Thursday, June 6, 2013

Interview with Zachary Jernigan

I have a confession to make. For such a small novel (less than 300 pages), No Return was an absolute chore to read. It wasn't that I didn't identify with the characters, the setting, or the plot. But at points I felt that I needed to force myself to turn just one more page, for reasons that I couldn't articulate. But if I could slog through the utter dreck and blatant cultural appropriation of Stormdancer, I felt that I owed Jernigan my attention through the end of the novel, so I soldiered on. Somewhere in the last third of the novel, things got easier and the pages turned quicker, though not at my usual rapid pace. But I started enjoying it more and more. Then I wrote my review and realized that I liked No Return a lot more than I'd realized. Then I did this interview and realized the reason I'd plodded through the earlier sections of the novel. I was absorbing the dense philosophical questions peppered throughout the novel. I can honestly say it has been a rare book that's made me think this much. As a result, this interview is my absolute favorite of the ones I have been privileged to take part in. Enjoy.

52 Reviews: No Return is a complex mash up of sci fi and fantasy elements with gods, ghosts, monks, space faring mages, clockwork men, and more. Was this smorgasbord intentional or did certain elements just fall into place during the writing process? If so, can you give me an example? 

Zachary Jernigan: Well, that's a tough question to answer, kind of like when someone asks if you're a pantser or a plotter (to which the answer is "both").

I certainly planned on putting most of those elements in there from the get-go, but a few took me by surprise, which was awesome. Discovering new narrative elements is one the rare joys of writing. (I
do mean rare, by the way. Writing is not a hobby I enjoy, but a sort of activity I feel compelled to do for my health, like exercising – that is, if I exercised…) It’s such a thrill to feel a new idea taking root, growing up from your subconscious.

The first example that comes to mind in this regard is Fyra, Churls’s daughter. I knew that Churls had a daughter –largely because, unrepentant geek that I am, I’d made character profile sheets like I was playing the D&D campaign to end all D&D campaigns – but I hadn’t planned on her having anything to do with the narrative, much less be a ghost who plays a fairly active role. Ultimately, fleshing out her relationship with Churls turned out to be one of the most rewarding things about writing the novel.

52 Reviews: One of the themes of No Return seems to be an escape from poor choices or traumas from the past. Churls, Vedas and to a lesser extent Berun are fleeing something in the past. While I don't think this theme is the most prevalent of the novel, it certainly is universal. Did you intentionally build in this commonality in to the trio to make their eventual bonds more believable? 

Zachary Jernigan: This theme was certainly less planned than the rest of the novel, but in retrospect it was probably inevitable. I'm intimately acquainted with making mistakes (as are we all) and the deleterious effects of feeling too much guilt for having made those mistakes.

A lot of this has to do with my upbringing (again, a universal). My parents converted to Mormonism when I was barely out of diapers (I'll let you guess when that was) and I left the church when I was in my late teens. This indoctrination into a faith for the better part of my developmental years, followed by the rejection of that same faith during a very tumultuous time in my life, set me up in many ways to live a life of feeling conflicted over the past.

Though we are as alike in personality (and appearance) as could be, Vedas is the character in NO RETURN that most closely mirrors this conflicted feeling. I think it's fairly obvious on analysis that he is a stand-in for the author -- though his guilt is more warranted, I'd like to think. Like me, he wants to communicate his feelings and thus exorcise them. He wants to know he is a good person and begin to act
and feel in accordance with his morals.

The companions I created for him, Churls and Manshep, are there in great part to help him come to terms with himself. Of course, they are also characters in their own right -- characters that I, in all honesty, grew to like a great deal more than Vedas -- and therefore have their own concerns, which are often complementary to Vedas. My hope is that their bonds seem more real because of this shared bond between them, but it's unlikely that I was so calculating in my desire. I'm not known for my great forethought.

52 Reviews: One of my favorite aspects of your writing is the dichotomy of how you handle violence and sex. It's rate for me to find myself so simultaneously discomforted and enthralled. What informs your handling of these two topics in such a way that they become almost reflections of each other? 

