Random House Interview

Interview with Katherine Neville about The Fire

Random House Interview:
A Talk with Katherine Neville

It’s been twenty years since The Eight. Why did it take so long to write The Fire?

I don’t actually write my books, they kind of write themselves—but they also seem to decide on their own when they are going to be written. Or in this case, not written. Until the right moment.

In the early 1990s, while I was on a 16-hour train trip from Switzerland to Prague, I was pacing up and down through the railroad cars when I figured out how to continue the story that began in The Eight. I saw clearly how the children of the previous characters would have to solve the true underlying mystery, which even their parents hadn’t yet discovered, about the original creation of the fictional chess set that had once belonged to Charlemagne, and of the powerful and very real historic events that had first set its course in motion.

The Fire was weaving its tale within me for almost a decade. Then, all of a sudden, one bright sunny morning, a plane smashed into the Pentagon just across the river from my apartment in D.C. I already knew about the two planes in New York—I’d seen them hit the towers on TV just moments earlier—and I knew at once, when the third plane hit, that I wasn’t writing the book I thought I was writing.

How did that event affect the story of The Fire? 

You really can’t write the sequel to a book that had been about OPEC and oil and terrorism and espionage and Arabs and Berbers and the Middle East and Russians and chess and the KGB—when you realize that the events going on all around you are the real continuation of that story and are going to change it in ways you could never foresee.

As readers of The Eight will know, the chess set that I originally invented had first been created in the eighth century AD, twelve hundred years before, in the then-brand-new city of Baghdad. But what even I couldn’t possibly know, was that some of the events that my fictitious chess set had put into motion twenty years ago were about to occur in real life in a very spooky way—during the single week in which the modern sections of THE FIRE would take place.

No one realized it yet, but on that week of April 2003, we were going to enter Baghdad.

How do you go about doing the research for such a complex story?

For me, life is research. I’m very curious about things by nature, but just because I’m an author doesn’t mean I want to be an “author-ity” on everything. I just want to keep on learning.

I always think of the research process as going down a rocky road where you stub your toe on a rock, but when you pick it up you find a nugget of gold underneath. That’s happened to me a lot, that gold nugget, so when it comes to fiction I’m almost never wary about venturing into unknown territory. If my book wants to go somewhere, I’m open and willing to follow. And I’m also a big believer in the potential benefits of serendipity.

The most interesting thing for me about researching The Fire —more than any of my other books—was that, over and over, the book seemed almost physically to be dragging me along that “Path Not Taken,” re-routing me constantly into that same kind of unexplored terrain. The result, in other words, was that virtually everything in this book is now something fresh, new and unexpected—and especially unexpected to me!

Can you give me an example?

I thought I was in the home stretch of writing The Fire when I got an e-mail from a reader saying that he had read The Eight several years ago when he was over in Kuwait. It had inspired him to learn to play chess and he added that he thought my books were so interesting he’d like to invite me to lunch at Treasury, with a private tour of the secret bunkers and such—and it was signed Chief of Staff of the United States Treasury.

So one day I found myself down at Treasury having lunch. And after lunch when everyone at our table had left and I was alone with the Chief, I casually asked how it was that he’d learned chess in Kuwait? What was he doing there? “Oh, I read your book in Kuwait,” he said, “but I really mastered chess in Baghdad.”

“Baghdad!” I said, “You know that’s where the Montglane Service was originally created in The Eight!”

“I know,” said the Chief. “That’s what I found so interesting, being in the very spot where it all took place.” He was one of the advance team into Baghdad early in the Iraqi war, just after his boss, Tommy Franks. When I observed that the Chief seemed rather young to move so high in the military echelon, it turns out that he was actually loaned to General Franks by the chief’s real boss—Condoleeza Rice!

What others think of as serendipity, I regard as the research writing on the wall. Now I knew why my book had strewn all that rubble in my path until I finally went down to visit Treasury. I wasn’t supposed to be there to find out about money or about secret bunkers under D.C. I was there to find out about Baghdad.

What role does chess play in these books? Are you using it as a metaphor or an archetype?

