Joyce Carol Oates is the author more than seventy books, including the national best sellers We Were the Mulvaneys and Blonde. Among her many honors are the PEN/Malamud award for excellence in short fiction and the National Book Award. Her latest book is The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the interview or other episodes.
Your new book is called The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror. Tell us a bit about the story behind this book and how it came about.
The stories have been written over a period of time, and I have an ongoing relationship with Otto Penlzer, at the Mysterious Press, so he’s published a number of my novellas and short story collections. I tend to write stories that accrue around certain themes or certain types of genre. I’m very drawn to the surreal, not exactly fantasy, but the kind of fiction that bleeds into another dimension, so to speak. It has a firmly realistic foundation, and then it eases and morphs into this other dimension. So, all the stories are in that genre.
That’s definitely something that we like here—the surreal and creepy sort of stories like that. You said you have this relationship with Otto Penzler and Mysterious Press? Say a little more about Mysterious Press because this is associated with his bookstore, right?
I don’t think it’s necessarily just depending on the bookstore. Otto has done a lot of editing. He edits anthologies and mysteries and suspense fiction. It’s not terribly distinctive in terms of being these categories. Otto is very friendly to writing that is surreal or may verge upon gothic or horror. I don’t believe that he’s thinking in terms of specific genres like mystery or detective fiction. The psychological suspense fiction tends to be somewhat horrific. That psychological suspense depends upon there being something at stake of significance, and so I think one of the primary motives for writing this kind of fiction also drove Edgar Allan Poe, who supposedly invented the first detective story. But Poe is basically interested, I believe, in testing the limits and [trajectory] of sanity. Where does sanity change or evolve or devolve into something else? So, mystery detective fiction is one expression of these questions, and then the gothic and horror and speculative science fiction is another extreme. Otto Penzler is friendly to all this kind of writing, but he’s more associated with mystery and detective fiction.
Let’s talk about your first story “Mystery, Inc.” It says it was originally published in the Mysterious Bookshop’s Bibliomystery series. So, tell us about that.
Yes, Otto Penzler has a series that has been going on for years now. There must be thirty or forty or maybe more titles, and they’re by people who are usually mystery writers or detective fiction writers, so Otto asks them to write mystery stories set in a bookstore or focus on books, so mine is focused on books and it’s in a bookstore.
I really, really enjoyed the protagonist in this story. Could you talk a little bit about how you came up with this character?
Well, let’s see. The person, actually, is visiting Otto Penzler. The bookstore that he visits is not exactly Otto Penzler’s bookstore. It’s kind of a dream bookstore that Otto might have liked. On the top floor, he’s selling rare books, and limited editions, and books of art. Strange artifacts are for sale on the top floor, which I don’t think is actually the case with The Mysterious Bookshop. Some of the first editions and the prices of things of these classical and famous novels I didn’t check with Otto. My research was based upon Otto, some of his own knowledge and his holdings in his bookstore. So, the character, who is the bookstore owner, is based on Otto Penzler, but it is fiction. I have to say it is a story that’s really completely fiction. I wouldn’t have written the story except Otto had requested that, and it took me years to find out how I could write about something that I would find interesting. That’s sort of a challange for a writer, to find something that you yourself are interested in writing, and then the protagonist is a fictitious character. That’s all I can say, really.
Would you describe the protagonist as a sociopath? Because he’s kind of likeable in a way, but he’s very emotionally detached from the consequences of his actions.
Yes, he is a psychopath, I would say. And the bookstore owner even more is a psychopath. The psychopath is doing what he’s doing because he wants to acquire this bookstore, and he wants to take over. He’s jealous and so forth. But the bookstore owner turns out to be somebody who commits evil, or murder, for no reason. He says to the protagonist, “Well, why do you need a reason to do this?” So, the genre of mystery and detective fiction turns upon murder of different kinds, murder with or without motives, so the story or the novella, since it’s fairly long, is kind of a good natured critique of the phenomenon of the mystery detective genre that always depends upon people being killed whether it’s an Agatha Christie novel or something like Michael Connolly. You know, or there’s Raymond Chandler, or whomever. It all depends upon someone being killed so there’s always some person who has to be sacrificed for the sake of the work of art.
