A native of Louisiana, George Steger followed a long Deep South tradition by seeking to improve his prospects in the military. His service in the Army included battalion command in Vietnam and four European tours as an intelligence officer and Russian foreign area specialist, working on both sides of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. Colonel Steger traded sword for academia and is now Professor Emeritus of history and international affairs at the University of Saint Mary in Leavenworth, Kansas. His novel, Sebastian’s Way, is a tale of adventure, duty, honor, and love in the eighth century during the time of Charlemagne. The novel came from his experiences in both war and peace–from fourteen years in Germany and Eastern Europe, and from his love of teaching medieval and other European history courses. Steger is an avid hiker and trail biker. Much of the story of Sebastian was envisioned during time spent in the woods and fields of eastern Kansas. In memory of his Mary Jo, his wife of many years, he spent a recent summer trekking across Spain on The Camino de Santiago, one of Europe’s oldest pilgrimage trails. He lives and writes in rural Kansas.
Hello, George! Thank you for chatting with me today about your book, Sebastian’s Way and congrats on the B.R.A.G. Medallion. Please tell me a little about your book.
Sebastian’s Way, first of all, is a moral tale—of character, of faith and courage, and, not least, of love. Though replete with action and adventure, it strives to concoct a colorful medieval stew, full of the authentic stock of the times: savage warriors, courageous, ground-breaking clergy, salty peasants, and plenty of memorable maidens for those who like a good romance.
The pitch of the book is to send the message that one of the most difficult things in the world is to be different from those around us. Yet no bad circumstance will change unless someone dares to be different. Being different, however, is dangerous, especially if those in authority are wrong and one seeks to change the way things are. Being different needs courage and a very good reason, and one needs to be prepared to pay the price. This idea drives the story of two men: one is Charlemagne—“the Thunderer,” the most powerful man in the western world, who fights and rules like the pagan enemies he seeks to conquer—and Sebastian, the novel’s hero, a young warrior in the king’s heavy cavalry, who strives to know more and be more than he is and to persuade the king to forge a different path to peace.
In your bio, you state that you were in the military and did four tours in Europe. Did this in anyway impact your decision to become a writer?
Yes and no. My first career was in the Army. I was a Russian foreign area specialist, fairly fluent in Russian and German. We were deep in the Cold War, and they kept sending me back to Europe, though I did get one tour in Vietnam as a battalion commander. I spent four other tours working as an intelligence officer on both sides of the Iron Curtain. On one tour, I had a pass in my pocket that said I worked for the Commander of Soviet Forces in East Germany. That just meant that I was a liaison officer to the Russian Army. I had to study a lot to do what I did, and it was easy to become absorbed in the culture and history of the people of Central and East Europe.
When I retired I took the time to earn a Ph.D. in History and found a job at the University of Saint Mary teaching Russian and European history. Medieval history was one of my favorite courses.
The book emerged from both experiences. But I probably never would have started a novel except for one of those tragic events that turn your life around. I guess everybody experiences them. Out of the blue, Mary Jo, my wife of many years, was diagnosed with Stage Four breast cancer. I retired from the university to be with her, but it was a lingering illness that went on for five years. During that time I needed something to keep my spirits up and occupy my mind, so I just began to write Sebastian’s Way. Happily, Mary Jo collaborated with me for a while. When she passed on, I took part of a summer and went to Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago, the famous medieval pilgrimage trail. It was there that I put the rest of the novel together in my mind, and when I got home I finished the book. It was really kind of an accident.
What are your ambitions as a writer?
I never intended to write novels. But I found that writing Sebastian’s Way was great fun and totally absorbing and fulfilling. So why not be a writer? Right now, I’m half way through a sequel to Sebastian’s Way, and the plan is to make it a series with a third book and a prequel. Beyond that, who knows?
What is an example of the research you conducted on eighth century during the time of Charlemagne? What appeals to you most about the people’s living condition during that time?
I sometimes envy the fantasy writers, like George R. R. Martin or Stephen King, who can just create stuff out of their heads, without a great deal of attention to reality. But the writer of historical fiction had better have his/her ducks together about the facts, or one will quickly be called to account. I found it was necessary to dig into history at almost every step. If you used a boat in the narrative, for example, you had to know what it was used for in those times and how it worked. If you wrote about what they ate, you had to know what crops they raised and by what means. You had to know how people worked and fought and dressed themselves. And, if possible, you had to get inside their heads to understand a little of the medieval mind—how their faith, superstitions, and culture impacted on who they were. And the further back one goes in history, the more difficult it becomes because the sources are often so sketchy and scarce. This was very true for eighth-century Europe, which many people think of as “The Dark Ages.” There are few primary sources and those that exist are woefully incomplete. Still you can’t reinvent the history; you have to use what there is—as far as it goes. For example, The Carolingian Chronicles comprise the official account of Charlemagne’s long reign. Anonymous monks or priests scrawled out a primitive history of that reign year-by-year, but they describe each year of that momentous reign in just a few ponderous paragraphs.
