The author of A Dangerous Energy expands upon his outlook, methods and future works.
by John Whitbourn and Peter Berard
Published onAug 12, 2020
Interview with John Whitbourn
John Whitbourn cuts a unique figure in the world of speculative fiction. Entering the scene with A Dangerous Energy, which won the Gollancz Prize for Fantasy Fiction in 1992, he’s the author of numerous novels and short stories. He is perhaps best known for his fiction set in a fantasy version of Earth where the Reformation failed, the Catholic Church (bolstered by a monopoly over magic) reigns supreme, and England is still ruled by the Stuarts. Some of his fiction has been called “the first Jacobite propaganda in centuries” and a current of fascination with what our world and typical “Whig history” deems backward and retrograde is present throughout his work. Catholic though his sensibility may be, dark humor, ribaldry, and a keen appreciation for man’s smallness in the world run through his fiction.
In this interview, we find Whitbourn in a “valedictory mood” as he expands upon his outlook, methods and future works.
Peter Berard: One of your few interviews is entitled “Confessions of a Counter-Reformation Green Anarcho-Jacobite.” This isn't findable online, and you've implied you were glad about that. Do you eschew the label(s) it put on you? I admit I've referred to it a few times when describing your work to friends.
John Whitbourn: No, I don’t repudiate that title, chosen to headline a long-ago interview with a mainstream monthly ‘glossy’ UK SF magazine; albeit I suspect applied a trifle ‘tongue in cheek.’ Nor would I be ashamed of any of the component terms if someone insisted on labeling me so. Though I think it’s often detrimental, especially in the present climate, to label people. It leads to them being put in a box, placed on the appropriate cultural supermarket shelf, and then purchased or spurned according to ingrained habit. Whereby we stand in danger of missing out on a million miles of fun and enlightenment.
Accordingly, I have a longstanding practice of sampling books and journals and interviews where all the signs are that I wouldn't agree with a word within. You get to kiss a lot of frogs that way, but a surprising proportion turn into Princess Leia (Star Wars ‘slave costume' and all . . .). A consequence of which is that, for instance, I can speak pretty fluent Marxism; say up to USSR-era post-grad level and can be in rare-content discussing Gramsci and ‘false consciousness’ in an English pub with bearded leftists. And I suspect they'd never guess the ‘Counter-Reformation’ etc. epithet might be applied to me.
Whereas if you only read what you know to be a literary ‘amen-corner' for your own views, then there’s the intellectual and spiritual danger that, in the immortal words of Louis Jordan (1947): 'Jack, you're dead'.
So, yep, I'll own that title you quote. As a composite tally of individual flags I would rally to if spotted in the fog of battle. Or glimpsed through some of the windows through which I look out to view the world-weather. But, however and nevertheless, I am not a didactic writer. I think didacticism (posh talk for preaching) is to storytelling and good books what razor blades are to little children. i.e., to spell it out, not a happy mix. To put it mildly.
Granted, there’s Charles Dickens and, arguably, George Orwell, who harnessed their genius to good causes dear to their heart, and who still achieved literary greatness. However, I’m not in their league — and nor is almost anyone else.
In short, I’d say the story is the thing. If you have a stance or belief, then by all means let it play a role in your writing (how to stop it doing so?), but never via occupying centre-stage and spouting soliloquies. If you have a cause to espouse, then get a lectern or a website.
In sum, the 'Counter-Reformation Green Anarcho-Jacobite' components all apply, but they don’t cohere to any specific ideology. In particular, the Jacobite portion is firmly bolted to the ‘Anarcho,’ because I don’t think that restoration of the rightful dynasty to the British throne can any longer justify hurting, let alone killing, anyone—though the appeal of 'Lost Causes’ remains. Such descriptives (and loads of other stuff, including neutrality and no-strong-view-on-the-subject) are only there as, at most, the theatrical backdrop to the play in progress, not, G-d forbid, as a bellowing ham actor trying to blow-dry the audience's hair. I’ve read books that were like that — say Robert Heinlein’s later works — and loathed them. If I want to hear a sermon, I’ll go to church.
PB: What does your writing process look like? Are you an outliner, or do you just go ahead and write the thing? Have you got any advice for beginning writers of weird and/or counterfactual and/or counter-reformation fiction out there?
JW: I plan. But always and only in moderation, as the ancient Delphic oracle wisely advised. Usually under the headings of ‘plot’, ‘setting’ and ‘characters'. Probably not more than a side of A4 for each. Anything more vampires out all the fun of creativity for me. Speaking personally, excessively detailed planning runs the danger of my mutinous mind ticking off the project as ‘done’. Thus, making any further writing sessions a conscript chore requiring dragging yourself back to. I don’t think I’m alone in this. I've known several prospective writers who write wonderful — exciting even — novel plans: 50, 60, maybe more pages long, and studded with nigh complete scenes; but thereafter the life and joy seems to ebb out of the project and they prove to be stillborn: uncreated worlds. Which I see as a shame and warning — and the ‘awful' variety of both.