Zachary Jernigan: Thanks! Being discomforted and enthralled is a good place to be, in a lot of ways. I definitely did shoot for that co-mingling of emotions in NO RETURN, so it's nice to hear when I achieve the effect for a reader. And while I wasn't really aware that I handled the topics of sex and violence in a way that causes them to reflect one another, I'm certainly happy to hear that I did -- though it does cause me to
scramble for an explanation as to how I achieved an effect I just learned about.

Taking a stab at it, I'd say it has something to do with how I (and by extension, the theoretical reader that sits on my shoulder ) respond to such scenes. If written with some energy, depictions of both
violence and sex can make your heart race and your face crease in a wince. Both are visceral, basically, an appeal to the baser of our urges. This isn't to say that they hold any less intellectual value than other scenes or expositions, of course, but at their best they are felt more on a gut level.

I guess that it simply makes sense to me to pair one with the other. While I don't think in very clinical terms while I'm writing, I think a lot of positive effect can be achieved by arranging fiction into "set pieces" that both balance the story and propel it forward. I don't want tame fiction, and thus sex and violence seem like good poles from which to hang a narrative.

Obviously, I can't expect everyone to go along with that ride. For one, I don't kid myself that I'm a good enough writer to convince everyone to go along with my madness. For two, I know that many people
don't want to read so much sex and violence, even if it is written well. And that's cool with me; I know that my book isn't for everyone.

52 Reviews: One cannot talk about the convergence of sex and violence without mentioning the rape scene between Pol and Ebn. I read in another interview that this scene was the bit of the novel that you were most proud. Can you talk a little more about that? Was the choice to have a female character as the aggressor a conscious reversal of expectations? Or a more subtle form of commentary about rape culture perhaps?

Zachary Jernigan: I am very proud of that scene, yes, though I no longer know if it's what I'm proudest of. Time and introspection changes a lot of things, and after a recent conversation with my younger brother I'm seeing other parts of the book in a more favorable light than I once did.

Regardless, the scene you refer to is the one I struggled with the most, and that says something (to me, anyway). Saying it was hard to write is an understatement: my ex-girlfriend claims I was a wreck during the week it took to get it to paper.  I'd never attempted to write a rape scene; I don't like dwelling on such thoughts. (Point in fact, not less than a year before I'd made an argument with a friend of mine as to why rape scenes are never necessary in fiction. A lot can change in a year, I guess.) Even when such content is treated maturely -- or perhaps especially when it's treated maturely -- it proves a trial to even read, much less write.

As to why I wrote it... Well, it'd be rather pompous of me to say it had to be written, wouldn't it? And yet a great many scenes feel that way when I look back on them. Despite being pretty happy with the way her chapters came out, Ebn ultimately morphed into the character I liked least. She's contemptible, dangerous criminal, as her ultimate action proves. I really didn't intend any commentary by having a female rape a man -- horribly, she just seemed like the kind of individual to take advantage of someone that way.

On a broader level, however, I can't deny that putting a rape scene in my book was a calculated move, a response to what I see as a problematic (and rather long-lasting) trend in genre fiction. I don't suppose it's a revelation to anyone to point out how prevalent rape is in a certain variety of fantasy fiction. Many of the scenes in these books are, in my opinion, very lazy character building -- not to mention icky on a variety of levels. I wanted a rape scene that felt natural to the character, a result of forces I'd described affecting her. Also, I wanted it to not be salacious -- I wanted it brutal and uncompromising.

Who knows if I got any of that right? Not me. But I hope I did.

52 Reviews: Brutal and uncompromising are both words I would also use to describe your action sequences, especially the fight scenes. As a martial arts instructor, I had pictures of a fantasy Bloodsport when I read about the tournament that is in many ways the climax of the novel. And, boy was I wrong! The sparse brutality and matter of fact-ness of those scenes impressed me far more than the expected cinematic set-pieces ever could have. What was your process in deciding to fore go the sweeping action for a more somber and stark character driven approach?

Zachary Jernigan: Those words are appreciated: I'm glad that method impressed you more than the expected approach, which I very consciously avoided. I'm tired of the extended fight scene, frankly, for both narrative reasons as well as logistical reasons. Two evenly matched people who are trying to incapacitate (or kill) one another are not interesting in extending the fight. They want it over. I want the reader to feel what an actual combatant in that situation likely feels, not what popular entertainment informs them a combatant feels.

