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Interview: October 31, 2008

October 31, 2008

Katherine Neville's latest work of fiction, THE FIRE, resumes the story she began 20 years ago in her critically acclaimed, bestselling debut novel, THE EIGHT, involving a magical chess set wielding dangerous powers that once belonged to the legendary emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charlemagne.

In this interview with's Donna Volkenannt, Neville explains why this sequel took two decades to write and describes her purpose --- despite her lack of knowledge on the subject --- in utilizing the game of chess as a multifaceted conceit in these two books. She also discusses the best way to go about researching the locations where her novels are set, reveals which real-life historical figure she'd most like to converse with over a meal, and shares details about her next project involving painters in the 1600s. Two decades have passed since the publication of THE EIGHT, which introduced readers to the Game and the search for the Montglane Service --- the magical chess set once owned by Charlemagne. THE FIRE continues years later, and is told through new eyes. What prompted you to write THE FIRE? And for those not familiar with your earlier work, how does it continue the storyline from THE EIGHT?

Katherine Neville: Actually, I've always said that my books write themselves and that they decide WHEN to be written. With THE FIRE, the timing that my book seems to have chosen couldn't have been more amazing.

As you mentioned, at the opening of THE EIGHT, the fabulous bejeweled chess set that once belonged to Charlemagne and contains dangerous powers has been buried for 1,000 years. It is dug up during the French Revolution and scattered around the world. This starts a giant, all-consuming Game that threatens to take over the world, with everyone trying to find and reassemble the pieces from the 1790s until the 1970s, when we find the chess set surfacing in the Sahara during the OPEC embargo.

THE FIRE begins 30 years after the events of THE EIGHT. The historic chapters start at the dawn of the War of Greek Independence, when the Turks have surrounded the all-powerful and flamboyant Albanian ruler, Ali Pasha, and he must use his little daughter Haidee to smuggle the most valuable piece of the chess set --- the Black Queen --- out of the country. We follow Black Queen's historic trek through Russia, Morocco, Italy and France. In the modern story of THE FIRE, Alexandra --- the daughter of Cat Velis and grandmaster Alexander Solarin from THE EIGHT --- suddenly learns that she may be a pawn in a game she never even knew existed.

Thus far, I already had the story down cold as soon as I'd conceptualized it, but I couldn't finish writing it. Roadblocks kept being thrown up --- the most critical one, when an airplane flew into the Pentagon just across the river from my Georgetown apartment. I knew I couldn't write the sequel to a book about OPEC and Islam and Arabs and the Middle East when events were actually happening around me that were connected to the plot.

Then, through a bizarre set of circumstances, when I finally went back to THE FIRE, the entire modern story was set in Washington, DC --- in one week in April 2003 --- which, as it turned out, happened to be the week that we first entered Baghdad. Serendipity? Why yes: the chess set I'd invented, 20 years ago in THE EIGHT, before it fell into Charlemagne's hands, had been originally "created" in 775 AD --- in the then-brand-new city of Baghdad.

BRC: The game of chess plays a central role in THE FIRE. How did you become interested in chess?

KN: I preface this by saying that I'm an awful chess player. For me, chess is not only a fabulous metaphor for ultimate "gamesmanship," but also it gave me a great way to structure a book like THE EIGHT, which was all about a battle between the forces of light and darkness that we are all so fascinated by. Then, in THE FIRE, we learn that the techniques of tactics and strategy that chess provides us are of use in so many critical turning points in our lives, and also lend us a new kind of perception.

But having said that --- although the plots of these two novels, THE EIGHT and THE FIRE, are each based upon a chess game that goes on for hundreds of years --- chess almost never actually appears in the books. (So readers like me who are total chess ignoramuses need not be frightened by opening the books' covers!)

BRC: Both the contemporary and historic settings in THE FIRE are realistic and rich in detail. Please tell us about how you research your novels.

KN: The one thing I've discovered that all my readers have in common --- regardless of who they are or where they live --- is curiosity. Further, my most frequently asked question by readers is "How did you do this research?" --- on whatever the topic. The answer usually is: I go and live there.

I always tell young aspiring novelists that the two things they need more than anything are: a job and a Eurail pass. That's a joke. But honestly, if I hadn't had to work for a living and support myself, and if I hadn't been EXTREMELY flexible about taking whatever job I could get and moving to whatever place afforded me that job, I'd be writing books instead about a woman sitting by the fire thinking profound thoughts.

