We’re all looking for the next great detective to read about. And those of you who adore historical mysteries are always certainly searching for that unique detective to fill your reading hours. Well I found him. He’s Yaotl, an Aztec. That’s right. I said Aztec. A former priest, Yaotl is now a slave in Montezuma’s empire on the cusp of the Spanish invasion. But that would be the least of Yaotl’s problems. He seems to get himself embroiled in the strangest problems. And, of course, murder.
Today we are talking to the author of Yaotl and his world, Simon Levack, who put us in Yaotl’s first outing in Demon of the Air.
Simon Levack grew up in a small town in England. He trained as a lawyer and practiced as a solicitor for twelve years. He has also been at various times a laborer, a bookseller and an author as well as doing meaningless work in offices. His passion for the history and peoples of pre-conquest Mexico was first kindled by reading Inga Clendinnen's classic study Aztecs: an Interpretation. A real-life mystery prompted him to write his first novel, Demon of the Air, which won the Crime Writers' Association's Debut Dagger Award. Since then his books and short stories have been published on both sides of the Atlantic and in three languages. He lives in London with his family.
Tell us a little about your background, Simon.
There's only a little to tell. I'm in my early forties, married with one son, and at the moment I live in London. I trained as a solicitor and besides practising law I've held a number of jobs connected with the legal profession, as well as dabbling in a few other things and a couple of spells of writing full-time. The common thread in almost all my occupations has been the written word. I remember once sitting in my office and thinking that if all the words I wrote in the course of my job were fiction I'd be writing about three books a year!
What got you interested in the Aztecs?
About 15 years ago, by chance, I came across a book by Inga Clendinnen entitled "Aztecs - an Interpretation" and was completely intrigued. Aztec culture was so utterly different from what we're used to that nobody could have made it up. With their richly-textured, many-layered mythology, unique art forms, and strange but smoothly functioning society, the Aztecs presented me with something unlike anything I'd ever read about, even in science fiction - theirs was a bizarre world in some ways but also very human. I wanted to learn more about these people and what became of them, and I suppose after a while it became something of an obsession.
What gave you the idea to set a mystery in that timeframe?
I was inspired by a real-life mystery. When the Aztec Emperor, Montezuma, started getting reports of strange pale-faced bearded men appearing in the East, he consulted sorcerers in an attempt to find out who they were. He had the sorcerers locked up when they didn't give him the answers he was looking for. However, when he sent for them again, they'd vanished from his own jail, as if by magic. He seems to have been genuinely baffled. I started wondering what might have happened to them, and Demon of the Air, my first book, was my attempt at an answer.
The easy thing about writing contemporary fiction, or even fiction set in Europe's middle ages, is that most everyone is already at least somewhat familiar with the culture, customs, and settings. But in your books, you have the unique problem of laying out a great deal of exposition for the reader, almost as much as a writer of science fiction. And yet, I felt you handled it with much skill and assurance. Tell us what problems you encountered with that. What did your editor wish for you to put in to make it clearer for the readers and what did he/she want you to take out?
I think science fiction and historical fiction have a lot in common, and I know a lot of people read both (as do I). The first problem is what to leave out: when I describe a scene in ancient Tenochtitlan, say, it's very tempting to try to put everything in, but it won't do - you have to limit yourself to the things that would impact on your character's awareness, and trust the reader to fill the rest in for herself. The other problem is to recognise that, while usually the last thing someone reading fiction wants is a lecture, there are occasions, maybe two or three in a book, when that's exactly what's required. It's at the point when so many questions are built up in the reader's mind that it's best just to answer them and move on. As for editors - in all fairness I've never had an editor ask me to take anything out in terms of historical detail. I have been asked for a paragraph or two here or there explaining the significance of a custom I've alluded to, which I've usually been happy to agree to.
I certainly understand how research can lead you into different paths in your plot—or give you ideas for new ones! What sorts of things did you discover in your research that made you rub your hands with glee?
