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Reviews of Cressler’s Shadows in the Shining City

 Shadows in the Shining City  Comments Off on Reviews of Cressler’s Shadows in the Shining City
Jul 012014

My second novel, Shadows in the Shining City, book two in the Anthems of al-Andalus Series, is now safely at the printer and will be released on July 22, 2014 by Sunbury Press.

The book launch for Shadows, with a presentation, reading, discussion, and signing, followed by food and beverages, will be held on Tuesday, July 22, 2014, in the Technology Square Research Building, located in Midtown Atlanta at 85 5th Street, NW, Atlanta, GA 30308. Free.

Reviews are in! For a sneak peak, visit:


The book may be pre-ordered from Sunbury Press at:



The Golden Age of Moorish Spain was during the 10th century, a time when the benevolent Arab Caliphs ruled Iberia from Córdoba, the site of the iconic Great Mosque and home to the Royal Library, one of the largest collections of ancient books ever assembled. 10th century Córdoba was the richest, most populous, and most cultured city in the western world. Under the tolerant Muslim Caliphs, the pinnacle of convivencia was attained, that unique period of Spanish history when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in relative harmony and peace. Multicultural Córdoba was an enlightened city that treasured its books, celebrated art and literature, advanced science and medicine, and its myriad accomplishments were envied by both the west and the east alike.

Shadows in the Shining City is a prequel to Emeralds of the Alhambra, and the second book in the Anthems of al-Andalus Series. Shadows tells the story of the forbidden love between Rayhana Abi Amir, a Muslim princess of the Royal Court, and Zafir Saffar, a freed slave. Young love blossoms in 10th century Madinat al-Zahra, the Shining City, the Caliph’s magnificent Royal Palace located just outside of Córdoba. Their love story is set against the backdrop of the epic rise to power of Rayhana’s ruthless father, a man history will come to both celebrate and revile for the role he plays in the collapse of Moorish Spain.


Historical Primer for Shadows in the Shining City

 Shadows in the Shining City  Comments Off on Historical Primer for Shadows in the Shining City
Mar 032014

In the Islamic world, the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 C.E. without a chosen successor led to several decades of bloody internal power struggle, the remnants of which linger to this day in Shiite vs. Sunni tensions. By 661, however, the Sunni Arab Umayyad clan prevailed, and to solidify their power moved the Islamic capital from Medina (Saudi Arabia) to Damascus (Syria). A rapid swelling of Islamic culture, wealth and power ensued, launching a conquest of conversion reaching from the western end of the Mediterranean basin to the Near East.

By 711, the Maghreb was breached (land including the rugged Atlas mountains of extreme northwest Africa and the coastal plains of modern Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya). An Islamic army, led by an Arab Syrian general named Tariq ibn Ziyad and comprised of a freshly-converted, capable warrior clan of local Berber tribesmen, invaded Iberia at Gibraltar. They rapidly conquered the Iberian peninsula under the banner of jihad, effortlessly absorbing the nominally-Christian Visigoths and post-Roman era towns and peoples. The incursion of the Muslims was largely welcomed, and in some cases were even assisted by, the Iberian Jews, who had long been persecuted by the local Christians. Al-Andalus, the Arabic name for the lands of Iberia under Muslim rule, was born in 711. Al-Andalus will endure for 791 years.

Several pivotal events in the history of al-Andalus are important to Shadows in the Shining City. In 750 C.E., the Umayyads in Damascus were slaughtered by the rival Abbasids, and the sole surviving Umayyad heir, Abd al-Rahman, a boy in his late teens, set out on the twenty-five hundred mile journey to al-Andalus to boldly reclaim his own slice of history in a forgotten corner of the Islamic empire, Córdoba, located on the banks of the Guadalquivir river in southern central Spain. The Umayyad regime re-emerged like a phoenix from the ashes with the crowning of Abd al-Rahman Emir of Córdoba in 756. He set about unifying al-Andalus, and one of his first mandates, remarkably enough, was to welcome both Jews and Christians into his kingdom.

Al-Andalus blossomed under Umayyad rule. Abd al-Rahman’s grandson (the III) declared himself the rival Caliph (from the Arabic khalifa, “successor” (to the Prophet Muhammad) – supreme ruler of Islam) to the Abbasid Caliph in January 929. Unified and under capable and enlightened Syrian-Arab leadership, al-Andalus rose to its full glory.

Córdoba becomes the crown jewel of Western Islam and a magnet of learning and intellectual fervor that rivaled Baghdad. Late tenth century Córdoba was the largest city in Europe, with a population of over 300,000. The city was rich beyond belief, with a revenue estimated to be 40,000,000 gold dinars per annum. Public works abounded. The citizens enjoyed baths, sewers, hospitals, running water, indoor toilets, and lighted streets. Córdoba had the largest library in the Europe, with over 400,000 volumes in the Royal Library alone. Convivencia reigned.

In 936, Caliph Abd al-Rahman III, following Islamic tradition, broke ground on Madinat al-Zahra, the Shining City, a massive Royal Palace complex located several miles to the west of Córdoba at the edge of the Sierra Morena mountains. His intent? To create the most lavish Islamic palace in the world, an edifice fitting for a Caliph.

