Saturday, November 19, 2016

Exclusive interview with Michael Pogach!

Hey folks,

We're lucky to get an interview with the author of The Spider and the Laurel, which is a dystopian science fiction novel about an archaeologist investigating religious artifacts in an atheist tyranny. Unfortunately, for both Believers and otherwise, the supernatural is not really what either side believes. You can read my review of the novel here.

1. So tell us about The Spider and the Laurel

The Spider in the Laurel is my first novel. It started with a simple idea: Drop a guy like Indiana Jones into a world which mandates that the kinds of artifacts Indy searches for don’t actually exist. All religions and faiths in this world have been declared fictions. The Bible is taught alongside the Odyssey and the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Mahabharata as mythology. What better way to enforce an atheocracy than to trivialize all religious texts as fables?

It took four years to write, research, edit, revise and revise again The Spider in the Laurel. Along the way it grew from an eighty-thousand word action-adventure to a hundred-plus-thousand word thriller which sets up an intended trilogy. And maybe the best part has been the scope of the characters, especially Rafael Ward and MacKenzie, the two protagonists.

I’ve never had the opportunity in my short stories to develop characters like this. It’s not just one and done. They are totally real to me. Maybe unhealthily so (I find myself talking to them sometimes, asking how they would handle a situation I’ve concocted for them). But who ever said being an author was healthy, right?

2. What separates it from other religious and dystopian fiction?

When you look at a lot of other dystopias, like The Handmaid’s Tale or V for Vendetta, you see faith run amok or faith a tool to keep the masses in line. To these, John Lennon’s “Imagine” stands as the counterargument, the utopian Star Trek vision of a future in which humanity is united behind science and advancement, not torn apart by faith and “othering.” The Spider in the Laurel is John Lennon’s “Imagine” gone bad. Because that’s what dystopias really are: they are “what if” exercises in the ways human beings corrupt and destroy their best endeavors.

The other thing that makes The Spider in the Laurel unique is the mythos I built for it. Spoiler alert: you can mandate that religions aren’t real, but if there’s a god he or she is going to “uh, find a way” (as Dr. Ian Malcom would say). So rather than rely on the Bible or the Quran or the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant or some other standard plot device, I basically rebuilt Western theology from the Minoan period to the present.

By looking at some of the similarities across cultures, like the story of the Great Flood or the archetype of the Great Mother, I was able to fuse together links in a chain to offer a feasible reinterpretation of the singular Judeo-Christian-Islamic God. To that I worked in Dark Age mythology, actual scripture, and I invented a fairy tale to tie it all together. That’s where the title of the novel comes from. Actually, it’s a line from a Herman Melville poem. But I co-opted it for the fairy tale. And it serves as a great motif throughout the book.

3. Tell us a bit about your protagonist, Rafael Ward.

Ward loves his job. There are few things you can say about someone that paint as positive a picture of their life as they love their job, especially a bachelor. He’s one of the few people who are trusted by the government to teach mythology at the college level, to indoctrinate students into the idea that religion myth and parable and nothing more. He’s one of the few people who are trusted with access to material on the censored list so that he can determine which can be mythologized and which should be erased. In some ways he’s similar to the Giver in Lois Lowry’s novel. He’s a gatekeeper of history, responsible for making sure all gods from all faiths seem no more real than Marvel’s Thor.

The other part of his job is he is required from time to time to examine confiscated relics and verify that they are fakes. So on the one hand he loves history and its stories. And on the other hand he is responsible for disproving history one artifact at a time. He’s a great conflicted character who doesn’t allow himself to be cast solely in the role of reluctant hero or anti-hero or tragic hero. In fact, I’m not so sure he’s a hero at all. I think he’s surrounded by people who consider themselves heroes, which allows him to just be a guy trying to not fuck things up worse than they already are in any given moment.

4. What inspired you to do a religious-themed dystopian novel?

Is it religious themed? I don’t know. I mean, the America it shows us is an atheocracy. So that would be atheist-themed, right? But can you be atheist-themed without talking about religion? You could probably drive yourself nuts trying to work it out. Here’s what I know. I’ve always been interested in history and mythology. I especially enjoy reading about the ways that various cultures evolved and influenced each other.

How the Mycenaeans influenced the Greeks who affected the Norse whose gods sometimes reflect the Egyptians whose myths may have inspired early Christians and so on. Too often in school we’re taught about these histories, mythologies, and peoples as if they existed in silos. But they’re all tied together. And I think The Spider in the Laurel is cultural-evolutionarily themed. If that’s a thing. What the hell, I’m a college professor and I say it’s a thing. I make shit up, right?

5. Why make your protagonist an atheist? Do you feel this adds an interesting angle to your story?

I didn’t make Ward an atheist. He was born into it. I mean, if you asked why did John F. Kennedy’s parents make him a Catholic, the answer would be they were Catholic and he was born into it. So Ward was born into a world where there is no religion. He’s an atheist the same way I’m an American.

You see, I came up with the idea for this world, in its broadest strokes, before I really detailed anything about the main character. But yes, I do think this gives an interesting twist on the idea of him as the hero because he has no guiding ethical principal. There’s no Ten Commandments for him. No Force for him to try to keep in balance. No Prime Directive even. He’s just a guy who tries to do what he thinks is right, so long as the right thing isn’t too inconvenient for him. Like a lot of us today. This makes him susceptible to all kinds of ethical problems. Luckily, he does have a conscience that speaks to him from time to time. Of course, it may turn out that the voice in the back of his mind is no conscience at all…

6. What can you tell us about your secondary protagonist?

Oh man, MacKenzie. She is one of my favorite characters. She started out as a mostly stock damsel in distress. But by the second or third draft she took over the novel. It’s Ward’s book, but MacKenzie is who makes it move. A reviewer wrote something like: Does she ever stop running? She is energy and rage and purpose wrapped up in badassery at its finest. I found inspiration for her in Molly Millions, Kitiara from Dragonlance, even Jack Reacher and probably many more. She’s a Believer.

