A (not so) quick interview with Jack Dann: When History Meets the Speculative
Welcome to my seventh IFWG author interview for this year! It’s published as part of IFWG’s Uncaching the Treasure’s campaign. Today’s interviewee, Jack Dann, has been around the traps and gives a wide ranging interview on his career and his latest book, Shadows in the Stone.
Tell us a bit about Shadows in the Stone.
Shadows tells the story of the intrigues and vast gatherings of the Last Days: the epic saga of the struggle between the true creator of our multiform universe and the demiurge, who is the dark angel known to the Gnostics as the demon god Yaldabaoth … and to us as Jehovah. And it details the journeys and comings together of the dark companions, a fellowship of disparate characters who are destined to lead the apocalyptic battle against the Demiurge who wants to put an end to all that was, is, and will ever be.
Like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, my story takes place in slightly different parallel universes and different (yet simultaneous) time periods, which are linked to our own. Thus, although Shadows in the Stone is set in a variant version of 15th century Italy, one of its major young protagonists was born in Virginia in 1846.
I’ve written Shadows as an epic on a grand scale. But it is also a coming-of-age novel. As my protagonists seek to fulfill their destinies—as they discover love and loss, power and limitation, angels and demons, venality and honor, jealousy and trust—they must also learn what the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno calls the tragic sense of life.
This may, or may not be of interest, but, as I see it, Shadows is also a novel that pushes the boundaries of the alternate history genre. I’ve tried to create a completely divergent ontology/universe/whatever you might want to call it—a ‘possible world’ in which the objects of religious belief are real and perceivable and their actions consequential. It re-imagines an Italian Renaissance that is permeated by Gnostic doctrines rather than the familiar culture and religion derived by the decisions of the Council of Nicea and extrapolates an entire system of myth and belief presented through the points-of-view of characters who have a bicameral mindset, a different form of consciousness which ‘allows’ them to see and hear the projections of their belief.
So the idea was to create this layered universe, a Renaissance version, so to speak, of Milton’s Paradise Lost. But in my version, Jehovah is a lesser god and a threat to humanity. In my version, the fate of Heaven and Hell and the universe hinges on both spirits and ordinary characters. And we enter this universe through the perspectives of angels such as Gabriel, historical characters such as John Dee, and a young woman who takes a balloon ride over a Civil War battleground and lands in the … underworld.
What books/authors would you compare Shadows in the Stone to? Were there any particular authors or books that influenced and/or inspired you to write Shadows?
Hmm. I’m not idiotic enough to compare Shadows with Paradise Lost. I’ve compared Shadows with Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy regarding his use of parallel universes. But, frankly, it’s difficult to compare Shadows with other novels. I could compare it to The Memory Cathedral, but as that’s one of my own books, I don’t consider that a fair comparison. Let me just get out of jail by saying that Kim Stanley Robinson compared it to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.
It’s easier to list books and/or authors that influenced me to write Shadows. The poem Paradise Lost, of course. And John Dee, Meric Casaubon, and Edward Kelly’s Dr. John Dee’s Action With Spirits: A True & Faithful Relation of What Paffed For Many Yeers Between Dr. John Dee (a Mathematician of Great Fame in Q. Eliz. and King James Their Reignes) and Some Spirits: Tending (had It Succeeded) to a General Alteration of Moft States and Kingdomes in the World. How’s that for a mouthful! And there’s Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind; Luca Landucci and Jodoco del Badia’s A Florentine Diary From 1450 to 1516; The Gnostic Gospels: The Sacred Writings of the Nag Hammadi Library, The Berlin Gnostic Codex and Codex Tchacos; Alice Turner’s The History of Hell; Giulio Lorenzetti’s Venice and Its Lagoon; and I could go on and on, but, mercifully, I won’t …
Shadows in the Stone is subtitled, ‘a book of transformations’ – why? What kind of themes does this novel explore and what interested you about them?
