If people think the words "electrical engineering professor" and "historical fiction novelist" do not belong in the same sentence, then they have not met Dr. John Cressler from Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. A faculty member since 2002 with a research focus on nanoscale-engineering techniques that enable high-speed electronics, Dr. Cressler spends his spare time writing fiction. Emeralds of the Alhambra, his debut novel, and book one in the Anthems of al-Andalus series, will be released in June 2013 by Sunbury Press.
Emeralds is historical fiction set in medieval Muslim Spain and deals with issues of tolerance, religious dialogue and interfaith love. The novel illustrates a time in history when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in harmony. Its themes of religious tolerance are of great significance in today’s society and will resonate with a diverse audience.
Dr. Cressler will present Emeralds of the Alhambra followed by a Q & A session and book signing at the Georgia Tech Barnes & Noble on Tuesday, June 25 at 6:30 p.m.
Read the following interview with Dr. Cressler for additional insight on his writing process, motivations and future plans:
One does not normally put the words ‘engineering professor’ and ‘novelist’ in the same sentence. How did Emeralds of the Alhambra come about?
No argument there! I have always enjoyed writing, and while it has actually been a lifelong dream of mine to write a novel, somehow I never quite felt ready. Novel writing is an intimidating business! I have always been an avid reader, and after a high school/college infatuation with science fiction and fantasy, I moved into more mainstream literary fiction and to this day that is pretty much all I read. With each new novel, I would find myself wondering what it would be like to try my hand at fiction. Interestingly, however, the opportunities for writing non-fiction books seemed to materialize naturally as a part of my career as a professor. And it is MUCH easier to get non-fiction published! When I finished my first book, a graduate-level textbook in my research field, I found the process deeply satisfying, and wanted more. My fourth non-fiction book, Silicon Earth, was a little different in genre, in that it was for a general, non-specialist audience, and I got permission to use a nontraditional, breezy and fun narrative style. That worked so well that when I finished it, I decided it was finally time to explore whether I had a novel in me. The whole prospect was a little scary because the canvas is so large. What type of fiction should it be? I have a deep love of history and really enjoy well-executed historical fiction, so I took the plunge and started there. It was love at first sight!
How does writing non-fiction compare with writing fiction?
Good question. They are very different in many obvious ways: tone, narrative style, subject matter. I find that writing fiction requires much more contact with your material, an obsession of sorts. I think what I most enjoy about writing fiction are the nearly constant unanticipated discoveries in plot and character. The creative energy this produces is profound! Let me give you a feel for this. In writing Emeralds, I first mapped out the synopsis in a few pages, to bind the themes and characters and historical events that I wanted to address. Then I expanded that synopsis into a chapter-by-chapter draft, each of which was maybe a quarter page of what factually happens in that chapter. This allows me to make sure all the plot twists and timing angles gel properly with the overall story trajectory. I did this for the whole book before beginning my writing. Then, when it was time to compose, I took the first chapter summary and expanded it into the various chapter scenes, fleshing the chapter out to about a page, no more, so that I had a good sense of the story that would transpire. Then I set this aside and began composing. The magical part of the process is that inevitably the characters and plot threads begin to deviate from the plan, assuming a life of their own. I love this! Almost on a daily basis, as I was driving to work, thinking about my characters, it would jump into my head, “Well, of course, she needs to do this!” or “Obviously this needs to happen!” Things I had never anticipated before actually doing the writing. That creative element is unique to fiction and I find it deeply satisfying.
How did you end up with medieval Muslim Spain as a setting for your novel?
Well, after I narrowed it down to historical fiction, I spent quite a bit of time on the web just exploring history. I have always loved European history, so one magical day I stumbled upon medieval Muslim Spain. The more I explored the more amazed I was, particularly since it is a period of history so rich in its message for our modern world and yet so little appreciated by most people. Imagine, a period of more than 300 years with Muslims, Jews and Christians living in harmony! An existence proof we owe it to the world to recall. I was quickly locked in on medieval Muslim Spain. At that point, I ordered a ton of books on medieval Iberia and began to immerse myself in the period, to learn the history. I was after a short span of years that was of pivotal importance, and yet contained the themes I was after. That led me to Granada, the Alhambra Palace, Sultan Muhammad V and Ibn al-Khatib, and the Castilian Civil War (1367-1369). I was set for historical backdrop. I knew I wanted to wrap the book around a love story between a Muslim and a Christian, and that fell right into place.
Tell us about the Alhambra.
The Alhambra—what a magical place! The Alhambra is the best preserved medieval Islamic palace in the western world, perhaps in the whole world. It is located in Granada, in Andalusia (al-Andalus in Arabic), in extreme southern Spain. “Alhambra” refers to the entire walled fortress that clings to the long and narrow red-soiled ridge overlooking Granada. The red hill itself is the source of the palace’s name (‘al-hamra’ is Arabic for ‘red’). Unlike today, in the fourteenth century the towers and walls of the Alhambra would have been white-washed and the hill laid bare for defense, a stunning white on red contrast. The fortress is compact, as dictated by the terrain, about 100 yards wide and 700 yards long, and is nestled within the walled and garrisoned city of Granada. The Alhambra complex contained the Royal Palace of the Sultan, the complete functioning town that supported it, all of the judicial and administrative services required to run the Nasrid Kingdom, and a separately castled garrison. The Alhambra and the walled city of Granada itself were, for all intents and purposes, impregnable, and were never captured by force of arms, only surrendered (in 1492 to Isabel and Fernando, the “Catholic Monarchs”). The Alhambra’s population in 1367 was roughly 2,000, including a garrison of perhaps 300 elite troops, compared to about 65,000 inhabitants in Granada proper, a very large city by fourteenth-century standards.
