By Steven Lloyd Wilson | | May 25, 2010 |
By Steven Lloyd Wilson | | May 25, 2010 |
Last week we had a trade news post about Blood Oath, a novel about a vampire working for the president, a novel that was optioned to be adapted into a movie before the book even arrived in book stores. Something funny happened though on the road to bitching. We took a look at the blog of the author (Christopher Farnsworth) and didn’t find him as hateful as we gleefully expected. Then Mr. Farnsworth braved the comment thread himself.
So I did what any real journalist would do at eleven in the morning on a Thursday. I finished my whiskey, finished my other whiskey, and tried sending an email to the address attached to the comment. The short story made even shorter is that Mr. Farnsworth was kind enough to sit down for coffee with me and talk for a while about his novel.
And also? Transcribing a 45 minute conversation takes a fuck longer than 45 minutes. When we sell out, I want fully sentient voice-to-text software. Or a secretary. Whichever is more expensive.
SLW: So, the vampires do not sparkle, right?
CF: No, not mine anyway. I guess I can understand the place for the sparkly vampires. And I can understand teenage girls are looking for drama anyway and that’s a perfectly fine way to deliver it. When I grew up, vampires just weren’t sexy, they weren’t attractive, they just scared the hell out of me. And that’s kind of what I was looking for when I wanted to write my own book.
SLW: Has this novel been on the back burner of your brain for years, or did the recent vampire trend just bring it to the forefront?
CF: I definitely knew that this was the time to do it. But the way that it came about was that I read this book called, coincidentally, The President’s Vampire by a guy named Robert Schneck and it’s about this very weird incident in American history where President Andrew Johnson supposedly pardoned a man accused of killing two people and drinking their blood. And so I just kept thinking what would a president do with a vampire. And the more I thought about it, I was like quite a bit actually, that would really come in handy.
And, because of the whole vampire craze actually, I was leaning away from it, and because I’ve never really liked them, I’ve always been scared of them and I’ve seen pretty much every vampire movie, but if you asked me, “would you like vampires,” oh no, no, no. I just know everything about them, read all the books, watch all the movies, but I didn’t want to … I worried that the craze would pass, I didn’t feel like being the one jumping on the bandwagon, but it was probably the best idea that I’d had.
I’d been throwing stuff at Hollywood for a while and nothing stuck, and so I said it was like a monkey flinging poo, nothing worked, and then the writer’s strike hit, my wife was pregnant, we’d just bought a new house, and I figured this was going to be my half-court shot. I was either going to do this or I was going to get a job at Starbucks. And so, I couldn’t sell it as a movie, I couldn’t even pretend to sell it as a movie, my screen agents at the time were totally uninterested, told me it was a terrible idea and would never go anywhere and I figured, well you know what, at the very least I’m going to write a book I want to read.
So I threw everything in there, went back to the Jack Kirby school of storytelling, you know, if a dinosaur is good then a dinosaur and moon people are better, throw in everything you possibly can. So, eight months later I pretty much had the book. And in between, bought a house, sold a house, had a daughter, it was an interesting experience.
SLW: Are you a history buff then?
CF: Yeah, I was a history major in college, and I’ve always been interested in the weird and unusual aspects of history. There are all kinds of bizarre and unexplained things that just sort of stick out in the history books and this was one of them. There’s plenty of unofficial history, and it’s always interesting to see what gets put in the official narrative and what gets put into the unofficial narrative.
One good example is at the same time as the Salem Witch Trials, a little further north in Massachusetts, there was this incident called the spectral invasion of Cape Ann, and a bunch of the settlers there reported seeing men who could apparently defy gravity, were bullet proof, dressed in very bright, strange costumes, and walked away from musket fire. And they were so terrified they all moved into the local fort, and called for reinforcements. Two weeks or so of pure terror, of these guys just doing whatever they wanted, never actually harming anyone but really just waiting them out, and then vanishing. And there’s just as much eye witness testimony for that as there is for most of the stuff that started the Salem Witch Trials.
