A Philosophical Conversation With James Morrow

James Morrow

Originally appeared on Literary Kicks, May 5, 2008

As teenagers, James Morrow and his friends made short 8mm movies based on Coleridge and Poe stories. Morrow went on to earn a master’s degree from Harvard University, then published his first novel, The Wine of Violence, in 1981. His latest, The Philosopher’s Apprentice, prompted the Library Journal to compare Morrow to enlightenment luminary Denis Diderot, “A man who believed that literature and philosophy marched hand in hand and who was not afraid to discuss serious matters in a comic tone.”

For his numerous books written between 1981 and 2008, Morrow has received the World Fantasy Award (twice), the Nebula Award (twice), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (once), and the 2005 Prix Utopia at the Utopiales SF Festival in Nantes, France.

Morrow and I discussed his latest two novels. The Last Witchfinder concerns a brave 18th century woman who teams up with Ben Franklin to discredit her zealous father’s persecution of witches. The Philosopher’s Apprentice is the fantastical tale of a graduate student hired to teach morality to a teenage girl with a blank slate for a conscience.

Bill: You once said it took eight years to develop The Last Witchfinder. When you are writing a book, do you ever worry that someone else will have a similar idea and “beat you to the punch”? Is there a battle between taking your time to get it right vs. getting it published before someone else does steals your thunder, like Tesla vs. Marconi?

James: For me, the greatest pleasure of novel-writing is living inside the same fictive world for several years running, playing with its possibilities. The composition process normally finds me drawing inspiration from the cultural mood of the moment, though by the time the book actually sees print that same cultural mood will have shifted. I can easily imagine some posthumous biographer noting that James Morrow always managed to be slightly out of phase with the zeitgeist.

My satire on the Reagan-era arms race, This Is the Way the World Ends, followed in the wake of a half-dozen Armageddon novels. That’s probably one reason my publisher released the novel with no particular fanfare. I like to think my treatment of nuclear war was unique, but Henry Holt never figured out how to make booksellers understand what set This Is the Way the World Ends apart from Riddley Walker or The Postman or Warday. Had the manuscript landed on my editor’s desk a year earlier, it would almost certainly have generated more in-house excitement.

A similar fate befell The Last Witchfinder, which features an unusual fictive take on Benjamin Franklin. While I was writing that novel, the country in general and Philadelphia in particular were gearing up for a Franklin tricentennial — he was born in 1706 — and I had high hopes that these celebrations would offer me some promotional opportunities. Alas, by the time the book appeared, late in 2006, Philadelphia had been “Ben Franklined out,” or so my publicist was told by an impresario who’d spent the past two and a half years organizing Franklin festivities throughout the city.

Presently I’m writing an historical novel about Charles Darwin, who’s been in the news lately. I’m thinking of both the landmark “intelligent design” court case in Dover, Pennsylvania, and the Darwin exhibit that’s been traveling around among the major natural history museums. Once again, I’ll probably miss the critical period for capitalizing on the media attention being accorded my chosen subject. The Darwin brouhaha will peak early next year, in honor of his 200th birthday, and yet my novel won’t be ready until 2010.

Of course, any serious novel is intended to live outside its time, and the writer who rushes to capitalize on the zeitgeist is probably committing artistic suicide. For whatever reasons, This Is the Way the World Ends remains in print, and it’s still taught in several college classes, to students who weren’t even alive when Reagan was rattling his nuclear saber, so in a sense I’m having the last laugh. And I believe that both The Last Witchfinder and the Darwin novel (tentatively titled Galapagos Regained) touch on universal themes, so in theory they’ll attract future generations of readers who won’t especially care how popular these books were when first published.

Bill: You mentioned on your blog that The Philosopher’s Apprentice is, among other things, your homage to Frankenstein, both Mary Shelley’s original novel and the various movies from Universal Studios and Hammer Films. Which of the Hammer Frankenstein films is your favorite and why?

James: When I read your question, Bill, my answer was immediate and instinctual — and yet I’m prepared to defend it. The Revenge of Frankenstein is not as scary as The Curse of Frankenstein, as cleverly plotted as Frankenstein Created Woman, or as emotionally wrenching as Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, and yet it has a cadaverous elegance not found elsewhere in the cycle. Director Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster suffused The Revenge of Frankenstein with a graphic sense of the unhallowed Nietzschean bravado, at once diabolical and darkly glamorous, through which the medical profession established itself in the Regency and Victorian periods. This is a wholly subjective reaction, of course, doubtless informed by the fact that I first saw The Revenge of Frankenstein when I was only thirteen, an age when horror movies are especially resonant.