So, to illustrate, I have in my archive a page torn from a spiral-bound notebook. One side contains the notes and doodles (green ink for some forgotten reason . . .) from a University lecture attended in 19**. On the reverse, written during that very same lecture (yes, I know: for shame, slacker student!), is jotted the whole plot and purpose of my first novel A Dangerous Energy, which launched my publication career and won a BBC literary prize. Including a healthy sum of ££££s. Which I’d like to say was squandered on wine, women and song, but instead went into the financial blackhole that is a young family. My point is that re-reading that novel ‘plan,’ it comprises maybe twenty sentences. All but one of which formed the basis of individual chapters in the published book. I seemed to have been in the happy position of taking dictation from… somewhere—albeit not the lecturer speaking at the time (RIP Prof. Slade). In fact, almost nothing scribbled down in that plan that day was much altered or rejected. It formed the skeleton and spirit which supported and animated the eventual book. So, that's my ideal scenario I suppose, although it's not always been so 'easy' since. But I was young and green (old meaning) then . . .
The peril is that, for me and I suspect many others, planning is the pleasurable part of writing: the period of pure, bubbling creativity, of ‘world-building', and people-birthing—what Tolkien called 'sub-creation.' After which comes the day-after-day hard work of actual creation: getting words on pages and making those words do what you want them to do. Which some days comes like sunshine from heaven, but more often is like herding cats . . .
The other thing I do, when the book is well underway and near what I term the 'point of no return' in terms of knowing it will, Deo volente, be competed, is to ask myself the following question. 'If you were teleported onto a rooftop, armed with a megaphone, and tasked in this, your last ten seconds of life, to summarize to the whole human race gathered expectantly below, ‘What is your book trying to say?' — then what would you tell them?
Assuming a good answer comes to you, I find that that focuses the authorial mind wonderfully. At best, it can cram a shapeless tale into a corset, or laser-etch events into clarity, or get characters to get to the damn point. It may even shock the author, revealing what their book was actually about, contrary to what they thought. In which case, true creativity has taken place, unsuspected and under their nose.
Then you have to revise it. My least favourite bit. The fun declines exponentially till you get to the nadir of grammatical conundrums and the esoteric labyrinth of printer’s notations. But no one held a gun to your head and made you write the thing. It’s all your own fault and ‘ain't no one to blame but you, boy. Stop your ungrateful whining.’
Enjoyment can be re-injected by merely respectful, not slavish, adherence to your prior planning. In particular, your characters should be sufficiently alive as to be capable of swerving off course so as to surprise you. Synergies snap into life, connections are made, motivations become obvious, and — if you're really blessed — 'secret harmonies’ start to be heard, linking plot and characters and setting AND authorial purpose. Such that, on a good day, the writing process is pure pleasure.
And when it’s not, write anyway and revise what you’ve done later. Preferably tomorrow. That also is important. Keep going.
I’d also add that, unless you're a hack or mere mercenary, you must write to please yourself. If your readership happens to possess the guts and moral integrity to unreservedly dig what you write, then let bliss abound. But if not, at least you’ve written something that’s the best you could do, and that no one else at all, all the way from Creation from Doomsday, could have written the way you’ve written it! Which is no small achievement when you stop to think. The great Cavafy wrote a poem (“The First Step”) making that very point.
So, that’s the way I do it. I've heard of other ways. Such as those (apparently only a few) who sit before a blank page and then straightaway bobsleigh off on a 100% unplanned wild ride the ending of which they know not. If so, I envy Yahweh’s apparent smiling upon them. Or there’s those who plan down to the last full stop and bracket. What do I (a mere English hillbilly) know? Let a thousand blossoms bloom. There’s no right way to write — only right and righter ones. As in all things in Life success is the arbiter. Success = quality or sales? Discuss.
As to other advice, there’s the boring bog-standard stuff about reading widely, of being influenced by favourite writers but never ever pastiching them, and, of course, never giving up in the face of outrageous discouragement via rejection letters from publishers and other sinners. Plus, I’ll add my personal call to jihad of always giving your sub-creation depth and detail (lightly conveyed) — make it your favourite daydream playground and invent stuff that might never make it into the completed book but that can still linger there, like the places and people over the horizon that you know full well are there, even if you can’t presently see them. In short make a real world—because if you can't be bothered to believe in it, why should anyone else?
Also, I got given an infallible cure (well, it works for me . . .) for 'Writer's Block’ — although have you considered how you never hear of ‘Nurse’s Block’ or 'Shop Assistant’s Block'? It comes courtesy of Joe Haldeman of The Forever War fame, who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. He recommends that if inspiration is proving elusive you set yourself — make yourself — compile lists. It doesn’t matter of what: American presidents in chronological order, Capital cities of Africa, animals with tails: whatever. Within minutes you'll be so bored your brain will be desperate to cooperate with creativity again. Whereupon you start writing and keep going. If it proves to be not so hot when you reread later, then that’s not the end of the world. At least it's something and can always be revised. Better that than a blank page and discouragement.
Always keep in mind that not one in a million of us can be so blessed as, say, Hank Williams, ‘the Hillbilly Shakespeare' (1923-1953) who said of his songs ‘I pick up the pen and God moves it.’, or Mozart who seems to have just taken down dictation from… ?, composing scores with scarce an amendment. Those people are the awesome mountaintops we can squint at from below and aspire to equal in altitude one day, if even only for the span of one fortunate sentence.
