Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Talking with Erec Stebbins About His Writing...His Books...and World Issues In His Fantastic Novels!

I'm so happy to have had the opportunity to meet and get to know Erec Stebbins, author extraordinaire, here at  Book Readers Heaven. His latest book, Extraordinary Retribution, is just out and is somewhat of a sequel to his Debut thriller, The Ragnarok Conspiracy...

Erec, Chris Brookmyre, an author that was quoted on the back of your book, used the word "subversive" in his review blurb for The Ragnarok Conspiracy... I was intrigued that you used it on the cover of your novel... Do you see your first book as subversive?
To begin, the main reason I used Chris' quote was the incredible enthusiasm he had for the story. It's not often one gets called "outrageously entertaining". He also uses the word "compassionate". So, "subversively compassionate" might work!

To be fair, subversive is a bit strong given the traitorous connotations often associated with the word. My books always come from a sincere perspective of writing for a better nation and better treatment of people more in lines with the Bill of Rights. Sometimes, however, that puts my perspective in conflict with that of many who believe their approach and actions are protecting the nation. Therefore, my words might be considered as an effort to "subvert" that position. Since these others also earnestly believe their approaches to security are indeed protecting the nation, it's a simple logical deduction that I am a "subversive".

Of course, my response is that one could argue that many of the things America has done that I implicitly or explicitly critique in my novels, in fact "subvert" the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Things like indefinite detention, torture, denial of right to trial, execution without a trial, etc: I find these things far more subversive of America than anything I have dreamed to write. In some ways, if we continue down this path, those who wish to destroy America may achieve that far more deeply by inducing us to burn our Bill of Rights than by killing us.

I knew there was a reason I've become a fan... In truth, I've become more subversive in my retirement than ever before, maybe because I have the time to see things clearly! I certainly agree with what you've said... 

I was also intrigued that you acknowledged Javed Ahmad, the individual I consider your main character in Extraordinary Retribution, in your formal "Acknowledgments" in the book. I don't think I've ever seen that done. Further, you state that you "heard his voice (and others) and could not get it out of your mind, calling the book an exorcism...

Now I "kinda" know what you meant, but are you willing to be more specific related to this book being an exorcism?
Two topics here, I think, and I'll try to deal with each in its turn.

(1) Acknowledging a character

Javed Ahmad, a.k.a. the wraith, is not so much acknowledged as mentioned as someone who could have existed. He is a composite of several real men - with several heapings of imagination -  who were rendered and tortured and then released without anything ever being charged against them. In some rare cases, there was some admission of "mistakes" by the authorities. 

But what is labeled by some as "collateral damage" that is unavoidable in a war (on terror), is to the unjustly tormented a far more personal reality. I tried to put myself in their shoes. I felt a desire for revenge in that scenario. That gave birth to a character in my mind who demanded punishment, who burned in a madness of wrath for the injustice that was done, and then took it upon himself to become the agent of retaliation.

I mentioned this in the acknowledgment to help explain the genesis of the novel, and to point out that just because it has not happened (such revenge) doesn't mean it didn't have to, or still won't in the future.

Finally, I'll also just point out that in Reader I dedicate the novel to an imaginary character, Ambra Dawn. Due to the nature of that story, there are a lot of fun recursive mind-games in that, but I'll let the readers discover it on their own.

(2) Exorcism of characters

For me, characters with lasting power - the kind that generate full length novels - are ghosts haunting my awareness. We all carry multiple versions of ourselves in our minds, and those who have acted on the stage know what it is like to "assume character," to become someone often utterly different from ourselves. How do we do that? I think the answer science is revealing is that there is no single locus of "personhood" in the brain, and that in fact the seemingly unified "mind" that comes from the physiological construct of the brain is more an illusion than a reality. What we call ourselves is the interaction of multiple and distinct mental regions that reveal themselves in neurological studies often to have "minds of their own," so to speak. I think artists channel this truth and that lets them assume characters in drama or write it in books or convey moods etc in the graphics arts and music. We're basically high-functioning multiple personalities!

