Q&A with David Maine – Gamble of the Godless

David Maine, author of the fabulous works of Biblical fiction, The Preservationist, Fallen and The Book of Samson, has released an ebook this week entitled Gamble of the Godless – a fantasy novel and a complete departure from the genre that made him famous. As part of TNBBC‘s blog party tour this week, I asked Dave some questions about this new direction that his writing has taken, why he chose to publish it in ebook form, how his eclectic music tastes inform and inspire his writing, and most importantly what he has hiding in his drawers.

How was the experience of writing each of your books the same and/or completely different?
The circumstances surrounding the writing of them have all been very different, but the actual process is similar. You know, you sit down at a table or a desk or a rocking chair or whatever, and you try to put yourself in a situation, try to inhabit it. Then you write it down. A lot of people, I think, believe that writing is some kind of self-assertion–“Here, this is my story, this is what I want to talk about!” Partly that’s just the society we live in, in which everybody is encouraged to treat every interaction as a potential battle and/or fight for self-assertion. I certainly see this in some of my students. But in my experience, writing is exactly the opposite of this. It is an act of self-negation. To convey a story, a scene, a moment of conversation, the writer has to efface himself or herself and let the scene come to the forefront. That’s true–for me at least–whether writing fantasy novels about talking animals, or religiously themed stuff, or straight “literary” fiction, or whatever. I think it’s less true of non-fiction, in which the writer’s presence and authority, his or her ethos, is more important in establishing and maintaining authority.

As far as the circumstances of writing them–that’s been really different. I first wrote a draft of this book way back in 1995-96, when I had just moved overseas to Morocco and was teaching English, living in an apartment building for the first time in my life, living in a fairly hectic little city, and having a lot of difficulty adjusting to being outside of my familiar parameters. It’s easy enough to see why I wrote this book about a kid who leaves home to go on an adventure in unfamiliar lands, right? A few years later, when I was writing a book called The Preservationist, I got fired from my job–teaching at a high school in Pakistan this time–after I had written about 100 pages in a two-week flurry. I didn’t know what to do, but thought about it over the summer and my wife and decided she could support me for a year while I tried to finish up. And I did, I wrote the whole thing in another 6 months, which turned out to be a good decision because it was my first book to get bought and published.

Since then, the situations have all been different–either I’ve been writing full-time, or teaching part-time, or teaching full-time for part-time wages (which is what I do in super-expensive Hawaii!), or taking the odd semester off to focus on a project, or whatever. But as I said above, the essential core of writing, which is to forget myself and try to slip into someone else’s skin for the duration of the story–that hasn’t changed.

You post a few different links to music on your site – I know that a lot of authors post playlists for books that they write on their websites. This is a 2-part question:
a. Do any of your books have playlists? If not, should they? What would they be? Especially this new book.

Man, I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me this question for years! I’m a music obsessive and almost always have something playing, and even when I don’t, there’s something going on in my head. My tastes are pretty eclectic, which I guess is inevitable after 40-off years…

When writing my early books, I used to be partial to very mellow, low-key music in the initial stages–when generating new material. nothing too disruptive, because that just adds to the noise in my head, which is at a fairly high pitch already. Bands like Mazzy Star and the Cowboy Junkies were favorites for quite a while, and Morcheeba. I first heard Big Calm by Morcheeba while visiting my wife’s cousins in London in summer 2001, and man I fell in love with that record. So that was my soundtrack for a while.

After a time, I found that non-English music helped induce this type of trancelike state that I needed to achieve the self-negation I talked about before. There’s a Senegalese singer named Baaba Maal who has this unearthly voice that just seemed to evoke alien spaces and foreign lands, and that helped me write about Avin and his otherworldly pals. Baaba’s album Baayo is phenomenal, and I think helped me through several chapters. Salif Keita also, he had an album called Papa which was great, and Rokia Traore’s record Bowmboi. You have to look these people up if you don’t know them.

The other thing I began listening to in Pakistan, logically enough, was Pakistani and Indian classical music–not sitar especially, as I don’t care for it, but the flute player Hariprasad Chaurasia, and Bismillah Khan who plays shenai, you know, that nasal-sounding horn used by snake charmers? And vocalists like Kishori Amonkar, oh man I’m sort of in love with her–google her picture and you’ll see why. She can sing, too. And lots of other people too–the Sabri Brothers and Pathanay Khan and Nayyara Noor, who are all Pakistani, and Ustad Hassan Shagan, who might be the most remarkable singer of his generation, and so on.

b. Do you write to music or use it for inspiration in any way?

All these people I’ve been talking about, I write with them playing. All of them, particularly the non-English-language ones, help put me in a state of mind that is, I don’t know how to say it except, is more receptive to otherness. Otherness shows up a lot in my books, so I think that’s important. The other thing that’s great about this music is that the pieces tend to be long–a raga might be half an hour or an hour long, even African songs often approach ten minutes. I like this because, once that trance state is induced, I know it’s going to stick around for a while, not like some three-minute pop song. And of course, I can’t be distracted by the lyrics, since I don’t understand them. That’s hugely important too, and it’s the main reason I can’t write and play hip-hop at the same time.

