Monday, April 26, 2010

[Interview] J. Robert King -- Angel of Death

Who: J. Robert King

Bio: J. Robert King is the award-winning author of over twenty novels, most recently The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls and the Mad Merlin trilogy. Fifteen years ago, Rob founded the Alliterates, a cabal of writers in the Midwest and West Coast of the U.S. Rob also often takes to the stage, starring in local productions such as The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) and Arsenic and Old Lace. He lives in Wisconsin with his lovely wife, three brilliant sons, and three less-than brilliant cats.

J. Robert King’s novels have exceeded his fingers and toes, which is reason to stop counting them. The novels—not the fingers and toes. When he got down to seventeen, he realized he should keep better track.

J. Robert King has always wanted to be either a novelist or an artist. He decided to become a novelist because he could buy a ream of paper for five bucks but couldn’t buy even a tube of paint for that much. At the time, he didn’t realize that artists get to work with naked models.

Works: Angel of Death, Mad Merlin Trilogy, Shadow of Reichenbach Falls

Why: Part of my undying Angry Robot Love Fest & because J. Robert King is a brilliant author I wanted to learn more about.


HM: Mister King, it is a pleasure to have you sitting in my cozy virtual chair here at Temple Library Reviews. Thank you for accepting my invitation, because I am in awe with ‘Angel of Death’. What triggered the lifelong addiction to sit in front of a screen and type pending LCD-induced hallucination?

JRK: Ah, Mister Markov, the pleasure is all mine.

I think you are onto something with the LCD addiction. First, I loved books. Fair enough. But then I got a paper cut, so I switched to ebooks. And then I thought, “I'm already reading a book on a computer. I might as well write a book there.” And then I published a book and got tweets from tweeps and found myself surrounded by efriends.

It's not that they aren't real friends. If I cut them, they will still bleed. But I can't cut them because they are sitting four thousand miles away at a seventy-three degree angle. I know, you're thinking—just get a sword that is four thousand miles and one foot long and cut them anyway. I thought of that, but you're forgetting about the curvature of the Earth. So that's the obsession that has led me to write books and have efriends—safety from cuts.

Also, of course, it's the cost savings. To read a book costs between $8 and $30, but to write a book costs nothing. So I write books. It's a way to scrimp. And if I say to a friend, “Hey, let me take you to a movie,” I could end up paying between $10 and $50 depending on the amount of popcorn. But for an efriend, I can say, “Hey, look at this movie:,” and I have taken that friend to a movie for no price at all. I've taken thousands of efriends out to the emovies and they must buy their own epopcorn.

Yes, I am very much like the Angel of Death in that we both are cheap bastards.

HM: Is your name really King or have you cleverly [and dastardly] taken upon this penname to lure unsuspecting readers to your books?

JRK: My name really is King.

It was confusing when I was young, because teachers would call the roll in the morning and come to my name and shout “King, John?” Of course, King John was the usurping idiot who was always pantsed by Robin Hood, so I was too embarrassed to say, “Here.” I tried to make up a cover story, such as, “He's off at the crusades.” The teacher then would glower at me and say, “Does he have a note?” I would reply coolly, “The Saracens gave him one, but it was all scribbles.”

The name King was also confusing because the neighbors had an old, arthritic dog named King. He would come over and stand in our gravel driveway and shudder. I would glance dubiously at my father, who had given me the name King, and ask if I could be something else—you know, Prince, Duke, Viscount, Exchequer—but he insisted on King. I said, “That's the name of that stupid old arthritic dog!” But my dad said, “Son, there was a time when the name King meant something. The king was the lord of the land. His rule was strong but gentle, and everyone loved him. But then he got fat and had a heart attack sitting on the toilet.” It was a sobering moment. Then I said, “Dad, can I be Presley?”

HM: Good one. On the more serious side, from ‘Angel of Death’ I see you have an interest in gore and some seriously fucked up deviations [I am pro-deviations]. Where did that interest stem from and who was your strongest influence?

JRK: On the more serious side, or perhaps the darker side, yes, I do have a fixation and fascination with some seriously fucked-up deviations. (Thank you for not calling me a 'deviant.' I'd've had to get out my four-thousand-mile-and-one-foot-long sword.)

The scary fact of the matter is that Tolkien and Lewis were my inspirations. They made these beautiful worlds because they felt that, deep down, underneath all the crap, the world was beautiful.

So I dug deep down, underneath the crap, and I found not just more crap but some truly terrifying thimgs. Some things that make Cthulhu look like a rubbery Godzilla monster. I couldn't just write beautiful worlds because that's what Lewis and Tolkien believed underlay everything (though I desperately wanted to—want to—believe they were right). I had to do what they did and write what I saw underneath it all.