So on my website --- instead of having the "Readers' Guides" usually provided for book clubs --- we will soon be starting a series of essays to address that very question: How I did my research. These will be ongoing, and will provide links and other references for those readers who really want to delve into the pool of how to find out about fascinating topics. I hope everyone goes on the quest.

BRC: The chief protagonist in THE FIRE is Alexandra “Xie” Solarin, the daughter of computer expert Cat Velis and Chess Grandmaster Alexander Solarin, who both were major players in THE EIGHT. Where did you draw your inspiration for Alexandra?

KN: Alexandra "Xie" Solarin was a hard nut to crack. She was a child chess prodigy, although her author had never been a prodigy at anything. One evening while writing, I was pouring out my frustration about this quandary on the phone to chess master Dan Heisman, and he put me in touch with the (then about 10-year-old) chess champion Alisa Melekhina, who has now spent many years emailing me thoughts about her perspectives in playing various games of chess, whether she won or lost the game. Some of these ideas are posted in an interview that was done out on Chess Cafe a few years back.

But it wasn't until I met the world-famous grandmaster Susan Polgar --- and read BREAKING THROUGH, her autobiography of her chess career and that of her sisters --- that I was able to sigh with relief. It was the first time that I realized the character I'd invented was really possible. For instance, I have Xie Solarin making surprising chess moves at age 3. Susan Polgar won her first chess tournament in Hungary at the age of four.

BRC: The characters are a diverse group, coming from different centuries, continents, cultures and social settings. While you were writing the novel, did any of the characters take over and reveal something surprising or insightful?

KN: The most bizarre invented character in THE FIRE was the young grandmaster, Vartan Azov, who begins in the story as Alexandra Solarin's arch-nemesis. He was CONSTANTLY coming out of the woodwork with things that nobody was expecting. As I kept saying, if my editor, Mark Tavani, hadn't been on hand watching all of this unfold, nobody would ever have believed this.

It started when Vartan suddenly announced that his mother had taught him to play chess while he was snapping peas in her kitchen, back in Ukraine. Then Vartan introduced a bizarre "Russian Oligarch" stepfather that no one had a clue (until I wrote him down) may have actually existed in at least one human prototype. And the most surprising --- which I'll leave to the reader to discover --- was when Vartan impulsively took command of a situation involving his chess rival, Alexandra, when her author was least expecting it.

BRC: Some exotic foods and out-of-the-ordinary cooking methods are featured in THE FIRE. Also, historic figures --- including Charlemagne, Isaac Newton, Lord Byron, the Emperor Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson --- are part of the story. If you could sit down to dinner with any historic character from your novel, who would it be and why?

KN: I'm a pretty good cook myself, I've picked up recipes for Venetian soups and Moroccan Pastilla au Pigeon. And I'm always tasting and eating while I'm cooking. But when I sit down to eat with somebody else, I like to have a conversation.

So of all the characters in all of my books, the one I think would be most interesting to spend an entire dinner and evening with would have to be Catherine the Great. She was a brilliant scientist and mathematician, she wrote plays that apparently rivaled the Comedie Francaise, she was an explorer who "discovered" and documented more turf than Lewis & Clark and Thomas Jefferson all rolled together --- Siberia, Alaska, California. And, in her spare time she ran the vastest empire in the world. What a babe!

BRC: You have lived and worked across the United States and around the world, and your writing reflects a student-of-the-world view. What early influences stimulated your curiosity about life and the career path you have taken?

KN: I always found school pretty boring. I would have preferred to be outside climbing trees. And I had to work to support myself from early on. I didn't really have a career so much as a succession of jobs that I usually got laid off or even sometimes fired from. So I learned always to keep my resume dusted off and updated and placed in various search firms. I was always willing to take any job that was handy --- busboy, waiter, whatever --- or to pack up and move to any place I could get work. That's what took me to all those places. And every place I went, I liked to learn about the food and the local customs.

That's how I learned enough about North Africa to write THE EIGHT, and also how I learned enough by living all these years in Washington, DC to write about the secret alleyways and woodlands described in THE FIRE that even many lifetime inhabitants of the District didn't know about.

BRC: During part of your career, you were an international computer executive. How has technology impacted your writing? Are you strictly high-tech, or do you need to be connected with pen and paper when you write?

KN: I like to think of myself as a "computer geek manqué." But as much as I love technology and the help it can provide in organizing and correcting my paperwork, I know from long experience that if you're not careful, the system can start driving you in directions that are very un-novelistic.