And don’t forget to enjoy your writing life and the gift of sub-creation. You are already blessed with the ambition and ability to head in that direction, so be grateful and revel in your gift. As we learn in childhood, people who don’t say thank you for gifts end up not getting any more…
My final word would be, whatever you do, don’t listen to those servants of Satan who advise you to study successful (= sales only) authors and copy them. That way you end up dragging yourself to the PC to grind out your daily 2000 word quota of ‘The Death Lizards of Khazi; Vol. 7 of the Chronicles of Count Madoc, the Intergalactic Celt' (a spoof book reviewed as '700 pages of total bollocks' by the great Phil Rickman, perceptive critic and creator of the ‘Merrily Watkins’ series—see below). And you will have betrayed your gift. Concluding in deathbed regrets, even if dying amidst riches, plus hard questions to answer in the Judgement to come.
PB: Who do you consider your literary influences to be? Is there anyone other than yourself you'd recommend reading to get where you're coming from, fiction-wise?
JW: In terms of writing style, I aspire to the seemingly effortless ‘crystal clear’ English prose of English SF great, Sam Youd, aka John Christopher (1922-2012) of ‘The Tripods’ and ‘Sword of the Spirits’ trilogies fame. And, of course, George Orwell. In practice, I despair of reaching their standard beyond the odd consecutive phrase or two from time to time. And even then, only if I really work at it. Yet we all live in hope.
In terms of labour-of-love world-building, I stand in ‘we-are-not-worthy’ awe of your fellow countryman, Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman (‘Phil’) Barker (1929-2012) for his creation of ‘Tekumel’ and the Role Playing Game ‘Empire of the Petal Throne’ and novels set therein. He and it have been a major influence and are the ‘Exhibit 1’ I usually produce to vindicate my views on depth in world-building.
In terms of sheer storytelling ability, the master I revere is Yiddish, Nobel Prize-winning, author Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991). Although I could never carry off his deceptively simple ‘There once was a man who lived in Warsaw, and this man had three sons…’ style. It belongs to him alone—and the untold tribal campfire bards who preceded him, plus of course, the ‘author’ of the Old Testament, the identity of whom, I’ll grant you, is not universally acknowledged . . .
So, as you may gather, I like clear, ‘clean’, simple (which it ‘ain’t . . .), ‘muscular’ prose, thus incorporating within my pantheon of esteem such far-from-SF figures as Russian Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Englishman Phil Rickman. No women there, I notice, before any freelance commissar does. Don’t know why. Don’t care. Though possibly due to the baleful influence of Jane Austen, whose sheer . . . existential pointlessness was (is still?) culturally imposed on generations of English schoolboys. Thereby successfully inoculating them against literature for life. Fortunately, I stumbled upon an antidote (SF and Fantasy) in time to avoid that fate. Just. My life would have been very different otherwise. I know for a fact that many of my school contemporaries subsequently only ever read car manuals and sports reports. Which is their loss (and what a loss), but not necessarily 100% their own fault.
Conversely, I abhor convoluted, ‘precious’, indulgent, prose, where you need to check that you’ve got sandwiches-and-a-flask with you before embarking on some of the longer sentences. And then have to re-read them to get the sense — if any. Poor old Anglicised American Henry James (1843-1916) is often quoted as one of the worst exemplars of same, and H. G. Wells wounded his nominal friend by describing him and his writing style as like ‘a magnificent but pitiful hippopotamus resolved at any cost, even at the cost of its dignity, upon picking up a pea in a corner.’ Ouch. James should have punched Wells in public.
In connection with which I have one tip – or more accurately a dreadful warning – for would-be writers. Trust your reader. That is vital. By showing up and opening your book they’ve demonstrated that they’re at least notionally on your side (unless they’re a reviewer . . .). They will, therefore, meet you at least halfway in cooperating with what you write. Alas, there is a tidal pull that afflicts authors, especially as they get older and/or more established, of not trusting their readership and so seeking to exclude all possible erroneous interpretations of their words. Whereby in time their material starts to sound like a house-sale contract or something drawn up by desiccated corporate lawyers. So, if you feel like writing: ‘She put the kettle on — by which I mean connected it to the power supply with the intention of brewing a hot beverage: not placed it on her head like a hat’. Or ‘He slipped on his dressing-gown — that is to say he donned it over his body as a further piece of apparel, not stumbled across it as it lay on the floor,’ thenthat urge must resisted ‘with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your might.’ Otherwise, artistically speaking, Louis Jordan’s dread words apply again: 'Jack, you're dead'.
PB: There's a lot that's worthwhile in your writing (I enjoy the humour, among other things) but when I try to explain it to people, I mostly talk about the worlds, specifically the world that features in ‘A Dangerous Energy’ and its sequels. What historical inspirations went into it?
