FQ: I really love The Lighthouse so much and was so impressed by the research that must have gone into it. Can you tell us about that? There are so many different things that you would need to know so much about (religion, Roman rule, medicine, etc.). Was it difficult to research or was it a joy?
CIHOLAS: For me research is a joy. I discover new things about old things and am so excited I want to tell the world about it. As I was writing the novel, I invented a nephew for the great Jewish philosopher Philo, and later discovered that he actually existed! I had a different name for him. That was easy to change. His Jewish father named him Tiberius Alexander, no doubt to curry favor with the Romans and with the emperor himself. In fact, it was a real surprise to discover that many Jews held high office in the Roman empire. As for the medicine, I bought and borrowed books on Egyptian medicine, learned more about embalming than I cared to know, and read most of Hippocrates and modern books on ancient medicine. You can even access some of the old medical documents online like the works of the Roman Celsus: De Medicina, a contemporary with Simon.
FQ: I know that many of the characters in the story are people who really lived during those times and there are also some that are, from what I can tell, purely fictional characters. How difficult was it to combine all these characters into one story?
CIHOLAS: Ancient historians rarely include stories of women. But there were several who changed history like Antonia who is historical. Unfortunately, I don’t know the name of Valerius’s sister, so I invented Aurelia. Valerius is the historical Publius Petronius Valerius who figures prominently in Book II. I also invented the villain. There were many historical ones to choose from, but none that would have been as clever as the one I imagined. I didn’t find it difficult to invent the additional characters. What is more difficult is to be as true as possible to the historical ones. I never knowingly distorted or changed a date or an event. For example, Flaccus’s downfall was so unexpected and abrupt that even the Romans were stunned. It came so suddenly that I had to prepare the reader by having Flaccus ask Aurelia to petition Antonia.
FQ: The cover of the book is wonderful. Where did the idea for the cover and the title come from?
CIHOLAS: Atmosphere Press. The cover is the work of two amazing artists: Ronaldo Alves and Matthew Fielder. I am in awe of their skills and artistry. All I did was give them some sample depictions of the latest archeological finds about what the lighthouse looked like, and they went from there. From my brief description of the plot, they added the medical symbol of Asklepios. They and Atmosphere Press deserve all the credit. As for the title: The Lighthouse, I wanted that title from the beginning. A lighthouse is both a real building and symbolic. The lighthouse in my novel—as a building—was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, an architectural and scientific marvel. It was the tallest building in the world for almost two millennia before an earthquake toppled it. At night, a bright fire lit up cone segments way out to sea as the top turned. By daylight, polished mirrors rotated. The mechanism for turning was probably powered by the tides below. How the lighthouse is symbolic is up to the reader to discern. Each reader may see it differently. Alexandria was also the ancient city of light where the sciences flourished, the intellectual center of the Roman empire. Most of the scientists who worked at the Museion—the famous library that was like a university complex—were Greek.
FQ: The characters in the book are each so well-developed and intriguing. Do you have a particular favorite?
CIHOLAS: That’s like choosing a favorite child. I feel for Rachel, Simon’s sister. She experiences the force of pure evil and yet carries herself with dignity. Inspired by her plight, Simon fights against slavery. Then there is Sosias, the young orphan engineer whom Simon saves and adopts. Through Sosias, I am able to describe a few of the amazing advances in science and technology. Of course, I am deeply fond of Simon. But sometimes I want to shake him.
FQ: I see that the book is #1 in a series. Can you tell us what is next for Simon and the others in his story?
CIHOLAS: It doesn’t get any easier, I’m afraid. Caligula is on the imperial throne. He wants vengeance against Simon and his family. He also wants to be worshipped as Supreme God. Where? Not just in Rome where he knocks the heads off the statues of Jupiter so he can replace them with his own likeness. But in Jerusalem. In the temple! How will the Jews react? How will Simon react? How will Publius Petronius Valerius react who is Simon’s brother-in-law and now the governor of Syria tasked with the diabolical mission to erect Caligula’s statue in the temple? Need we say more?
FQ: After Simon’s story has been told to the end, do you have any ideas about another part of history and another set of characters coming to life on your pages?
CIHOLAS: I might revisit little-known incidents from WWII. I once wrote a play about Franz Jägerstätter, a young Austrian who refused to serve in Hitler’s army. It is a true story and deserves to be told in a novel. The play is called One Candle in the Night and was performed on the Centre College campus.
FQ: Your biography shows that you have a background in classical languages and teaching courses on the ancient world. What is your favorite time in history to study and teach about?
CIHOLAS: I grew up in Switzerland where school children destined for university start Latin at age 12 and Greek at age 14. I immersed myself in ancient history and imagined meeting an old Roman or a Greek philosopher on my way to school. Zürich was called Turicum by the Romans. After completing my Ph.D. in comparative literature at UNC-Chapel Hill, I was hired to teach French and German at Centre College. As much as I love French and German literature, my favorite course to teach is a freshman interdisciplinary course on the ancient world that includes literature, art, architecture, philosophy, and history.
FQ: It sounds like you have visited and in some cases lived in so many different countries. Is there anywhere left that you would really like to visit and learn about?
CIHOLAS: There are so many! Australia sounds intriguing, homeland of one of my favorite authors—Geraldine Brooks. But if actual traveling is not in the foreseeable future, I will always enjoy traveling back in time and meeting new characters.
Thank you for your interest in The Lighthouse. You are a very discerning and careful reader, and these were fun questions. --Karin
FYI: I am starting a blog called QQQ: Quirky Quixotic Quips about AntiQuity. It consists of one-paragraph notations about interesting ancient historical facts. Right now, I just put it on my Facebook page. It’s a lot of fun. Examples forthcoming: the first pipe organ, Caligula’s mosaic table, the Antikythera mechanism called the first computer...etc.