Monday, September 10, 2012

The Great Library of Alexandria Revisited: An Interview with K. Hollan Van Zandt

Last week I reviewed Written in the Ashes, a look back at one scenario covering the final destruction of the Library of Alexandria. Today I'm talking with the author, K. Hollan Van Zandt.


1) Please tell us about your book.

Written in the Ashes is the untold story of the events that led up to the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria, Egypt. It features the powerful women of the ancient world, including Hypatia, the first known female philosopher/scientist, and a small pagan resistance who were trying to save themselves, and all knowledge from annihilation. And there is a significant love triangle, of course!

2) You could have easily focused a book about the destruction of the last remnants of the Library of Alexandria around the philosopher Hypatia, such as was done in the recent film Agora. You went a slightly different route with the character of Hannah. Tell us a bit about why you choose that character focus.

(Laughs) I think I was raised on too much Disney to kill my protagonist. Besides, I wanted someone from outside of Alexandria for who the city and it’s wonders would be fresh and astonishing. I wanted an experience of heightened sensory beauty for the reader seeing the city from the eyes of a shepherd girl, not someone who was already central to the Great Library. Also, I could find a more drastic character arch in Hannah, and transformation interests me as a writer. Who are we, and how do we become who we become? – This is one of my central driving questions as a novelist.

3) What got you interested in the Library of Alexandria?

I dated an Egyptologist, and we had a lot of interesting arguments about history.

4) The history of Alexandria and the Library from around that time is spotty. What sort of research underlies your work? There are various accounts separated by decent spans on time on the final fate of the Library and its holdings.

History may be the bones of my book, but myth is its blood. I did all my research from original source material in university libraries, but even sources diverge when it comes to Egypt. This left me plenty of room to play as a novelist, and I ultimately went with the most exciting story to tell. (I wanted a big fire. I interviewed a lot of firemen.) So there was that. But also, the librarians of the Great Library are well-documented up to Hypatia, and she is the last known librarian. So it seemed obvious to me that the library ended with her. It was a hypothesis I was never able to completely disprove in my research, so I ran with that thread. All information after the early fourth century was controlled by Christian scribes, and as we know, history is written by the victors. What really happened? Read the book and decide...

5) Is there anything you learn about this period you learned during your research that surprised you?

The latrines had no doors. In fact, the public latrine was an enormous room with benches all around the walls, and the benches had holes in the center. And everyone did their business while discussing the town gossip, all within full view of each other! I kept trying to find a way to write this into a scene, but realized that the reader would find it too unbelievable, so I never did write it, even though it was true!

6) Is there anything about this historical period and location you think people tend to misunderstand?

Rome and Athens have reputations as centers of the ancient world, but when it comes to knowledge, these cities are dwarfed by what was happening in Alexandria. Aristarchus developed a heliocentric solar system model circa 300BC, and Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth quite precisely just a short time later. Yet, people often refer to how we thought the Earth was flat even in the 1400s. ‘Taint so, folks. We knew we lived on a ball 2000 years before Columbus sailed the seas. If you wonder what happened, and where all that knowledge went, it can be summarized by the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria as a precursor to The Dark Ages.

7) Any theories on what might have been some of the most influential material lost in the destruction of the Library holdings?

We know for certain that Homer had written several other epics that were lost. We lost the complete writings of Plato, Archimedes, Eratosthenes, Aristarchus, and potentially even Socrates. We lost many of the great Greek plays from Euripedes and others. We certainly lost several plays by Aeschylus, even making the origin of the rest of his work all the more debatable. We probably lost how the Great Pyramids were built. We lost all the original medical discoveries- who made them, such as the pulse and the circulation of blood. We lost the works of Galen. These names won’t mean much unless you look them up. Suffice it to say that the Industrial Revolution would have come about 1500 years earlier had the Great Library remained standing. And we never would have known the Dark Ages at all. The loss today would be the equivalent of the entire internet winking out overnight, never to be rebooted.

8) You've made no claims that your particular narrative is a straight factual account. Instead, you've talked about it being a synthesis of legend and fact. How did you approach what to include and not include?

My mentor, Tom Robbins, often begins his lectures by stating that the first words any human ancestor said to another around that proverbial first fire, were probably not, “Pass me that haunch of mammoth meat,” but, “Tell me a story.” What does the story I am telling matter to you unless it is a great story? So I say, this story has some truth. But to make it a truly great story, it also needed to have some fiction. If you want truth, go read the history books. I have read them. You are in for a dry read and I hope you speak Latin, Greek, and Aramaic. Or you could go on a wonderful adventure that synthesizes some of the truth, and invites you to feel something that expands your humanity. We are human, in the end, so what matters to us is not fact, but the feelings of other people- our relationships, if you will. And by reading a book, you take on new relationships with those characters, and if you are lucky, and the novelist is trustworthy, you will experience epiphanies because you will be stretched to see life in new ways. That is the purpose of fiction.

9) Please tell us about some of your future projects.

There is a TV series in the works that is based on this novel. I have two more books in this series (The Mediterranean Trilogy) slated. There is a children’s novel I am now completing about Mark Twain and a mockingbird who wants to be a novelist. I’d also like to write a screenplay about an eco-terrorist. Lots of ideas! 


If you'd like to read more about her, please visit her website at

Written in the Ashes is available for purchase at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

1 comment:

Teddy Rose said...