JW: I agree (except re that ‘a lot…’ bit!)—it’s the ‘world’ that’s the thing. As with ourselves in our own little lifetimes, so should it be with the people and places in our books. The world was there before us and will be still after we’ve ‘strutted and fretted our hour upon the stage’, to paraphrase the Bard. In keeping with that palpable reality (unless you’re a solipsist…) I believe that an author should strive to ‘sub-create’ such that the same sense of belief is conveyed to the reader. Or, making the mirror-image case, I can’t abide (plus think it slighting to your book and readership alike) stock-fantasy frontage-only film-set style worlds: sham places and people, only as deep as they need to be to support the passing scene and their fleeting role in the tale. Which then are packed away as the focus passes on.
Sadly, fantastic literature now swarms with such, worlds created like they were assembled from a publisher’s pro-forma: ‘Name of Goodie Nation’, ‘Name of Troubled Heroine’, ‘Name of Magical Item plot arbiter (NB—for copyright reasons can’t be a ring)’, ‘Name of Evil Lord’ and etc.
Against which tendency, the late Diana Wynn-Jones’s deeply subversive spoof travel guide ‘Tough Guide to Fantasy Land’ (1996—available for mere hamburger-sum pennies via Amazon) should have acted as a nuke-strength cleansing disinfectant. Certainly, no one who’s read it is likely to tolerate shoddy pot-boiler fantasy ever again. Which righteous work alone should have earned even avowed atheist Jones entry to Paradise. If there’s any justice.
PB: From where I sit, the world of A Dangerous Energy has some stuff going for it – environmentally more sound, settler colonialism seemingly checked early – but is otherwise quite dark: limited in terms of what people can do with their lives, technologically backward, stifled, given to Crusades. There's a "warts and all" approach you don't get with other writers whose worldbuilding has a strong worldview behind it (thinking here mainly of libertarian writers). Do you see the world of ADE as an improvement on our world, and if so, in what ways?
JW: The world or alt-history I depict in A Dangerous Energy and To Build Jerusalem and The Two Confessions (in a nutshell, the ‘Reformation’ failed, or, as I’d say, the combined coup d'état and treason were foiled) is meant to be a real place where humans live out their lives and times and being, both before and after and beyond the spotlight of the plot falling upon them and meeting the main characters. I think of them as active agents with lives to live unconnected with my story aims, and quite often make references accordingly. I may have absorbed that style from my youthful reading of the estimable Andre Norton, who I now realise often slipped in ‘colour’ that turned out to have no connection with the unfolding tale (such as, from memory, some planet being a centre of ‘Type 2F spaceship battlecruiser manufacture’) but cumulatively combined to make me believe I truly was, for the duration of my read, ‘elsewhere.’
However, referring back to my distaste for didacticism, I am not a proponent of the A Dangerous Energy world, nor an advocate it being ‘better’. I do see positive elements within it, such as the apparent better general mental health compared to ‘our’ present anomie pandemic. Although their physical health care lags centuries behind that of the contemporary West. Equalling average life spans of far shorter duration. However, our descendants may likewise pity us for our own ‘mere’ seventy years or so span. All is relative.
Conversely, ‘ADE-world’ doesn’t share our privilege of almost unfettered knowledge seeking and curiosity-settling via the ‘galactic encyclopedia’ we have access to through our mobile phones and PCs. I recently stayed a week beside the ruins of a Cistercian Abbey in England that was once accounted a major centre of learning for possessing a library of two hundred books! Whereas intellectuals stuck in ‘my’ history or real-life scholars like St. Bede, the ‘Father of English History’ (672-735 A.D.), would be thrilled by arrival on loan of just one new book from some other monastery or university. Yet if there was a reference therein that intrigued them there was no possibility of ‘Googling’ it like I do a dozen times a day, minimum. Tough — they’d have to write a letter to some other scholar. Maybe abroad. And maybe it’d get delivered, and maybe that person might know the answer. And maybe they’d reply and maybe their reply would arrive safely. In due course…
I wouldn’t like that, not now I’ve experienced modernity. But what my alt-history people do have as a collective possession is a shared Creator-focused narrative of Life and the Universe, firmly set within a redemption history, such that everyone doesn’t have to work out their own purpose from scratch (assuming they can be bothered or ever could), and so can just get on with their given years, with a reason for having families and doing good (or ill), etc. Assuming that they inwardly accept it, as I suspect the vast unthinking majority would, and as such insights as we get from historical records confirm they did. On a Bell Curve ranging from passive acceptance to full-on commitment. At least openly.
Whereas now the fraying—to near-nothingness in advanced places—of societal cohesion or narrative, or cultural heritage to hand on (‘All we can hope to leave them now is money’—Philip Larkin, ‘Homage to a Government’) is really starting to show. Equaling that ‘Alienation’ which Marxism makes so much of, but I think fundamentally misunderstands.
Wherefore, each successive generation in the West (and everywhere else for all I know) seems to be suffering from mild to severe ‘futureshock’ at the howling gale of ceaseless change and the pointlessness-pandemic, amounting in many cases to nervous breakdowns not susceptible to any individual, person-by-person, cure. Either by pharmaceuticals or counseling. Mark Fisher (aka ‘K-punk’, 1968-2017) wrote perceptively on the subject.
