Interview: October 12, 2007
October 12, 2007
Bestselling author David Gibbins drew from his experiences as a marine archaeologist to write his latest work of fiction, CRUSADER GOLD, in which a group of scientists set out to find one of the great lost treasures of the world --- a gold menorah looted from the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Colleen Quinn, Gibbins describes why he chose to tell this historically-based tale through the perspective of characters living in the present day and provides background information on some of the elements that figure greatly in the book, such as the Norse King Harald Hardrada and the practices of the Nazis' Department of Ancestral Heritage. He also compares archaeology to writing fiction and shares details about future projects.
Bookreporter.com: CRUSADER GOLD tells the story of the International Maritime University’s search for the giant menorah the Romans looted from Jerusalem in 70 A.D. You chose to tell the story from IMU’s point of view, allowing the archaeologists and other scientists to piece together the story. Did you ever consider writing this novel as historical fiction?
David Gibbins: I loved writing the prologue, which is an attempt to recreate the victory triumph through the eyes of Vespasian, the Roman emperor. I researched the only actual eyewitness account of the triumph, by the historian Josephus, as well as all the other Roman literature that plays on that scene. I went to Rome and found the spot where Vespasian stands in my story, and worked out what buildings and monuments he would have seen. Historical fiction fascinates me as an archaeologist, because that's what I've done professionally all my life --- create stories out of a few facts! But the present-day perspective of the book is also essential for me, allowing me to “live” the quest on one timeline and then delve back into the key historical episodes, almost bringing them to life again as my protagonists uncover the clues.
BRC: The Vikings were renowned travelers, but even by their standards, legendary Norse king Harald Hardrada really got around. CRUSADER GOLD takes him from Constantinople, all through the Mediterranean, up to Newfoundland, and then down to Mexico. Was a voyage like Harald Hardrada’s really possible?
DG: Yes, absolutely. The story of Harald Hardrada up to the battle at Stamford Bridge in England is based on the historical sources --- he really was chief of the Byzantine Emperor's bodyguard in Constantinople, he really did sail all over the Mediterranean and along the rivers of eastern Europe, and as King of Norway he marauded and fought throughout the northern seas. To the west, the Vikings colonised Greenland, and the Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland is an archaeological fact. The Sagas and inscriptions show that individual Vikings could range very widely in their lifetimes, far to the east and west. Whether or not they really did sail south from Newfoundland is an open question, but they certainly had the ships and the courage to do so.
BRC: In one of the most exciting scenes of the book, marine archeologist Jack Howard and his colleague, Costas Kazantzakis, are trapped in a rolling iceberg, a phenomenon in which a giant iceberg actually somersaults. How did this rolling iceberg story come about?
DG: I was in a Zodiac boat on Ilulissat Icefjord in Greenland, where that scene is set, and watched this happen. Icebergs really do that! Ilulissat was one of the most extraordinary places I've ever visited, truly awesome, and that scene in the novel came to me as I was in the fjord itself. I'd dived under ice before --- the first time when I was 17, most recently a few months ago --- so I had an idea of what that might be like!
BRC: How has global warming affected your real-life work in marine archaeology?
DG: The most dramatic impact has been in the Canadian Arctic and off Greenland, where I've looked for Viking sites. I'm very excited about the possibility of underwater discoveries in the North West Passage, which is now becoming free of ice. For years Viking artifacts have been reported across the Canadian Arctic, and I believe that evidence will be found for Viking exploration far to the west of their known settlements in Greenland and Newfoundland, perhaps even to the Bering Sea and beyond.
BRC: Both Jack Howard, the archaeologist, and Costas Kazantzakis, the technician/inventor, have fascinating roles in your books. Do you identify with either one of them?
DG: I'm very comfortable with my characters because I've spent much of my professional life among them, working as an archaeologist and underwater explorer. I know what kinds of people are attracted to this field, what motivates them, their banter. I know about the intensity of friendships on expeditions, the types of relationships that develop. Even the information exchange in my dialogue is authentic --- in real life, people on archaeological expeditions tend to be highly intelligent and inquisitive, not just action heroes. They want to know what the point of it all is, and they ask questions. I'm very fond of Costas, whose enthusiasm will always propel Jack on, even through dark times. And yes, there's quite a lot of me in Jack, in what motivates him and even his secret fears. I think I've learned something about myself by writing about these characters.
BRC: I found it interesting that the entire IMU team --- all rational scientists and scholars --- believed in battle luck, a kind of lucky magic attached to certain people and objects that makes them lucky in warfare. Why do you suppose they found the superstition so intriguing?
DG: Divers entering the danger zone are like soldiers going into battle, where luck starts to become the overriding factor in survival. Even the most rational people have secret rituals, in how they kit up, or in lucky items. Of course, there's a practical outcome, as these rituals are all part of psyching-up. In my novel, the Viking “battle-luck” also becomes a mantra that binds the team together and helps them empathize with the past, with the Viking warriors whose trail they are trying to follow.
