Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.
Today, Assaph Mehr – Assaph has been a bibliophile since he learnt to read at the age of five, and a Romanophile ever since he first got his hands on Asterix, way back in elementary school. This exacerbated when his parents took him on a trip to Rome and Italy – he whinged horribly when they dragged him to “yet another church with baby angels on the ceiling”, yet was happy to skip all day around ancient ruins and museums for Etruscan art.
Thanks so much, Assaph, for joining me!
J. Scott Coatsworth: When did you know you wanted to write, and when did you discover that you were good at it?
Assaph Mehr: Interesting twist on an old question 😊
I knew I wanted to read since I started reading books. I knew how to read at five, but started reading seriously when I started school at six and found out I could no longer run outside in circles as much as I used to.
I’ve always had the dream of seeing my name in print, just never thought I’d get to it before retirement. I was as surprised as everyone at my first manuscript.
As for when I knew I was good, I sent that raw first draft to a beta reader, just to see if it has merits. I got it back with copy edits in red pen throughout – and a scrawled note at the end that she fell in love with it and I’ve just given her the worst book hangover…
Since then, the numerous reviews my books have received on Amazon and Goodreads keep me writing.
JSC: How would you describe your writing style/genre?
AM: It’s labelled under Historical Fantasy, though if you’re looking for the specific Amazon sub-category I’m #1 at, it’s along the lines of “Historically-themed Urban High Fantasy Detective Mystery (with a dash of Horror)”. Mashing isn’t just for potatoes, you know 😜
A tad more seriously, I write in a style that’s an amalgamation of everything I like reading. I grew up on classic detectives (from Christie and Conan Doyle to Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammet). I fell in love with Sci Fi and Fanatsy since I was introduced to The Hobbit, and have been avidly reading these genres most of my life. And while I’ve always been fascinated by ancient Rome, in the past decade or two I’ve been reading a lot of historical fiction set in that era, particularly detective series like those of Lidnsey Davis, Steven Saylor, and David Wishart.
So when it came time to write, I based my style and genre on what I like to read. It’s a hard-boiled detective dealing with paranormal and magical cases in a world that’s based on Ancient Roman culture.
JSC: Have you ever taken a trip to research a story? Tell me about it.
AM: In a way, I only write when I travel! As it happens, between the kids and pets the only quiet time I get to write is on the train ride to and from work… So travel on public transport is a definite factor in my writing process 😂
My parents took me to Rome when I was thirteen. I already knew about it (I’ve been reading Asterix since I could read), but visiting the old Forum ruins and other places left a last impression. My mum and I had to strike a balance, with one day dedicated to skipping around ancient ruins and the next to yet another boring cathedral with painted cherubs. I knew what I liked even then.
These days I live in Australia, and traveling to Italy – much as I’d like to – is not an easy option. Luckily the internet is a wonderful place, and I routinely search news and academic articles about new finds. There is a lot of material out there that I come across and later use as inspiration for my writing. It’s a lot easier to cover more ground this way, than in actual travel.
For example, see here a post about a bronze statue I read about that became an important feature in one of my novels: https://egretia.com/2017/11/21/ancient-news/
JSC: What do you do when you get writer’s block?
AM: I am halfway between a discovery writer to a plotter. This means that when I start a book I know what’s it about and the main points I want to hit (each has a trifecta of Roman element, Magical doings, and a mystery twist), but not the details of what happens in between. So naturally there are time I write my protagonist into a corner, and not sure how he’s getting out of the current heap of trouble.
This is the point where Felix (my hardboiled detective) turns to me, says “Hold my wine and watch this,” and does something outstandingly devious. Usually involving a brothel.
If you’re after more practical advice, though, I use a combination of short- and long-term planning for each book. I use tables to track sub-plots and calendar progression, and when I’m stuck on a particular point I write long-hand everything that comes to mind until I reach a solution. My subconscious does wonderful things when I hold a pen, even though to actually write I need a keyboard. I’ve written an article about this process here: https://egretia.com/2019/07/24/writing-process-or-how-to-make-sure-the-muse-works-for-you/
JSC: How long do you write each day?
AM: As mentioned above, I write on the train ride to and back from work. That means I get an average of six hours of uninterrupted time per week. I use that tie wisely and effectively, and make the muse work for me.
I do sneak in half an hour or an hour here and there – lunch breaks or late nights when I get the peace and quiet to concentrate – but that is unpredictable. Still, it’s amazing what you can do in such short bursts. I use the “off” time to plan, and when it comes to it I sit down and write. I estimate I can complete a 100K words first draft in six to nine months. Editing is usually easier, as I can do it in between other things as well.
