Anyone who has seen my original SF paperback novels from Warner Books will recognize the cover style on the E-book version of Fires Of Nuala. The artist, Don Dixon, has had a long and distinguished career as artist and illustrator. Don created both my SF covers and paintings for many other novels, including works by Asimov and Robinson. His work has graced the covers of such magazines as Scientific American and Astronomy, and since 1991 he has been art director at the Griffith Observatory atop Mount Hollywood in Los Angeles, CA. Don was the director and co-writer of Centered in the Universe, a fulldome animated film created in honor of the re-opening of the remodeled observatory in October of 2006.
I wanted the original covers again, if possible, so I contacted Don. I was pleased to find out that, as I am experimenting with art media once again, Don has taken his writing experiences at Griffith Observatory and gone on to write fiction. Here’s what he has to say about creating in a new medium:
When did you first realize that a new kind of story was rising in you — one of words instead of pictures?
In 2005 I was developing Centered in the Universe, the opening show for the renovated Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. We hired a dozen animators to recreate Mt. Wilson Observatory, Galileo’s workshop, and the Library of Alexandria, where Claudius Ptolemy refined the earth-centered cosmology that Galileo ended up overthrowing. Designing these environments required a tremendous amount of research and I became fascinated with Alexandria, the Paris of the ancient world.
Hypatia, who was arguably the first female scientist, particularly intrigued me. Although hardly anyone today has heard of her, she was a celebrity in the 4th century. Letters addressed simply to The Philosopher in any part of the Roman Empire would be delivered to her in Alexandria. She became entangled in a power struggle between her friend Orestes, the Roman prefect, and Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria, who likely had her murdered by his religious police in 415 A.D. Aside from a novel by Queen Victoria’s chaplain, Charles Kingsley, Hypatia’s story has been neglected in fiction. I decided to try writing a novel about her.
Why did you go with words instead of pictures? Why not a graphic novel, for example?
The pictures actually came first. As we tested camera moves in the 20-foot dome at our studio, and as the cgi models of the Great Library became more detailed, Alexandria came to life for me. I pictured Hypatia working in the timeless serenity of the Library while barbarians were battering the gates. What was she really like? Why had she taken a vow of chastity? How did she dare to move so freely in a man’s world?
Tell us about the first idea, the historical. How did it become a book? Was it research that drew you, or plot? Did the characters come first?
The characters came first. After reading Charles Kingsley’s 1853 novel Hypatia: Or New Foes with an Old Face, I knew I didn’t want to write another book portraying Hypatia as plaster saint. In fact, I didn’t want to write about her but about the clash of cultures that made her brutal murder inevitable (which was not dissimilar to the current conflict between Western and Islamic cultures).
Set in Egypt during the twilight of the Roman Empire, Alexandria is the story of Peter Valerius Proba, a soldier turned scholar who is banished to a desert monastery for his role in the assassination of Hypatia. He doesn’t deny his guilt; why should he refuse credit for dispatching a pagan sorceress? An imperial investigator suspects Peter is not the murderous fanatic he claims to be, however.
Gambling that the investigator might be enlisted to his cause, Peter confesses his real crime: leading a conspiracy to save the books of the Great Library from a fanatic’s torch.
How long did it take you to write that first novel?
The first 100,000 words took two years. I threw them out and started over, finishing in about 8 months.
When did you decide to move from dream to reality, and try to get an agent?
After I finished Alexandria I queried a number of agents who seemed a likely match and was lucky enough to engage Marlene Stringer, who, at the time, was working with Barbara Bova (who I ‘d met when her husband Ben and I were guests of honor at an SF con.) Marlene and Barbara were immensely encouraging and helped polish the manuscript for submission. Barbara, sadly, passed away last year but Marlene has established her own agency. She’s an extraordinarily perceptive reader and frequently catches discrepancies that other readers miss. I’m very lucky to have her as my agent.
Next week – more on Don’s adventures in publishing.