A Conversation with Davis Bunn, Author of Gold of Kings
What was the creative spark that set you to writing Gold of Kings?
The greater part of writing is not the arranging of words on a page. It is an attitude carried within me almost every moment, often below the level of conscious awareness.
Writers try to be alert to an interesting turn of phrase, a compelling description of a landscape, a quirky trait that may shape a character. But our most important instinct is a sixth sense for a good story; when one comes into our sphere we experience a gravitational pull drawing us to seize the idea and develop it.
During the course of some research at Oxford, I came across findings about the lost treasures of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Over the years, small pieces of this puzzle would surface and tentatively fall into place. In London one night, I had a far-reaching conversation with a rabbi and professor of Judaic history. I experienced a minor epiphany as my mind forged fresh relationships between ancient relics and biblical passages. The creative process took hold of me and dozens of ideas suddenly sprung up—as if they were swirling and waiting to be shaped into a tale. I soon typed a title on the first page of a draft manuscript: Gold of Kings.
The novel turns on new revelations about the Roman occupation of Jerusalem and early Church history. Tell us more about these findings and the controversy surrounding them.
I have a strong interest in comparative religious studies, which led me to speculate on the mysteries surrounding the treasures of the Second Temple. This Second Temple stood for 500 years on what is now called the east side of the Old City of Jerusalem. Archaeologists and historians have recently gleaned surprising new insights from the Copper Scroll discovered at Qumran and from the writings of Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian. Josephus had witnessed the siege of Jerusalem, during which many magnificent artifacts were carried off to Rome. With the Temple in jeopardy, was it possible that some of its riches were hidden away for safe-keeping? If so, where might this trove be today? I tracked a few more clues, and became enthralled by the possibility of crafting a novel about one of the world’s greatest treasures—the adventurers who seek to find it, as well as the powers that seek to control it. Clearly, such evidence would impact the veracity of historical events and on competing claims to Jerusalem. As the story unfolds, so does the potential magnitude of the discovery of the Second Temple treasures on contemporary religion and politics.
The preface to Gold of Kings includes some intriguing acknowledgements of people who helped you with this novel. Tell us more about these treasure hunters and salvagers operating off the coast of Florida.
Most of the year we are based in the English countryside outside of Oxford, but we spend the winter season in Florida, near what is called the ‘Treasure Coast.’ This sounds like a label invented by the local chamber of commerce. In fact, countless ships have sunk offshore over the centuries—including Spanish galleons. Hopes of finding a gold doubloon washed up in the sand on the way to a surf session is part of the mentality. However, this area is also home to world-renowned treasure-hunters. Mel Fisher and Bob Marks are two such professionals—fearless adventurers and legend mongers, proud of the countless artifacts they have recovered from remote locations. My interviews with them took place in chambers literally crammed floor-to-ceiling with everything from prehistoric jade, ancient coinage, Ming dynasty porcelain, and marble statues. A fair amount of barnacled junk, too, I suspect. I drew some of the personality traits for my characters from them—especially the sense that they were constantly scanning the horizon and sniffing the wind for the next haul. I also learned about some of the sophisticated technologies now deployed for salvage operations, and the legal disputes that surround them. One of the great pleasures of being a writer is the chance to assimilate remarkable lives and passions.
The field research you undertook in France, Turkey, Cyprus, and the Middle East sounds quite adventurous. Did you ever sense that you were in personal danger?
Northern Cyprus still teems with tension from the battles between the Turks and the Greeks, as well as from the former British military occupation. I felt danger from two sources: the residents and the environment. Let’s not forget that Cyprus is a Mediterranean island within easy reach of the Middle East. In light of the conflict there, Northern Cyprus has become a haven for Arab smugglers—running everything from weapons to cash to human beings. A sense of lawlessness pervades; I experienced several moments that seemed a heartbeat away from catastrophe. The rough landscape also provided some challenges. The castles first erected by Richard the Lionhearted nearly a thousand years ago still loom on the rocky cliff tops. Gaining access meant a dusty drive in a jeep along a rutted track, followed by a long hike along treacherous precipices. All this in 95-degree heat. My notebook reveals some scraggly handwriting from my time at the top—but also some genuine inspiration.
Who is your favorite villain in the story, and why?
Harry Bennett. Well, he is also the hero of the story, but reflects enormous ambiguities.
Basically, he is a liar and a thief and a smuggler who has had run-ins with the law all his life. When we meet him, he is about to be sprung from a Caribbean jail. But we also come to know Harry as someone who can use his highly honed skills for the good, setting aside his own greed. He can even open himself up to love. It is quite easy to write a bad guy. It is also quite easy to write a good guy. But combining the two archetypes into one nuanced character is a challenge. Harry is someone you both want to yell at because of his failings, yet root for because of his heart. I would like to have him as a friend.
You are an award-winning author, with dozens of titles published over the last twenty years. Two questions. First, how do you stay so productive? Second, out of all the critical acclaim you have received, what comments stand out the most?
I enjoy teaching at writers conferences throughout the United States and Great Britain. I give my students lessons in the art of writing, including the importance of discipline and techniques for overcoming impediments and completing manuscripts. But the truth is, for me, writing is like a hunger. This is the work that I was born to do; this is my calling. Of course, I experience occasional obstacles, and there are times when nothing seems to click. But my passion for storytelling takes me right back to the page. I think many authors would agree that the key to a successful writing career is more a question of temperament than of talent. I give thanks every day for the opportunity to pursue this creative profession.
As to reviews—I always read these with a bit of trepidation. Although I must say I feel very buoyant when a source such as Publishers Weekly includes a line or two that my publishing house can use as a ‘blurb’ on the back cover of a book. Many authors appreciate a fan’s assertion that a book kept them turning pages into the wee hours. But one of my favorite comments came from a reader in North Carolina, who had purchased one of my novels for beachside entertainment. She glanced at the first chapter and was soon so captivated by the story that she gave up plans to work on her tan. So, although “kept me up all night” is good, I think “never made it to the beach” is even better.