Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Interview with: William Doonan

Yesterday you got a chance to learn a little more about William Doonan. Today, William was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions for me. Read on to get to know more about his books and his writing. 

1. I assume your inspiration for "American Caliphate" comes from your own work on Moche excavations. Please correct me if I'm wrong. Otherwise, can you tell us more about your work? 

Yes, I'm a field archaeologist.  I teach archaeology and anthropology, but I've spent years working on excavations.  I've worked primarily in Central America, focussing on Costa Rica and Honduras.  I did my dissertation on the excavations of a Maya palace complex at Copan in western Honduras. 

More recently I moved on to a pyramid complex on the north coast of Peru where a culture called Moche built mud brick pyramids up until about A.D. 800.  Because it almost never rains on the north coast, we get incredible preservation, even mummies!  But mostly, we're trying to make sense of the Moche culture, figure out what they were about, and then ultimately, what happened to them.

2. Your novel opens by introducing three different story lines, two in current history, and one in 16th century Spain. How did you decide which story line to open with? 

Funny you should ask!  Originally I planned to open the novel with the second chapter, the one set in Spain in 1542.  It functions more or less like a prologue, and it's probably my favorite chapter in the book, partly because I spent so much time with it.  I had to be really careful to get the tone right, and to make sure I wasn't making any anachronistic mistakes, like having my characters ride bikes or send text messages. 

But I had an agent at the time who cautioned me against using that chapter to open the novel.  Her concern was that a reader might think the whole book was going to be historical fiction, and then they might either put it down, or get disappointed when they got to the next chapter.

So ultimately, because most of the action takes place in the present, I went with the current story lines and then snuck that historical chapter in when nobody was looking.

3. As Ben approaches Jila with the idea or joining the excavation in Peru, she questions the safety of the idea. What kinds of dangers would be present at a site like this in real life? 

Per has had some lingering public safety issues ever since the guerilla movements of the 1980s and 1990s were largely disbanded.  I was on site with a small team in 2005.  That summer, there were three other excavation teams working on the north coast.  Two got sick with typhus, and the other was robbed at gunpoint of their cameras and their computers.

So the biggest concerns for me and my group were health and safety.  We worked with people we trusted.  We made sure our cook bought food tthat was more expensive than she otherwise would have in hopes of staying healthy (which we mostly did).  And we were really careful about moving around.

I did payroll for our local excavators.  So every week I'd have to pay out the salaries, all in cash.  And the nearest bank was about an hour away.  So I made sure that I never moved around at the same time.  I never told anyone when they were getting paid.  Sometimes it happened a couple of days early, but I never got any complaints about that.  And we made sure everyone understood that you don't wander around by yourself, and by all means, don't be flashy.

4. Tomas and Diego Ibanez live in 16th century Spain, keeping their Muslim faith a secret. Is the atmosphere of intolerance you describe in the book an accurate picture of how Muslims were treated at the time? 

I think so.  I did a lot of research into this time period because it fascinates me.  Two summers ago, I spent some time in Seville, Spain, where I had an investigator license at the Archive of the Indies, which is the repository for all the documents of the Council of the Indies which was the administrative body that Spain used to manage the affairs of Empire.

Because the Spanish government wanted tight control of the Americas, nobody was allowed to travel there without a license from the Council.  Muslims were prohibited from sailing across the Atlantic, but then again, there were no longer any Muslims in Spain officially. 

When Queen Isabella completed her Reconquista (reconquest), she finally defeated the Moors, the Muslims of southern Spain.  Non-Christians were not especially welcome.  The Jews were expelled, and ultimately the Muslims were forced to convert or to leave.  Of course many were quite wealthy, had been living in Spain for centuries, and were unwilling to do either.  So they worshipped in secret.
5. The third story line, one that involves the CIA, steps in on the excavation of the Moche pyramid. In your field work how often does law enforcement (of any kind) get involved with an archaeological dig? And for what reasons might they become involved? 

I would say that law enforcement very rarely gets involved.  We have to be a little bit careful because in the process of excavating pyramids, it's not uncommon to find pottery, sometimes very valuable pottery.  Sometimes too, gold and other precious metals.  As such, guards are always present, day and night.  You won't see them unless you really pay attention, but they're there.  Keep in mind too that we're walking around with computers, cameras, transits, radar batons, and GameBoys.  So we have to be careful.

That being said, we are licensed to be there, and certified by both the Ministry of Culture, and local shamans who have to meet with us to assure themselves that we will be respectful of their ancestors. 