Of course, it may seem funny to talk about realism in a novel like mine, but I sincerely believe that in order for the reader to suspend disbelief enough to buy the overall lie of a wild story (complete with alchemical astronauts and a dude made of brass marbles) they must first be able to believe in the reality for the characters. To extend a fight scene into an unrealistic spectacle makes it more likely that the reader will take other factors less seriously.

A lot of people have responded that they wanted these scenes extended. I understand that -- I anticipated it -- but I couldn't make myself do it. No matter how uppity such a statement sounds, it would be a betrayal of my ethic.

52 Reviews: Based on what I've read in other interviews it's fairly obvious that Vedas serves as a kind of mirror for your own, for lack of a better yet, spiritual journey. Was this aspect of your own life experience intended to be a way to work through that process again in a fictional sandbox or was it designed as a method to share your observations on religion and its overall impact on both the worshiper and on society as a whole?

Zachary Jernigan: His journey does definitely mirror my own, though it's not a one-for-one comparison. I went from being a (rather casual) believer in the religion of my parents to being a (rather outspoken) critic of religion, whereas Vedas is fighting a very specific battle against a world gone mad as a result of knowing that "god" exists. The weird thing is that while I intended his narrative to parallel my own I certainly didn't know how much it would illuminate my own experiences. I've called writing No Return an exorcism of sorts, and it's true: there are many features of my upbringing -- which, lest you think otherwise, was very loving and supportive (my mom's my biggest fan) -- that I hadn't quite internalized until I wrote the book.

What conclusions, in the main, did I draw?

Well, I realized how unhealthy it was for me to focus so much on physical perfection and immortality. I'm not close to perfect in any of the metrics that one might use to judge perfection, and I'm sure as hell not going to live forever, yet for years I've fantasized about an undying body. If you know anything of Mormon theology, it's not difficult to understand where this obsession with becoming a godlike creature comes from. Though Vedas symbolizes this a bit -- specifically where he worries over the loss of his muscle mass on the long road from Golna to Danoor -- it is the god Adrash that really allowed me to explore the theme.

Second, I realized how much anger I felt at the abuse of power that occurs in religious institutions, at how often those in leadership positions (which can often simply be the heads of families) bend people toward violence and intolerance. This is no news to anyone, of course, but writing the novel helped me understand that it isn't faith itself that really grinds my gears (though faith does indeed bother me); it is the use of myths (or I should say what I consider to be myths) to coerce others away from compassion. 

Vedas's realization is ultimately humanistic, as opposed to a complete indictment of faith.

Now, do I intend for all readers to take this away when they read the book? No, of course not. Hell, I didn't write enough in the book to lead people to those conclusions. At least I hope I didn't. I don't want to write a tract. Though I consider myself to have written Moral Fiction, in that the characters (well, the admirable ones) question their actions and seek to be better people, I'd hate the thought that a religious or spiritual person would think that I'm writing a book to denounce their beliefs.

52 Reviews: It recently struck me that there are perhaps three analogs to "god" in No Return. We have Adrash, the aloof and capricious force of destruction observing from his stellar perch, Berun's creator who exacts a terrible control over his constructed creation, and Fyra, a childish being of unknown power trying her best to do the right thing. It's pretty obvious which god like being most readers would prefer. Was this trinity of "pseudo deities" meant to reflect the many ways we are compelled and controlled by what we choose to believe in?

Zachary Jernigan: Good Lord, you know I never thought of it that way! This is why being interviewed is so cool: I get to see how another person looks at something I did and then evaluate that view for myself. And now that you've pointed it out, there definitely is validity in that interpretation. I did intend for each of those characters -- Adrash, Ortur Omali, and Fyra -- to act as immensely powerful coercive elements (physically, intellectually, and emotionally). They exert their near-inexorable influence, but each can conceivably be defeated. 

