Welcome to Barren Island Books, an interview show in no way related to a popular music-based radio programme. Every Thursday, I will be exiling my latest guest to a remote island with only five books for company, selected from the categories I give them. It’s up to them to make sure they choose wisely, because they’re going to be stuck with these books for a long, long time …
My interviewee this week is Thom Stark, author of the American Sulla trilogy (the first of which is May Day, already published in Kindle edition and available next week as a trade paperback). When he's not being banished to a desert island, Thom can be found at www.starkrealities.com.
Thom, thanks for joining us. First of all, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself – just so we know who it is we’re sending into exile. Illogical fears, unusual birthmarks, whether you’d rather wrestle a bear or punch a shark, that kind of thing.
Thanks for having me, A. F. E. May I call you A?
Anyway, they tell me I was born in Pittsburgh, PA. I don’t recall the event, but I believe them, since that’s what my birth certificate says. I was a military brat, and I grew up all over the map, so I’ve never thought of the place as home. For me, home is where my wife and dogs are.
I’m afraid all my fears are fairly rational: death, disability, killer clowns, and aggressive, armed, flying insects. Likewise, I have only the usual birthmarks. I’d certainly rather punch a shark than jump one, and as for wrestling bears ... well, let’s just say that we used to live in Mariposa County, CA, which has quite a thriving ursine population, and that caused me to swear off accosting bruins in singlets.
I can tell you that we acquired our first dog while living there, in the county that’s home to Yosemite Valley, and now we can’t conceive of life without them. About a week and a half after we moved onto our little 5.24-acre spread of oak trees and granite boulders, located a mile and a half down a dirt road with delusions of gravel, I was just unwinding after an all-night writing session (in those days, I was a columnist and feature writer for the late, great Boardwatch Magazine, and my monthly deadline was at 8:00 am that morning). Looking out our living room window, I spotted a mountain lion padding across our front yard.
So, naturally, I did what any animal-savvy person would do in the circumstances: I walked out onto our front deck, and called, “Good morning, Mr. Mountain Lion! How are you today?” Well, the big fellow – he was a good four feet or more from nose to rump – looked up at me, standing there in my bathrobe, and I could just see the gears turning as he considered the situation. In my robe, I must have looked a good deal like a black bear to him. It was certainly clear to him that I knew he was there, and equally clear from my tone of voice that I was not afraid of him. Worst of all, from his perspective, I had the advantage of a good twelve feet in elevation on him. So he did what any healthy, self-respecting mountain lion who found himself in similar circumstances would instinctively do. He exercised the better part of valor, and skedaddled, double-time, to the safety of the 1,200-acre woods our property abutted.
That’s when I decided we needed to get a dog. You see, my darling wife liked to take walks along our road in the early mornings and around dusk. Those are prime hunting hours for ambush predators, like mountain lions, and I felt it was prudent to discourage them from considering the Mrs. as an entrée, since I’m not much of a cook, and she’s about the only person who laughs at my jokes. So we rushed right out, and began researching dog psychology and training. Six months later, once we felt we had learned enough to be responsible and clueful dogkeepers, we adopted our beloved Wolfgang from the Mariposa County Animal Shelter (we only adopt rescued animals), and we’ve had pups in our lives ever since.
The largest animal that's ever wandered into my back garden is probably a squirrel, so I can't imagine what it must be like to have mountain lions and bears as visitors! I must agree with you about rescue dogs, though; my mother has a pair, and if I ever seek to adopt a dog of my own (once Baby Smith is a little older, perhaps) I wouldn't dream of looking anywhere other than a shelter.
Now, what about your own work? What are the inspirations behind it? What would make someone else choose it to accompany them into exile?
Oddly enough, I was preparing to write a completely different book – Deluge, the first in a science fiction ecotastrophe cycle – when the idea for American Sulla struck me. While I was constructing a future history, in the process of world-building for Deluge, I realized that the events of William Orwell Steele’s presidency deserved a novel of their own. And, since the act of nuclear terrorism that initiated those world-shaking events took place in the year 2020, it made absolute sense to write that novel first, before reality swept past my fictional timeline.
I don’t think it will surprise any of my readers to learn that what inspired American Sulla was the 9/11 attacks. I remember how appalled I was at the way the U.S. Congress fell all over itself to trample our constitutional rights in pursuit of marginal (and largely illusory) protections against “the terrorists”. Likewise, I was depressed and outraged at the gullibility of the American public in swallowing those attacks as a pretext for our oil war against Saddam Hussein.
The genesis of the novel was the question of how things might have gone differently had George W. Bush not been selected as president by our Supreme Court’s election tampering. So the plot centers around a liberal-left Democratic president who must cope with the aftermath of a terror attack that makes the events of 9/11 look like a trash can fire by comparison.
In addition to the political aspect, I also wanted to show how ordinary people might be affected by the disaster. So there’s quite a large and diverse cast of characters, each with his or her own story, all interwoven into a kind of narrative tapestry.