And what did I see underneath it all? Well, if there are angels and demons, they have a lot more in common with each other than with us. The Christian tradition sells itself as a faith of comfort and love, but its central image is a man spiked to a scaffold to appease an angry father and a world visited by twenty-one apocalypses by that same God.

Maurice Broaddus, an author for whom I have high regard, recently said that faith lends itself quite easily to the horror genre. Perhaps that's because faith, as Lewis said, teaches you that the dufus sitting beside you is an immortal soul and that your actions toward said dufus have eternal consequences. But Maurice and I come down on opposite ends of that observation. If faith lends itself to horror, it is because at its core rests some very terrifying ideas. For there to be salvation, there must first (and predominantly) be damnation. Much of the horror in Angel of Death comes from making many biblical ideas literally true.

HM: It is like you are reading my mind. Although it seems quite Emo to state so: the world is very much a terrifying place and faith does add more fuel to the flames. On Twitter, you stated you felt quite uncomfortable giving your mother a copy of ‘Angel of Death’. What happened, when you did?

JRK: My mother is a saint, first of all, so thank you for asking after her health. She has read everything I have published—twenty-four books and counting—even though some of it was not what she would enjoy. As I said, she's the Mother Teresa of book critics.

But I knew Angel of Death would be too much for even my sainted mother. I've always been somewhat morose, and when I was a kid, I relied on my mom to be the well of optimism from which I could endlessly draw. I rely on my wife now for that—and she suffered her way through Angel of Death despite my warnings.

It's not a very sunny book.

There's an old saying that fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Well, the two angels in my life were justifiably worried about reading this novel, but as the perennial fool, I gave it to them anyway.

HM: You have published many novels in many genres, but I think ‘Angel of Death’ is perhaps the most provocative and daring. Did you have a hard time, making sure you do not a cross a certain line, namely the one between tasteful gore and meaningless torture porn?

JRK: That's a very good question. The fact was that when I set out to write Angel of Death fourteen years ago, I was planning it as a modern urban fantasy. A friend of mine, though, said, it had to be realistic. He recommended a number of books about actual serial killers and FBI profilers. What I read horrified and sickened me—but also educated me about what real monsters were.

I mentioned Cthulhu earlier. People like to lift him up as the hardest core evil one can encounter—an Elder God. But just today, I was watching a funny video (sent by an efriend for free) about a bunch of other plush dolls accidentally opening a box that released the plush Cthulhu. This was funny because Cthulhu is an inconceivable evil.

True evil lurks around us. It does unspeakable things daily. Worse, as you discovered in Angel of Death, true evil lurks within us. And, in some ways, the comfortable fantasies we weave about the nature of evil allow true evil to grow and thrive.

I made a choice fourteen years ago when I wrote the first draft, and then repeatedly over the intervening years with revision after revision I upheld the choice, that I was not going to shy away from depicting evil as it is. It's not because I like it, but because I hate it. And I want readers to recognize that evil is not a video game boss or a golf star caught cheating.

Yes, I've written an appalling book about an appalling topic.

HM: What is ‘Angel of Death’ genre-wise? I have a hard time placing it. My picks are urban fantasy and paranormal horror, but I bet the answer is inconclusive.

JRK: Inconclusive is a good answer. There was a reviewer I read who seemed to like the book other than that she couldn't figure out its genre. Another reviewer complained that the book wasn't sure what genre it was.

I'm guilty on both counts. Angel of Death is actually three books, as you know, divided by the main character's own thinking about himself. In that sense, it is a very schizophrenic work, and you aren't supposed to be able to lock it down.

HM: While reading, for a moment I did believe that Samael was indeed human and that he had these delusions. It was messed up and intense, because I did not know what to believe in that middle. Did this effect surface on its own or was it planned?

JRK: Those who have had a bit of literary theory will say that my book has an unreliable narrator. They are right, of course, but what they are missing is that every narrator is unreliable. The idea of a reliable narrator is like the idea of unbiased media. All media has a bias, and all narrators are unreliable.

What I was trying to do in Angel of Death is show how all of us are trapped in our own minds, and thus are unreliable narrators of our own lives. As such, we weave our own interpretations of what is happening to us. In that sense, Angel of Death covers a lot of the same ground as Shutter Island. The main difference is that people who read or watch Shutter Island get to come away with their minds intact, feeling as if they are looking at the insanity from outside. People coming away from Angel of Death are looking at insanity from the inside.