Well, the book is transformative. It is about transformations in terms of the characters and the entire described universe. Human beings gain powers they could have never imagined. Gods lose powers they assumed were everlasting. Long ago, Philip K. Dick gave my publisher a quote for my novel Junction. He wrote “It delightfully deconstructs your notions of time and space and reality, in ways I myself never thought of—but would have liked to.” That’s what I tried to do with Shadows. What Phil said is my version of transformation.
Themes … Well, in a real sense, some of the themes are the same as those of the too many times aforementioned John Milton’s Paradise Lost. It’s about upsetting the universal hierarchy, the War in Heaven; and, in my version, the War on Earth. It’s about treason and loyalty and self-sacrifice. It’s about what might be the apocalyptical Last Days.
But the main theme is about upending all of our traditional ideas about traditional religion and re-imagining the Renaissance as being influenced by the religious ideas that were thrown out of the Christian corpus by the church: that being the writings of the Gnostics. So, I guess the themes are big ones: good and evil, love and loss, destiny, and life and death, which includes the life and death of the (aforementioned <Grin>) universe itself. How’s that for big?
Tell us a bit about your two protagonists Louisa Morgan and Lucian Ben-Hananiah. Why will readers love them/want to follow their journey?
Okay, Louisa is sixteen years old, has green eyes and curly, fly-away red hair; and although she has no fear of heights, she is claustrophobic and afraid of the dark. She has reason to be: her mother locked her in a bedroom closet when Yankee deserters invaded her house; and she broke out of the closet just in time to see her mother raped and murdered. Her father is the captain of a Confederate paddle wheeler that has been commissioned to transfer a barge and a fully-inflated twenty-four foot diameter hydrogen balloon from the Richmond Gas Works to General Langdon at Chuffin’s Bluff. When the ship is attacked and sunk by a Union battery—and when the corpsmen trying to free the balloon are cut down by withering fire—Louisa imagines she sees a crack open in the sky.
She is the only one who manages to escape; and she passes through the crack in the sky—passes from one universe to another—and lands in a dark, icy hell, where she is attacked by creatures who would take her soul.
Louisa is no ordinary young woman. She is called Filia Lucis, the daughter of light; and although she has not yet awakened to her potential, Louisa is none other than the incarnation of Sophia, the mother of the demon god Yaldabaoth, the snake goddess. She has undergone thousands of reincarnations and now she must learn how to access her power and her memory before she is herself destroyed.
Well, I did say the book was about transformations …
Lucian Ben-Hananiah is a Palestinian Jew who is falsely accused of murder, simony, and usury and sold into slavery. He escapes to Constantinople, studies occult philosophy and hermeneutics in Greece, and then makes his way to Milan where he lives in the streets and survives by teaching the children of Milanese burghers, craftsmen, and the lower clergy natural science, mathematics, and philosophy. The doctor/magician Pico Della Mirandola rescues him from a mob that is going to hang him for necromancy.
Lucian is tall, skinny, frail, swarthy skinned, awkward, and delicately built; and he looks much older than his seventeen years. He has a flattened nose, piercing eyes, and a white scar that encircles his throat like a necklace: he has been touched by a dark angel; and like Louisa, he witnessed the murder of his mother and father.
Maestro Mirandola considers him to have special talents, which he, Mirandola, wants to acquire. The angel Gabriel has chosen Lucian and has given him his seal, which contains a terrible power. And so Lucian part of the Dark Companions who protect and assist Louisa, the Daughter of Light.
You ask why readers will love Louisa and Lucian and follow their journey. I could blather on about how they are fully-realized characters and that I’ve maintained narrative drive to hold my readers, but that’s not really saying anything. If readers care about my characters, it’s because they are real. They are real people in unreal situations. They are, at base, like us; and if I done my job, if I’ve brought them to life as people rather than cardboard cutouts, then you’ll care about them and worry about them as they fight for their very lives and for the fate of the universe.
What brought you back to Renaissance Italy and history mixed with magic in Shadows in the Stone?