Tell us about the background research you did for the book. Did you visit Spain?
I spent almost nine months on background research before laying pen to paper. The credenza in my office at home where I write is lined with over 10 feet of references on all things al-Andalus, which I digested. As I describe in my blog entry, in the fall of 2010 I spent two weeks in Spain doing on-site research: Seville, Córdoba, Jaen and Granada. I had all I needed factually at that point, but I still needed to absorb the scenes, burn them into my mind’s eye. See the sky, the landscape, the architecture, and most importantly close my eyes and bring the palace to life as it would have been 600 years ago. There is no substitute for this type of on-the-ground research. I virtually lived in the Alhambra for six days, and that proved invaluable when writing. Fortunately, the Royal Palace itself is mostly preserved in the same form it was when my story takes place.
What are your writing habits?
Like most novelists, I find that I need significant “face-time” with my characters and story. I am a morning person, up at 5:15 a.m. during the work week. After prayer time, breakfast and the paper, I retreat to my office by 7:15 a.m. and work without interruption until about 9:30 a.m.-ish Monday through Friday. I do not write on the weekends, but instead prefer to do some mental mull over of my characters and story. Each morning when I start writing, I first re-read and tinker with my previous section or two, then I begin new material once I have found my groove. I repeatedly write, re-read and revise as I compose, so I manage only a few pages a day. I aim for a chapter a week. Slowly but surely the novel grows. I wrote Emeralds in about 15 months. When I close down each morning, I do a quick catch up on email, then off to campus. I still manage to beat all of my graduate students into the office!
Tell us about your prose style.
I utilize a third-person/objective/limited narrative scheme. The narrator sees all but does not know all. It is a very visual style. The reader stands with the narrator and is invited to observe and draw their own conclusions of what they see (the so-called camera-eye perspective). The action unfolds in the present tense, which I find lends dramatic weight to the story. I lean towards impressionistic descriptions of places, sights, sounds and smells. One of my major jobs in writing historical fiction is to create a well-developed sense of the time and place in the reader’s mind, and I find this impressionistic approach works well. I also adopt a modest amount of magical realism, choosing to bring certain inanimate things to life—in Emeralds, for instance, the constellations are participants in the story. My writing style is perhaps a bit unusual, but I think it works quite well.
Emeralds of the Alhambra is book one of a series called Anthems of al-Andalus. What comes next? And when will book two be out?
Yes, Emeralds is the first in a series of at least three novels dealing with medieval Muslim Spain. Book two is called Shadows in the Shining City and is set in late tenth-century Córdoba, at the height of the Golden Age of the Umayyad Caliphate. A remarkable period of cultural and intellectual enlightenment. This period is also the pinnacle of convivencia (coexistence), the time when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in harmony. I also tell the story of how it all unraveled. So Anthems of al-Andalus is not a trilogy in the traditional sense, with one book following the next chronologically. Book three will come back to Granada, but in the late fifteenth century at the fall of the Nasrid Kingdom. There will, however, be a linkage between all three books, so don’t despair! I am presently 450 pages into Shadows, with a target delivery date of early fall. I expect it will be released in the summer of 2014. It is a fantastic story of epic proportions that I lifted straight out of history. Stay tuned! Will the series go beyond a trilogy? I suspect so. There is just too much to talk about in medieval Muslim Spain. I will say, however, that I am already getting very interested in medieval Muslim Sicily, which also has a fascinating history.
Are all of your novels going to be centered on love stories?
Absolutely! The timelessness of love is the most riveting subject I can imagine writing about. Big, epic themes wrapped about love stories—my life’s blood!
Will you ever go back to writing non-fiction or is your heart now firmly entrenched in fiction?
Good question. From a technical perspective, I have published five books now in my field of study, including two for general audiences, so that is pretty much covered. To be honest, though, I find writing fiction to be one of the most creatively satisfying things I have ever done. So, for the foreseeable future, novels it is!
What can you tell us about the underlying religious themes in the book? How are these themes reflected in your personal feelings about religion and conflict?
Great question. While my principal goal with Emeralds was to create an engaging historical novel that folks enjoy, and that would also bring alive an important period of time now largely forgotten, my motives in writing the book actually had a deeper thrust. I wanted to remind folks that there was an existence proof from the pages of history, one that transpired over several hundred years, when Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together in relative peace, sharing languages and customs, whispering words of love across religious boundaries, embracing a level of mutual acceptance and respect unimaginable today. Together, they launched one of the great intellectual and cultural flowerings of history. In my opinion, our modern world aches for a future graced with religious tolerance and peace. How do we best get there? Well, I would argue that first you need to recall that once upon a time it was in fact a reality. And if it existed once, it can exist again. Call me an idealist, but that is what I believe. We deserve a peaceful world. I chose to use interfaith love as a tool for breaking open this history, because love is the great universal. By that I mean love transcends cultural, religious and historical boundaries. It always has; it always will.
What do your colleagues and students think of your “2nd career” as a novelist?
I think the standard response I get from colleagues is “How on earth do you find the time?!” Well, it is certainly true that I don’t sleep much (who does?!), but to be candid, I have always made the time to do the things I am truly passionate about. And this is clearly one. I have found students to be exceptionally interested in the fact that their professor writes fiction. I talk about it in class. They ask questions about it. Hopefully, they will read it and like it, too! I strongly suspect they will.
Who is your favorite character in Emeralds? Why?
Mmmm… That’s a tough one. As a writer, you put some of yourself in all of your characters. But, if I had to pick one…well, I have had the great blessing in my life of being surrounded by very bright, strong-willed females (my wife, my two daughters and now my daughter-in-law, to name a few), and thus I would have to say that Layla is my favorite. And she’s certainly the most fun to write about.