A CONVERSATION WITH JAVIER SIERRA
Javier Sierra is an author, writer, researcher, and journalist whose work encompasses a wide range of topics from the historical to the factual to the supernatural. His novel, the Secret Supper, is a world-wide success and has been published in over 40 languages. Javier recently took some time out to talk with Andalucia.com in Malaga, where he now resides.
AC - "Maybe we can start with you telling us a little about your background. As I understand, you are originally born in Teruel?"
JS - "Yes, I was born in Teruel in 1971. My first job for the media was Actual, a weekly radio programme for children. This is the way I entered "into the church", in a way. At 18, I was a founding member of Año Cero. Later, I was part of the magazine, Más Allá. In 1998, I jumped into the literature field with the Lady in Blue. However, it was a hard for me, the change from journalism to fiction."
AC - "What made the change so hard?"
JS - Well, the story of this book had to do with a real character that lived in Spain in the 17th century, during the golden age of Spanish history. I got involved with this case because it was full of many interested documents. With all this material I had choice of writing either a non-fiction book or a fiction. With a non-fiction book, the problem I had was that there were so many, many questions and I had so few answers. So I decided to write a fiction book instead to give some answers to my readers.”
AC - "That works."
JS - "Yes it does! Therefore, I decided from 1998 on to balance my career between non-fiction books and fiction books. In the non-fiction books I ask questions and I do my research into strange things and unexplained phenomenon and in my fiction, I offer my answers to those questions. That's the way it worked."
AC - "I have read that the Secret Supper reached #6 on the New York Times Bestsellers List. You must be very proud of this."
JS - "Yes, I am very proud of that because I am the first Spanish author to reach this and it is the first Spanish [language] novel to enter into the Top Ten of the New York Times Bestsellers List. But you must know since you live in Spain how difficult it can be with people here. Especially old colleagues who look at you and say, "You and not me? The New York Times?" It's quite incredible."
AC - "Just out of interest, how many copies worldwide has the Secret Supper sold to date?"
JS - "I can't really say since it is changing every day. It's somewhere between two and three million copies."
AC - "It is a book that I really did enjoy, even more than Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code."
JS - "Well, they are very different books. When the Da Vinci Code was published, I was just finishing the Secret Supper so I received no influence at all from the Da Vinci Code and its success. In fact, when the Da Vinci Code was published in Spain, I bought one of the first copies. I read it and I told my wife, "It's a book about Leonardo like mine and I don't think it's going to be a big success." So I have no value at all as a prophet."
"So some time in the past, Dan Brown and I were working on the same subject but from very different perspectives. Dan Brown used the "Leonardo mystery" as a background for his novel. His novel is a thriller, criminal, killer novel and mine is, well, something different. It is more similar to the Name of the Rose - it is more of an intellectual plot than a thriller, page-turning plot."
AC - "Obviously this is a very heavily-researched work and we all know that historical fiction is not an easy thing to write. What kind of challenges did you have when you were researching it?"
JS - "My first thought when I decided to write the Secret Supper was to use only historical characters and to reveal the story in the form of a novel. But I failed. I needed a character that centralised all the information and the only big character invented in my novel was the Father, the Inquisitor who is the central narrator of the book. But nearly all of the rest of the characters in the book are real."
"For example, I talk about Pope Alexander VI and that he believed that he was a descendent of the god Osiris. That's fact - it's not my version. In a way, my book is not just a novel; it is an invitation for the reader to jump into the history of that time and to discover that even the greatest "owners" of the orthodoxy were the biggest heretics of the time."
"It's like today; everything is mentira [a lie]. You know, the politicians have two faces, the people in the media have two faces and in that time, things were the same."
AC - "The Secret Supper really is, at the end of the day, a story about orthodoxy, the search for orthodoxy, or at least the enforcement of orthodoxy. What do you think it tells us about today, especially today after 9-11?"
JS - "Well, there are many coincidences between 1497, the year of the Secret Supper and nowadays. For example, the biggest fear of all Europeans in that time was to be invaded by the Muslims, especially from Turkey. We have the same fear today. We have many problems in France with the veil and this is an old, old fear of the Western world to be invaded by another very different religion. This demonstrates that our modern world is not so modern and that we have not separated politics from religion as much as we imagined it was from the French Revolution on."
"Even in the States, we all know that George Bush has a very square mind concerning religion. We know that it happened the same way in Spain, especially in the Aznar era but nowadays as well because we are in the same level of revolution as five centuries ago. I think that these kinds of books are the only way to express these ideas without entering into the dangerous field of being the "open critic" to politics."
AC - "What does the popularity of books like your Secret Supper and the Da Vinci Code inform us about ourselves as a people?"
JS - "Yes, it is a difficult question to answer. As far as I know, my book was an instant bestseller thanks to what happened with the Da Vinci Code. Many people finished reading the Da Vinci Code and they still felt hungry - they wanted to know more."
"When I read the Da Vinci Code I could accept that is a very driven book - the rhythm is very nice. But the end was poor. The end of the book, at least for me, was unsatisfying. So I think that this same feeling was perceived by millions of people around the world. That's why they looked for other books like the Secret Supper. They are still on a quest. This is fantastic because the Da Vinci Code is also a book about the Holy Grail in a way; this mythical, archetypical idea, and, how do you say, the objectivo."
AC - "You mean the goal?"
JS - "Yes! The goal of the Holy Grail is not only to find the Holy Grail but also to look for it. It is the quest. The Da Vinci Code opened the quest, the Secret Supper continued the quest and what's next? I don't know but it will probably be another book that will keep you looking for it."
