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Q: Can you tell us a bit about The Amazing Voyage of Azzam?
A: The Amazing Voyage of Azzam chronicles the exploits of a 9th century mariner traveling the seven seas in search of adventure, fame and fortune, while also hoping to surpass the legacy of another, better known Arabian sailor. After rescuing a princess from the island of a monstrous tyrant, Azzam gets his chance for immortality, racing against a ruthless sorcerer to find a mysterious treasure linked to the Israelite ruler King Solomon. Along the way, he enlists the aid of a defiant slave girl Fatima, the daughter of an infamous conjuror, and they journey from Baghdad to Constantinople to North Africa, facing a menagerie of supernatural creatures to seize the ultimate prize--well, the ultimate prize if you are the sort to fancy conquering the world despite the risk of meeting a nasty end. That's all I can say without giving away surprises. Believe me, there are a few.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Amazing Voyage of Azzam?
A: It started as a writing exercise. I had always been interested in writing but was occupied by other concerns for a few years and wasn't able to pursue it seriously again until 1995. I can't remember why I settled upon an Arabian Nights story, but it may have had to do with the fact that when I would visit bookstores and glance over science fiction/fantasy book titles, they all seemed to be Dungeons & Dragons or Tolkien clones or Celtic world building. I wanted to do something different--and outside of the occasional movie or documentary there wasn't much Western exploration of Middle East culture and medieval history. There was a big gap between Disney's Aladdin and the Satanic Verses. It was originally going to be titled the Mystical Voyage of Sinbad, but I eventually concluded that I didn't want to practice my storytelling on a protagonist who had been in numerous adventures already, so I decided to make him an original. It really worked out for the best. Azzam is his own man, despite his desire to follow and outpace the footsteps of another. I tend to envision him as one part Errol Flynn and one part used car salesman. The plot follows the standard quest adventure formula--up to a point, but it wasn't until I researched the folklore and Arabian Nights literature in translation that I fine-tuned the storyline. And I had a lot of happy accidents along the way to completion about five years later.
Q: What was the most challenging aspect of writing the story?
A: There were a few, given the genre I was working in, and my own preferences in storytelling. Naming the title character was a particular challenge because I wanted it to be a memorable and timeless name, like Sinbad, Ali Baba or Aladdin. I think "Azzam" has that quality. Another challenge was coming up with the ultimate "Arabian " treasure for Azzam and friends to seek. Again I wanted it to be memorable and timeless. It had to fit into the canon of traditional legends and tales, and live up to the sense of foreboding generated about it. There is a good reason this treasure is "lost."
Also, I tend to devote the most time and effort to the dialogue--for me it has to read well and sound well, like dialogue in a play---and the traditional Arabian Nights stories have a strong literary heritage. They frequently quote from the Koran, Arabic poetry and proverbs. I used some authentic quotations, but I also had to invent my own wise little sayings like: "The cobra who always wears a swollen hood, may come to think his own tail an enemy." That was fun!
My approach to the entire work was as if the book had been gathering dust in a Middle Eastern ruin and I had found and translated it for contemporary readers. If you imagine all the stories concerning King Solomon as separate boxcars on a railroad track (i.e. his relationship with the Queen of Sheba, his magical seal-ring, his diamond mines, etc.), my goal was to insert another boxcar (the forgotten treasure) without derailing the train. I tried to be as respectful to the literary legacy as possible, without compromising its entertainment value. Azzam is a straight adventure story, but it should offer a little something for everyone.
I also found in writing it that I had to answer questions like: "if you were traveling through Northeast Africa circa 800 AD, what creatures from folklore might you encounter?" But that was a rather enjoyable challenge.