Cotton Mather actually wrote about it and included it in his History of New England. It’s just so strange, it’s simply never going to be the official history, whereas the Salem Witch Trials it’s all fairly explicable. And I just love stuff like that. It’s incredibly strange and nobody will really ever know the truth about it but it makes an amazing story.
SLW: You have an interesting notion in Blood Oath, this idea that there are other nations on Earth that don’t have borders, and that the so-called Other Side, the enemy for lack of a better term, the antagonist, is in a battle of belief, not a battle of getting demons through interdimensional portals so much as that when you can get horror into peoples’ minds, that’s when evil wins.
CF: And here’s the dark serious meaning of my vampire book filled with spies and explosions, but a friend of mine said that this like my exorcism of the War on Terror, that everything we’ve been scared of for the last nine years was just sort of coming out in this, we have sort of taken on this idea of we have all these anxieties out there and all these fears, and they’re all just amorphous and floating around and what really frightened me about 9/11 was the idea that people could look at you and just see a thing, an obstacle or an object in their way. If you can look at two high rises full of people and only see targets, at some point you’ve stopped thinking like a human being.
The fact that human beings are capable of that is what’s really scary, the fact that we can become monsters like that. And it happens all the time, it’s inhuman but it’s one of the most human things we do. We consistently turn other people into objects. And the way I think of it is, where empathy ends, that’s where evil begins, when you can start looking at people that way.
So “The War on Horror” was just my way of talking about how monsters are necessary for war. And I’m certainly not an advanced enough thinker to have figured out the entirety of human nature and warfare and the dark half of our being, but all I can say is that when you start looking at children as collateral damage, then you’ve very clearly stepped off the path, you’ve gone really seriously awry. And that’s what horror is about, about imagining the unthinkable. So in terms of the plot of the book, just to get back to vampires and explosions and spies, the Other Side wants people to be afraid again, wants people to surrender to abject terror, and the last time in the mythology of the book that happened was the Dark Ages.
Historically, the Dark Ages are interesting because people thought of the supernatural as very real and very present in their daily lives, and we have a tendency doing history, and this is something when I was studying history that you learned to watch out for, you tend to believe that everyone in the past is much stupider than you are: “oh look at the silly primitives, they believe that thunder came from a god in the sky. Ha ha!”
But we have just as many irrational beliefs and we are no smarter than the people who built the pyramids. They’re just these massive feats of engineering, that they did pretty much by hand. The human brain is pretty much the same as it was 10,000 years ago, so if there were people who believed fully in the physical reality of the supernatural then, they may have had something really to be afraid of. At least, as I said, in the mythology of the book. So they saw something that we don’t see, and in the mythology of the book, that’s the last time the Other Side was really making deep incursions into our territory and rationalism and reason eventually won out, but that’s what Cade is working to prevent, to prevent horror from taking over the world again, of darkness walking again during daylight.
SLW: So where do you see the character of Konrad fitting in? He’s sort of that scientist character, the rational character, but he is not on the so-to-say rational good guy side.
CF: Yeah, there’s a dichotomy there. Because Konrad was human but has become so abstracted from it that he no longer see himself as human or even as part of the same species as you please. Whereas Cade know he’s not human, knows he’s an abomination, knows he’s evil and yet is still a more moral creature and hangs on to the idea that you can do the right thing even if you are damned.
SLW: That’s another dichotomy, because what keeps Cade in line isn’t really rationality but faith.
CF: Right. Because at a certain point, you can easily descend into this Foucault-like world of moral relativism where everything is negotiable. The deconstructivists were very big when I was in college. But at a certain point you have to draw a line in the sand and name the things you love and be willing to care about them. Otherwise you just continue to slip along into this sort of gray muck. And that’s where Konrad did end up. He believes only in his own survival. And there’s certainly a case to be made for surviving. That’s again the contradiction, you have to be able to live but you have to have something to live for, and if we don’t pick an ethics system, if we don’t pick morality, if we don’t pick any kind of morality, I’m saying, then I think in general, yeah, that makes us evil.