When characters take a life of their own in my mind, they speak, act, and I imagine actions they undertake. Sometimes those personalities stay with me a long time, and telling their story is a way to get them out of my mind, down on the paper, so that the story is told and done with. That is what I mean by "exorcism". Like the ancient idea of a being infiltrating the soul/mind of another, and being removed or excised, there is something a little bit like that with writing down the stories of characters that "burn" with passion in my own. And after one hundred thousand words, multiple rewrites, critiques, etc - believe me, I am very ready to move on from the character at last!
Let's hope and pray that Javad never becomes a real individual, but do you see a correlation, to some extent, to those who become suicide bombers?
I think the roots of something so extreme as a suicide bomber are very hard to get at. It overrides so many strong biological imperatives that it's amazing it happens at all. That is to distinguish it from "in the moment" self-sacrifice, which one can explain away more easily. But premeditated murder and suicide, premeditated self-destruction when there is often months to years to back out of it - that requires a level of override in the brain, a fanaticism so powerful. However, the thing people often fail to appreciate is that the bomber is always "striking a blow" for something. Might that be pure revenge? Possibly, although there need not be suicide with that - why not just a bomber? I think the suicide bomber has to combine (1) a consuming anger, (2) a sense of helplessness to achieve goals even through normal violent means, and (3) a religious justification, transcendence that allows their minds to override the "I'm killing myself" by the thought that this is not really the case, that heaven awaits and thus their existence is not truly ending. That's my dime store psychological take on it anyway.

So to summarize, I would say that pure vengeance isn't near enough to make a wronged person a suicide bomber (except perhaps on a very short term "crime of passion" type reaction).

Erec, do you feel that The Patriot Act, is part of where your concern comes from? Certainly what happened in this book "could" have evolved from its implementation?
Even the name, Patriot Act, has a kind of Orwellian ring to it. How can you be against something with that name? Unless of course there are things that are very unpatriotic about it. For The Ragnarök Conspiracy, the genesis was the conflict of the two opposing forces in the narrative, and my own identification with each one after 9/11. But the backdrop to so much, and the character of Husaam Jordan - a devoted Muslim CIA agent - is very much tied to the Patriot Act, or, more broadly, the fearful mindset that gave birth to it. When we curtail basic rights in the name of security, we are not patriots, we are setting fire to the foundational principles of this nation. Similarly, when we demonize a group of people out of fear and treat innocents as guilty because of that, we are ignoring the protections against tyranny that informed the formation of this nation. In Extraordinary Retribution, that backdrop is taken to a logical conclusion in two ways. One is the idea of our committing wrongs against innocents out of our fear (engendering a backlash), and the second is powerful people with access to the new laws we have put in place  - these security laws designed to protect us when used with the best intentions - whose intentions are less than the best. We erect this Patriot Act/NSA/drone assassination infrastructure at the peril of generations to come.
Whew! Well said! Let's hope more people begin to speak out...and more importantly, Americans and those involved realize what is happening...
Somewhere I read that your range of genre writing is based upon issues for which you are passionate...Could I ask that you delve into that deeper as well:

As I mentioned The Ragnarök Conspiracy, it was the attacks of 9/11 that engendered two divergent responses within me. One could easily be summarized with the question I often asked: "Why hasn't there been an American bin laden?" There are many rich and powerful Americans who could stage and fight their own war in the world much like the former Saudi royalty. A character grew in my mind along these lines, and a counterpart - both having suffered losses on 9/11, both taking opposing paths that bring them into conflict on the world stage. 

