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Author Interview: Ivan Obolensky

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Kathy Stickles is talking with Ivan Obolensky, author of Shadow of the Son: Book Two of "Eye of the Moon."

FQ: As always, I simply love the new book and your writing style. How do you come up with such wonderful and diverse characters? Do you write them, or do they, in essence, write themselves?

OBOLENSKY: Most everything I write has some basis in reality. My family, what with my father and mother’s divorce and their subsequent remarriages, resulted in a large collection of full, half, and step siblings and relatives. Most were so strong and extraordinary in their personal lives that it is little wonder that they discovered a way to immortalize themselves in both my imagination and in my writing. For example, my stepfather’s mother was a formidable equestrian. Fox hunting was her passion. Her large house in Cincinnati was filled with brushes and masks of foxes, ribbons, and silver cups of all kinds and sizes. Her ability to survive her several husbands and assume their fortunes in the process (not including the large one she started with) was almost legendary. Wealth gravitated in her direction of its own accord as if by magic, but never really affected her. She was assertive, aggressive, down to earth, and didn’t tolerate fools, or a great deal of foolishness. I, on the other hand, naturally tended in that direction. I’m not altogether sure what she thought of me, but I certainly minded my manners when she was around. She passed some time ago, and yet her fortune wasn’t fully settled for many years after, and she lived well past 100, thwarting the dreams and financial aspirations of her children for almost their entire lives. She still lives on in the character of Mrs. Leland or Maw, as she is known at Rhinebeck. She practically wrote herself. All I did was write down what I knew she would say given the circumstances. Not all of my characters leaped into being as they were in real life. Stanley, my father’s butler until he moved down the road to Ferncliff and into the employ of my Aunt Brooke Astor, was the gentlest of men, not at all like the steel-eyed retainer I made him out to be.

FQ: Lord Bromley is a main focus in this book. While reading Eye of the Moon, I immediately decided that he was a very evil person. After reading this book, while still a tad on the evil side, I found him to have a lot more depth and honesty than I expected in his character. Do you see him the same after writing more about him, or do you still just see him as the villain?

Author Ivan Obolensky

OBOLENSKY: Villains have one characteristic in common: they have an almost uncanny ability to pinpoint weaknesses in others and exploit them. Some do this covertly, but the ones whom I find the most fascinating are the more overt. What makes a hero realistic are his faults. What makes a villain memorable are his strengths. These are subject to his will and aligned to the purposes he has in mind, which are often self-serving. No man or woman is completely evil or completely good. Humans are an extraordinary amalgam of opposites. Writing Bromley was difficult and a much-considered undertaking even before I started. I wasn’t sure what to do about him. In my mind, he had to be portrayed as both much worse and much better than the reader, or even myself, might imagine. He had to be larger than life but with redeeming features, which I didn’t know. That redeeming feature turned out to be his forthrightness.

My father had recently passed, and we had a contentious relationship from the beginning that only resolved into mutual acknowledgement just before his death. I saw the resentment that threaded his life and understood it in the same way I saw Bromley. Like Percy, I realized I wasn’t my father. I had my mother’s personality and my father’s looks. It was a moment for me, and I could write him at last with a depth of understanding that I can only hope is truly apparent to the reader in the dialogues he has with Percy in the library.

FQ: I adore the characters of Stanley and Dagmar. There is a lot more of Dagmar in this story and in their relationship, but I get the sense that there is even more to her. Will she be explored more in a future story?

OBOLENSKY: There is more coming for sure. Dagmar has a lot to say but always incrementally and often cryptically. To expand on Dagmar and Stanley as a couple for a moment: their relationship was initially a puzzle. Stanley was in love with Alice, and yet he was married to Dagmar. How did she put up with him for so long and why, given her vast intellect and the mysterious power she wields? Dagmar and Stanley managed to address this conflict successfully as mentioned in Shadow, but it begs the question, who or what really holds the power at Rhinebeck? Is it Percy? Stanley? Alice? Dagmar? Or something else? The novels taken together are studies of many different themes. One of them is the nature of power, its legitimacy, its source, management, and consequences. Successful configurations are another. Managing a household or a nation requires control of the internal environment while dealing with external threats. One must look inward and outward simultaneously, and this can drive the individual mad. Couples, on the other hand, can do both. Many of my characters are paired with another. For instance, Dagmar personifies the inner world while Stanley personifies the external. Notice that each of the couples in the novels orient themselves with one mostly looking out and the other mostly looking in. This orientation is a powerful stabilizing influence and highlighted for that reason.

FQ: You told me you are writing a third book (Yeah!). Can you tell us about that one without giving away too much information?

