Monday, July 10, 2017

Swimming in the Pools That Time Forgot

Annamaria introducing Michael J. Cooper
Michael Cooper writes exactly the kind of stories that I most love to read:  the history of exotic places seamlessly woven into page-turner plots.  Themes that shine down the decades, or centuries, and illuminate today's headlines. And characters you can cheer for, or despise, or fall in love with. 

Born in Berkeley, California, Mike emigrated to Israel after high school in 1966.  After working fitfully, he says, as an actor and musician on stage and Israel TV, he studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and graduated from Tel Aviv University Medical School. Now a pediatric cardiologist in Northern California, he returns to Israel and the West Bank about twice a year to volunteer his services to children who lack adequate access to care.

His first two thrillers are set in and around Jerusalem and are connected by common threads of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, the St. Clair/Sinclair bloodline, and the subversive notions of coexistence and peace.  Foxes in the Vineyard, set in 1948 Jerusalem, won the grand prize in the 2011 Indie Publishing Contest. His second The Rabbi’s Knight, set in the Holy Land at the twilight of the Crusades in 1290, was a finalist for the Chaucer Award for historical fiction. A soon-to-be-completed third novel, Sins of the Fathers, is set in Europe and the Middle East during WWI.  I can't wait for that next one.

Today Michael is here to tell us how he goes about recreating history.
As I travel through Scotland and the South of France, visiting some of the significant sites referenced in my books, I’m reminded of the manner in which authors of historical fiction enjoy opportunities of using our imaginations to fill gaps in the historical record. Indeed, the more remote the history, the more gaps are likely to exist.  Some of these gaps occur where the historical record fades into the shadows of hidden history—actual events innocently unrecorded, forgotten or actively suppressed. Here we have the opportunity to shock the reader with historical fact that may seem fictional, (and make some uncomfortable in the process). We may also discover other gaps where history blurs into ambiguity, or where it disappears entirely. These gaps, called lacunae by historians from the Latin word for little pools, provide ample opportunities to embellish historical characters and events, especially if they are generally consistent with known and historically accurate facts.

And how historically accurate are historical facts anyway? We need look no further than the evening news to hear about “alternative” facts. Any account (current or historical) is necessarily selective, including certain elements and omitting others. And how much more may this nuance be amplified when looking back a year, or ten, or a hundred? It can be argued that all recorded history is, to one degree or another, a form of myth, as these accounts (from Prince to Robin Hood) are oriented towards the attitudes of the time and perspective of their recording. How relevant is the idea of filling a “little pool” in the historical record when we may be actually facing a limitless ocean of ambiguity?

These are some of my thoughts as I sit writing at the Nice Airport on the Mediterranean Coast of France waiting for my twice-delayed flight to Edinburgh with plenty of time to reflect on my own immersion in these “little pools.” Herewith just one example…

In both my books I reference a mysterious pyramid in Falicon just north of Nice. I based my description of the Falicon Pyramid on a host of traveler accounts as well as books generally describing pyramids throughout the world.  But I always felt guilty that I never actually saw the Falicon Pyramid, and two years ago I sought to rectify this situation with a sincere, full-day, but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to find it among meandering paths through Provence bramble. So, I came back again two years later—that would be yesterday.

A quick flight from Edinburgh brought me back to Nice. I drove a rental car up the hill to a weird but delightful Falicon guesthouse, and rose early yesterday morning, and this time was rewarded. Success! After following a path over boulders and through heavy bramble, uphill for what seemed more than the mile it was, and aided by written directions along with GPS, I turned a corner on the path and there it was!

Even though it was designated as a French Historical Monument in 2007, the origin of the Falicon Pyramid is shrouded in ambiguity. According to some accounts it was built by Roman legionnaires who practiced the cult of Mithras, an eastern religion that was popular with members of the Roman Army during the later Empire. According to another, it may have marked the tomb of an ancient chieftain, possibly an exiled Egyptian. According to another, it was built by Knights Templar returning to Europe from the Crusades.

What is known for certain about the Falicon Pyramid is that it sits over a deep grotto, Bauma des Ratapignata, Occitan for “cave of the bats.” What’s also known is that it was “discovered” in 1803 by one Domenico Rossetti and is listed in local tourist guides starting in the 19th century. Located on a hillside overlooking Falicon to the southeast, Nice and the Mediterranean to the south, the pyramid is estimated to have measured 9 meters in height when intact. It’s no longer intact. Weathered by time, the elements and tourism, the pyramid is missing its apex, and is now truncated at about 3 meters. But for myself, the Falicon Pyramid’s remoteness and incongruity make it a fascinating dive into a deep pool of ambiguity and mystery. Which is why it figures in my books.

But I won’t say how, given the risk of having to issue spoiler alerts.

For those who read the books and are interested in knowing what other little pools I dip into (and there are many), just drop me an email, and we’ll go for a swim.

Mike's website will tell you more

Mike on Facebook


  1. Indiana Jones would be jealous, Mike!

    1. Hey Jeffrey - Actually, Indiana Jones would have lowered himself into the cave of the bats beneath the pyramid using his whip, and communed with the spirits of the Knights Templar who build it!

  2. Replies
    1. Indeed, Michael - fascinating and gratifying that I was finally able to find a piece central to the historical fiction I've been writing for 15 years. Glad I got to see it before it crumbled away completely...

  3. So much history available to us, and even more that's crumbled into oblivion. Wonderful stuff, Mike, and thanks for visiting.

    1. And thank you for your comment, Everett. Glad to have seen and touched a site off the grid but central to my historical fiction before it disappears completely.

  4. Mike, I know of a "pool" where I want you to take us for swim. Those passages under the Temple Mount/Mount Moriah. Is/was there actual water under Jerusalem? Say you'll come back with another blog and tell us about those hidden places that feature in both your novels and in your story in "Jewish Noir."

  5. Hi Annamaria - there are, indeed a host of aquaducts that bring water to the Temple Mount along with cisterns that receive and hold the water. These are all established by archeological digs over the past century. Additionally there are apocryphal accounts of water sources issuing from under the foundation stone within the Temple Mount. While I'm happy to expound on this, there is little in the way of a reliable first-hand witness of this "living water" flowing from within.
    I was kind of hoping that my next blog could be my recent first-hand explorations of the question; "where in the world is the heart of Robert the Bruce?" Your call...

    1. Oh, Michael, YES, please: The Heart of Robert the Bruce. We have a Scot, at least one Scot descendant, and the creator of fictional Scots (moi), all of whom will take a keen interest in that one. Just say when. Thanks so much for coming by today. BTW, I love what you have to say above about the difference between "true history" and historical fiction. We are certainly in the same camp on that score.

  6. Thanks, Annamaria
    I'll be happy to cobble this delightfully ambiguous history together within the next month.

  7. Well the heart of Good King Bob has been moved a few times. I think it's now in ....does it begin with an M and have an abbey. Unless Michael has discovered something different. Which is perfectly possible.....

  8. Caro, you won't get any spoilers from me. But Mike, I know, has the clues. Let's wait and see what he says as soon as I can lure him back.

  9. Hi Caro,
    Your comment is well-placed and the heart of the Bruce has indeed logged some serious mileage. While you're quite correct about its extended residence at Melrose Abbey, there's just enough ambiguity to provide for delicious speculation...
    Watch this space