Writing as a travel opportunity: It’s something that authors take advantage of, as they build strange new places — and travel in time to strange old places — to show you what goes on there. Howard Andrew Jones has come back from such travels with a new book — The Desert of Souls — and a tale to tell about what he’s seen in his journey, and why the journey is important to him.
HOWARD ANDREW JONES:
Every writer knows the adage “Write what you know”, but I think it’s more important to write what you love. That’s why I leave middle America behind to follow medieval Muslim heroes into exotic lands.
I’ve always loved stories that take me to strange new places. When I was five I was glued to the TV by reruns of the original Star Trek. I later traveled into space with Leigh Brackett, prowled the gritty streets of Leiber’s Lankhmar, fell into the mind-bending universe of Zelazny’s Amber, and sailed with the daring Horatio Hornblower. But the the historical fiction of Harold Lamb and Robert E. Howard cast the greatest spell upon me. Their tales were moody, brooding, and vivid, and populated by realistic folk from cultures I’d never known.
Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russel’s brilliant portrayal of 8th century Baghdad (in issue 50 of The Sandman) brought that particular locale into sharp focus for me. Arts, mathematics, poetry, and science blossomed during the golden age of the Abbasid caliphate, while Europe wallowed in the the poverty, illiteracy, and disease of a Dark Age. Yet there were still plenty of blank spaces on middle-eastern maps, filled in by glorious storytelling. Men and women lived ordinary civilized lives, but they knew that the supernatural might lurk in the neighboring kingdom, or around any street corner.
It was not just fantastic places that fascinated me, but the heroes who traveled there as well. I don’t mean flawless, square-jawed men in white hats fighting cardboard villains in black; the heroes I liked squabbled and bickered and made mistakes. They had blind spots and flaws, and sometimes they made the wrong choices. Whatever their disagreements, though, when the chips were down they stood together. At heart they were brothers.
I re-read and rewatched — lathered, rinsed, and repeated — never guessing I was researching while entertaining myself, until one day a narrator stalked out of my subconscious and wouldn’t shut up. He was the stalwart Captain Asim, loyal bodyguard and indispensable confidant to the brilliant scholar Dabir ibn Khalil. A number of reviewers have compared Dabir and Asim to Holmes and Watson, but Asim is far more integral to the story than the typical movie and TV Watsons, more central even than Doyle’s capable narrator. He and Dabir reach greater heights together than Dabir could ever reach alone.
Once I knew my heroes, I wanted worthy supporting characters as well. I was drafting an adventure story, not melodrama, so even amongst all the fantastical elements I wanted an antagonist with honest motivations. I discovered not only what my villain was after, but the bleak injustice that had sent him down his dark path. Additionally there could be no place for an “obligatory love interest A,” but any fears I had about a generic heroine vanished for me the moment Sabirah walked into her first scene. Young, intellectually gifted, supremely confident, and haunted by the specter of a coming political marriage… she brought fire and life to every scene and demanded a stronger arc. I happily obliged.
The Desert of Souls came into being as an origin story, not just about how the characters met, but how Dabir and Asim came to depend upon one another. Two men are caught up in events bigger than themselves and in their journey they learn to work together so they have the strength to face a terrible evil. It takes place against the technicolor backdrop of the Arabian Nights, complete with lost cities and sweeping deserts, scheming sorcerers, implacable djinn, and secrets men were not meant to know. There’s romance and heartbreak, swashbuckling action, and hard won victories.
In brief, it’s an adventure with the kind of elements I’ve always loved, and I hope that readers find the same enjoyment in the story that I felt while drafting it.