What compelled you to write the background of the 30-year war the Christian Franks fought against the pagan Saxons in your story?
The background for the novel was the 30-year war Charlemagne fought with the Saxons. It was an apocalyptic conflict between Christian Franks and pagan Saxons. Charlemagne took his role as Defender of the Faith very seriously and he fought relentlessly to spread Christianity across the width and breadth of Europe, either through missionaries or at the point of a sword. The war with the Saxons was Charlemagne’s toughest fight. If the Saxons had won, who knows what might have happened to the history of Europe and Christianity itself?
What can you tell about the eight century that people might not know?
One historian put it this way, bluntly: “ugly, brutal and short.” Three hundred years after the fall of the Roman Empire, most of Europe still wallowed in poverty and barbarism. In the west, trade outside of a few Italian towns and ports had dried up and life centered on subsistence agriculture. So much depended on the harvest. If it was bad or the weather intervened, there might be widespread starvation. Most of life revolved around providing food and shelter. If a family had to move, it faced all the dangers of the road: robbers, wild beasts, exposure. Children under ten rarely survived such circumstances. War was endemic and the peasants were often engulfed by it or forced to give up their precious stores of food to marauding troops. Outside of the clergy, few people could read. Even in the best of circumstances, few ordinary folk ever ventured more than twenty miles from where they were born.
In spite of all the bad news, the people of the 8th century were extraordinarily inventive. Since slavery was increasingly frowned upon by the Church and the soil of northern Europe was inordinately heavy, early medieval farmers resorted to creating labor-saving devices, like the deep plow, the double yoke for oxen, the horse collar, the crank, the wheelbarrow, and many more. These things were not invented overnight, but eventually they began to produce surplus. The consequence of surplus was that gradually life began to change for the better. This change is also part of the background story of the novel.
Tell me about Sebastian. What are his strengths and weaknesses?
I set out to make Sebastian a different kind of man. That’s a central theme of the novel. “The hardest thing in the world to do is be different from those around you,” says Father Pippin in the book (page 312). “But nothing changes unless one chooses a different path.” One of the things I wanted to emphasize is the huge difference that education/learning makes on the way people think. Sebastian is different because of the way he was guided and taught by the people who were closest to him. He was raised in a relatively insulated environment, on the wild and isolated frontier, and his teachers were people who felt very strongly about what he should become. Foremost was his mother, a very devout and intelligent woman who chafed at her own inability to find the means to learn. She insisted that Sebastian should learn everything he could, while at the same time genuinely understanding his faith. Attalus, Sebastian’s real father, was another demanding teacher, determined to protect his son by making him an unbeatable warrior but one who was also compelled, like Attalus, by his honor to be fair and just. Then there are the two countercultural priests, Father Louis and Father Pippin, both of whom, compared to most of the ordinary clergy of the time, were genuinely inspired and enlightened by their faith. Finally, there’s Heimdal, the blind forest hermit and philosopher, who from his handicap has learned to scoff at the superstitions and narrow-mindedness of his age. These were the people who broadened Sebastian’s view of the world and made him see and think “outside the box” of his time. In addition to those “family” figures, there is Simon, who is an education in himself; he’s been everywhere and seen things way out of the orbit of the chilly forests of the Saxon March. Sebastian thirsts to know what Simon knows, and in the second book this extraordinary Jewish merchant/adventurer will be his ticket to a much larger world.
As for Sebastian’s weaknesses, one might say his soul was too gentle for that brutish time. His efforts to persuade the king and others to curb the violence and forge a different path to peace were rigidly resisted and fraught with costly consequences. The fierceness with which he loved made him haplessly vulnerable. The passion with which he pursued his convictions and sense of justice kept him constantly on the razor’s edge of danger.
Could you please share an excerpt from your story?