The greatest discovery for me came when I obtained a copy of the General History of the Things of New Spain by Bernadino de Sahagun - better known as the Florentine Codex. Sahagun preserved as much as he could of Aztec history and culture in a remarkable twelve-volume encyclopedia which deals in astonishing detail with just about every aspect of Aztec life, compiled throughout from eyewitness accounts. For me it was like wandering into Aladdin's cave, and the plots of three of my books, not to mention many of the incidental details, arose out of what I found in there: the religious rituals in Demon of the Air, the featherworkers and psycho warriors in Shadow of the Lords and the midwives in Tribute of Death. I find knowing that what I write is rooted firmly in the accounts of people who were alive at the time gives me a sense of security. For an example of a discovery that particularly excited me, though, I'd mention the research Jerome Offner did into Aztec courts, which gave me an opportunity to write a courtroom drama - which I made the most of in City of Spies.
The religion of the Aztecs is brutal to modern, Eurocentric eyes, yet I wasn't long into the story when I accepted it. It is certainly an aspect of the culture that one could not shy away from. In fact, it is an important plot point in your first book. What were some of the challenges in presenting this work to readers? Did you have trouble with marketing because of it? Or was it never an issue (there are certainly more graphic serial killer books out there)?
I certainly had trouble with marketing (of which more later)! But whether this was because of the religion of my characters or the way I portrayed it, I don't know - the reviews suggest not, and as you say, there are more bloodthirsty contemporary thrillers aplenty. And of course Western societies have more than once proved themselves capable of appalling brutality on a scale the Aztecs could never have contemplated. The challenge in presenting their culture fairly is to try to get the reader to see the Aztecs as they saw themselves, not as we'd like to imagine them. As you say one cannot shy away from their religion, which pervaded everything they did, from eating and washing to sacrificing captives to the war god. What I tried to do in Demon of the Air was to confront this head on: I opened the book with a human sacrifice, and then explained the reasons for it. I wanted to show that there was a consistent world view which underpinned their practices, the fragile pact between humans and gods. Incidentally that's the only actual human sacrifice depicted in any of my books to date - most of my treatment of Aztec religion has dealt with the impact it had on their day-to-day lives, and there is much there that is beautiful and anything but brutal: the hymns, the delicate sniffing at the petals of flowers and the dough figurines in Shadow of the Lords, for example.
I was struck by how you achieved a truly realistic culture and mores for the characters that inhabit your novels. Though their lifestyles are foreign to us they are wholly empathetic to contemporary readers. Are you a big believer in creating character biographies or are you a seat-of-your-pants type author? What were some of these "foreign" concepts that you really wanted to get across to readers?
I'm very much a seat-of-the-pants type author - I learn about my characters by writing about them until they develop their own voices and quirks of behaviour. I think they acquire more depth that way, though there is always a risk that they will do something unexpected and make me rewrite a chunk of the book (it's interesting to me that in none of my books has the villain turned out to be who I thought it was when I started writing). I think what I really wanted to get across to readers was the entirely different way in which Aztecs saw the world. We are used to drawing sharp distinctions between the natural and supernatural which for Aztecs simply didn't exist. The magical and the divine were for them as real as the mundane, and my characters are as likely to interpret an event as having a supernatural explanation as a rational one. One of the things I most like about Yaotl is that while he never dismisses unearthly explanations altogether, his priest's training has made him profoundly skeptical about them - though even sometimes mistakes clues for omens, or human acts for the work of gods or sorcerers.
Did you travel to Mexico for your research? If so, what did you come away with?
No, I've never been to Mexico. I wish I had! On the other hand, I suspect that in some ways not having been there hasn't been a handicap. The places I write about were completely destroyed hundreds of years ago, with even the landscape being transformed, and to see what's left of them now might not help.
Let's go back to the problem of world building. Every author of historical fiction is beset with this conundrum. A certain level of realism is required which means that a certain level of research is also required. The writing must be tempered in such a way that the author is not spewing facts willy nilly. After all, it's fiction not a dissertation. When is enough enough? Did you keep a cadre of critique readers to tell you when to pull back or to add more when something was in question?
Every historical writer dreads being told "Your research is showing!" I think the key to selecting what to put in and what to leave out is - most of the time, anyway - to look through your character's eyes and ask what he or she would have noticed, and to draw that out. For example, it might be the fact that the wicker screen in front of a doorway is pulled back or left shut - simply mentioning that is enough to tell the reader how Aztecs usually closed their doors. There are a lot of tricks like that which allow the reader to pick up a lot of information along the way without having to endure a lecture, and as long as you don't stray too far from your character's point of view, I find you can't go far wrong. My cadre of critique readers - apart from professionals like my agent - basically consists of my local writers' circle and that harshest of all my critics, Mrs Levack!