Bill: In his book The Art of the Novel Milan Kundera speaks of “the truth that is to be discovered,” by which he means that, beyond a writer’s conscious realization of their novel’s theme, there is also, as Kundera says, “The poem hidden somewhere behind.” Kundera calls this discovering of truth in one’s own novel “the dazzlement.” Do you experience this dazzlement when you write a book? That is, of discovering a theme or a variation on your intended theme, which you didn’t anticipate?

James: I regard most of my novels as “thought experiments,” analogous to the Gedanken calculations –unstageable demonstrations conducted entirely within the confines of one’s skull — routinely performed by physicists, cosmologists, and philosophers. It’s never enough simply to ask “What if?” You must actually run the thought experiment. You need to write the damn book. And that usually entails being surprised by the outcome.

No matter how carefully I outline a novel, it will normally get away from me during the composition process — and that is all to the good. If there’s “dazzlement” in the writer, then there will probably be “dazzlement” in the reader. Indeed, the only reason I go to all the trouble of writing fiction is the expectation of discovering some hidden but astonishing potential in the themes and premises with which I’m experimenting.

One of my favorite James Morrow novels, Blameless in Abaddon, finds the hero, Martin Candle, trekking though the brain of a comatose Supreme Being in search of counter-arguments to the great theodicies, a theodicy being a rational explanation for God’s apparent indifference to human suffering. Martin needs these anti-theodicies so he can successfully prosecute the Almighty before the World Court in the Hague. Strangely enough, God proves perfectly willing to make the case for his own depravity. And as I was writing those scenes, I said to myself, “Of course, wow, damn, yes, that’s exactly what a Supreme Being would do. This is God, after all, not some cleric or politician or demagogue. God’s not out to defend his reputation. God’s out to be God.”

The Last Witchfinder involved a similar moment of dazzlement during its gestation. When I outlined the plot, I knew that my heroine, Jennet Stearne, would write a book that effectively critiques “the demon hypothesis.” But I didn’t realize that, to advertise her argument, Jennet would end up posing as a witch and arranging to be put on trial for Satanism in colonial Philadelphia. I was delighted when I stumbled on that idea, because it elevated Jennet to truly heroic stature.

Kundera has evidently articulated all this better than I could. Thank you, Bill, for drawing my attention to his insight.

Bill: We can both thank Jamelah Earle for hipping us to Kundera’s book on novel writing.

Besides the 8mm movies you made in high school, you also made some 16mm films as a young adult. Could you tell me about those films?

James: Most of these films were sponsored efforts celebrating the Philadelphia Cooperative Schools Summer Program, which ran for four successive summers between 1966 and 1969. The idea was to bring together adolescents and pre-adolescents from the public, private, and parochial schools — students, in other words, whose formal educations had heretofore allowed them to interact only with people from similar backgrounds. Nobody was claiming that the racial, economic, and religious diversity of the PCSSP students would prove enlightening per se, but the program’s directors did believe that if you led such a heterogeneous group through a carefully structured humanistic curriculum, they would learn as much from each other as from the formal lessons. I would describe the movies as poetic documentaries that attempted to show how the students grew in self-knowledge over the course of each summer. You’ll find vestiges of my PCSSP experience in The Philosopher’s Apprentice.

But I also made my own independent films during and after this period. The one that springs to mind is a comedy called A Political Cartoon, which I produced with two of my best friends from high school, Joe Adamson and Dave Stone. I suppose this 16mm short foreshadows some of the more outrageous social satire found in This Is the Way the World Ends and The Philosopher’s Apprentice, though it’s a much gentler, less sardonic endeavor than those novels. A Political Cartoon combines live action with animation to tell the story of Peter President, a cartoon character who gets elected to the highest office in the land. It was ultimately released on a VHS anthology from Kino on Video called Cartoongate!, and it’s easily available via various dealers at Amazon.com. By the way, both Joe Adamson and Dave Stone went on to success in Hollywood. Joe won an Emmy for his PBS documentary called W.C. Fields Straight Up, and Dave received an Oscar for cutting the sound on Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula.

Bill: Do you think The Philosopher’s Apprentice fits into the “cyberpunk” category? Do any of your other books fit into the cyberpunk category?

James: I must confess to a certain ambivalence toward cyberpunk. On the one hand, the movement was certainly a breath of … not fresh air, exactly — gritty air, I guess. Gibson, Sterling, Shirley, Cadigan, and company recognized that, for most citizens on planet Earth, the future was not going to be a gleaming utopia of domed arcadias linked by hyper-efficient monorail systems, nor would it be characterized by off-the-shelf jackbooted dystopia. Something else lay in store for us, something urban, grungy, corporate, computer-driven, world-weary, hardbitten, and alluringly noirish. The cyperpunk vision was a real breakthrough, and I salute it.