PB: You have attacked the Whig version of history – everything being a logical and upward progression up from feudalism to modern industrial society – both by implication in your fiction and more explicitly in interviews. What would you say your view of history is?
JW: It’s easy to attack the Whig view of History—defined as 'we are the summit and purpose of History and evolution'—even without the kick in the crutch given it by WWI, let alone the Holocaust, which ought to have been its coup de grâce. And the reason that it’s easy is that the basic charge of being ‘arrogance-on-stilts’ is broadly true.
Yet it's understandable how it came about. All hegemonies and cultures need to love themselves and have a foundation myth and justification narrative, however risible it might read to subsequent appraisals. If they don’t, they fail and die, just like individual human beings and families that don’t essentially like themselves do (as with Western modernity). Nature is utterly ruthless with lifeforms that don’t love themselves.
So, for instance, the titanic wealth-and-land expropriation and ditching of societal cohesion that was the Reformation excused its actions as ‘reform’, and a few prominent figureheads (of varying sincerity) pinned a religious fig leaf over its more obvious motives and all the gory bits. In this fallen world that’s what classes and regimes up-to-no-good are pretty much obligated to do. Which doesn’t mean we can't meanwhile mock and undermine them...
Accordingly, I'd venture to say—armed by the work of revisionist (but centuries-too-late) scholars like J. J. Scarisbrick and Eamon Duffy—that the Reformation in England at least, was a forcible civilisational conversion to de-facto materialism and selfish me-alone proto-capitalism, incited, in the immortal words of John Stuart, 3rd Marques of Bute in 1868:
‘by a lustful and tyrannical king and… a pack of greedy, time serving and unpatriotic nobles…’ equalling ‘…a great national crime.’
English Radical politician and author, William Cobbett (1763-1835), put it more bluntly and far ruder than that, in words you can look up, but I will spare the more sensitive reader.
Which, via state violence and coercion, and then the slow grind of legally imposed social conformity, forced a more malleable and ultimately patina-thin and discredited shadow of Christianity on the nation, against the will of vast majority who clung to the faith of their ancestors until their cultural memories died with them and a new Protestant and ‘Anti-Papist’ nation was born.
But what do I know? I wasn’t there.
That said, I still perceive there’s a line to be drawn, albeit a crooked one, from the Reformation through the ‘Enlightenment' and the more nihilistic excesses of the Industrial Revolution‘, and thinking of Mankind as perfectible and 'the measure of all things’, which leads you ultimately to eugenics and the Holocaust and the Gulag.
Likewise, the Whig History appropriated term ‘progressive’ seems to me to be most likely only progressing towards servitude to a cradle-to-grave, thought-dictating, ‘Total State’. Combined with a trajectory towards a Culture whose culture is consumerism, oblivion-drinking and conquest-fucking. The next or overlapping logical step to which is broad-but-unknowing adoption of the Islamic heresy expressed by Hassan i Sabbah, 'The Old Man of the Mountains', founder of the Assassins (1034?-1124 AD): 'Nothing is true, and everything is permissible.'
Which is no mission statement for a life, let alone a civilisation. Superficially it sounds sort of ‘stark’ and ‘manly’ in the face of an existence we didn’t ask for and are unlikely to ever understand. In practise it would lead to the kind and meek and poor and weak going under, ground underfoot in perpetuity. A sort of forever Nietzschean Fascism. I wouldn’t want to hang around in a world where that view was the default.
Seeking to be positive, instead of Marx’s, I think mistaken, class and class struggle explanation of History’s motor, I would substitute ‘Security’ as the engine of whatever might be called ‘progress’. As in safety from a life shortened or suborned by arbitrary violence, whether by the next-door tribe or your own tribe or a boss or just plain bad guy. For instance, most people in the developed world at least, no longer need fear Viking raids or their equivalent. So, all being equal, you’re more inclined to nurture ambitions beyond keeping breathing, to build nice homes and to have families. Speaking of which, in most places, your Family are not legally allowed to kill you anymore. That measure of Human progress has visibly improved through time. So, taken together there has been a related decline in the need for 24/7 protection from a harsh world as provided (at a price in taxes and obedience!) by kings and feudal barons and then capitalist barons and then your Dad and your five fierce brothers, and so on and so forth. Or, to look at it in terms of accommodation, we see the transition from fortified villages, through sheltering beside castles, to our present undefended, demilitarised, suburban dormitories. Said safety from violence in turn permits (and eventually offers as-of-right) a wider and wider dissemination of power over your own life within society. Such that you end up with even the ‘little people' having votes. Even though they’re not armed! And lone women being able to live independently, even alone and unwed if that’s what they want.
So ‘Security’ would be my substitute for Marx’s societal impetus and I really ought to coin a name for the theory before I die. Alas, Whitbournianism doesn’t have the same snappy (and slightly sinister) ring to it as Marxism.
As to what I personally think, well, on a melancholy day it’s pretty much Hassan i Sabbah’s conclusion (see above), or the quote I can’t presently trace (Voltaire or Balzac, or maybe my favourite poet, ‘Anon’) to the effect that Life is nothing but shipwreck and always will be…
Otherwhen, I hope that humanity is on an almost imperceptibly subtle but ultimately upward slope in the general direction of a better fed and sheltered/easier/safer and longer span of years in this ‘million-petalled flower of being here.’ (Philip Larkin again). Yet none of those estimable improvements will help in making any sense of being here for seventy or so years. Humans are not ‘eat-sleep-shag-die’ animals. Or needn’t be.