HM: What is the appeal behind cross-genre? When the reader hears fantasy for instance, he/she knows what their signing up for, but for cross-genre it’s not so simple.

JRK: You're absolutely right. Genres are invented by the book industry to make consumption of ideas easy. Genres are like intellectual fast food. What do you want? McDonalds? Pizza Hut? Taco Bell? It doesn't matter which McDonalds or Pizza Hut or Taco Bell, because in these franchises, everything is pretty much the same, store to store. You know what you're going to get. It's standardized. Mechanized. Industrialized. In fact, if you're eating a Big Mac in London and I'm eating one in Chicago, we're probably swallowing parts of the same cow, mixed with a hundred thousand others and spread out across the globe in a layer of ground-up animal one-patty thick.

The cross-genre approach is a little different. Say you happened into this weird, one-of-a-kind greasy spoon cafe that's got this brilliant cook. He makes the most amazing things. He makes foods you never tasted before. But you're never quite sure what you're going to get because he only works with whatever he can get fresh and he's not very good at keeping a running stock of stuff. Oh, and he's a freak.

But the food is incredible.

All right, so where do you want to eat? You can have fast food. It will be fine, tasty, high-calorie, government-regulated—and exactly what you expect. Or you could have whatever the hell that crazy fuck at the cafe wants to cook, knowing you'll never have tasted something like this and you never will again?

Unfortunately, our society is geared toward Big Mac novels instead of real thought experiments. Fortunately, every reader still gets to decide what she or he will eat.

HM: Angels are on the rise right at the moment. What is your take on the fad? What did angels have to push attention away from vampires and demons? Also what prompted you to pick them as a subject?

JRK: I'd like to say that I consciously selected the angel trope from the current zeitgeist and wove a fitting story around it. In fact, since this book started fourteen years ago, I more accurately created something at exactly the wrong time and held onto it until exactly the right time.

That they are on the rise at the moment makes me supremely glad. As to how angels usurped vampires and demons, let's face it: They're all the same. Beautiful, immortal, inhuman, unforgiving. It's not an accident that the vampire/demon love interest in Buffy was named Angel. These archetypes are that close.

HM: I dig serial killers and the Son of Samael was a thrilling character to read. How many hours did you invest in your research to bring such realism to the image of a serial killer?

JRK: I read quite a few true-crime books—bloody and horrible—and then channeled the rest of it. It was alarming to me how easy it was to slip into the serial-killer mindset. You would think that that thought process would be totally alien to a normal human being, but it is not. Here's a little thought experiment that will make all of your readers think like a serial killer with just the substitution of one word.

All right, here's the normal-person passage:

“I couldn't believe it. I spread my towel out on the beach, and there was this super-hot woman sitting on a towel near mine. She looked at me. I could tell she was into me. I smiled, and she pulled down her bikini top, showing me her tan line and a little more. I got up from my towel and sat down on hers to find out what I could give her.”

Now, here's the psycho passage, with just word substituted.

“I couldn't believe it. I spread my towel out on the beach, and there was this super hot woman sitting on a towel near mine. It looked at me. I could tell it was into me. I smiled, and it pulled down its bikini top, showing me its tan line and a little more. I got up from my towel and sat down on its to find out what I could give it.”

You see, changing her to it dehumanizes the other person. When the main character perceives another person in the story as a thing, all interactions become monstrous. Sadly, this very thing happens not just in the minds of serial killers but also in those of politicians and scientists and businesspeople and your next door neighbor. That's what this book is about.

HM: This seems to be a new direction horror has taken. Today, monsters rarely make us shiver [since urban fantasy and paranormal romance has objectified them into sexual fantasies, though I am not complaining], but the human element in horror is much more potent.

JRK: We all want to be the hero of our own story. That drive is so primal that we will invent elaborate fictions in order to keep ourselves heroic and blameless. So, for everyone, the heroic quest rings true. I'm a misunderstood and undersized hero pitted against villains who far exceed me in every way, but I will win, because the universe likes me.

This is a comforting perspective, but I'm convinced it is also the thought process that leads to Columbine shootings and suicide bombings. Those kids (let's face it, they all were kids) who thought that the horrific acts they did were justified did not see themselves as villains. They saw themselves as heroes attacking an irredeemably corrupt world.

The problem is that all the rest of us live in this world. And when you attack it, you kill us.

So, the only thing more horrible than a high school shooter or a suicide bomber is one of these idealists realizing that he isn't the hero but the villain. It's a miserable place to be, but it is also the next step on the heroic journey.

