Author Interview: Karin Ciholas

Welcome to TRB Lounge. Today, I’d like to welcome the author of The Lighthouse—Karin Ciholas, from Atmosphere Press, for an author interview with The Reading Bud.

About The Author

Karin Ciholas was born in Virginia and grew up in Switzerland where she studied classical languages. The study of Latin and Greek led to her fascination with the ancient world and its history. She earned advanced degrees in languages and comparative literature at UNC Chapel Hill and enjoyed teaching modern languages and courses on the ancient world. She has won twelve awards for her short stories and plays. She lives in Sarasota with her husband, author and theologian Paul Ciholas. 


Welcome to TRB! Please give our readers a brief introduction about yourself before we begin. 

 My father sang Norwegian songs to me and told me stories about his native Norway. My mother told me about her “old Kentucky home” where she grew up. As a child in Switzerland, I learned the Swiss dialect from my school friends, and all my courses were taught in German. All my life, I have been grateful for my gifted teachers in the Swiss school system that placed great emphasis on Greek and Latin and gave me a lifelong love of classical antiquity and ancient history. We spoke English at home, but the first class I ever had in English was when I came to the US to go to college. On a student trip to Rome, I fell in love with a young theology student from France, and when we married four years later, we lived in France for several years. After completing advanced degrees, we chose teaching careers in the US: Paul to teach religion and philosophy at universities in Kentucky and I to teach languages and humanities at Centre College. And that is how we ended up in “our new Kentucky home.”

Please tell us something about your book other than what we have read in the blurb?

The Lighthouse is about a dedicated Jewish physician named Simon who wants to heal and save lives and make the world a better place. But he is thwarted and opposed by violence and racism. Antisemitism rears its ugly head. He fights back at every turn. He fights against vicious criminals, against arbitrary Roman power, and against the injustices of racism. He struggles for freedom for his fellow Jews. One of the battles he cares most about is his struggle to find better ways to treat illness. When his sister is abducted and sold into slavery, he starts his fight against slavery. It is a deeply personal battle that endangers his family. It is a battle he cannot win.

He is a witness to several historical events that profoundly changed the world. He is neither responsible for those events, nor can he intervene to stop them. During the first pogrom of recorded history in Alexandria, Egypt, Simon tries but cannot stop the massacre. He does manage to save many lives.

What is that one message that you’re trying to get across to the readers in this book?

The fight against prejudice, racism, and antisemitism is never done. Prejudices against fellow human beings have distorted human behavior since Cain and Abel, and wars and hatred in the name of religion still mar our history and continue to cause havoc. Simon, the physician who seeks to heal, cannot find the way to cut this defect out of the human heart. And yet he tries. Boldly, Simon fights for justice for his family and his people. When Simon plunges into danger, we worry about him. Sometimes we want to shake him and talk sense into him. We are moved by historical drama where life and death are at stake. His urgent fight for justice is never done. At stake, for him, is the survival of his people. Despite many setbacks, Simon brings healing to many. We all need healing.

Who is your favourite character in this book and why?

Aurelia is my favorite character because she is strong. In many ways, she is stronger than Simon even though Simon does not see it that way. She often protects him, assists him in saving lives during the pogrom, and is not intimidated even when the emperor or the prefect of Egypt opposes her. There are several strong women who sometimes quietly and other times quite theatrically make a difference. Antonia, sister-in-law of Tiberius, saves Rome from an upstart tyrant who wants to take over the imperial throne. One of my favorite characters is Sosias, an orphan Simon rescues who has irrepressible curiosity and sets out to become an engineer. Through him, I show some of the scientific and technological advances of the times.

What inspired you to write this book? An idea, some anecdote, a dream or something else?

My Mother was a discerning and avid reader. She enjoyed reading my short stories and plays but complained she couldn’t find enough historical fiction set in New Testament times. She asked if I had ever thought about writing a novel about one of the characters in the New Testament who knew Jesus. I told her I was intrigued by Simon of Cyrene. I mentioned Simon did not really know Jesus, that he met Jesus under the most excruciating circumstances and that Simon was an unusual Jew since he gave his children Roman and Greek names. She turned to me and said, “Well, Karin, when will you write his story?”

How long did it take you to write this particular book?

It took about 15 years. During a demanding teaching career, I kept my mother’s request in mind, enjoyed studying primary sources in ancient history, and discovered so many jewels of information I could use for the novel she wanted. When I finished the first chapter, I sent it to her in the mail. Then she kept wanting more. I sent chapter by chapter until 1000 pages landed in her mailbox. There have been many changes since, but the basic bones of the novel are still there. A wise agent told me the book needed to be divided into a trilogy.

What are your writing ambitions? Where do you see yourself 5 years from today?

I hope to get the next two books in the trilogy into shape for publication. Between initial concept—even if on paper—and completion much needs to be done. After that, I may turn back to a historical novel I’m writing set during WWII. I have also ghostwritten several memoirs for veterans of WWII and helped them with the logistics of publishing. Alas, more and more vets are leaving us without having told their stories.

Are you working on any other stories presently?