Yaotl is quite a different detective. He's an amateur sleuth, usually caught in the middle and forced by circumstances to solve murders to save the innocent. In the forties, he'd be played by Jimmy Stewart (though I don't picture him that tall). Has this kind of sleuth always appealed to you—the everyman caught in the middle? And who would play him if you had the casting duties?
I find it easier to sympathize with the amateur caught in the middle (and liable to get it wrong more often than not) than with the competent professional whose flaws, if he has any, are often only skin-deep. Perfect heroes are boring. Now, the casting question - would you believe I've never thought about that one until now? I agree Jimmy Stewart is too tall. I think Patrick Troughton might have been good. Offhand I can't think what well-known living actor would be suitable; but of course all the characters in my books ought really to be played by indigenous Americans.
In today's publishing market, there seems to be a narrow margin of success that an author must squeeze through. The second book in the series The Shadow of the Lords takes up where we left off in Demon of the Air. Those two were published by St. Martin's Press. The third, City of Spies, was published by Simon & Schuster, and the fourth Tribute of Death you self-published. Your first, Demon of the Air, was Britain's Debut Dagger Award-winner, and rightfully so. It was truly original and well-written. With so promising a start, what happened? Tell us about your trials and tribulations getting Yaotl in print and keeping him there.
I wish I knew what happened! Judging by the reviews they garnered on both sides of the Atlantic both Demon and Shadow should have done very well, but in fact sales of both have been patchy at best. But in reality nobody knows what makes one book succeed commercially and another fail. I suspect that if there is any one explanation it is perhaps that the setting of my stories is too strange for many readers, and that what I thought of as one of their strengths - the absence of any modern Western perspective - was actually seen by many potential readers as a turn-off. Whatever the reason, after City of Spies Simon & Schuster (my UK publishers) decided enough was enough and nobody else wanted to pick up the series part way through. I decided to publish Tribute myself as a print-on-demand title because the book had been written and thoroughly edited and I didn't want to disappoint those readers who were waiting for the next installment. Also I think it's worth mentioning here that the books have done well in their Spanish language editions. Demon and Shadow have appeared in Spain and Latin America (under the excruciating titles of Sangre Azteca and La Sombra de los Dioses respectively) and City of Spies will follow them, so I have some hope of selling Spanish translation rights to Tribute in due course.
Can you give us a brief blurb of each book?
DEMON OF THE AIR: Mexico, 1517: The Emperor Montezuma rules the known world. Daily canoes and trains of sweating bearers carry tribute to his island capital, Mexico-Tenochtitlan, while squadrons of ruthless warriors enforce his will. Gold, silver, cotton, jewels and precious feathers change hands in his markets. The temples run with the blood of human sacrifices. All seems well, but Montezuma is troubled. Mysterious strangers have appeared in the East. Are they men or gods? Visions and rumours disturb his dreams. The soothsayers he turns to for guidance give him only enigmatic answers and he knows he cannot trust his advisers - especially his Chief Minister, the unscrupulous Lord Feathered In Black. Yaotl, the Chief Minister's slave, is troubled too. He was ordered to escort a sacrificial victim up the steps of the Great Pyramid, but the victim ran amok, uttering a bizarre and sinister prophecy and leaping to his death before the War-God's priests could cut out his heart. Then he learns that the Emperor's soothsayers have vanished.
The Emperor scents a connection between these two events and orders Yaotl to find it - on pain of death if he fails. But it soon becomes clear that whatever the connection is, Yaotl's own master will stop at nothing, including murder, to keep it secret. To get to the truth will take all Yaotl's wits and will to survive. It will lead him into confrontations with the peril destined to overwhelm his whole world and with a monster from his own past - and into the hands of a sadistic killer
SHADOW OF THE LORDS: The Aztec capital is awash with fear and rumours. A strange figure has been seen running through the streets. A being with the face of a snake, his body covered with glittering green plumage: Quetzalcoatl - the Feathered Serpent. Is it an omen? Or is it the god himself, come to warn of impending disaster?
