The Eye of Ra series is an action-packed, time-travel filled middle grade book series that sweeps readers across time and space. You can find my reviews of The Eye of Ra and Sol Invictus here, and my review of the upcoming People of the Sun here.
The author of the Eye of Ra series, Ben Gartner, was kind enough to answer my interview questions. Here’s our conversation:
What inspired you to write People of the Sun?
Ben Gartner: Fun and sons. I started writing The Eye of Ra series with my sons. And it was a ton of fun. So we kept it going. They heavily influenced the direction, plot, and characters of each book. Specifically for People of the Sun, when thinking about the subject matter for book 3, my oldest had just studied Mesoamerica and wanted to learn more about the Aztec, specifically. And learn we did! Once I read more about the Sun Stone, I was hooked and a twist-filled plot starting circulating in my mind. I knew we had a winner and a great way to wrap up what had occurred in book one and two, while also leaving it open for future books. Satisfying, yet teasing more. Perfect!
What was your first thought that set you off on the Eye of Ra series path?
Ben Gartner: I had been working on a different adult novel a few years ago, but it was hard to discuss it around the table with my kids. For kicks, we started brainstorming a new story idea together. I wrote it down. We elaborated and fine-tuned, and I knew we had something that was worthy of sending to the cousins. I thought I might as well do it right, so I hired editors, proofreaders, a professional illustrator and designer. I wanted to learn the whole process, and I wanted to put something out that my sons could point to and say, “My dad did that.”
Which character was the easiest to write? The hardest?
Ben Gartner: John was probably the easiest because he’s probably most like me. Sarah wasn’t the hardest, but she more so represented my older son in terms of the challenges of getting older and walking that nebulous gray area between childhood and adulthood. And that’s not easy to write. Both were fun to write. The hardest characters to write were the historical ones. I wanted to research them carefully and make sure I was representing them accurately, and sensitively. That made it a lot of fun to write, to step into their mind’s eye, but also required the most investigation and tweaking to get it just right. I also enlisted sensitivity readers to make sure I wasn’t saying anything silly.
Which time period was the most fun to research and write about?
Ben Gartner: All of them. I know this is a cop-out, but each had their own unique nuances. If I’m learning, I’m having fun. And I learned a ton in preparing for each of these books. I never knew that, in ancient Egypt, there was a pharaoh, Akhenaten, who started the first monotheistic society based on the sun-disk Aten. His son Tutankhamen tore it all down after he took the throne. I never knew that, in ancient Rome, a mysterious rebel named Crocus may have influenced the course of human history by lobbying for the appointment of Constantine as Caesar. And I never knew that the ancient Aztec believed, in the cosmology of the universe, that our world has been consumed and destroyed multiple times in the past. And I also love thinking and dreaming about time travel and slowing time. That never gets old (hyuck hyuck).
The accuracy of historical details is incredible, and really creates an immersive reading experience. Would you share a little on your research practices and why its so important to you to get those details right?
Ben Gartner: Thank you! Yes, historical accuracy is very important to me. I also believe that the tiniest of daily details is what contributes most to the immersive experience. Learning about the clothing styles, what they ate for dinner, their normal routines and patterns—those are the intricacies that showcase how much more similar than different we are as humans across the globe and across the eons. Yes, we all have our unique idiosyncrasies, but it’s fun to think about what it might be like to have dinner with Imhotep, or camp out in the Alps a thousand years ago, or drink xocolatl inside an Aztec temple.
In terms of my research method, it is probably best described as “spelunking.” I start in a well-lit cave of knowledge using online tools such as Wikipedia. And then I follow the narrowest, darkest tunnels I can find to shed light on the cracks in history where we don’t know a lot. Our educated guesses can fill in what’s missing in the archeological record, but ultimately it comes down to an exercise in creative thinking. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, from Albert Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
I should also add that any time a “fact” seems iffy, I will double or triple check it with other resources, including books on the topic, or professors in the field, or other experts on the subject. For example, with People of the Sun, I asked a professor of Mesoamerican culture, and another teacher of Nahuatl, to review my manuscript for technical accuracy and cultural sensitivity. Of course, any errors or oversights are entirely mine.
The point is: I want these books to be, first and foremost, exciting adventure stories. But if they are based in factual accuracy, then maybe we can learn something as we are swept along with the action. And if I spur a young mind to be inquisitive and go do their own research on a topic, my book has ignited a spark that lives beyond the end of the story. How exhilarating for us both!
If you could travel to any time period and place, where would you go?
Ben Gartner: There are so many wonders of the world through the ages to choose from that my mind trips on itself with this kind of question. But where my heart always goes is to the people. I think it would be fascinating to visit some of the influential people through history, understand where their head was during difficult decisions. But, to answer your question finitely, I would travel both backward and forward to visit my own family members. I’d love to talk with my great grandparents and watch their children interact, have dinner with them and hear what they did at school that day. Similarly, I’d love to travel into the future and sit at the breakfast table with my great great grandchildren and hear about their dreams. I think that is a common thread in my books too. Places and events are cool to consider, but the people who made those times momentous are the ones most interesting to explore, the ones with whom we can empathize. In book 1, it took off when I thought about what the architect of the very first pyramid (at Saqqara) must have been like. Book 2 burrowed into a mysterious figure named Crocus. Book 3 latched on to the child’s perspective in the time of the stereotypically bloody time of the Aztec. What did those people think of their own times? Are they much different than you or I?
Can you tell us what’s coming next, or what project has you really excited?
Ben Gartner: My work-in-progress is a “space fiction” story of which I’m immensely proud. It is a stand-alone separate book from The Eye of Ra series, but showcases some of the same flavor: action, adventure, but with scientifically accurate portrayals of space travel, our historical experiences, and what is planned next for missions to the moon and beyond. While that is in revisions, I’m also stewing on a couple of other projects. A book four for The Eye of Ra is not out of the realm of possibility. I needed a bit of a break from that series just to stretch my creative wings a bit, but John and Sarah will always have a special place in my heart and I won’t be surprised if I return to their story. I have a mind-blowing idea for how it could all eventually wrap up, but I want to tease my reader until it’s ready to truly end. I mean that in the most loving way.
What are your comfort reads?
Ben Gartner: I read quite a bit, but I wish it were more. Over the last few years, it’s been more heavily slanted toward other middle grade books, but I read adult novels too. I pepper in a nonfiction book or a biography here and there, but primarily my comfort reads are books that exercise my imagination. I love to be drawn into other people’s lives, other places in both space and time, other perspectives, other subject areas that are new to me. I love to live vicariously through challenges I couldn’t ever imagine facing in real life. I often have a visceral reaction to stories that really suck me in, and that learning-through-escapism is my real comfort.
Thank you so much for having me on your blog, Christine. These were great, thought-provoking questions and I had a lot of fun. At the end of the day, that’s what this is all about — learning and having fun. So thank you!
If people want to learn more about me, my website is the best place: BenGartner.com
I’m also active on twitter: https://twitter.com/BGartnerWriting
and Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/bgartnerwriting/
Thank you dearly, Ben Gartner, for sharing your insights with us. It has been such a pleasure to read The Eye of Ra series.
Looking for your own copies of The Eye of Ra series? You can find them on Bookshop.org and Amazon here (Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and Amazon. I will earn a commission (at no extra cost to you) if you click through and make a purchase.) :