22 January 2012

Guest Blog: Colin Falconer

This week, we're welcoming renowned historical fiction author Colin Falconer. His best-selling novel, HAREM, is set in the Ottoman Empire during the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who is left spellbound by his newest slave girl, Hurrem.  Colin is here to talk about this fascinating book and give away a copy. Want to win it? Please leave your comment for Colin. Here's the blurb: 

He had everything a man might dream of; wealth, power and the choice of hundreds of the most beautiful women in his Empire. Why then did he forsake his harem for the love of just one woman, and marry her in defiance of the centuries-old code of the Osmanlis? 

This is the astonishing story of Suleiman, the one they called the Magnificent, and the woman he loved. 

Suleiman controlled an empire of thirty million people, encompassing twenty different languages. As a man, he was an enigma; he conquered all who stood against him with one of the world's first full time professional armies - yet he liked to write poetry; he ravaged half of Europe but he rebuilt Istanbul in marble; he had teams of torturers and assassins ready to unleash at a whim - yet history remembers him as a great lawmaker.

''Harem' literally means 'Forbidden': Forbidden to men. Once the Sultan was the only man - the only complete man - who could pass through its iron-studded doors. But what was that world really like?

For a woman living in the Harem the only way out was to somehow find her way into the Sultan's bed and bear him a son. But the young Sultan was often away at war and when he did return he neglected his harem for just one favourite wife. But one young Russian concubine inside his seraglio was not content to allow fate decide the course of her life. She was clever and she was ruthless. And she had a plan.

Into this world are drawn two unforgettable characters; a beautiful young Italian noblewoman, captured by corsairs and brought to the Harem as a concubine; and the eunuch who loved her once, long ago, in Venice.

Loved her? He never stopped loving her.

From medieval Venice to the slave markets of Algiers, from the mountains of Persia to the forbidden seraglio of the Ottoman's greatest sultan, this is a tale of passion and intrigue in a world where nothing is really as it seems. 

Q&A with Colin Falconer

How did the story of Harem come about?
Back in another incarnation, when I was working as a magazine freelancer, I got a commission from Playboy magazine to write about harems. You know, the racy stuff. But as I did my research I discovered that harems weren't anything like the male fantasy most Playboy readers would have liked. So I held back a lot of the research when I finally came to write the piece.

In particular, I discovered the story of Hurrem Haseki, the slave girl that Suleiman the Magnificent married and eventually made his queen. He even resigned his entire harem for her! There were so many intriguing gaps in the story. Was it a love story - or was it something else?

How much research was involved?
My initial research came from my local library. The head librarian would order in the books from all over the country and I would go in and collect them. But she never mentioned this to her staff. The girl behind the desk would go pale when I walked in and announced that I was there to pick up 'Unusual Sexual Practices in Ottoman Turkey' in three volumes or 'The Handy Guide to Castration.'

After I had the groundwork down, I spent a month in Turkey. My girls were only little then and I didn't want to be away from them that long so the whole family came! The best part for me was seeing the tombs of Suleiman and Hurrem side by side in the garden of the Suleimaniye mosque. Considering their history, it's very poignant and quite ironic. It felt like visiting the grave of someone I knew. The guide tried to tell me their history and it was completely wrong. Well either that or every book in the British Library was way off the mark. I'm betting it was him.

How did you come up with the story?
Historians know what happened but they can't rationally explain it. Why did Suleiman retire his harem? Why did he then later murder his son and his best friend? Scholars can't say because it would be pure conjecture: what happened in the harem stayed in the harem. No records were kept. So it all came down to reading between the lines - and that's what novelists are born to do.

People do not act rationally, no matter how important or royal or powerful they are, they're still human beings. The English royal family are a classic case. I had my own theories of why Suleiman and Hurrem did what they did, and I tested them out against what we know. It fitted perfectly, without changing a single historical fact. I don't know if I'm right - no one will ever know what really happened behind those walls - but if I am then she was one of the most extraordinary women in European history. Ruthless, intelligent, charming and brilliant. Love her or hate her, she was the most powerful woman you never heard of.

What was the most surprising thing to you?
I read some accounts written by actual eunuchs from the last century. The sad thing is, they never lost their psychological desire for women. They may have the lost the physical imperative but they said they still longed. I can't imagine how hellish that must have been. I also read accounts of former concubines who likened it to imprisonment - that was less surprising. The harem, as depicted in gauzy Victorian art and imagined in male fantasy, may seem like heaven - but it was actually hell.

Why did you republish?
I was so unhappy about the way the book was traditionally published here in the US in the first place. It was a massive best seller in Europe, translated into over a dozen languages - the only place it didn't do well was in the US. I just didn't think I was that bad a writer. I felt the publishers let me down badly. It was a boring cover, they changed the title and they gave it no marketing support. Hey, you must have heard this story a hundred times! So I re-jacketed and re-edited. I guess I'm out to prove a point. I think it's a great book. I think it deserved more. Much, much more. 

Thank you, Colin, and best of luck with HAREM. Visitors, please leave your comment to win a copy of this story.