Legend has it that 10,000 workers labored four years to complete the first phase of construction. The massive, 112 hectare, walled complex of Madinat al-Zahra was built on three enormous terraces cut from the side of the mountain. It contained ceremonial reception halls, mosques, administrative and government offices, the Royal Treasury, libraries, Islamic gardens, the Royal Mint, a zoo of exotic animals, artisan’s workshops of all manner, a garrison for several thousand troops, parade grounds, orchards, lavish residences for the Royal Court, and of course heated baths by the dozen. Madinat was a city of flowing water and elaborate fountains, supplied to the entire complex through aqueducts from the mountain streams of the Sierra Morena. No expense was spared to create the most ostentatious palace in the world.

Our story begins in Madinat al-Zahra on 8 April 975. This period, the late tenth century, is considered the economic, cultural and intellectual zenith of the 791 year history of al-Andalus.

Shadows in the Shining City – Book Two in the Anthems of al-Andalus Series

 Shadows in the Shining City  Comments Off on Shadows in the Shining City – Book Two in the Anthems of al-Andalus Series
Feb 122014

The Golden Age of Moorish Spain was during the 10th century, a time when the benevolent Syrian Arab Caliphs ruled Iberia from Córdoba, the site of the iconic Great Mosque and home to the Royal Library, one of the largest collections of ancient books ever assembled. 10th century Córdoba was the richest, most populous, and most cultured city in the western world. Under the tolerant Muslim Caliphs, the pinnacle of convivencia was attained, that unique period of Spanish history when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in relative harmony and peace. Multicultural Córdoba was an enlightened city that treasured its books, celebrated art and literature, advanced science and medicine, and its myriad accomplishments were envied by both the west and the east alike.

Shadows in the Shining City is a prequel to Emeralds of the Alhambra, and the second book in the Anthems of al-Andalus Series. Shadows tells the story of the forbidden love between Rayhana Abi Amir, a Muslim princess of the Royal Court, and Zafir Saffar, a freed slave. Young love blossoms in 10th century Madinat al-Zahra, the Shining City, the Caliph’s magnificent Royal Palace located just outside of Córdoba. Their love story is set against the backdrop of the epic rise to power of Rayhana’s ruthless father, a man history will come to both celebrate and revile for the role he plays in collapse of Moorish Spain.

Shadows will be released by Sunbury Press in the spring of 2014. Pre-orders can be made at:

Convivencia (Coexistence) – Did You Miss the Boat?

 Author John D. Cressler  Comments Off on Convivencia (Coexistence) – Did You Miss the Boat?
Oct 182013

History is my second love, right after my wife. So how is it, then, that my history teachers managed to omit a fact so breathtaking and so relevant to this broken world of ours rife with multicultural religious conflict? How did I get short-changed in the historical knowledge department?

I’m not alone. Chances are you missed the boat, too!

The Q:

It all began with my simple question: Is it possible for Muslims, Jews and Christians to live together in peace? You know, get along? Hang out? Play together? Party together? Fall in love? Marry one another? Share languages and customs, that sort of thing?

Well, 90% of the responses come in the form of a knee-jerk retort of, “Are you CRAZY?! Look around, open your eyes!” This is often chased by a derisive laugh, maybe even a kick in the rear.

The A:

Let me break it to you gently. Here’s what my teachers didn’t tell me. Not only did Muslims, Jews, and Christians find a way to live together in peace (shocker #1), but they lived together in peace for a couple of hundred years (shocker #2). Who knew? I didn’t. Bet you didn’t either!

When and where? In medieval Muslim Spain (a.k.a. al-Andalus), under the enlightened, tolerant rule of the Umayyad Muslim Caliphs in Córdoba, Spain, beginning in the 10th century. This was smack in the middle of The Dark Ages, a time when my teachers told me civilization ground to halt.

Guess what? It didn’t.

A Little Reminder:

Córdoba in the mid-10th century was a truly remarkable place, a place almost impossible to exaggerate. Córdoba was the largest city in Europe, the richest, the cleanest, with the largest library in the world (over 400,000 volumes!), running water, indoor toilets, lighted streets, public paths, and public hospitals. One of the largest mosques in the world (the Mesquita – pic below). All this, plus an unprecedented intellectual flowering as the lost books of the ancient Greeks and others in the Near East were rediscovered and translated (into Arabic), setting the stage for major breakthroughs in medicine, philosophy, mathematics, poetry, agriculture, art, architecture and science. As I said, breathtaking! 10th century Córdoba was a city of song and dance, of poetry and book, of recitals and discourse.

This exuberant civilization blossomed in an embracive Umayyad Muslim culture that welcomed Christians and Jews into their ranks and encouraged their churches and synagogues. Here was a society with a progressive social mobility for minorities, and an intentional intermingling of languages, cultures and customs. This remarkable period is known today as convivencia (coexistence), a time still recognized by Jews as their “Golden Age.” Oh, and it occurred within the bounds of a Muslim-ruled society! Imagine.

That is not to say that life between the three Abrahamic faith traditions in al-Andalus was all a bed of roses; it wasn’t. Jews and Christians paid a tax to live there, and Christians were forbidden to ring their church bells or try to convert Muslims, but all in all, these three found a way to make it work over an exceptionally long period, and work well it did.