She’s a fundamentalist terrorist. She’s a great study in the difference between hero and villain in that it’s all about point of view. As long as we see her through Ward’s eyes she’d heroic, or maybe anti-heroic. But if we look at her through the eyes of other citizens or of the government, she’s the boogeyman parents fear when they take their kids to skyscrapers and shopping malls.

And the best part about MacKenzie, for me, is that when I started working on the sequel to The Spider in the Laurel, she forced me to add her as a point of view character. I mean, I’m the goddamned author and she’s telling me, For fuck’s sake, Pogach, this is MY scene. Rewrite it!

7. Who are your influences as a writer?

I’m all over the map when it comes to this question of influences. I could list authors and poets and epics all day long. But I’ll keep to the slightly less extensive list of influences for this novel and its sequels. The Indiana Jones movies. The Jason Bourne movies. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. V for Vendetta. Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon novels. Homer’s Epics. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Jason M. Hough’s Dire Earth trilogy. The King Arthur romances. “Histories” like Gregory of Tours, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Herodotus. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. Hell, I could read Jack Reacher all the time. Those are my deserted island books, I think. Drop me on an island with an endless supply of pizza, Jack Daniel’s, and Jack Reacher novels.

Basically, I was plucking little ideas and inspirations from everything I was reading or had read. Then letting them evolve within the bounds of the world and events I’d created. For example, Ward began as a Jason Bourne style operative, got scrolled back to more of an Indiana Jones OSS agent, and eventually became more of an Evey Hammond character caught up in the fervor of V’s (i.e. MacKenzie’s) revolution.

Shit, rereading my answer I see I didn’t even mention two of my favorites. Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion (there’s some Villanelle in MacKenzie) and Edwin Morgan’s sequence of poems called “Planet Wave” and his collection Demon (both of which helped me shape the underlying mythos of the novel). I could go on and on but for the sake of you, dear reader, and myself, I’ll stop here.

 8. Do you ever think something like the events of your book could happen?

So, about halfway through the process of writing The Spider in the Laurel I thought that it could end up being a series so I started jotting down ideas for sequels. And one of those ideas was a wall separating the US and Mexico. No bullshit. The wall is there in the sequel, which I started writing in early 2014, before I’d ever heard Donnie J mention it. Weird, right?

But could we ever live in a USA without religion? I say, why not? I built the timeline of this world from September 11, 2001. Remember how unified the country was then? What if our response to the events of that day was not to simply unify under the flag? Not to simply unify in anger against Iraq or Islam or the entire Middle East?

What if our response was to say, “Muslims didn’t do this; religion did this”? And if you can suppose that response then the next step is supposing an impromptu backlash against religions the same way we saw violence against Muslims in 2001. And what if one or two pervasive religious corruptions were uncovered at about the same time? What if it wasn’t suspicion of Russia trying to subvert our recent presidential election? What if it was proof some level of conspiracy in the Vatican was trying to subvert an election? Imagine it and you can see how step-by-step we move towards greater and greater violence.

Now, I’m not trying to vilify any religious organization (though, to be honest, if a Church wants to get pissed about my book and call for it to be banned, that would be awesome for sales!). It’s a novel, not a manifesto, and I tried to come up with a plausible set of events that could lead to an atheocracy. But we can see even in the last week or so since Donnie J was elected that a public backlash, or a public show of support, can manifest in a number of ways, from social media movements to protests to violence. Yeah, I think something like my novel could happen. It could probably happen a lot faster than we think. That’s how we get dystopias.

9. How has reception for your novel been?

The reception for The Spider in the Laurel has been fantastic. I’m actually blown away by the reviews and ratings on Amazon and Goodreads. It’s all 4 and 5 star stuff. I keep waiting for the 1 star ratings and the lashings of my authorly skills to come pouring in, but they haven’t appeared yet.

The best part has been the events I’ve done. Book signings, author expos, comic cons, readings, talks, interviews, workshops, and more. It’s like its own brand of rock star. That’s right. I said it. I’m a rock star.

10. What can we expect from you in the future?

You can expect me to keep doing my part in making sure Starbucks never goes out of business (that’s a white chocolate mocha, no whipped cream, if you’re wondering). Actually, book two in the Rafael Ward series will be coming out in early 2018. It’s currently titled Second Body, and I’m really stoked about it. It picks up about two years after The Spider in the Laurel with Ward in a very dark place. And it adds two point of view characters, one being MacKenzie.

Right now I’m at work on a new project, separate from the Rafael Ward series. It’s a thriller about an artist, a welding sculptor, who discovers some messed up secrets about her father and her dead mother. It’s going to be a bit of a cross between something like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl on the Train.

After that, the plan is to go back and finish the Rafael Ward trilogy. And if you want to get some glimpses of Second Body, maybe some previews in the near future, or find out about my events and appearances, you can head over to my website:
Thanks for your time!

Author Bio:

Michael Pogach is the author of the dystopian thriller Rafael Ward series, beginning with The Spider in the Laurel. He’s also known for his “dirty and intense” short stories, as well as looking a little bit, but not quite enough to matter, like Bruce Willis. Life lessons from Michael include adding bourbon to everything you cook, not drinking Loch Ness no matter how much your friends dare you, and always saying yes when asked if you want to ride a rodeo bull.

No comments:

Post a Comment