Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Q&A with J.F. Hughes



J.F. Hughes is the author of the new novel The Gardens of Byzantium. He is also a property manager and a music teacher.


Q: What inspired you to write The Gardens of Byzantium, and how did you create your characters Asana and Antonius?


A: I often listen to instrumental music while reading. One day, there happened to be a serenade by Antonin Dvorak playing while I was reading descriptions of the Great Palace of Constantinople. The combination of the music and the description planted the seed that eventually grew into The Gardens of Byzantium.


And of course, I wanted readers to experience this musical synergy too. So I made sure to include a playlist of classical selections with the book, including Dvorak’s Serenade for the chapter in which the gardens are described. 


The characters Asana and Antonius developed independently of each other, but I realized that they belonged together as they developed.


Antonius (who at the time had no name) was imagined to be sort of a disillusioned, but still respected, outcast in the army of the Roman empire. I originally envisioned him in an entirely separate story, but his characteristics were the same: stoic, and a big emphasis on honor and integrity but with a bright flaw that steers his fate. 


Asana I saw as being emblematic of purity, or perhaps youthful blamelessness is more accurate. She typifies those throughout time who suffer because they are born into circumstances which they did not create and are relatively powerless to control.


So, what does one do in such circumstances? Asana handles her situations quite nobly, in my opinion, despite being given every reason to become embittered. I realized it would be Asana’s rare nobility that strikes Antonius and shakes him free from his general disillusionment. And that settled it: the two must meet on the pages of one book!

Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I love to study history, so a lot of the research was done before I even realized it was research.


The Roman Empire is of course a wide area of study, and a lot of attention is paid to the western empire in classical education. However, I found the story of the eastern half of the empire (the Byzantine Empire) very compelling and not as well-known. I think the word to describe the Byzantine Empire and its people is tenacious. 


That they survived for 1,000 years longer than their western cousins is impressive enough. But I was truly surprised to see how close to ruin the Byzantines came, over and over. These people knew how the west fell and were keenly aware that it could happen to them as well.


Earthquakes, sieges, barbarian hordes, civil war, external wars, famine, riots, the plague… This empire should have dissolved and collapsed. Yet they struggled on, preserving the Greek and Latin culture for a millennium, managing to bequeath much of it to the capitals of renaissance Europe after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.   


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: Generally, I write one major scene first, either an introductory scene or a climactic scene. That scene allows me to dwell on it and outline a few major plot points before and after. Then I write the ending, all the way up to the last word.


This is very important, because it helps refine what to include in the body of the story. I find that if I do not write the ending early on, the story itself fills with many loose ends that need to be pruned or reworked.


I did know from the very start that the ending was going to be more tragic and less happily-ever-after. Tragedy and how we respond to it is a universal human experience. So, I believe including an element of tragedy leads to a more authentic story.


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


A: As long as each reader can take away one thing (regardless of what it is), I will consider the book a success. Whether it is simply enjoyment of the story itself, a new understanding about this era in history, or an appreciation for one of the accompanying musical compositions, I think that every fiction reader will take something meaningful from this read.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: There are about a dozen novels in various stages of completion in my repertoire. It is just a matter of which ones I will manage to transform into finished works.


There is a historical romance set around the time of the Mexican-American war and another set in Visigothic Spain. I have a large science fiction work about halfway done, covering prehistory all the way to a century in the future. Then there is an allegorical tale in the style of Siddhartha and The Alchemist of a young man’s spiritual evolution journeying from medieval England to Scandinavia.


I work on these stories simultaneously and honestly cannot say which one will be ready first.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Yes. The book is available on Oct. 24. You can find the purchase links and find out more about this and future books at You can also find the musical accompaniment playlist (both on Spotify and YouTube) on the site.


On Twitter/X (@jfhbooks) you will be able to find updates and interesting context about the book and the era in which the story takes place. That platform is also an excellent place to leave feedback, which is always appreciated. Thank you!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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