Monday, December 18, 2023

Q&A with Michael J. Cooper



Michael J. Cooper is the author of the new historical novel Wages of Empire. His other books include Foxes in the Vineyard. Also a physician, he is based in Northern California.


Q: What inspired you to write Wages of Empire?


A: The event that inspired me to write Wages of Empire is the same event that inspired me to begin writing historical fiction in the first place—the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.


Rabin, a decorated Israeli general, had begun the peace process a few years before in the form of the Oslo Accords, which were designed to move incrementally to build trust between the two sides. And the process was working.


However, as the accords were implemented, resistance to it began. In Israel and Palestine this resistance came from a seemingly bizarre and unholy alliance: on one extreme, ultra-nationalistic Jewish settlers, and on the other extreme, militant Palestinians such as Hamas—strange bedfellows in their vehement opposition to Rabin’s peace-making efforts.


And this angry resistance spilled over—into Israel, into the Jewish Diaspora, into the Arab street, and into the Arab Diaspora.


In Israel, this resistance reached a fever pitch in 1995 prior to parliamentary elections. Rabin’s efforts were not only rejected by Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing allies, but Rabin was personally vilified as a crypto-Nazi and a traitor to Israel.


And after a huge pro-Oslo/pro-Rabin demonstration in Tel Aviv on Nov. 4, 1995, Rabin was killed by a right-wing Israeli zealot with two shots to the back.


The shock to the Israeli public and among people throughout the world was profound. After Rabin’s death, and with the ascension of a right-wing Israeli government under Netanyahu, the peace process grew dormant and eventually died.


For catharsis, I turned to writing historical fiction set in the Holy Land at pivotal points of history.


This was my way of trying to channel my grief into something of value, to insinuate a message of coexistence and peace into a vehicle that I hoped might change a few hearts and minds.


I began with historical fiction set in British Mandatory Palestine in 1948—Foxes in the Vineyard. This was followed by The Rabbi’s Knight, set in the Holy Land at the twilight of the First Crusade in 1290. And my current book is Wages of Empire, largely set in Ottoman Palestine at the beginning of WWI.


A long answer, but that’s what continues to inspire me to write historical fiction.


Q: The novel includes both fictional and historical characters—what did you see as the right balance between fiction and history as you wrote the book?


A: The wonderful thing about the crafting of historical fiction is the way that historical events and historical characters provide the scaffolding for stories that are at once, very old, and still being written since “history” is a continuum and flows from the past into our present.


It’s also invigorating to create compelling fictional characters—for their nobility, humor, and brilliance, for their passions, human failings, and for their interesting, ingenious, and sometimes evil designs. These fictional characters allow me to play within the historical scaffolding.


I will leave it to the reader to determine if I’ve hit the “right balance” of historical and fictional characters in Wages of Empire,” but what is true for me in writing about all my characters are those wondrous times when the character takes over, dictating the action and dialogue. At these times all I have to do is transcribe. 

Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I researched the historical backdrop for the book by reading iconic histories about the roots and initial months of the First World War.


I’ve included some of these at the end of the book in a section called “suggestions for further reading.” To capture the essence of the historical figures, I devoured everything I could find in the way of autobiographies, biographies, and their collected letters.


In the course of that research, I was often astonished by fascinating elements of hidden history, unsolved mysteries, and interesting character traits. I also came across some engaging and bizarre characters that insisted on being included in the final draft.


In this manner, storylines arose organically from the historical timeline and from the historical characters themselves—creating a portrait that could be enhanced by the fictional characters who allowed for additional surprises, plot twists, betrayals, loves, and alliances.


And, as the book progressed, I loved watching the weave tighten as storylines were drawn together.


I wouldn’t want to issue any “spoiler alerts,” but the hidden history that I uncovered during my research for Wages of Empire which surprised me were the very clear bits of evidence that implicated Kaiser Wilhelm II as having acted in many ways to bring on the First World War.


Though I would hasten to add, he certainly wasn’t singly responsible for it.


However, as a narcissist in control of a global power, his unpredictability, his need to be acknowledged, his arrogance, his sensitivity to perceived slights, he excitement at the idea of flexing his muscles, his sense of entitlement, his posturing that raised tensions in Europe, his clumsy and often insulting personal diplomacy—all these combined to bring Germany closer and closer to war.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: Wages of Empire is a novel about war that is being published in a time of war—both in Europe and in the Middle East.


I would hope that the reader can appreciate the richness of this historical wartime setting since it offers all the elements for a compelling story: drama, heroism, conflict, tension, intrigue, action, betrayal, heartbreak, and romance.


Indeed, the effect of armed conflict on history is itself dramatic since war is an accelerant to history, and often with dramatic changes in human and natural topography.


I would also hope that the reader feels the compelling tension between knowing and unknowing as they engage with the historical characters in the grip of their threatening present, infused with their anxiety at the uncertainty of outcome, their unknowable future.


And that the reader, knowing their future, might be touched by the poignancy of their ignorance.


Because now it’s our turn to be anxious in our own ignorance in a time of uncertainty—with war in Ukraine, the Middle East, and at a time of civil strife in our own country that seems to border on civil war—our turn to share in the anxiety of having no idea as to the outcome of all this conflict.


Lastly, I would hope that Wages of Empire, being a novel about war in a time of war, will hold up a mirror to time past that reflects on current wars and present uncertainties.


And I hope the reader will ask questions—what do present wars have to do with the past? What do our present travails have to do with history? Because the answer is…everything.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: That’s easy. I’m putting the finishing touches on the next book in the Empire Series, Crossroads of Empire, which immediately follows Wages of Empire. I’m determined to see it published in 2024.


And after that will come the next in the series, End of Empire. At that point, I’ll probably leave it as a trilogy. Or not.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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