Right, and the way you describe this bookstore, you make it sound so charming, and it makes me kind of sad because it seems like bookstores like this are kind of a dying breed. I think I actually saw Otto Penzler on a panel last year and he was talking about how I think his store is the only dedicated mystery bookstore in New York still. What do you think about that?
I’m sure. Well, it’s very sad. Otto does most of his business online. He has for years. So, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the book business is not doing well, the mystery books. He means that the actual, physical store is sort of dying away, which is really sad. Somebody might disagree. Somebody might say, “Well, maybe there are new stores opening up in different places.” I’m in Berkeley right now and there are many, many bookstores in Berkeley, actually.
I also really want to ask you about this story “Equatorial,” which is set in the Galapagos Islands. I was just wondering what kind of research you’ve done on the Galapagos did you do?
Have you been there?
No, unfortunately, I have not.
Reading the story will tell you what it’s like. I also have another story called “The Bereaved” that came out in The Yale Review, and that’s another story about the Galapagos. My husband and I went in December 2014, so the research is very minute. I was taking notes all the time, not just about where we were, but the kind of people that you meet, and what you’re doing on the ship, and the kind of guide that you would have. It’s quite a unique place, and I’m really glad I went. We were there about a week.
Did you have the idea for the story before you went on the trip, or after?
I also write about things that I’ve experienced particularly if they have unusual locations. Those stories the setting is very specifically the Galapagos. One story is a gothic story, and the other story is a psychologically realistic story in The Yale Review. It’s kind of interesting to look at the two stories—for me anyway—to stay in the setting and see how the genre determines how it’s written, what the language is like, the pacing and so forth.
The other story is a very realistic portrait of a marriage, while the story that’s in The Doll-Master is a suspense mystery story where you don’t exactly know what the motives for the husband’s behavior is, and you don’t exactly know what’s going to happen. When you’re in a place like that, and when you’re on a ship where you’re outside the jurisdiction of the United States, you’re in this sort of Never-Never Land. American laws don’t apply when you’re on the high seas. You’re in some other zone. Many people don’t know that when you’re on cruises. Once you get on these waters, women have been raped, people have been robbed, things have happened to people, and they have no recourse. You can’t go to a police officer. There isn’t any. You can’t go to a ministry. You can’t go anywhere. You’re onboard a ship. And, there isn’t any law; so anyway, it’s complicated, and I found that fascinating to think about and write about.
Did you find yourself on the ship or on the steps, looking around thinking, “Oh, this would be a good place to kill somebody”?
I’m thinking about a story. It’s more like, what are the characters in the story? The woman who’s trying survive, she’s made a marriage that maybe is a mistake, but she really loves, or feels strong emotion for this man, but she’s become frightened of him. Maybe he could easily kill her. She doesn’t really know. So, it’s more toward genre, in the realistic story that I wrote for The Yale Review, a husband and wife go on essentially the same trip, but their relationship is a more realistic relationship in the sense that they’ve been married a while, and they’ve lost a daughter. A daughter has died. And their relationship comes to a kind of crisis in the Galapagos. The Galapagos is all about survival, and every lecture that you hear, or you go out with a guide, and you’re hiking around on these islands, these lava islands, and all the lectures are really about survival species, and many, many species that have become extinct. So, you start thinking in terms of human beings and Homo sapiens, and start thinking about your own self as a specimen. Those are thoughts that you enhance maybe at home, but you do think about these things in the Galapagos.
One element in the story that really struck me is that you describe these incredibly poisonous apples called “the little apples of death.” Is that a real thing?
Oh yes. Yes, and our Indian guide said, “I can touch these leaves, but you can’t.” But he couldn’t eat the food. Through many, many centuries, a millennia, he has some genetic ability. But the tribe to which he belonged was actually mostly destroyed by genocide by the Spanish. That’s not in this story that you read, I think. I talk about the genocidal history of the Spaniards who conquered this part of the world, and how they decimated or almost completely wiped out indigenous people. But, anyway, European-descended people don’t have the genetic ability to even touch this tree it’s so poisonous. So, the white people, the Caucasians who are upper middle class and have money, they’re sort of in this place where they’re only protected by the fact that they have money. If they were left on the island they would die in like forty-eight hours. We’re in such an ironic situation where you come to these places (my husband will be going to Antarctica), places where we could not survive at all, but because we have money, and we’re Americans, we sort of go into these starkly existential parts of the world, which if you think about them, are sort of frightening. But they’re very evocative for writing.