I wrote my first two books, A CALCULATED RISK and THE EIGHT, on an IBM Selectric typewriter; all the notes were in longhand and I cut and pasted the text like a patchwork quilt. I still have the original glued manuscripts in my library. THE MAGIC CIRCLE was the first book I wrote from scratch on a computer, but I soon found it so hard to locate my source data inside the machine that I finally had to retrieve my handwritten note cards from a box and revert to the old system, at least for laying out the plot elements and character studies of historic figures. I also use bubble charts ("data flow diagrams") for the character inter-relationships and critical path charts to keep track of actual historic events. These are still up on my wall for THE FIRE, along with a giant USGS map of Washington, DC that shows the connection between the sacred Indian burial grounds downstream and the first cornerstone George Washington had laid for DC.

But to know what it feels like to actually *be* there, you can't Google it --- you have to walk!

BRC: Most writers are great readers. Which books or authors influenced you growing up? Who are some favorite authors you read regularly?

KN: My favorites are always adventure-quest novels. That's why I write them myself! But most of the writers I loved when I was young were long dead. I loved the Rafael Sabatini pirate novels like CAPTAIN BLOOD, THE SEA HAWK and SCARAMOUCHE. Alexandre Dumas and Lord Byron, who also show up here as characters in THE FIRE, were big favorites too. This genre --- the oldest form of fiction from the time of Jason and the Golden Fleece, Parsifal and the Holy Grail, Gilgamesh and the Elixir of Life --- is the one I still love: the Quest Novel.

When THE EIGHT came out 20 years ago, it was this kind of colorful, swashbuckling adventure novel, but nobody was writing it and no one could really pigeonhole it: it was reviewed under everything from history to mystery, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, literature --- and due to its focus on energy, oil and computers, it was even taught in university business schools! I was compared with everybody from Umberto Eco to Alexandre Dumas to Steven Spielberg. By the time I wrote the sequel, THE FIRE, though, there had been an entire resurgence and "The Guys" --- my male counterparts --- were all tromping around in the same pasture. Which is great!

The only difference is: in *my* books, the girls get to have the adventures, solve the puzzles and go on the quest!

BRC: Conceiving a unique storyline, performing research and writing a novel with such a broad scope must be an enormous undertaking --- and a labor of love. How does your writing affect you? How do you feel during the process and after completing a novel?

KN: Interesting question! It's a mixed blessing. Physically, I always feel completely whipped and burned, like after a huge workout or a hike through the mountains. Working that hard with your brain really burns the calories and leaves you feeling completely drained. I have to do laps in a pool to get back into shape. Psychologically, of course, it's an enormous sense of accomplishment. You've created an entire world populated by people who have sometimes become more real than the people you know --- your co-workers, your neighbors, even your closest friends. I always fall in love with my characters, and especially with those in THE FIRE like Vartan and Xie and Nokomis and Rodo and Leda the Swan.

BRC: THE FIRE has a broad scope and is painted with words on a global canvas, which lends itself to being developed into a movie. Are there any plans for THE FIRE or any of your novels to appear on the big screen?

KN: My books have been optioned as movies numerous times, and there has been enormous ongoing interest both in Hollywood and studios abroad. However, the producers and studios have always ended up trying to change the story so materially that I felt my readers (not to mention the author!) would have been very disappointed in the outcome.

My plan now, with the support of my agents and attorneys, is to develop the two books, THE EIGHT and THE FIRE, together into a two-film project. I believe we will know something quite interesting in that department early next year.

BRC: You have been meeting with booksellers in anticipation of THE FIRE coming out. What have you been hearing from them?

KN: The booksellers are celebrating just as much as we are! THE EIGHT was a greatly beloved book and has been selling consistently in backlist over the past 20 years. It's always remained a book that the booksellers knew they could recommend to readers groups and never be disappointed. So it was an enormous joy for me that they've not only greeted THE FIRE with open arms, but also expressed their enthusiasm that the continuation of the story was just as fresh and exciting as the original.

BRC: What is the best way for readers to contact you with questions or comments about your novels or to find out about speaking engagements, book signings or other events?

KN: My website,, has a continually updated list of my appearances, speaking engagements, and the like. Readers may write to me directly by clicking on I love to hear from readers --- many of the people in the acknowledgments section of THE FIRE were originally readers who wrote me letters years ago --- and I always reply as quickly as possible unless I am out on the road on book tour.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

KN: I'm writing a book about painters in the 1600s and modern times --- that I have just discovered from an old Publishers Weekly interview I was actually working on 20 years ago. It's so exciting. I've already set up my industrial easel. I'm ready to smell the paint!