D.J. Niko – an interview with the author of The Tenth Saint

(photography by Lauren Lieberman / LILA PHOTO)

(photography by Lauren Lieberman / LILA PHOTO)

A couple of days ago I posted a review of The Tenth Saint, a wonderful archaeological mystery by D.J. Niko. I am delighted to follow the review up with an interview with the author. This gave me the opportunity to find out a little more about D.J.’s research and sense of place and history, all of which contribute to make The Tenth Saint an unusual and very strong thriller. The Q&A also touches on the second Sarah Weston adventure The Riddle of Solomon (review to follow soon), what will happen next and D.J. Niko’s own favourite reads and influences.

The Tenth Saint is an excellent mystery, rooted very firmly in the Ethiopian and Arabian settings. You clearly know these places very well. Why do they inspire you so much and what draws you to them?

I am a lifelong traveller and a keen observer of other cultures. I am particularly drawn to deserts and to the nomadic existence … there is something poetic in living with the rhythms of the earth, never becoming attached to any one place, taking no more than you need. I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with nomads in North Africa and have so much respect for them and their rapidly disappearing way of life. As to Ethiopia, I travelled there some years back, for fun really, and was blown away by the place. Not only is it rich in history (that, sadly, very few people know about), it has a deep spirituality that colours every fiber of the culture. From the devout men of the priesthood to the common person, everyone seems to transcend the difficulties of daily life through a profound sense of faith. That initial fascination only became amplified when I went back for research. It’s a special place.

The Tenth SaintThe heroine Sarah Weston is an intriguing character. Are there elements of yourself in her? Is there a reason why you made her a British aristocrat?

There is a bit of me in her, I suppose. We both have this deep fascination for the ancient world and what it can teach us. We share a love for adventure and a moral compass pointing to truth in all things. But she is probably braver than I am. And she has much longer legs. I made her an aristocrat to underscore her choice: she could be comfortable and successful by following the rules of the Establishment, but she doesn’t want that. Aside from the fact that it’s only ever brought her grief, that kind of life doesn’t ring true to her. But her aristocratic background is handy, because she understands the mentality of her adversaries—the powerful men and women who manipulate antiquities for personal gain. And that helps her defeat them.

Biblical and early Christian mysteries are a popular theme for archaeological thrillers. What do you think makes The Tenth Saint stand out?

The Tenth Saint ventures into a part of Christianity that most people don’t know much about. I lecture a lot, and I always get some version of the statement, “I didn’t know Ethiopia was a Christian nation!” It was, in fact, the first African nation to embrace Christianity and remains one of the few places in Africa where the religion is practiced today. Unlike any others in the genre, this book explores the early roots of Christianity—the Coptic variety, if you want—circa the fourth century CE, as well as the Orthodox Christianity prevailing in Ethiopia today and some mystical aspects.

The Riddle of Solomon by D.J. NikoThe Riddle of Solomon is a great sequel to The Tenth Saint. I found the relationships between characters in both novels as fascinating as the mysteries and, once again, the villains are not straightforward; their motives are ambiguous. How important is it that the characters, whether good or bad, should seem real?

Thank you for picking up on that! Characters who are multi-dimensional—heroes who are flawed, villains who are not purely evil—seem more real and relatable. No one is 100 percent good—or bad—just as life, and the choices it presents us with, is not black and white. In The Tenth Saint, the villain, Sandor Hughes, is convinced he is doing the right thing by introducing his algae prototype into the environment for the purpose of carbon capture. He thinks he is saving the earth. It isn’t his motive, but rather his means, that is so detestable. But even after Sarah beats him at his game, she isn’t sure she did the right thing. I love that push-and-pull, that sense of inner conflict. It’s not standard formula for thrillers, but it’s a theme I enjoy working into my stories.

There have been two Sarah Weston adventures. Will there be more?

I am working on a third now, titled The Oracle. It is set in Delphi and explores Greek mythology, specifically the cult of Apollo. Being Greek, I am quite excited about this one. It is a wonderful opportunity for me to revisit the myths and legends I grew up with, as well as bring in the modern twist of government corruption and antiquities theft. Should be a fun one.

Have you ever had a go at archaeology yourself?

Not formally, no. I’ve visited archaeological sites but haven’t gotten into the dirt, so to speak. But I’ve done so much research, and have spoken to so many experts, that it feels very familiar to me.

The Tenth Saint Tour Banner_FINAL 2 (1)

Do you read other thriller writers? Did any inspire you to write thrillers yourself?

Honestly, I am not a huge consumer of thrillers. What I like are old-fashioned adventure stories, particularly those set in exotic locales—you know, the sort H. Rider Haggard used to write. I’ve also read almost everything Wilbur Smith has written. If any writer inspired me to write in this genre, it would be Smith.

The Tenth Saint is perfect reading for these long cold nights – which authors do you read while curled up by the fire

I enjoy reading good writing—in any genre. There is nothing like the feeling of getting lost in words. Some of my favourite authors right now are Dave Eggers, Junot Diaz, Khaled Hosseini, Jhumpa Lahiri, Edwidge Danticat, and the late, great David Foster Wallace and Bruce Chatwin. Quite the eclectic mix!

A review of The Tenth Saint, one of my reading highlights of 2013. A review of The Riddle of Solomon will be posted shortly. Thanks to D.J. Niko for taking the time to answer my questions.

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