That said, I have always been much more in the romantic-rationalist camp. It’s difficult to find much affirmation in cyberpunk. I felt that the movement contained the seeds of its own enervation — a kind of unearned cynicism verging on adolescent whining. Nihilism, I find, is often sentimentality by other means. Of course, I’m as vulnerable as anyone to the glamour of the abyss. Several critics have argued that my second novel, The Continent of Lies, features some Gibsonesque conceits, most especially in its use of what we would now call virtual reality. As for The Philosopher’s Apprentice, while it indeed contains some hi-tech cyberpunkian imagery — the ontogenerator is the most conspicuous example — I would say that its sensibility is ultimately humanistic.

Bill: In The Last Witchfinder, when Jennet finds herself surrounded by bottles displaying embryos with birth defects, in the wagon of Dr. Cavendish, it made me think of being down among the unfortunate “unblessed” people, those who would tell the Church, “We are human, too.” It reminded me of the story of when the Buddha left his safe kingdom of his father and walked among the common people. It also reminded me of the bottled people in The Bride of Frankenstein, although I know it’s not the same idea.

James: I’ve always been wary of Christ figures in fiction — it’s too damn easy to create parallels between your protagonist and the hero of the Gospels. Much as I love John Irving’s work, I really thought he dropped the ball with A Prayer for Owen Meany. Beginning with that inversely symbolic name (get it?), in the very first chapter, that damn kid jumps in your lap like a puppy, licks your face, and says, “I’m so eccentric, I’m so vivid, I’m so wise, I’m so pure, I’m so Jesus-like, love me, love me, love me,” and it never lets up, for 543 pages. I much prefer The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules, two edgy masterpieces that never try to sell us on the presumed transcendent truth of the Christian argument. These are strange words, I know, coming from a man who would write a novel like Only Begotten Daughter, which at one level is a sequel to the New Testament. My only defense is that I had some dark, sardonic, passionate, and satiric things to say about the ministry of Jesus, and I could dramatize these ideas only through a kind of low-key allegory. As for The Last Witchfinder, I swear to God, I never thought of Jennet Stearne as a Christ figure until well after the first draft was written. But I think you’re on to something, Bill. My heroine’s fascination with Barnaby Cavendish’s Museum of Wondrous Prodigies, her embrace of those poor bottled freaks – those unblessed people, as you say – does indeed suggest Jesus comforting the damned and the downtrodden. I’m also realizing, for the first time, that Jennet’s love for the deformed embryos parallels a scene in which Julie Katz, protagonist of Only Begotten Daughter, journeys to hell and helps her half-bother, Jesus, give the gift of oblivion to damned souls. I love James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein, so I imagine that Dr. Pretorius’s bottled homunculi may have influenced Barnaby Cavendish’s museum, though I wasn’t conscious of this parallel at the time. It just now occurs to me that the Last Witchfinder embryos foreshadow the immaculoids – the “adult fetuses” in Philosopher’s Apprentice. I guess a novelist is always stealing from himself.

Bill: That mangrove tree still haunts me! For those who haven’t read The Philosopher’s Apprentice, here’s an excerpt from the book about a tree named Proserpine:

 Just then a mild tremor passed through the mangrove’s limbs and roots. Edwina and I exchanged freighted glances.

“You didn’t imagine that,” she said. “I couldn’t excise the entire nervous system without causing death. Every so often, Prosperine shudders.” Curious, I rose and picked my way across the salt water pond, one stepping-stone at a time, then leaned toward the mangrove’s trunk. “She’s breathing,” I said. “Her heart is beating.”

“Vestigial reflexes,” Edwina said. “She’s no longer sentient, I promise you.”

Later, when Edwina encourages the young philosophy student to intervene in her amnesiac daughter’s moral development, the mangrove shudders again, exposed roots vibrating “like the plucked strings of an immense lyre.” Fascinating and chilling. Was the mangrove mainly a mood-setter, or a metaphor for something? Forbidden fruit? Still sentient? Maybe a foreshadowing device? Or just an interesting and creepy addition to the story?

James: You’ve done a great job of articulating every notion that ran through my head when I was drafting the Proserpine scenes. So great, in fact, that I feel no need to answer your questions beyond offering a succession of yeses, and inviting our readers to revisit what you just wrote.

End of Interview    Return to Bill Ectric’s Interview Page     Return to Bill’s Home Page

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The Scattershot Lunacy of Movie Director Richard E. Cunha

Frankenstein's Daughter Movie Poster

Anyone who has visited Bill Ectric’s Place for any length of time knows that I like reading about low budget B movies, especially horror and science fiction. Sometimes watching them can be fun; sometimes reading about them is better than actually watching them. Unless you are either watching them on Mystery Science Theater, or with friends who can appreciate the craziness.