The Moral to the Story:

Here, then, is a singular existence proof of a lasting peace achieved within the obvious constraints imposed by a diverse multicultural, multireligious, multiethnic society. If it happened once, why not again?

Let me not be too harsh on my teachers. There was no conspiracy. To be sure, the fact of convivencia and the marvels of al-Andalus are out there, but somehow they tend to get glossed over, hidden within dense history texts, neatly squirreled away and tucked out of sight. Why? Perhaps in our post 9/11 world, it is just too easy to embrace the simple-minded view that peace among Muslims, Christians and Jews is a patently absurd idea.

But now you know. Peace did happen. Let’s join together and make this the year we reawaken a lost world that can help reshape our collective memory as a global community. Let’s dream a different ending, a world centered on tolerance and peace between we three. Convivencia.

A Collision of English History with Medieval Muslim Spain

 Emeralds of the Alhambra  Comments Off on A Collision of English History with Medieval Muslim Spain
Jul 102013

The following article appeared in the English Historical Fiction Authors Anthology on July 1, 2013 at —

Imagine a time when Muslims, Jews, and Christians found a way to live together in peace. Sound unbelievable? It is historical fact. Convivencia (coexistence of religions) is a largely forgotten triumph of al-Andalus (a catch-all word for the lands of medieval Muslim Spain). Peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Christiana and Jews occurred in al-Andalus for nearly 300 years beginning in the 10th century. During the Castilian Civil War (1367-1369), Muslims even took up their swords and fought alongside Christians.

By the 13th century, the Christian kingdoms are mid-stream in their attempted reconquista (reconquest) of al-Andalus, having conquered Córdoba in 1236, Valencia in 1238, Murcia in 1243, and Sevilla in 1248, slowly but surely pushing the Moors into the Mediterranean Sea. (The Muslims of Spain, regardless of ancestry, are known collectively to Europeans by the term “Moors”.) The Kingdom of Granada is the final holdout of al-Andalus, a mere one-hundred mile wide swath of land at the extreme southeastern tip of Spain, stretching from the coast north of Mojácar, through Málaga, to Gibraltar.

Under the moderate Arab Nasrid clan, who rule from Alhambra Palace, the kingdom prospers, and by the 1360s Granada, under Sultan Muhammad V, remains a stubborn bulwark against Christian reconquista. Improbably, Granada is allied with the Muslim Marinid Empire of North Africa and is also a tribute-paying vassal state to the Christian Kingdom of Castile, ruled by King Pedro from Sevilla.

Tensions that have smoldered for decades between Castile and her Christian neighbors finally boil over. Pedro’s illegitimate brother, Enrique of Trastámara, is championed by the king of Aragon, who lusts after a unified Spain under Aragonese rule. Enrique is supported by King Charles V of France and even the Pope himself, who is presently in Avignon, itching to help cleanse Spain of infidel Moors. Enrique brashly declares himself the “true” king of Castile in 1366. The Castilian Civil War becomes a death match between Pedro and Enrique, brother against brother.

Enrique assembles a large army consisting of Aragonese, French, and Breton troops, supplemented by a diverse collection of mercenaries, and invades northern Castile from Zaragoza, the capital of Aragon, forcing the unprepared Pedro to abdicate the Castillian throne without a major fight.

Pedro gathers his meagerly funded troops and retreats from Sevilla to Galicia, in northwestern Spain, where he begins frantic preparations for war. Meanwhile, England’s Sir Edward of Woodstock (Edward the Black Prince), in an attempt to head-off France’s thinly-veiled ambitions in Spain, as well as attempt his own land-grab, weighs in behind Pedro, and the Hundred Years’ War creeps south into Iberia. Sultan Muhammad of Granada, as vassal to Castile, walks a thin line between the warring brothers, but in the end, agrees to send 600 of his best cavalry to support Pedro.

Pedro’s ragtag army of 28,000 English, Castilian, Gascon, Aquitainian, Majorcan, and Muslim troops clash decisively with Enrique’s superior army of 60,000 at Nájera, in the Rioja region of northern Spain, on a fine spring day, the 3rd of April, 1367.

Among Enrique’s officers is Sir William Chandon. A strapping twenty-five year old, Chandon brilliantly leads the forces of Jean de Monfort from Brittany to victory over the House of Blois at the Battle of Auray in France in 1364, winning the Breton War of Succession, a linchpin in the Hundred Years’ War. As a reward for his valor at Auray, Monfort appoints Chandon Viscount of Saint-Sauveur in the Cotentin, Brittany, where he settles, a suddenly-landed, wealthy English knight living now as a Breton on French soil. At the request of the King of France, Chandon’s cavalry rides with Enrique.

The famous English longbow makes its first appearance in Spain at Nájera. Edward the Black Prince’s twelve thousand English longbowmen first overwhelm the French archers then train their arrows on Enrique’s cavalry, to devastating effect. Enrique’s Aragonese and French cavalry units panic and turn tail, leaving his flank and rear dangerously exposed. Edward the Black Prince strikes like a hammer.

Enrique’s force of 60,000 is quickly routed, with losses of 7,000 dead to Pedro’s 200. Enrique and his whipped forces limp back to Zaragoza to lick their wounds and regroup for round two of the fight. Pedro settles back into his palace in Sevilla, supremely confident.