Yaotl, the Chief Minister’s slave, has more immediate matters to worry about than omens and portents. Engaged in a desperate search for his son, he’s on the run from his vengeful master, the all-powerful Lord Feathered-in-Black. If the Chief Minister catches him, Yaotl can expect a grisly fate.
Attempting to escape his master’s bloodthirsty warriors, Yaotl stumbles upon a dismembered, unrecognisable corpse. As he pieces together the clues to who the dead man was and how he died, Yaotl finds himself drawn into an affair of greed, jealousy and lust among the ancient, secretive society of the feather workers, the Aztecs’ foremost craftsmen. And, as he is to discover, the answers to those clues will provide the key to the search for his son. ~Before he can solve the mystery, Yaotl will need his wits about him simply to stay alive – for Lord Feathered-in-Black and his henchmen are never far away.
CITY OF SPIES: 1518. Tetzcoco: the second city of the Aztec realm, a bustling, cosmopolitan town, a city of poets, artists and legendary kings; but also a place torn by unrest, as rival claimants fight over the throne and spies and assassins stalk each other through the streets and marketplaces.
Here Yaotl comes, seeking refuge from the wrath of his master, the Aztec Chief Minister. Lord Feathered in Black has finally decided to rid himself of his disobedient slave, and will have him sacrificed in the most gruesome manner possible - provided he can catch him first.
Also here are Yaotl's former lover, Lily, and her untrustworthy father. They have a mission of their own to carry out: one that goes badly wrong, as it leads to the discovery of a corpse and Lily's arrest for murder. She will be executed unless she can prove her innocence. Yaotl is involved in a desperate race against time to find the evidence she needs.
The search for the truth will take Yaotl on a perilous quest through palace corridors and darkened streets. It will bring him face to face with the most powerful and enigmatic figures. And it will lead him into a lethal trap, laid for him by a pitiless and implacable enemy.
TRIBUTE OF DEATH: Summoned back to the Aztec capital, Mexico-Tenochtitlan, to confront an old enemy who is threatening his family, Yaotl learns of a tragedy. A friend's wife has died in childbirth. According to Aztec belief, her remains must be protected from warriors and sorcerers who would use it as a talisman, before her soul is transformed into a ferocious, man-hating demon.
When the body goes missing, along with one of the men guarding it, Yaotl gets the blame. Only by finding out for himself what has happened can he avert the bereaved husband's wrath. It does not take long to discover that there is more to the affair than meets the eye. An old associate of the dead woman's may not be all that he seems, and her family seems strangely reluctant to help Yaotl investigate him.
Yaotl has barely begun his enquiries before a series of violent deaths leaves him wondering whether he is hunting a thief – or a killer is hunting him.
To get to the truth and survive the brutal confrontation that lies in wait will test the wily slave to the limit. For this time, it seems, he has almost everyone against him.
What does the future hold for Yaotl? And you?
There are two Yaotl short stories coming up in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in the next couple of months: "One of Our Barbarians is Missing" and "Four Hundred Rabbits". I've just written another story and hopefully that will see the light of day eventually, and I expect I shall I write more. As for novels - at this stage I just don't know. I always intended the series to be a kind of worm's-eye view of the tumultuous events leading up to and surrounding the conquest (and utter destruction) of Aztec civilisation. There is a vast amount of material that I can draw on for Yaotl's continued adventures, if there is enough interest to make writing them worthwhile - but if there isn't then there may not be much more I can do about it, and I may have to move on to other projects. I've been working on and off on a series set in 18th Century India which I hope will be as exciting and fascinating as pre-columbian Mexico has been. One piece of good news, for me at least, is that from September next year I will (all being well) begin a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship, which is a scheme for placing authors in universities to aid students having problems with academic writing. So I will have the financial support I need to continue researching and writing fiction for a while yet.
Was there anything you would like to add that I did not ask?
May I point out that there are sample chapters from Demon of the Air and Tribute of Death on my website, www.simonlevack.com, as well as a complete short story? Apart from that I want to thank for a very thoughtful and penetrating interview.
And I want to thank you, too, Simon. See where research can lead you? I highly recommend this series. It's completely enthralling and a lot of fun, too!