An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

October 30, 2017

Baumgardt - Interview with John D. Cressler

Julia Baumgardt (Marian University, Indianapolis)

Interview with John D. Cressler, author of Emeralds of the Alhambra and Shadows in the Shining City, books one and two of the Anthems of Al-Andalus series

John Cressler, Emeralds of the Alhambra. Sunbury Press, 2013, viii + 424pp.
John Cressler, Shadows in the Shining City. Sunbury Press, 2014, viii + 584pp.

Why did you choose al-Andalus? What got you interested in this period and region?

JDC: My dream has always been to write fiction, and after 5 non-fiction books, the time finally felt right. History is my second love (especially European history), and I really enjoy reading historical fiction, so that became my goal: write a compelling piece of historical fiction. No small feat! First up: setting. After a couple of months of browsing I happened upon some descriptions of Muslim Córdoba at the height of the Golden Age (the end of the 10th century), which totally blew me away! I thought I knew European history pretty well, but somehow I had missed out on this fascinating period, marked not only a truly remarkable flowering of art, literature, science, and medicine, but for a >100 year stretch, convivencia, the relatively peaceful presence of both Jews and Christians living (and practicing) in Muslim Spain (a reminder that Jews today consider the Jewish Golden Age to be that same period within 10-11th century Muslim Spain! Remarkable.). To me, the very existence of convivencia bears an important message for the 21th century. The more I read, the more enthralled I became. And thus I decided on a quest to break open this 800 year Muslim-Spanish history with a series of novels: The Anthems of al-Andalus. While I always intended to write about the Golden Age (10th century), I soon fell in love with the Alhambra Palace, and it seemed like a fantastic place to set a novel, especially an interfaith love story! I went back to the history books and found a pivotal moment in Spanish history (late 14th century, around Pedro the Cruel and the Castilian Civil War to focus on (a time when Muslims fought alongside Christians!). Nicely, that time frame also presented the pinnacle of the Alhambra’s colorful history. So I was off and running!

You write rather emphatically against the erroneous idea of the medieval period as a kind of “dark ages.” Where, in both your personal and professional life, do you still encounter this stereotype and why do you feel that it’s important to combat it?

JDC: Indeed I do. A good clue would be this: in 975 CE in Córdoba, the caliph possessed a library containing over 400,000 volumes in his private collection alone. The largest collection of books at that time in continental Europe was a few hundred volumes. Everyone in Córdoba loved and collected books. The lost books of the ancient Greeks were rediscovered and translated into Arabic. The level of sophistication on 10th century Muslim Spain was staggering. Running water, indoor toilets, lighted streets, paved roads, public hospitals, modern agriculture, public baths. This list is long. In my conversations with folks around the US (e.g., as a part of my book gigs), even for well-educated folks I find that most people’s understanding of medieval Muslim Spain is woefully lacking (as was my own). It is tempting to read a history-bending agenda into this educational omission (that Muslims played a huge role in the cultural and intellectual development of Europe?! Whattt?!), but in any case one of my central aims with my novels was to break open this period for modern readers. To reawaken it.

You state in the afterword to Emeralds that your primary aim was to bring “a time and place long dead magically back to life” and to share your own experience of the “truth and holiness and timelessness” of love (360). What of your own story merges with the one you discovered in your research and the ones you have created? Now that you are writing the final book in the series, have your aims changed at all?

JDC: My principle goal was to reawaken this time period for modern readers, and to do that while telling a great yarn. It seemed to me that love stories would be a powerful way to do this, since love, both then and now, often manages to cross artificial boundaries (religion, culture, ethnicity) with relative ease. I like to think of true love as undeniable. I have been blessed in my life with Great Love (capitals intentional), and thus my life experience with my wife Maria (best friends for >40 years and counting, and married for >35 now) was very much what I drew upon in creating my characters, both for young love (Chandon/Layla; Zafir/Rayhana), and mature love (Samuel/Rebekah). I also discovered that writing love stories is serious fun! Not surprisingly, book 3 in the series (Fortune’s Lament), centers on a love story as well.

What kinds of research did you do before writing the novels? You provide a rather long bibliography at the end of each book. Were there one or two books that really stood out as key to your investigations?

JDC: Not surprisingly, I read everything I could get my hands on related to medieval Muslim Spain. I have a bookshelf 10 feet long filled with them in my office at home where I write! A couple of go-to books for Emeralds and Shadows were:

1)    Salma Jayyusi’s edited double-volume set, The Legacy of Muslim Spain. A comprehensive view of everything related to al-Andalus (life, food, music, art, gardens, religion, you name it), written by the experts in their respective fields. Comprehensive and magical, for both specialists and the seriously curious (me!). I have had the great pleasure of having Salma as a reader/blurber of both books. That she loves my books is high praise indeed.
2)    Maria-Rosa Menocal’s, The Ornament of the World. For general audiences. This is the very first book I read on al-Andalus. Magical. Sadly, Maria-Rosa has since passed away, but I chatted with her and shared my vision of these novels. She loved the idea! And then made me promise in book two to revisit 10th century Córdoba and the rise of al-Mansur. Which I did in Shadows!    
The specificity of detail regarding weaponry and military maneuvers is instantly striking to the reader. Why was it so important to you to communicate concretely the intricacies of medieval warfare?