They are not, in other words, all-powerful -- as in the Christian or Muslim conceptions of God -- and resemble more the gods of the Indian or Greek pantheon. (Of course, I'm being somewhat liberal with my terms here, especially when referring to the Indian "pantheon," but hopefully the point is clear.) What's odd is that in writing No Return I consciously chose to draw from my religious studies education (I received a BA in the subject in 2005) and my reading of authors like Roger Zelazny and Samuel Delany -- authors who, early in their careers, attempted to expand upon and create their own mythologies by way of fiction -- and yet I don't think I realized until just now how greatly those features influenced me.

This is the way with writing fiction, I've found. There's just as much blindness in what the author does as there is awareness.
As to the whether or not the "trinity of pseudo deities" (a term which I'll steal, thank you very much!) are meant to reflect how we are compelled and controlled by our beliefs... I think it's a fair assumption to say that, yes, they do symbolize that to a extent. Nonetheless, I think it'd be a far more comprehensive statement to say that they reflect how our families exert their influence. Parental figures, in particular, are an unavoidable force of influence -- even when they are wise and loving as my parents were, it can be a struggle to define yourself as an independent being.

52 Reviews: Even with Vedas being an intended analog for the author, and the perhaps unintentional main protagonist, I found myself more drawn to Churls as the more relatable character. I've read that you also found this to be true in the course of writing. What can you tell us about writing compelling and strong female characters, while there is such a ground swell of criticism regarding equal and honest portrayals of women in genre fiction? 

Zachary Jernigan: I'm really glad to hear that, because I'm singularly proud of the way I wrote Churls. I go back and forth in my estimation of my own work, but I rarely feel that positive about any element for long -- that is, except Churls. She's the one constant, and it's validation of a very satisfying kind when I hear that her character struck a positive chord. A great part of the reason for this is the groundswell of criticism you refer to.

It's justified to levy the finger at genre publishing, which I do think remains a Boys' Club in many ways. The reasons for this are many, of course, but I think it's got a lot to do with how quickly the reading demographic has changed. I don't know if you've noticed, but female geeks are now at the forefront of geekdom, asserting themselves and being generally awesome, and that has produced a defensive response from the Old Guard. (The recent SFWA controversy is one of the signs of this.) The Old Guard -- which is not solely represented by Old White Guys (TM), by the way; it is more a mindset led by a demographic -- still exerts a powerful psychic influence on the publishing world.

The result is that it's still very possible to get away with writing Women-By-Numbers. And that has to change. The genre community should become so used to realistic representations of women that they throw down any book that panders to ridiculous and harmfully gendered stereotypes.

For me -- especially me, a Privileged White Dude (TM) through and through -- that means that I can't rest on my laurels. I have to try to do justice to what I observe in life: that women, 90% of the time or more, are indistinguishable from men. They are regular, the complete opposite of abnormal, in no way an OTHER, and should be written from that standpoint. 

I'm not saying, just to be thorough, that there is nothing unique in being female. Churls is a mother, a thing a man cannot by biology (and etymology) be, and I let this fact inform/gender her narrative, because motherhood too is part of life. In most ways, however, I feel like I could have changed her sex or gender-identity after the writing of the novel and still ended up with a believable character.

At least, I hope that's the case.

52 Reviews: Speaking of Privileged White Dudes, I count a supreme lack of them in No Return. Was this a statement you were trying to make, an exercise in writing the other, or sheer random happenstance? Reading an electronic copy of the novel left me with no biographical info, so I just assumed you couldn't possibly be a Privileged White Dude. My surprise upon realizing that you had fooled me so deftly actually added to my esteem for the story. Is simply writing all characters from the standpoint of "they're all just people" really as simple as you made it look? 

Zachary Jernigan: Ha! I take that as a compliment, but no, I'm as privileged as they come. Though my skin tone and features sometimes confuse people (I've been mistaken for Arab on more than a few occasions, and many people just think I'm a confusing mishmash of races), I'm quite white. My family's firmly middle-upper-middle-class. My parents paid for college, and they helped me buy a car when I was sixteen. I'm a born-and-bred US citizen. It doesn't get much more privileged than me.

Of course, my parents were not raised in well-off families -- not by a long shot. When he was a child, for a brief period my father's family lived in a two bedroom house with seventeen people. They picked cotton and took baths in tubs outside. My mother's family was only slightly more privileged. Their humble beginnings, I hope, have informed my own development in positive ways, keeping me from taking everything for granted. I know they made me less materialistic, which in turn informs my fiction.