One thing that really struck me about this story and a couple other stories in this book, too, is that they end just before the moment where presumably something really terrible is about to happen. Do you think that’s the best way to tell a story like this, and do you ever go back and forth about whether you should actually show the awful thing happening at the end of the story or not?
Oh no, I would never do that. I wouldn’t consider that artistic. I would consider that too explicit. No. Also, it’s something for children and young people. No, I think adult fiction is much more suggestive and impressionistic. It should be more poetic in the sense that when we read a poem, we may read a poem five or six times, or with Emily Dickinson, you could read a poem like a hundred times, and it suggests meanings and sub-textual themes that are disturbing and powerful so that we’re made to think about it. If you spell everything out for the reader—or the viewer, say in a movie—if everything is just spelled out, there’s nothing left to think about.
My models were Hemingway or Faulkner; when I was in high school, particularly Hemingway. Hemingway is a great artist of that which is left unsaid. He’s a great artist of minimalism, understatement, because you can read a beautiful Hemingway story that’s two pages long, and you can just be thinking about it, and if you’re teaching it to students, you have a discussion going on for hours because it’s such a work of art. But, if it were a story by somebody else that had a beginning, middle, and end with an explicit ending, there’s very little to talk about. Maybe that’s what popular art or culture is. Very sort of blatant and doesn’t deal with sub-textual themes.
Two other stories in this book are “Gun Accident” and “Big Momma.” Both have teenage girls as protagonists; one story is set in 1961, and the other is set in the present day. What do you think about when you’re writing teenage girl protagonists today versus in that time period?
Oh, I’m not sure if I’m thinking anything specific. I do write a lot about adolescence, sometimes boys, but usually girls. I write about people in their twenties, and I write about people of every age, actually, so these are just two examples of teenage girls. Both of them are girls who are very insecure, and in “Gun Accident” the girl is a really good student, and she has a relationship with her teacher. And then the other story, the girl doesn’t have a father, and her mother is not always home when she comes home from school, so she’s sort of drifting off into another world where she’s taken up by this other family. It’s sort of a cautionary tale, sort of like a horrific fairy tale.
The character in “Gun Accident” felt kind of naïve and innocent to me in a way that the character in “Big Momma” didn’t. To what extent was that the time period, and to what extent it was just those characters?
I don’t think the girl in “Big Momma” is anything other than naïve. She’s innocent in the sense of . . . she’s quite innocent. She gets befriended by this other girl in the class, and then drawn into this family. It’s like a false family where they’re going to use her in some horrible way, but she doesn’t know that. And she has her mother who is not really a loving mother to her. I would call it a malevolent fairy tale. A dark fairy tale, sort of a dark fantasy. “Gun Accident” is more of a realistic story, and “Big Momma” is moving into dark fantasy.
The sense that I had in “Big Momma” is that the character did know that something bad was going to happen to her, but for whatever reason she went along with it.
Well, at the very end, she becomes passive. I think she’s just drawn to this family. She’s lonely. She has a girlfriend, she thinks. The father, there is this, again, a darkly malevolent fairy tale father who seems so warm and friendly, and she doesn’t have her own father. Her father has just more or less abandoned her. So, it’s not that she doesn’t care. I think that she’s a victim.
Right, and then I also wanted to ask you about your story “Soldier.” It really reminds me a lot of real life crime cases like George Zimmerman and Bernhard Goetz.
Yes, particularly both of them. Yes, Bernhard Goetz and Zimmerman. I don’t remember what happened with Bernhard Goetz. I think maybe, was he acquitted also? They’re interesting phenomena. I mean, it’s a very political sort of look at the situation in which some individual is expressing the will or the wish of the collective. Bernhard Goetz was somebody who imagined himself like a soldier, and George Zimmerman also had a white nationalism where you’re fighting back against these encroaching evil people who have skins darker than your own, and there’s a kind of climate of paranoia in some parts of the United States. Not everywhere and not universally.
