Thursday, November 21, 2013

Interview with D.J. Niko, author of The Tenth Saint

Today, Flashlight Commentary is pleased to welcome author D.J. Niko to our little corner of the net to discuss The Tenth Saint.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Tenth Saint and the Sarah Weston Chronicles. 
Thank you for having me! The Tenth Saint is my debut novel—it was released last year—and the book that started the series. It is an adventure, with an archaeological-intrigue plot, starring my British heroine Sarah Weston, set in Ethiopia and a parallel subplot set in the Syro-Arabian Desert circa 4th century CE. The two plots do converge about 2/3 of the way through the book, and the modern-day plot is illuminated by these glimpses into the past.

Briefly, Sarah and her American partner, anthropologist Daniel Madigan, dig up a cave tomb in the Ethiopian highlands and find a set of inscriptions on the cave wall. Since the writing is in an obscure Semitic language, they set about translating it and find themselves in a heap of trouble, as someone wants the message hidden. By working with a band of monks, Sarah discovers that the message is a warning from a prophet referred to as Ethiopia’s “tenth saint” about the destruction of the planet. Following a trail of bread crumbs from the past, she learns, to her horror, that the events detailed in the prophecy are unfolding in the present day. And she tries to stop them before the prophecy of the tenth saint comes true.

What inspired you to write these books? 
I’m an ancient-world junkie. I think the characters and events of antiquity have much to teach us, though in our modern, complex societies we tend to marginalize the importance of what the ancients contributed. I wanted to bring some of the stories from the ancient world to light by casting them into a high-action context that modern readers could relate to. They appreciate the page turner, but they also learn something in the process.

I am also inspired by world religions—all of them, regardless of my own personal beliefs. Religion is at the heart of human motivation, and I find that fascinating. I wanted to explore all its aspects, from fanaticism to quiet spirituality.

What research went into The Tenth Saint and did you discover anything particularly surprising while investigating background material for you book?
First of all, this book required years of research, because a) it’s an obscure subject, and b) I wanted to get it right. I personally spent time in Ethiopia, absorbing the place and the culture. I went into tombs in Aksum, walked the canyons of the Simien Mountains, spent time with the priests in Lalibela, and explored Addis Ababa, the capital. I also have spent time among Bedouins and other desert people, which informed my desert scenes in the subplot. Readers often say, “Wow, she really brought these places to life for me,” and I believe that’s a result of personal experience and observation.

Of course, I also researched Ethiopia’s past, reading just about everything on the subject, including the Kebra Nagast. So a lot of the historical references—the battles of King Ezana, for example, or the descriptions of the Aksumite Empire—are accurate. 

I get asked a lot about the part of the plot dealing with the earth’s destruction, as outlined in the prophecy of the tenth saint. The culprit in that destruction is algae, used to capture carbon dioxide and convert it into pure oxygen, thereby cleaning up greenhouse gases. Readers sometimes assume this is “science fiction.” It’s not. This technology exists and, though it’s nascent, will be a lot more mainstream in years to come. If you are skeptical, check out what Ohio University, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, and University of Kentucky (among others) are doing. You might be surprised.

You probably have many, but is there one scene that you particularly enjoyed writing?
I most enjoyed writing the scenes of the historical subplot. I love when Gabriel converses with Hairan, the shaykh of the tribe, pitting his Western notions of control and man-imposed order against the Bedouin’s notion of living with the earth’s rhythms and never taking more than you need. That sense of turmoil and dissonance Gabriel feels at that moment becomes a central theme in the book.

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author?
Toward the end, Sarah jumps out of the hold of Hughes’ private jet while it is taxiing down the runway. I had to consult people in private aviation for that one. It was fun to watch the reaction of aviation officials when I said, “I want to know how someone could jump out of one of these.” Once they realized I wasn’t certifiable, they gave me all these drawings showing how that could be possible. It got a little technical, especially since I’m not very mechanically inclined. 

Religion plays an interesting role in The Tenth Saint. Did you find it intimidating or difficult working with this material?  
I prefer to say spirituality, rather than religion, plays a role in my stories. I simply find the notion of devotion very interesting. But it need not be devotion to a religion or to a certain brand of spirituality. It can be devotion to an ideal, such as in the case of Sandor Hughes, the villain. He is absolutely passionate about saving the earth with his technological advances, just as the monk Apostolos is devoted to protecting the message of the tenth saint because he feels the world is not ready for it. Sarah is passionate about finding truth among the ruins—so much so that she risks her life in the name of that pursuit. And so on. 

If you notice, some of my characters, including Sarah and Daniel, are scientists who subscribe to a factual approach—they believe what they can see, touch, hear. The idea behind introducing the spirituality element is to ponder the possibility that nothing is so black and white. When we tend toward the absolute, on one side or the other, we throw off the balance. Of course, it’s that lopsidedness that makes for fun reading.

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time with or expanded on?
Originally, I had really developed the story of Calcedony in fourteenth century France, during the time of the Black Death. In the end, I decided to delete those scenes for the sake of tightening the book. But it was an interesting story.