I’ve pretty much read every entry of 1,000 Misspent Hours and Counting, but that’s okay – I just discover a new blog called Radiation Cinema, written by Mykal Banta. There may be other writers on board, but Mr. Banta seems to carry most, if not all, of the weight.

Here’s an especially good review he wrote about Frankenstein’s Daughter (1958). I especially like the beginning and the end of the review, more than the actual synopsis of the film. Sometimes he throws in a good comment during the synopsis, though.

On Frankenstein’s Daughter, he says:

The DNA, that beautiful double helix of genetic instruction, has become seriously degraded in the Frankenstein lineage by the summer of 1958 . . .

. . . And with that, we have touched upon the glory of the maligned, beloved work of  us to Director Richard Cunha, who was at the helm for this enduring, radioactive fragment from the Atomic Age. Say whatever negative you want about Cunha’s work and you will probably be right. Yet his films were never without their own poorly-funded experiments, done in the blink of an eye under the powerful duress of time; all of which produced a kind of scattershot lunacy that simply keeps me riveted. He produced a quartet of drive-in offerings: All made in the span of a single year (1958): She Demons (his best work), Giant of the Unknown, Missile to the Moon, and Frankenstein’s Daughter. I find myself watching these films repeatedly, never for hidden subtext or moments of deepening meaning (there simply aren’t any of those); but more to enjoy the sharp stab and flash of oddball edginess, and something more; a certain connection I find difficult to understand.

Read the entire review here 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Danel Griffin on The Implications of Vlad the Impaler and the Alchemist Dippel’s Fictional Metamorphosis

If you’ve read the About page of Bill Ectric’s Place, you know I’m interested in academic pursuits, and if you’ve read more than a couple of my blog entries, you know my interests include the mysterious, the esoteric, and the Gothic. Imagine my delight at finding this article by Danel Griffin on his Film as Art website.

He begins:

“This thesis proposal initially found its roots in an afterthought, a few years after I read a set of books by one Radu Florescu titled In Search of Dracula and its follow-up In Search of Frankenstein, two fascinating travel books speculating on the actual historical personalities who probably inspired Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley to write their Gothic masterpieces.

Allow me a brief set-up, and then we’ll get to the afterthought that planted the seed: Stoker is widely known (although few people probably know that it was Florescu who first suggested the connection—Clerici, 3) to have based his bloodthirsty Count on the sixteenth-century Wallachian prince Vlad Tepes “the Impaler,” dubbed “Dracula” (meaning “Dragon,” or “Devil”) by his enemies . . . Less widely known but equally fascinating is Florescu’s research on the historical Dr. Frankenstein, one Johann Konrad Dippel, an eighteenth-century alchemist born in Castle Frankenstein whose diabolical experiments included grave-robbing, and grinding up bones and human flesh for life-lengthening potions (Florescu, In Search of Frankenstein, 65-94) (which were never successful). Both of these men were quite notorious in their own times . . .”

Read entire article

Less Electricity, More Elixir of Life!

A screen capture from the 1910 Edison film Frankenstein, with a cropped picture of the creature from an illustration in the 1831 edition of Mary Shelley's classic; framed pictures of Agrippa, Magnus, and Paracelsus; and a Thomas Edison light bulb

All the many Frankenstein movies had left me with the bogus memory that lightning and electrical equipment figured prominently in Mary Shelley’s book. When I recently read Frankenstein again after many years, it surprised me to discover that Shelley barely mentions electricity at all. Victor Frankenstein is vague about the procedure, telling the sea captain who rescued him, “I see by your eagerness, and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret (of creating life); that cannot be: listen patiently until the end of my story, and you will easily perceive why I am reserved upon that subject. “

While a student, Frankenstein finds fault with his university instructor’s emphasis on modern science, preferring the more ancient works of Heinrich Agrippa (1486 – 1535), Paracelsus (1493 – 1541), and Albertus Magnus (1193/1206 – 1280). Agrippa was a magician, occultist, theologian, and astrologer. While Paracelsus contributed to modern medicine and science, young Frankenstein shows more interest in his writings on alchemy and growing miniature people in jars (more on that later). I really like Magnus for his efforts to reconcile religion and science, to show that one need not contradict the other, and his study of Arab philosophers. He also had an interest in alchemy, especially the Philosopher’s Stone, which could supposedly turn common metals into gold. So all-in-all, Victor Frankenstein was leaning toward some arcane influences.

An IEEE article called Galvani and the Frankenstein Story tells us that, “Rather than dabble in science, Mary Shelley wisely leaves it to the reader to imagine the laboratory in which Frankenstein brings his creature to life. In fact, only two sentences in the entire book allude to lightning and the Galvanism theory.”