AC - "There are many sub-texts in the Secret Supper. One of the most interesting is the whole idea of iconography and the different way that people viewed paintings and statues than we perceive them today. Could you expand upon that? When we enter a great cathedral today, are we missing the messages?"
JS - "Absolutely, absolutely! In fact today, we know how to read a book, how to read the "L" with the "A" with the "D" with the "Y" - that's "Lady". We know this. But we have forgotten how to read, for example, a cathedral. The cathedrals in the Middle Ages were the real "Bibles of Stone" and many people approached them to read the statues, the engravings and these kinds of things because they were able to understand biblical passages thanks to these stones. Today we approach a cathedral and the best thing we can say is "How beautiful!" We can't say any more because we have lost this way of reading these statues and the art."
"We've lost them absolutely. Why? Because we now have the watch and we don't need to look at the sun to know what the time of the day is. So what my book tries to teach the reader is that there is a huge encyclopaedia around us that is like the sun and that these things are waiting to be read again."
AC - "Another interesting sub-plot is the whole idea of the "cult of womanhood" and the place of women in the Church, the Catholic Church in particular. Perhaps you could tell us how you think this affects the role of women today?"
JS - "Well, something is happening nowadays that is very similar to what happened in 12th century Europe. In the 12th century, there was a golden age around the female side of life. It was a time when first appeared el amor cortés (courtly love), it was a time when the first churches were built and devoted to the Virgin Mary. It's interesting to note that not a single church that was devoted to the Virgin Mary was built before the year 1000 so in 1000 years, there was no attention paid to the Virgin Mary at all in Christendom."
"So something happened, especially in the south of France and in the northern part of Spain. It is a very similar situation to what's happening now because now, we are living during a revision of the feminine ideal of life. I think this is one of the successes of this book because in a way, people are feeling this "feminine evolution" of society. We are now living the last stages of the male domination of the world. If we can change the archetype of global thinking from the male world to the female world, probably events like the war in Iraq will disappear."
"The greatest sign of this evolution, this "feminine advancement," can be seen in the concept of globalisation. In their private lives, women have traditionally had the larger vision of family, children, money. - it is a more global vision than the male one. Males focus their energy upon one objective. When we men go to work, we go to work. If we are with our children, we are with our children. But it's not that way with women. They have a greater vision. So this globalisation has to do with the advancement of female thinking."
AC - "What does Leonardo Da Vinci mean to you personally?"
JS - "If I had to summarise the character of Leonardo in only one word, that word would be "rebel". He was a rebel against the orthodoxy of the time and while he worked for the church, he still introduced non-orthodox ideas in his paintings. He was also a rebel against the politicians of that time. He worked for them but in a way he introduced many of his own ideas about society and the future."
"We have a very limited knowledge about Leonardo. In a way, he was a visionary like Jules Verne, the French writer. There are many coincidences between both of them and Jules Verne is another of my other favourite characters in history."
AC - "Then Da Vinci was truly a "Renaissance Man," even in the kitchen?"
JS - [Laughing] "Yes! He wanted to be a cook, not a painter, not a sculptor or whatever else. He wanted to be a cook. I mention some of these funny anecdotes in my book. For example, he wanted to invent a very modern kitchen for the Duke of Milan and the kitchen almost burned down. That was true and some of his inventions for the kitchen were instead adapted for war machines."
AC - "Javier, you've written about Roswell, New Mexico, you have written about Napoleon's sojourns into Egypt, and of course, about Leonardo Da Vinci. What is it that attracts you to these types of historical mysteries?"
JS - "Maybe it is because I share with Leonardo this type of "rebel" ideology. When I was a teenager, I went to high school and I received my history lessons. I had the impression (at least here in Spain) that they wanted to convert me into something. They wanted me to accept without questioning the great "truths" of history. This is not my character so I used a great deal of my time back then looking for the little things of history that break these monolithic ways of thinking that were taught to me."
"From that time on I discover how much pleasure I obtained from offering to the others a new perspective on history. This is exactly what I try to do with my books. I try to offer a new way to approach these big "truths". It is also a way to discover that people in that time were more human than we imagine - that history is not history at all. There is no history; there are histories or even just stories. We have to balance them."
JS - "In June. It's now going to be published for the first time in the United States, Canada, UK, and Australia in June. This book was published in Spain in 1998 but after the success of the Secret Supper, my publishers asked them to send me other books and I chose this one, even so I decided to re-write it. I spent almost a year updating and writing parts of this book and now this is a new book, even for me. This will be the first time that a book written by a Spanish author will be first published in English and then later on, perhaps next year, it will be published in Spanish. Again, this is another sign of globalisation. It doesn't matter in which language you think or you write. It's wonderful."
AC - "So what is on the horizon for Javier Sierra?"
JS - "Well, I'm going to publish a new book in September here in Spain. It's going to be titled La Ruta Prohibida. It's a non-fiction book and it's about the mysteries that surround the discovery of America. It starts in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. At St. Peter's, in the main hall, will can find and old gravestone of Pope Innocent VIII. This Pope died in July, 1492 but on his gravestone you will read "Mine is the glory of the discovery of the New World"."
"The problem is that Columbus sailed from Huelva, from Palos in August, the next month in 1492. He died in 1506 and without realising that he discovered the "New World" - the expression, the "New World" was not adopted by anyone until around 1510, more or less. So why on this gravestone is there this expression? This is the starting point of my new book. It's fascinating."
AC - "It does sound fascinating. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, Javier."
JS - "Thank you - it was my pleasure."