As for the first question, I am making a statement, sure (BORING RICH PEOPLE ARE BORING AND WE SHOULD STOP WRITING ABOUT THEM SO MUCH or something), but it's got more to do with lack of interest than anything else. I have little desire to write at length about the ultra-privileged. It's depressing to me, and I suppose some of the reason for that is because I've already lived that life. I know the deleterious effect it has on a person's character to be born into such an advantageous situation.
As for the second question -- I do think writing all characters from the standpoint of "they're all just people" is simple. In theory, anyway. The world is so vastly complex, and everything about writing is very hard for me, so it's tough to separate the act of writing from my intent. I do now, at the very least, that attempting to write "as the Other" is likely to blow up in my face. It's got to begin with the realization that most of my concerns are universal, mirrored in others.

Sure, I run the risk of making my characters too white, too bourgeoisie... but I'd rather do that than exotify anyone.

52 Reviews: Now for my last question. It's no secret that your personal stance on religion and spirituality is a negative one. Those views are  easily apparent in the novel, though I never found them on the least bit inflammatory or preachy. However I felt that Fyra's very presence in the story, especially considering her pivotal role, may hint at a deeply buried hope that perhaps there is something larger than us that is there to help rather than influence and coerce. Was that just a bone thrown into the stew for balance or is this nothing more than a subtle coincidence of interpretation?

Zachary Jernigan: Wow. Not to be a public kiss up, but that's a brilliant question. I've noticed my answers have gotten longer over time, and this one will likely be the lengthiest one.

I'm glad you found those views to not be inflammatory or preachy. I didn't intend the book as a denouncement of religion, but given my anti-religious stance (which I should clarify is not an anti-religious people stance; I am a humanist and thus value all people in their expressions of rationality and compassion) I can understand how it may read as one. I can only control my intentions, not the way it actually reads to the majority of readers.

Fyra may indeed represent -- in fact, I can go so far as to say she very probably does represent -- a hope that there is a helping hand out there. I won't deny, to anyone, that I'm hoping for a continuation of this life. I can't do as Richard Dawkins advises and be "thankful that I have a life, and forsake my vain and presumptuous desire for a second one." It may be the thing that keeps me from being an unqualified atheist (I self-identify as an agnostic atheist, in order to reflect my refusal to state my beliefs as fact), but it is what it is: I want there to be a benevolent presence.

Do I believe it likely that there is a benevolent presence watching over us? No, not by a long shot. But I love my family. I love life, despite years of experiencing my own OCD-related depression. I want all of our lives -- everyone's, even the evil folks' -- to go on and on and on, so that we may continue progressing as individuals. So that we can be a species in ever greater communion.

And so... Fyra. Yes. The more I write about it, the surer I am that you've struck gold on this one, Matt. She is an ambassador of the dead, who in the world of my novel live on after life. She fights her own people (the dead) in order to talk to her mother, to continue having that link to the physical world -- to experience love. There is a message in this, if only for me. There is a knowledge that love dies that I must overcome -- it is an awareness I can't escape, and so I write about it. 

I remember having a nightmare, many years ago, in which I died saving my little brother. I returned to my family and tried in vain to talk to them. I watched them crying over my death, and I was unable to do anything. I think, in the midst of that dream, I felt more sadness than I've ever experienced. I can't cope with thoughts such as those, of making my family sad, and so I want to live forever, in order to keep expressing my love and support. They need me, just like I need them.

Fyra, like every other character in the novel, is me. ... Gooodness, I hope that statement makes sense to whoever's reading this. Sometimes my own thoughts on what motivates me are unformed until I express them.

Anyway, thank you immensely for the opportunity to answer these questions, Matt! I hope you enjoyed this interaction as much as I did.

To conclude, I'd like to thank Zach for doing this interview. He was an absolute joy to correspond with and I look forward to following his career in the future and I'm fairly certain you'll see him at 52 Reviews in the future. If you haven't read No Return yet, do yourself a favor and do so. You won't be disappointed.

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