Some documentaries theorize that Mary Shelley was influenced by a scientist named Johann Konrad Dippel (1673-1734). Born in Germany in an actual Castle Frankenstein, Dippel  is credited with electrical experiments that lead to the modern day heart defibrillator.  But historians point out that Mary Shelley never mentions Castle Frankenstein in the extensive journal she kept of her travels through Germany, nor do any of her traveling companions refer to it in their letters or other writings.

On the other hand, Dipple was famous during his lifetime, and even though he died before Shelley was born, one must ask: Is easier to believe that Mary Shelley decided to name her fictional scientist “Frankenstein” by coincidence, or because she had heard of Dippel and his connection to Castle Frankenstein?

A brief word about Paracelsus: In the 16th Century, he was a radical hero to young medical students because he called the old, outdated doctors “asses” and scoffed at their practices like bleeding,  which often resulted in death. He pioneered the use of chemical medicines, but he angered the academic world by saying things like, “The universities do not teach all things, so a doctor must seek out old wives, gypsies, sorcerers, wandering tribes, old robbers, and such outlaws and take lessons from them.” The bizarre thing is that, despite his rational outlook, Paracelsus also mixed some highly dubious claims into his writing. He had a recipe for creating a tiny living person, which he called a homunculus. In his 1572 book De Natura Rerum (The Nature of Things), he wrote:

“Let the semen of a man putrefy by itself in a sealed cucurbit . . . for forty days, or until it begins at last to live, move, and be agitated . . . at this time it will be in some degree like a human being, but, nevertheless, transparent and without a body. . . if now, after this, it be every day nourished and fed cautiously with the arcanum of human blood, and kept for forty weeks. . .in perpetual heat . . . it becomes thencefold a true living infant, having all the members of a child that is born from a woman, but much smaller. . . should be afterwards educated with the greatest care and zeal, until it grows up and starts to display intelligence.”

Maybe this was a primitive idea of cloning, although Paracelsus’ method seems a bit one-sided, not giving the female egg credit for its far more patient task. This reminds one of the sexual theories in literary analysis regarding the fact that Dr. Frankenstein shut his fiancé out of his life while he was obsessed with his creating a man. I don’t know if Paracelsus had a girlfriend.

Only now have I discovered that the ratio of science to alchemy in Frankenstein may depend on which edition one reads. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was first published in 1818. Another edition, edited under the supervision of William Godwin, came out in 1823, and still another version was published in 1831. Crossref-it.info says that for the 1831 edition, “Shelley removed many of the references to new scientific ideas, thus detaching the novel from its original intellectual context and the issues that were being debated both publicly and in the Byron-Shelley circle.”

It is my understanding that the 1831 edition has been the one most commonly reprinted for several decades. I have just discovered that in 1999, Broadview Literary Texts released  Frankenstein: The Original 1818 Text, edited by D. L. McDonald and Kathleen Scherf, which uses the original 1818 version, with details of later revisions in an appendix. Did I read this edition years ago, or the 1831 version? Only one way to find out.

Another Trip to the World of Westfahl

Over at World of Westfahl, Professor Gary has a relatively new entry in his Biographical Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Film. This one is on film director Erle C. Kenton, whose credits include A Haunted House (short) (1922), Island of Lost Souls (1932), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), and The Cat Creeps (1946).

Westfahl says, “It is strange that director Erle C. Kenton has so long evaded my scrutiny, since at least four of his films are obligatory viewing for any dedicated science fiction or horror fan. But there are interesting reasons for the oversight that merit some exploration, all of them related to the word obligatory.”

Read entire article here

 

uNcAnNy

The word “uncanny” is often used interchangeably with words like “eerie” and “weird.”  After Boris Karloff  portrayed the Frankenstein monster in the classic 1931 movie, he was sometimes billed as “Karloff the Uncanny.” I recently decided to look up the actual definition of uncanny and discovered a treasure trove of cool information, including some psychology from Sigmund Freud and Ernst Jentsch, short stories by E. T. A. Hoffman (especially Der Sandmann), which inspired the likes of Poe, Baudelaire, and Kafka, all the way up to Neil Gaiman’s acclained graphic novel, The Sandman.

Wikipedia describes the concept of uncanny as “an instance where something can be familiar, yet foreign at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange.”

A 1906 essay by Ernst Jentsch called On the Psychology of the Uncanny cites the fiction of German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann as examples of uncanny tales. Sigmund Freud also made extensive references to Hoffman’s work. Both psychologists focused mainly on a macabre little tales called Der Sandmann (The Sandman).

I found Hoffmann’s The Sandman to be a wonderfully bizarre treat, and Thanks to Gaslight, you can read the entire text here.