What really struck me about “Soldier” is just this idea that there are these stories about what’s happened, and you, if you weren’t there, you never really know what happened. You might have your suspicions, but if you were to ever know the truth it might turn out to be much, much worse than you had imagined.
I think that’s always been true, especially with police related violence against the powerless or mentally ill people or black people. But, now we have videos so we can see what they’re doing, which is really pretty awful. The way that police will beat-up unarmed people, even shoot them in the back. But, before that, there was just testimony, and since the person who is murdered couldn’t give any testimony, it was just the police officer who would testify that he was going for his gun, or he made a threatening gesture toward me, and I had to protect myself. So, it’s basically the story that you get in the media and what really happened is probably always pretty different.
Right, but one thing that’s really striking right now with these body cameras on the police is that we have video of these really terrible things, and then they still don’t get convicted.
They still don’t get convicted some of the time, but I think it’s a deterrent. Maybe. And, they don’t always not get convicted.
I mean, a lot of it is going on. On Twitter, I follow AnonCopWatch, so every day, if you’re interested—and it’s very depressing—every day you’ll get some postings of what the police are doing all over the country and also in Canada. Basically they are victimizing powerless people, so I mean, sometimes there is a video and you can see a black woman being thrown down on the ground. People getting out of their cars with their hands in the air who are thrown down and eight police officers jump at him or her.
This goes on all the time. But, The New York Times, for instance, would not give you a write-up on all these cases. A whole newspaper would be filled with it. Basically, the media can’t deal with all the things that are going on, like George Zimmerman events that are going on around the country or in North America. The mainstream media can’t really deal with it. So, I think online, and particularly Twitter, is good at revealing these things to people who didn’t know anything about it.
Now, at the time of Bernhard Goetz, we didn’t have the internet. Bernhard Goetz would have been a natural as a hero for many people around the country. He would have had a website. He would have had a defense fund. He may have had a defense fund anyway, but I think George Zimmerman got many, many thousands from that. So, the story is based on that, and based on a person who’s speaking in his own voice, and how this happened to him, and what this does to his ego, and how in some strange way, he himself is a victim. How he gets the gun from his uncle, and one thing leads to another.
I know that you’ve been teaching writing classes in prison. Has that changed the way that you think about crime or write about crime?
Well, not really. My husband and I both have volunteer-taught at San Quentin, and I went out to San Quentin about five times and did workshops with another teacher; basically it’s helping the young—well they’re not necessarily young—but helping writer inmates learn to write and to communicate clearly. It’s put on an elementary level. I’m also teaching at U.C. Berkeley right now, so it’s not the same kind of writing, and I teach at NYU graduate school. So, those people are maybe already published. For them, it’s a matter of fine-tuning how they write. Prison writing is on another level. It would be more like maybe high school writing. They may have stories to tell, but they need help just with sentences and on that level. I think there’s a high number of prisoners in the United States who are functionally illiterate. Something like seventy percent. It’s very high.
Have any of those stories that you’ve heard from inmates really stuck with you?
No. Not really. I also edited a book called Prison Noir, and those are finished and polished stories that were written by prisoners all around the country. There’s one from San Quentin, but they’re from all over. Those stories, now, I would say are real stories. There are three by women. There are not very many stories by women prisoners because there are not as many women prisoners at all compared to men. So, the stories are realistic, and none of them are gothic or fantasy or science fiction at all. It’s kind of interesting. The prisoners write about their own experiences in prison and how they got there. Very often they write about what they did that got them in prison and all the different circumstances that led to it. It’s the great mystery of their lives. Somebody who is intelligent realizes he is in prison, and maybe for life, so they start thinking, and they want to write about it. It’s obsessive. The stories in Prison Noir are mostly autobiographical, and they’re all quite good. I’d say they’re almost all autobiographical.
