(Advance apologies for a long post!) This is a review of The Road to Alexander
This review and interview appeared in LitPot magazine, published by Beverly Jackson. Shaula Evans, editor, wrote the review.
‘Time for Alexander’ (now The Road to Alexander) by Jennifer Macaire
“It was with some trepidation that I opened “Time For Alexander”–the first novel (in a series to come) by Jennifer Macaire. My sources said it was about Alexander the Great and time travel–and since historical fiction and sci-fi genres were not my normal taste, I was hesitant. But knowing and trusting Ms. Macaire’s skills, having read much of her short fiction, I pushed forward in curiosity, and am happy that I did.
This novel is as much fun as a Mardi Gras parade. It lopes across the terrain of romance novels, historical fiction, magical realism, and science fiction–costumed, its cheek poked out by a devilish tongue, spoofing the genres, never taking itself too seriously, and yet cleverly snaring it’s reader in a gloriously intriguing plot about a young woman journalist who time-travels back through history to interview Alexander The Great.
What follows, after she awakes under a pomegranate tree, is a hilarious, mind-bending tale of a modern woman immersed in the ancient throes of sex, love, quite a bit of vino, war, death, and ever so much more. Using historical facts for a springboard, Ms. Macaire leaps into the waters of pure imagination, and creates a unique novel, the likes of which you’re not likely to find anywhere.
Ashley, our journalist heroine, narrates with the certainty and casualness of a woman who knows who she is, and has all the heart and daring of her own to take on any great world conqueror. It’s a downright hoot. Macaire deftly submerges Ashley in the kingdom’s culture and mores with such credible logic that it makes reading the saga pure fun, with us rooting for the ‘good guys’ all the way.
In this literally epic writing project, Ms. Macaire deftly tackles the authorial challenges of historical research, cross-genre writing, and publishing an unconventional novel.
In the following conversation by email, she discusses her craft and the adventure of publishing Alexander with publisher Beverly Jackson and LitPot Book Review Editor Shaula Evans.
Jackson: Hi Jennifer. I really enjoyed your book!
Evans: Jennifer, I wanted to let you know that I read the book start to finish in one sitting and I enjoyed it tremendously.
Macaire: I appreciate your kind words.
Jackson: How did you ever get the idea to write Time for Alexander? What prompted you?
Macaire: I know it sounds trite, but I’d just read a biography that left me frustrated. The professor admitted that most of what was written about Alexander was conjecture, and that no contemporary writings about him existed. I decided to write a quick sketch, just to see if I could get a bit of the essence of Alexander’s story on paper.
I started writing a short story about a journalist who goes back in time to interview him, and Alexander just took over. His character seemed to come to life, and when he kidnapped the journalist, I knew I was going to have to make the short story into a novel.
Jackson: When I finished this book, I knew I wasn’t finished with this story. This looks like it’s going to be a series of books, am I right?
Evans: I wondered the same thing. What plans do you have for future books?
Macaire: The funny thing is, I only planned on one book, but Alexander had such a strong character that I couldn’t fit him into any other plot than his own life, which was incredible enough as it is and took up four books. But I couldn’t let him die in Babylon, so his time-traveling wife saves him, and they go to Gaul and then to the land of the Eaters of the Dead to search for the Thief of Souls.
The story is quite interesting, and a lot is based on time, on the possibility of changing the future and the idea that fate does or does not exist. The Greeks believed in fate, while Ashley, who comes from the future, does not believe in anything. She doesn’t believe in any sort of Gods, so it’s always a nuisance when Apollo talks to her. She’s scientific and intellectual, and she can’t ‘relax’ and let things happen.
I had a lot of fun making her interact with Alexander. They complement each other. In all, there are seven books in the series. All done, all final drafts. I’m waiting for the contract for the rest of them, but like anything else, it depends on the results of book one, I suppose. I can’t imagine not publishing them, so I have a couple of options open right now. The best would be that they come out as soon as possible–I have several people threatening me if the other books don’t appear. Soon.
Jackson: (laughs) Did you mean for this book to come out so funny and campy? You DO know it’s fun and campy, right? Was this intentional?
Macaire: I wrote an introduction for the first draft where I said, “The history is solid but the book is fiction and walks that fine line between fantasy and reality.” I also wrote, “I wanted this book to be fun, most of all.” So of course I knew it was funny. There are some places in the book that still make me laugh aloud, and that’s a good sign, considering I’ve read the book at least a hundred times just editing it.
Campy is a good word for the sort of humor I was aiming at. Actually, while writing I wasn’t aiming at anything. It just felt right to take the book in that direction. It is a character-driven book, and Alexander is so larger-than-life that if there wasn’t that element of absurdity it would not have worked. Plexis is actually the character that adds all the humor to the story, and I think he’s always been my favorite.
Jackson: I liked that character too. I was astonished at some of the things I learned about their everyday lives, not your mundane Encyclopedia Britannica fare! How much research was necessary to write this?
