Michael Cooper writes historical fiction set in the Middle East; Foxes in the Vineyard, set in 1948 Jerusalem, won the 2011 Indie Publishing Contest grand prize, and The Rabbi’s Knight, set in the Holy Land in 1290, was a finalist for the CIBA 2014 Chaucer Award for historical fiction. In December of 2023, Wages of Empire, set at the start of WW1, won the CIBA 2022 Hemingway first prize for wartime historical fiction and the grand prize for young adult fiction.

A native of Berkeley, California, Cooper emigrated to Israel in 1966, studying and working there for the next decade; he lived in Jerusalem during the last year the city was divided between Israel and Jordan and graduated from Tel Aviv University Medical School. Now a pediatric cardiologist in Northern California, he travels to the region twice a year on volunteer missions for Palestinian children who lack access to care.

Do you write in more than one genre? I write in the historical fiction genre with added elements of mystery, action-adventure, mysticism, coming of age, and a dash of romance. Having lived in Israel during my formative years (between the ages of 17 and 28), I fell in love with the immediacy of history that awaited you around every corner—especially in Jerusalem. This comes in handy since all my novels are, at least in part, set in the Holy Land, and having lived and traveled extensively throughout Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, I have a wealth of first-person knowledge of the physical topography of this part of the world.

What are you currently working on? That’s easy. I’ve already completed the next book in the “Empire Series,” Crossroads of Empire, which immediately follows Wages of Empire and is also set at the beginning of WWI. This will be published in the Fall of 2024.

How long did it take you to write your first book? I began writing Foxes in the Vineyard and finished in about eight years. It took a while since I was also working full-time.

How long to get it published? It took about the same amount of time to write as to get published. Having finished Foxes in the Vineyard in 2003, it was published by being the grand prize winner in the 2011 San Francisco Writers Conference Indie Publishing Contest. The grand prize was a complete publishing package from iUniverse.

In writing historical fiction, how do you strike the right balance between history and fiction? The wonderful thing about crafting historical fiction is that historical events and characters provide the scaffolding for stories that are at once incredibly old and still being written since “history” is a continuum and flows from the past into our present.

It’s also invigorating to create compelling fictional characters—for their nobility, humor, brilliance, passions, human failings, and interesting, ingenious, and sometimes evil designs. These fictional characters allow me to play within the historical scaffolding.

I will leave it to the reader to determine if I’ve hit the “right balance” of historical and fictional characters in my current book, Wages of Empire.” But what is true for me in writing about all my characters—historical and fictional—are those wondrous times when the character takes over, dictating the action and dialogue. At these times, all I have to do is transcribe.

How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you? I researched the historical backdrop for the book by reading iconic histories about the roots and initial months of the First World War. To capture the essence of the historical figures and to inform the development of the fictional characters, I devoured everything I could find in the way of autobiographies, biographies, and collected letters. For the reader, I’ve included some of these references at the end of the book in a section called “Suggestions for further reading.”

As to surprises I’ve experienced during research, I was often astonished by fascinating elements of hidden history, unsolved mysteries, and interesting, even bizarre, character traits of some historical characters. I also encountered some engaging and bizarre characters that insisted on being included in the final draft.

In this manner, storylines arose organically from the historical timeline and the historical characters themselves—creating a portrait that could be enhanced by the fictional characters who allowed for additional surprises, plot twists, betrayals, loves, and alliances. And as the book progressed, I loved watching the weave tighten as storylines were drawn together.

Regarding elements of hidden history that I uncovered during my research for Wages of Empire, I don’t want to issue any “spoiler alerts.” Still, one extraordinarily rich trove of evidence implicated Kaiser Wilhelm II as having acted in many ways to bring on the First World War. Though I would hasten to add, he certainly wasn’t singly responsible for it. However, as a narcissist in control of a global power, his unpredictability, his need to be acknowledged, his arrogance, his hypersensitivity to perceived slights, his excitement at the idea of flexing his muscles, his sense of entitlement, his clumsy and often insulting personal diplomacy—all these raised tensions in Europe, combining to bring Germany closer and closer to war.

What do you hope readers take away from the story? Wages of Empire is a novel about war that is being published in a time of war—both in Europe and in the Middle East. I hope the reader can appreciate the richness of this historical wartime setting since it offers all the elements for a compelling story: drama, heroism, conflict, tension, intrigue, action, betrayal, heartbreak, and romance. Indeed, the effect of armed conflict on history is itself dramatic since war accelerates history, often with dramatic changes in human and natural topography.

I also hope the reader feels the compelling tension between knowing and unknowing as they engage with the historical characters in the grip of their threatening present, infused with their anxiety at the uncertain outcome, their unknowable future. And that the reader, knowing their future, might be touched by the poignancy of their ignorance.

Michael’s Editorial Assistant

Lastly, I hope that Wages of Empire, a novel about war, will hold up a mirror to time past that reflects on current wars and present uncertainties. I hope the reader will ask questions—what do present wars have to do with the past? What do our present travails have to do with history? Because the answer is…everything.

You can learn more on his website, which also includes links to a variety of platforms where his books can be purchased: https://michaeljcooper.net/