The women’s stories are so heartrending because these are women—particularly in one case from Michigan, she killed an insanely abusive husband. So abusive to her, and so threatening to her and her children. She basically had to kill this person, and she did, so she’s in prison. She’s somebody who should have been a teacher. She’s very intelligent and writes very well, but she married the wrong man. He was not a crude person. He was actually a lawyer. He would start to strangle her. He would threaten the children. She shot him. She killed him, really, in self-defense. So, anyway, that’s the kind of story that could definitely influence another writer, but my teaching at San Quentin was not really on that level. The stories that I received from the student inmates were not anything like polished stories, just maybe beginnings. I did write a story called “San Quentin,” which is truly fiction. My husband was teaching a biology course in which they dissected sheep brains, so that’s in my story, but I never had that experience.
So, the title story in this collection is called “The Doll-Master,” and it’s dedicated to horror editor Ellen Datlow. Could you talk about why you dedicated that story to her?
The story was originally written for Ellen. I have a book [here] that Ellen edited; it’s called The Doll Collection. Do you know this book?
I have a copy of it, yeah.
My story is obviously in there. I’ve written a lot of stories for Ellen Datlow over the years, going way, way back to the 1980s or something. I got a letter from someone named Ellen Datlow that said, “Would you like to write a story to a certain theme?” I said I’d like to try. So, I’ve always done that. And Ellen has asked me a number of times to be in many, many of her anthologies. She’s got these different, weird ideas, but this is, I think, possibly her best book, with the pictures and interesting photographs. I think maybe some of them are her own. I’ve dedicated at least one book to Ellen.
Now I’m looking at [the] “also edited by Ellen Datlow” [page]. Oh my God, she’s edited so many anthologies. Wow. I mean all sorts of things like Black Heart, Ivory Bone; I think I might be in that. Black Swan, White Raven. Lovecraft Unbound—I think I’m in that. I’m in a number of these anthologies. It’s very impressive. She did a number of them with Terri Windling. Some of them I’ve never seen, but I would be interested in. She sometimes asked me to do things when I wasn’t able to, but they seem really interesting. And she has a new anthology that will be out next year called Black Feather. She said it’s all about birds. I did have an idea because where I live in Princeton, we live on a lake, and there are great blue herons around the lake, and there’s almost, like, prehistoric looking birds. They’re strangely awkward, but beautiful, and they’re real predators.
If you’re out in the country, and you’re in the marshland, you might see these great blue herons. They fly by, and they look really prehistoric. They have very, very long beaks, long necks. Their wings are quite wide. They’re quite large. Then their legs hang down, and you see them skimming low over a creek or a river in the marshland. They’re hunting, and they hunt alone. So, anyway, I wanted to write about that, so the whole story is generated by living there and being fascinated by the birds. These predator birds are so big and rather beautiful, and then Ellen’s invitation . . . it just kind of all came together.
It starts off as a pretty realistic story and then it goes into that other zone and it becomes something that’s surreal. We’re not exactly sure if this woman is losing her mind or whether these things are really happening. I said at the beginning of our conversation that the great theme of Edgar Allan Poe, I think, is testing the limits of sanity. A lot of his stories deal with the terror of losing one’s mind. “The Tell-Tale Heart,” for instance, is a story about a man who goes mad and he tells us why, really. It’s a beautiful story. A beautifully cadenced and paced story of insanity, but Poe has a number of stories like that.
You wrote a Poe story called “The Fabled Light-House of Vina del Mar,” and that’s definitely about someone losing his mind.
Well, he was in this place that to survive he would have to become like an animal. And Poe himself was in this nineteenth century romantic gothic tradition where nobody had any bodies. He talks about women as very pale and with beautiful long hair. There’s never any actual bodies. And the men don’t have any bodies. He doesn’t write in a realistic way, like say, John Updike.
So, I wanted to take that idea of a non-physical, romantic gothic . . . and put that person in a really real physical universe where he would have to survive by eating these horrible animals. Nobody eats anything in Poe. No one ever has a sandwich or says, “I’ll drink some milk” or something. All these things that we take for granted in our daily lives don’t exist in gothic literature or in tragedy. We never see Hamlet putting on his socks. We never see Ophelia curling her hair. Nobody is doing any laundry. Nobody goes to the bathroom. Nobody takes a shower. Nobody gets his hair cut. All these things belong to what we call realistic fiction, and they don’t exist in gothic fiction. So the horror for a gothic personality would be to have to be in that real world where to survive you have to eat, and you have to eat some horrible looking turtle, or something with one eye in the middle of its forehead. So, it was for me kind of an experimental thing that takes a sensibility of the nineteenth century gothic and subjects it to what would be absolutely horrific for them: to be in a physical world.