JSC: What do you do if you get a brilliant idea at a bad time?
AM: Write them down (I just send an email to myself from my phone – this covers most times except showers). Generally speaking, I always have more ideas than time to write them. I keep ordered notes about everything: tracking the current WIP, planning the next book, and a slush-pile of ideas that I’ll get to one day (maybe).
It’s been working for me. I have the discipline to finish the WIP before jumping on another project (no matter how exciting it is right now), and when I move to the next project I already had a lot of time for my subconscious to float up good ideas, and they’re ready for a more formal treatment.
JSC: Do your books spring to life from a character first or an idea?
AM: Both, in a way. Well before I started to write, the protagonist of my current series and some of his friends have been in the back of my head for a while together with the “locked room” type mystery he was facing. Since I had the magical mystery, it was clear that I needed an occult detective to solve it. They grew together.
For a new, unrelated project I’m currently planning (shh, don’t tell Felix fans!), the main character started nagging me. He also came with an introduction scene. The idea for the whole novel series he’ll star in, as well as his friends, came later.
JSC: If you had a grant to write any book you wanted as a freebie without worrying about sales, what kind of story would you like to tell?
AM: I already do that. Not the grant part, mind you, but I write exactly the stories I want to read and tell. It makes the editing process a joy, for starters, as I never get tired of re-reading them.
This is part of my overarching evil-genius plan to becoming a household name and retiring to write full time in my mansion. The plan started as:
Step 1: Publish book
Step 2: Get movie deal
Step 3: Retire
I then realized that I needed a couple more steps in there. So I write the stories I’m passionate about, in the belief that this passion carries through to the reader and makes for the best stories. I have nothing against authors who set out to satisfy a particular market (they’re probably make more money than I do), but I treat writing as a creative outlet and tell the stories I’m most in love with.
I think that’s an essential component in reaching said fame and fortune. That’s what will make a story shine, will get it picked up by readers and film studios, and what will be remembered.
JSC: What’s the funniest or creepiest thing you’ve come across while researching for one of your stories?
AM: I research a lot of Roman trivia. I collect it for fun, and for later usage. One of the thing I came across was the lucky charms that Romans used to ward the evil eye. These lucky charms are ubiquitous in the archaeological record, and naturally appear in my novels.
They have even influenced words we use to this day. I’ll leave you with this image I prepared that explains it all:
JSC: What are you working on now?
AM: The third full-length novel in my Stories of Togas, Daggers, and Magic series. The first was Murder In Absentia: about a murder that couldn’t have happened. That next was In Numina: a story of haunted houses and household gods. Now I’m working on In Victrix: a story of gladiators and womanly mysteries.
In between there was a stand-alone novella, called Aquae et Ignis: a story of Lunacy and Piracy, of Exile and Ghosts. It contains all the essential elements of the series (a fantasy mystery on an ancient Roman background), and I give it for free for readers to introduce the series: https://egretia.com/novels/aquae-et-ignis
And now for Assaph’s book: In Numina:
This is the second Story of Togas, daggers, and Magic – for lovers of Ancient Rome, Hardboiled detectives, and Urban Fantasy.
A rich landlord finds tenants are abandoning his apartment buildings, spouting tales of horrific events and whispering that the old gods – the numina – came alive and cursed the buildings.
Enter Felix, a professional fox. Dressed in a toga and armed with a dagger, Felix is neither a traditional detective nor a traditional magician – but something in between. Whenever there is a foul business of bad magic, Felix is hired to sniff out the truth. Now he must separate fact from superstition – a hard task in a world where the old gods still roam the earth.
In Numina is set in a fantasy world. The city of Egretia borrows elements from a thousand years of ancient Roman culture, from the founding of Rome to the late empire, mixed with a judicious amount of magic. This is a story of a cynical, hardboiled detective dealing with anything from daily life to the old forces roaming the world.
We began like we had the night before. The building’s rectangular courtyard had a classic layout. There was a fountain in the centre with a cheap statue of a dolphin spraying waters that collected in a shallow pool. Around the pool were beds of earth for tenants to grow plants, which were now dried and dead. A shrine to the house’s guardian spirit stood behind the fountain and across from public fire-pits where tenants could cook their meals. These were built of brick and placed well away from the walls to reduce the chance of fire — a hazard in any city.