Everyone who’s read the book has commented on what a page-turner it is – and that was quite deliberate. I’m a huge fan of Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs. It’s one of the most engrossing thrillers I’ve ever read. So I appropriated Harris’s technique of keeping each chapter short, and giving each one a cliffhanger ending. Another writer whose work I like a lot is Harry Turtledove, the Master of Alternate History. Turtledove’s books all have massive casts, to illustrate the effects of world-altering events on ordinary individuals, and to give readers from all walks of life characters with which they can identify. I stole that strategy for American Sulla, as well.
My goal was to make the story as entertaining as possible, while slipping the substantive issues into the narrative as painlessly as I could. It’s a cautionary tale that also features romance, adventure, espionage, military action, and the overheated rhetoric of American politics all mixed in together into a meaty stew readers find irresistible.
Or, at least, that’s the theory.
I should mention that I did hours of research for each hour I spent writing, to ensure the technical and physical details of the novel are as accurate as possible. My goal was to honor the unwritten contract between the reader and the author, wherein the reader agrees willingly to suspend his or her disbelief, and enter into the author’s narrative universe, in exchange for the author’s guarantee not to violate that bond of trust. I can’t number the times I’ve found myself figuratively dumped out of a story into the cold embrace of reality, because the author failed to properly do his or her homework, and presumed to tell me something that I knew from either research or personal experience was simply not the case. I was (and am) determined not to allow that to happen to my own readers, so I exhaustively research even seemingly trivial details before I include them.
Just as one example, there’s a scene in which the Vice President visits President Steele for dinner at the White House. Her limousine pulls up to the North Portico, and he dashes out in the rain to accompany her to the entrance. It took me close to two hours to track down the fact that the three steps from the driveway to the portico itself are made of gray marble from a quarry in Tennessee. Once I was sure I had the facts straight, I could write with confidence that the President descended the gray marble steps to the waiting limousine, knowing that the small percentage of the million and a half visitors who take the White House tour every year who might actually have been paying attention when the guide mentioned that those steps are made of gray marble would nod their heads, and read on, never knowing I’d spent so much time making sure that description wouldn’t conflict with their personal experience and knowledge.
Similarly, when I describe the Situation Room or the Military Operations Center at the Pentagon, give the address of CIA headquarters, or describe the view from the Lloyd’s of London CEO’s office window or the banks of the Swat River, people who have been to those places will nod, and read on. That’s very important to me.
I don’t care one way or another whether readers consciously appreciate the research that went into the story. I just don’t want to break the spell, by giving them reason to grimace and say, “Well, he got THAT wrong,” simply because I was too lazy to do the research it takes to get the details right.
I do enjoy an intelligent thriller, so yours sounds right up my street. It's particularly good to hear an author talk with such passion about the importance of research. As you say, a single wrong detail can completely shatter a reader's suspension of disbelief (my pet hate is anachronistic language in historical fiction, but the principle holds true in any genre).
So now let’s move on to the books you’re going to take to the island with you. First up, it’s your favourite childhood book – perhaps the one that got you interested in reading in the first place, or the one you read over and over when you were young. Which will you choose, and why?
Well, the very first novel I ever read was Tom Swift Jr. In the Caves of Nuclear Fire. It’s actually pretty well-written for a product of the prose factory that went by the name of Victor Appleton II, so I’d consider that. But I think I’d probably choose The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester, instead. It’s anything but a children’s book, but then again, I was reading novels for adults well before I turned seven years old.
The Stars My Destination is one of the best science fiction novels of the 1950s – an era when Mars was a marginally habitable desert planet and Venus a world of swamps and jungles. Bester’s novel showcases his tremendous imagination, as well as his superb literary gifts, and the protagonist follows an incredible arc of development from illiterate spacehand to the classic Messiah figure of the mythological Hero’s Journey. It was also the first novel I read that really exemplified the phrase “verbal pyrotechnics”. I’ve read it a dozen times or more, and thoroughly enjoyed it each time.
Next, the book that made the greatest impact on your life. This could be one that inspired you to become a writer, or one that made you look at the world in a whole new way – maybe even one that resulted in real-life romance or adventure.
That would have to be Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. I was a teenager in the late Sixties and early Seventies, and that novel was something between a touchstone and a bible for the hippie culture, of which I was an enthusiastic part. Didacticism aside, Heinlein’s book introduced me to the concept of participatory divinity, and innoculated me with a healthy dose of skepticism toward organized religion and politicians that has made me proof against both infections ever since.
It was Tom Swift Jr. In the Caves of Nuclear Fire that started me down the path to the digitally ink-stained wretch I’ve become – but, truthfully, every well-written book I’ve ever read has kept me on that road.
What actually allowed me to become a writer was the advent of word processing software on personal computers. I’m very much a perfectionist. I simply cannot leave a sentence that I know to be flawed, and move on to the next without fixing it. Word processing software allowed me to fiddle with sentences, paragraphs, and so on until I could stand to read them without wanting to hurl my own prose into the fire. And that, in turn, allowed me to become a writer.