Eight days later, on 11 April 1367, a Moor courier in transit from Granada to Sevilla is intercepted in Carmona and his throat slit. In his satchel is an official communiqué from Sultan Muhammad to King Pedro, declaring that Granada, empowered by Pedro’s decisive victory at Nájera, will seize the opportunity to strike north through Jaén and invade the former Castilian border lands presently occupied by Aragon.

Made aware three days later of this bold and unexpected move by the Moors, Enrique, fearing a two-front war, summons Chandon and sends his elite Breton cavalry south to bolster the garrison of Castillo de Santa Catalina in Jaén, only forty miles north of Granada. Enrique’s instructions to Chandon are simple – send an emphatic message that Aragon is off limits to Moor meddling.

My novel, an interfaith love story entitled Emeralds of the Alhambra, begins here with the Breton-Moor battle for Jaén.

Tips on How to Sell Your Novel

 Publishing Your Novel  Comments Off on Tips on How to Sell Your Novel
Feb 222013

I thought it might interesting to share my experiences between finishing my debut novel, Emeralds of the Alhambra, and actually selling it to Sunbury Press. The process took…gulp…nearly one full year.

First things first. Publishing non-fiction and publishing fiction are completely different propositions. As a professor, most of my non-fiction (5 books and counting) happened like this. For technical non-fiction (i.e., textbooks), Publisher X approaches me, not vice versa, and says, “Hey, we would like you to consider writing a book on topic Y. You write it, and then we will take care of everything else.” Read: mighty easy.

Fiction is a whole ‘nother story! Let me elaborate. With a novel, the “classical” path to publication is the following. First roadblock: major publishing houses (Random house, Simon and Schuster, Scribners, etc.) do not, and will not, talk to authors directly, unless you have some serious network connection and can pull strings behind the scenes. For the debut novelist like myself, even though already published, no dice. The path from manuscript to large publishing house is gated. And locked. Instead, authors must find an agent, sign a contract with the agent, and then the agent is authorized to speak directly with publishing houses (for a fee, of course, typically 10% of your royalties).

Lession #1? When your manuscript is done and you are satisfied with it, forget getting a publisher, and instead focus on getting an agent!

Sounds simple, BUT, the trick is that you first have to convince an agent, any agent, that it is worth their time/energy to represent you. Read: they need to see that they can make money on you. So you go to some source for listings of literary agencies, either on-line or printed (e.g., Writer’s Market), spend hours sifting to get a short list of agencies that: a) seem to fit your goals/vision (right size, right location, the vibe is good, etc.), and b) handle your genre (for me, historical fiction). Then you go to their web site, check them out, find which agent in the agency handles your genre and their contact point (usually an email address, often manned not by the agent, but by their assistant).

Fine. The next step “classically” proceeds by you submitting a single page (no more!) “elevator pitch,” called a “query letter” to the agent, and if they are sold on your idea, you have “hooked them,” then a dance will commence, typically along these lines. Gate 1 is passed – you got an “interested” response not an outright rejection. Gate 2) Agent emails back saying, “liked your query, send me a synopsis, bio, and the first 3 chapters of the book” (this is called a “partial” request). You send this in and wait. A long while. Gate 3) Agents emails back. “I liked this, send me the full manuscript.” You send this in and wait. A longer while. Gate 4) Agent emails back. “I like this and think I can sell it. Let’s talk.” Hopefully that culminates in a signed agent contract. Then, and only then, does your manuscript begin to move forward to being published. Whew! Exhausting just to think about, right? At that stage the agent does the sales work, and hopefully a publishing house loves your book and agrees to publish it. How long do you wait while the agent works their magic? It may be a long while! No timelines are short in this business.

In my case, I went through this agent process 4 separate times, over about 9 months, and in each cycle I contacted about 15 agents (each time with a modified query letter to try and strike gold). I got decent (though not stellar) responses to Gate 1. About 15-20% of my submissions got an “I’m interested” response. Most, however, were numbing rejection form letters. Trust me, that gets old real quick. So I sent my partials. Gate 2. Some agents bailed there for really weird reasons. Examples: 1) “You write really well, but there is just too much history going on here (reminder: it is a historical novel); 2) “Interesting idea, but I have a pet peeve against expository dialogue (look it up, I had to!). I write back. “I have a pet peeve against expository dialogue, too! Can you point to an example, I don’t see any instances in what I sent you?” No response. “I love this, but it just doesn’t jazz me enough to take it on.” You get the idea.

I ended up at Gate 3 with 4 agents who asked for the whole beast, from 4 respectable NY agencies. Some impressions from that process: 1) It took FOREVER to hear back from them. Many months. 2) When I did hear back the responses were again all over the map: “Much to commend it but just does not give the spark I need to move forward. And there were some ‘intangibles’ too.” No comment other than that. Done. Door closed. Hmmm. BUT there was a universal thread in these Gate 3 responses. As an agent, no way, no how do you ever give substantive feedback to the author or respond to an author’s email response to your rejection. “I am sorry to hear that. Intangibles? Can you explain what you mean by that? I would be happy to revise the manuscript.” Universal silence. And it was very clear from the agent’s comments that they in fact had not read the book to its end (“I like it a lot, but the pacing feels slow” – trust me, the last 150 pages are a roller coaster ride). It was amply clear they had not read to the end of the book. After having kept it for several months before rejecting it.