SLW: Does that play a little bit into the choice of Zach being the lifetime politician guy?
CF: Absolutely. Yeah. My, we’re getting into such heavy issues for my vampire book. Absolutely. Zach is exactly the kind of prick I might have become if I’d stuck with my original plan in college, which was to get my law degree, and go off to be a sleazy politician or criminal defense lawyer. I fully intended to make millions of dollars defending the scum of the Earth and then die of an early coronary. Fortunately it didn’t work out that way. I had a lot of friends that stayed with politics, and they’re nowhere near as amoral as I was, thank god. But yeah, I think that’s where it begins, I think you can see a lot of politicians who look at people just as votes or as issues to be played.
SLW: You have a lot of flashbacks in the book, adding depth to it with a 140 year old character, he’s seen a lot of interesting things. A thing a lot of authors have a hard time with is where do you draw the line between adding supernatural texture to things like the Nigerian civil war or the Holocaust without tip-toeing over that line where you’re kind of trivializing what really happened?
CF: Yeah, I think that’s definitely a real danger. These are the real horrors, the places where in our history where unimaginable evil touched peoples’ lives and you never want to seem like you’re using it for just a prop. But at the same time, it happened. I don’t know, for me, the way I deal with all of that stuff churning around in my head, all the stuff I read in history is to get it out, to exorcise it. There are people I’m sure who would be offended by the use of 9/11 in the book, so what I do is try to tread that line carefully.
I was a reporter once and I’ve talked to people after their relatives have died from murders, and I don’t think that kind of pain ever really goes away, so I try to keep that in mind while writing, and I try to use the real events as backdrop but only as background, only as scenery. In the same way that we’re walking around in an ordinary day in the 21st century today. It’s the setting, but I don’t think it’s always the … well we’re putting a supernatural twist on some of this stuff, like the Kennedy assassination figures in the next book, and that’s become such a, one of my professors in college once called that the “great American nonfiction novel.” That the Kennedy assassination has become this whole mythology and I really feel that there are pieces of American mythology that I have to play with in the book. So I try to be respectful as possible, but at the same time, writers are always offending somebody. So you try to make it as decent as you can.
SLW: So in a novel about the president’s vampire, obviously the president comes on screen very quickly. You use historical presidents obviously for previous presidents, but every author has to make that decision of, are you going to put Barack Obama in the book or President Curtis? So where do you draw upon the exact contemporary presidency and where do you just wholesale try to invent a separate presidency and vice presidency?
CF: I think around the 2008 election is where my time line began to diverge from reality. When I was writing this, the 2008 election was a ways away and everyone was predicting that Hillary Clinton was going to be president. And so the smart move would have been for me to make it a woman president, but I figured that I would just make it as generic and bland a president as possible because people are so angry about politics right now, just so unbelievably divisive, and the vitriol that can be spewed back and forth by people over what seems to me now just the most trivial of stuff.
It would have taken people right out of the fictional experience, ruined the narrative of the book, and there was no reason to do that, no reason to make it a real president. So, and to be completely honest since I had no idea who was going to be president, I just hedged my bets as much as possible. So Curtis is a very solid, middle of the road Republicrat, anybody who wants to see stuff in him can. But along those lines, there’s something else I wanted to tell you was, Grant Morrison is this great comic book writer -
SLW: And he’s a security guard in the book, along with Warren Ellis.
CF: [Laughes] Yes, he gets very badly beaten. Which you know, for as much money as I’ve invested on those guys’ books, I think that they can take a hit for the team. But I heard him speak, he was interviewed in this documentary, and someone asked him, “do you hate George W. Bush?” And he said “God no. I feel sorry for him. I certainly don’t want the job. You don’t know what happens on your first day in the Oval Office, you don’t know what guns they put to your head. You don’t know what threats they make against your family or what obligations you have as soon as you get in there, so it’s the worst job in the world, and you’ve got to be kind of messed up to want it. But I wouldn’t want to do it, so god love ‘em those power mad bastards.”