Hoffman is associated with German Romanticism. He wrote a novelette called The Nutcracker, which was later the inspiration for the famous ballet by Tchaikovsky that has become a Christmas tradition. Hoffmann’s story Das Fräulein von Scuderi  may be the first detective story, coming even before Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

Neil Gaiman‘s Sandman series of graphic novels feature a character created by Morpheus (“the Sandman”) called the Corinthian, who steals the eyes of his victims, similarly to Hoffman’s Sandman. Here is a good source of information on Gaiman’s Sandman: Master of Dreams.

A Graphic Sense of Unhallowed Nietzschean Bravado

As teenagers, James Morrow and his friends made short 8mm movies based on Coleridge and Poe stories. Morrow went on to earn a master’s degree from Harvard University, then published his first novel, The Wine of Violence, in 1981. His latest, The Philosopher’s Apprentice, prompted the Library Journal to compare Morrow to enlightenment luminary Denis Diderot, “A man who believed that literature and philosophy marched hand in hand and who was not afraid to discuss serious matters in a comic tone.”

For his numerous books written between 1981 and 2008, Morrow has received the World Fantasy Award (twice), the Nebula Award (twice), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (once), and the 2005 Prix Utopia at the Utopiales SF Festival in Nantes, France.

Morrow and I discussed his latest two novels. The Last Witchfinder concerns a brave 18th century woman who teams up with Ben Franklin to discredit her zealous father’s persecution of witches. The Philosopher’s Apprentice is the fantastic-science tale of a graduate student hired to teach morality to a teenage girl with a blank slate for a conscience.

Bill: You once said it took eight years to develop The Last Witchfinder. When you are writing a book, do you ever worry that someone else will have a similar idea and “beat you to the punch”? Is there a battle between taking your time to get it right vs. getting it published before someone else steals your thunder?

James: For me, the greatest pleasure of writing novels is living inside the same fictive world for several years running, playing with its possibilities. The composition process normally finds me drawing inspiration from the cultural mood of the moment, though by the time the book actually sees print that same cultural mood will have shifted. I can easily imagine some posthumous biographer noting that James Morrow always managed to be slightly out of phase with the zeitgeist.

My satire on the Reagan-era arms race, This Is the Way the World Ends, followed in the wake of a half-dozen Armageddon novels. That’s probably one reason my publisher released the novel with no particular fanfare. I like to think my treatment of nuclear war was unique, but Henry Holt never figured out how to make booksellers understand what set This Is the Way the World Ends apart from Riddley Walker or The Postman or Warday. Had the manuscript landed on my editor’s desk a year earlier, it would almost certainly have generated more in-house excitement.

A similar fate befell The Last Witchfinder, which features an unusual fictive take on Benjamin Franklin. While I was writing that novel, the country in general and Philadelphia in particular were gearing up for a Franklin tricentennial — he was born in 1706 — and I had high hopes that these celebrations would offer me some promotional opportunities. Alas, by the time the book appeared, late in 2006, Philadelphia had been “Ben Franklined out,” or so my publicist was told by an impresario who had spent the past two and a half years organizing Franklin festivities throughout the city.

 Presently I’m writing an historical novel about Charles Darwin, who’s been in the news lately. I’m thinking of both the landmark “intelligent design” court case in Dover, Pennsylvania, and the Darwin exhibit that’s been traveling around among the major natural history museums. Once again, I’ll probably miss the critical period for capitalizing on the media attention being accorded my chosen subject. The Darwin brouhaha will peak early next year, in honor of his 200th birthday, and yet my novel won’t be ready until 2010.

Of course, any serious novel is intended to live outside its time, and the writer who rushes to capitalize on the zeitgeist is probably committing artistic suicide. For whatever reasons, This Is the Way the World Ends remains in print, and it’s still taught in several college classes, to students who weren’t even alive when Reagan was rattling his nuclear saber, so in a sense I’m having the last laugh. And I believe that both The Last Witchfinder and the Darwin novel (tentatively titled Galapagos Regained) touch on universal themes, so in theory they’ll attract future generations of readers who won’t especially care how popular these books were when first published.

Bill: You mentioned on your blog that The Philosopher’s Apprentice is, among other things, your homage to Frankenstein, both Mary Shelley’s original novel and the various movies from Universal Studios and Hammer Films. Which of the Hammer Frankenstein films is your favorite and why?

