This is the second part of a conversation between author Benjamin X. Wretlind and myself. Please see Part 1 here.
MKR: Besides leaving a legacy through your writing, is there anyone you hope to inspire? Is there any message you hope to convey, any ideas you want to put out into the world?
BXW: I think you touched on a sort of running theme when you interviewed me way back when. I like to say people are the sum total of their experience and if we just look at the outside, we'll never really understand them. That often leads to stereotypes, discrimination and even bullying. For example, in each sketch in my novel Sketches from the Spanish Mustang, there is one man who is seen through the eyes of each character. Most assume he's a crazy nut, a homeless man who talks to himself. However, there's a very long history to that man--war vet, disabled, wife and child, etc. Why does he act in a particular way, and why does he appear the same, yet different, in strangers' eyes?
I used to think people were generally bad. There was no good in them, so why bother to understand them. The older I get, however, the more I've started to see each person as that sum total of their history. If that's the case, if I interact with that person don't I become another summand in their equation? Shouldn't I want to instill something of value to their present?
I do have a lot to say on this subject, but I'll leave it at that right now. For your part in writing science fiction, what do you want people to see in your characters? Do you have a central theme you're running off right now?
MKR: When one is a child, it seems that everything and everyone is good and beautiful. Sadly, some children learn too soon that that is not the case, like Maggie, in Castles. I think that as we age the misery in the world overshadows the beauty of it. We may remember a beautiful spring day for a short while, but we'll really remember the tornado that took out ten houses the next block over and swept a family of four into oblivion. A kindness done to us by a fellow human being may linger in our memory for a day, but an act of vicious cruelty can haunt us for a lifetime. I fully understand, then, the inclination to see people as inherently evil, especially considering the influence of Christianity on our culture that very explicitly states that the reason we no longer reside in Paradise is because of our wickedness. And it was this view of humanity as inherently base, as our bodies essentially worthless when weighed against the immortal soul, that led to the terrible conditions of Medieval Europe during which most everyone's life was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," to quote Thomas Hobbes. And the worst part was, that was accepted!
In my view, it really took Enlightenment thinking, humanism and deism, to introduce to the Western world the idea that every human life has worth, every human being deserves to live peacefully and free of oppression. Here was an idea that if there is no immortal soul, if this body, this life, is all we have, how can any one of us justify bringing misery to another human being? We still haven't achieved the ideal of the Enlightenment but we are much closer and at least now the goal is there, where before there was only doom and gloom.
I love your view of human interaction. Yes, we each play a part in the lives of everyone else we encounter. Some of these roles may seem trivial but suppose it is something as simple as smiling at a stranger who looks sad? We may have brought a little joy, a little hope, to that person. We must always attempt to give value to one another's lives rather than take value from them. This is the foundation for forming a more-ideal society.
Now, after all that, I will answer your question. I realize I do go on. You asked "...in writing science fiction, what do you want people to see in your characters? Do you have a central theme you're running off right now?" In Sullivan's War, I hope that readers go away asking two very simple questions: what makes a man good? and what makes a man bad? This is touched on in Book I but explored in more depth in Book II. I don't have an answer for that. I am reminded of the difference between morality and ethics: if one is moral in the Christian sense, one does not lie. So, if one were living in Nazi Germany and a Jew ran by followed by the SS who asked which way he went, you would have to tell them the truth to remain moral. But if you are to be ethical, you must lie and send them in the wrong direction. I know situational ethics get a bad rep and I do believe there are universal ethical laws, just as there are universal physical laws. But it's something to think about. To whom do you owe your ethical fealty?
Another idea I explore in Sullivan's War is that of justification. Is it acceptable to do a "bad" thing if it ultimately leads to a greater good? In your stories, it seems your characters engage in an awful lot of justification but of a more personal, selfish kind. This also interests me. We seem to be able to justify an awful lot if it serves our own greater good. Counteracting this is one of the key challenges of society, I think. Is this a theme you have intentionally been exploring in Sketches from the Spanish Mustang?
BXW: I don't know if that internal justification is a subconscious result of turning 40, but Sketches from the Spanish Mustang is filled with it. I'd like to think I've been impervious to middle age, but the more I write, the more I realize I'm probably not. I really enjoy exploring a character's inner child, what makes them who they are. In A DifficultMirror, which I started when I turned 28, actually, the history of a person is forced out in the open and how they deal with whatever mistakes they've made is explored in depth. That's dark fantasy, however, not reality. In reality, we all have our skeletons, our histories we hide away so no one can see. However, no matter what we do, we are the sum total of our parts and we can either accept what we've done or try to justify it in some way.
As I sit here talking about this, I realized that the characters in my upcoming novel Driving the Spike must justify their actions. Are they good, are they bad? Much like you explored in Sullivan'sWar, there is a difference between morality and ethics. Did you start out with that theme before you penned the first word of Sullivan's War or did it come out as you wrote it?
