Monday, January 13, 2014

Interview with George Steger, author of Sebastian's Way

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author George Steger to Flashlight Commentary to discuss his debut release, Sebastian's Way. 

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary George. To start things off, please tell us a bit about Sebastian’s Way and the Sebastian Chronicles.
To begin with, I never set out to be an author. I had a full career in the Army and then another one in academia. I was a professor of history and international affairs at the University of Saint Mary in Leavenworth, Kansas, when my wife fell ill with Stage Four breast cancer. I resigned at once to take care of her. But it turned out to be a lingering illness that stretched out over five years. I had to have something to do to keep from going crazy and to keep my spirits up. So I started to write Sebastian’s Way. 

The book was not at first intended to be a series. That was the brain child of Jennifer Quinlan, my wonderful editor and cover designer. She liked Sebastian and came to feel almost as strongly as I did about him and the book in general. She made me rewrite the whole ending of the book so that it naturally led to a sequel and even to a third book—ergo The Sebastian Chronicles. 

What inspired you to write this story?
Almost half of my military career was spent in Europe. I was a Soviet foreign area specialist. I spoke Russian and German and worked in intelligence on both sides of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. One of my tours of duty, for example, was as a liaison officer to the Commander of the Group of Soviet Forces in East Germany. I had a pass in my pocket for two years that said I was on General Ivanovsky’s staff. I actually did do some liaison work with the Soviets on holidays and big occasions, like Soviet Army-Navy Day or the Fourth of July. But most of the time, that pass in my pocket enabled me to tour all over East Germany, noting Soviet military movements and taking pictures with a Nikon motor drive camera of everything that moved on the roads. We weren’t supposed to do that, and they chased us if they saw us. But even if they caught us, which was rare, they had to let us go eventually. It was all part of a World War II agreement that established such missions as a means of providing early warning against surprise attack. The Soviets had a mission on our side of the demarcation line as well. 

The bottom line is that I spent fourteen years in Europe in four separate tours and got to see a lot of both West and East Europe. I became fascinated with the history of both Germany and Russia. Later, after I retired from the Army, I was able to use that knowledge and experience to teach history at Saint Mary. Sebastian just emerged from both of those experiences. 

What research went into Sebastian’s Way and did you discover anything particularly surprising while investigating the background material for you book?
As I mentioned, I was a Soviet foreign area specialist. I spent five years of study in the Army to become one. You had to have the knowledge to do the job. So you learned not only the languages you needed, both Russian and German, but you had to study the history and the culture of both countries. Upon retirement from the military, I took my PhD in History from the University of Kansas. That involved more study of the people and culture of Russia and Eastern Europe. That gave me a broad background for the specific research I did for Sebastian and the era of Charlemagne. I pored over the work of acknowledged scholars of that period: Rosamund McKitterick and Pierre Riche, for example. But one book was my major primary source: the famous Carolingian Chronicles, or Royal Frankish Annals, written over the course of almost ninety years by many nameless and faceless monks and priests as a tribute to and account of the great deeds of their mighty emperor Charlemagne and the Carolingian royal house. I was surprised, though, by the lack of detail available about Charlemagne’s life and deeds. For example, it’s hard to find any criticism of the great ruler. I guess that’s because the winner gets to write the history. But almost everybody was busy trying to kiss the monarch’s royal backside. It was also surprising to me, nonetheless, that McKitterick and Riche could piece so much together about the era. They truly did great work, and it must have been like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. 

You probably have many, but is there one scene that you particularly enjoyed writing?
I have been doing several talks about the novel since it was finished, and I usually read an example from Chapter 14, the Disaster chapter.  The scene describes my two peasant heroes, Bardulf and Drogo, sneaking off into the woods to drink a big flask of stolen wine, and Bardulf tells the famous story of Odo the Frank, who was so smart he could advise kings. It’s a clever old tale anyway, and it lends a little humor to a story that’s often pretty intense. I particularly felt good about the abrupt transition from comedy to terror. 

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author?
The ending was the hardest thing for me. Ask my stellar editor. She absolutely refused to allow me to end the book the way I had it when I gave it to her. She declared, “You can’t leave your readers like that; they have to have some closure. So go back and do it over.” I’m very grateful for her scolding, however, because the ending turned out eventually to be much better and more satisfying. I suppose when I got close to the end I just wanted to get finished. And she wouldn’t allow it. Thank God for a good editor!