I admit, I'm the same. I've often envied people who can simply let the words flow and then go back to edit them later! For your third book – and you’re probably going to need this one, all alone on a remote island – I’d like you to choose your greatest comfort read. You know, the one you turn to when you’re sad or ill or just need a little pick-me-up.
Wow. That’s a challenge.
There’s a lot to choose from, but I guess the one I keep coming back to is Roger Zelazny’s very best novel, Lord of Light. It won the 1968 Hugo, was nominated for the Nebula, and deserved to win both. (Alexei Panshin’s forgettable Rite of Passage took the Nebula award that year, despite being up against both John Brunner’s landmark Stand on Zanzibar and R. A. Lafferty’s wonderful Past Master, in addition to the Zelazny book.)
Lord of Light sets the Hindu pantheon in a science fiction context. Shiva, Brahma, Kali, and the rest of the gods are crew members of a colony ship that landed a thousand years earlier. They control access to reincarnation technology that allows those they find deserving to replace their elderly, worn-out bodies with fresh, new, young ones – so long as they’ve been good little boys and girls in the meantime. Sam, one of the original crew who’s been keeping to himself for a few centuries, decides their cozy racket needs a dose of serious disruption ... so he becomes the Buddha. High adventure, low comedy, and crackling prose ensue. It’s a great book. Way, way better than his Amber stuff.
Fourthly, it’s your unexpected treasure: a book you didn’t expect to like but did, maybe one outside your usual genre or that you picked up with low expectations but were pleasantly surprised …
Well, I’m actually closing in fast on the conclusion of David Foster Wallace’s critically acclaimed doorstop Infinite Jest, and I have to admit that the plaudits for it are well-deserved. Despite Wallace’s deliberate attempts to drive the casual reader away, once you get a couple of hundred pages into the story, it becomes highly entertaining. I’m persistent, so I slogged through the purposefully confusing first bit, and, just as I was about to shrug and walk away, Wallace relented. He’s kept my interest ever since – unreliable narrators, 388 individual endnotes (several of which have their own footnotes, and at least one of which is over 20,000 words long!), endless run-on sentences, bad French, and all.
And finally, I’d like you to choose your instant classic – the book you think most deserves to be read and reread by future generations. It’s up to you whether this book is already considered a classic or is something more obscure.
For sheer entertainment value, I don’t think you can beat The Autobiography of Mark Twain (www.marktwainproject.org/landing_writings.shtml). I’m a major Twainiac, and his autobiography has everything I love about the man’s writing, except a plot.
Nearing the end of his life, and after several false starts that had him despairing of ever successfully completing the project, Twain hit upon a method of work that resulted in the Autobiography: start anywhere, don’t worry about chronological sequence, and change the subject any time the whim takes you. That makes the Autobiography less of a chronicle, and much more of a collection of anecdotes, observations, reminiscences, character sketches, and occasional inserted letters, reviews, clippings, and other third-party material that struck the great man as interesting. It’s a wildly entertaining mix. The Twain Project at U.C. Berkeley has published two volumes so far, with three or four more to come. I can’t recommend it strongly enough. Read it, and discover for yourself how much more there is to the greatest of all American writers than Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Because his will stipulated that the unexpurgated autobiography not see print until he had been dead for a century, the first volume was only released by the Twain Project a few years ago.
But you have to promise that you’ll air-drop future volumes to me, as they’re published. Otherwise, I’m staying home!
Oh, I think we can manage that. We’ll get your chosen books packaged up ready for your journey, with the promise of more volumes to come! And since we’re not completely heartless here at Barren Island Books, we’ll also let you take one song/piece of music, one film and one other item of your choice into exile with you …
Gee, thanks, A!
Lessee ... how about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? Too long to qualify? Then let’s make it Brian Wilson’s masterpiece Good Vibrations. As for a film, I’m having trouble deciding between Blade Runner and The Fifth Element, so I’ll let you pick. Surprise me.
And, of course, I’ll want a laptop. With Microsoft Word on it. (It’s a program I hate, but it’s the industry standard, so what’s an author to do?)
Dammit. Have you been talking to some of my previous guests? It's becoming an increasingly badly kept secret that my Achilles heel is making decisions – and when it comes to those two films, there's no way I can choose, so I'm going to have to let you have both.
Now, before we whisk you away, you have one last decision to make: where you want your remote island to be located. You can choose anywhere you like for your exile, in this world or another.
Can you drop me on an island on an Orbital in Iain M. Banks’s Culture universe? Say, one that circles a ringed gas giant far enough above the galactic plane that you can see all the way across the Milky Way at night?
Why, yes, yes we can (with compliments on your excellent taste). And with that, you’re ready to go. Thank you for joining us, and enjoy your trip!
You’re very welcome, A. Thanks for having me!
Which way to the boarding platform?
If you are an author and would like to take part in a future edition of Barren Island Books, please get in touch with me via the Contact page.