Also, if pressed, I’d confess I concur with the Sufis (and Job 32:8, and English explorer Sir Richard Burton, 1821-1890) that ‘the spirit and life of Man is nothing but the breath of G-d’. And likewise, Sa’d Al-Din Mahmud Shabistari’s words in ‘The Secret Rose Garden’, c.1300 A.D.:
‘I’ and ‘you’ are but the lattices,
in the niches of a lamp,
through which the One Light shines.
And so on. It’s both a comfort and lip-stiffener to contemplate.
I hope I’ve never, ever, used any of my characters as a ventriloquist’s dummy to voice my own views (as I’ve said, disrespectful to both them and the reader), but as ‘summas’ go I nevertheless find myself in broad agreement with the chilly and homicidal Stoic, Admiral Slovo, central figure in my ‘Popes & Phantoms’ (1993), when he said—responding to a request for deathbed summary of his philosophy:
‘It's simply put" answered Slovo… 'I believed life was a vale of tears and hard on failure. I hoped that what the Church taught was true, but I feared that nothing was true and everything was permissible.’
That phrase again!
Taken with all I’ve said above, I've maybe just set myself up for a battering by twitterstorm, and/or ‘five-to-fifteen’ years in a re-education camp, but I discover than my inner indifference knows no bounds. I’m Facebook and Twitter-mob proofed. No one, not even the Government, can sack me, and I’ve finally secured what official American genius, Hank Williams, called ‘rocking chair money’. That is to say a modest sufficiency directly comparable to the ‘rocking chair by the fire’ sole ambition of ‘Old Moses’ in John Ford’s masterwork, ‘The Searchers’. So, I can say what I think. Though I’d be in trouble—to put it mildly—if I was starting out in publishing again. Modern professional Publishing is not staffed with ‘No problem: you've got your view, and I've got my mine’ live-and-let-live people. Many are about as liberal as Lavrenti Beria. In fact, I’m sure I would never have been published. Those are the times we live in.
Although nowadays there’s ‘Self Publication’! No longer such a derogatory term and the last resort of the desperate. In a revolutionary process in a revolutionary era whose end we cannot even dimly glimpse (but comparable in import to the invention of the printing press I think), the Internet is coming to the aid of Freedom (and anarchy and creative destruction, and nihilism too!). The literary gatekeepers are being outflanked prior to being deposed, and like any other ruling class convinced that their thoughts are synonymous with right and virtue, they’re not happy about it. Very far from…
I could check my ‘Sympathy Meter’ reading for them if you like, but I fear the arrow may be at ‘ZERO’. Perhaps its batteries have run out…
PB: In the world of ADE, the Catholic Church appears as the one bulwark against a multiverse of beings inimical to human existence - demons, even bigger demons like the one in ‘To Build Jerusalem', elder gods, elves, etc. How much do you think this reflects our actual existential situation versus how much of it is good for stories?
JW: To be only partly flippant, about 50-50.
I do believe there are powers out there. In such a richly stocked universe it would be odd if there were not. I have heard first-hand testimony regarding signs of them from people that I trust. Which is as close as I care to come. They are probably in relation to us as we are to the bugs we unknowingly kill in abundance every time we walk or drive. And they are not necessarily committed to our happiness and well-being in the first place. Therefore, it is neither safe nor wise to consort with them, via an Ouija board or anything else. Just as it wouldn’t be wise for me to spit in Mike Tyson’s beer, or for Iceland to invade America.
A lot logically follows from that perception and you've hit upon it in one of your reviews:
‘In Whitbourn’s world, those people [The Church] have the direct line to the one bare trickle of cosmic hope, so I guess it makes sense they call the shots.’
Interestingly, in SF and Fantasy terms that stance makes you see things very differently indeed from secular modernity. For instance, one of my favourite films is ‘The Mothman Prophecies’ (2002), starring Richard Gere (+ great soundtrack too – recommended for chilling the spine…), but a practicing Muslim friend of mine couldn’t understand all the fuss. ‘So someone’s being afflicted by a jinn,’ was his comment. ‘Big deal. That’s what jinns do, jinns are mischievous. Why doesn’t this fool pray to the Creator of all jinns for aid?’
Likewise, Blatty’s ‘The Exorcist’ (book and film—and shun the sequels I implore you!) only really sounds out its proper responses if placed in the locating cosmology. Otherwise, it’s just ‘gross-out’ horror and entertainment. Add in the requisite buttresses and extensions of its 'universe' and then you’re viewing a very different, taller and more imposing edifice…
As the other part of the 50-50, how happy a happenstance it is when your perception of reality is also a genuine launchpad for storytelling…
PB: The Gideonites (militant underground Protestants) in ‘To Build Jerusalem’ practice "democratic centralism," which, having Trotskyite friends, I found tickling. Have you got experience with such an organizing model?
