Late in the summer of 1877, a flock of purple-and-white hoopoes suddenly appears over the town of Constanta on the Black Sea, and Eleonora Cohen is ushered into the world by a mysterious pair of Tartar midwives who arrive just minutes before her birth. "They had read the signs, they said: a sea of horses, a conference of birds, the North Star in alignment with the moon. It was a prophecy that their last king had given on his deathwatch." But joy is mixed with tragedy, for Eleonora's mother dies soon after the birth.
Raised by her doting father, Yakob, a carpet merchant, and her stern, resentful stepmother, Ruxandra, Eleonora spends her early years daydreaming and doing housework—until the moment she teaches herself to read, and her father recognizes that she is an extraordinarily gifted child, a prodigy.
When Yakob sets off by boat for Stamboul on business, eight-year-old Eleonora, unable to bear the separation, stows away in one of his trunks. On the shores of the Bosporus, in the house of her father's business partner, Moncef Bey, a new life awaits. Books, backgammon, beautiful dresses and shoes, markets swarming with color and life—the imperial capital overflows with elegance, and mystery. For in the narrow streets of Stamboul—a city at the crossroads of the world—intrigue and gossip are currency, and people are not always what they seem. Eleonora's tutor, an American minister and educator, may be a spy. The kindly though elusive Moncef Bey has a past history of secret societies and political maneuvering. And what is to be made of the eccentric, charming Sultan Abdulhamid II himself, beleaguered by friend and foe alike as his unwieldy, multiethnic empire crumbles?
The Oracle of Stamboul is a marvelously evocative, magical historical novel that will transport readers to another time and place—romantic, exotic, yet remarkably similar to our own.
Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with Michael David Lukas
Q: Talk about your inspiration for the characters. Was Eleonora based on anyone?
Lukas: I started writing The Oracle of Stamboul in early 2004. At the time I was living in Tunisia, studying Arabic, applying to MFA programs, and generally trying to figure out what to do with my life. Eleonora came to me on a run through the undeveloped outskirts of Tunis. She was hazy in that first glimpse, a slight, precocious child playing backgammon with two older men. I didn’t know anything about her—where she lived or when, who these men were, why she was playing backgammon with them—but I knew as soon as she came to me that I had found the protagonist of my novel. At first, I thought of her as a mix between Alice from Alice in Wonderland and Roald Dahl’s Matilda. A few months later, rummaging through an antique store in Istanbul, I came across a picture of a young girl from the 1880s. When I saw this picture, everything clicked. Here was Eleonora, staring out across history with a laconic, penetrating gaze. Over the next six years, she took on a life and character of her own. Eleonora still has elements of Alice, Matilda, and the girl in the picture, but she has become her own person.
Q: Would you consider the novel to be a fairy tale?
Lukas:The Oracle of Stamboul is very much inspired by fairy tales. Before I began writing the third draft of the novel, I made a point of reading Maria Tartar’s annotated version of the Brothers’ Grimm. Reading these wonderful, dark, and intimately familiar stories again—as an adult and as a writer—helped me understand my novel in a new way. The Brothers’ Grimm taught me the power of a single magical object and the importance of simplicity, in both plot and character. Their stories also reminded me that I wanted The Oracle of Stamboul to be more than a fairy tale. I wanted the novel to have the wonder and familiarity of a story like “Hansel and Gretel” or “Rapunzel,” but I also wanted it to incorporate the magic of place and the sweep of history.
Q: How might readers of different ages experience the book?
Lukas: I hope The Oracle of Stamboul will appeal to a wide range of readers: people who love reading for its power to transport, to inform, and to inspire; adults who read literary novels; and those adults who read the occasional young adult novel; precocious teenagers; those who want to learn about the Ottoman Empire or Istanbul; and anyone who wants to connect with the preternaturally intelligent child inside them. One could read the novel for Eleonora’s story, for the sense of history, for the sense of place, or for the various historical questions I hope the book raises. And none of these readings is better than the others.
Q: Who are the writers and books that have influenced you the most? What books do you think are complementary in style or mien to The Oracle of Stamboul?
Lukas: 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, all writers I look to still for inspiration. 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.
Q: You teach creative writing to third and fourth graders. What have you learned from working with them?
Lukas: This past semester my students participated in National Novel Writing Month. It was kind of a crazy idea, but it worked wonderfully. One student wrote a novel about a panda who is adopted by mice. Another student wrote about a ghostly tooth fairy who is his own worst enemy. And then there was the pair who collaborated on a novel about a moldy pickle and a moldy cucumber who are best friends and want more than anything to escape the refrigerator. When I started teaching the creative writing to third and fourth graders—through an afterschool program called Take My Word For It!—I was going through a bit of a quarter life crisis. My students’ wide-eyed enthusiasm and seemingly-infinite imaginations helped me to regain my sense of wonder and possibility in the world. And they taught me that no idea is too crazy.