TBR: Welcome to TBR, John. Will you share a little bit about yourself? Cressler: I am an engineering professor at Georgia Tech, in Atlanta. I have previously published five non-fiction books, two for general audiences, but my dream has always been to write fiction. Emeralds of the Alhambra is my debut historical novel, an interfaith love story set in 14th century Muslim Spain.
TBR: Tell us about Emeralds of the Alhambra. Cressler: First, a little background. One magical day as I was researching where and when I wanted to locate my novel, I stumbled upon medieval Muslim Spain (al-Andalus), something I knew virtually nothing about at the time. The more I explored the more excited I became, particularly since this period of history is so rich in its message for our modern conflicted world, and yet so little appreciated by most people. Imagine, a period of several hundred years with Muslims, Jews, and Christians found a way to live together in harmony! Here was an existence proof that religious tolerance and peace could indeed be achieved. To my mind, this is a message our world desperately needs to recall. I wanted to break open medieval Muslim Spain in a compelling way that would be engaging to a broad audience, and I settled on an interfaith love story set during a key point in medieval Spain’s history. Emeralds is set in the resplendent Alhambra Palace, in Granada, Spain, during the Castilian Civil War (1367-1369), a time when, remarkably, Muslims took up their swords to fight alongside Christians. The story centers on the relationship between William Chandon, a wounded Christian knight brought to Granada, and the Sufi Muslim princess, Layla al-Khatib. As Chandon’s influence at court grows, he becomes trapped between his forbidden love for Layla and his Christian heritage, the demands of chivalry and political expediency. Chandon and Layla must make choices between love and honor, war and peace, life and death, choices which ultimately will seal Granada’s fate as the last surviving stronghold of Muslim Spain. What is inside the covers of Emeralds? Romance, battles, conspiracy, politics, religion, art and architecture. But first and foremost, Emeralds is a love story.
TBR: Tell us about the Alhambra Palace.
Cressler: 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 14th 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”).
TBR: Tell us about the background research you did for the book.
Cressler: 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, and which I first digested. In the fall of 2010 I spent 2+ 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 for the most part preserved in the same form it was when my story takes place.
TBR: How have the reviews been so far? Tantalize us with a few endorser blurbs. Cressler: Given that the novel deals with the interaction of Muslims, Christians and Jews, I worked hard to get representatives from a diverse set of cultural and religious backgrounds to review the book. A sampling is below, and the rest are on my website.
“A deeply moving and enlightening novel on the co-existence of religions.”
─Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
“…Cressler has woven an imaginative and intricately persuasive story…[a] vivid and gorgeous world of romance, intrigue, murder and negotiations between multiple religions in medieval Spain…[a] story of love between human beings, for God, and for the creation so graciously bestowed on us. A thoroughly gripping and engaging first novel.”
─Professor Susan Abraham, Harvard Divinity School
“…Seamlessly weaves history, religion, passion, loyalty and romance into a compelling, beautifully-written narrative which brings [the reader] into the richness, majesty and complexities of this different, yet alluring world…”
─Rabbi Rachael M. Bregman, Temple Beth Tefiloh and Rabbis Without Borders
“…A work of honesty and sensitivity that renders in depth, and with painterly detail, the living contours of a great civilization that the modern world needs to re-discover…A moving story of love across boundaries, set at a critical point in history…with unmatched and vivid descriptions of place, lifestyle, manners and practices…”
─Salma Khadra Jayyusi, poet, writer, and literary historian. Founder and Director of EAST-WEST NEXUS/PROTA for the dissemination in English of Arabic cultural achievements
“A captivating love story that speaks deeply to the purest and most humane places of the heart. A highly enjoyable and enthusing novel.”
─Aytekin Erol, Lawyer Society of Cinematographic Work Creators, Istanbul
“Emeralds of the Alhambra has it all – mystery, intrigue, duels and interfaith romance…Cressler artfully draws us into the fascinating lives of the novel’s main characters with vivid prose. We experience the blows and blood of the fierce battles between enemies, as well as the luminosity and laughter of spell-bound lovers…Transports readers back to medieval Spain and offers them a peek behind la Convivencia and all the rivalry, romance and complex relationships that existed between Jews, Christians and Muslims.”
─Tayyibah Taylor, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Azizah Magazine
“Cressler has a finely-tuned, sensuous capability to drink in and pass on exquisite sights, smells, colors, sounds and tastes…[At] the deepest level…Cressler helps [the reader] understand the…overwhelmingly powerful force that love truly is…and the role love plays in our experience of the Divine.”
─Father Gene Barrette, Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette
TBR: How is medieval Muslim Spain relevant to contemporary America?
Cressler: As all would agree, our modern world is stained with the blood of religious conflict and fanaticism, and yet we managed to forget that for hundreds of years in medieval Spain, Christians, Muslims and Jews found a way to live together in relative peace, sharing languages and customs, whispering words of love across religious boundaries, embracing a level of mutual acceptance and respect unimaginable today. Together, they launched one of the great intellectual and cultural flowerings of history. Our world aches for a future graced with tolerance and peace. To my mind, the first step in that process is to remember that peace is indeed possible, that it has been done before and thus can be done again. My fiction is intended to break open this fascinating time period in an engaging manner. Emeralds is relevant to everyone, young or old, male or female, people of all cultures, people of all religions. Sound bold? Well, I think 99.9% of people would agree that a more peaceful planet would be an excellent thing. While the triggers for human conflict are inevitably complicated, one thing is certain – religious conflict is inked all over the historical record, and since 9/11 especially, religious conflict has been at the forefront of this conversation. Emeralds speaks to two fundamental ideas: 1) Peaceful coexistence is demonstrably possible between religions, and 2) Love has the power to transform the human heart and thereby cross cultural and religious boundaries in many beautiful ways. These are the BIG themes that most interest me.
TBR: How does writing fiction compare with writing non-fiction?
Cressler: 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.
TBR: Where will Emeralds be available? Cressler: Emeralds will be released on June 15th by Sunbury Press, a traditional independent press in PA (75 titles a year), and is available on their website, via Amazon, or in select bookstores, in both print and eBook formats. Reviews, a book trailer, excerpts, background history, photographs of the Alhambra Palace, and maps/drawings can be found on my website at:
TBR: Readers, John will give away a free signed copy of Emeralds of the Alhambra to one lucky commenter. He will pick a winner on Thursday, June 27th and announce the winner here. Be sure to leave your email address so he can contact you.
Thanks for visiting TBR, John. All the best to you.