In Extraordinary Retribution, I took some of my own anger and disgust at the suspension of basic rights and the use of "enhanced interrogation" (hello again, Orwell!) - in other words, torture of many kinds beyond water boarding - and combined those with a horror at those innocents that were rendered to dark cells at "black sites" across the world. It always astounds me that people will rail against government incompetence or threat, talk about health care or food stamps like it was some Armageddon-like scenario, and yet these same people will entrust the same government with far more frightening things such as the right to kill, to kidnap (extraordinary rendition), to torture, to wage war based on evidence that everyone should have seen was more full of holes than Swiss cheese. When is down, it's a problem. When innocents are rendered to Syria - without trial, due process, rights of any kind, detained indefinitely, tortured, perhaps even killed - we have legalized the transferal of one of the outer layers of Hell to Earth. All these things came together in the character of a tortured innocent who brought the wrath of justice to point of madness. Combined with disillusioned but honorable members of the government who pursue justice, a story plays out in which some of the darker possibilities that might arise from our security compromises come to life.
Exactly, we are instinctively selfish and worry about what affects us, but then when something happens, a tornado, for instance, Americans rush in to help... What I just don't understand is why they can't see the present--the daily abuse of the rights of those innocents, including for instance American teens who are being kidnapped into human trafficking. How can we spent money on wars such as Iraq and yet have our own citizens stolen?
I think there are many reasons why we ignore evil (when we aren't busy participating in it, sadly!). And yes, to some degree, it is all about selfishness. Ignoring human rights violations in the war on terror often comes because of fear and the idea that we need to do bad things to be safe. It puts our well-being over the well-being of others. "I don't care about the Geneva conventions and terrorists!" many shout. But the point is - and surely people know this but don't want to know it - that until there is a trial, until some sort of due process comes into play - not kidnappings, confessions from torture, indefinite detention without due process - we actually don't know if the people we are tormenting have done anything wrong. And it's clear in some publicized cases that they haven't. People scream about the horrors of government incompetence or corruption for welfare or healthcare, but want to hand to the government the power to judge without jury, jail without hearing, torture, and kill by decisions made behind closed doors?

"Collateral damage," some respond, "is the price of war." That is always true, and yet always evil. Just because wrongful death is the only way (often necessary) wars can be won doesn't mean the wrongs are "absolved." Tell that to the wounded and dead, and their mourners, before the Judgment. But in this case it goes beyond that ethical problem. When we set up a state machinery that is given the green light to risk great wrong through rights violations, we tempt the fates that this system will be co-opted and used against us all. And that comes out in Extraordinary Retribution as well.

My science fiction stories are drawn from a very different well, but require no less passion, no less characters that haunt my mind, than my thrillers (or any of my stories). Reader, the first novel in the Daughter of Time series, was born when Ambra Dawn started speaking to me on the shores of Greece. I had been letting my imagination run wild to create a story for my teen-aged daughters. I wanted a female protagonist that would have amazing adventures, unusual ones, and of course she would have to save the world! That's the best I can map it out: suddenly a story and a voice began to form in my mind, one that took on several iterations over a few years until something consistent came together (and my daughters had grown up quite a bit over that time, and the tone of the story changed). Ambra Dawn needed me to tell her harrowing story, and so I did.

Fifteen years ago, I wrote a novella called Junk Man. This is technically my first book, although The Ragnarök Conspiracy was my first published book. When I wrote Junk Man, it was in the 1990's, I was knee-deep in graduate school studying biochemistry, and I didn't imagine that much about publishing it. But again, I had to write it. This idea also came to me while in Greece (my wife is Greek, and our children spent many summers there with the family). Laying awake at night, the two central characters in the story suddenly came into being in my mind, and spoke and acted, and told their story over several days. I just had to write it down. 

My storybook, The Caterpillar and the Stone, is perhaps the most personal of all the books I have published. Written as a short story again in the 1990's, it is an exploration of a personal loss that transformed my life in a number of ways - a real monsoon of emotion and confusion. I tried many ways to deal with it over the years (with only partial success). One way was to create a myth, or fairytale version of events, and let some of the issues I was struggling with play out as metaphors. It sat around for nearly two decades and then with the modern miracle of digital publishing, I decided to turn it into an illustrated storybook. One big problem was that I can't draw to save my life. What I ended up doing was running some photographs I've taken over the years through digital processing to give them an illustrated look. A bit hit-or-miss, but I was satisfied with the result. 

Erec, your professional career is in the sciences--did any of your scientific knowledge and background lead to your writing? More specifically, what did happen to get you started to write? Has it been a recent experience or were you always thinking about stories to share?

I would say my interest in writing and interest in sciences developed around the same time. I might actually trace both of them back to a great communicator and author who was also a scientist: Carl Sagan. From the time I read his book Cosmos as a twelve year-old on cross-country trips, I became hooked on ideas and expressing ideas. This led me to science fiction especially, and I found the mind-opening worlds of some of the great writers of that genre to be very inspiring. So, I would say that my work as a scientist and writer have always been in parallel. Of course, being finite, it is a challenge to do both and there have been periods in my life when it was impossible to pursue everything that I wanted to. But as the old books I mentioned show, even in the midst of some of the most intense scientific research in my life, I also wrote. 

