Below the interview, you’ll find details about the Giveaway! See yesterday’s post for my review of Written in the Ashes: Book Review: Written in the Ashes by K. Hollan Van Zandt.

My fascination with the Great Library of Alexandria, particularly the nagging aspect that we don’t even know what works were lost, contributed to my interest in becoming a librarian, so I was thrilled with the opportunity to interview K. Hollan VanZandt. Her novel, Written in the Ashes, is set in fifth-century Alexandria during the time of the female philosopher and mathematician, Hypatia. The reader gets to see the Great Library through the eyes of Hannah, a slave with a remarkable talent for music.

Question: As a librarian, I really enjoyed Synesius’ answer to Hannah’s natural question when walking through the library :
“How do you know where to put them all?” Hannah asked, overwhelmed by the library’s vastness, like a human beehive with all its sprawling complexities.”
What sort of research did it take to bring this fifth-century library alive for the modern reader?

K. Hollan Van ZandtAnswer: Brilliant question. I love this question. Only a librarian could appreciate what a mess the Great Library really was (imagine 700 years of scroll collection), and what it took to organize it all. Researching the Great Library was the heartbeat of my work for nearly ten years on the manuscript of this novel. I started writing way back in ye ol’ 2001… before internet resources were considered reliable; even before the time of Wikipedia (can you imagine?). So all my research was done at large university libraries, primarily the Young’s Research Library at U.C.L.A. What I learned was that the Great Library invented the alphabetization that is used so prominently today in stacks. And that also, each librarian was responsible for his or her subject matter, usually including at least 5 language translations.

Before the novel was published I cross-checked it with several prominent scholars in the subject to be certain I wasn’t straying away from original sources with my fictitious assumptions. Much to my surprise, things I thought I made up often turned out to be true, like how the flow of scrolls came up from the docks and into the stacks. What I discovered was that the Great Library was really the world’s first university. And what surprised me most was there were many small temples within the “campus” if you will, to the gods of Greece, Egypt, and Rome. The librarians of Alexandria were all taking part in mystery schools, learning yoga and metaphysics and meditation in addition to their scholarly pursuits. This is my one regret for the atheists of today: it really does take a belief in a higher power of some kind to access the realms of bliss and intuition that are available to the religious. Personally, I consider myself a Taoist, which is like what happens if an atheist has a spiritual awakening, or a Christian runs for her life…

Question: Are there nonfiction books you recommend for the casual reader who is interested in the Library or in Hypatia?

Answer: I highly recommend The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern Mind by Justin Pollard with Howard Reid. (All ancient historical films and TV shows, for instance HBO’s “Rome”, use Pollard’s UK-based research company. He’s a bit of a legend.) It wasn’t published until I was into my last six months of editorial on my manuscript, and it is the most extensive work of its kind on Alexandria. My copy is tea-stained and dog-eared and yellowed from so many misty mornings on my lap when I lived on the harbor. I didn’t want to make my novel too expository, so I left out information on people I found absolutely fascinating like Aristarchus who invented a heliocentric solar system model in 300 BCE and Eratosthenes who measured the circumference of the Earth around the same era. This was nearly a thousand years before the Dark Ages had us all thinking the world was flat. Can you imagine what was lost? It is a tragic historic loss, one that I might add is happening under our noses in modern day Iraq.

On Hypatia there are only two books of note, each recapitulating the other, but from adjacent perspectives. One is by Dzielska and the other by Deakin. If you are curious about early novels on her, there is one by Kingsley from the late 19th century. I am proud to have a first edition on my mantle. It’s a gorgeous book and one any book collector should keep an eye out for.

Question: What do you think of the modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina as a commemoration to the ancient Great Library of Alexandria?

Answer: I just want to run my fingers over the wall they built around the perimeter! It supposedly has script from every known language, dead or alive. The old city of Alexandria is lost beneath the harbor. The new city is something, well, new. I don’t feel much connection to the Alexandria of today, but I would love a tour of the new Great Library! (Did you know it already had a fire? True story…)

Thanks for the lovely questions!

Premier Virtual Author Book Tours

Thanks to K. Hollan Van Zandt for this beautiful interview! And thanks to her and Premier Virtual Author Book Tours for graciously agreeing to provide one e-copy of Written in the Ashes to a lucky reader of this blog. Comment below to be entered into the giveaway. I’ll select a winner at random on Friday, October 5, at 5pm, CDT.

Fine print for the drawing:
By clicking on the Post Comment button to enter the giveaway, each entrant agrees to the following terms and conditions:

  • I am 18 years old or older.
  • I understand my email and other information will not be shared or sold to a third party.
  • I understand my entry may be removed if I can not be reached by email within 24 hours of the drawing.
  • Void where prohibited by law.
  • No purchase is necessary to win.
  • Odds of winning are based on the number of entries.
  • Prize Value: currently $1.99 for the ebook on Amazon
  • This giveaway is sponsored by K. Hollan Van Zandt. K. Hollan Van Zandt is responsible for the delivery of prizes.



Interview: K. Hollan Van Zandt, Author of Written in the Ashes and Giveaway — 4 Comments

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