James: When I read your question, Bill, my answer was immediate and instinctual — and yet I’m prepared to defend it. The Revenge of Frankenstein is not as scary as The Curse of Frankenstein, as cleverly plotted as Frankenstein Created Woman, or as emotionally wrenching as Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. And yet it has a cadaverous elegance not found elsewhere in the cycle. Director Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster suffused The Revenge of Frankenstein with a graphic sense of the unhallowed Nietzschean bravado, at once diabolical and darkly glamorous, through which the medical profession established itself in the Regency and Victorian periods. This is a wholly subjective reaction, of course, doubtless informed by the fact that I first saw The Revenge of Frankenstein when I was only thirteen, an age when horror movies are especially resonant.

Bill: In his book, The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera speaks of  “the truth that is to be discovered,” by which he means that, beyond a writer’s conscious realization of their novel’s theme, there is also, as Kundera says, “The poem hidden somewhere behind.” Kundera calls this discovering of truth in one’s own novel “the dazzlement.” Do you experience this dazzlement when you write a book? That is, of discovering a theme or a variation on your intended theme, which you did not anticipate?

James: I regard most of my novels as “thought experiments,” analogous to the Gedanken calculations –unstageable demonstrations conducted entirely within the confines of one’s skull — routinely performed by physicists, cosmologists, and philosophers. It’s never enough simply to ask, “What if?” You must actually run the thought experiment. You need to write the damn book. And that usually entails being surprised by the outcome.

No matter how carefully I outline a novel, it will normally get away from me during the composition process — and that is all to the good. If there’s “dazzlement” in the writer, then there will probably be “dazzlement” in the reader. Indeed, the only reason I go to all the trouble of writing fiction is the expectation of discovering some hidden but astonishing potential in the themes and premises with which I’m experimenting.

One of my favorite James Morrow novels, Blameless in Abaddon, finds the hero, Martin Candle, trekking though the brain of a comatose Supreme Being in search of counter-arguments to the great theodicies, a theodicy being a rational explanation for God’s apparent indifference to human suffering. Martin needs these anti-theodicies so he can successfully prosecute the Almighty before the World Court in the Hague. Strangely enough, God proves perfectly willing to make the case for his own depravity. And as I was writing those scenes, I said to myself, “Of course, wow, damn, yes, that’s exactly what a Supreme Being would do. This is God, after all, not some cleric or politician or demagogue. God’s not out to defend his reputation. God’s out to be God.”

The Last Witchfinder involved a similar moment of dazzlement during its gestation. When I outlined the plot, I knew that my heroine, Jennet Stearne, would write a book that effectively critiques “the demon hypothesis.” But I didn’t realize that, to advertise her argument, Jennet would end up posing as a witch and arranging to be put on trial for Satanism in colonial Philadelphia. I was delighted when I stumbled on that idea, because it elevated Jennet to truly heroic stature.

Kundera has evidently articulated all this better than I could. Thank you, Bill, for drawing my attention to his insight.

Bill: Besides the 8mm movies you made in high school, you also made some 16mm films as a young adult. Could you tell me about those films?

James: Most of these films were sponsored efforts celebrating the Philadelphia Cooperative Schools Summer Program, which ran for four successive summers between 1966 and 1969. The idea was to bring together adolescents and pre-adolescents from the public, private, and parochial schools – students, in other words, whose formal educations had heretofore allowed them to interact only with people from similar backgrounds. Nobody was claiming that the racial, economic, and religious diversity of the PCSSP students would prove enlightening per se, but the program’s directors did believe that if you led such a heterogeneous group through a carefully structured humanistic curriculum, they would learn as much from each other as from the formal lessons. I would describe the movies as poetic documentaries that attempted to show how the students grew in self-knowledge over the course of each summer. You’ll find vestiges of my PCSSP experience in The Philosopher’s Apprentice.

But I also made my own independent films during and after this period. The one that springs to mind is a comedy called A Political Cartoon, which I produced with two of my best friends from high school, Joe Adamson and Dave Stone. I suppose this 16mm short foreshadows some of the more outrageous social satire found in This Is the Way the World Ends and The Philosopher’s Apprentice, though it’s a much gentler, less sardonic endeavor than those novels. A Political Cartoon combines live action with animation to tell the story of Peter President, a cartoon character who gets elected to the highest office in the land. It was ultimately released on a VHS anthology from Kino on Video called Cartoongate!, and it’s easily available via various dealers at Amazon.com. By the way, both Joe Adamson and Dave Stone went on to success in Hollywood. Joe won an Emmy for his PBS documentary called W.C. Fields Straight Up, and Dave received an Oscar for cutting the sound on Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula.

Bill: Do you think The Philosopher’s Apprentice fits into the “cyberpunk” category? Do any of your other books fit into the cyberpunk category?

