Author Talk: August 7, 2009
August 7, 2009
Daniel Levin's debut novel, THE LAST EMBER, is a religious-themed archaeological thriller that follows a young lawyer and antiquities expert as he uncovers a radical plot to rewrite history. In this interview conducted by New York Times bestselling author Steve Berry, Levin talks about what inspired the plot of this book and elaborates on the complex motivations behind his protagonist, Jonathan Marcus. He also discusses some of the fascinating discoveries he made while researching ancient Roman history and explains the current controversies in which many museums around the world are involved.
Steve Berry: Let me say that THE LAST EMBER is a winner. Secrets, history, conspiracies, adventures. Great stuff. Where did the idea come from?
Daniel Levin: First of all, thanks --- it’s an honor to hear that from someone like you. As for the story, the level of espionage in Rome and Greece has always fascinated. I was a classics student and was surprised to discover loads of intrigue around every corner. So I thought, what if some of that ancient intrigue came with modern consequences? I began to research illegal excavation sites around the world and started to see a pattern: some of the largest sites of archaeological destruction were damaged for purely political purposes --– simply as a way to erase the past --- and then it occurred to me, what if someone was politically motivated to control --- not the future, but the past?
SB: The illicit antiquities trade couldn’t be a timelier topic, especially with many museums around the world currently investigating what artifacts in their collections may have been illegally obtained. Did current events affect your writing?
DL: Absolutely. While I was researching in Rome there was a case going on in a downtown courtroom against the former curator of the Getty Museum, which has one of the finest antiquities collections in the world. I attended the trial and listened to the Italian prosecutor’s opening arguments as to why many of the museum’s artifacts should be returned. Fascinating stuff to me, as a writer and a lawyer. I ended up working much of that Italian courtroom atmosphere into the novel.
SB: Tell me about your hero, Jonathan Marcus.
DL: He’s no boy scout when we’re first introduced to him. He’s practical, putting his immense knowledge of the ancient world to very profitable use in defending less than scrupulous antiquities dealers. I’ve always found the moral tension of the antiquities trade fascinating. We see these ancient artifacts in museums, glistening in their display cases, but some are soaked in the blood of the trade. Being caught in the middle of all this as a lawyer, seemed a good place to introduce a compelling character. In other words, yes, he’s using his talents to defend these dealers, but on the other hand, you can tell there’s a real passion for the ancient world.
SB: And as the novel progresses, that passion becomes clearer.
DL: Exactly, we eventually learn why he had to abandon his doctoral work at the American Academy in Rome years before. He pushed his research too far. He cared too much. He’s reluctant to do that again.
SB: I saw in your bio that you spent some time at the American Academy in Rome. What was that like?
DL: Remarkable. I was a visiting scholar at the Academy in ’05. What an experience. It’s located in a 19th-century villa on the Janiculum Hill, with an awesome rare books library. All the Renaissance manuscripts were there, at my fingertips. Even more incredible were the fellows, I had a great time listening to them share secrets of the ancient world over a beer at the local enoteca. And of course, because the Academy has a presence --- psychologically as much as physically --- in the novel, the local color I picked up helped. One example is the little painted portraits of previous fellows I saw along the Academy’s walls. I remember thinking, “Wow, imagine if you were up there, but you did something so bad the Academy took your portrait down.” It turned out to be one of my favorite scenes when Jonathan goes back to the Academy and his portrait is no longer on the wall.
SB: Did you have all your research mapped out, or was it more of a ’let’s see where this takes me’ approach?
DL: I tried to map it out, but every time I opened up the text of an ancient historian, I kept seeing things like a strange translation of the Latin, an errant mark in the margin, or some unexplained notation. Those things kept stirring my imagination and the story kept changing, making it more and more believable.
SB: It worked for me. I love conspiracies, especially those from long ago. Part of your plot suggests a vast intelligence network inside a Roman emperor’s palace. So here’s a question you’re going to be asked countless times. How much of that is true?
DL: We know that some strange things happened in Emperor Titus’ palace after he returned from sacking Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Everyone within the emperor’s immediate circle --- his mistress, Berenice, his court historian, Flavius Josephus, his favorite stage actor Aliterius --- were either executed or mysteriously disappeared. Titus himself went mad and, on his deathbed, his parting words were, “I have made only one mistake.” What better fodder for a novelist than that.
SB: Okay, tell me what you think of the book. I’m always curious what writers think of their own effort.
DL: My primary goal was to entertain, so I hope readers have a great time with the story. I did writing it. Now if they happen to learn something they didn’t know, then that’s a great bonus. History is more fragile than any of us think. Roman emperors tried in vain to control history. Today, it’s being done again by people who try to destroy various historical sites to fit their own twisted beliefs or bizarre politics.
SB: In the beginning of your novel, an Italian antiquities squad finds a preserved ancient corpse of a woman floating inside an ancient column. Great scene. Did you research that? Is that level of preservation possible?
DL: Amazingly, it is. In the ancient Roman world, some corpses were submerged in honey, amber, and other oils. What got my imagination really going was when I read a historical report by some 15th-century Roman masons that they accidentally discovered a tomb and inside lay a perfectly preserved ancient Roman maiden floating in oils. I knew right then the possibilities were rich.
SB: Speaking of great scenes, those chapters racing beneath the Colosseum and Temple Mount felt like you’d lived them. True?
DL: Let’s just say that research got me in some tight spots, literally. I squeezed through some of the underground streams that run beneath the Temple Mount --- far from where tourists are permitted. Not sure I’d recommend it. It was summer above ground, but in those tunnels, it was so cool and clammy you could see your breath. And, of course, there’s the issue of the Waqf authority who control the Mount.
SB: The group you mention in your novel?
DL: It’s an actual organization that has had control of the Temple Mount since the 12th century. They don’t permit anyone beneath, so I didn’t exactly have a tour guide when writing those scenes.”
SB: Well, I’m glad you finished this first book in one piece, Danny. Because we’re all looking forward to your next one.
© Copyright 2009, Daniel Levin. All rights reserved.
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