And I think that’s true, I think that I’m trying to look at the holder of the office with a lot more sympathy since I started writing the book and not just because the guy I voted for happened to be elected. There are many things that have happened since the election that I disagree with, but again that’s all reality and this is fiction and to put those politics into the book would be useless and distracting.
SLW: So a real fanboy hypothetical here, if in 2000, Gore had challenged and it had went the way of a pseudo-civil war situation, who does Cade believe is the president?
CF: You mean if Gore had challenged, and set himself up and so we had two presidencies? Probably whoever the Supreme Court ruled, it’s a very legalistic oath, and it’s very sculpted to the rule of law, which is one reason it’s based on the oath of allegiance that soldiers take, so whoever the law says is the president, that’s the president.
SLW: So Cade’s a strict constructionist.
CF: He is, yeah. He’s very conservative, very literal line reading. But he also finds a lot of loopholes that way.
SLW: Do you want to talk at all about the next novel in the series, Black Site?
CF: Yeah! Black Site is about a secret CIA prison where a couple of murders occur. And it’s not even supposed to be on the books, it’s not even supposed to exist anymore. And it never existed. But after the President came in and he gave an order to close down all these sites, when they find that this one is still operating, and still funded, they need an operative who doesn’t exist either to go in and take care of this problem. And what Cade finds is that it’s being run by the Shadow Company, who are some of the antagonists from the first book, and they have no intention of closing it down. And as bad as the torture and the extraordinary rendition, and the violations of law are, it’s actually all a cover for something even worse, and something very very bad is trying to get out and Cade has to either find a way to kill it or to put it back in.
SLW: Do you envision this series being an ongoing thing like Anita Blake?
CF: I hope that it’ll be a very long, profitable series, yes. When I signed the contract with Putnam, I signed the contract for three books, but they asked sort of to see my ideas for the whole series, and I have about 10 sketched out really well, that I know where the books would go and how they would end. And I’ve got other ideas floating around they may or may not get incorporated into the books, but also I’ve got an enormous canvas to work with, that’s the reason I really liked this idea. I didn’t get sick of Cade’s world at all. Ordinarily, I’ll get very tired of an idea really quickly and you know, I have the attention span of a gnat. I blame MTV. But I kept coming up with more stuff for this, so I figure I have to write it because I just keep thinking about it.
SLW: Are you approaching it like kind of the Monster of the Week style, or is there going to be an overall arching story?
CF: There is an overall arching story, definitely. The Other Side you will find more and more about that as the adversary, and “the Other Side” is actually a term both in espionage and just means death, you know, people crossing over to the other side, but in espionage, it has a very specific meaning as the enemy, or the KGB used the same term only they used the term “the main adversary,” which is also a term for the devil.
There’s a lot of overlap actually between espionage and witchcraft, which I’ve found, and it’s very weird, there’s secret names, there’s the belief that you can change reality with magic words, it’s all very weird and creepy when you start looking for these synchronicities. So yeah, the overall arc will be Cade finding out the true purpose of the Other Side and its current agents here on Earth, but each book will present a different threat and should be self-contained enough that you can come in and just read it.
I love series books but there are some like the big honking sci-fi books that are doorstop-sized where you come in on the first page and it’s like you just left the last page of the previous novel. And that’s great, if you’re on the edge of your seat, but if it’s the first book you pick up, you’re completely lost. And I don’t ever want to do that to a reader, I think that it’s asking a lot of them just to pick it up and just to start reading. When somebody is willing to, well this is going to sound grandiose or just plain stupid, but if somebody is willing to make the investment of time to even look at one of your books, to pick it up, I just think that’s one of the greatest compliments anybody can pay you. They spend the time reading what you wrote. So I try not to take that too much for granted. Of course, a year from now, when the cocaine and money start rolling in, I’ll have forgotten all about the little people.
