Interview with Michael J. Cooper, Author of Wages of Empire
Thanks for joining us at YAOTL, Michael. Can you tell us a bit about Wages of Empire?
Wages of Empire begins in the summer of 1914 when sixteen-year-old Evan Sinclair leaves home to join the Great War for Civilization. Little does he know that, despite the war raging in Europe, the true source of conflict will emerge in Ottoman Palestine, since it's from Jerusalem where the German kaiser dreams to rule as Holy Roman Emperor. Filled with such historical figures as Gertrude Bell, T.E. Lawrence, Winston Churchill, Faisal bin Hussein and Chaim Weizmann, Wages of Empire follows Evan through the killing fields of the Western Front where he will help turn the tide of a war that is just beginning, and become part of a story still being written.
What drew you to telling this story? In many ways, this WWI story–which details the battle for control of Palestine–feels incredibly relevant, given recent events.
You’ve already perfectly answered the question since what drew me to telling this story is precisely its relevance to current events.
The topography of much of the world in 1914 was the result of centuries of colonial adventures (and misadventures), and by 1914 the Ottoman Empire had ruled the Middle East for over four hundred years. Before the Turks, the Muslim Mamlukes ruled for three hundred years, and before the Mamlukes, the Crusades ruled for two hundred years. And here lies the through-line linking the main European combatants of WWI to the Holy Land: Knights of the Crusade came to the Holy Land from England and from the Holy Roman Empire (meaning France and Germany), and many belonged to fervently religious orders. Given this, one can understand how the memory of the Crusades was firmly imprinted in the collective consciousness of these European nations: in their worship, art and literature. So it was that, as the European powers embarked on their colonial escapades into the 20th century, the Holy Land would fire their imaginations with a desire to revisit and refurbish their Crusader heritage, holding fast to the memory of a sacred quest that might finally be graced with victory.
Conversely, Arab consciousness was equally impacted by this history, and with a profound sense of national pride, since the Crusades ended with the defeat and expulsion of the Europeans in 1291, followed by seven hundred years of Muslim rule under the Mamlukes and then the Ottoman Turks—a Muslim hegemony of five hundred years ending with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire by the British Empire in WWI.
Layered into all this history is that of the Jews, who trace their origins to Abraham’s journey to Canaan in antiquity (about 2,000 BC). Following their enslavement in and exodus from Egypt (circa 1350 BC), the United Monarchy emerged under King Saul (circa 1030 BC) and with the building of the Frist Temple came the fulfillment of the divine promise to Abraham of Jewish hegemony in the Land of Israel, if only intermittently and for a few hundred years over the next thousand years.
However, with the ebb and flow of empires in the Holy Land with successive challenges from Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, the First and Second Jewish Temples were destroyed, and the vast majority of Jews were exiled from the Land of Israel. Dispersed throughout Europe, North Africa, West Asia, and elsewhere for nearly the next two thousand years, the Jews were without a homeland in this diaspora. Depending upon the prevailing administration or local ruler, Jews intermittently thrived, were tolerated, persecuted, or slaughtered. Throughout, however, they generally maintained their religious identity with daily prayers yearning and directed toward their lost homeland, and specifically, Jerusalem.
In the middle of the 19th century, Jews joined other small nations in the rising tide of nationalism. This Jewish nationalism was manifest as Zionism, and led to an initial trickle of immigration to the Land of Israel, which grew with the advent of the 20th century, reaching large numbers before, during and after WWII with the establishment of Israel in the mid-20th century—specifically in 1948, which coincidentally, was the year of my birth.
Being the same age as Israel and growing up in a Zionist family and engaged in Zionist youth groups, this narrative of redemption and return to Zion became a centerpiece in my life. This was, indeed, the reason I emigrated to Israel in 1966 at the age of seventeen. Once there, and for the first time, meeting native Palestinians, I quickly became aware of their connection to and love of the land. In this way, I came to understand that my Zionist narrative required reconciliation and coexistence with their Palestinian narrative.
This is, then, the reason that I am “drawn to tell this story.” Through writing historical fiction, I hope to foster, in some small measure, a narrative of coexistence, reconciliation, and peace.
I love a historical YA–mostly because it rarely gets much attention. Why did you decide to place a historical novel in the YA category?
Wages of Empire sits comfortably in the YA category because the book opens with the hero, Evan Sinclair, as a young man of 16-years. Without having to issue any major spoiler alerts, I can safely tell readers that, as the trilogy moves forward, Evan will grow older and wiser, and his story will intersect with the lives of other historical and fictional characters.
It might be of interest to readers that I published a previous novel, Foxes in the Vineyard, with a forty-eight-year-old Evan Sinclair as the hero. That book is set at the transition from British Mandatory Palestine to Israel and Jordan in 1948—thirty-two years after Wages of Empire ends. In this sense, Wages of Empire provides a study of Evan at the beginning of his journey.
With or without assigning it to the YA category, I believe that Wages of Empire will appeal to all readers since Evan, along with the other fictional and historical figures, are drawn as fully formed characters. Given this, and the setting at an epic historical moment, I hope that my books will appeal to readers of all ages who love historical mysteries.
You had several balancing acts in this book: Fiction and fact, action and character delineation. Your book is gripping because of the characters–they truly bring history to life. Did you find it difficult to craft historical characters that modern readers would find relatable? How did you approach writing about historical figures?
