Epic Views: Michael Johnston on ‘Soleri’ (Q&A)

Today, I’m joined by Michael Johnston.

Michael is the author of Soleri (Tor/Forge), out tomorrow—the first book in an “epic” duology. A lifelong reader of science fiction and fantasy, he studied architecture and ancient history at Lehigh University and later earned a master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University. Michael worked as an architect in New York City before transitioning to writing full-time. He and his wife, the novelist Melissa de la Cruz, co-wrote the YA Heart of Dread trilogy: Frozen, Stolen, and Golden. They have a daughter and make their home in Los Angeles.

Michael Johnston, credit Lennon
Michael Johnston

Praise for Soleri:

“This story is like a snake, twisting and turning on itself. Readers will be looking for the next book in the series.”—Booklist

Soleri is bloody and utterly epic. A huge saga in a rich and deeply original world.”―Lev Grossman, New York Times bestselling author

“Prepare to be ensnared in a web of ruthless politics and unbridled ambition, where even the authority of the emperor may be based on an ancient deception. Johnston builds an immersive world with elements of Egyptian and Roman history, myth, and religion. This story seethes with twists and turns, betrayals and secrets, and will keep you guessing until the very last page.”―Cinda Williams Chima, New York Times bestselling author

From the publisher:

Michael Johnston brings you the first in a new epic fantasy series inspired by ancient Egyptian history and King Lear.

The ruling family of the Soleri Empire has been in power longer than even the calendars that stretch back 2,826 years. Those records tell a history of conquest and domination by a people descended from gods, older than anything in the known world. No living person has seen them for centuries, yet their grip on their four subjugate kingdoms remains tighter than ever.

On the day of the annual eclipse, the Harkan king, Arko-Hark Wadi, sets off on a hunt and shirks his duty rather than bow to the emperor. Ren, his son and heir, is a prisoner in the capital, while his daughters struggle against their own chains. Merit, the eldest, has found a way to stand against imperial law and marry the man she desires, but needs her sister’s help, and Kepi has her own ideas.

Meanwhile, Sarra Amunet, Mother Priestess of the sun god’s cult, holds the keys to the end of an empire and a past betrayal that could shatter her family.

Detailed and historical, vast in scope and intricate in conception, Soleri bristles with primal magic and unexpected violence. It is a world of ancient and elaborate rites, of unseen power and kingdoms ravaged by war, where victory comes with a price, and every truth conceals a deeper secret.

Soleri jacket

Now, please join Michael and me for an otherworldly cyber chat …

John Valeri: What inspired you to undertake the writing of Soleri – and how do you see this book as an extension of your personal interests and expertise?

Michael Johnston: This is an old idea, one that came to me during an undergraduate art history lecture. Picture a dark room, most of the students sleeping, slides of ancient Egypt flashing one after another on the big screen. Somewhere in there, between this pyramid or that obelisk, the lecturer mentioned something that really caught my attention. She said that Egypt was so old, so ancient, that when the first invaders arrived the Egyptians were utterly unprepared. The kingdom had no wall, no sentries watching the frontier. Egypt had always existed and always would exist. They couldn’t imagine another civilization conquering them. I have yet to find a source to confirm this as fact, so I treat more like a legend, an inspiration. In Soleri, the legend becomes real. We meet the civilization that has always existed, that always will exist, and the people who cannot conceive of their own demise.

JV: In what ways did your love of science fiction/fantasy influence the novel – and how does being a discerning reader aid in the writing process?

MJ: Reading is everything. And I do it as often as possible and in every form possible. I love audio books. There is always one playing in my car. I don’t waste time in traffic. I power through novels and I live in Los Angeles so I spend a good amount of time in the doing just that. But I read the written word as well. I have a stack of novels that I am reading or I want to read. I often tackle two or three books at once, switching as each one catches my attention. I love books and if I see one that interests me I have to have it. The books that influenced me most weren’t always from the science fiction and fantasy genre. Soleri is as much influenced by non-fiction, and real history, as it is by fantasy. On the one hand we have this very realistic and believable world filled with details that seem plausible, but on the other hand we find ourselves encountering the unexplainable. For me, magic is a thing we can never understand. I don’t believe in magic systems. Once you understand the trick, it’s no longer magic, at least in my opinion. So the magic in Soleri is ultimately unexplained and unknowable, but it’s set with a very real universe. The contrast between the two gives the book its life or some attempt at it.