JW: See above re my eclectic reading tastes, including Marxism and other ideologies. Also, via the random contingencies of upbringing and career, I can simulate Marx-speak at least as good as any tenured Sociology professor. Plus, Marxian ideology does genuinely interest me, and my library of same is extensive and far from dusty. Which makes me a very atypical Englishman. However, I’d take to the hills with a rifle rather than live under it.
PB: I haven't had the chance to read it yet, but I'm intrigued by your recent books centered around the adventures of King Farouk of Egypt. What inspired you to write about him?
JW: For those not in the know, we speak of His Majesty King Farouk bin Ahmed Fuad bin Ismail bin Ibrahim bin Muhammad Ali bin Ibrahim Agha, by the grace of God Farouk I, King of Egypt and Sudan, Sovereign of Nubia, of Kordofan, and of Darfur. Caliph of the Faithful and sole official Rolls Royce Ltd. agent for the Principality and Sovereign State of Monaco. 1920-1965. Whose disgracefully amusing (and amusingly disgraceful) antics I describe in ‘The Book of Farouk’ – Vol. 1 ‘Nothing is True…’ and Vol. 2—(you guessed it…) ‘Everything is Permissible’. 2018 and 2019 respectively.
The short answer is that I like History and I like Farouk, and I like having fun with History—and Farouk liked having fun too. In my youth, he was the absolute archetype king of the playboys and the indefensible international jet-set. And an actual (albeit deposed) King to boot!
Longer answer: I’m attracted by opposites. Like most thinking people are, I suspect, even if secretly and guiltily. It’s basically the question of ‘what if I’d lived my life completely differently?’ Or in this case, you might call it jealousy... For, as the contemporary Egyptian saying said:
‘If there were seven deadly sins, King Farouk would find an eighth.’
So, I found myself daydreaming, what would it have been like to have lived blithely unconcerned by ethics, morals, chivalry, keeping in shape, keeping promises, honour, courage/cowardice and other people’s opinion of you? Let alone consistently respectful behaviour towards the fairer sex? In short, all the things that frankly I’ve found to be a real drag when applied in my own life.
Therefore, I wrote Farouk’s ‘autobiography’ to find out. And added lots of fantasy and supernatural elements and Islamic theology because…, well, because I just damn well wanted to. King Farouk-style,
Though please don’t run away with the idea that Farouk was a bad man. He wasn’t. I don’t think anyone could have ruled Egypt at that time, not without resorting to mass massacres. Whereas Farouk killed very few people, far fewer than he could have (many of them asking-for-it), and probably fewer than he should have. As I say in the Book of Farouk, it’s arguable that Egypt of the time was unrulable. Foaming-at-the-mouth vested interests competed to writhe their way to the top of the crab-barrel and then, perched in undignified fashion there, make their stay permanent by crushing all those below. Meanwhile, an invincible British presence (iron fist barely concealed in a golfing glove) with lofty Imperial strategic aims conversed only with a barely-Egyptian-by-blood deplorable ruling class. Beneath that binary oppression surged the 99% of the un-consulted and increasingly insulted, stirred into frenzy by thwarted nationalist amour-propre and religion gone rancid.
So, what mortal monarch could have ridden such a bucking bronco of a nation? Alexander the Great, maybe. Genghis Khan perchance. But then the resultant mountains of skulls would have needed a Sherpa to climb them and put a flag on top—and the history books would have tut-tutted even more than they did at poor Farouk’s best efforts.
No, at worst, all Farouk was sins were those of naughtiness. And mischief too—such as pickpocketing (he stole Churchill’s heirloom watch!). Rather than the colder sins, like cruelty. Consequently, he was deposed and went into exile and polished his professional naughtiness as a playboy with purloined resources (allegedly a Monte Carlo hotel bathtub filled to the brim with gold bars), before successfully gorging himself to death in 1965, aged 45. And then ‘Moved into G-d’s mercy’ as his grave in Cairo notes. Not a bad way of traversing the rocky road of Life I suppose.
It may be that I will owe Farouk an apology should we chance to meet in the Life-to-come. If so, I am confident it will be freely forthcoming. Meanwhile, G-d knows the truth of it. Which suffices.
I also feel the same about the similar but way more sinister figure of Parvus (1867-1924), aka Alexander Lvovich Parvus, aka Israel Lazarevich Gelfand aka… no one’s really sure what his real name was! A bear-sized Russian revolutionary who looked like a stereotypical capitalist from a Bolshevik agitprop poster. Who liked fun and kleptomania and the ladies (an affair with Rosa Luxembourg perhaps!) as much as Farouk did, but who was otherwise far darker. As in arms dealing and making shady millions wherever he so much as paused for breath. An as important a figure as Lenin in the 1917 events (and more so in the 1905 ones) but subsequently airbrushed out of History by a jealous Vladimir Ilyich. He rounded off his life by hosting orgies on his private island near Berlin. Which was absolutely appalling behaviour, I agree.
I shouldn’t but do rather envy Parvus his evident freedom to be a rich and ruthless monster. But I shan’t now be writing a book about him (see below re why not).
