At first, I thought he was going to be a pornographer. I’d received a scholarship to attend a writers’ conference in Napa Valley and had a cheap flight to San Francisco, but I still had no ride from the airport to the conference, a two-hour drive away. Along came the possibility of help: a guy named Michael Lukas emailed the list of conference attendants, saying that he would be driving from Oakland and could give a ride to anyone who needed it. I wrote back, introduced myself, and got a spot in his car.
Then, like any reasonable person, I quickly Google-stalked him. So quickly, in fact, that I slightly misspelled his name—searching for Michael Lucas instead of Michael Lukas—and got, for my first few hits, the president of a gay adult-film company whom New York Magazine had crowned as the “Porn King of New York.”
Well, I thought, either I was in for an interesting couple of hours or my ride-giver had a name double. As it turned out, both conjectures were correct: I had an enjoyable couple of hours getting to know Michael Lukas, and, a couple of years later, when Michael sold his first book, he decided to publish it under his full name, Michael David Lukas, in part to avoid accidental conflation with his quasi-doppelgänger. The novel, The Oracle of Stamboul, is enchanting: an alternate history in which a brilliant girl, Eleonora, gains the confidence of the Ottoman sultan and changes the empire.
Recently, Michael and I talked, this time about alcohol-fueled Rotary meetings in Tunisia, the depiction of consciousness, the problems of promoting cultural understanding between the United States and the Arab world, a magical trunk, the Porn King’s take on Blue Steel, Oulipian exercises, and what it’s like to start a novel over six times.
The Rumpus: You started writing The Oracle of Stamboul while living in Tunisia for a year. What do you make of the current political situation there?
Michael David Lukas: It’s pretty remarkable and, I think, cause for some hope in a region that’s had its share of difficult times. It’s especially amazing given that the political culture in Tunisia—as opposed to Egypt or Lebanon—has historically been pretty repressed. I remember walking down the street with a Tunisian friend and pointing out a poster of the then-president, Ben Ali, that I hadn’t seen before. (The streets were plastered with posters of him, but they were usually one of two or three official portraits, and this one was a more casual shot.) My friend didn’t respond and so I repeated myself, thinking that he didn’t hear or that my Arabic was wrong. After I repeated myself he grabbed me by the collar and hissed in my ear: “We don’t talk about that in public.”
Rumpus: You’ve said that, while in Tunisia, you retreated into a trunk of books you’d brought with you, and that this trunk in turn helped inspire your book. A trunk of books sounds pretty magical. Can you tell me more about these books—what books you’d brought, and why?
Lukas: I still have that trunk. It’s a beat-up brown footlocker—the kind of thing you might bring with you to summer camp, though I bought it originally to store my baseball card collection. When I was packing for Tunisia, I needed something to haul all the books I wanted to bring with me, and this trunk seemed like the perfect vehicle. It had a sort of “grand tour” romance and it was invested with all this sentimental value from the baseball cards. Choosing the books was pretty easy. I wanted to fill in the holes that came from attending two schools (Brown University and Berkeley High School) that don’t particularly value the canon, and to start exploring those old European men who all my teachers were suggesting I read. So, on the one hand I had a bunch of Library of America volumes (Steinbeck, Twain, O’Connor, Baldwin, Nabokov, Emerson) and on the other hand I had Calvino, Saramago, and Grass. While I love the Americans I read in Tunisia, it was the Europeans who really impacted my writing.
Rumpus: What was it about the Europeans in particular that got to you?
Lukas: That mixture of history and magic, the idea that one person or a single act can alter the course of history. Whether it’s the proofreader who alters history in Saramago’s The History of the Siege of Lisbon, Oskar Matzerath in The Tin Drum, or Saleem in Midnight’s Children, that idea really got under my skin. If I wanted to analyze my attraction to the idea, I might say that I was feeling frustrated in my attempts to “promote cultural understanding between the US and the Arab World,” which is officially what I was doing in Tunisia, and the idea of being able to magically change the course of history became really appealing to me. Plus, there is something about the voice of those writers—Grass, Calvino, Saramago—a certain wise detachment, that is almost entirely absent from American literature. The only writer I can think of with a similar voice is William Maxwell.
Rumpus: That sounds like an outsized mission, promoting cultural understanding between the US and the Arab world. How were you supposed to do that? Did you give talks, or was it something more vague—you would go out to bars and act decorously, in a non-American, non-drunken way?