With Borax keeping watch, I set up my pan and other necessities in one of these fire-pits, prepared the psilocybein eggs and intoned the right words. I took one bite, then a second. It didn’t take long for their effects to take hold.
A silvery, slimy trail like that of a slug led me to the apartment where the painting’s snakes had eaten a baby alive in his crib. The place was abandoned, everything gone except for the crib and the picture still hanging on the wall above it. I have only vague recollection of my baby sister. When she died of the ague during her second month of life, my mother had completely removed every trace of her from our home. Standing in that room, I was overwhelmed by the indescribable loss, a feeling I hope never to feel first hand.
The walls shimmered, acquiring a liquid, multi-coloured quality, like the faint rainbow of oils floating on a river downstream from where the washerwomen do their chores. The painting attained a depth, grew larger, took on a life beyond what could have been accommodated by a recess in the wall. I looked at the forest glade where the baby Hercules had been painted, and now showed only a grassy patch fringed with ominously dark trees. One could almost hear the rustling of leaves against an absence of bird noises that was somehow alarming. It stood as a window unto another world, yet I was not in the slightest tempted to reach into it, expecting the snakes would come biting me soon enough.
After a while of moving between the crib, the mural, and other apartments where atrocities happened, I located the silvery spiderweb of power that led me back towards its centre.
I explored the hall, stumbling occasionally but carrying on. . I ventured down the steps, carefully balancing myself with a hand on the wooden bannister which felt rough, scaly. Down and down, the tread of my feet on the stone steps echoed in the dark hallway, the stone walls closing in on me as I descended.
Stepping through one of the ground floor apartments, my eyes darted from side to side to catch the apparitions hovering at the edge of my vision. The snaking silver webs of power were multiplying, coming from all directions, passing through family shrines to the lares and di penates, and climbing the walls like suffocating vines, to converge on a potted tree in the corner.
Borax was standing at the ready, his pose the relaxed posture of a fighter about to pounce, but his fingers drummed lightly around on the iron cooking pan in his hands. He looked askance at any statue or bas-relief that might suddenly come alive. It says something about my life when the gladiator I employ to guard it prefers a heavy iron skillet as his weapon of choice.
The tree that sprouted from the clay pot was a leafy bay, its roots packed tightly in the knee-high container. I searched the base of the tree, thinking to unearth something from the dirt, but I should have looked at the tree. As my fingers dug into the earth, a branch snapped down with the head of a snake, biting my arm. I jumped back, staring at a tree that was now a coiling mass of snakes, snapping at me, like the head of Medusa the Gorgon.
Without thinking, I grabbed a discarded folding chair and threw it at the branches-snakes, then jumped into the opening and hacked at the snakes with my dagger. Borax joined me with a yell, stabbing at the tree trunk with his sword and swatting the snake-heads away with his pan. The heads made satisfying crunching sounds when he managed to smash them.
After a particularly big swipe with the pan cleared an opening, Borax aimed a mighty kick at the terracotta pot. He managed to tip it over and it cracked on impact, spilling the earth from inside it. Something metallic shone in the dirt and I kicked the object, moving it away from the snakes.
While Borax kicked and stomped with his heavy boots, the snakes appeared less fearsome as their tails remained connected to the fallen tree trunk. I took out another specially prepared leather purse from the sack of supplies and dropped the tabula defixionis into it. This device wasn’t enough to completely block the strong magia of the curse but dampened the enchantment sufficiently to turn the snakes’ scales back to bark. As they slowed, Borax took pleasure smashing them to bits. I tied the cords of the purse in a ritualistic knot, mumbling a few words of power and a supplication to the gods.
Assaph has been a bibliophile since he learnt to read at the age of five, and a Romanophile ever since he first got his hands on Asterix, way back in elementary school. This exacerbated when his parents took him on a trip to Rome and Italy – he whinged horribly when they dragged him to “yet another church with baby angels on the ceiling”, yet was happy to skip all day around ancient ruins and museums for Etruscan art.
He has since been feeding his addiction for books with stories of mystery and fantasy of all kinds. A few years ago he randomly picked a copy of a Lindsay Davis’ Marcus Didius Falco novel in a used book fair, and fell in love with Rome all over again, this time from the view-point of a cynical adult. His main influences in writing are Steven Saylor, Lindsey Davis, Barry Hughart and Boris Akunin.
Assaph now lives in Sydney, Australia with his wife, kids, cats, and – this being Australia – assorted spiders. By day he is a software product manager, bridging the gap between developers and users, and by night he’s writing – he seems to do his best writing after midnight.