PB: I read in a previous interview that some of your worlds started out as role playing game [RPG] settings. Do you still game, and if so, what have you been playing lately?
JW: As a youth and young man, I used to be heavily into wargames and then role-playing games. Indeed, I credit the former with kick-starting my up-till-then lackluster academic abilities. Suddenly there was this absorbing new hobby which involved ‘Early Sassanid Clibanarii’ and ‘Patrician Roman Legio Lanciarii’ etc., and which provided a good reason to discover just what those things were, and the context they came from too. And one thing led to… a hundred thousand others and I absorbed history and politics like a sponge along the way. So, I’d earnestly recommend those hobbies to any educators dealing with ‘learning averse’ pupils, and especially boys turned off books by the likes of Jane Austen. I still retain an interest in the subject and can enjoy reading a set of wargame rules or ‘Army Lists’ or an RPG as much as I would an ordinary book.
Then, way back in the late seventies, I actually wrote an RPG called ‘Continuum’ for gaming with my set of wargaming friends, and the setting was the same ‘alt-history’ in which my first book ‘A Dangerous Energy’ was subsequently placed. Or rather I should say that years of playing ‘Continuum' (before the standard factors of work, wives and children kicked in…) created such a wealth of world-detail that the idea of setting a book therein seemed just a logical extension. Which eventually led to three books in the loosely linked series I belatedly dubbed ‘The Pevensey Trilogy’—derived from a historic English seaside village peripherally involved in all three books.
Hence the rich level of detail (or ‘filigree’ as you say in a review) you kindly perceive in my books, as well as the thought-out background I always look for in any Fantasy or SF project.
Looking back, I can’t say that ‘Continuum’ was massively original, save maybe in its ‘gunpowder’ and actual-England setting, plus all the borrowings and extrapolations from English folklore. Otherwise, it was a joint hotchpotch and homage to early ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ (I ordered the original ‘White Box Set’ all the way from America!) and ‘Empire of the Petal Throne’ by M A R Barker (see above). Even so, it was a lot of fun and a productive factory of happy memories along the way. I’m still in touch with the players and we occasionally chat about their alternative lives therein—and what a swine of an umpire I was…
Funnily enough, I can remember the exact spot where the initial idea for the whole alt-history and RPG and books came to me—a mental bolt-from-the-blue but fully formed image of a sorcerer sitting in a pub [ = bar in American], but not the standard Merlin style medieval wizard, nor generic D&D ‘tavern’, but a sort of mutant Victorian version of both. It arrived whilst I was walking to the next-door town one day in 1977—the first day of a fortuitous (as it transpired) period of unemployment, giving me the time to start recording all the ideas and mechanisms that came bubbling up and demanded to be written down.
I still pass that very point almost daily but the well of inspiration is drier than it was then. Although I will admit to the spookiness of the fact that a mere thirty-six years later the idea of calling my King Farouk novel ‘The Book of Farouk’ came to me when I was thinking of anything-but at that self-same spot! Obviously, the genius loci there, or the imagination land-mine buried beneath that particular bit of pavement, hasn’t entirely gone away…
PB: Have you read any good books lately?
JW: Yep. Anything by Phil Rickman of England, and ditto James Stoddard from your country. But especially the former's ‘Merrily Watkins’ series (about a ‘lady-clergyman’ exorcist) and the latter's ‘High House’ series.
Phil can evoke subtle supernatural events and—just as importantly—their philosophical/theological implications, like no one else I know; and is also a wizard of characterisation, a better-than-Baron-Frankenstein creator of flesh and blood. For instance, his heroine, Merrily Watkins, has become to me a living, breathing, person, with all the unpredictable individuality that appends to living breathing personages. Conviction thus develops, via mere marks upon paper, that a possible encounter with Merrily merely requires visiting the real-life UK Cathedral city of Hereford where the books are set.
Whereas, to be succinct where an essay could well be justified, James Stoddard has written a series that will one day I trust will be acclaimed as an all-time Fantasy genre classic (and maybe bust out of the genre ghetto too). A sort of Narnia-meets-Gormenghast – but better!
PB: What's your next project?
JW: The Age of the Triffids’: fulfillment of my life-long ambition of writing a sequel to John Wyndham’s masterpiece (but abruptly ended) ‘The Day of the Triffids’. As alreadypublished early this year. Plug: see https://www.amazon.ca/dp/171274982X
For copyright reasons, it’s only available from Canada and New Zealand.
And then that’s it. I’ve got me my ‘rocking chair’ and a supply of Saudi-sourced ‘worry beads’ sufficient to see me out. Plus, bookshelves heaving with Philip Larkin's poetry and commentary thereon, and a comprehensive Hank Williams (senior, junior and Hank Williams III too!) CD collection.
I intend to put them to collective good use, seeking wisdom and much needed good karma whilst (as per Chateaubriand’s ‘Vie de Rancé’, 1844) ‘waiting for the clamour to end.’
PB: Is there anything else you want to get out there?
JW: See above. Nope. But thank you for asking.
Peter Berard is San Antonio Review’s Book Review Editor. He is a writer, historian and organizer living in Watertown, Mass. Read more of his work at his site, Too Much Berard.