An Interview with Robert Cochran
You previously worked for a variety of television shows, including the Fox hit 24. What is it that made you decide to write a novel?
Actually, I’d originally intended to write The Sword and the Dagger as a film script, but I soon realized that the scope of the story was too broad to be compressed into a two-hour format. So I decided to try it as a novel, which certainly did provide more opportunities to explore the characters, incidents and settings of the story that I wanted to tell.
How does writing a novel geared toward young adults differ from writing for an adult audience?
In some ways, there’s not as much difference as you might think. All adults, of whatever age, are interested in the same fundamental things: love, relationships, loyalty, courage, family, a person’s place in society, how to find purpose and meaning in life, and so forth. Such themes are of universal concern to all human beings of whatever age. A story geared for young adults may tend to delve into such themes slightly less deeply than works targeted at an older audience, and of course scenes involving violence or sexuality are presented in less detail in works intended for younger readers. Violence and sexuality aren’t ignored by any means, but their description is less graphic. I’d point out that there are many books and movies intended for young adults that older adults enjoy just as much, and vice-versa.
Princess Elaine is written as a strong, determined young woman despite the limits society has placed on her. Why is that type of character important for young readers?
I’ve always loved history, and while in most periods and most places men have tended to monopolize positions of power and control, there have always been women who, through great talent or great determination, manage to break through the barriers and make their mark. The more examples of such women that literature can provide, whether fiction or nonfiction, the better! And it’s important for men, as well as women, to see and internalize those examples. Hopefully, this will contribute to the forming of a society that provides opportunities for all women, and not just the exceptional few, to succeed and prosper equally with men.
This book is a work of historical fiction set 800 years ago, but what are some themes that still resonate in this day and age?
One theme, already mentioned above, is that of a strong woman trying to find, or create, her place in a world dominated by men. A second is the conflict between personal desire and duty — between what our heart wants, and what society or family expects or demands of us; all three major characters struggle with this conflict in the course of the novel. A third theme is how cultural or religious differences that divide people can be overcome by friendship, even (or especially) friendship that’s forged in the face of great danger and hardship.
A variety of settings are mentioned in the book, including the Mediterranean and what is now the areas that make up Iraq and Syria. What drew you to write about these places?
One thing you learn from studying history is the truth of William Faulkner’s assertion: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” What we call the Middle East has always fascinated me — it’s a region of such intense cultural, political, and religious conflict. And those conflicts have been going on, in one form or another, for centuries. Leaders — even empires — come and go, national boundaries change and, of course, technology changes, but in many ways, the underlying issues have remained remarkably constant. I found it very interesting to explore some of those issues through a “long lens” looking back 800 years, and through the eyes of three very different characters who would seem familiar to modern readers in some ways, and unfamiliar in others.
What advice would you pass along to other writers?
There are lots of books, websites, blogs, etc., that tell you how to write novels (and screenplays as well); many of them contain useful advice which is worth paying attention to. But in the end, there’s no recipe for good storytelling, whatever the format. It’s not like baking a cake, where if you follow the instructions closely, you can be pretty sure of having something edible. You can do everything “right” as a writer, and still your work just sits there. Techniques are good and useful, but when you’re actually writing, I’d suggest putting them in the back of your mind and concentrating instead on finding what I think of as the “sweet spot” of writing: that place where you’re writing from inside the story. You seem to be watching and listening to the characters as they live their lives, rather than standing outside the story, making it up. Of course, that’s an illusion, you are making it up — but the best writing happens when the characters feel more like people you know, and less like people you’re creating.
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