Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Michael David Lukas

In books, fiction, writing on February 25, 2011 at 9:31 am

Michael David Lukas.

Michael David Lukas. Photo by Haley Pollack.

An introduction to Michael David Lukas, author of the novel The Oracle of Stamboul (Harper, 2011). Lukas lives in Oakland, California, where he was born and raised. When asked where he would most want to live and write, Lukas admitted, “I’m pretty happy in Oakland. I have a really great community, and great food, great weather. It’s nice not being in the center of literary production and publishing. I think I would be a little bit overwhelmed by that.”

Don’t be deceived into thinking that he is anything other than worldly. In fact, the seed for the idea that blossomed as The Oracle of Stamboul came to Lukas while he was living in Tunisia. In his debut novel, Lukas transports readers to the Ottoman Empire in the 1880s.

Quick Facts on Michael David Lukas (MDL)

  • MDL’s website
  • Home: Oakland, California
  • Comfort food: Thai food, Zachary’s Pizza, and Gordo Taqueria’s burritos.
  • Reads that inform MDL’s work: José Saramago, The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, Italo Calvino—particularly The Baron in the Trees, Vladimir Nabokov—especially Pale Fire, and Michael Chabon
  • Current reads: David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, and The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins

What are you working on at the moment?

A new novel about the Jews of Cairo. It’s kind of like Isaac Bashevis Singer meets Dan Brown meets André Aciman, and they all go smoke hooka together at Naguib Mahfouz’s favorite café. It’s very Jewish and sort of village-y, but it also has thriller/ancient manuscript elements.

For the book I’m writing now, there are people I’m looking to for inspiration in specific ways. I’ve been thinking a lot about the structure of the book. Nicole Krauss’s Great House was really instructive, as was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. I’m halfway through David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, and I really want to read Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, too. I always like to read authors chronologically, so I can see their progression. It helps me feel better as a first-time novelist, and it is really helpful in understanding their later work.

“I always like to read authors chronologically.”

Where did the idea for The Oracle of Stamboul come from?

It came to me in 2003, when I was living in Tunisia studying Arabic and applying for Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programs. I was flailing around trying to figure out what to do with my life. I was on a run through the outskirts of Tunis, and this idea of a little girl playing backgammon with an older man came to me. I didn’t know where she was living or when, but I knew that this was the protagonist of the novel I was going to write. I spent the next months trying to figure out the setting and the voice.

When my time in Tunisia had ended, I went to visit my ex-girlfriend in Uzbekistan. But, through a series of misunderstandings and miscommunications I ended up being deported and I spent about ten days in Istanbul, Turkey by myself. I had already visited the city, seen the mosques and the palaces, and done all of those things you do when you’re a tourist. So, I just wandered around the city.

I wandered into this antique store in a neighborhood called Çukercuma. At the back of the store, there was this crystal bowl with a picture of a little girl. She just had the most wise, self-assured look. I knew right then that this was my protagonist, and everything clicked about the setting—Istanbul in the 1880s, which was when the picture was taken. I went back to my hotel room and spent the night writing feverishly, which is probably the only time I’ve ever spent the night writing feverishly.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

You can read it on the level of the story, the plot of what happens to Eleonora. You can read it on a more philosophical level, looking at the questions that it raises about fate and free will. You can read it on a more historical level, and really engage with the setting. There are aspects of the book that are not historically true; if you have an interest in the Ottoman Empire, you can engage with what is true and what is not true.

Who do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?

I’d like my readers to be interested in the world and history. I’d like my readers to have some attraction to, or interest in, the potential for magic in the world. (I like the idea of the natural world reacting to seeing something that people can’t see.) I would like readers to have some sense of ways in which a book or a plot can be unconventional, and what that speaks to.

“I’d like readers to have some attraction

to the potential for magic in the world.”

Where and when do you prefer to write?

I write almost always in the morning. I’m lucky in that my commute is about two feet, from my bed to my desk. I write from when I wake up until about lunchtime. I see where I’m at, and either continue writing fiction or do some administrative things, or work on revisions.

What was your draft process like for The Oracle of Stamboul?

I wrote seven drafts. It took about a year for each one. With each draft, I threw out the previous one and started from scratch, which was really painful but I think the book is better for it. Especially with those earlier drafts, I was learning to write a novel. It was helpful to start from scratch again and again, and repeat that process of plotting the book out. It was really important to figure out how I write.

Do you listen to music while you work?

I don’t listen to anything. But, I have started listening to classical music after I write and while I’m reading. Thinking about the structure of a symphony or a sonata, the intuitive feel of it, has been really helpful in terms of the structure of the novel I’m writing now, and novels in general. You have all these different voices that interact with each other; you have these distinct sections that build on each other and build on the theme, but they may have very different characteristics. These themes are woven throughout and expressed in different ways. It’s the only thing I’ve ever found that’s similar to a novel.

Do you have a philosophy for why you write?

I really enjoy the process. It’s something that I do every day for a long portion of the day. It helps me work out my thoughts and connect with myself. It’s so awesome that this practice of self-exploration and meditation then allows you to connect with other people. That is what’s really special—the author/reader connection.

Is there a quote about writing that motivates or inspires you?

Flannery O’Connor: “If there are no surprises for the writer, how can there be any for the reader?”

And, I believe Virginia Woolf said something about the act of writing being far more pleasurable than being published.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Write every day. Believe in what you are doing. Have a good sense of what you want to do, and do it.

“Believe in what you are doing.”

What question do you find surprising that people ask about your work?

I think the best questions are those that are surprising. One good question was about the loneliness of the book. The main character is really lonely. It’s hard being a prophet. I really thought a lot about how difficult it would be to be this young girl, whom all these people expect so much from. Eleonora has never really thought about what she wants; that’s hard.

Is there a question that you wish people would ask more often about your work?

Only one person has asked about what is real history and what is not. To me, balancing the real and the not real was a huge part of writing the book. The second half of the book doesn’t focus on historical events; there are historical events happening that never happened.

I also thought that the Sultan’s relationship with his mom was really important, but no one has ever mentioned it.

What do you find challenging about writing?

It’s really hard. You sit down every day and you have to produce something out of your mind that you want to be beautiful, logically coherent, and entertaining. You’re grappling with your own shit all of the time. And, you know, the best writing is writing where you don’t see the work.

“The best writing is

writing where you don’t see the work.”

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I like to cook, go for runs, drink with my friends—nothing too crazy or exciting.

About Michael David Lukas

Michael David Lukas has been a Fulbright scholar in Turkey, a late-shift proofreader in Tel Aviv, and a Rotary scholar in Tunisia. He is a graduate of Brown University and the University of Maryland, and his writing has been published in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Slate, National Geographic Traveler, and the Georgia Review. When he isn’t writing, he teaches creative writing to third- and fourth-graders.

Buy the book, preferably at your local independent bookstore.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Michael David Lukas.” Words With Writers (February 25, 2011),

The Oracle of Stamboul

The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas (Harper, 2011).

  1. Great interview, Michael and Marissa!
    I am a huge fan.
    Siobhan Fallon

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