It wasn’t until Berkeley native Michael David Lukas wandered into an antique store in Istanbul that the idea for his novel crystallized.
For months he had been haunted by a vision he had while jogging in Tunisia: of a young girl playing backgammon with two older men. The image appeared in an instant during his run, but Lukas spent many months unsuccessfully trying to define the idea. He first set the story in 8th century Damascus, then in Cairo during the reign of the mamluks. Nothing quite worked.
In frustration, Lukas finally put his writing aside and left for Uzbekistan to visit his ex-girlfriend. But when he arrived at Tashkent, he was turned away at the border. His visa hadn’t come through. So Lukas detoured to Turkey, a place he had enjoyed on previous visits.
One day in the fall of 2004, Lukas was wandering through the narrow, crooked streets of Istanbul’s Cukurcuma district when he entered an antiques store. There, in the back, he stumbled upon a photograph of a girl, around 7 or 8, standing on a chair and leaning against a pillar. Lukas was struck by the look on her face; the girl had a wise, self-assured expression, something rarely seen on such a young child.
“I was flopping around (with my novel),” said Lukas. “I didn’t have that much direction. That moment, seeing that picture, crystallized it for me. I understood (the novel’s) setting, the time, and the arc of the story.”
Seven years later, Lukas’ novel, The Oracle of Stamboul, is about to be published. It centers around young Eleanora Cohen, born in 1877, who becomes an adviser to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The San Francisco Chronicle called it “a Turkish delight” and Good Housekeeping said it is “a magical debut.”
Lukas, 31, is throwing a book party for his novel tonight at Local 123, a café on San Pablo Avenue near University. He will start his book tour on Tuesday with a reading at Book Passage in Corte Madera and another at A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland on Wednesday.
Lukas grew up in Berkeley, attended local public schools, and got deeply immersed in writing while at Berkeley High.
“I was editor of the Jacket and wrote all sorts of bad poetry – everything a literary man does when they are 17 or 18,” said Lukas, who now lives in Oakland.
He became editor of the Jacket during a time of transition. His predecessor was Itmar Moses, who wrote about the accusations of racism made against the newspaper during that period in his play “YellowJackets”, which had its world premiere at Berkeley Rep in 2008. His successors included Dharini Rasiah, who was part of an investigative team who uncovered a sex slave operation in Berkeley.
The change from a paper torn apart by infighting and self-doubt to one focused on investigative reporting happened because Rick Ayers, a teacher, became the faculty advisor, said Lukas. He inspired the student reporters to examine the school’s administration and the wider world.
Lukas was always more interested in poetry and fiction than journalism and wrote a bi-monthly column for The Jacket called “Johnny Johnson.” It was an allegory about a young man who went to a school much like Berkeley High.
Lukas went to Brown University and won a Rotary Club ambassador scholarship to spend a year in Tunisia. He got his MFA from the University of Maryland and was a Fulbright Teaching Scholar in Turkey in 2006. Spending a year there helped him enrich his understanding of the country and culture, which he wove into The Oracle of Stamboul.
“Being there was really valuable,” said Lukas. “All the sights and sounds and smells came to life.”