It’s the best analogy I know of for the complex interactions I like to write about. I’d always wanted to be a writer—I should say I’d always actually been writing—since I was little. But if I hadn’t had to work for a living and travel and live all over the planet wherever my jobs took me, right now I’d probably be sitting at home in a comfy chair with a glass of cognac, writing novels about a woman sitting at home in a comfy chair with a glass of cognac

In the mid-70s, I found myself living along the coast of North Africa working on a big project for the Algerian government—and one morning I discovered that one of my clients, a minor petroleum consortium called OPEC, was declaring an embargo on oil. Nobody at the press club—API, UPI and Reuters—seemed too interested until things started heating up weeks later when everyone realized the possible repercussions.

I had grown up during the Cold War when the East and West were squared off in a global game. I saw this “Third World,” as they called it, as something new and different. With the OPEC embargo, it suddenly seemed like a huge game of chess where somebody had thrown in an unexpected move and upset not just the game but all the rules.

That was the key to The Eight. It was not an endless battle between two forces, but a complex dance in which each move affected every other. And what begins as a global game in The Eight turns out to be a powerful tool for cosmic transformation in The Fire.

What role do multiple, interwoven time frames play in your storytelling, and why do you prefer to use this technique?

I think one of the most important skills we humans possess is our ability to look at events that are happening around us, and to place them within a larger historical context. Like that famous line of George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

But there’s also the old saying that it’s the winners who write the history books. So what past was Santayana talking about? And whose memory? Living in so many places over the years, I started to realize that one person’s ‘history’ might turn out to be another person’s fairy tale.

How do you mean?

For instance, we might have a completely different perspective today, our history today might be totally different, if one person—Alexander—had not been born in Macedonia. When he conquered Greece, he saved everything because he’d already been conditioned by his tutor, Aristotle, to think of Greece as high culture. But when Alexander got to Persia—a much vaster empire than anything in the west, with an even higher culture in mathematics, architecture, arts—he demolished everything because he couldn’t perceive eastern culture as a superior one, but only as different, inferior, dangerous.

I often think of what the world might be like today if western history gave equal time to Persia, China, Africa, and especially India. In all my books, and especially in The Fire, every grain of new information changes how the characters see the relationship between the past and the present.

There’s a quote from Johann Wolfgang Goethe—the author of Faust, who was a closet alchemist himself—that says: “One feeling which prevailed greatly with me, and could never find an expression odd enough for itself, was a sense of the past and present together in one—a phenomenon which brought something spectral into the present . . . It must not be forgotten that the closest unions are those of opposites.”

For me, it adds great richness and texture to be able to see things against the perspective of time and culture.

With your characters in The Fire you have multiple interconnections of generations: mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, mothers and daughters. What roles do these layers of families play?

Virtually every character in The Fire is someone we’ve seen thirty years ago in the plot of The Eight. Or someone related to or descended from those characters, whether historically real or invented by me.

But now, it’s all seen through new and different eyes. For instance, through the eyes of Cat’s daughter, Alexandra ‘Xie’ Solarin, we see the previous characters differently than Cat had. Xie’s relationship with her aunt Lily, the powerhouse grandmaster Lily Rad, is more than that of just a team player—it’s also that of a sister, a surrogate mother, a confidant. The same with Xie’s uncle, Ladislaus Nim, who reveals things to his young niece that he probably would never have revealed to Cat in a million years. By the same token, in the historic chapters, we get Charlot the former child prophet’s perspective—his ‘outsider’s’ view of his parents, Mireille and Talleyrand, and how each has affected, or will end up affecting, the outcome of the plot. It turns out to be completely different than coming at those same events from Mireille’s point of view—from smack in the middle of the Game as she was in the previous book.

What’s next for Katherine Neville?

As I said at the beginning, I never feel that I write my own books. So I never really know what’s next until one story elbows the others aside and climbs out of the bottom drawer on its own. Right now, the story that’s hammering inside the drawer—about painters in the 1600s—is one that I have been brewing and stewing over for at least twenty years.