Monday 25 February 2013

ZOE SAADIA: the interview

Pre-contact America has always fascinated me, ever since I was a child and I first came across accounts of the Aztecs. It seemed somehow alien, so different to my experience growing up in the north-west of England.

This fascination has never left me. I watch anything about the Americas on television and have over the years read many history books on the subject. It was then with some interest that I encountered the work of Zoe Saadia. I was intrigued by her tweets about her novels and this has led me into her richly imagined world. 

 Zoe writes from a position of knowledge, she has spent over ten years researching the cultures of the Americas. Her blog is well worth reading, immediate and knowledgeable. As are her novels, they draw you in and leave you wanting more at the end.

As a historian what drew you from Ancient Rome to Pre-Contact America in the first place?

Well, pre-contact America was always the one who drew my interest in the way I could not resist, although logically it should not have happened, as I was born on the other side of the globe. So actually, ancient Rome was the one to draw my attention away and not the other way around.
There so little literature concerning Ancient Americas, that at some point one can’t maintain one’s interest, and have to move on. Republican Rome offered me a very nice diversion, with plenty of fiction and non-fiction, with non-stop action and the most fascinating politics, this transition from a democracy (even if an imperfect one) to the absolute monarchy.
Back to Americas I returned only when I knew what I was planning to do with my life, which is to fill this void, to deal with this lack of good historical fiction on its per-contact history. Ten years of research presented to me a continent full of life, of bubbling politics, shifting powers, empires and democracies, war and peace treaties, all prior to the 15th century. To the contrary of the popular belief, both Americas were mostly agricultural, therefore well settled, with plenty of time to grow great cultures, political systems and interesting clashes between some of them. It presented me with a rich field of cultures and events to choose while looking for good stories

How did the idea for your first novel come about?
Being an avid reader of James Clavell, I wanted to create my own Shogun-of-the-ancient-Americas. The situation of a strong, fairly open-minded man thrown into an absolutely foreign society to him, discovering it slowly and painfully, drawing into it against his will, fascinated me greatly. This way I could also present two different cultures, making my point of the diverse pre-contact North America stronger – shooting two birds in one shot 
This is how the idea of “The Cahokian” was born. The monarchist Mississippians against the fierce democratic Iroquois of the Great Lakes. A somewhat ambitious undertaking and, being the first novel, it definitely has its flows (this book is being rewritten and proofread again through this month). But all in all, it did drive the point home. 

In your "Pre-Aztec" series you write about the Tepanec Empire, how much of this is based on archaeology and how much have you had to use your imagination?

Oh, the Tepanecs were more difficult to deal with than the Aztecs. I have to admit I did use not a little imagination (but not as bad as with the Mississippians of my first novel, whose research was based solely on archeology and nothing else).
The Tepanecs were the regional superpower that held the Mexican Valley and its cities-states and provinces, Aztecs included, in its firm grip for a few decades or more. But as soon as the scales tipped and the Aztecs and their allies took power, a serious effort was made to re-write the history. Reportedly the winners went as far as destroying many previous records and even burning books. There were great libraries in Texcoco, the city-state that was never subjected to the Aztecs, but those libraries were destroyed in the Spanish conquest that came a century and a half later.
So, while we have a fair amount of ancient records concerning the Aztecs, we don’t have much on the preceding Tepanecs. Which forced me to guess some of the customs and everyday’s life’s tidbits, basing my assumptions of the later-day Aztecs and their neighbors.

How do you keep up to date with developments in the field?

Luckily I have great friends in Mexico-city to keep me updated on the important lectures concerning latest discoveries that are sometimes held in Temple Mayor museum. Also the internet helps a lot. There is not a day upon which I don’t bless the internet and the wonderful possibilities of reaching all sorts of information and connecting with all sorts of people it has opened to us.

What would you do differently if you had the chance?

Nothing that I can think of. Ok, maybe my location. I would love to be born in the lands I’m fascinated and in love with. To live on the other side of the globe, doing the research and interacting with friends and colleagues whose day is when my night is, is a bit challenging.

If you could go back in time where would you go?

Oh, this is a tricky question. There are so many locations and time periods! If I’m allowed to pick a few, then, of course, I’ll be off to 13th-14th centuries Central and North Americas, to make sure I got my facts right.
After wards I would detour by Caesar’s Rome, and then maybe take a quick tour through Spain and Italy of Hannibal’s time.  

What's in the pipeline?

Oh, now that I officially finished with the rise of the Aztec Empire (the last book was sent to the editor two day ago), I’m moving back to North America. The Great League of the Iroquois with their unprecedented democracy and constitution and the way it had been created, is definitely worth a thorough representation in historical fiction.

If you were a colour what colour would you be?

Either red or turquoise. It’s difficult to choose J

Thursday 21 February 2013


Last night I ran a workshop for the poetry group I am a member of. I do this about once a month. It’s important to write and the challenge of being put on the spot makes me draw deep into where ever it is the poems lurk. It is good for my chops.

This time I asked them to look at a painting, Bruegel The Elders Peasant Wedding, then to write a poem from the perspective of one of the people in the painting. I got the idea from Mary Swander, in a book of poetry exercises.

I chose the musician who is looking longingly at the food as he plays his set of pipes. I thought him an inarticulate fellow with words but who played like an angel.

Interestingly, for most of the allotted time I could not complete the poem. I had the idea of the inarticulate man who finds voice in the instrument but voice to do what?  Then I thought of The Great God Pan and it fell into place. His task was to transcend the night and lead the dancers where ever.

