What I knew about the character I wanted to create was that he was based on the Moroccan hero Tarik ibn Zayad. In late April, 711, Tarik led his soldiers across what is now known as the strait of Gibraltar onto the Iberian Peninsula. My problem was to keep the book as time specific as possible while making it interesting to today’s young reader.
Knowing the subsequent influence of Islamic and Moorish culture in Spain, I decided to take the trip to the areas I would be writing about. I took my usual research assistants – my wife Constance and our son Christopher. We flew from Newark Airport to Malaga where we spent a few days checking out the food and staring at the people. Christopher noted that many seemed to be of mixed race. We then rented a car and drove to Granada.
Granada is flat out beautiful, and I knew I wanted to include the lush scenery in my book. So throughout the book I made references to the vegetation and thus gave Tarik a careful and interesting appreciation of the wonders of nature.
Tarik, in my story, is on a mission of vengeance. His family has been killed by Visigoth raiders and he is angry. But, needing to control that anger I gave him martial arts training from two people, one who teaches him to fight and the other who teaches him self control. His character is coming along nicely, thank you.
My character is angry but self-controlled, and I lend him my feelings about his family. If my parents were killed by some tyrant I would be driven to avenge them. Off he goes looking for the bad guy who I make into kind of a hyper-evil dude who doesn’t even have a clear sexual grounding. But my character is too good. He’s pure and wonderful and I need to add some spice to this dish. I find it in a second character, Stria, who is as ferocious a fighter with a sword as is Tarik, but she is almost blinded by her rage against the Visigoths.
My central characters all have some aspects of my personality. I don’t intend to write this way but it’s inevitable. I know I can use my personal view to create a character of depth, but I have to vary that character so that I’m not constantly writing the same book over and over again. In this story there are clear variations. The setting is 8th century Iberia rather than my familiar Harlem. Tarik’s weapon is a sword, rather than a gun. And the largest variation for me, the antagonist is the larger than life figure of an evil conqueror.
We traveled by car (my wife drives, I don’t) from Granada down through the Moorish influenced villages to the southern tip of Spain. We then took a ferry across the strait of Gibraltar into Tangiers, where, allegedly, Tarik once lived.
In Tangiers we mingled in the marketplaces, ate in charming little restaurants, and took pictures of everything. Chatted with grade school boys who called me ‘Ali Baba’ and had a great time. One brown skinned youngster with dark eyes offered me a thousand camels for my wife. I said no. The images I would later use in the book. But more than anything I would use the contrasts between Tarik and the mindless villainy of the Visigoth baddies to create what I hoped would be a memorable character.
Walter Dean Myers is a critically acclaimed author of books for young people and the National Ambassador for the 2012-2013 term. His award-winning body of work includes Sunrise Over Fallujah, Fallen Angels, Monster, Somewhere in the Darkness, Harlem, and Scorpions. Myers has received two Newbery Honor Awards and five Coretta Scott King Awards. He is the winner of the first Michael L. Printz Award (for excellence in young adult literature, given by the American Library Association) as well as the first recipient of Kent State University’s Virginia Hamilton Literary Award for Lifetime Achievement. He is considered one of the preeminent writers for young people, having written over 100 books.