Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Barbara Bamberger Scott is talking with Steven M. Moore, author of Son of Thunder (Esther Brookstone Art Detective).
FQ: Can you say a bit about making your central characters – Esther and Bastiann – seniors, retired or on the verge of, and, in the case of Esther, a three-time widow?
MOORE: The first book in the Art Detective series, Rembrandt’s Angel, was dedicated to Agatha Christie and her two sleuths, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. I’d always wondered how they’d play together in a single mystery (now two). While Esther Brookstone is perhaps a younger and hyperactive Miss Marple and Bastiann van Coevorden only looks like the actor that often played Poirot, wags at Scotland Yard used Christie’s characters to nickname the pair.
Esther is debating retirement in Rembrandt’s Angel and is retired in Son of Thunder. She’s still an energetic widow, though, and manages to get into trouble. She wants to spend more time with Bastiann, and he feels the same way. I left unresolved whether he’ll retire from Interpol, but he might be tempted now because I put him through a lot more than just trying to keep Esther on the straight and narrow.
Each of Esther’s first marriages were followed by the death of her husbands—bad luck for this grande dame who belies the Miss Marple nickname. Obviously this creates some doubts about making her relationship with Bastiann more permanent. On the other hand, Bastiann has never been married and was set in his ways until Esther expanded his horizons. Fate brought them together.
I wanted this romantic element in the prose to show that seniors can fall in love too. One motivation for the second book was to continue their romance. In the vapors of my creative mind, I’m thinking of a future murder mystery where the duo solves yet another crime on their honeymoon!
FQ: Are any of your own religious views reflected in your examination of John, Peter, and the two Marys?
MOORE: As I state in my end notes, I hope no one’s faith is shaken by the religious aspects of the book. In fact, the main twenty-first century characters have different opinions about religion, from Father Jean’s academic piety to Bruno’s violent agnosticism.
That said, I always wondered about John’s life after Christ’s Crucifixion. There are indications he lived for a long time, especially if he was truly the author of the Book of Revelation. I imagined a missionary life for him, carrying on Christ’s work in more of a clandestine fashion—historical fiction for the most part, but with danger and suspense added because of the Romans’ persecution of early Christians.
More to the point of your question, the views in the book come from many sources, in particular other gospels not included in the Bible. I’ve always been fascinated by religious history, and that includes Catholic history. My personal beliefs really didn’t influence me as much as chats with Jesuits and professors of comparative religion both here in the US and abroad over many years.
FQ: With which of the large cast of characters do you personally most identify?
MOORE: My answer might surprise you. I’d probably identify myself more with Father Jean, a priest/historian who serves as mentor and guide for the younger Bastiann van Coevorden. His discussion with Bastiann reflects some of the dialogue I’ve had with myself and others during my lifetime.
FQ: Have you traveled to any of the many countries/sites mentioned in the book?
MOORE: With Google maps and internet references, it’s very difficult nowadays to know whether an author has visited one of the settings in her or his books. But the answer is the same as for the first book in the series: yes, I’ve visited many of the countries used for settings. I traveled extensively as a scientist and just returned from a trip to Europe where I revisited Vienna, a setting used in the book. And I was like Bastiann years ago using those chains for support against la borra to make my way down to Triete’s harbor, for example—sans Bruno interrupting my reverie, of course. (Abdus Salam’s International Centre of Theoretical Physics is in Trieste.) I’ve never been to Turkey (Ephesus), though. I had to use some creative license there and research that too, as I did for a few other historical settings in the novel.
FQ: How do your unique book ideas usually develop?
MOORE: In the case of Son of Thunder, I’ve always had an interest in St. John and wanted to write something about him and his life about which so little is known. That’s a great opportunity for historical fiction. After Rembrandt’s Angel, Esther Brookstone seemed to be the logical one to help fill in the details.
In general, I’ve collected story ideas all my life, often in the form of what-ifs. For example, what if Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot teamed up to solve a mystery? (Esther and Bastiann were surrogates who answered that question, probably not in a way that Dame Agatha could have imagined.) What if the Magdalene and John were a missionary team that worked to convert the Roman Empire to Christianity? (I figured something like that had to go on.)
Collecting what-ifs, plot ideas, dialogue snippets, character descriptions, and possible settings has been a lifetime activity. Finding the time to use them is a challenge!
FQ: You state that this book is a “departure” for you - what elements drew you to this divergence?
MOORE: The departure is mostly in adding a religious context to the standard mystery/thriller genre—that’s not exactly original, but it was a departure for me personally. The other aspect is writing three parallel story lines, each taking place at different times in world history, and then bringing it all together. That required a lot of research, more so than in any previous book of mine (they all require some research, of course). The result is a work that differs greatly from other books in my oeuvre.
FQ: Son of Thunder is ultimately optimistic although many dark threads run through it. Is that what you originally planned, or did the story just grow on its own?
MOORE: Each story “just grows on its own.” In technical writing jargon, I’m a pantser. I never make an outline, so each story grows organically—hopefully like flowers and not weeds! Many of my mystery, thriller, and sci-fi books contain dark threads, but I always try to end on a note of optimism. For example, the novel published before Son of Thunder, The Last Humans, is a post-apocalyptic thriller, about as dark as it can be in spots, but the survivors make a new life for themselves.
FQ: Do you have more plans for Esther and Bastiann?
MOORE: I mentioned one idea above: their solving a crime on their honeymoon. We’ll see how that goes. After all I put them through, they deserve a bit of rest, though, but a trilogy is certainly possible. The Nile is 4132 miles long, while the Danube is only 1771 miles. The latter is still long enough for Esther to find trouble as Poirot did on the Nile.
FQ: I imagine a lot of research went into the writing of this book. Do you find the research aspect of writing historical fiction exciting or just a necessary part of the job of accurate writing?
MOORE: I’ll confess I learned a lot more about St. John and Sandro Botticelli in my research for this book—that was exciting. I owe a lot to Isaacson’s masterful biography Leonardo da Vinci in describing the Florentine Renaissance scene. I delved into the non-canonical gospels as they were discovered. I find background material for my books in many sources.
Most of my fiction requires some research, and that often just means getting the facts right. In the case of Son of Thunder, I wanted to be super careful and not buy into any hoaxes. For that reason, and not so much that it’s historical fiction (which only complicates the job), it’s the book I’ve researched the most. Esther and Bastiann often question what is historical fact and what is legend, as does Sandro, all for the same reason—to express doubts about what is fact and what is legend.
FQ: You had a career in academia and scientific R&D - is that where you developed your obvious expertise of conducting extensive research to create vivid historical periods/scenes?
MOORE: In physics and other sciences, a laboratory can confirm theoretical conjectures. In history, archaeology, and so forth, humanity’s existence on Earth provides the laboratory where the resulting data is often full of gaps and sometimes is lost and must be rediscovered. The scientific method still applies, although time scales are often extended.
I’ve always been interested in history but firm in my belief that historical theories should be checked as much as any scientific theory. Who knows? New historical research might prove some of the fictional account in Son of Thunder completely incorrect, requiring an added note in the end material of the book in the future. Historical fiction writers must, by necessity, fill in the gaps in historical knowledge.