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Divas on Divans Celebrate a New Novel Set in the Seraglio

by Kate Taylor
Fri, 25 Jan 2008 at 5:52 PM

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The British novelist Katie Hickman was in town last night to promote her historical novel, "The Aviary Gate," which Bloomsbury is hoping will be one of the summer's bestsellers. The novel is set in 16th-century Constantinople, where a visiting British merchant learns that the woman he once loved, and believed had died in a shipwreck, was in fact captured by pirates and sold into the sultan's harem.

Style and strong drinks being more important than precise geography, the party was held in a private room at Ilili, a flashy new restaurant in the Flatiron district that is described as "Lebanese fusion." Editors and publicists from Bloomsbury lounged on divans with editors from O, Glamour, More, and Ladies Home Journal, among other magazines, as well as the odd book reviewer.

It took a moment for a new arrival to notice that the room — like the cloistered setting whose mystery and brutal rules fuel the novel's plot — was populated entirely by females. Occasionally, a eunuch entered the sanctum, bringing fresh supplies of the evening's featured drink, the Poison Sumac Margarita.

Ms. Hickman had the initial idea for the book when she visited Istanbul some years ago and learned of an Englishman who in the 16th century brought the sultan a gift of a mechanical organ. The organ was badly damaged on the voyage, so the Englishman had to spend some time inside the palace repairing it. At one point, a gate fortuitously opened, and he had a glimpse inside the harem. "And I thought, what if he saw somebody he knew?" Ms. Hickman said.

Bloomsbury sent the manuscript early on to Sessalee Hensley, the lead fiction buyer at Barnes & Noble. She reportedly loves it and has been closely involved in the positioning of the book, making recommendations on, among other things, the cover. (The image Bloomsbury chose shows a pale woman with dark hair, lounging on an ottoman and dressed in… um… something Ottoman.) The day before the party at Ilili, Ms. Hickman had lunch with Ms. Hensley and Ms. Hensley's boss — as Ms. Hickman put it, lunch "with God and God-calls-me-God."

Incidentally, publishing deities excepted, Ms. Hickman is an atheist. At least, one assumes so from the fact that she is married to the prominent British philosopher A.C. Grayling, who wears his atheism, or as he calls it, "naturalism," on his sleeve. Mr. Grayling is also in town this week to see previews of a play he co-wrote, "Grace," which concerns a clash between a mother, who is an academic and prominent atheist, and her son, who decides to become a priest. "Grace," which Mr. Grayling wrote with the British director Mick Gordon, opens February 11 at MCC Theater.

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