By Kira Peikoff
THE TENTH SAINT is a debut thriller by DJ Niko, a journalist, author, editor, and self-proclaimed modern nomad who has spent the better part of two decades traveling the world. In the novel, she takes readers to the Ethiopian highlands, where a secret that could save the earth is buried within an ancient mountain kingdom. Ethiopia’s holy men have kept it hidden for centuries, but archaeologist Sarah Weston discovers the obscure inscriptions that could expose it. Caught in a deadly conspiracy, she risks everything–her reputation, her career, her life –to follow her convictions and bring the ancient secret to light and prevent the ultimate destruction.
Recently I caught up with Niko, who shared a behind-the-scenes glimpse of her exciting journey writing, researching, and publishing THE TENTH SAINT.
What inspired the fascinating premise behind this novel?
A couple of things. The original premise was a philosophical question relating to prophecies. I’ve always been fascinated by that topic. My husband and I were talking about it and posed the question to each other: what if these ancient prophecies were true? What if we knew these events were really going to happen? Would we change our lives, exercise our free will?
Also, my travels in Ethiopia. Much of book takes place there. It’s a place I was totally fascinated by. I wasn’t researching for a novel at the time but I knew it would take on a greater role in my writing and somehow I ended up putting it all together: my love for ancient world, my fascination with the place and with prophecies.
You’ve traveled extensively around the world. What about Ethiopia in particular fascinated you?
I went there to check it out because it was a place I hadn’t seen. Not a lot of tourists go there. I ended up going to a lot of places tourists don’t even see. The culture unfolded for me; the place was almost forgotten. There were vestiges of a long-lost glory, but it was really a state of decay. I personally love that and wanted to discover more about it.
I used to be a travel writer for ten years before setting down roots. I was gone literally all the time. Plus I always had personal love for adventure.
In your travels, what was the most inspiring thing you discovered along the way?
I’ve been to India seven times, including on my honeymoon, which my husband still hasn’t forgiven me for! In all the times, I never once stayed in mainstream hotel, only in backpacker’s inns. I just wanted to get close to the street culture, and discover the place. I learned so much more about how the people live, what they believe in, what makes the place tick. It’s very eye-opening. Cuba is another example of a very poor nation struggling. What inspires me is the people and how they live their lives–what their differences are, and what our similarities are. Fundamentally, we are all so much more similar than we are different and I love that connection.
Your main character is an archaeologist. What makes her tick?
She’s a British aristocrat, having grown up knowing the finer things, knowing how the upper class lives, and has rebelled against it. She has chosen the opposite path where she leads a very solitary existence working among the stones in remote places. But also she feels like she can contribute in a greater way by doing what she’s doing rather than sitting around at cocktail parties and gossiping with her peers, which is what some of the people in her class do. [She’s driven by] her desire to explore remote places and her love for adventure—as well as her desire to do the right thing.
Tell us a little bit about your research for the book.
I did a huge amount of research, ranging from the historical to the present day—Coptic Christianity and research in Coptic monasteries, Ancient Ethiopia and the Aksumite Empire (an Empire that thrived from the 1st century to 5th century AD), the Bedouin way of life (the tribe of people who live a nomadic existence), to all the places in Ethiopia that I visited in person. Also I researched the scientific premise of the book, which deals with using algae technology to capture carbon and turn it into oxygen. It took four years to write the book.
What has been most surprising about the whole process of writing and publishing your first book?
How much work it is not just to write a book and publish it, but also to get people to read it. The marketing, the getting the word out, putting it in the hands of people who will become dedicated readers. I always thought the bulk of work was done when you hand in your final manuscript, but wow, was I in for a surprise!
The other thing that’s surprising is that writing fiction is a lot harder than I thought. I’ve been a writer all my life, but the construction is difficult. I felt like I had a lot to learn. Also, I wake up in the morning at four o’clock to work on my fiction for three hours every single day. I have a full time job and twins who are almost three, so I have to be really, really devoted to it. This is only way it’s going to work.
What advice do you have for other writers just starting out with their first novels?
To keep at it. Don’t underestimate the power of research and write as many drafts as possible. Go back and rework and rework and rework, then when you are happy with it, go back and workshop it, let your peers and your instructor critique it, and then maybe you’re ready to put it out to the world. But definitely don’t give up.
One last question. If you could ask your main character Sarah Weston one thing, what would it be? And what might she answer?
If I could ask Sarah Weston one thing, it would be: “When are you going to quit smoking?” In response, I suspect she’d turn her shoulder at me and light up.
THE TENTH SAINT publishes on March 1, 2012.
D.J. Niko is the pseudonym for Daphne Nikolopoulos, a journalist, author, editor, and self-proclaimed modern nomad who has spent the better part of two decades traveling the world. As a former travel writer and zealous adventurer, she has visited remote spots on six continents, many of which have inspired her novels. THE TENTH SAINT is her debut novel in a series of archaeological thrillers. Her second novel will be released June 2013. She is editor in chief of Palm Beach Illustrated and editorial director of Palm Beach Media Group.
To learn more, please visit her website.