The key to answer this composite question is that the writer must learn all he or she can about their central historical characters. This requires learning about them through primary source accounts of their own and of their contemporaries. In this way, we learn how they spoke, what they thought, and what they looked like. We gain these insights as we study our characters through the windows of contemporary biographies, autobiographies, and collected letters.
To be sure, writing any type of fiction requires research, but with historical fiction, the writer must be positioned to inform the reader about details of the setting and time period. To “get things right,” or even close to “right,” requires a massive amount of research. However, the weaving of historical detail into the story should be so subtle as to be invisible. Indeed, nothing wakes the reader more rudely from the dream of a good story than a ham-handed display of detail. Or, to put it simply, the writer must be able to “show” without “showing off.”
In referring to requisite research as “massive,” I know that the task appears daunting and thoroughly unpleasant. Clearly, if one only follows the adage of “write what you know,” only minimal research may be required. However, if we are drawn to write outside of ourselves, outside of the confines of our known world, we have no choice but to do a prodigious amount of research. And the secret of doing this, and actually enjoying it, can be encapsulated in an alternate adage: “Write what you love.”
How did personal experience play into writing Wages of Empire?
Personal experience played a pivotal role in writing Wages of Empire, especially those sections related to Evan Sinclair. I drew on a host of my own experiences as I followed Evan from the high desert in Utah to the killing fields of France and Belgium—playing baseball in a ramshackle ball field in the summer heat, crossing the Atlantic on a steamer, resisting temptation in France, and volunteering (with a good deal of ambivalence) to serve in a time of war. Beyond these personal experiences, I also drew on my first-hand experiences in Israel where I spent my formative years—returning there in my mind to a land where history waits for you around every corner, in the luminous quality of light in early morning and toward evening, in the freshness of Jerusalem’s mountain air, and in the sun-heated warmth of the desert, or in the joy of floating in the Sea of Galilee at night beneath a sky crowded with stars.
How did you approach research? Did your research ever surprise you?
My approach to the research required to write my novels of historical fiction is to use multiple reliable sources related to the story’s historical setting. Even though I am not a historian, I avail myself of articles and research papers written by historians to enlighten all significant aspects of pertinent historical events and characters, and then to modify those findings with information from primary sources written by those individuals who actually participated in those events. Once this structure is in place, I have the scaffolding to construct multifaceted stories that authentically reflect historical figures in their time.
Regarding the surprises that arise from research, this is yet another gift of the process. As fascinating elements of hidden history, unsolved mysteries, and bizarre historical characters are uncovered by research. All these add context and richness to the unfolding story.
An example of this was the emergence of the personality of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Contemporary historical accounts attest to the fact that Wilhelm, though gifted with a quick understanding and occasionally showing genuine curiosity, was more often superficial, restless, and lacked any desire for hard work, or to see things through to the end. He frequently showed no sense of sobriety, had no respect for balance and boundaries, or even for reality and real problems. He enjoyed giving his enemies humiliating nicknames, and was often arrogant and uncontrollable. Desperate for applause and success, he had an exaggerated self-confidence and a desire to show off—to play the part of the supreme warlord. Needless to say, these erratic qualities affected how the Great War began and how it was conducted.
As I review the description of the Kaiser’s personality, I couldn’t help but notice certain interesting, if not unsettling, parallels to current public figures.
What did you most want readers to take from Wages?
Wages of Empire is a historical novel set in wartime. As such, it offers the reader a rich buffet—having all the elements for a compelling story; drama, heroism, conflict, tension, intrigue, action, heartbreak, and perhaps romance. And the effect of armed conflict on history is itself dramatic since war is an accelerant to history, and often with dramatic changes in human and natural topography.
Additionally, I hope that the reader will sense the compelling tension between knowing and unknowing—to engage with the historical and fictional characters in the grip of their threatening present, infused with their anxiety in the face of an unknowable future, at their uncertainty of outcome. And, I want the reader to realize that now, it’s our turn to be anxious in our ignorance in our time of uncertainty—with war in Ukraine, the Middle East, and in a time of civil strife in our own country—our turn to share the anxiety of having no idea as to the outcome of all this conflict.
I hope that the reader will see that Wages of Empire is a novel about war in a time of war. As such, it holds up a mirror to time past that reflects on present uncertainties and current wars.
And in that spirit, I hope that the reader will ask the obvious question—what do present wars have to do with history? Because the answer is: Everything.
Every book has its own journey to publication–traditional, self, hybrid. Why did you choose your particular route?
I chose a hybrid route since it offered a rapid pathway to publication—a mere
eight months from signing the contract to the pub date. With my prior books, the process took years—running the gauntlet of pitching to agents at conferences, querying and querying them, submitting and submitting to publishers. Now that I am working with a hybrid publisher, I’m able to enjoy the writing and the promoting of a book without all the pain and disappointment of the long search.
What’s been the biggest surprise in seeing this book come into the world?
After a short gestation and an easy birth, I was nonetheless surprised and gratified that I was able to turn quickly from writing and editing Wages of Empire to promoting. And with that added time and energy, I’ve been able to enjoy a greater level of success.
Where can we find you? What’s next?
I live in northern California in the USA and look forward to doing book events across the country and internationally. Please check out my website for all pertinent and extraneous information:
My next book, Crossroads of Empire, a sequel to Wages of Empire will be coming out in the fall of 2024.