OBOLENSKY: The tentative title is Dark of the Earth. While Bruni and Percy are in London, Johnny has a car accident. His hired limousine crashes on the East River Drive in New York, and he lies in a coma. Was it really an accident or something more? To find out, Percy invites those who may be responsible and those he trusts (the characters from the previous novels) to Rhinebeck for a long weekend to find out. Johnny must recover but how is that to be done? Many of the more esoteric themes that have been threaded through the earlier novels take on a greater significance in the third. In addition, how will justice, if needed, be applied to those responsible, but were they really responsible? Just because one thinks one knows doesn’t mean one does. How is guilt or innocence to be determined by Sunday afternoon when all the guests must leave? These questions and their answers make up the third.

FQ: I enjoyed two new characters in this story - thank you. Angus is a very interesting addition to the storyline. I also enjoyed meeting Percy’s mother and hearing more about his past and their relationship. Will these two characters be returning in the future so that we can learn even more about them?

OBOLENSKY: You will see more of Angus, and Percy’s mother will have an influence but only indirectly for now. Space at Rhinebeck is limited.

FQ: Alice, another favorite of mine, made an appearance in Shadow of the Sun in her own way. Was that the original plan for that part of the story, or did she just kind of work her way back into things when you were writing?

OBOLENSKY: Alice did manage to work her way into the second in a way I didn’t expect, and she manages to do that in the third as well. She is a force in her own right. There is more backstory about her—things you don’t know. She wields an influence even if no longer alive in the usual sense. I am over halfway through, but what will happen by Sunday is still a mystery. It is how I write. I’m just as excited as the reader to find out what comes next and just as surprised when it does.

FQ: I really do appreciate the endings of your books. Even though the reader is left with a few questions and wanting more (at least this reader), they do not have one of those cliff-hanger endings where we do not have a clue what is going to happen next and have to wait in order to find out. Why did you choose your method of ending the books?

OBOLENSKY: Humans are pattern people. One of the most persistent and pervasive is that of the beginning, the middle, and the end. Our minds like to see and hear patterns because they offer prediction and regularity. Patterns ground the observer and give comfort in a world that can be unpredictable and arbitrary. Strangely, the beginning, middle, and end don’t have to be presented in that order. The oldest surviving major work in Western thought is the Iliad, which starts in the middle. The Roman statesman, Cicero, advised orators that a speech should be like making love. It starts slowly, reaches a crescendo, and then gently descends. The ancient Greeks used different meters and rhythms for emphasis and to evoke a mood. I will read my novels over and over and over to get the rhythm and flow of the story into a cadence and a rhythm that moves me. I will deliberately alter it for emphasis and impact, not just in the cadence of the dialogue but in the speed of a scene. I try and seduce the mind of the reader so that the experience of reading my work has a “something extra”—an X factor that is difficult to define other than that it holds attention and makes absorbing the work a unique experience. In addition, I don’t do sad endings. (Lest you think a happy ending is not a matter of life and death, Durant in his History of Civilization mentions the Indian opera composer who foolishly created a sad ending and was summarily lynched by the audience.) The ending is the most important part of a work because it requires an excellent middle and a brilliant beginning to work well. An ending also has to be an ending. All endings may be the beginnings of something else (life goes on), but a story must ultimately end and to not end it clearly breaks the pattern, and the reader isn’t satisfied. Since my goal is the reader’s delight and enchantment, everything I work into my novels is constructed with that in mind. It’s not just the What that makes a great story but the How.

FQ: Rhinebeck is such a wonderful place. With so many things happening now to the characters, do you plan to switch locations in future books, or will the characters (and readers) always return to Rhinebeck for the stories?

OBOLENSKY: In this series, of which there will likely be four, Rhinebeck will be the focus. I will continue that because Rhinebeck has been firmly established in the reader’s mind and I can use only a few words or a sentence to evoke the image I want the reader to see. It also acts like a home, a place the reader is grounded in. He or she may be familiar with it but like any location, Rhinebeck has many guises depending on the weather, the time of day and the season. Ultimately, it is home and all the thousands of connotations that has, all of which I have available to use.

FQ: I know that you have the third book in the works now. Are you planning to continue on after the third, or is that the end of the story? I for one would vote for many more, but that is just me.

OBOLENSKY: I’m glad you want the series to continue. I have four in mind, making it a quartet. The wedding still has to take place, and I will continue to use the long weekend format to spur the action. The time limit I use demands that the characters work quickly and get to the point. They don’t have a lot of time and that makes things interesting for them, for me, and for the reader.

FQ: Something I didn’t ask the last time we had an interview but what does Ivan Obolensky do when he is not writing? Do you have any favorite places or any hobbies that you can tell us about?

OBOLENSKY: I love reading, riding my motorcycle, playing music, and taking photographs. I write a weekly blog that features an idea that I find interesting or a thought that’s been in my head. It goes up on Thursdays along with a picture in which I try to illustrate an aspect or a mood of what was written. My wife, Mary Jo, and I also live in Uruguay, and that is as alien a world compared to Rhinebeck as you could ever want or imagine. It keeps us busy and immensely satisfied.

Thank you for your questions.

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