Lukas: Especially at the beginning of the Iraq War! The larger idea was that I was going to learn Arabic then spend my life translating Arabic literature into English, which I still hope one day to do. But, while I was in Tunisia, I realized two things: 1) there are thousands of Arabic-speakers who also know English fluently and might be better qualified than me to translate Arabic literature into English, and 2) Arabic is really, really hard. I’d studied Arabic for three years before even going to Tunisia and it was only at the end of my year there that I started feeling comfortable reading the newspaper. Besides learning Arabic, my promotion of cultural understanding mainly involved going to Tunisian Rotary club meetings, which are really different than American Rotary club meetings. In America, Rotary club meetings usually involve a hotel ballroom and the pledge of allegiance; in Tunisia they more often involve crazily overpriced whiskey and lots of smoking. So, actually, drinking became a large part of my mission on the ground.
Rumpus: So you did have to be decorous while drinking. I was living abroad during the first year of the Iraq war, too, and I remember feeling a little resentful at how often I was called to speak on behalf of America. I kept explaining that I’d voted for the other guy, and, yes, I was angry, too. Did you come across any particular hostility that year because you were an American?
Lukas: People definitely told me what they thought about Bush and America’s foreign policy, sometimes in a pretty aggressive way. But they were always careful to say that they understood the difference between the people and the government. The only times I got really uncomfortable was when people would start with the conspiracy theories (which were often pretty anti-Semitic). The worst moment, in that respect, actually came drinking shots of vodka with a Czech flight attendant who was friends with my roommate. He didn’t know I am Jewish and, after a few shots, started going off in a really vile way.
Rumpus: You know, there’s something wonderful about the fact that, while feeling powerless in Tunisia and reading a lot, you first started to develop your novel’s main character, Eleonora, who’s set to change the course of history in part by—reading a lot. That was something that moved me about The Oracle of Stamboul, Eleonora’s enormous, literal faith in the power of books. It’s how she comes to the decision to stow away, how she figures out how to answer the sultan. Why do you think Eleonora immediately puts so much of her trust in what books can tell her?
Lukas: I always thought of Eleonora as a character who sees the world almost entirely through the lens of literature, like Don Quixote or Madame Bovary, except that Eleonora’s trust in literature is a strength, not a flaw. But I never realized that she might have some connection to my own reading when I was in Tunisia. I like that.
Rumpus: The novel that means most to Eleonora is one you made up. Why’d you make her favorite book one that doesn’t exist outside of The Oracle of Stamboul?
Lukas: There’s something really magical about a piece of art that exists only within a piece of art. Works like that have a magic hologram quality to them, which is fun in a Borgesian/Escherian kind of way. It’s also about as close as a work of art can come to perfection, existing only as a reflection of something else.
Rumpus: Then a work still only exists in its ideal state, by not existing yet.
Lukas: Ideal and yet it lives outside the author’s mind. In a way it’s kind of like that movie Inception.
Rumpus: I enjoyed the blog post you wrote for the Virginia Quarterly Review, explaining why you were publishing your novel under your full name, including your middle name: “I decided to add the David, in part, because I think it sounds good, because it will help me stand out from the crowd if my name ever gets on the side of a book. The second, and admittedly more important, reason is a certain very well known gay porn producer by the name of Michael Lucas,” the “Porn King of New York.” The Porn King then commented on your post, apologizing for any troubles he’s caused you. What do you think—in a world with an ever-growing population and ever more name doubles, is there going to be less of a chance for one person to stand out, let alone change the course of history?
Lukas: I think it might be harder to stand out on the internet, but the odds of changing the course of history are probably about the same. In that respect, I think Michael Lucas, the Porn King of New York, has a pretty major leg up on me. Not to mention his abs, and a Blue Steel look that would make Ben Stiller blush.
Rumpus: Oh, now I need to go Google him again. As for changing history, there are some obvious parallels between the declining Ottoman Empire and the U.S. now: two overburdened, overstretched empires that are running low on funds. Were you incorporating these parallels from the start, or did they come upon you as wrote?
Lukas: I wanted to write about the end of empire, so in that respect I was incorporating it from the start. But I didn’t realize how many similarities there are until I finished the book. It’s pretty frightening to think about how much of our debt is owned by foreign governments. But at the end of the day, I could live with the United States being the France or England of the 21st century. What’s really scary to think about is the brutal ethnic violence and nationalist jingoism at the very end of the Ottoman Empire, after The Oracle of Stamboul takes place. It’s frighteningly easy to imagine a situation like that happening here.
Rumpus: That’s part of what alarms me about Sarah Palin—I know a lot of people still think she’s an improbable fringe figure and that she could never be president. But people initially thought Nazis were improbable. You’ve lived in Turkey before, right? Or were you visiting?