HM: What is your current writing project?

JRK: So glad you asked. I just finished a novel called Death's Disciples, which is a follow-on to Angel of Death but is not nearly as soul-rending. Death's Disciples is plenty dark, of course—a romp through the biblical apocalypse, but it is much lighter in mood. In Cohen brother's terms, Angel of Death is No Country for Old Men, while Death's Disciples is Burn After Reading. Yeah, the sensibility is still black, but the outcome is laughter instead of tears.

I'm also working up two new novel ideas, one that follows the lineage of Death's Disciples and another that follows the lineage of Angel of Death. I'm hoping my robot overlords like one of the two. Those guys are awesome to work with, and I'm itching to get writing.

HM: Now let’s shift the focus to Angry Robot Books. As you might know I have an imprint crush, so to say, on these guys [plus the authors, always the authors] and I want to know how the authors see their publisher. What’s the best thing to come to mind about Angry Robot Books?

JRK: All right, let me tell you the truth about Angry Robot Books and about myself. These guys spent a lot of time working on tie-in fiction for various groups, and so did I. They did great work, and so did I, on properties that belonged to someone else. And then, at last, someone said—”How about an imprint of your own, in which you could publish only the stuff you really love?” And Marco and Lee and Chris passed it along to us authors and said, “How about an imprint of your own, in which you could publish only the stuff you really love?” I've written and published over twenty novels, and I've been waiting for someone to speak those words to me.

And that's why this is such a great match. Marco and Lee are seasoned enough to recognize what an incredible opportunity this imprint provides, and so am I. We all want to make sure it works. These two guys have turned out to be nearly prophetic in deciding what titles will work. Their authors, too, have risen above themselves to provide the works they'd always hoped someone would want.

Angry Robot is a dream come true not only for editors and authors but also for readers. You strip away all that corporate crap that keeps churning out crap, and you get real writers communicating with real readers. How could you ask for more?

HM: Can you tell our readers how you became an Angry Robot author? Submission process, proposals, the whole nine yards.

JRK: I am so lucky in that regard. A friend and editor of mine was a friend of Marco and knew he was looking for cool titles. My friend, Jim Lowder, also knew I had a supernatural thriller that had recently been cancelled by Wizards of the Coast because it was not appropriate for a game publisher such as Hasbro. Well, Jim wrote to me, saying that Marc was looking for urban fantasy, but was not that interested in horror. He said, “How much does Angel of Death lean toward horror?” I told him that not only did it lean, but it fell in with a red splash. He asked me to send it anyway, and I did, and Marco and Lee loved it. So, I got in because I knew one cool guy who knew two others, but also because I wrote a novel that did what they were looking for.

HM: What is the experience to work with Lee Harris?

JRK: Lee is terrific. I panicked just before Angel of Death came out. I saw what I considered spurious information on Amazon Australia, which seemed to indicate that instead of coming out in August of 2009, it would come out in January of 2009—a date that had already passed. It also indicated that the book would be about $20 Australian. I wrote to Marco in a panic, and Lee answered gently, reminding me that English and Australian folk put the day before the month (something I had known), and so I had misread the release, and that Australians pay a shitload for books (something I had no known). In the end, I was very glad Lee was there to talk me down from the ledge.

In fact, I was so glad, I named a character in homage to him in Death's Disciples.

HM: These days publishing is a war front carried out between publicists, where the marketing campaign equals military strategy [exaggerated, but good analogy, me thinks]. Do you mind sharing a bit of inside information about how the marketing for your novel progressed? Did you work closely with the imprint and what was the strategy?

JRK: These days, marketing is not glossy ads in Publishers Weekly. These days, marketing is engaging the audience in a one-for-one way on social media. This was a new lesson for me. I not only launched a new website, but also became a frequent presence on Twitter, connecting to fans and other tweeps.

The marketing strategy is simple: create buzz. Now, certain gorgeous personalities can do so by pulling up in a red convertible and stepping out in a miniskirt without underwear. I tried that strategy once, and the fourteen days I spent in lockup told me I needed a different marketing approach.

All right, so here it is the thousandth time for people who aren't paying attention: Social media is about being social. It's a big party, and the point is to meet as many people as possible and talk with them about what they are doing. If one of those people asks what you're doing, don't be shy. Let them know. But you've got to mingle. You've got to hang out. You've got to be there so when the great conversation happens, you're part of it.

I tell you, folks, Twitter is The Moveable Feast on steroids. Hemmingway and Pound are there. Show up, and you can talk with them.