Certainly, the reasonable person might legitimately say, “Well, if the agent didn’t bother to finish your book, maybe that is indictment enough of how lousy your book is!” Perhaps. In my own case, I used a diverse audience of 25 readers to give me feedback at the draft stage. I was pretty confident it was a compelling read. In one case, I asked the agent directly. “What did you think of my ending?” That universal silence.

I found out from the web site for one of my agents the kind of numbers you are up against in the hooking an agent in this game. She put them in a presentation she gave. It is sobering, so brace yourself. She personally receives 7000 queries per year (she is one of a dozen agents in that agency). You read that right…a 7 and 3 zeros. Of those she will invite 5% to submit 3 chapters (350). Her assistant weeds these before she sees the final cut. Of those, she will ask 10% (35) for full manuscripts. Her assistant weeds these before the final cut. Of those she typically takes on 10% (3-4) to represent. In her case, I made it to the last round, but was not selected. Heavy sigh. No wonder this is such a slog!

So what to do? In my case, I was so disheartened by the whole numbing process that I took a breather, threw all my agent stuff in a drawer and started on book two in my trilogy. Now THAT was fun!

When I had cooled down (took weeks) I did a bit more researching on the topic and found that some folks actually advise skipping this whole agent mess and going after small traditional publishing houses; importantly, there are some of those that actually encourage authors to directly send their manuscripts directly to them, no agent needed. Imagine?!

Fine. One last shot. I decided that if this didn’t pan out I would just publish the dang thing myself. So I went back to Writer’s Market and researched my top 10 small publishing houses that fit my vision, re-crafted my query letter and shipped them the letter and partials (they typically want more than just the query). Within a week I had heard from editors at 3 (3!) publishers saying that they liked my idea and wanted more. Within two weeks, I had the most welcomed news an author can imagine. “…struck an immediate chord — a very timely novel…  We love the trilogy idea and would like to offer you a contract for all three books.”

May you? MAY YOU?! Are you kidding?! PLEASE!

The rest is history. I signed with Sunbury Press, to whom I will always be indebted, and Emeralds of the Alhambra is due out late spring. And I already have a publisher for books two and three. HOORAY!

There you have it!

Moral #1: This whole agent scene leaves a lot to be desired. I am putting that mildly.

Moral #2: You can get your novel published without an agent.

Moral #3: Publishing novels is a crazy business!


Curious about my query letter that did the trick? See below:


Cressler’s Winning Query Letter:


Dear Mr. Publisher:

How could we forget? We live in a world being torn apart by religious tensions and fanaticism, yet we managed to forget that for hundreds of years Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together in peace, sharing languages and customs, embracing a level of tolerance and mutual respect unheard of today. Working together, these three peoples spawned one of the great intellectual and cultural flowerings of history. When and where? Medieval Spain. Our aching world desperately needs to recall this forgotten fact, these rich possibilities.

Emeralds of the Alhambra, a historical novel, reawakens this remarkable era via the relationship between William Chandon, a wounded Christian knight brought to the Sultan’s court in Granada, and the strong-willed Layla al-Khatib, who is on a quest to become the first female Sufi Muslim mystic in a male-dominated society. As Chandon’s influence at court grows, he becomes trapped between his forbidden love for Layla, his Christian heritage, the demands of chivalry, and political expediency. Chandon must make a choice between love and honor, peace and war, life and death, a choice which ultimately will seal Granada’s fate as the last surviving stronghold of Muslim Spain.

Emeralds is set in the resplendent Alhambra Palace in Granada during the Castilian Civil War (1367-1369), a time when, improbably, Muslims took up their swords to fight alongside Christians.

Emeralds of the Alhambra is the first book in the trilogy Anthems of al-Andalus (I am presently 150 pages into book two). I am a professor at Georgia Tech and have won international awards for my writing (George E. Smith Award, 2007), my teaching (Leon Kirchmayer Award, 2011), and my research (elected Fellow of the IEEE, 2001). I am Editor-in-Chief of a leading technical journal (IEEE Transactions on Electron Devices). I have published five non-fiction books (two for general audiences). Emeralds is my debut novel. I am well-versed in the use of web resources and social media for book promotion, I have conducted book signings (which include presentations), and I routinely speak to large crowds on a variety of topics (both technical and nontechnical). I have appeared twice on TV (CNN and AIB-TV).

The completed 126,000 word manuscript is available upon request. Thank you for your time and consideration and I look forward to hearing from you soon.


Interview with John D. Cressler

 Author John D. Cressler  Comments Off on Interview with John D. Cressler
Jan 202013

One doesn’t normally put ‘engineering professor’ and ‘historical fiction author’ in the same sentence. How did Emeralds of the Alhambra come about?

