Sunday, September 26, 2010

[Beyond the Wordcount] The Genesis of 'Angel of Death'

Do you wonder how a book is made? If you are an avid reader and the sight of a book makes you glow, then you probably have wondered about a novel’s journey from idea to hard/softcover delight on your local bookstore’s shelf. Did the author discover the story whole and intact? Did the story need countless revisions? How much is researched and how much is the product of the author’s imagination? What did the author have to go through to publish that novel you just love? Beyond the Wordcount is the feature that will give a behind-the-scene look to the story behind the story, the things that you will never guess as they stay off the pages.

This week’s guest is J. Robert King. He is the author of one my favorite novels Angel of Death [Review],which impressed me with its realistic depiction of a monster. If you think American Psycho was frightening, because Patrick Bateman could very well exist, than the Angel in King's novel will stop your pulse with his sound logic.

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.

The angel of death in Chicago oversees all people in the megalopolis, making sure their deaths fit their lives. Though most deaths naturally do, those that result from serial murder do not, so the angel spends much time trailing a serial killer in his patch.

On the trail of one such man, he encounters a cop and falls in love with her. When he is assigned to kill her, though, he has to make a choice between divinity and humanity.

The Task: I asked Robert to write a post detailing he created his character and pieced the psyche of a sociopath-monster. What I received exceeded my expectations. King not only answered my question about Azrael, but also presented a genesis for his novel.


People wonder where Angel of Death came from. It is, after all, a dark book.

Well, the quick explanation is that the book I'd written before it had been rejected by multiple publishers, and I was pissed off and wanted to write a pissed-off book. That's the quick explanation, and it's the truth, but it's not the whole truth.

Let's look at the elements of Angel of Death. First, of course, there's an angel, a servant of God who is charged to kill us. If this angel were human, he would be a serial killer. It is his very divinity that makes his actions right and good. Were this angel to lose his divinity and become human, quiet suddenly the work he has been mandated to do becomes the most monstrous act imaginable.

So, if God tells you to do it, you are justified in doing it, right?

Think about suicide bombers, sixteen-year-old kids from slums blowing themselves up. We think this is horrific, but the bombers do not, nor the men who strap explosives to them, nor the mothers who mourn them as holy martyrs. All of these people know that God wants sixteen-year-old boys to have their bodies ripped apart and have their bones fly as shrapnel to rip apart others.

Sin is disobedience to God, so if God wants you to kill yourself, then living is sin. If God wants you to kill the other passengers on the commuter train, then sparing them is sin. If God wants an old man to take his only son up to a mountain and ram a knife into the boy's heart, the old man is not a murderer but a saint.

That is, in part, what Angel of Death is. It's an exploration of the terrifying and grotesque nature of faith that justifies such atrocities.

Of course, to pull off a novel like this, I had to do a lot of reading about actual serial killers-- peering into their psyches, studying their crimes, watching them do what they did to their victims. I was appalled. I could not have imagined such depravity. What human beings are capable of doing to each other beggars the mind. I had launched this book to rail against God but found human crimes to be equally horrendous. Just when I was about to nail God to the wall, I discovered I had to nail myself there, too, and every other human being.

Like I said, this book came from a pretty dark place.

So, I started to write. At first, it was just me and the angel, wrestling. But I knew I wouldn't win a match like that. I brought in Donna Leland to distract the angel so that maybe I could escape. She was the good human there trapped between me and my monster. And the novel just unfolded that way. I didn't so much write it but chronicle it, observing with a kind of sick terror as Donna struggled to understand and then to love and then to escape Azrael.

I hid behind Donna, hoping she could save us both.

All right, so you know two thirds of the story, the railing against God and the railing against humanity. But the third part of Angel of Death—the part that makes it especially unsettling to my family and friends—is that I put all of them in it. I set the scenes in the town where I live and the town where I grew up and even the flood-prone Methodist campground where I spent many summers as a youth. The angel kills a young couple driving through Chicago on their way to Disney World on their honeymoon—a precise description of my wife and I when first we were married. The angel kills Mr. Strange, a garbage man in my hometown who was reprimanded for stalking my little sister. The angel kills all sorts of people I know, but mostly kills me in different phases of life.

Over and over, that angel is killing me. It was the one way I could escape him. Let him kill me again.

Yes, Angel of Death came from a really dark place.

It's a furious book, a murderous book, and I'm glad it is on paper now instead of in my mind. Of course, if the Angel of Death has his way, this book will somehow still be the death of me.

We'll see.

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