Presently I'm writing an historical novel about Charles Darwin, who's been in the news lately.
I'm thinking of both the landmark "intelligent design" court case in Dover, Pennsylvania, and
the Darwin exhibit that's been traveling around among the major natural history museums.
Once again, I'll probably miss the critical period for capitalizing on the media attention being
accorded my chosen subject. The Darwin brouhaha will peak early next year, in honor of his
200th birthday, and yet my novel won't be ready until 2010.
Of course, any serious novel is intended to live outside its time, and the writer who rushes
to capitalize on the zeitgeist is probably committing artistic suicide. For whatever reasons,
This Is the Way the World Ends remains in print, and it's still taught in several college
classes, to students who weren't even alive when Reagan was rattling his nuclear saber, so
in a sense I'm having the last laugh. And I believe that both The Last Witchfinder and the
Darwin novel (tentatively titled Galapagos Regained) touch on universal themes, so in
theory they'll attract future generations of readers who won't especially care how popular
these books were when first published.
Bill: You mentioned on your blog that The Philosopher's Apprentice is, among other things,
your homage to Frankenstein, both Mary Shelley's original novel and the various movies from
Universal Studios and Hammer Films. Which of the Hammer Frankenstein films is your favorite
James: When I read your question, Bill, my answer was immediate and instinctual -- and yet
I'm prepared to defend it. The Revenge of Frankenstein is not as scary as The Curse of
Frankenstein, as cleverly plotted as Frankenstein Created Woman, or as emotionally
wrenching as Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. And yet it has a cadaverous elegance not
found elsewhere in the cycle. Director Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster suffused
The Revenge of Frankenstein with a graphic sense of the unhallowed Nietzschean bravado,
at once diabolical and darkly glamorous, through which the medical profession established
itself in the Regency and Victorian periods. This is a wholly subjective reaction, of course,
doubtless informed by the fact that I first saw The Revenge of Frankenstein when I was only
thirteen, an age when horror movies are especially resonant.
Bill: In his book, The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera speaks of "the truth that is to be
discovered," by which he means that, beyond a writer's conscious realization of their novel's
theme, there is also, as Kundera says, "The poem hidden somewhere behind." Kundera calls
this discovering of truth in one's own novel "the dazzlement." Do you experience this
dazzlement when you write a book? That is, of discovering a theme or a variation on your
intended theme, which you did not anticipate?
James: I regard most of my novels as "thought experiments," analogous to the Gedanken
calculations --unstageable demonstrations conducted entirely within the confines of one's
skull -- routinely performed by physicists, cosmologists, and philosophers. It's never enough
simply to ask, "What if?" You must actually run the thought experiment. You need to write
the damn book. And that usually entails being surprised by the outcome.
No matter how carefully I outline a novel, it will normally get away from me during the
composition process -- and that is all to the good. If there's "dazzlement" in the writer, then
there will probably be "dazzlement" in the reader. Indeed, the only reason I go to all the
trouble of writing fiction is the expectation of discovering some hidden but astonishing
potential in the themes and premises with which I'm experimenting.
One of my favorite James Morrow novels, Blameless in Abaddon, finds the hero, Martin
Candle, trekking though the brain of a comatose Supreme Being in search of
counter-arguments to the great theodicies, a theodicy being a rational explanation for God's
apparent indifference to human suffering. Martin needs these anti-theodicies so he can
successfully prosecute the Almighty before the World Court in the Hague. Strangely enough,
God proves perfectly willing to make the case for his own depravity. And as I was writing
those scenes, I said to myself, "Of course, wow, damn, yes, that's exactly what a Supreme
Being would do. This is God, after all, not some cleric or politician or demagogue. God's not
out to defend his reputation. God's out to be God."
The Last Witchfinder involved a similar moment of dazzlement during its gestation. When I
outlined the plot, I knew that my heroine, Jennet Stearne, would write a book that
effectively critiques "the demon hypothesis." But I didn't realize that, to advertise her
argument, Jennet would end up posing as a witch and arranging to be put on trial for
Satanism in colonial Philadelphia. I was delighted when I stumbled on that idea, because it
elevated Jennet to truly heroic stature.
Kundera has evidently articulated all this better than I could. Thank you, Bill, for drawing my
attention to his insight.
Bill: We can both thank Jamelah Earle for hipping us to Kundera's book on novel writing.
|Page 2, Bill Ectric in Conversation with James Morrow