Macaire: I have read at least three complete biographies of Alexander since high school. The last one was by an Italian professor who quoted many of Aristotle’s letters, Darius’s letters and contested the letters that were supposedly written by Alexander. He claimed that all Alexander’s writings were destroyed and that everything written about him was conjuncture.
That certainly sparked my interest; it was a refreshing point of view, and it opened a vast window in the historical world that had largely been closed by writers such as Plutarch who has long been the ‘last word’ on Alexander.
Plutarch wrote Alexander’s biography four hundred years after Alexander’s death. Plutarch was Greek, and the Greeks were always a bit touchy on the subject of those upstart Macedonians – Philip and Alexander. No matter they’d certainly saved Greece from becoming a fief of Persia.
Then there are the modern historians; very serious, learned people, who always seemed to want to press Alexander into a modern mold. One book that both helped me and incensed me at the same time was ‘In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great’ by Michael Woods. He actually trekked across Asia, following Alexander’s army. That, for me, was a Godsend. It took away having to research distances, time and geography, which were necessary for making Alexander’s voyage ‘real’. At the same time, Mr. Woods felt the need to be politically correct, and insisted in trying to find a ‘reason’ for Alexander’s making war on all the tribes along the way. He also tried to compare Alexander’s emotions and feelings to that of a modern man.
Mr. Wood’s interpretation of Alexander didn’t work for me, the same way that Mary Renault’s books on Alexander did work–but had nothing to do with Alexander. I love her books, but I never got a feeling for Alexander as a human being, and I feel very strongly that he was human.
Evans: Is it historically correct in its details or did you take some poetic license?
Macaire: I did take poetic license, especially after Book Four, when Alexander is saved. But then again, some historians think Alexander didn’t die, and that he was smuggled out of Babylon. The battles are all in context, the people around him (except for his time-traveling wife) existed, his movements (thanks to Mr. Woods) are exact, and the customs and even the toothpaste was heavily researched.
I used molded glass, because blown glass didn’t exist back then, nor did paper. The Greeks were finicky about cleanliness, and the Egyptians were even worse. (Body odor was considered a sin) So there will be a few preconceptions about that time period that will surprise some. I got a kick out of finding out what they brushed their teeth with. Oh, and no stitches. They cauterized everything. That must have hurt.
Jackson: Are we going to find out what happens to Ashley? I’m dying to know if she gets her child back, if she lives out her life there, if she ever makes it back to modern day to tell the tale? You got me!
Macaire: Well, don’t worry! Ashley lives to tell her tale, though she never goes back to her own time. She gets the chance though–remember when she mentions that someone had already been sent to interview Alexander? Well, he lies dying on his pallet, but Ashley meets the time–traveler, and he mistakes her for Roxanne. (Which does not please her.)
Jackson: Do you think you’ve created a new genre? This doesn’t really fit sci-fi or magical realism or mainstream novels, does it?
Macaire: It fits everywhere in a sense. It is historical, and I convinced the Historical Novel Society to review the book. Romance reviewers loved it, although one romance magazine primly pointed out, that “because it was not a monogamous relationship, it could never be classified as ‘Romance'”, but added, “This book is fantastic!” Science fiction magazines have claimed it as their own, one saying “Ms. Macaire has used pure science fiction to take us on an incredible journey…”
So it’s nice that everyone has found something to relate to in this book. But to tell the truth–I wasn’t thinking about any of that when I wrote. I was just following the story as Alexander, Plexis and Ashley evolved. It is their story, and everything else sort of faded into the background. I never once thought about genre as I wrote, I never do.
Evans: What was your biggest literary goal with the novel?
Macaire: I had several goals. I wanted to pull off the challenge I’d set myself – to write a literary novel that would be accessible to everyone and fun to read. I wanted a ‘I can’t put it down!’ book that would make people think, that would bring up subjects that were taboo such as love between men and infidelity and make them appear so natural that they became accepted by readers–as they were accepted in that time period.
But most of all, I wanted readers to experience a shift in their perception of life, and to learn from the book–whether it be about Alexander, ancient toothpaste or whatever!
Jackson: Did you have any trouble finding a publisher? Did the publishing world understand what you were up to?
Macaire: I can imagine Homer trying to sell his Iliad to a modern publisher, and it’s more or less what happened with me and the agents and publishers I approached.
Homer: “Describe my book’s genre? Well, it speaks of war, so it could be an adventure, but it has a love story between Hector and his wife…oh yes, and it has paranormal elements, there’s Cassandra, she sees the future. There are religious factors, the gods and goddesses are always appearing and there is a definite historical slant, after all, it’s about the siege of Troy, but there is quite a bit of humor. What do you think?”
Publisher: “I’m sorry, it doesn’t fit our publishing needs right now. It’s well written, but doesn’t match any category. We wish you the best of luck with another publisher.”
Homer: “I have another one too, this one is called ‘The Odyssey’ and I think it could be classified as a travelogue.” He hesitates. “Adventure travel with elements of romance and the paranormal.”
Publisher: “Send in the first three chapters and a synopsis. We’ll get back to you in about a year. But don’t get your hopes up. History books are not selling, series are out of the question for an unknown, cross-genre is not acceptable for traditional publishers and you haven’t been published before.”