In The Ragnarok Conspiracy, we find what you referred to as the American bin Laden--and his followers. Besides the obvious assumption that he was evil, there seems to also be a parallel in your story illustrating that a leader's passion, gone wrong, does not mean an entire country, religion, or any type of group can become synonymous with that of the larger group from which they come. Obviously we Americans would not want to be "tagged" along with those who looked to Thor's Hammer for their terrorist actions. Am I also correct in assuming that we Americans also cannot tag all Muslims as followers of bin Laden?
I'm probably one of the least "tribal" people I know. I see good and bad not only in all cultures, but in each individual. I also take a long view of civilizations, remembering that it was during the European Dark Ages that Muslims kept the light of knowledge burning, that it was less than 100 years ago that we deigned to allow 50% of our population to vote, less than 150 years ago that enslaving human beings was legal in this nation. It is indeed simply looking within myself that I can understand how easily Americans could be terrorists like bin Laden: after 9/11 I felt wronged, and the crimes William Gunn perpetrates in the novel are ideas I easily came up with for revenge. So, my ideas of the unity of humanity - that we are all far more alike than different - truly come from seeing into the darkness of my own heart, and, not too differently, the anger and fear that seethes in the comments, actions, and attitudes of my fellow citizens. The steps to large-scale evil are never short and simple, and each step appears justified to the one taking that path. it reminds me of Saruman's speech to Gandalf in Fellowship of the Ring:

"We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means."

Innocent until proven guilty. Trial by jury. No cruel and unusual punishment. We are threatening those means. And it is my belief that the ends don't justify the means, but the means give birth to the ends.

More importantly, Erec, why does it take somebody and everybody to say this type of truth over and over and some still will not accept that... Do you have some thoughts on that?
I've always sympathized with Pontus Pilate asking Jesus: "What is truth?" And yet, to quote from the Lord of the Rings again: "'Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves, and another among Men."  I have a strong strain of "radical doubt" that runs through my thoughts of truth and ethics. I often wonder "what is truth?" and yet at the same time feel passionate about "what is right?" So, I'm not sure I'm right. But I feel I am. That doesn't answer your question, but I feel especially unqualified to judge the state and motivation of others especially when I so doubt myself. I can only speak to what I believe. 
Erec, I feel like I've met a friend with similar "multiple personalities"! Except, I've only come to similar thoughts now in my 60s! I'm thrilled to know that there are young people who are looking with opened minds at where America may be going... One of my personalities also has developed that "radical doubt" and it is haunting me often--maybe more so than you, since I've always been faithful to Christian beliefs. Those who speak with forked tongue on behalf of religion are so obviously creating or initiating actions which just are so wrong, that the whole basis of faith has been corrupted for me and perhaps others…
I try to keep separate the idea of revealed religious truth and the actions and words of people. Of course, it's hard to, because it's usually people who are claiming to know, speaking for a Divinity about what is truth. And it seems hardly even two people can agree! I also try to separate cultural constructs/fads/biases from what a given religion may or may not be saying. There are many Islams depending on whether you are in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, India, or the United States. There are many Christianities. The common theme is that a given group tends to reflect the cultural norms around them in their interpretation and practice of a given faith. Not that this is anything new. The warnings against "false prophets" is an old one. But maybe the better guide is not so intellectual: "By their fruits will they be known."

Again, well said...
Your thoughs to create a scifi for your daughters is somewhat surprising for me, since I see it more as an adult book--and you surely can't have adult children, LOL! Your use of psychic parents--obviously leads me to ask, simply, do you believe that there are some people with psychic abilities? Kidnapping children from across the world surely would have been noticed by the law at some point? Or was there no real law enforcement at the time of your story?

My daughters were middle schoolers when I started writing Reader. Now the oldest is about to head to college. So, I had initially aimed for a Young Adult novel. But the tone irked them, and I realized that "writing down" to kids is rarely a good idea. So I rewrote the novel trying to let it tell its story. Some of the initial tone remains, especially in the earlier chapters, but it gets darker and more adult quickly. Perhaps a kind of The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings transition!

