Recently I had the great opportunity to read and review author G.J. Berger’s B.R.A.G. Medallion and San Diego Book Award–winning novel, South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon. Today Berger joins us for a bit of chat.
Good day, G.J. Berger, so awesome to have you here with us today! Hope you’ve been enjoying the sun in your neck of the woods—ours has returned since some weeks but the warmth to go with it is just now making itself more apparent.
Your bio mentions your mom telling you, when you were eight, the story of Hannibal’s Alps crossing—with a great army and elephants, no less! Is this a bit of history she occasionally returned to, or was this a one-time story that gripped your imagination?
For reasons I can’t fully explain, her story of Hannibal did grip hold and would not let go. She told me many stories, but none remained so vivid. At that time my single mom, with me in tow, was so poor that some nights we would have slept in her car. Except she did not own a car. But she was well educated, had lost everything several times in WWII, divorced my dad, and fled war-torn Germany for Australia. There and later in the US, she cleaned houses and watched the children of others to survive. After our work was done (I learned to dry dishes very well, washed cars, did yard work) and with no TV or Internet, we took walks or just talked. It was in these moments that she would tell me stories out of her extended family or out of deeper history.
What do you think could be amongst effective ways for families to get back into storytelling—historical events, family lore or other verbal tales that could spark young (or old!) imaginations?
I suppose they have to start by being families again from an early age, not just a collection of beings living in the same home and interacting once in a while in between all the other activities of their lives. Whenever a group of adults and youngsters gets away from modern trappings—say on a boat trip, an extended car trip, a place where the Internet is not pervasive—they tend to discover each other again, and stories about their lives or the lives of others naturally start spilling out. When our kids were of that age, we set aside regular family meeting time, and any member could ask for a family meeting. Pretty soon every member understood that these meetings helped us all understand and cope. Building little stories into such family meetings could really work well.
When did you first go to Celtic Spain and what brought you there? Did you go back more than once for research? What kinds of sites (or sights) did you see?
In my late teens I shipped out on a tramp steam ship. Its route was from NYC to Europe, around the Mediterranean, and back to NYC. That was my first “conscious” visit to ancient sites in Spain. Virginia and I went again in 2009 with the express purpose of roaming around some of the locales of South of Burnt Rocks. Spain has reconstructed or preserved a variety of structures from the time of Hannibal and Lavena, the main character of Burnt Rocks.
In a cold wind of February, we traipsed around the old stone fort above Sagunt (Sagunto), so central to the story. We ducked around the reconstructed Celtic city of Numancia and there explored a house that might have been similar to the one Lavena grew up in. We traveled through several mountain ranges in Spain. In Europe, only Switzerland has more mountain terrain. We visited small museums of the Celtic Iberians as well as the city of Cartagena, the staging area for Hannibal’s great army.
In terms of world building within your books, has any of it been inspired by ruins you’ve visited? Did you see any locations and get visual ideas that moved you forward?
In the Google age, it seems everything an author needs is at one’s finger tips. Not so. Before we left on that more recent trip, I Googled the reconstructed city of Numancia. The actual site was so different—the air, she sky, the wider terrain, the scale of things large and small, the vegetation can’t be conveyed on a computer screen. The fort above Sagunto is both massive and had multiple parts—some built by the locals, then by Hannibal, then Romans, and later the Moors. Cacti protect the sloping ground below the walls—and don’t register on a computer screen search. The confidence of having been there makes the writing more secure, makes for details that put the reader there.
How much information had you gathered before you had a rough plotline for South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon?
Ah, this is a bit out of the box. South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon was my second completed manuscript of that time and place. So I already knew the history pretty well and used the history as the plot outline. Authors who write about true history don’t have to struggle about the larger plot lines—but they had better be careful to get it all correct.
What was your favorite chapter in the book to write? Which one was most difficult? What made each so?
Close call, but the one I turn to most often when others ask for my favorite is “First Strikes.” This chapter echoes detailed lessons learned by Lavena while training years before as a young girl to become a “she-warrior,” lessons that confound Roman brutes who would appear to have the better of her.
“Thunder Down From Mountains” was the most difficult. It contains fierce action carried out by several men and women and is also terribly sad. It ends Part I, setting the stage for Part II. If this chapter did not work, the rest of the story would not work either. I rewrote this one more than any other.
How do you develop your “fictional fictional” characters? That is to say, those other than who actually existed and were assigned biographical details in your novel—for example, the young Lavena and the Roman soldier who follows her?
At the time I started this novel, another novel had just been taken on by a New York agent who sent the earlier one out to publishers. She asked me about what I was working on next. I pitched about five ideas. She and I both settled on this one, but she asked me to ditch my proposed main character—an old Celtic warrior dying after battling Romans—and make the main character a woman. After about five beats, cocky me said, “I can do that.” I decided in that moment to make the main character the old fighter’s youngest daughter.
The Roman scout popped in for the first time after I had finished Part I. My writing muse told me Part II needed a Roman point of view, and a Roman scout seemed right.
How would you describe your style of writing?
I’ve been told there are two basic ways to write fiction. Outline everything in great detail and then fill in the rest, or let the first word push the next, the first sentence push the next sentence until done. I believe I use the second method more than the first, but I don’t start until I have a character I love, an opening place and time and some distant lights on the shore I want to get to.
Can you tell us a little about your next book? When should we expect it?
Ah, this one is easy. It just came out. Its title is Four Nails. It’s about Hannibal’s lead elephant driver and his great and glorious elephant. Here’s the link.
What books were your favorites when you were eight? Which would you consider as favorites now? Which books are currently on your night table?
