Q&A with Michael David Lukas

Michael Lukas. Photo courtesy of umd.edu.

Originally published in the November 2011 issue of the The Writers’ Bloc

By Jamie Lee

Print Staff Writer

Michael David Lukas is coming to Maryland as part of the Writers Here and Now event on December 7. He is an alumnus of Brown University and Maryland’s MFA program and author of The Oracle of Stamboul.

Influenced by Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl, Italo Calvino, and Gabriel García Márquez, The Oracle of Stamboul is set in 1877 and follows the tale of a young prodigy named Eleonora Cohen. It was lauded by Amazon as marvelously evocative, magical historical novel that will transport readers to another time and place—romantic, exotic, yet remarkably similar to our own.”

Lukas was born and raised in Berkeley, California and recently moved back into the area. In his spare time, he enjoys cooking, running, reading, hanging out with friends, and going to estate sales.

Q: What authors were particularly influential to you in writing The Oracle of Stamboul?

A: Among many others, The Oracle of Stamboul is influenced by Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl, Italo Calvino, and Gabriel García Márquez. During the year I started writing the book I had a lot of free time. In the period of a few months I read most of Vladimir Nabokov, John Steinbeck, James Baldwin, and Flannery O’Connor. I was most taken, however, by those whose work falls into the subgenre I like to call historical fabulism—José Saramago, Günter Grass, and Salman Rushdie—storytellers of the old school who add a pinch of magic to the stew of history. I was particularly moved by Saramago’s novel The History of the Siege of Lisbon, in which a bored proofreader literally rewrites the history of Lisbon, and by Grass’s The Tin Drum, in which a clairvoyant young German boy named Oskar Matzerath disrupts the traditional narrative of World War II by beating on a tin drum. How wonderful, this idea that a single act, a single person, might change the course of history. And there is something about the voice of those writers—Grass, Calvino, Saramago—a certain wise detachment, that is almost entirely absent from American literature. The only writer I can think of with a similar voice is William Maxwell.

Q: Aside from writing, what are your other passions?

A: I like to cook. I like going for runs. I like reading. I like going to estate sales. And I like hanging out with my friends. Nothing too special.

Q: What was your favorite class or teacher as an undergraduate, and why?

A: I have three favorite classes from my undergraduate days: “Post-Colonial Faulkner,” because it expanded my conceptions of literature and disassembled everything I thought I knew about borders; “Japanese Buddhism in Historical Perspective,” because it was totally unlike anything else I took in college, but still totally amazing; and “Dissolution of the Ottoman Empire,” because it got me thinking about the end of the Ottoman Empire and really helped my research of The Oracle of Stamboul.

Q: Where is home for you?

A: I was born and raised in Berkeley, California. And, after a decade or so of wandering around, recently moved back to the area. I currently live less than a mile from the hospital where I was born.

Q: Your bio online says you teach third and fourth graderswhat drew you to teaching? What do you enjoy most about it, and what do you find most challenging?

A: Teaching has always been an inspiration for me, and teaching children is especially inspiring. They are such natural writers, with amazingly fertile imaginations and an almost innate sense of plot. When I first started teaching writing to children—through an afterschool program called Take My Word For It!—I was going through a bit of a quarter life crisis. And my students’ wide-eyed enthusiasm helped me to regain my sense of wonder and possibility in the world. I also love that children don’t second guess their own ideas. Last year I had students writing novels about ghost dog tooth fairies and moldy pickles trying to escape the refrigerator. And they all worked! The only challenging part is getting them to sit down and write.

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