FIRE was published (October 14, 2008) I was asked by my publisher to pull all my press clippings from THE EIGHT to use for publicity--so I did, and I read a few of them. And I thereby learned that I had told Publishers Weekly--in my first interview as an author, more than 20 years before--that this would be the next book I would be writing! (Which perhaps goes to show that it really takes me TWENTY years to write a book instead of ten. Luckily, I have lots of partly-finished books in my drawer.)
It's about painters in the early 1600s, a time of great ferment in the art world, because the Dutch had recently invented oil paints, a revolution in technology that obviated the politics of vying for large commissions on the walls of buildings--and which soon permitted artists to travel, to view each other's works, and also opened the door to women painters on an international scale. An extremely interesting era for someone, like me, who used to be a painter.

RHYS: and a couple of silly questions that we always inflict on our guests:
Which Hepburn are you Katherine or Audrey?
(Actually it's Katharine, not Katherine!) That's a good question! Both were feisty but glamorous when young, and productive yet elegant when old. I wish I could be BOTH.

Make Dinner or Make Reservations?
Again, it's both. I make reservations--then I go back in the restaurant kitchen and find out how the chef did it! Then I go home and do it too!

RHYS: Katherine, thank you for stopping by. I always enjoy our chats and I love the little gifts that arrive from you, out of the blue. I have the owl with the sapphire eyes staring at me on my desk as I write!
(Photo Credit for Katherine's photo: Kelley Campbell Photography)


  1. Oh--we are so honored to have you here!

    I remember well, reading The Eight. I was riveted. Couldn't believe it. It's so entirely of itself. Funny to say, but it's hard to think about someone writing it. It just--exists. Almost like history.

    Anyway--that *is* a long time between books. Did you really use the whole time writing? Or when you figured it out--did you just power through it?

    And can you imagine another one? (Yes, greedy greedy readers..)

  2. Welcome to Jungle Red Katherine! I haven't read the Eight so now I have two to look forward to while you work on the next:).

    Like Hank, I'm fascinated by the ten years in between. Seems like it would be very hard to keep any kind of momentum going...

  3. I have not read The Eight. I do hope I live long enough to read the art history novel, being a professional artist in one of my careers. Now that sounds fabulous!


  4. Welcome to Jungle Red, Katherine.

    I remember reading The Eight, too, and not knowing the "quest" label, remember thinking of it as a wonderful adventure novel.

    I love history and am totally intrigued by both the Fire and the early 1600s art scene.