JDC: Indeed; by intent. I did feel strongly about including the rich details of battle, for a couple of reasons. First, I have always been fascinated by the history of warfare, so it was fun topic to tackle and include. To me, it adds an element of realism and believability to the story. More importantly, however, I wanted to give a realistic depiction of the absolute horror of up-close-and-personal combat in the medieval world. All war is horrible, of course, but with the 21st century’s increased reliance on drones and smart bombs, I felt it was important for the reader to experience a swordfight to the death, and the awfulness in battle that was quite routine during that period. 

I felt similarly about your description of the physical spaces and of the Alhambra in particular. It was clear even before I read your “Reflections” that you had spent a significant amount of time there. What were your impressions of the architecture and the layout of the spaces? (How, what parts, and to what extent) did you hope to make those impressions come alive to your readers?

JDC: The Alhambra holds a very special place in my heart. Yes, I have in fact spent considerable time in the palace, and its surroundings in Granada. Three separate trips; for Emeralds, Shadows, and for Fortune’s Lament (which will be largely set back in Granada at the fall of the kingdom). One of the great gifts in hindsight was doing nine months of research on the Alhambra BEFORE I went, so I knew it backwards and forwards before I stepped foot in the place. I let my imagination churn on the palace and my characters. Seeing it in person was a dream come true. Stepping into the Comares Palace for the first time, seeing Layla’s and Chandon’s rooms over the reflecting pool, the Lion Palace, the other breathtaking buildings, the Generalife. It brought it all alive after percolating so long in my imagination. I knew the layout, obviously, before going, but the sightlines, sounds, smells, feel of the various buildings and locations was so important to my writing about it. The same was true for Madinat al Zahara and Córdoba in Shadows. Same path, same experience. Only exception is that now Madinat al-Zahra is (sadly) largely in ruins. But that did have the benefit of letting my imagination run wild.

You provide a significant amount of historical foregrounding, both before and after the actual text of the novels. What things were important to you to get “right”? Where did you feel there was a bit more room to fictionalize and invent? How did you decide?

My approach to historical fiction is to try and hold tightly to the broad brush of the actual history, to the extent that we know it (much of that history is murky), but in the smaller details to reserve creative license to change things in ways needed to keep the story properly paced and engaging to the reader. That said, I am careful in the back matter to tell you where I deviated from history, and why (rare in historical novels). One main feature in Shadows, for instance, was timeline compression. Two years in the book was really ten years of history, a choice I made to enhance the dramatic weight. The same will be true in Fortune’s Lament.

You make many references to Reconquista and the idea of “renewing” Reconquista in Emeralds. How do you understand the term as a historical, religious and historiographic concept? How does it relate to the use of jihad in Shadows? What historical sources pointed you toward that understanding?

JDC: Simply put, reconquista was a principal aim of the various Christian kingdoms to retake what they viewed as Christian lands lost to the Moors at one time or another; in practice a step-by-step push back of Moorish influence and power. The fact that those “lost lands” were spectacularly wealthy over much of that time played a role in their ambition, of course, but at various times, so did religious conflict. This struggle ebbed and flowed during the 800 years of Muslim Spanish history, of course, but reached crescendos in 1367-69 (Emeralds) during the Castilian Civil War, and of course in the 1482-1492 with Isabella and her power play for Spanish unification (via Castilian dominance, and marrying well). She was an impressively ambitious woman, and clearly had both power and wealth and religion in the mind in her version of reconquista. And, as told in Shadows, al-Mansur’s naked ambitions served to inflame the Christian north in the 10th century. By bringing the Berbers from the Maghreb to Spain, he almost singlehandedly unleashed reconquista, and ultimately the destruction of Moorish Spain (marked first by the Almoravid incursions, then the Almohads, both of which accelerated religious tensions). Without him, it would have been interesting indeed to see how long the tolerant Umayyads would have ruled, and what Spain would have ultimately become.

Many of your staunch religious figures seem to define their practice and spirituality in negative terms; that is, in terms of avoiding specific activities and individuals. In addition, those in power such as Cardinal Coysset, Peter Strobel, and al-Mansur express less actual devotion than they do use of religious dogma as rationale for and means to extend their exercise of power. In your opinion, are tolerance and openness integral aspects to the truest and fullest expression of religious faith? Do religion and power always go together when that faith is expressed conservatively or more dogmatically?