SLW: There’s sort of a famous quote about how writers are schizophrenic by nature, that they have to be so egotistical to believe that they have something worth everyone in the world reading, but they have to be utterly neurotic and insecure in order to make the work actually worth reading.
CF: Yeah, I think that that’s a really good point. There was a study done once, when I was still a reporter one of my editors told me, of reporters, and it was a psychological test, and it found that most reporters were actually introverts, because they started out as writers and they wanted to write, but the only way you can make money as a writer is by being a reporter, so they would wake up every day and go to a job doing something they hated, which was confronting and talking to strangers, just to have at the end of the day the chance to write something. That’s probably why reporters are so cranky.
SLW: Were you cranky when you were a reporter?
CF: Yeah. I am an introvert and I didn’t like having to confront people, honestly, which would probably come as a surprise to some of the subjects of my stories, because I did a lot of investigative stuff. They would probably say I was a real pain in the ass. But I think that that point about writers is right, and you have to be both really insecure and want to stay indoors instead of hitting the playground and yet have the notion that what’s going on inside your head is so great that other people should share in it. I think that the way around it is to look at it as a gift, not my talent, not anything completely douchebag like that, but to look at “here’s what I’m thinking, I’m going to extend it to you as a gift.” And you know, take it or leave it, that’s fine, because it should be offered more or less completely unselfishly.
SLW: So how many false start novels did you complete before this one?
CF: Let’s see. Three. Well, four if you count the truly horrible literary novel I wrote as my senior thesis in college. But, that was god-awful. I need to go back to my school, and you know, they keep all of the theses in manuscript form in the library, I need to go back and burn it.
SLW: Before they make an electronic copy and you can’t get rid of it?
CF: Yeah, before it gets out there on the Internet.
SLW: Google might have already taken care of it.
CF: I went to a very small school, I hope not.
SLW: So, you can be honest though, it’s the work on the Windows 2000 Professional Technical Manual that’s your magnum opus, right?
CF: Oh yeah, see, that was the apotheosis of my career, that was, you know, I’ll never equal that again.
SLW: Did you get to meet Clippy?
CF: Actually, no. This was the dirty secret of that chapter. A friend of mine who was a software engineer and a technical writer, was just slammed with jobs and he said “hey, I’ve got a chapter in this book, you’re a tech writer, why don’t you do it?” And he sent me the discs of Windows and I could not get them to load, I couldn’t get them to work. I told him, you know, look, this is completely destroying my laptop, the thing has been, you know, I had the little spinny hour glass for like five days now. And he said “ooh, that’s bad.” And, so he very generously told me what it was supposed to do, and I wrote it from there. But I have no idea if Windows 2000 actually works and I never have. I never ended up using it and I think that the feature that I wrote about in that book ended up getting canned by Microsoft. The technical manuals got written like at least a year in advance.
SLW: So the word on the Internet, which is always true …
CF: Oh yeah, of course.
SLW: … is that Blood Oath is being fast tracked for a movie.
CF: It’s yeah, it’s Hollywood and anything can happen. So you never know, but, I really like Lucas Foster, the producer. He made a really good case to me for why I should work with him and I really like him additionally. And he really seemed to get the book and also, Lucas is really very much an independent player, so he sets his own schedule. And so he and I are going to start working on developing it toward the end of the year and hopefully we’ll be producing it, actually be in production very soon.
He’s very serious, an absolutely no bullshit guy, which is incredibly rare in Hollywood, Los Angeles, and life in general. And he says something that I think is really funny and really true from my experience, my limited experience working in Hollywood. And I mean Lucas is an actual player, he’s actually done these huge movies, whereas I was basically just trying to get on the doorstep, piddling on the rug, you know, whereas he’s out running with the big dogs. But he says, “my goal is to make it suck less, because there’s a certain amount of suck that creeps into every huge complicated Hollywood operation.”