Not sure when I was eight, not many books around where we lived then. But I loved comic books then, especially Mandrake the Magician, his love interest, Nada, and his helper, Lothar. They solved all sorts of problems in most interesting ways. A couple years later when I had access to a library, I inhaled books of adventure—Jack London, The Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy, whole series on figures out of history. One of my favorites was the Scottish collie story, Bob, Son of Battle.
My favorites now include The Book Thief, The Last of the Mohicans, and The Road. Dead Wake, a non-fiction book on the sinking of the Lusitania sits unfinished on my night stand.
Oh yes, graphic novels they call them—comic books—now. They were a bit controversial as they first began to evolve away from the more casual reading content. Nowadays they might have graphic novel versions of books such as the London and Dafoe stories. Do you object or see this as a constructive way to draw kids in larger numbers toward reading?
In my own early reading years, many novels had illustrations, not as many as a comic books or “graphic novel” but plenty enough for the young mind to get into the story very fast. Many non-fiction books use photos and illustrations today. I don’t see any reason (except cost) why fiction works usually only have a cover and perhaps a chart or map on the inside cover.
What would you say to a kid-friendly version of South of Burnt Rocks produced in graphic novel form?
I’m all for it, though I think I lean to a version with illustrations rather than solid comic book panels.
That would be fantastic! Looking back at your novel in its original form: Suppose the mother of an eight-year-old today had told her child the general plot of the South of Burnt Rocks story—the focus being on the historical and of course leaving certain portions for later years—and the child was fascinated by it, much the same way you were with the story your mom told you that led to this book being written. What would you tell this youngster?
Honey, a week from now, tell me about the Celts. Where they came from, where they went, what became of them. And tell me the name of the world city that contains a giant statue of a Lavena-like heroine who almost kicked the Romans out of the British Isles.
How about some getting-to-know-you a little apart from being a novelist~do you enjoy reading aloud to others?
I do enjoy reading aloud to others, but in this day and age, very few people of any age sit still long enough to be read to. If they do, they are likely to be staring into a hand-held device, or worried that they just missed a life-changing text message.
Are you a better cook or baker? What is your favorite dish to prepare?
Oh, dear, don’t let Virginia see this, please don’t. I make great scrambled eggs, learned how from an old cowboy who did it on the range in Wyoming most mornings. There are several tricks. I make a good goulash, and will passably barbecue about anything. For anything else, I’d have to put my face into the recipe.
What movie for you is a must-see-in-cinema film?
The Godfather—the first one.
Do you collect anything or pursue a particular hobby? If so, how did you get going with it?
I used to collect stamps somewhat seriously, started from having traveled so many places at a young age. Then one day the absurdity of the whole thing hit me, and almost overnight I decided to sell my collection and have never looked back. I think learning about people and places depicted on old stamps and understanding the little tweaks that created or destroyed value in collectible stamps pulled me in. But once I had a few nice ones, the whole thing lost its appeal.
Virginia and I have for decades been learning the Argentine Tango. Once hooked, no other dance comes close.
What’s your favorite board game?
Are you a dog or cat person? Sweet snacks or savory? Hardcopy books or e-reader?
Dog, but I greatly admire cats and wish I did not have allergies. Savory snacks. Hardcopy.
Is there anything else you’d like to add—related or completely random—that we haven’t discussed?
I am a lucky fellow that I have the time to write. It’s such a selfish undertaking. The writer must shut out all others, all other duties, all other thoughts for great chunks of time. I am lucky that I have writer friends who ask me to look at their work and react and who then come back for more. That part is almost as much fun as writing my own. Apart from family, my readers are my favorite people.
From my work with other writers, from my reviewing many other novels, I’ve learned that there are many interesting stories well told. Now, at last, the Internet allows those stories to find readers without obtaining permission from professionals toiling away in cubicles in office buildings in major cities. It’s a golden age for authors.
I like the way you put that—“without obtaining permission.” There are soooo many amazing stories to be told. Do you believe the more golden of this golden age is yet to come, that the popularity of indie authors will become much greater, almost mainstream? Mainstream, perhaps, in the numbers sense, but they could still be called indie because they retain creative rights and don’t have to seek that permission from someone in a secluded, posh office to tell a great story.
It’s of course hard to tell where the independent publishing world is going to be in the future, where traditional publishing is headed. It’s equally hard to tell whether the future will bring more or fewer readers. For the moment I’m content to let others figure that out and remain very glad my stories can get out to readers without someone else giving me and my stories that permission. The direct author-reader connection is wonderful.
Thank you ever so much for allowing us a glimpse into your world and getting to know you some more. It has been a pleasure and a privilege, and I hope we shall be meeting up again soon!
When G. J. was eight, his mom told him the story of Hannibal crossing the Alps with elephants and a great army. He asked her what happened to Hannibal after that. Mom didn’t know, but he was hooked, had to find out, had to write about it.
G. J. spent much of his young life on the road and at sea, often working as a crew member on a tramp steamer. Wherever his travels took him, old walls, canals, even storage holes deep in the ground, made him wonder about how they got there, about the people who built them, how they lived and got along. The result is this and two other novels wherein the places, the history, even some of the Burnt Rocks characters do and did exist.
When not writing, G. J. tries to roam around the places he writes about, likes to sit and soak up the times back then and bring them to modern life in his stories. G. J. is convinced that for all the changes in last 2000 years, people loved and hated, suffered and rejoiced, destroyed and built the same ways then as they do today.
G. J. lives in San Diego with his favorite grammarian and English professor. They visit their two sons and grandson as often as the kids will have them.
Stay tuned for my review of Four Nails.
Images courtesy G.J. Berger except when otherwise indicated.