History provides an endless source of material. My favorite era is the first century when so much was going on. I like to take a character like Simon and show events through his eyes, making him a witness to the great events that occurred in his lifetime: the rise of science in Alexandria, the power of the Roman empire, amazing advances in medicine that will later be lost for centuries, the crucifixion of Jesus, the beginnings of Christianity, the fall of the temple…. I might write a story about another historical character from that time.

Why have you chosen this genre? Or do you write in multiple genres?

I’ve written and published short stories and poems in literary journals, and five of my plays have been performed. But historical fiction is my preferred genre for reading and writing. Faulkner said: “The past is never dead…It’s not even past.”

When did you decide to become a writer? Was it easy for you follow your passion or did you have to make some sacrifices along the way?

I have always loved books. As children, my brother and I even started a little library and made library cards for each book he owned and each book I owned. When my mother discovered he was charging me a penny to read his books, and I charged nothing, she put a stop to his enterprise but not a stop to our reading. The impulse to write was first evident when I started rewriting the endings of stories I didn’t like. From there it was a logical step to just make up my own stories. From those childish beginnings came the urge to write short stories. All my first attempts at publishing them were rejected. I am sure the editors of the journals did me a favor by rejecting them. I started subscribing to the best literary journals and began to learn what was getting published. I also learned that what one publisher rejects can be submitted elsewhere and be accepted.

What is your writing ritual? How do you do it?

When I go to my computer in the morning, I read the news and check the last sentences I wrote the day before. Reading the news is quickly depressing. So, I turn to my writing. Writing makes me feel involved in the whole story of humanity. Research is exciting. I am in a different century. Except…some current events are not always that different from what was going on in the Roman empire.

How do you prefer to write – computer/laptop, typewriter, dictation or longhand with a pen?

I started out with pen and paper. All writing is now on the computer.

What are your 5 favourite books? (You can share 5 favourite authors too.)

Any book by Sharon Kay Penman. One special favorite: Here Be Dragons. She makes Welsh history come alive.

Books by Margaret George. She is the doyenne of historical fiction, the astute researcher who makes major historical characters live and breathe. The Autobiography of Henry VIII with Notes by his Fool, Will Somers is a compelling saga. The Prologue alone is a masterpiece of historical and psychological insights.

Books by Tan Twan Eng. The Gift of Rain is set in Malaysia during WWII. A beautifully written novel filled with mystery and wonder.

Books by Mark Helprin. Paris in the Present Tense is a personal favorite. Helprin’s writing is lyrical, visual, hauntingly beautiful, entrancing.

Books by Geraldine Brooks. My favorite new book this year: Horse. There are many levels of meaning in this book, woven together into a fine masterpiece. Brooks is a versatile writer who makes time travel to distant shores and times sound easy.

How do you deal with Writer’s Block?

Life can intervene. That’s ok. I just had cancer surgery a week ago. I need times when I must be gentle with myself. When at an impasse, I go to some writers I love most and reread my favorite passages and follow the flow of their sentences through a dramatic sequence and try to learn from them. If inspiration doesn’t come quickly, I like to sit in my garden or take a walk. The silliest thing I do is tell the story to my stuffed bear and explain what I want to do in the next scene. By the time I have told him, I often know what to do. I have a very intelligent bear, and he often warns me not to overthink it.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Besides getting an intelligent stuffed bear? Read, read, and read good writers you enjoy. After your enjoyment, take time to analyze why the writing moves you or inspires you or why it makes you smile or cry. Remember 3 p’s: perseverance, passion, and professionalism. It takes perseverance to complete a work and see it through the many steps toward publication. So don’t give up. If you are not passionate about your subject, your reader will not be. And if there is no passion in your main characters, they will not be interesting. Professionalism requires following the rules of submission to the letter, proper language use or having someone help with that, and being attentive and appreciative to those who give you advice, especially if they care enough to give you pointers when you get rejections. There is a fourth p. But you should avoid this one—perfectionism. Maybe Shakespeare wrote the perfect play, but I doubt it. At some point, you must stop the rewriting and editing and send your work out. Perfectionism is an enemy of success.

Thank you, author Karin Cicholas, for your insightful answers!

About the Book

The Lighthouse

Simon is a gifted physician who faces constant danger as a Jew in first-century Egypt under Roman rule.

When Meidias, an escaped convict, declares a “holy” war against Jews and abducts Simon’s sister, Simon’s search for her leads him on a treacherous journey to slave markets in Alexandria and to Jerusalem where a Roman soldier forces Simon to carry a crossbeam for a stranger. Simon is troubled by the stranger’s death but does not know that this moment will change the world forever.

Simon’s passion is Aurelia, inaccessible daughter of a Roman senator. His mission is revenge against the outlaw Meidias. His ambition is justice for his family and his people. His torment is the conflict between his Hippocratic oath and his vow to kill Meidias.

As his medical reputation grows, he comes face to face with prefects and emperors and the poor suffering masses of Alexandria and Rome. Overwhelmed by the plight of his people, he tries to stop what becomes the first pogrom in Alexandria.
THE LIGHTHOUSE moves between Egypt and Italy and back to Alexandria. It is a story about family love and loyalty, medical breakthroughs and heartbreaks, and one man’s quest for justice for his people.

You can find Balsamic Moon here:
Amazon | Goodreads

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