BRC: Those who have ever seen Raiders of the Lost Ark will find it easy to believe in the Nazis’ fascination with certain archaeological relics, but I’m not sure it’s common knowledge that the Department of Ancestral Heritage actually existed as you describe it. How do you account for the Nazis’ fascination with the Vikings?
DG: Much of the activity of Himmler's Ahnenerbe, the Department of Ancestral Heritage, has only come to light in recent years, and shows how important it is that we continue to research the Nazi period. The Viking warrior and the warrior fellowship were perfect ancestral images for the SS and became part of the fabricated mythology of the Nazis. It's an example of how the manipulation of history can have a devastating effect on the present.
Of course, the greatest Viking of them all, Harald Hardrada, would have been utterly contemptuous of the Nazis, especially the underlying racism. The Vikings of Harald's day were a cosmopolitan lot, trading with Arabs along the rivers of eastern Europe and in Constantinople, mingling with peoples from all over the known world --- Africans, Jews, Egyptians, people from the Middle East, traders from the Silk Road. And the so-called “Slavic” population of Ukraine and Russia --- hated by the Nazis almost as much as the Jews --- included descendants of the Vikings of Rus, the Varangians, Harald's own people.
BRC: With so many great stories happening all the time, how do you concentrate on one at a time?
DG: I'm always filing away new ideas and have plenty of exciting plots for future novels. When I'm writing, I concentrate completely on the story, but I don't like to have it plotted out in detail ahead of me; I develop the story as I go along in the same way that my characters propel the quest forward, letting ideas come to me unexpectedly, just as my characters come across new clues. That way, writing the novels, to me, is like going on a real archaeological adventure.
BRC: What artifacts do you think will survive from our time? Do you ever wonder what stories people will tell about us?
DG: As long as documents survive, people will be able to explain the wonders of the modern world --- our achievements in technology and science. But the mysteries of the distant past will always remain and will continue to fascinate as they do today --- the pyramids, Stonehenge, questions about how the earliest civilisations came about, perhaps new discoveries under the sea. A thousand years from now, people intrigued by the past will be looking back to those times, not to us!
BRC: On your website www.DavidGibbins.com, and in the Author Notes at the end of CRUSADER GOLD, you provide information about two coins that appear in your novel. Do archaeological objects such as these inspire your stories, or do you get an idea and then look for relics that would fit the plot you’ve planned?
DG: Artifacts do help to inspire my stories and give me a hold in the past. I've never lost the thrill I had as a boy when I held my first piece of Roman pottery or my first Indian flint chipping. Both of those coins were beside me as I wrote CRUSADER GOLD. It was a huge inspiration to hold a coin that could once have been touched by my Viking hero Harald Hardrada and another coin that could have been minted from the Jewish treasures from the Temple in Jerusalem. I felt I was as close to the lost Menorah as anyone could possibly get!
BRC: You noted that the Ilulissat icefjord and L’Anse aux Meadows, where the Vikings first visited Newfoundland, have been preserved as historical sites. Does the accessibility of these sites enhance your attraction to writing about them?
DG: It's important for me to have been to the places I write about in my novels. I went to Ilulissat just before I began to write CRUSADER GOLD and to L'Anse aux Meadows part-way through, when I knew the site would figure in the story. Both visits were revelatory for me. I love the idea that readers of my books might visit these sites too and have their own imaginations fired just as mine was.
BRC: You’ve had a full career as an archaeologist. What led you to begin writing fiction? What parallels do you see as an author and an archaeologist?
DG: When I taught archaeology, I found that I most enjoyed lecturing on topics that covered wide expanses of time and geography, usually introductory courses. It worked best when I had the facts at hand but went in with no notes and only a good dose of adrenaline! What I was doing was storytelling, and in general, the farther back you go in time, the greater the need for imagination and an ability to make sense of ever-dwindling and disparate “facts.” Archaeology is really only a science up to the point of data being extracted from the ground; after that, interpretation is conjectural and speculative, and depends on a vivid imagination. So, the transition from being an archaeologist to a novelist was not so great! I'd always been passionate about fiction, and my teachers at school thought I should become a novelist. Returning to your first question, archaeological reconstruction is really not much different from historical fiction, and it's most compelling if you can bring it to life like a novelist.
BRC: At the end of CRUSADER GOLD, the International Maritime University team hints at a future adventure concerning Alexander the Great. Would you please expand on this?
DG: I've just finished my third novel, THE LOST TOMB, which focuses on the evidence for early Christianity. That's been very exciting for me to research and write, and is due to be published early next year. My fourth novel hinges on a fascination I've always had for Alexander the Great, for how far the Greeks and Romans reached east to India and beyond. I can't give away much yet, but there are some wonderful locations, and the story ranges through time and geography in much the same way as CRUSADER GOLD.