6. Bringing together two faiths, Muslim and Christian, in this book must have been a challenge. How did you approach writing about each religion's view point? 

I think I started with the premise that these were men and women of a certain time.  Their sensibilities and motivations were different than our own, but from my readings and my work at the Archive, I got the sense that both Muslims and Christians were sincere in their beliefs.  I suspect there was a lot more interfaith tolerance in the colonial Americas than there is in some parts of the Americas today.

7. The archaeologists face dangers from many sources, but one the it probably common to many dig sites is weather. How does the predicted El Nino storm complicate their work? 

El Nino is so rare that it's not a huge concern.  Also, being a college professor, I have to teach during the year, so the only opportunities I have to excavate are in the summer, which is of course the winter in South America, and the weather is quite nice.

When I worked in Honduras, we had to pack it all in at about the end of May when the rainy season began.  The Maya built their pyramids and palaces out of stone, and you can't excavate stone buildings in the rain because it's too dangerous.  Something could shift.

8. Who are you favorite authors? 

Elmore Leonard - I think he's the best living writer.  I like the Venetian mysteries that Donna Leon writes.  Scott Turow is great.  Joe Konrath is outrageous.

9. Do you have any interesting habits or rituals when you write? 

I have two sons, age 6 and 4, so most of my interesting habits involve getting up to fetch socks or juice boxes.  But I do push myself.  I write almost every day, and I have a bunch of projects going at once, so if I get hung up with one, I move on to something else.

10. Can you tell us about your first novel, "Grave Passage," and any future projects you might be working on? 

I've spent most of the last twelve summers lecturing on cruise ships for at least two to three weeks at a pop, so I've gotten to visit some fantastic places, but I've also learned a lot about cruise ships, and cruise ship culture.  And because every cruise I've ever been on has been filled with people sitting around the pool reading mysteries, I decided to write a mystery just for them.

So I figured I'd need a protagonist who fits right in, so I made him 84 years old.  All cruise ships have security teams, but technically if they're in international waters, jurisdiction is unclear, so that's where my guy comes in - Henry Grave is a detective who investigates crimes on cruise ships.  And yes, crimes happen on cruise ships.  Grave Passage was published in 2009, Mediterranean Grave in 2011, and the third installment, Grave Indulgence will be out this July.

12 million people take a cruise each year.
Most have fun.
Some die.
Henry Grave investigates.


Thanks so much to William for telling us more about his books and his writing and life. Don't forget to get your copy of this fascinating book from Amazon in either Kindle or Paperback


  1. It really is a great novel. I've read it and love it.

    --John Brantingham

  2. Thanks, John. I appreciate your taking the time to read it, as well as to like it.


  3. Bill, This is one of the most fascinating interviews I've read. Honestly. Your replies to some excellent questions were as good as reading a book. I can't wait to read the next installment on this site.

    Marja McGraw

  4. Wow! Thanks, Marja. Glad you're enjoying the interview. DelSheree threw some great questions at me.


  5. Three storylines? That must have been a challenge. I didn't realize your book was so complex. I must check it out! Thanks for the interview.

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  7. William I always thought the life of an archaeologist was romantic, hard work and fulfilling;two out of three ain't so bad. I love reading about your excursions. Thank you for including us in this interview. Augie

  8. This was a great interview, William! I have a longstanding interest in the colonial history of Central America; and while I don't know nearly as much about Peru, I've always thought pre-Columbian Peru would be an exceptionally rich setting for a novel. Great stuff here. Your work sounds very interesting, and I look forward to reading it.

  9. Just finished this fantastic book while in transit on a bus from southern Thailand towards the Burmese border...couldn't put the book down! A 'former' archaeologist, I could really relate to the apt descriptions of doing field work--minus the automatic weapons...excellent read, and I hope it reaches a wide audience!

  10. This book blew my socks off when the manuscript came across my acquisitions desk. Billie Johnson, publisher at Oak Tree Press, was also stunned. We're very proud of the book and the author. Great interview!

  11. You're right, Karin, pre-Columbian Peru is fascinating. And the archaeology is mind-blowing. I had no idea there were so many pyramids in South America.

    Christopher, I'm glad you enjoyed the book. I hope you enjoy Burma. If it comes to it, feel free to trade the book for food or supplies. I share your hope that it will reach a wide audience.

    Sunny, many thanks, as always. Now I have to write the next one! A sequel?