Today I’m fortunate to present Assaph Mehr author of Murder In Absentia.
Hi Assaph, thank you for agreeing to this interview.
Question 1) What part of the world do you come from?
Currently living in Sydney, Australia. I grew up in Israel, though. I think I owe my love of history in part to that. My favourite day trips were always to the old crusader forts that dot the country. Everywhere you dig, you are bound to uncover some site from the roots of civilization.
I’ve taken my kids there a few years ago. We went to the old city of Jaffa. Around the walls (Ottoman in origin) were arranged cannons dredged up from the bay, which date to Napoleon’s siege. At the top of the hill is a dig site and archaeology centre. You go down through the Ottoman and Mameluk layers, to the Roman settlement, which sits atop the Greek. Under it you can find traces of earlier Egyptian temples. And let’s not forget that when you go back out and look out to the sea, the rocks jutting out of the water are called Andromeda rocks – as according to legend, these are the rocks that Andromeda was chained to, to appease Poseidon and his sea monster Cetus. Don’t worry, she was rescued by Perseus, who flew to her rescue on the back of Pegasus.
Growing up like that, how can one not love history?
Question 2) What do you think makes a good story?
In a large part, that is a matter of taste. Things that are quoted as absolutes – good characterization, solid plot, strong voice – actually have more to do with the reader’s interpretation of them than critics would like to admit.
For example, I have received a feedback that one character in the novel sounds like a cardboard cut-out, completely unrelatable. Another reviewer said of the same character that he is a great example of a man of their class, with a unique voice that just jumps off the page. That same reviewer pointed at another character as “lacking agency”… a character that the first reviewer absolutely adored.
The upshot is simple. Read and learn about the art of writing, but don’t get so bogged down in it to the point that you are not actually writing. Consider critique of your work as a learning opportunity, not as an attack on you nor as gospel that must be adhered to. You will never please everybody. Instead of trying, make sure that your story is the best that you can make it, that it’s good in your eyes. You can then find the right audience for it.
Question 3) What inspired you to write your first book?
Honestly, I’ve always wanted to write a novel. Seeing my name in print has been on my bucket-list for as long as I can remember. Then two years ago my wife complained one evening that she finished all the books she wanted to read, so I sat down that night and started writing a book for her – and I haven’t stopped since!
The idea behind the book itself has been kicking around in my head for a while. I knew when I started what the surprise twist to the mystery was, even if the details were not formed. When I came to write it, I can safely say that I was inspired by a several authors writing Roman-era detectives (Lindsey Davis, Steven Saylor and Ruth Downie come to mind). I love ancient Rome and historical detectives in general, as well as reading classic and urban fantasy, so writing an historical-fantasy was a natural choice.
Question 4) What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
These days I write mostly on the train ride to and back from work. This is a hobby, and it get prioritised accordingly. In terms of overall process, I have the start and the end of the story in mind. I work towards that ending, but I enjoy discovering the twists and turns in the middle for myself as I write. I then go back and edit as needed. I spend about as much time in editing passes after completing the manuscript as I do in writing the first draft.
Question 5) What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
Historically-accurate food. Well, mostly historically accurate. I love cooking and food in general, and that seeps into my writing. I enjoy tremendously researching old recipes, and integrating the dishes into the story. Who wouldn’t be impressed by a feast serving dishes of brain-and-jellyfish custard? Or buying fried dormice in honey and poppyseeds from a street stall? And let me assure you, that these are historically accurate dishes.
Then again, there are also some adjustments for the fantasy aspects of the world. One of my favourite scenes to write was just such a feast.
Question 6) Give us the title and genre of your latest book.
My published novel is called Murder In Absentia. It’s an historical-fantasy mystery, or as I like to subtitle it – a story of Togas, Daggers, and Magic.
My current work in progress is Titles In Numina, a story of haunted houses and household gods.
Question 7) What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your book?
I’ve learned a lot whilst researching Roman culture and building a fantasy world. I’ve learned the art of storytelling. I’ve learned about book production and marketing. I am not sure what I would qualify as surprising, though.
Question 8) Do you have an excerpt from your current work you’d like to share?
The following excerpt (about 800 words) is from a scene near the middle of Murder In Absentia. Felix finds himself on a ship attacked by pirates at night. This is one of my favourite scenes, for several reasons. First, I get to write a fight scene, and as Murder In Absentia is primarily a detective mystery there aren’t a lot of them. I have also done a lot of research into realistic sword fighting techniques, and I get to write one properly, which is always a good feeling. Second, is that as a writer I get to play with the tempo of the story. By carefully choosing words and crafting sentence lengths, I hope to evoke the feeling of urgency and breathlessness that occur within a fight. I will let you be the judge of the results.