I waited four years before finding a publisher. Most editors loved the story, but no one wanted to take a chance on something so radically different than what is ‘out there’. I had a problem with the fact that Alexander had more than one wife, that he was bisexual, and that Ashley is not faithful to Alexander. She falls in love with Plexis, and Plexis is in love with Alexander, and the whole story sort of overwhelmed some people.
One person sent back my manuscript with ‘I can’t handle this!’ in big red letters. That was a low point, but I never got upset about it. I love this series, and to tell the absolute truth, even if it hadn’t been published, I still would have been content. I truly love to read these books, and that, to me, is why I wrote them. Because they are fun to read and to entertain. Even if it’s only myself.
Evans: Since some of the Literary Potpourri readership consists of writers, can you share with us some insights with us into the process behind publishing the novel?
Macaire: I wrote the series in four years – there are seven books, each about 300 pages. I thought about having it as a trilogy – but try selling a nine hundred-page book when you’re just starting out! I tried traditional publishers, but as I said above, they wouldn’t take the chance. Most were extremely nice – all loved the book but were afraid it wouldn’t sell. Agents were the worst – I tried 30 agents before deciding to represent the book myself. I chose Jacobyte in Australia for several reasons – I figured they would be less puritan than the American publishers and they had a good, eclectic selection. I read a few of their books before submitting to them, and I was thrilled when they offered to publish Time for Alexander. I had an agent look over the contract and she pronounced it all right. I designed the cover and those of the next six books using the same statue of Alexander the Great.
I am glad the book is finished, glad it’s finally published but mostly glad that it’s being read and appreciated. (note: When Jacobyte folded, I hung onto the novel, not sure what to do with it. Now the series has found a forever home with Accent Press!)
Jackson: What other kind of reading do you do? Do you read light or serious fiction?
Macaire: I read anything with words on it. Since I could put ‘b’ and ‘a’ together and get ‘ba’, I’ve been reading. My favorite authors are: Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, Dorothy Dunnett, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Amy Tan, James W. Hall, Robert Ferringo, Neil Gaiman, Diana Norman…And favorite books: The God of Small Things, Dreams of My Russian Summers, The Game of Thrones series …Well, I could go on for pages!
Evans: At what points does your own life or personality intersect with your characters?
Macaire: I don’t know, really. I can say I was very involved with them as I wrote the book – I think Plexis is my favorite character, and I had the most fun developing his persona. Ashley was difficult because she was so cold and couldn’t show her feelings in the beginning, so it was hard to make the reader like her.
In the first few drafts she came off as too standoffish, so I had to re-think her. I had to ‘get into her skin’ in order to bring her to life. She and I share a few traits; we’re very loyal, and both shy about showing our feelings, but otherwise we’re nothing alike!
Evans: What are you most excited about with this book?
Macaire:I am elated at the reception I’ve gotten. Because it was turned down by so many agents and publishers, I had begun to think A: It would never get published, and B: My book was somehow flawed.
Most rejections stated that the book was not right for the market, that historical fiction was not ‘in’ and that a book with the subjects I brought up would not sell. It is such a relief and a joy to find that readers react the way I hoped they would – So far I’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback.
Evans: Is there anything else you would like readers to know about the genesis of the book?
Macaire: The genesis was the easy part – I guess. Stopping was hard! I think I could have gone on and on. I’m looking forward to having the rest of the series come out. I won’t give anything away, but I will say that Ashley saves Alexander in Babylon, and they travel north in search of the Thief of Souls, a real character in the mythology of ancient Gaul.
They also go to Rome, Carthage and the British Isles. Actually, looking back, I’m amazed. I’m also grateful for my family for putting up with me while I wrote. From my husband who didn’t notice the dust or complain about the pile of laundry and my son Alex who gave me ideas, to Julia who was so good, and especially to Sebi – who would make dinner for all of us while I ‘played on the computer!’
Jackson: What would you like to say to your readers and your potential new readers?
Macaire: I hope, of course, that they love my book! I realize it’s not for everyone, but I do hope it entertains. I want my readers to know that I don’t take myself seriously, but that I do take them seriously, and I feel an obligation to write as well as I possibly can. I think books have an obligation to entertain, to educate, to fascinate and to pose questions. I hope I’ve done all this, and if I have, then I’m pleased. I will admit to loving e-mail, and I will be glad to answer any questions anyone has about the books or characters.
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Jennifer Macaire is an American freelance writer/illustrator. She was born in Kingston, NY and lived in Samoa, California and the Virgin Islands before moving to France. She attended Parsons school of design for fine art, and Palm Beach Junior College for English literature. She worked for five years as a model for Elite. Married to a professional polo player, she has three children. After settling in France, she started writing full time and published short stories in such magazines as PKA’s Advocate, The Bear Deluxe, Nuketown, Anotherealm, Linneaen Street, Inkspin, Mind Caviar (for the August 2002 launching) and the Vestal Review. One of her short stories was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.