Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Author Interview: Jeff Sypeck

Listen to the interview here!

Tell me a little about yourself and your writing.
I grew up in New Jersey and now live in Washington, D.C. I work by day as an editor and researcher, but I write about medieval history: my book Becoming Charlemagne: Europe, Baghdad, and the Empires of A.D. 800 was published by HarperCollins in 2006.

2. Tell me about the story that you've created a soundtrack/playlist for.
Becoming Charlemagneretells the story of the coronation of Karl, King of the Franks, whom history remembers as Charlemagne. The book is short, almost novelistic in style, and intended for readers who have no prior knowledge of medieval history.
Charlemagne's coronation in the year 800 was one of the most important events in European history, but I've tried to put it in context by taking the reader to Rome, Constantinople, and Baghdad. I've also offered glimpses of medieval Jewish communities and the routines of ninth-century peasants.

3. What is your playlist?

(To get Jeff's playlist all in one convenient place, check out his iMix)

William Shatner featuring Joe Jackson, "Common People"
When you're holed up in an air-conditioned apartment writing an imaginative re-creation of the difficult lives of medieval peasants, only a force as powerful as William Shatner can keep you from taking yourself too seriously.

Fiona Apple, "Criminal"
I listened to this creepy song whenever I needed to write about Irene of Byzantium, the ruthless empress who had her own son blinded. Her power-grab and brief diplomatic relations with Charlemagne earned her an entire chapter in my book. Associating her with this song attributes to her a conscience that she probably didn't have in real life.

Gogol Bordello, "Start Wearing Purple"
This song appears to be about a mail-order bride, but I like to pretend it's about imperial politics. I get a kick out of hearing the band's wild Ukranian singer declaring "I know it all from Diogenes to the Foucault."

Neil Finn, "She Will Have Her Way"
The lyrics are deeply sad, but the music is sprightly. That contradiction is a nice little lens through which to view medieval history.

Thompson Twins, "The Gap"
Stop giving me that look. This song was on my mind as I wrote about medieval Baghdad because of its subtle message about globalization, intercultural conflict, and the need for increased East-West cooperation. Not buying it? Then just dance already.

Anna Nalick, "Satellite"
Although medieval people never had to worry that the star they wished on might turn out to be a man-made object, this pop anthem can, if you let it, evoke images of lonely monks and wistful Carolingian princesses.

Audioslave, "Cochise"
I have no idea what this song is really about, but it makes me want to go conquer somebody.

Toby Lightman, "Angels and Devils"
I first heard this one on the short-lived TV show "Wonderfalls." The song is actually about a woman who plans to ambush her cheating lover, but the angel/devil imagery and the singer's relentless sense of purpose reminded me of the conspirators who attacked Pope Leo III on the streets of Rome. That ambush set in motion centuries of history--and the second half of Becoming Charlemagne.

Colin Hay, "Overkill"
This song has nothing to do with Charlemagne, but it has everything to do with Charlemagne-induced insomnia, especially in its depiction of sleeplessly wandering the streets at night: "Well, at least there's pretty lights..."

France Gall, "Sacre Charlemagne"
There aren't many pop songs about Charlemagne; I take what I can get. France Gall was cute as a button.

James McMurtry, "Charlemagne's Home Town"
Although I discovered this one after the book was published, I was impressed that a singer could tie together such diverse subjects as Charlemagne, international travel, and long-distance relationships in a single country song.

Jeff Buckley, "Hallelujah"
I prefer this more sentimental cover to Leonard Cohen's original. Packed with images of sex, love, history, and religion, this song captures the intense wistfulness of bidding adieu to figures you've "known" for several years as they fade back into history's shadows.

If you're looking for an unusual creative challenge, try writing new verses to this song. It takes real effort to rhyme "hallelujah" and not sound completely ridiculous.

4. What does music mean to you? To your writing?

I rely on music for escapism. Writing is intense, lonely work, all the more so because writing about the Middle Ages pulls my mind far away from the generally amiable world in which I live. I understand why most writers need classical music or instrumentals to get them going, but I need rock and pop music--songs like those on my playlist--to bring me back to my senses.

5. What kind of music do you like to write to?

I'll often listen to music to get inspired, but I rarely write to music. Strange as it may sound, I write to the noise of television.

6. If this story was made into a movie, who would you want to do the soundtrack?
If Becoming Charlemagne were made into a decent movie, I'd want the music to be reminiscent of the soundtrack to the HBO series "Rome," in all its moodiness and exoticism.

I've often joked that I'd settle for a Sci-Fi Channel original movie, in which case I'd want heavy metal all the way. Any adaptation is bound to be unrecognizable, so it might as well be highly stylized and fun.

To learn more about Jeff, visit his website Quid Plura?.

Next week, I interview author Susan Higginbotham.


Anonymous said...


Mark Teppo said...

>> Charlemagne on SCI-FI as a heavy metal rock opera.

Oh, yes. Replace the word "rock" with "space" and my brain is cooking.

Book sounds wonderful too, by the way. Going to put it on my watch list.