No argument there! I have always enjoyed writing, and while it has actually been a lifelong dream of mine to write a novel, somehow I never quite felt ready. Novel writing is an intimidating business! I have always been an avid reader, and after a high school/college infatuation with science fiction and fantasy, I moved into more mainstream novels and to this day that is all I read. With each new novel I would find myself wondering what it would be like to try my hand at fiction. Interestingly, however, the opportunities for writing non-fiction books seemed to materialize naturally as a part of my career as a professor. And it is MUCH easier to get non-fiction published! When I finished my first book, a graduate-level textbook in my research field, I found the process deeply satisfying, and wanted more. My 4th non-fiction book, Silicon Earth, was a little different in genre, in that it was for a general, non-specialist audience, and I got permission to use a non-traditional, breezy and fun narrative style. That worked so well that when I finished it I decided it was finally time to explore whether I had a novel in me. The whole prospect was a little scary because the canvas is so large. What type of fiction? I have a deep love of history and really enjoy well-executed historical fiction, so I took the plunge and started there. It was love at first sight!

How does writing non-fiction compare with writing fiction?

Good question. They are very different in many obvious ways: tone, narrative style, subject matter. I find that writing fiction requires much more contact with your material, an obsession of sorts. I think what I most enjoy about writing fiction are the nearly constant unanticipated discoveries in plot and character. The creative energy this produces is profound! Let me give you a feel for this. In writing Emeralds, I first mapped out the synopsis in a few pages, to bind the themes and characters and historical events that I wanted to address. Then I expanded that synopsis into a chapter-by-chapter draft, each of which was maybe a quarter page of what factually happens in that chapter. This allows me to make sure all the plot twists and timing angles gel properly with the overall story trajectory. I did this for the whole book before beginning my writing. Then, when it was time to compose, I took the first chapter summary and expanded it into the various chapter scenes, fleshing the chapter out to about a page, no more, so that I had a good sense of the story that would transpire. Then I set this aside and began composing. The magical part of the process is that inevitably the characters and plot threads begin to deviate from the plan, assuming a life of their own. I love this! Almost on a daily basis, as I was driving to work, thinking about my characters, it would jump into my head, “well, of course, she needs to do this!” or “obviously this needs to happen!” Things I had never anticipated before actually doing the writing. That creative element is unique to fiction and I find it deeply satisfying.

How did you end up with medieval Muslim Spain as a setting for your novel?

Well, after I narrowed it down to historical fiction, I spent quite a bit of time on the web just exploring history. I have always loved European history, so one magical day, I stumbled upon medieval Muslim Spain. The more I explored the more amazed I was, particularly since it is a period of history so rich in its message for our modern world and yet so little appreciated by most people. Imagine, a period of over three hundred years with Muslims, Jews, and Christians living in harmony! An existence proof we owe it to the world to recall. I was quickly locked in on medieval Muslim Spain. At that point, I ordered a ton of books on medieval Iberia and began to immerse myself in the period, to learn the history. I was after a short span of years that was of pivotal importance, and yet contained the themes I was after. That led me to Granada, the Alhambra Palace, Sultan Muhammad V and Ibn al-Khatib, and the Castilian Civil War (1367-1369). I was set for historical backdrop. I knew I wanted to wrap the book around a love story between a Muslim and a Christian, and that fell right into place.

Tell me about the Alhambra?

The Alhambra, what a magical place! The Alhambra is the best preserved medieval Islamic palace in the western world, perhaps in the whole world. It is located in Granada, in Andalusia (al-Andalus in Arabic), in extreme southern Spain. “Alhambra” refers to the entire walled fortress that clings to the long and narrow red-soiled ridge overlooking Granada. The red hill itself is the source of the palace’s name (‘al-hamra’ is Arabic for ‘red’). Unlike today, in the fourteenth century the towers and walls of the Alhambra would have been white-washed and the hill laid bare for defense, a stunning white on red contrast. The fortress is compact, as dictated by the terrain, about one hundred yards wide and seven hundred yards long, and is nestled within the walled and garrisoned city of Granada. The Alhambra complex contained the Royal Palace of the Sultan, the complete functioning town that supported it, all of the judicial and administrative services required to run the Nasrid Kingdom, and a separately castled garrison. The Alhambra and the walled city of Granada itself were, for all intents and purposes, impregnable, and were never captured by force of arms, only surrendered (in 1492 to Isabel and Fernando, the “Catholic Monarchs”). The Alhambra’s population in 1367 was roughly two thousand, including a garrison of perhaps three hundred elite troops, compared to about sixty-five thousand inhabitants in Granada proper, a very large city by fourteenth century standards.

Tell me about the research you did for the book. Did you visit Spain?

I spent almost nine months on background research before laying pen to paper. The credenza in my office at home where I write is lined with over ten feet of references on all things al-Andalus which I digested. As I describe in my blog entry, in the fall of 2010 I spent two weeks in Spain doing on-site research: Seville, Córdoba, Jaen, and Granada. I had all I needed factually at that point, but I still needed to absorb the scenes, burn them into my minds’ eye. See the sky, the landscape, the architecture, and most importantly close my eyes and bring the palace to life as it would have been six hundred years ago. There is no substitute for this type of on-the-ground research. I virtually lived in the Alhambra for six days, and that proved invaluable when writing. Fortunately, the Royal Palace itself is mostly preserved in the same form it was when my story takes place.

What are your writing habits?

Like most novelists, I find that I need significant “face-time” with my characters and story. I am a morning person, up at 5:15 am during the work week. After prayer time, breakfast and the paper, I retreat to my office by 7:15, and work without interruption until about 9:30-ish. Monday through Friday. I do not write on the weekends, but instead prefer to do some mental mull-over of my characters and story. Each morning when I start writing, I first re-read and tinker with my previous section or two, then I begin new material once I have found my groove. I repeatedly write, re-read and revise as I compose, so I manage only a few pages a day. I aim for a chapter a week. Slowly but surely the novel grows. I wrote Emeralds in about fifteen months. When I close down each morning, I do a quick catch up on email, then off to campus. I still manage to beat all of my graduate students into the office!