If I had to name influences, Dune by Frank Herbert would be at the top of the list. It was the first book I ever loved and it had a significant influence on Soleri. There are a lot similarities on the surface. They are both books about the desert, about an heir whose father is taken from him. They are both centered around warring houses and kingdoms ruled by emperors. Each is painted on a vast canvas with a large and well-defined set of characters. And there are other similarities as well, but I’ve hidden those. And they won’t even become apparent until the series progresses through several more novels.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov is probably my other primary influence. Again, it’s a novel about empire and the fall of empire. It’s about clever minds and clever politicians. It’s the book that made me interested in the politics of empire and the lives and personalities of those who attempted to rule these vast political structures.

As for process, I learned my voice from reading other authors. They taught me to build worlds and they showed me how to populate them. I’m trained as an architect. I wasn’t an English major, so I learned to write through practice and listening to other authors.

JV: Speaking of writing … did you find that your background in architecture helped with the structure and development of your plot?

MJ: I thought my background in architecture would make me a natural at plotting novels. Both disciplines demand that the creator build an invisible framework, a structure made from ideas, one that can inform every choice in the project. So, in the abstract, the two are quite similar. However, in practice, they couldn’t be more different. Honestly, anyone who says that structuring a book is like structuring building is lying or more likely just uninformed. After leaving architecture I really had to take time to learn how to outline a novel. I had to start from the ground up (architectural pun intended). I wish the two were related. It would have saved me some time. But hey, they just aren’t.

JV: Though it’s been called an “epic,” the book, at its heart, is about family. How did you endeavor to balance intimate dynamics with grand scale storytelling – and in what ways do you see the canvas of a novel relating to TV/film projects of a similar nature?

MJ: I love to witness monumental events through the eyes and ears of an individual. See, reality is subjective. If we are given one event and ten witnesses, they will each describe the event differently. That’s fascinating! Soleri is a novel that’s packed with epic moments—huge, world changing events—but we experience them through the unique perspective of this character or that one. It’s always personal. And my character’s viewpoints aren’t always the same. They don’t share one interpretation of the book’s events. I’m not afraid of a little narrative conflict. Soleri is told through the eyes of five people. They are all related by blood, but they each have radically different viewpoints. We have a father a mother and three children, all pulled apart by the whims of an emperor who rules over each of their lives. They are bound by blood and sometimes love of family, but more often than not they are pulled apart by those same bonds. I wanted to write a big book with a huge cast of characters, but I wanted the novel to still feel intimate and connected, so I chose to work within the framework of a single family. It let me indulge in the big moments that I love to experience in an epic novel without losing track of the human element.

As for television and movies, Soleri is an epic and it has some very big moment, ones that might look great on the big screen, but none of them are inspired by the movies. TV and film just don’t impress me. I enjoy them, but they’ve never inspired me to create. I draw my inspirations mainly from history, from art and architecture and from other science fiction and fantasy authors. I also think there is a lot of creativity in the graphic novel industry. Books have no budget and there is no studio executive looking over your shoulder. There is nothing to bind our creativity so we are able to paint truly epic moments, scenes too large for any budget. We can picture the impossible and put it into words. When I watch television or film adaptations of fantasy novels I tend to get hung up on the limitations of the format. Too often a great moment is ruined by a bad costume or special effect or an interpretation of the work that just didn’t fit with the novel. Also, when we read, we get to picture our version of the novel and inevitably I prefer mine over that of the average Hollywood production designer.

JV: Your wife is the novelist Melissa de la Cruz. In what ways do you motivate one another creatively – and how has collaborating (officially and behind the scenes) enhanced your own process and abilities?

MJ: We’ve worked together in just about every way possible. We’ve co-written novels, three of them in total. I’ve edited many of Mel’s books, provided comments, and written chapters. She’s done the same for me. I think we’ve tried it all and found that we collaborate best as editors and beta readers, so that’s mostly what we do these days. Before Tor purchased the novel, Mel was my editor and she helped me through the process for years. She even wrote a bit of the novel, uncredited. And I’ve worked on more of her novels than I can count. When you work in the same house, it’s easy to fill in an action sequence or to add details here and there when an extra page is needed to fill out a chapter. The process is really fluid. We help each other in whatever way the other person requires. And I don’t think this is even unique. Anyone who knows a lot of authors understands that there is always a lot collaboration behind the scenes on a novel. There are countless uncredited beta readers and editors, helping and commenting. It’s what makes a novel rich and complex.

JV: Leave is with a teaser: What comes next?

MJ: Soleri is a duology, a two-book series. Each novel has a singular and satisfying conclusion, but the pair ultimately form one story and the second novel concludes a large portion of that story. As for the book itself and its sequel, a recent review of Soleri in the Romantic Times called the novel apocalyptic and they weren’t wrong. The second part of the duology delivers on that apocalyptic promise and does it in the grandest fashion imaginable.


With thanks to Michael Johnston for his generosity of time and thought and to Megan Beatie, President & CEO of Megan Beatie Communications, for providing this interview opportunity.


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