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the overall story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time with or expanded on?
I became fascinated with Simon, the Radhanite merchant and adventurer. I can’t forget Henri Pirenne’s image of the intrepid Jewish trader, with a sword in one hand and a little bag of spices in the other, desperately keeping alive what trade there was in the fragmented world of that time and place. I would have liked to have gone further with him, but Jenny said it was a little too much of a tangent. Well, she was probably right, but that won’t stop me from doing something about it in the next book of The Chronicles of Sebastian, when I hope to have Sebastian accompany Simon on one of his daring adventures to Constantinople and Baghdad.

Pardon me if this is an impertinent question, but I have to ask. You live in rural Kansas. Did you ever find it difficult writing about a time and place so different from your immediate surroundings and if so, how did you overcome that obstacle? 
Not at all. I have had a pretty adventurous life myself, with much time spent in the places I write about in this book. I also know something about struggle and war. I find that the woods and fields of eastern Kansas, where I live, provide a perfect quiet and peaceful environment, where I can walk for hours and conjure up the scenes for a book of such fiction.

What sparked your interest in the Frankish-Saxon wars and what convinced you to use them as a backdrop for Sebastian’s story? 
I like Charlemagne. He’s one of my heroes of history. He was a lusty man, full of life and purpose. He believed he could do anything. And yet he was a Christian man and a conscientious ruler as well. He truly believed God had called upon him to create a Christian world and rule it well and justly. The means he used to do so were somewhat draconian, but they were common in most cultures at the time. I liked him because he was so full of energy and exuberance. He wanted to do so many things and couldn’t wait to get them done. And in the midst of all the doing, he could see beauty and love people deeply. He was a man of contrasts; he could be a devout Christian and go to Mass daily and yet keep several mistresses as well as a wife that he loved dearly. But that’s what makes him interesting. 

The Frankish-Saxon wars were nothing less than an apocalyptic struggle for hegemony in Europe. If the pagan Saxons had won, who knows what would have happened to Christianity? It was Charlemagne’s longest and hardest fight, lasting over 30 years.

You’re a military veteran. Did your experiences overseas play into the narrative at all and if so, how?
Yes. I was in the war in Vietnam, and I spent many years in Europe doing some dicey things in intelligence during the Cold War. You could say that some of that spilled over into the novel, especially the fear and loneliness.

Charlemagne’s legend is larger than life. Did you find it intimidating fictionalizing an individual who is so well known and how do you hope he comes across in the book?
No, I found portraying Charlemagne as a man one might know to be hugely satisfying and a lot of fun. I could create him as if I had known him. All I had to do was stay within the bounds of what is definitely known about him—that he was big and powerful, that he had a lusty appetite for food and pretty women, that he had a great deal of ambition and absolute confidence in himself. It wasn’t very hard to blend such known and flamboyant characteristics into a central character.

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?
Well, Charlemagne, of course. Who could be more interesting? But I also would love to talk to Simon, who was so well-traveled and had seen so many wondrous places and was at home in so many different cultures.

What do you hope readers come away with after reading your work?
When I was teaching history at Saint Mary, I always wanted to make my lectures and discussion sessions with students so interesting and exciting that the students would be inspired to continue reading and studying about the past and develop a lifelong interest in it. If I could teach a young person to love history, I could feel I’d done a good thing and the world would be better for it. 

Finally, what is next for you? Any new projects waiting in the wings?
Well, if my editor gets her way, I will begin writing the sequel this year. It’s to be called Sebastian’s Will: The Torchbearer, and it will involve three central episodes: the aforementioned journey with Simon to the  richest and most glittering capitals of the medieval world—Constantinople and Baghdad; one of Charlemagne’s most celebrated and successful military campaigns, against the Hunnic Avars in southeastern Europe, which resulted in the capture of enormous treasure; and, finally, Sebastian’s next climactic confrontation with Konrad when he goes north to build a fleet against the increasing threat of the Vikings. The third book of The Chronicles is to be titled Sebastian’s World: The Gift Giver. It will be post-Charlemagne and probably about Sebastian’s children, Attalus, Karl, and Milo and how they struggle to keep alive the culture and unity Charlemagne created. 