HM: While on the subject, I have been reading from authors, agents and editors that if one plans to succeed as an author, one must have a strong platform. Very Zen and also a notch challenging. Do you methodically pursuit exposure as a professional in order to generate sales and what are the tools you use?

JRK: A platform is very wise for politicians and anyone who wants to be popular. The problem is that most writers are the brainy type that shunned student council elections.

I'm an old guy at 43. That means, I've got 25 published novels, and five or six unpublished ones that keep getting no's. I have written high fantasy and gritty science fiction, Victorian mystery and spatter horror. Each of these is a platform, more for publishers than for writers. It convinces them that they can sell the book.

But writers don't care much about platforms. They care about characters and stories. If the characters and story aren't working, the platform doesn't matter. If the characters and stories are working, the platform doesn't matter either. So, in a way, the platform is just the wooden pallet that holds the ideas of a story.

Having said that, there are some very successful writers who have found a clear platform—one story that they like and their fans like, and they tell that same story over and over. Their fans know just what to expect. Some stars are the same way. They're always themselves—Jennifer Aniston, I'm talking about you—and people come to see Jennifer Aniston.

Other stars, however, are always someone else. They don't have an identifiable platform. Johnny Depp played Edward Scissorhands and Gilbert Grape and Ed Wood and Hunter S. Thompson—each time making himself somebody completely different. These were terrific characters in terrific films, but Depp had only a cult following. Then he played a terrific character in an okay film. Captain Jack Sparrow struck gold for him, but the whole time he was making the film, he had to fight Disney, who said he was ruining the movie.

He doesn't have to fight anybody anymore.

So, not having a platform can take a lot longer to build up a following. It also requires the happy accident of having one book hit in just the right way, at just the right time. But once such a book hits, the future is wide open. You've made it not because of one character or one story, but because of sheer talent, so you aren't pigeonholed writing one story over and over.

That would be like being chained to a rock and having eagles pluck out your liver every day.

HM: Modern culture is brimming with paranormal retellings [desecrations, really] of well known stories and biographies of iconic figures. I am speaking about Queen Victoria: Demon Killer and Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. There is even a movie about DaVinci in the making in the same vibe. You have written an Arthurian fantasy trilogy with well known characters, which roughly translates to what this current trend is all about. I digress a bit, but what I am getting at is whether you personally tolerate these renditions of history and well known works or do you tisk?

JRK: I haven't actually read any of the examples you give, but I'm not particularly inclined to tisk. There are no sacred cows, as far as I am concerned.

You mention my Arthurian trilogy, which was a matter of taking on twelve hundred years of story telling and fifteen hundred years of history. But Geoffrey of Monmoth's Arthur was not Malory's Arthur was not White's Arthur was not mine. Everybody has to invent his or her retelling, and everybody has to make this ancient and brilliant story also completely modern and relevant.

So, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies doesn't diminish Austen's accomplishment. It only amplifies it. I'd love if, in two hundred years, people were riffing off my books. We'll see if I make anythng that lasts that long.

HM: To keep the mood light and funny, which historic figure would make for a good read in an alternative demonic history?

JRK: There was something supremely spooky going on at the turn of the twentieth century. There was twelve-tone music and Dada art and this almost demonic rejection of order—all of it clustered around The World War, which was, in a way, a demonic eruption. It was almost as if Satan had done some cruel calculus, trying to find the one murderous act that could trigger millions of others, and he found it in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The Black Hand—are you kidding me? How Satanic is that? Then there's trench warfare and mustard gas and millions dead. And cap it all off with an influenza epidemic made possible by the crowding of soldiers in camps and the shipping of soldiers from place to place. Yes, I think a demonic history of World War I would not have to stray that far from actual events.

HM: What is the most important thing you have learned as a writer?

JRK: Writing is itself the most important thing you can do. If you write—I mean really work at it and keep going—all other obstacles will fall before you. You will improve. You will learn what works and what doesn't. You will create crap but also brilliance, and you can always cut out the crap. If you write, you will get your mind moving, and you will discover things you would never have thought otherwise. The physical and mental work of writing is the miracle itself.

If you don't write, you aren't a writer, just as if you don't lift weights, you aren't a weightlifter. Thinking about writing isn't writing any more than thinking about lifing weights is weightlifting.

HM: Thank you so much for keeping up with this invasion into your privacy. Please conclude with your own words.

JRK: Last words are so difficult, so I will not rely on my own. Instead, I will quote the Bard of Avon, who said, “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” I will also quote the Bard of Knoxberry Farms, who said:

Pointy birds, oh, pointy pointy!

Anoint my head. Anointy nointy!

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