That’s really interesting. A minute ago you mentioned Ellen Datlow’s Lovecraft Unbound anthology, and I read your story “Commencement,” which was in that anthology. I was wondering if you could talk about how you came up with that story.
“Commencement” is a story that’s based on my receiving honorary doctorates and going to the commencement ceremonies, which last a long time, and you’re sitting in a robe, and often sitting in the sun, and all these people come across the stage getting their degrees. And so, it just seemed to me, a natural next step would be to tie it in with these ancient Aztec ritual religious executions where people’s hearts are torn out. So I sort of melded the realistic experience of receiving an honorary doctorate from colleges and universities with the fantastic and the dark fantasy of the Aztec ritual.
So, you’re saying, because the ceremonies are so unbearable to sit through that when you actually turn it into a literal human sacrifice that’s just kind of communicating the same idea in even more elevated terms?
Well, I don’t know that they’re that awful to sit through. I mean, it’s really not like having your heart torn out. It’s more that you’re sitting there and so your mind is wandering. I’ve sat for a couple of hours at these ceremonies, and you have to be thinking of something; you can’t read. Some people, some professors, probably try to read, but if you’re an honorary doctorate then you’re sitting right in the front, and you have to stand up and give a little commencement speech. So, you basically sit there and the people come across the stage, and there’s music, and there’s a prayer, and this goes on for a long, long time. So, if you have an active imagination, you just take the situation and try to invent something so when I was finished with it, I could go home and write a story.
I’m sure that Stephen King has had experiences like this where he imagines something because of a certain situation that he’s in. A writer has these somewhat horrific situations where they have to be operated on, or they’re having chemotherapy, or an x-ray, or women having an abortion, you know one or the other of all these different things where you’re trapped in some place, but your mind is not trapped, so your mind starts to amuse itself.
Why did you think that that story was appropriate to link with H.P. Lovecraft?
I’m not sure. I may have sent Ellen a couple of stories. It may have been that Ellen made the choice. I don’t remember exactly. I’ve done so many stories with Ellen that she may have made a choice personally.
You are interested in Lovecraft, right? Because you edited a collection of Lovecraft’s writings called Tales of H.P. Lovecraft.
Yeah, I have another story. I thought my Lovecraft story was a different story. I thought it was called “Shadows of the Evening,” but you were talking about “Commencement.”
“Commencement” was in Lovecraft Unbound. I don’t know if maybe you had a story in a different Lovecraft anthology?
Yeah, there’s another one called “Shadows of the Evening,” which is much more of a Lovecraft story than “Commencement.” “Shadows of the Evening” is based upon a Lovecraft story—I can’t remember the title of the Lovecraft story, but one of his early stories. One of his more realistic stories where somebody is playing an instrument.
Oh, “The Music of Eric Zann.”
Yeah, that was it. So, my story, “The Shadows of the Evening” is not about that really; it’s about somebody who hears someone singing at a distance. She hears a voice singing, and she’s drawn out of her house, and goes into the city, and goes into a strange place, maybe like a church, and she discovers who’s singing, so it definitely was evolved from the Lovecraft story.
I’ll definitely check that out. I didn’t know you had other Lovecraftian stories, so now I’m curious to read that. But moving on: A good friend of mine in New York is Matthew Kressel; he had a story in Lightspeed Magazine called “The Sounds of Old Earth,” and you said very nice things about it on Twitter, so I just wanted to thank you for that because I know Matt really appreciated it.
