The Big Idea: Michael Johnston

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Soleri: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. MICHAEL JOHNSTON:
I got my big idea for my novel, Soleri, back when I was an undergraduate, sitting in an art history class. I wanted to write about architecture and history, but I didn’t want to write non-fiction. Everything is ritual, but no one recalls the purpose behind these rituals. See, my big idea was to take what I knew about architecture and history and to meld it with everything I loved about speculative fiction. I’ve taught architecture and practiced in New York and Los Angeles. The empire of the Soleri is still going through the motions, pretending it is virulent and strong when all the life has already poured out of it (if you are starting to think the Soleri empire might be a metaphor for our own, you are on the right track but that’s a different essay). It has witnessed the lives of more men, great and small, than I could ever hold in my head. In fact, it stuck with me for fifteen years. Soleri is as much about history as it is about architecture (although I did have to tone down the descriptions of ancient buildings. I did a lot things between that art history lecture and the time when I started writing speculative fiction. Suddenly that old idea had a fresh meaning, I saw it as the bridge between my old profession and my new one. That’s the moment when things get interesting, but I’ll leave it to the reader to discover what actually hides behind the Shroud Wall and what secrets lie behind the history of the Soleri. Egypt represented the eternal civilization. To do that, I went back to that idea about ancient Egypt. Cleopatra was of Greek origin. What does it take for a civilization to be “too big to fail” — and can any civilization in fact make it to that particular point? I wanted to use my imagination and besides, there are already many wonderful histories of Egypt and Rome on the shelves. But I wouldn’t call it a break. I grew up in rural Ohio and was a constant reader of science fiction and history, and I loved architecture as well. For roughly three thousand years they built a civilization in and around the Nile river. There is a place in the novel when one of my characters thinks: This city (the Soleri capital) has forgotten more history than I can recall. In Soleri, we learn the secrets behind each of those lies. It simply could not be dominated. They are shrouded like their history–the wall they live behind is even called the Shroud Wall. The Persians had come and gone and when the Greeks appeared, they simply integrated themselves into the fabric of Egypt. At least until a few people start to find out the truth behind the empire. So I decided to write about a civilization that was so ancient, that every part of its history had been obscured by time, that its origin had been written and rewritten so many times that the truth behind it had been lost a hundred times over. Share:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to share on Google+ (Opens in new window)Click to share on Reddit (Opens in new window)Click to share on Pinterest (Opens in new window)Click to share on Tumblr (Opens in new window)Click to share on WhatsApp (Opens in new window)Click to email (Opens in new window) That’s what happens in the novel. Of course Julius Caesar put an end to that notion, but it had a good run. Here’s how it worked. It doesn’t exist. So I think it’s worth standing back and considering the idea of a civilization that had always existed and believes that it always will. My novel is about a civilization ruled by a family of gods, but no one has seen these gods, the Soleri, in centuries. Like peeling away the skin of an onion, we have to strip away all the layers of history, all the lies that were placed one on top of the other to form the empire we encounter in the prologue. Follow him on Twitter. One of the lines in that piece sums up the idea perfectly, Before time was the Soleri, and after time the Soleri will be. Those giant pyramids in the sand carried as much mystery and wonder for the Egyptians of 10 BCE as they do for any tourist today. That idea stuck with me. There was something potent about Egypt. The eternal civilization. They are eternal, their existence unquestionable, or so the story goes. It is itself a fiction. Hold on for a moment. Academics theorize that the Egyptians could not imagine the possibility of their civilization ever coming to an end. I never thought I could be an author, so I went with the practical choice and studied architecture. Egyptian society was ancient in a way that we can’t even imagine. The professor was talking about ancient Egypt and how the people of the New Kingdom visited the pyramids, which were constructed during the Old Kingdom (thousands of years earlier) as tourists. In writing his novel Soleri, author Michael Johnston had reason to consider this particular question, and came to a civilization near the Nile River for inspiration. In Soleri, the empire is so old that its people have stopped questioning its legitimacy. That lines sums up a lot of the book. They went on for pages in the early drafts). Everything we first learn about the Soleri and their empire is inverted as the novel progresses. Soleri is about a society that has become its own fiction, a civilization that has come to believe their own lies. Skeptical? Visit the author’s site. Even the Roman Empire was short by comparison. We take apart the history and find something entirely unexpected inside, which takes me back to my big idea. So I decided to look at ancient Egypt as a concept, a speculation, and not a place in history. Three thousand years is nothing to sneeze at!