As for psychic abilities, it depends on what one means as to what I think. If there is a supernatural world - a reality outside the physical world a naturalist would consider "the real" but that can enter into this bubble of reality, then all bets would of course be off. I would say that in my life I have not seen it. But I have seen a lot of charlatans. So, as Carl Sagan said, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." I've never even seen remotely "ok" evidence so I remain a skeptic (with an open mind). But I like this quote from Lovecraft:

"What do we know … of the world and the universe about us? Our means of receiving impressions are absurdly few, and our notions of surrounding objects infinitely narrow. We see things only as we are constructed to see them, and can gain no idea of their absolute nature. With five feeble senses we pretend to comprehend the boundlessly complex cosmos, yet other beings with wider, stronger, or different range of senses might not only see very differently the things we see, but might see and study whole worlds of matter, energy, and life which lie close at hand yet can never be detected with the senses we have."

So I combine both an emotional "mysticism" with an intellectual "skepticism." Since both in the naturalistic world view come from the same squishy organ called my brain, I really have no way to say which garners truth better. But I think I tend to side with Olaf Stapledon in this quote from Last and First Men:

“There is much in this vision that will remind you of your mystics; yet between them and us there is far more difference than similarity, in respect both of the matter and the manner of our thought. For while they are confident that the cosmos is perfect, we are sure only that it is very beautiful. While they pass to their conclusion without the aid of intellect, we have used that staff every step of the way. Thus, even when in respect of conclusions we agree with your mystics rather than your plodding intellectuals, in respect of method we applaud most your intellectuals; for they scorned to deceive themselves with comfortable fantasies.”

You indicated that Ambra will also become a Writer in the future.... as the Daughter of Time. For those who have not yet read Reader and to give us a little insight on your next novel, how would you explain what being a Writer and Reader of Time means, for purposes of your novels?
In the Daughter of Time series, I use a conceit (in the literary sense of the word) that the dynamics of space and time (tied together to matter and gravity by Einstein), much like electromagnetism, can be sensed by biological organs. Our eyes can detect electromagnetic waves, producing the amazing vision that we have, which gives us tremendous power over the environment around us. For space and time, I imagine that such organs can also evolve in lifeforms, and has begun to do so in humans. My protagonist in Reader, Ambra Dawn, is unusual in that this nascent space-time "eye" in the brain - a minor cyst in a small percentage of the population, weak and hardly useful - has become overgrown because of her genetics. She has a benign, but large, tumor in this region. Therefore, the sense organ is dramatically developed beyond other humans, and, as it turns out, beyond all the other alien species in our galaxy. This vision in space and time allows her to see in to the past and future - perhaps somewhat like we can gaze far and near - making her prescient. The term used in Ambra's time for such people is "Reader", as in reading the future.

But even in the novel Reader, Ambra goes beyond this. She is able to alter space and time. Perhaps like a bioluminescent fish that sees photons through its eyes but also produces photons that change the visual landscape around it, she is able to change space and time through her unique organ. She goes beyond reading, to writing, changing the nature of space and time. She is the first Writer, and that is the name of the second novel. But she is not all-powerful. Like the glowing fish, altering the universe requires energy, and she is just an Earth woman in most respects. In fact, it is the energy problem that informs the unusual ending of Reader.
One of the reasons I so admire many writers is your (and others) abilities to take knowledge of science, math, physics, etc., and adapt it into a story that we who lack that extensive background, can still understand and learn from! All three of your novels captured my attention, yet in so many different ways... It seems so small in comparison for me to say, well done! But...
Can you give us some idea when Writer will be available for your fans? Also, has your passion honed in on a new topic and are you working on something you are able to share with us?
My hope is to publish Writer this coming summer, 2014, perhaps in September. I have several other novels - thriller, scifi, and some very different things - that are in the queue, but time limits how much can be accomplished!

Erec, thanks once again for spending such great quality time here at Book Readers Heaven. Your attention and response to my simple non-scientific questions are greatly appreciated, while at the same time you've revealed such  mastery exhibited in all three of the novels I've had the opportunity to read thus far. Ambra touched me as a character, so I'm looking forward to reading Writer! Don't forget to keep in touch!


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