Thanks very much indeed, for letting me participate with you in this way and for your interest in Sebastian.

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About the Author: A native of Louisiana, the author followed a long tradition of young men from the Deep South by seeking to improve his prospects in the military. From a green second lieutenant in the famed 101st Airborne Division to battalion command in Vietnam, Colonel Steger spent most of the rest of his military career in four European tours as an intelligence officer and Russian foreign area specialist, working on both sides of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. He traded sword for plowshare in a second career in academia and is now Professor Emeritus of history and international affairs at the University of Saint Mary in Leavenworth, Kansas. The motivation to write Sebastian’s Way came from his experiences in both war and peace, from fourteen years in Germany and Eastern Europe, and from his love of teaching medieval and other European history courses. Steger is an avid hiker and trail biker, and much of the story of Sebastian came out of time spent in the woods and fields of eastern Kansas. In memory of Mary Jo, his wife of many years, he and filmmaker son Ben spent a recent summer trekking across Spain on The Camino de Santiago, one of Europe’s oldest pilgrimage trails. He lives and writes in rural Kansas and has four other grown and gifted children. For more information please visit George Steger’s website. You can also find him on Facebook.

About the Book: In a dark age of unending war and violence, one young warrior opposes a mighty king to forge a new path to peace... During the savage Frankish-Saxon wars, the moving force of his age, Karl der Grosse, King Charlemagne, fights and rules like the pagan enemies he seeks to conquer. But in the long shadow of war and genocide, a spark of enlightenment grows, and the king turns to learned men to help him lead his empire to prosperity. One of these men is the unlikely young warrior Sebastian. Raised in an isolated fortress on the wild Saxon border, Sebastian balances his time in the training yard with hours teaching himself to read, seeking answers to the great mysteries of life during an age when such pastimes were scorned by fighting men. Sebastian’s unique combination of skills endears him to Charlemagne and to the ladies of the king’s court, though the only woman to hold his heart is forbidden to him. As the king determines to surround himself with men who can both fight and think beyond the fighting, Sebastian becomes one of the privileged few to hold the king’s ear. But the favor of the king does not come without a cost. As Charlemagne’s vassals grapple for power, there are some who will do anything to see Sebastian fall from grace, including his ruthless cousin Konrad, whose hatred and jealousy threaten to destroy everything Sebastian holds dear. And as Sebastian increasingly finds himself at odds with the king’s brutal methods of domination and vengeance, his ingrained sense of honor and integrity lead him to the edge of treason, perilously pitting himself against the most powerful man of his age. This fast-paced adventure story brings Charlemagne’s realm to life as the vicious Christian-pagan wars of the eighth century decide the fate of Europe. Filled with action, intrigue, and romance, Sebastian’s Way is a riveting and colorful recreation of the world of Europe’s greatest medieval monarch.

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Check out all the stop's on George Steger's Sebastian's Way Virtual book tour

Monday, January 13
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Tuesday, January 14
Interview at Flashlight Commentary
Wednesday, January 15
Review at Impressions in Ink
Guest Post & Giveaway at Let Them Read Books
Thursday, January 16
Giveaway at Layers of Thought
Tuesday, January 21
Review at Kinx’s Book Nook
Wednesday, January 22
Review at Oh, for the Hook of a Book
Thursday, January 23
Interview at Oh, for the Hook of a Book
Friday, January 24
Giveaway at Bibliophilic Book Blog
Monday, January 27
Review at The Most Happy Reader
Tuesday, January 28
Review at The Musings of a Book Junkie
Wednesday, January 29
Interview & Giveaway at The Most Happy Reader
Friday, January 31
Review at Book Nerd
Monday, February 3
Review at Closed the Cover
Tuesday, February 4
Guest Post at HF Connection
Wednesday, February 5
Review at Jorie Loves a Story
Thursday, February 6
Interview at Jorie Loves a Story
Friday, February 7
Review at Sir Read-a-Lot
Review & Giveaway at Reading the Ages
Review & Giveaway at Cynthia Robertson Blog

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