JDC: Yes, that is true. But also historical. Christianity and politics/power were very much intertwined for much of that 800-year history of Moorish Spain. And even for al-Mansur, while history tells us he was a devout Muslim, it is hard to imagine that his power/ego were not what drove him to do the things he did. He used religious dogma to his own advantage. In both cases (Christian and Muslim), dogma and prejudice was at times very much used as a weapon for personal gain and to satisfy egos and control/silence others. The Jews? Well, they were often caught in between. That is not to say that people of sincere faith were not plentiful on both sides (they were), but the big figures of the history of Moorish Spain are chocked with so a complex intermingling of religion/politics/power, which, while sad, makes for good dramatic action. The brief period of convivencia (< 200 years, true, but still very remarkable for the time) enjoyed under the Umayyads was in large measure characterized by religious tolerance, and unprecedented social mobility for all faith traditions in Córdoban society. In my view, tolerance and openness to the Other are indeed essential aspects of what religion can and should aspire to. That example, nearly two centuries worth, is a real important reminder for us all in 2017.

Layla, Rayhanna and Rebecca all stand out as exceptionally bright and beautiful women. There are many parallels, in particular each woman’s fierce and stubborn intelligence, integrity, passion, and love of books, as well as the physical similarities in “dancing” hands and unruly curls. Are these women versions or representations of your Maria, to whom you refer several times? If not, what are some of their principle differences as you conceive of them, both from each other and from Maria?

JDC: Hehe. Well, yes, they are exceptionally bright and beautiful women. Busted. I have had the great blessing in my life to be surrounded by bright, beautiful, strong-willed women. So writing about them is quite natural and enjoyable! Are my heroines copies of my Maria? No, although Rayhana and Maria do share the same eyes. Are elements of Maria contained in some of who and what my female characters espouse? Certainly. I will also say that, despite stereotypes of Islam, we have records of a number of exceptionally bright and beautiful women in Moorish Spain, many with exceptional influence on historical events, and with remarkable social mobility.

Who is your favorite character and why?

JDC: I am close to many/most/all of my characters. I think most novelists would say the same. One tidbit I will share. Post Emeralds, Maria did ask me to consider writing about mature love, not just young love (something we two know intimately after 35 years!). Samuel and Rebekah were the outcomes of that request. Both of whom I am very fond of as characters. 

Personification of key objects (the constellations in Emeralds and the books in Shadows) plays a role in each book. Why did you decide to incorporate these elements and what were you hoping to communicate through this device?

JDC: Both novels contain elements of magical realism (the constellations, the books). I felt (and still do) that they add to the sensuous wonder/magic/dream-like character that was Moorish Spain. Fortune’s Lament continues that trend. I will say that I came upon the living constellations somewhat by chance. I added them in only a couple of places in my first draft, as whimsical minor characters. My early readers loved the way they worked in the book, and encouraged me to add more scenes, which I did. I like the result. The living books in Shadows were a deliberate choice. As a lifelong reader, books are very much alive to me. With the setting in the Great Library of Córdoba, it seems like a very important and natural choice to make. I like that result too!

What does the blue flame present between the lovers in both books mean to you?

JDC: Good question. I opted for a magical element bounding the otherworldliness of true love when it is directly experienced (transcendent, divine, life changing would be closer to my life experience). Why blue? Blue, like an electrical spark, a holy flame, divine fire.

Given that the bulk of your professional life is spent in the quite different realm of electrical engineering, what has it been like to venture into Hispanism, medievalism and creative writing? What things have been most rewarding and most challenging about the writing and publishing process on these topics?

JDC: Truthfully, falling in love with Moorish Spain (hook, line and sinker), and getting to creatively write about it, has been a dream come true for me. I love every minute of it, and consider it a great blessing. I live Moorish Spain, I breathe it, and I think constantly about that magical place and time and culture that were so unique, yet so relevant to the modern world and what I wish for our planet and its many peoples: love-filled; no artificial boundaries; the practice of religion as it was originally intended, peaceful and tolerant; filled to the brim with knowledge and culture and reverence. You may also find it interesting to note (I do) that my right-brain centric imagination and creative writing dove-tail beautifully with my scientific research, which, while it may be left-brain centric, requires intuition and imagination to practice well. Hand in glove. 

Is there anything else you’d like me/the reader to know?

JDC: Well, I am hard at work on the third novel in the series, Fortune’s Lament, which tells the story of the lead up to and ultimate collapse of Moorish Spain in 1492. Think Fernando and Isabel, Columbus, the Inquisition. War, politics, betrayal, and yes, love. Danah, my bright, beautiful, strong-willed heroine (!), is working hard to become Granada’s first female physician. Little does she know, love is about to blind-side her! I recently decided to split the story into two books (the plot arc is LARGE and LONG), the first of which should be out late 2017 hopefully, with the conclusion about a year later.

Works Cited

Jayyusi, Salma, editor. The Legacy of Muslim Spain. Brill, 1994.

Menocal, María Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created
a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Little, Brown and Company, 2003.