 James: I must confess to a certain ambivalence toward cyberpunk. On the one hand, the movement was certainly a breath of – not fresh air, exactly – gritty air, I guess. Gibson, Sterling, Shirley, Cadigan, and company recognized that, for most citizens on planet Earth, the future was not going to be a gleaming utopia of domed arcadias linked by hyper-efficient monorail systems, nor would it be characterized by off-the-shelf jackbooted dystopia. Something else lay in store for us, something urban, grungy, corporate, computer-driven, world-weary, hard-bitten, and alluringly noirish. The cyperpunk vision was a real breakthrough, and I salute it.

That said, I have always been much more in the romantic-rationalist camp. It’s difficult to find much affirmation in cyberpunk. I felt that the movement contained the seeds of its own enervation – a kind of unearned cynicism verging on adolescent whining. Nihilism, I find, is often sentimentality by other means. Of course, I’m as vulnerable as anyone to the glamour of the abyss. Several critics have argued that my second novel, The Continent of Lies, features some Gibsonesque conceits, most especially in its use of what we would now call virtual reality. As for The Philosopher’s Apprentice, while it indeed contains some hi-tech cyberpunkian imagery (the ontogenerator is the most conspicuous example), I would say that its sensibility is ultimately humanistic.

Bill: In The Last Witchfinder, when Jennet finds herself surrounded by bottles displaying embryos with birth defects, in the wagon of Dr. Cavendish, it made me think of being down among the unfortunate “unblessed” people, those who would tell the Church, “We are human, too.” It reminded me of the story of when the Buddha left his safe kingdom of his father and walked among the common people. It also reminded me of the bottled people in The Bride of Frankenstein, although I know it’s not the same idea.

James: I’ve always been wary of Christ figures in fiction. It’s too damn easy to create parallels between your protagonist and the hero of the Gospels. Much as I love John Irving’s work, I really thought he dropped the ball with A Prayer for Owen Meany. Beginning with that inversely symbolic name (get it?), in the very first chapter, that damn kid jumps in your lap like a puppy, licks your face, and says, “I’m so eccentric, I’m so vivid, I’m so wise, I’m so pure, I’m so Jesus-like, love me, love me, love me,” and it never lets up, for 543 pages. I much prefer The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules, two edgy masterpieces that never try to sell us on the presumed transcendent truth of the Christian argument.

These are strange words, I know, coming from a man who would write a novel like Only Begotten Daughter, which at one level is a sequel to the New Testament. My only defense is that I had some dark, sardonic, passionate, and satiric things to say about the ministry of Jesus, and I could dramatize these ideas only through a kind of low-key allegory.

As for The Last Witchfinder, I swear to God, I never thought of Jennet Stearne as a Christ figure until well after the first draft was written. But I think you’re on to something, Bill. My heroine’s fascination with Barnaby Cavendish’s Museum of Wondrous Prodigies, her embrace of those poor bottled freaks – those unblessed people, as you say – does indeed suggest Jesus comforting the damned and the downtrodden. I’m also realizing, for the first time, that Jennet’s love for the deformed embryos parallels a scene in which Julie Katz, protagonist of Only Begotten Daughter, journeys to hell and helps her half-bother, Jesus, give the gift of oblivion to damned souls.

I love James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein, so I imagine that Dr. Pretorius’s bottled homunculi may have influenced Barnaby Cavendish’s museum, though I wasn’t conscious of this parallel at the time. It just now occurs to me that the Last Witchfinder embryos foreshadow the immaculoids – the “adult fetuses” in Philosopher’s Apprentice. I guess a novelist is always stealing from himself.

Bill: That mangrove tree still haunts me! For those who haven’t read The Philosopher’s Apprentice, here’s an excerpt from the book about a tree named Proserpine:

  Just then a mild tremor passed through the mangrove’s limbs and roots. Edwina and I exchanged freighted glances.

“You didn’t imagine that,” she said. “I couldn’t excise the entire nervous system without causing death. Every so often, Prosperine shudders.”

 Curious, I rose and picked my way across the salt water pond, one stepping-stone at a time, then leaned toward the mangrove’s trunk.

  “She’s breathing,” I said. “Her heart is beating.”

  “Vestigial reflexes,” Edwina said. “She’s no longer sentient, I promise you.”

Later, when Edwina encourages the young philosophy student to intervene in her amnesiac daughter’s moral development, the mangrove shudders again, exposed roots vibrating “like the plucked strings of an immense lyre.”

Fascinating and chilling. Was the mangrove mainly a mood-setter, or a metaphor for something? Forbidden fruit? Still sentient? Maybe a foreshadowing device? Or just an interesting and creepy addition to the story?

James: You’ve done a great job of articulating every notion that ran through my head when I was drafting the Proserpine scenes. So great, in fact, that I feel no need to answer your questions beyond offering a succession of yeses, and inviting our readers to revisit what you just wrote.”

                                                                ~ End ~