I’ve never really left the Renaissance world of The Memory Cathedral; I spent so much time dreaming that universe into my version of historical ‘reality’ that I didn’t surprise myself when the idea of Shadows In the Stone began to invade my dreams. I had intended to write another novel about Leonardo and Machiavelli, but I think it was a confluence of images and ideas that set me off into the fantastical: I had been reading and researching the alchemist John Dee while I was also rereading Paradise Lost.
Often an image will excite me, will focus my mind, will preoccupy me, which is what happened when I was reading Paradise Lost. I could not get two illustrations by John Martin (“Pandemonium” and “Satan Presiding at the Infernal Council”) out of my mind. I had to ‘bring them back to life’. I had to write a novel around them. And so magic and the Italian Renaissance and a God’s eye perspective of the greatest cosmic battle began to form the gauzy outline of this novel.
How much research did you do for this particular novel? It seems like you like to use primary sources where you can, and research extensively. Can you tell us a bit about your process? (cheeky extra question: In another life do you think you’d have been an archaeologist or something else related to the province of the historian?)
Well, yes, you got that in one. I find that primary sources are invaluable; they contain those interesting ‘nuggets’. They are where I often find the odd details that can bring a scene to life, that can add to the ‘layering’ of reality that enables the readers to suspend their disbelief and join the author’s fictive dream. But those ‘nuggets’ can also be found in secondary sources.
For instance, I found a Wikipedia entry entitled “Vacuum Airship”, which described the Italian monk Francesco Lana de Terzi’s proposal (in 1670) for “a hypothetical airship that is evacuated rather than filled with a lighter-than-air gas such as hydrogen or helium.” Of course, the problem is that (and I’m mashing together some quotes here) with a near-vacuum inside the airbag, the atmospheric pressure would exert enormous forces on the airbag, causing it to collapse if not supported. And any structure strong enough to withstand the forces would invariably weigh the vacuum airship down and exceed the total lift capacity of the airship, preventing flight. To make my balloon fly, I’d need what engineers wryly refer to as ‘unobtanium’. And all that gave me the idea of using captured souls as the ‘skin’ of a Renaissance airship.
Okay, my process. Yes, it involves extensive research, research to get into the novel—to begin the novel—and ongoing research as I come upon unexpected plot twists and different scene changes. Research often leads to plot twists, which, in turn, add more of those ‘layers’ I described earlier. I’ve got to know my characters—what they see, how they think. How they go about their daily routines. I’ve got to know my characters and their environment just as I know my own. And once I’ve gotten to that ‘knowing’ point, I begin to hear the characters whispering in my head. I begin to hear snatches of dialogue and visualize scenes; and it is then that the characters almost demand that I take their dictation. And so it begins … at least that’s the way it happens for me.
Ah, yes, your question of another life. Well, when I was a kid, I was certain that I’d become an Egyptian archaeologist. Go figure, hey?
What draws you to historical fiction in general, and especially the historical meeting the speculative?
Well, I think that writing a historical novel is very much like writing science fiction. I’ve discussed this with other writers, and they all agree. In both forms of fiction, the place becomes a major character. The specific tools needed to write science fiction—extrapolating information, conveying information skillfully without “narrative lumps”—give the science fiction writer an edge when writing about the past. I have found the past to be as “alien” as the future; and in order to bring it to life—to make it “alive”, I extrapolate every detail and utilize all the skills of a futurist and science fiction writer. I figure that Renaissance Italy is as alien a world as Philip K. Dick’s Blade Runner.
I guess what draws me to historical fiction is the same ‘carrot’ that draws me to write science fiction. To bring the past—or the future—to life. But with historical fiction, my goal is to get beyond what so often passes as costume drama, to depict the ‘alienness’ of the historical world, to recreate how people might have really thought and felt. I don’t know if that answers the question, but it’s as close as I can get to it.
You’re a Jewish atheist (according to Wikipedia). You’re also a New York expat. How has your heritage influenced your work? What impact did your sense of place and/or culture have (if any) on Shadows in the Stone?