From Book I: (The Pathfinder)
THE KING’S COURT AT THIONVILLE ON THE MOSELLE, AUTUMN 782 AD
Sebastian wiped the rain out of his eyes as he stood before the king, helmet in hand. He had ridden all through the dark day in a downpour and was wet to the bone. Charlemagne had not asked him to sit, nor had he looked at him since he had been admitted to the royal chambers. The king stood at a window, watching the heavy thunderbolts crashing down just beyond the palace grounds. His mood reflected the storm. Finally, he turned and fixed Sebastian with an angry glare.
“Who has told you that you may refuse to fight for your king? How dare you send me such a message? I am your king. You have a command in my heavy cavalry. If I say you will fight, you will fight.”
“My king . . .” Sebastian began.
“Do you realize every officer in my army would have you executed immediately for this? Refusing to fight when you are called is high treason! How long do you think you would last if I told them about your message? Should I, your king, make excuses for you? Well? Give me a reason to keep you alive.”
Sebastian dropped his eyes. For a few charged moments, he said nothing. Then, drawing a deep breath, he began again. “My liege, I have always loved you—ever since I was a small boy. I would give you the last drop of my blood. But . . . I do not refuse to fight for you . . . I refuse to murder.”
I hear so many different thoughts about Charlemagne. Would you please tell me a little about your opinion of him and his accomplishments?
You wanted to know what I think of Karl der Grosse, otherwise known as Charlemagne. He is called ‘Great’ because he strove mightily to change the woeful circumstances of those relatively dark times. Over his long reign he managed to lift the standards of the people and provide a light for the growth of learning and culture. He was a builder, an educator and a unifier. Even though, it took another two hundred years or so for Europe to emerge as the dynamic center of the world it became, it was Charlemagne who began that growth. Even today the European Union annually gives “The Charlemagne Prize” to the person or group who contributed the most toward the goal of European unity and prosperity.
Please tell me about the Historical significance of your story?
As I have alluded to above, the novel emphasizes the sea changes that were slowly occurring in Europe in the 8th century: the Agricultural Revolution, the transformation of tribes into primitive states, the growth of literacy and learning, and, not least, the Christianization of all Europe—much of this accomplished or at least begun during the long reign of Charlemagne.
How much fiction have you blended into your story?
All of the characters are fictional except Charlemagne and his enemy Widukind, the Saxon prince. Many of the characters, however, are based on real models: the heroic missionaries to the pagans, for example, some of the king’s royal vassals, and the Jewish trader Simon. In all of it, though, I took special pains to create every character as a representative type of the medieval world of that time.
Who designed your book cover?
Jennifer Quinlan, my matchless final-copy editor, also designed the cover. I had some pretty rigid biases about what the cover should look like. We argued about it through five or six drafts. Finally, Jenny Q’s ideas proved much better than mine. I loved the final product: the kneeling knight with the classic picture of the great king brooding in the background. It said everything about the theme of the book, the conflict between the all-powerful king and the unassuming young warrior who dared to challenge him.
How much time did you spend writing your story?
I took about five years to write Sebastian’s Way. That was because I was just fooling around at the beginning, writing whenever I felt like it or had nothing else to do. It was purely a hobby. As the story grew, though, it took hold of me, and I began to be passionate about finishing it. When I decided to publish it, I sought a really good editor and found Jenny Quinlan. Her website reflects great praise from those who had use her talents. I have to say she took me to task. She wouldn’t let me get away with anything. The story had to flow, every word had to be clear and appropriate. And she kicked my derriere about the ending I had written, saying “You can’t do that to your readers; you have to provide better closure.” Well, I went back to the drawing board and worked another two weeks on a new ending. It turned out to be a hundred times better and really sold the book. Now I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Now I’m in the middle of the sequel, Sebastian’s Way: The Paladin. I have a deadline, and I find myself having to push like I never did before. It’s a different life. Now I have to have a regular time and place to write and I have to produce something every day. Sometimes I feel like a prisoner in my own house. But it’s still great fun to create such a world as Sebastian. And I wouldn’t trade my life for anything else right now.
How did you discover indieBRAG?
My editor, Jennifer Quinlan, put me onto IndieBRAG. I didn’t know about it until she urged me to submit the novel. I was very glad indeed to be selected for the medallion on the first try.
Where can readers buy your book?
Anybody can go to Amazon.com/Books and type in my name or the name of the book, Sebastian’s Way: the Pathfinder. Choices will pop for hardback, soft cover and e-book. Or one can find the book at Best Buy or order it from Barnes and Noble.
A message from BRAG:
We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview George Steger, who is the author of, Sebastian’s Way: the Pathfinder, our medallion honorees at indieBRAG . To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion TM, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, Sebastian’s Way: the Pathfinder, merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.