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why?
Without a question, Gabriel (the tenth saint). I’d love to talk to him after his encounter with the Bedouins and before his going to battle with King Ezana. That’s the point when he really grew as a character. When we first meet him, he is troubled and confused by this tremendous burden: his knowledge about the earth’s final hours. He is a Western man who has come to live among Bedouins, and he can’t come to grips with that. He fights it. But when he lets go, he begins to understand how powerless he is in the face of nature and divine order. So this man, this hard-core scientist, has this philosophical shift and uses his last breath to warn mankind about its impudence. It would be fun to talk to him about all that. Plus, he seems like he really could use a drink.

What do you hope readers come away with after reading your work?
I hope they feel breathless from the adventure, of course, but I also hope some of the philosophical motifs make them think. And I hope they learn something about Ethiopia of the present and past, about the life of desert-dwelling people like the Bedouins, about Coptic Christianity, and—in a more modern context—the technological advances of algae research and how it could impact the planet. 

Finally, what is next for you? Any new projects waiting in the wings?
I am currently working on the historical complement to The Riddle of Solomon (the follow-up to The Tenth Saint). It is set in the tenth century BCE, in Israel and Egypt. It explores the collapse of Israel’s united monarchy and the moral and spiritual decline of King Solomon. Some of the mysteries in The Riddle are actually elucidated in this book, which releases in 2015 as an interactive TREEBook.

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About the Author: D.J. Niko is the nom de plume of Daphne Nikolopoulos, an award-winning author and journalist. Her first novel, titled The Tenth Saint, was released in March 2012 to rave reviews by both readers and the trade. In March 2013, it was awarded the Gold Medal for popular fiction in the prestigious, juried Florida Book Awards. An archaeological thriller embroidered with historical motifs, The Tenth Saint takes readers on an adventure across the globe: Ethiopia, the Syro-Arabian Desert and Abyssinian Empire circa fourth century, London, Paris, Brussels, and Texas. The Tenth Saint is the first book in The Sarah Weston Chronicles series. The second, titled The Riddle of Solomon, releases July 1, 2013. Daphne is now at work on a historical novel set in tenth century B.C.E. Israel. The epic story details the collapse of the United Monarchy and the glory and fall of the empire built by King Solomon. It will be released in early 2015. As a former travel journalist, Daphne has traveled across the globe on assignment, or for personal discovery. She has been to some places most of us don’t realize are on the map, and she has brought them to life through her writing for various magazines, newspapers and websites on an international scale. Her travel background and rich experiences now bring authentic detail, color, and realism to her fiction. She also is the editor in chief of Palm Beach Illustrated magazine, a 62-year-old luxury-lifestyle glossy. She also is the editorial director of Palm Beach Media Group, and in that capacity oversees 11 magazines and 3 websites. She is the mother of twin toddlers and, in her spare time, volunteers for causes she believes in—literacy, education, child advocacy, and the advancement of traditional and tribal arts from around the world. Born in Athens, Greece, she now lives with her family in West Palm Beach, Florida. For more information, please visit D.J. Niko’s website. You can also follow on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

About the Book: Cambridge archaeologist Sarah Weston makes an unusual discovery in the ancient Ethiopian mountain kingdom of Aksum: a sealed tomb with inscriptions in an obscure dialect. Seeking to ascertain the translation and the identity of the entombed man, she and her colleague, American anthropologist Daniel Madigan, stumble upon a lethal conflict. Tracking down clues in Addis Ababa and the monasteries of Lalibela, Sarah and Daniel uncover a codex in a subterranean library revealing a set of prophecies about Earth’s final hours written by a man hailed by Coptic mystics as Ethiopia’s tenth saint. Violently opposed by the corrupt director of antiquities at the Ethiopian Ministry of Culture and Tourism, they’re left for dead in the heart of the Simien Mountains. Surviving to journey to Paris, Sarah is given another piece of the ancient puzzle: a fourteenth-century letter describing catastrophic events leading to the planet’s demise. Connecting the two discoveries, Sarah faces a deadly intercontinental conspiracy to keep the secret of the tenth saint buried. Risking her reputation and her life, Sarah embarks on a quest to stall the technological advances that will surely destroy the world.

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Check out all the stops on D.J. Niko's The Tenth Saint VIRTUAL BOOK TOUR

Wednesday, November 20
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Thursday, November 21
Interview at Flashlight Commentary
Friday, November 22
Guest Post at A Bookish Libraria
Monday, November 25
Review at Just One More Chapter
Wednesday, November 27
Review at The Lit Bitch
Review at Book Lovers Paradise
Thursday, November 28
Guest Post at A Book Geek
Monday, December 2
Review at Library of Alexandra
Tuesday, December 3
Review at For Winter Nights
Wednesday, December 4
Review & Giveaway at Peeking Between the Pages
Thursday, December 5
Interview at For Winter Nights
Friday, December 6
Review at Oh, for the Hook of a Book
Monday, December 10
Review & Giveaway at Luxury Reading

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