And I think he’s right. It’s possible too, I tried to keep this in mind when I was doing movie reviews and TV reviews that you can try your very best and you can work really hard, you can take the most talented people, you can throw tons of money at it, and it’ll still turn out to be awful. And it’s nobody’s fault, it just, you know, nothing fell together the right way, it’s very hard to make good movies, good books, good music, anything. Something Harlan Ellison calls the “C+ theory of life” his view is that 90% of everything is crap, and that on your best day you get maybe 10% of what you want right.
So Lucas has a really smart way of looking at it, which is do the very best you possibly can, but plan for problems, plan for the realities, and I think he’s seen enough of them that I think that he’s going to handle it very well. He’s a very smart guy, and like I said, I like him a lot and I trust him. He presented me with how the entire thing would go down in his mind, and I believed him.
SLW: With your background as a screenwriter are you going to do the script for it?
CF: I am not. I’m not A-list enough.
SLW: That’s ironic.
CF: I know, it’s a weird thing. No, if I’d really insisted on it, I probably could have, but at this point I don’t actually want to, I’m busy with the books. On this, I’d rather give notes than take them. So, I’m going to work with the screenwriter, but I’m also going to hopefully not be that guy consistently looking over his shoulder asking him to rastify it 10 percent. Or her. I want to see what somebody else can do with it, and adapt it, and with only a few exceptions, most writers are pretty bad at adapting their own work. They don’t see, you know, they have their babies and they don’t see the flaws. So somebody else will come in and do a much better job than I ever could.
SLW: When you were writing the novel, did you have in in the back of your mind, these are the story lines that probably would get cut by length necessity if it went to a film?
CF: I didn’t really, because as I said, I was writing it during the writer’s strike and my idea was that I finally get to put in everything I want. I don’t have to worry about cutting for length or cutting for time, or hitting the action beat by page 32, or introducing the female character on page 15. I can do it whenever I want to. And so there are stray threads that actually Lucas picked up on that he thinks are much better for the movie and those are going to get much prominence than I gave them. And I think he’s right, they’ll work a lot better on screen than they would have necessarily in the book.
SLW: So if the movie had a billion dollar budget and the Twilight cache going in, who would you handpick to be the guy playing Cade, or Zach or any of the other characters?
CF: I would love to see Christian Bale play Cade. I mean he’s already been Batman for god’s sake, he can do it. He can be, if you’ve ever seen American Psycho, he can be alternately charming and ruthless. So I think that with Cade he doesn’t have to be so much charming, but he can present a compelling charismatic character even if it’s a really frightening one. For Zach, I always saw in my head Justin Long, you know, “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC.” That’s who I had stuck in my head. And for Griff, it was always Robert Duvall. I just could not get that out of my head. And anything could happen, those decisions are above my pay grade and you know it could be somebody totally unknown. This is me just totally spit-balling. I have no idea who it actually will be in reality. I’m sure they’ll tell me at some point.
SLW: So do you have any idea what the last scene of the series will be?
CF: I do actually, yeah. But I’m not going to talk about it yet.
SLW: I won’t tell anybody.
CF: [Laughs] How many times did I say that as a reporter? No, I know how it ends. It’s going to be a while to get there, and it could change. Everything changes.
SLW: So, final question. Any relation to the Planet Express Farnsworths?
CF: Oh, yes, actually. Hubert Farnsworth was named after Philo T. Farnsworth who is my great uncle, the inventor of television, so I’m not really sure what happened there, but clearly the, I mean he was like a crazy freaky mad genius, he was insanely smart, like a whole other order of intellect. And yeah that didn’t get passed down, clearly, at least not to me. But he was yeah, a remarkable, remarkable individual. I never got to meet him, he died before I was born. I mean here’s a guy who came up with television when he was 14 years old while plowing a field in the middle of Idaho. He’d seen a radio once. And that’s how he came up with it, I mean that’s you know it’s, I’m not trying to be falsely modest here, but I realize that it’s like winning the lottery to get your novel published but to do that? Just from your own brain? That’s a whole planet away, a whole universe away from just writing a book.
SLW: Well, thanks for your time!
CF: Thank you!