MKR: It evolved. Sullivan's War started as the story about Frank Allen investigating the murder of Assemblyman Gene Palmer. From there it got tied in to Sergeant Riley's Account, then a third story I had written called "Promises," the story of a bounty hunter tracking down a criminal, got incorporated into the beginning of Sullivan's War: Book II. Now, early on I must have decided that Sullivan's War would address these issues of right and wrong because the title All Good Men Serve the Devil was there from nearly the beginning. I actually wrote out a bit of dialogue to incorporate that line before I got to that scene in the book. By the time Book I was finished, however, I felt that it was heavy on action but character development and exploration of theme were a bit lacking. I attempted to correct that with Book II.
My next project, Chrysopteron, started a bit aimlessly but as I wrote the overarching theme began to reveal itself. It was at that point that I wrote an outline to make sure I hit on all the thematic points I wanted to address: hope, loss, faith, sacrifice, right and wrong (again). I ended up shuffling the organization a bit and added another story line but the thematic structure remained intact. I hope readers will pick up on it and appreciate what I am trying to do. Of course, the reader applies additional meaning based on his or her own perceptions. I think the best authors are able to convey their own meaning but be subtle enough about it that the reader happens upon it without explicitly being told. But I guess some readers will completely miss the point, no matter what you do. Do you worry that readers will completely miss the point of your work? Do you care, as long as they pull some meaning from it? Or are you even content for your work to be perceived as just an interesting story, with the reader taking nothing away?
BXW: I really don't worry about what readers get out of my novels, as long as they get something. There's a meme that's been passed around regarding meaning that you've probably seen. "What the author meant" vs. "What your English teacher thinks the author meant." While I can laugh at the simplicity of the author's statement ("The curtains were blue") and the teacher's meaning ("The curtains represent his immense depression and his lack of will to carry on"), I find this meme more telling of what literary snobs think we should get from a novel. For example, if the New York Times says Castles reeks of abuse and discord, then to me they didn't get it. Conversely, if the Colorado Springs Gazette says Castles is a view into the growth of a woman through abuse and neglect and carefully questions how environment can affect genetic mutations in the brain, then I think they're pretty close. Now, what do my readers come away with? I would hope the literary snobs don't mutate my message, and I hope I write it clear enough that it sinks in with the masses.
I've been very focused on the themes presented in Sketchesfrom the Spanish Mustang. As I mentioned before, it's important to me that I impart the idea that people are the sum total of their days and not just a present manifestation with or without obvious merit. I do worry the message won't reach the reader, but all I can do is try.
Do you ever worry?
MKR: Do I worry about the message not reaching the reader? I wouldn't say I worry, per se, but I do make a point of writing afterwords for my major works. I do this not so the readers "gets it" but because I want to communicate with the readers on a more personal level. I want them to know what went into creating the story, the inspirations, etc. I think that knowing these things does enrich a text.
I like how the focus of much of your work is trying to make the point that a person is the sum of his or her experiences. It's a profound message, and yet so simple. For example, I am the product of very fortunate circumstances. Because of where and when and to whom I was born, I have been able to cultivate a life of ease and comfort in which I can spend a great deal of my time writing, reading, traveling, focusing on art, philosophy, etc. rather than worrying about where my next meal is going to come from. Reading about the problems that the characters in Sketches from the Spanish Mustang face really reinforces how good my life is, how petty my problems.
Do you think that you are trying to point humanity (or America, at least) in a different direction? Do you want readers to go away thinking that if people are the sum of their experiences, perhaps society as a whole could do something to make some of those experiences more positive? Or is it up to individuals to engage one another and help their fellow human beings along?
BXW: Afterwords are often my favorite part of a book, and I really enjoy reading them. James Rollins typically puts in a fact or fiction section at the end based on his research. I know it sounds petty, but that's cool.
I really never thought my writing could point America or the world toward any lofty goal, however I would like to reach at least one person. It's very important I leave a mark on someone's life, whether or not that's with Sketches from the Spanish Mustang, Castles, the upcoming A Difficult Mirror or the next novel I'll start working on this summer. That next novel--Driving the Spike--is probably going to be the closet I get to pointing humanity at anything, but I sincerely doubt it'll have the lofty impact I want it to have.
I think there's something to be said about a person who engages another without expectation of reward, and even the smallest attempt to help another can make the biggest impact. To help without expectation of reward, I truly believe, makes a man (or woman). Most of us drop money into the Salvation Army bucket during the holiday season, but how many take a full Saturday and sort donations in a food bank warehouse or stand on a serving line at a soup kitchen or walk ten miles for autism research? These things are small and there is no reward save the feeling you get for helping. Sadly, there are a lot of people who don't look at life this way; they expect something tangible in return for their effort--getting paid to be a foster parent, getting a t-shirt from a MS walk, showing off some certificate from the two hours they did something for someone. Helping shouldn't be like that.
I guess I got on my soapbox again. I tend to do that.