There is no one-to-one relationship between my sense of place and culture on Shadows. However, one could, of course, dig deeper. In a larger, general sense, a writer’s experience must influence their work to some degree, as plot and theme involve a myriad of choices. My choice of a subject such as Jehovah, my selection of an ostensibly religious subject/theme, could be interpreted as the author’s processing or rejection of the ‘faith of our fathers’. Who the hell knows? I certainly don’t. I suppose I must conclude that anything is possible!
Your wikipedia page mentions you came to writing after getting involved with a local gang and then having a near death hospital experience. You also served for a bit in the military. Have those experiences influenced Shadows in the Stone? Your other writing? How?
There is so much information on the WWW. And so much misinformation. For a time I was three years younger in Germany than I was in the USA. I did indeed have a near-death hospital experience, many of the details of which I described in my short story “Camps” about a young man dying in a hospital and dreaming his nurse’s memories of a concentration camp. I didn’t serve in the military, as I was draft rejected because of the extent of my surgeries. I did, however, attend a military school for a time: as I had a tendency to be what we might call a bit wild, I was given the option of reform school or military school. But that’s another story of days long, long ago.
However, after I recovered from some two months in hospital, I was determined to become a writer. I remember keeping Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast on the wheeled table beside the bed; and, although I remember not being able to conceive what it might be like to be free of agonizing pain, I would pat the book as if it was a talisman. After I recovered, I figured that I’d died in a way and was now free, free to take chances, to live without a net. Whether that was a wise choice or not, I’m still not sure.
Did those experiences influence Shadows? A novel about life, death, God, the Devil, and eternity? Maybe. In some sense. But probably not directly. I’d have to be a Jungian psychologist to figure it out. But those experiences certainly influenced other stories and novels, such as my mainstream novel Counting Coup.
What’s next on the writing horizon? Something historical or something completely different?
I’ve always got multiple projects percolating. A series of chapter books targeted at 7-9 year olds called The House of Time. A novel called Being Gatsby, which is, I suppose, by definition historical. Several anthologies. A short story collection for Centipede Press’ Masters of Science Fiction Series is forthcoming. I’m writing a book called How to Write Alternate History: a Handbook on the Craft, Art, and History of … Counterfactual Fiction for IFWG Publishing. A poetry chapbook is also in the pipeline, as are a number of short stories for various publishers.
And I still wonder every morning if today will be the day that a new idea will carry me completely off my planned road map.
Wow! There’s so much interesting content in this interview and I have to give a big shout-out to Jack for sharing so much with us. You can learn more about Shadows in the Stone at the publisher website here. Shadows in the Stone is available in all good ebook and print outlets. It is distributed through Gazelle (UK/Europe), Novella (Australia) and IPG (North America).
Jack Dann has written or edited over seventy-five books, including the international bestsellers The Memory Cathedral, The Rebel, The Silent, Bad Medicine, and The Man Who Melted. His work has been compared to Jorge Luis Borges, Roald Dahl, Lewis Carroll, Castaneda, Ray Bradbury, J. G. Ballard, Mark Twain, and Philip K. Dick. Library Journal called Dann “… a true poet who can create pictures with a few perfect words,” Best Sellers said that “Jack Dann is a mind-warlock whose magicks will confound, disorient, shock, and delight,” and bestselling author Morgan Llwelyn called his novel The Memory Cathedral “a book to cherish, a validation of the novelist’s art and fully worthy of its extraordinary subject. I can only say Bravo!”
Jack is a recipient of the Nebula Award, the World Fantasy Award (twice), the Australian Aurealis Award (three times), the Chronos Award, the Darrell Award for Best Mid-South Novel, the Ditmar Award (five times), the Peter McNamara Achievement Award and also the Peter McNamara Convenors’ Award for Excellence, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the Premios Gilgames de Narrativa Fantastica award. He has also been honored by the Mark Twain Society (Esteemed Knight). He is the co-editor, with Janeen Webb, of Dreaming Down-Under, which won the World Fantasy Award, and the editor of the sequel Dreaming Again. He is the managing director of PS Australia, and his latest anthology Dreaming in the Dark is the first volume in the new line: it won the World Fantasy Award in 2017. Dr. Dann is also an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow in the School of Communication and Arts at the University of Queensland.