Oh, good! Good. I use Twitter to recommend things quite often. My own writing strays across a number of genres, so I think people have difficult time trying to categorize my writing, or classify it. If you like John Updike’s writing or Anne Tyler, they’re basically domestic realists. They write about domestic life, often about marriage and family, in a realistic way. It’s not very melodramatic. It’s not tragic. It’s kind of realism, you know? I’ve sometimes written domestic realism, which I like very much, but my next book could be completely surreal and unpredictable. It could have vampires in it. And then my next novel after that could be completely realistic. Or, I could do a historical novel set some time ago. All my writing is somewhat unclassifiable, so it’s really hard for an average reader to figure out what I was doing.
I really enjoyed The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror. A lot of short story collections and anthologies, it’s kind of hit or miss with the stories, but there are six stories in this book, and I thought they were all just really, really good. So, I would encourage people to go check it out. Do you have any other projects you want to mention, or anything else you want to mention here?
My next novel is a very realistic novel, and it’s purely realism. It’s not really like The Doll-Master. [It] is about the issue of division in America between people who are pro-life, anti-abortion, people who aren’t very liberal or pro-choice, and the way America is today, it seems to me almost like a nightmare of these divisions. People who are passionately pro-Trump, and people who are passionately for Bernie Sanders, and it’s like they’re living in the same country, but they’re in different dimensions.
It’s like a nightmare almost. It’s almost sort of scary that there are so many pro-Trump people. They don’t seem to look at him. They don’t seem to see him the way we see him. They see him literally as some kind of a savior. He’s going to bring jobs back and help them. These are poor people who haven’t even worked in years, some of them. They really think that Donald Trump is going to bring back their factory job in Indiana or some place. I guess they really believe that. Then Bernie Sanders people may have some idealistic notions. Maybe they’re not so realistic either. I’m much more Bernie Sanders than I am Donald Trump. But, it’s kind of interesting that America is impassioned by these two poles that are so far apart.
I mean, they’re far apart in a way, but they’re also very similar in a lot of ways because they’re both promising to upend the established system, and for people who have not been served well by the established system, that’s very appealing.
In what way is Trump going to upend the system? He’s not going to get rid of capitalism. He’s a capitalist. He wants lower taxes for billionaires. He’s basically saying the same thing that is somehow deceiving people. I don’t even think he’s really a racist. He sounds as if he’s a racist, and that makes some people excited because they’re racists, but when it comes down to it, he’s a New Yorker. He’s lived with all sorts of people. I don’t think he really is a racist. He sounds like a racist, and he may be a misogynist, or sexist, but his daughter and some women seem to like him. Basically, he said, “I’ll make America great again and bring back jobs.” He has no way of doing that. There’s no way he can do that. It’s just sort of talk. Bernie Sanders could actually—if he were president; he could do something about taxes, and he’s going to get rid of this and that. He has been in congress for many, many years. I mean, Trump has no experience in government, which is all about compromise and making deals. He doesn’t understand the way he would have to make deals with somebody like Clinton or Sanders. Anyway, my novel is sort of about America as this nightmare place where people are living near together, but they’re in different zones of consciousness, which I see as something tragic.
It seems like technology has played a huge role in that because it’s allowed people to immerse themselves in media cocoons that just echo their opinions back at them, and they never have to be confronted with contrary opinions.
Exactly. You’re exactly right. They immerse themselves in media cocoons. They only go to certain websites. They have their Twitter feed or whatever. They only read certain things, and they watch Fox News, or they listen to Rush Limbaugh. They would never dream of watching Larry Wilmore or Jon Stewart in the past. You’re quite right. They would never dream of reading The New York Times. Anyway, my novel is about that, and what it’s like to be in families on both sides of that issue. The families who are very religious, and the families who are very liberal.
Right, so why don’t you tell us again, what’s the name of that novel? And when will it be out?
The novel is coming out, I think, in January or February. It’s called A Book of American Martyrs. But, like I said, it’s a very realistic novel, so I did research into abortion providers, and the assassinations of abortion workers and Planned Parenthood workers, and sabotage against them. But, it’s also from the point of view from the people who really, really believe in pro-life. I mean, they’re not just malicious, awful people. They’re very religious. They’re fundamentalist Christians. But then I also write about the people who are very liberal and agnostic perhaps, but they believe that women should control their own bodies. It’s an ideological difference that has led to many tragic misunderstandings, and I don’t see any way to resolve it in the near future.
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