Tell me about your prose style.

I utilize a third-person/objective/limited narrative scheme. The narrator sees all but does not know all. It is a very visual style. The reader stands with the narrator and is invited to observe and draw their own conclusions of what they see (the so-called camera-eye perspective). The action unfolds in the present tense, which I find lends dramatic weight to the story. I lean towards impressionistic descriptions of places, sights, sounds, and smells. One of my major jobs in writing historical fiction is to create a well-developed sense of the time and place in the reader’s mind, and I find this impressionistic approach works well. I also adopt a modest amount of magical realism, choosing to bring certain inanimate things to life – in Emeralds, for instance, the constellations are participants in the story. My writing style is perhaps a bit unusual, but I think it works quite well.

Which fiction authors most inspire you?

There are so many wonderful novelists working today, so inspiration is never hard to find. I try to read them all, with a steady diet of all the major fiction award winners. Some contemporary standouts for me include: Michael Ondaatje, Mark Helprin, Hillary Mantel, Tim O’Brien, Alice Munro, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen, Tom Rachman, and Colum McCann. The list could go on and on.

Who are you reading right now?

I just finished Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule, the 2010 National Book Award winner. Absolutely brilliant! Her prose is remarkable, with a lovely impressionistic style that I much admire, and her characters are just beautifully crafted.

Emeralds of the Alhambra is book one of a series called Anthems of al-Andalus. What comes next? And when will book two be out?

Yes, Emeralds in the first in a series of at least three novels dealing with medieval Muslim Spain. Book two is called Shadows in the Shining City, and is set in late tenth century Córdoba, at the height of the Golden Age of the Umayyad Caliphate. A remarkable period of cultural and intellectual enlightenment. This period is also the pinnacle of convivencia (coexistence), the time when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in harmony. So Anthems of al-Andalus is not a trilogy in the traditional sense, with one book following the next chronologically. Book three will come back to Granada, but in the late fifteenth century at the fall of the Nasrid Kingdom. There will, however, be a linkage between all three books, so don’t despair! I am presently 250 pages into Shadows, with a target delivery date of next August. I expect it is be released around the end of 2013. A fantastic story of epic proportions that I lifted straight out of history. Stay tuned!

Are all of your novels going to be centered on love stories?

Absolutely! The timelessness of love is the most riveting subject I can imagine writing about. Big, epic themes wrapped about love stories. My life’s blood!

Let the Doodles Begin

 Medieval Muslim Spain  Comments Off on Let the Doodles Begin
Dec 272012

I am no historian. But I am passionate about historical fiction. And the timelessness of love. I believe that if you are determined, have a vivid imagination, and are willing to pay your dues and invest the proper amount of time and energy, you can enter history. Step into the action, awaken names and places, see what they saw, feel what they felt, think what they thought, love as they loved, die as they died.

Yes, you must locate some good reading material and digest those whole, chew them up and sometimes even spit them out. Wrestle with them. As I said, pay your dues. Then you must set aside all the facts you have so painstakingly made your own and go visit the darn place so you can absorb the sights and sounds and smells. Do all these things properly, toss in a little luck, and you can indeed bring a dead place to life, awaken a time long past, enter history, breathe it. I do believe that. Such is the magic of well-executed historical fiction.

During my sabbatical at Georgia Tech in the fall of 2010, following nine months of reading, hard thinking and obsessive straining of my imagination with all sorts of images of medieval Granada, I finally ventured to Andalusia, remarkable place that it remains to this day. I traced a big circular arc; Seville, Córdoba, Jaén, Granada.

I roamed the streets of Seville, slurped my delicious orange salmorejo (tomato soup topped with ham and egg) at the rowdy tapas bars as the dozens (hundreds!) of Iberian hams dangled above my head. I heard the distant Arab whisper buried deep within the rich, tortured sounds of flamenco, stared skyward in the Hall of the Orange in the Alcazar, traced the Arabic on the stucco walls Pedro copied from the Comares Palace.

Next I wandered the magnificent, unmistakable red and white columned arches of the fabulous Mezquita in Córdoba, for hours and hours, relishing the time alone before the inevitable tour buses arrived. I even attended Mass inside the Mezquita, sad irony of ironies. I chased steaming three-inch thick buttery potato tortilla with a cold cerveza. Daily! I sat in the Plaza de la Corredera and tried to conjure the terror of the burnings held there during the Inquisition.

I stayed in the exquisite Parador (state-owned luxury hotel) nestled beside the ancient Castillo de Santa Catalina, perched high atop the mountain towering over Jaén. I stood with Chandon, hand resting on the giant cross, as we scanned the battlefield together.

Finally, my bus wove its merry way among the rolling hills and endless olive groves, arriving at last in Granada, my heart pounding, pounding, as I craned to steal my first glimpse of my beloved Alhambra. I planted myself in a hotel off the Plaza Nueva, climbing over and around and through the Alhambra and the Albayzín, day after day, even absorbing the palace and Generalife by moonlight. Twice.

