Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Italian Interview, Part One

Halos & Horns has become one of my passions and I never tire of talking about it, or the craft of writing in general. Which is fortunate, because I've given a lengthy interview to an Italian journalist. I've secured permission to print the salient portions dealing with Halos & Horns here, which I shall do over the next two installments of my blog. I don’t know when the full Italian version will appear or how much of what you read here might be edited out. Of course, even after it’s published, I won’t be able to read it, since it’ll be in Italian, lol.

This is not merely an attempt to fill blog space while I’m writing novels (although it will give me a bit of breathing space and you something entertaining to read). What I particularly enjoyed about this interview was, unlike many American interviewers who rattle off canned questions (“Who was your greatest influence?”), this interviewer had actually read my books and posed intelligent questions about specific themes, plotting, and characterization. So, I had a chance to talk about something I’m passionate about, and now I get the chance to share that passion with you over the next few installments.

Q: Halos & Horns draws concepts from diverse mythologies. What are the philosophical underpinnings of the themes in the series?

A: You've actually raised two questions there, so let me tackle them in order. I didn't want to write just another vampire and werewolf book, so I combed through the legends and myths of many cultures to bring my characters and creatures to life. Ancient philosophers postulated truth and reality are perceived differently from diverse points of view and no one viewpoint is the sole truth. In that vein, all these myths coexist within the universe I have created. Rather than contradicting each other, they complement one another. In the Halos & Horns universe -- or multiverse, as I like to think of it -- African and Native American legends blend seamlessly with Japanese, Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology, Eastern European supernatural legends, and Judeo-Christian mythos. At one point, I incorporated the Hindu god Chitragupta into the storyline. All of these myths were, or are still, held as religious dogma by substantial populations. The Greek, Roman, and Norse pantheons were the religions of their respective day and taken quite seriously by the populace. Zeus, Jupiter, and Odin were prayed to and worshiped as devoutly and with the same reverence as many do God and Jesus today. So in my saga, they are all given equal weight and veracity; there is no “correct” religion. Instead, all the belief constructs are part of a greater scheme.

Q: So today’s religions are tomorrow’s mythologies. Would you say moral relativism was one of your major themes?

A: That’s definitely a theme explored in the series. On the most basic level, at the outset I toy with the themes of good and evil by introducing an angel and a demon as my primary protagonists. “What is good, and what is evil?” is a theme I've addressed in several of my works, especially my flash fiction series, A Matter of Perspective. Here, I focused on the concepts of predetermination versus free will. Does one choose to be good or evil, or is that choice already made for him? It’s like the nature versus nurture argument. Can a demon change his stripes and choose a different path or is he destined from birth to remain an embodiment of evil? Can an angel, who has known only the most idyllic of environments and has never been exposed to temptation, be considered inherently “good” or is he merely a naïve and sheltered being? How will an angel change when removed from paradise and placed in an earthly world of human imperfection and sin, and his belief system – all he has been led to believe is true – is challenged, or indeed, refuted?

Societal norms dictate right and wrong as absolutes, whereas moral relativism holds morality is relative, not universal. What one culture deems appropriate another might consider abhorrent. The ancient Greeks cremated their dead, while some Indians ate their dead to absorb the deceased’s attributes. The Greeks would have been horrified by such cannibalism and branded the Indians as savages, while the Indians would have viewed the Greeks’ burning of the dead as sacrilege. It’s all relative. My vampires and other supernatural creatures live both in the modern world -- where murder is aberrant and sinful -- and within a preternatural society that sees nothing wrong with killing people to survive on their blood. By any definition, the vampire is a serial killer. Does that make every vampiric character evil? If you or I killed on a daily basis, we’d likely be considered evil, but what if we killed for food? Do we become evil by eating a hamburger? Or is it a matter of moral relativism?

Q: But how do you portray that dichotomy in a fantasy tale?

A: One way I illustrated that moral ambivalence was a scene in which a vampire character, faced with a mortal loved one bleeding to death, is simultaneously appalled by, and attracted to, the gushing blood.

Q: The character is horrified by the impending death of a loved one, yet viscerally stimulated by the blood?

A: Exactly. Those vampires who chose to interact with humans, retaining old bonds from their pre-vampire days or forming new ties with “breathers”, must reconcile emotional attachments to their food. Some vampires, like the ancient Artemus and the cold-hearted Valentina, have completely severed their ties to humanity and view humans as food. But it’s a lot tougher for newer vampires like Sharon, who still have living relatives and human friends, to rationalize what they must do to survive. In the chapter Secrets Unburied, Sharon reflects on the people whose blood she’s stolen and those she’s sucked the life out of, saying, “ I've done things I know Dad would look down on.” In The Pandora Chronicles, Pandora exclaims, “My family… my friends… no one is safe around me. You've turned me into a monster!” There is a huge chasm separating the societal norms of humans and those of vampires.

Q: What was the most difficult part of the series for you to write?

A: I think the hardest part was trying to write about evil without describing it. Readers come to the series with a sanitized version of evil gleaned from media and popular culture: the bad guys tie damsels to railroad tracks, rob banks, and shoot people. That’s not true evil. The problem is, real evil is offensive to most normal people. They don’t want to be exposed to it and, rather than deriving pleasure from reading about it, they are turned off and repelled by it. Nazis make great movie villains, but films never show Dr. Mengele’s horrific, torturous experiments on people or some of the more gruesome aspects of the torture chambers of the Spanish Inquisition. I recently saw a documentary on the horrors being perpetrated today in the Congo: in the first 10 minutes, I watched a fleeing child sliced in half by a machete and a father ordered to rape his daughter. When he refused, his captors poked out his eyes and demanded his sons rape their sister. Afterwards, they gang-raped the girl, sliced off her hands, and cut out her tongue. These remorseless villains were, incredibly, the least “evil” presented in the one-hour documentary. I found it difficult to watch the entire display of man’s inhumanity to man, but I forced myself to, so I might have a true understanding of the depths of evil. I persevered through the next hour by reminding myself all I had to do was watch it; these victims had to live it.

Q: What you describe is grisly and inhumane.

A: Yes, and therein lies the dilemma. No one wants to envision true horrors. If you force your readers to confront them, you risk alienating and losing your readership. I was approached by one reader who told me what a sick and perverted person I was for dreaming up the torture devices owned by the witch hunter Nathaniel Thornhill in the chapter, Heaven Can Be Hotter Than Hell. I had to explain I had not been creative enough to dream them up and that they had been real devices used during the Spanish Inquisition, sanctioned by the Catholic Church.

Q: There’s that moral relativism again.

A: I guess so. Torture isn't perverse and evil if Jack Bauer, George W. Bush, or the Catholic Church does it, but writing about it makes an author depraved and profane. When it came time to write one of the final chapters, where Gabriel confronts the ultimate embodiment of true evil, the demon Torquemada, I had to balance writing an antagonist as abhorrent as possible yet keeping the sensitivities of my readers in mind. That was a difficult writing exercise.

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