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Doing The First Novel Hustle: 'The Oracle Of Stamboul'

Getting paid to write your first novel is as rare as getting paid to sing in the shower, so first novel writers often have to hustle creatively for their keep. Take, for example, the financial adventures of Michael David Lukas (Brown undergrad, MFA from Maryland), who just published novel No. 1.

The Oracle of Stamboul is a magical foray into the late 19th-century Ottoman Empire, with 8-year-old Eleonora Cohen providing much of its whimsy and charm. Although the "Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Servant to the Holy Cities, Caliph of Islam, Commander of the Faithful, and Supreme Padishah of Various Realms, His Excellency Abdulhamid II" (whew) doesn't lag far behind in the charm department. And neither does the novel's author.

Eleonora was conceived in Istanbul, Lukas explains, when he wandered into "a narrow dusty little store. In the back was a crystal bowl, and in it was a picture of this little girl with the most self-possessed, wise look in her eye. When we made eye contact, I knew that this was my protagonist and that my novel would be set in Istanbul."

Michael David Lukas generally goes by all three of his names because he doesn't want to be confused any longer with Michael Lucas, who is a hugely popular gay porn star.

"I would Google myself," Lukas says, "and he would pop up first, even though our names are spelled differently. I couldn't get away from him."

Lukas subsequently blogged for the Virginia Quarterly Review, writing that "a triumvirate of names gives the author a certain unassailability and gravitas."

Perhaps, but I'd characterize Lukas more as someone who hovers lovingly over a story, whispering, "Enjoy!"

The Oracle of Stamboul begins this way:

Eleonora Cohen came into this world on a Thursday, late in the summer of 1877. Those who rose early that morning would recall noticing a flock of purple-and-white hoopoes circling above the harbor, looping and darting about as if in an attempt to mend a tear in the firmament.

I told myself that I would rather be a person who tried to write a novel and failed than be someone who abandoned their novel.

What have hoopoes to do with Eleonora? One wants to read on and find out — which is, after all, the job of a first sentence. Lukas says he "agonized" over that sentence — indeed over the perfecting of Oracle's first paragraph — for days, as well as over other narrative bits.

"It's gratifying," he says, "because those seem to be the same passages people respond to. But it's not a lesson I want to fully incorporate, because then I'll never finish the next book."

He almost didn't finish this one. Oracle took Lukas the Biblical seven lean years to write, during which he lived from fellowship to grant to whatever jobs left time to write. In Oracle's "acknowledgments," the author thanks 10 literary foundations and organizations for financial support, among them the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation and the Elizabeth George Foundation.

Halfway through, Lukas says, he "ended up having a crisis of the lean years and [starting] a career in socially responsible business." This, he discovered, while fine for others, was not fine for him. "During that time, I learned how hard it is for me not to write — and how hard it is to write with a full-time job."

So, it was back to full-time writing, funded by whomever Lukas could shake support out of and whatever paying work fit into the corners of his writing days. "I was asking people for money essentially all the time," he says. "I'm really, really thankful for all those people who work at organizations and foundations that give money and support to writers."

Lukas joined the long queue of first-time novelists who discover they keep going because, well, they have to.

"I knew I wanted to write this book," he says, "and I knew it would take a long time. But I didn't truly realize what that meant until I was years into the process and all my friends had graduated law school and were making 200 grand a year. Then I tried the socially responsible business thing and realized I would just have to double down and keep going. I told myself that I would rather be a person who tried to write a novel and failed than be someone who abandoned their novel."

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Martha Woodroof