As I polished the verse, as much as you can when the clock is against you, it occurred to me that I knew where I had got the idea of the shaman musician from. Bob Pegg, in his interview, mentioned how a poem in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury had inspired him, a poem about Pan. Then I remembered Art Pepper in the documentary Notes from a Jazz Survivor talking about his prison tattoos and the first one he had got was of Pan.

After such a build-up I’m not sure I want to share the poem!

in a pigskin bladder I found a voice
far more attractive than my words
it suited me in time to learn
to shape the drone to clothe their mood
finger patterns on scurrying chanter
will guide them through this hollow night
til sunrise bursts the music’s spell
ensares them in real life chains
then I will sigh and drain the cup
and set my foot toward the hill

Not sure yet what to make of it. Not so sure about the real life’s chains…
But the bones are there and I will set it aside for a while.

The photographs I took last weekend driving back from the northwest-I was the passenger when I took them. Again not sure of what I think but thought them worth sharing.

I am ending this week with an advert-the wonderful Emily Kraemer has a new album out-it is superb, as you would expect but don't take my word for it. You can download it from here for free! Treat yourself - have a good weekend.

Friday 15 February 2013


Moving & Handling:
Facilitating a person to move.
The clue is in the title
(easy to miss I suppose).
I had ten years or more of hearing:
Ops! shouldn’t say manual handling
then that nervous laugh,
missing the point by a mile.
It could have been my fault,
slowly sinking into a rut of repetition,
it could have been the situation,
so much to do in little time,
an inevitable loss of reflection.
So care staff get by,
discounting all but the task in hand,
a pragmatic double think;
it should be done like that but
today it must be done like this.
They bend their backs to save their time,
years later blame the pain on themselves,
not the system and what it takes from us,
reliant as it is on our need to care,
it expects all and gives back zero.
Never the managers,
who run to stand still,
spouting the management mantra of that moment,
holding it together as it falls apart.

This is not a finished poem, the feeling is there but the form is incomplete, not sure about the triple rhyme in the middle for one thing. I am not going to give you the background, instead I shall just ask for your thoughts. All I am going to say it is relates to a very specific situation.

a phantom phone call
heard in dream
or through thin partition wall

I remember other nights
newly liberated from your tyranny
four o’clock phone calls
the caller withheld the number
I knew who it was
felt sad for them almost
reduced to a pathetic equation
if I’m awake he can be
all in the past now
so much bad history

I dial and discover what I suspected
no call, just my thin sleep
that has evaporated around me
dawn will come eventually

A set of real incidents that coalesced into what you read. In the first draft it had a description of my telephone a refurbished Bakelite affair, nearly twice as old as I am. It had to go though as it did not advice the conceit. Again, I’d been interested in your opinions.

Until next week. 

Tuesday 12 February 2013


I am pleased to announce that I shall be appearing at the Lechdale Music Festival in May. I am running a poetry workshop on the Saturday and reading on the Sunday. It promises to be an excellent festival that is committed to delivering family entertainment.

There are over 60 bands already booked, and I m lookig forward to dancing the night away to Emmet Brown, a psychedelic ska/hip hop/funk band, The Black Feathers, The Brickyard Lizards and The Costellos (You can never have enough reggae/ska on the bill for me!). As you can see it is an eclectic line up.

The cost of the weekend is an amazing £35! You can get your tickets here.

Hope to see you there- more information nearer the day!

Friday 1 February 2013


In another life I wrote a poem. I refined and revised it, and then I put it away and forgot about it. I found it the other day when I was looking for something else. After reading it a couple of times I began to revise it some more and this is the end result:


Even then
you are still angry.
(Anger masks my great sadness and distress)
You say the removal men are also angry with me;
You’re still not packed and we must be out by midday!
So I ask them:
No it’s all in hand,
this is nothing unusual.

2.30 pm.
Mopped floors and clean rooms.
This house is pristine.
Yet I am terrorised by you, one last time,
you and that pathetic need you have
to be viewed as “nice” by the people moving in.
You invest goodbye with meaning,
then walk, then run down the garden path,
I am left standing with the dreck of our relationship:
two toilet brushes


The removal man says:
Don’t worry, I see it all the time,
this is no worse than usual.

What do you make it? I am not going to explain the background or say anything about it, but I would be interested in your opinions.

Another poem I would like your opinion on.


Saturday morning shopping.
Our first anniversary.
We buy cheap fruit
and with a machine
you will steal its essence,
then discard the broken husks.
An image chimes in my head,
we are simply two people,
wringing out the last drops.

It’s an interesting feeling coming back to forgotten old poems. Poems that hold emotions like insects in amber.

I may have put this up before, over nearly two years I have posted a lot of poems, my apologies if you have seen this before.

There is no absolution,
don’t worry, no one knows.
No way to iron the creases
from that shiny suit of clothes.
No wait for hell to freeze,
or adopt some holy pose.
No point to the crucifixion,
don’t worry, no one knows

This is fascinating, as it espouses beliefs that I do not hold. I think there is the possibility of redemption for all humans. I believe we can all change. I think at times I have lived in a place where it was harder to believe than it now is.

There is a reason for all these old poems being posted. I am writing a sequel to my novel, TheJowler and my attention is on prose. Plus I am also involved in a new project with Alison Wilson (who wrote a wonderful guest post last year). So I am rather busy. There will be new poems soon.

Have a good weekend.