The Daily Monocle

Critical book reviews from a literary skeptic.

Monday, August 09, 2010

An Interview with Michael R. Stevens

Posted by J. P. Wickwire

Not too long ago, I had the opportunity to read Michael R. Stevens' technilogical thriller, Fortuna. Now, Mr. Stevens has graciously agreed to an interview with The Daily Monocle!


Your novel, Fortuna, is a rich and exciting foray into Renaissance-era Italy, and online role-playing games. What inspired you to combine these two things?

To tell the truth, I wanted the Renaissance environment but I didn't want to be in competition with “real” historical novels because I was afraid I'd get too many details wrong. My new book is straight historical fiction. The setting is Berlin, 1923.

Of all historical time periods to choose from, why did you choose Renaissance-era Italy?

I am fascinated by the role of force in governments and societies, and that issue was central to Machiavelli, who is the source of Fortuna's intellectual underpinnings. Machiavelli is associated with manipulation and ruthlessness, but this is an impoverished reading of his body of work. There is a lot of wisdom there.

What sort of historical research did you do in order to capture the essence of the time so fully?

Tons! I studied contemporary paintings, old maps, lots of books about the major houses of the time (Medici, Strozzi, Borgia etc.), tracts on business practices and coinage, historical documents about the evolution of the Sacraments in the Catholic Church, Neo-Platonic writing... it's a long list.

Did you play any online role-playing games to familiarize yourself with the ins and outs of gaming before writing Fortuna? Which ones and why?

After the book was about two-thirds finished, I became a member of Second Life to get a reality check, as it were. As it turned out, I had gotten it right, and didn't need to make any changes in the manuscript. I chose Second Life because it is a freestyle environment where players do what they want, as opposed to environments like Worlds of Warcraft, where there are specific missions to be accomplished.

Your protagonist, Jason Lind, plays as his alter-ego, Father Alessandro da Scala in the game, Fortuna. Was there a particular reason you chose to give him this persona instead of say, a merchant or page?

Machiavelli’s central thesis is that it is impossible to be a successful prince – we might say “an effective political leader” – and also a good Christian, or, in less religious terms, a good man. My idea in making Jason a priest was to accentuate this dilemma.

Did any one thing inspire you to write Fortuna?

Yes, and I will never tell!

Who was your favorite character to write?

I would say Mara, the courtesan. I didn't think about it at the time, but she's a sort of anima figure for Jason – everything he's not.

A lot of The Daily Monocle's readers haven't yet read your book. Can you tell them why they should read Fortuna in ten words or less?

It's about the most important trend of the century. It's very entertaining. (I know, that's twelve [words].)

You're on a ten hour car trip with one of your characters from Fortuna. Who do you take, and why?

I don't want to sound contentious or seem like I'm dodging the question, but I really don't think that way. The characters are constructions, part of a whole that's supposed to have an effect. I wouldn't be telling the truth if I said that I am one hundred percent in control of every word I write, but that's the goal.

How did you get started in the writing business?

I started out as a professional writer when I was sixteen, when I got a job as music columnist for my home town newspaper, The Vallejo Times Herald. Then, after college and the U.S. Army, I needed a job and writing was really the only thing I knew how to do. So I got into technical writing, then advertising, and now, fiction. I don't know if that's an upward trajectory or not.

A lot of fledgling authors tend to think that once you write and publish that ubiquitous "first book", the writing process changes, and so does their career. Has publishing your first book changed your outlook on writing at all?

It’s had an enormous impact. I can’t even find words to describe it. I’ve been blogging about it for months at I can’t think of any way to summarize all those thoughts.

Is there any one book and/or author who has influenced your writing the most?

Do I have to answer? It would be the science fiction writer, Frank Herbert.

A lot of writers count music as a main way of 'setting the mood'. Did you listen to any music while writing Fortuna? If so, what did you listen to?

That's interesting. I didn't know that. I'm a serious amateur musician and, perhaps for that reason, I never listen to music while writing. It would be too distracting, and I think it would impair my ability to get the rhythm of the sentences right.

About how long did it take you to write Fortuna?

About 18 months.

Did any people or events from your life shape the events or people in Fortuna?

Not really. Of course, my humanities background from college and my time in Silicon Valley certainly influenced the overall framework.

Are you working on any other books right now?

Two. One is about the process of getting published for the first time. The other is a novel with the working title, The Allegory of the Golden-Haired Wife. It’s a thriller about industrial espionage set in Berlin, 1923.

This might be a hard question, but what is your favorite book? Why?

Der Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse. It’s about a man of a certain age who is intelligent and has been successful in the world, but feels that something important in life has eluded him. Not that I know anyone who fits that description.

You've been invited to spend a week with a writer from any time in history. Who do you spend a week with and why?

Hemmingway. Why philosophize when you can drink whiskey?

Is there anything else you'd like to share?

Thanks so much for this opportunity, and for the great questions.

Thank you Mr. Stevens for doing this awesome interview with The Daily Monocle!

Don't forget to check out Michael R. Stevens' website here, and purchase your copy of Fortuna on Amazon today!


Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Great interview! I've got it posted at Win a Book; thanks for the e-mail, JP!

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