I woke up to urgent yells from heavy slumber. Not bothering with clothes, I grabbed my dagger and ran outside to the deck. A ship larger than ours was heading straight at us under power of oars. Their crew were silent, no drums to keep pace and no shouts. That they were pirates was evident from the vessel itself. A fast and decked bireme, its prow was painted with large blue eyes, slightly slanted to give a menacing look as they stared at us. Its sail was folded and the mast down, the pirates were ready for battle and boarding. A row of men stood at the railing, armed and ready with ropes and planks.
The pirate ship was perhaps three hundred paces from us, and by their angle and equipment I knew that they did not intend to ram us, but rather angle next to us and board us. Piracy does not make profit by sinking treasures — these come from the robbery of goods, selling the crew to slavery and holding any notable passengers for ransom.
Our crew was frantic, everybody suddenly awake after last night’s celebrations. Margaritus was yelling orders, the sailors were hoisting the anchor and going to the oars. Aulus Didius looked particularly dishevelled, not yet recovered from yesterday’s enchantments, and seemed unable to focus on the events storming around him.
With two hundred paces between our ships and us barely moving, it was becoming obvious that they would gain on us and that we would have to fight if we wanted to escape capture. Margaritus had broken out the weapon stores, and the crew and divers each grabbed a tall oval shield and a short gladius, and braced on the side facing the pirate ship. I picked up a shield and grabbed the handle inside the shield’s boss with my left hand, though I elected to remain armed only with my trusty dagger.
Margaritus yelled at the remaining crew to put up the sail with the hope that Didius Rufus could conjure sufficient winds, as the oarsmen armed themselves instead to prepare for boarding. I stared out across the dark waters watching the moonlit vessel closing in on us rapidly. At this distance I could make out the individual faces of the pirates and the murderous intent written on them. I wondered what mess I had gotten myself into and whether I would live to see the morning.
With fifty paces to go, the pirates banked oars, grabbed ready bows and let a volley go. All of us in the front lines raised our shields and managed to absorb most of the volley. Only two of our men were hit, though from the quick look I cast in their direction the wounds seemed slight. Our ship did not have a means to return fire — it was not a navy vessel, and was designed for the specific operation of the divers. It relied on speed generated by its resident incantator, who unfortunately seemed in a state of battle shock like a green recruit. The lack of a proper night guard could only be blamed on Margaritus.
Thirty paces to go, and another volley of arrows. This time one man fell down when an arrow that ricocheted from a shield lodged itself in his neck. The deck became slick with the blood spurting from his wound. Margaritus was shaking Didius Rufus by his shoulders, yelling in his face to get the wind up.
Ten paces, and the pirates cast ropes with hooks onto our rails, dragging us closer. We dislodged the hooks and struck at the ropes, but within the space of a deep breath the pirate ship bumped into ours, shaking the deck under our feet. The two ships screeched like racing chariots colliding.
The pirates were upon us. With wild cries they jumped from their ship onto our deck, swinging swords, axes, hooks and clubs. I braced my shield, and as the pirate who targeted me tried to land his curved sword in a neat arc from above straight on my head I took a step back, causing him to miss his mark and forcing him to stumble as he landed, and immediately with my full weight behind the shield I jumped and slammed into him, forcing him backwards and the boss of the shield knocking the wind from his lungs, yet still with his back against the ship’s rail he tried to raise his sword to protect himself, but I knocked it aside with my shield and plunged my knife deep into his chest. His eyes widened and a gurgling, rattling sound came from his throat as he lost balance and fell overboard, splashing into the waters in the space between our ships.
What followed was a mad free-for-all battle. The pirates were ferocious, the deck was slick with blood and the air was heavy with the din of fighting, the shouts of enemies colliding, and the cries of the wounded and dying.
The first few chapters of Murder In Absentia is also available as a sample through Amazon Kindle and Goodreads.
Question 9) What can we expect from you in the future?
More Felix mysteries. I love the blend of ancient Roman culture and a fantasy world. After completing Murder In Absentia, I’ve written a few short stories (available freely on my blog), and I’m now drafting the second full length novel. I have ideas for at least two further full length novels (each is an independent mystery), and several short stories.
I expect that by the time I work through all of them I’d have ideas for more, but there’s this nagging need to retell the Crimean War from the Russian side… with steampunk elements. Who would enjoy a young and dashing Count Tolstoy with a mechanical arm?
Question 10) What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Without a doubt, a professional editor and cover artist. These two things make the biggest difference in the quality of the final product. Don’t think you can get by with just winging it yourself, or relying on friends. Pay for professionals if you want to stand out as a professional author.
Question 11) How can we contact you or find out more about your books?
Easy! My blog is where you can find samples of my writing (short stories) as well as other information. I’m also active on Twitter and Facebook, and to a lesser degree on other social platforms. However you choose, I’d love to hear from you!
Google Plus: http://plus.google.com/+AssaphMehr
Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/Assaph-Mehr/e/B015U1F3NC
Murder In Absentia on Amazon: http://amzn.to/1XbfKN1