Lukas: I lived in Ankara for a year, teaching English to future English teachers.
Rumpus: Do you speak Turkish?
Lukas: My restaurant Turkish is really good. I can order just about anything and give my compliments to the chef in a number of different ways, but that is about the extent of my Turkish knowledge.
Rumpus: That’s the most important kind. Especially the compliments.
Lukas: When a meal was really amazing you tell the chef, “Health to your hands.”
Rumpus: Health to your hands. Writers could say that to one another. You went through six drafts and five years of your novel, starting over each time, which sounds both painful and heroic. What was that like?
Lukas: It was pretty brutal at times, and there were definitely some dark nights of the writer’s soul. But in the end I think it was the best process for me. Being able to start from scratch actually saved me a lot of time, or at least that’s what I tell myself, and the book is much better for it I think. Hopefully, the next book will involve fewer drafts.
Rumpus: Can we talk about despair, and those dark nights? Were there low points during draft four, draft five, when you thought, dear God, let me not be crazy? If so, what did you to combat the am-I-crazies?
Lukas: I definitely succumbed to the am-I-crazies more than once. In the middle of draft four, I put the whole writing thing on the back burner to pursue a career in socially responsible business. But then after about a month of that I realized I was really unhappy and forced myself to get up at 5:30 AM to write before work. By the time the am-I-crazies really set in, though, I was too deep to not finish. And I told myself that I would rather be someone who finished a novel and couldn’t sell it then someone who gave up. I was lucky to spend the last year of the writing process in Wisconsin, far away from anyone who knew how long I had been at it. My girlfriend knew, but she had her own dark nights of the grad student’s soul to contend with.
Rumpus: What’s it like debuting a novel in these uncertain times in publishing? (Though, sometimes, I feel as though, as far back as I can remember, I was hearing that publishing is in the middle of terribly uncertain times.)
Lukas: Although the times are uncertain, I feel confident that there will be a place for writers, and for physical books, and for independent bookstores, in the land of the future. And while I think it’s horrible that we only have (what is it?) two stand-alone newspaper book sections in this big country, we still have a very vibrant literary culture. From certain angles, the internet can look like an enormous book club.
Rumpus: The other day, I was reading a Harper’s review by Jonathan Dee in which he confessed to a prejudice against historical novels—not that he’s against reading them, but that he has trouble understanding why writers write them. Per Dee, “a novel is a document of consciousness, and since consciousness today is not precisely what it was when Woolf wrote, or Flaubert or Cervantes, the search for a form that reflects faithfully what it means to be alive in one’s own time…must constantly refresh its own terms.” I don’t fully agree with him, but I find myself wondering about the challenges of writing not only a historical novel, but a historical novel about a country in which you’ve lived a year, that existed and wrote in a language you for the most part don’t speak, from the point of view of an 8-year-old girl prodigy—it feels like a sort of Oulipian exercise in terms of the number of constraints you’d set for yourself. Did these challenges feel like challenges; or, conversely, were they freeing?
Lukas: I read that review and it really put me off. I think I just totally disagree with the idea that a novel is “a document of consciousness.” That’s one thing a novel can be, but to say that it’s the only thing is pretty narrow-minded in my book. I would counter that a novel is an exercise in imagination, and that distance—whether it be temporal, geographic, or whatever—from your main character helps free the imagination (in an Oulipian kind of way). What’s more, I would think it would be really stifling to try to write a novel that documents our current zeitgeist. And even a really successful novel of that nature, like The Privileges or Freedom, are inherently historical, just by virtue of the time it takes to write and publish them.
Rumpus: I believed in Eleonora in all her autodidact, stowaway, hoopoe-blessed, sultan-counseling ways. Do you think that, in your writing, you’ll keep pulling from worlds outside of your immediate experiences in terms of place and/or time?
Lukas: The next book, which I started working on a few months ago, is about the Jews of Cairo through the millennium. It’s kind of like Isaac Bashives Singer meets Dan Brown meets André Aciman and they all go smoke hooka together at Naguib Mahfouz’s favorite cafe. This new book does have a contemporary plot line, though (in addition to an 11th century one and a 19th century one), so I will have to brush up on my zeitgeist a little.
Michael David Lukas has been a Fulbright Scholar in Turkey, a night-shift proofreader in Tel Aviv, and a waiter at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont. A graduate of Brown University and the University of Maryland, he is a recipient of scholarships from the National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Summer Writers’ Institute, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and Elizabeth George Foundation. His writing has appeared in VQR, Slate, National Geographic Traveler, and Georgia Review.