I climbed each morning from my hotel through the Pomegranate Gate and entered the Alhambra through the Justice Gate, just like Chandon. I secured my thimble of sweet coffee and made my way to the big chestnut tree that towers now over the hammam Salamun and Chandon luxuriated in off the Upper Royal Road in the medina. There I wrote.

I sneaked a snip of myrtle from the Comares Palace as I peered up at the jalousie windows on Layla’s suite and then across to Chandon’s room, visualizing their all-clear signals by candlelight. I awakened their budding love in my mind, smiled at the bravado of their midnight rendezvous, their secret kisses and stolen glances, transported back to my own delicious early years with my Maria.

I stood agape at the marvels of the Hall of the Ambassadors, the Hall of the Two Ladies, the Hall of the Abencerrages. It was easy to picture Sultan Muhammad in his element there, no more difficult for Ibn al-Khatib, Zamrak, the Royal Harem. I dipped my fingers in the fountains and pools of the Partal Gardens, witnessed the Brethren of Purity in all black and hushed and secret in the Partal Oratory under the new moon.

I climbed the Water Stairway in the Generalife, located the secret space of my young lovers’ first encounter with tawhid under the starlight so many, many years ago. I was there. I even jumped the security fence and found the Royal Cisterns that powered the palace fountains those many centuries ago. It was a magical time of discovery for me, an awakening of six hundred years of silence.

The great service of historical fiction, it seems to me, lies in the bringing of a time and a place long dead magically back to life. This was my primary aim in writing this book. That, and to share my own small understanding of the truth and holiness and timelessness of the love I have come to know with my wife of 30 years, my Maria.

Al-Andalus desperately deserves remembering. This was no ordinary time or place. Our world aches for its memory, aches. Medieval Muslim Spain was a head-spinning intersection of three great cultures, three great religions, three great languages – Islam, Christianity, Judaism. Remarkably, for long stretches of time not far removed from our young lovers, all three religions lived together in something closely approximating harmony, following the enlightened Arab Muslim dictates of mutual respect and religious tolerance. Convivencia (coexistence). Tense, historical boundaries between the Muslim, Christian and Jewish peoples softened, then blurred. Languages were shared by all, cultural and intellectual achievements celebrated by all. Mutual acceptance and tolerance naturally blossomed with the lowering of time-honored artificial barriers. Love inevitably began to cross ethnic and religious dividing lines, just as in my book. Love always finds a way. Beautiful convivencia. If only we could recall that time.

To approach al-Andalus as a modern reader, you must put aside the common association of the word “medieval” with “Dark Ages,” by standard inference a time of backward, unclean, uneducated peoples mired in a stagnate civilization. This pat answer has no value here. In al-Andalus, there was an unprecedented bubbling up of so much intellectual prowess and cultural sophistication as to make the lettered among us feel like bumpkins. There was rediscovery, translation and absorption of Greek and Roman and Far-East knowledge lost for a millennium, and the consequent rebirth of science, medicine, architecture, engineering and agriculture. There was enough poetry, music, song and philosophy to make the ancients proud. And books. My goodness the books. At the beginning of the 11th century, there were four hundred thousand volumes in the Great Library of Córdoba alone! The largest library in Christian Europe, at the University of Paris, held four hundred volumes! Dark Ages? I think not.

With predictable irony, surrounding all this cultural enlightenment was enough political wrangling, arm-twisting, court intrigue and diplomatic maneuvering to dizzy the most jaded, jet-setting, modern head of state. Political expediency was the only law of the land. Muslim was allied with Christian against Christian, Muslim against Muslim, brother against brother. Assassins prowled the Royal Courts. And war. Of course, war. Close-fought with clenched teeth and sweaty brow, with gilded sword, crossbow and ugly studded mace, the bloodied land cloaked in shocking, casual violence and death. War was waged then for the exact same reasons as today, these six hundred years later: Ego, power, greed, religious intolerance, misguided do-gooding, ignorance. As toxic then as now to the voices of reason, to culture, to civilization. Sadly, to love.

Al-Andalus, bright light of cultural and religious tolerance, intrepid explorer of the mind and soul, boiling caldron of enlightened thinking, place of song and dance and dazzling colors. Alas, she did not stand the test of time. Born in 711, subdued finally in 1492 at the hands of Isabel and Fernando, the Catholic Monarchs of Columbus fame. But consider – nearly 700 years of inspiration! Al-Andalus left a deep legacy that molded then fired the clay that was to become modern Europe, and by extension the Americas and her peoples.

In our so-called modern era, with its hurtful religious and cultural tensions, rife with terrorism of the innocents, suicide bombings and fanatical intolerance, ancient al-Andalus has much to teach us all – Muslim, Christian and Jew alike. Al-Andalus, a distant beacon of light, perhaps the world’s greatest forgotten reminder that a peaceful future among us three is indeed a possibility, provided we make the difficult but necessary choice to set aside our differences and honor our shared sacred roots. Tolerance and mutual respect. Why is this such an impossible concept?

Emeralds of the Alhambra tells a six-hundred year old story of love, yes, but also a story of a largely unknown past we all need to remember, and memorize, if we are to place any real hope in an olive-branched world for our dear children and grandchildren.