There are times, sure, when I listen to raucous rock ‘n’ roll, Rage Against the Machine and Electric Wizard and stuff like that. Mainly I use that to just sort of jump-start myself when I’m doing boring technical work, typing in changes to a manuscript or something that isn’t all that creative or interesting or fun, just grunt work that needs to be done. And my next novel, An Age of Madness, which is coming out in 2012, is about a psychiatrist who can only stand to listen to classical music, so I wrote a lot of that while playing Vivaldi and Bach and Telemann and so on.

My most recent discoveries have been this tremendously exciting stuff coming out of the Sahara, what’s being called “desert blues,” a kind of guitar-based music that grew out of Tuareg refugee camps in the 1970s and 80s. Bands like Tinariwen and Terakraft, singers like Mariem Hassan and Bombino–it’s all fantastic stuff. It really evokes other landscapes for me, which is what I need, and I was listening to a ton of this stuff just compulsively when revising The Gamble of the Godless.

For what it’s worth, as I write this I’m listening to Iron and Wine.

How does it work being married to another writer?

It works just fine. We read each other’s stuff sometimes and help each other out. If one of us gets preoccupied with a particular issue in a story, the other understands that yeah, this is important, we’re willing to hash it out over the dinner table or whatever. It’s also interesting to see how our experiences are similar, and where they diverge. Uzma is from Pakistan and her agent is based in the UK, so her experiences in regard to the industry have been somewhat different from mine.

In your bio on Goodreads you mention that “The Gamble of the Godless” is “a return for me to the type of books I grew up reading – and loving”. I personally really agree with that statement – I find that very often the books I love to read are not the types of books that I write at all. Do you think this is the case with many authors? And why?

I don’t know about other authors, but for me, the first stuff I tried to write–as a kid I mean, before college–were the types of fantasy and sci-fi books that I was reading. Then I went to college and started getting exposed to other stuff. I mean, I loved Steinbeck and Flannery O’Connor in high school, but in college I was reading Soviet dissident literature and Chaucer and Milton and Jayne Anne Phillips and Czech poets like Miroslav Holub and who knows what the hell else. And I was like, “Oh, there’s more to this than Edgar Rice Burroughs.”

After that I think it’s just a process of sniffing around here and there, trying this and that, and seeing what sticks. I think that’s a very reasonable way to write; don’t limit yourself, just nose around a while. The problem is, the industry is very nervous about people who want to keep nosing around. My first published book was called The Preservationist and it was a retelling of the Noah story. Okay–cool! It’s a great book. I love it. I think everybody should go read it. But, it’s not the only kind of book I wanted tow write, but the publisher and my agent really wanted me to write a follow-up, so I did, and then I wrote a third because by then I had a notion of how I wanted to approach the Samson story. My point is, for the three years or so that this was happening, people were telling me, “Oh you’re all set now, just keep on putting out those Bible stories.” I mean my mom told me this, for God’s sake! But I didn’t want to just keep doing variations on one thing, even though I think I did that one thing pretty well. I wanted to do different stuff, but the industry is very wary of that. Write a children’s book? Great!–but be careful, or you’re likely to be writing children’s books forever.

I guess my point is that writers might be interested in everything they write, but other people aren’t necessarily going to be. I have little doubt that if I wrote a fourth Bible book, I’d have a publisher for it pretty quick. Instead I wrote a butt-kicking epic fantasy, and people are sort of standing back with their arms crossed saying, “Oh yeah? Prove it.”

So which came first then, the chicken or the egg? It seems like you wrote “The Gamble of the Godless” and perhaps “Monster, 1959” before the “Preservationist” and your other books. Is this true?

In grad school I wrote a book of stories, then I wrote a novel as my graduate manuscript. Then I wrote Gamble and its sequel, then I wrote another novel. Then I wrote half of Age of Madness and quit because I didn’t know what I was doing with it. Then I wrote half of Monster and quit because The Preservationist came to me very quickly one day while I was staring out the window. The Pres got bought and I was immediately contracted to write a follow-up, which was Fallen, and then Samson. At that point I stubbornly adhered to what was probably a bad career move, at least financially, and said, “I’m done rewriting the Bible.” I pushed for Monster to come out, and it did, and it bombed, which is okay with me because it’s a complete mess and it’s glorious and unlike anything else I’ve ever read, so there’s that. And then I finished and revised Madness and it’s coming out next year and It Will Not Bomb.

It was while I was finishing Madness that my agent approached me about releasing Gamble as an eBook. I first showed it to him in, what, 2005, 2006, something like that. He loved it. He loved the sequel too but couldn’t place them, so they’ve been gathering dust a few years. When I took them out and brushed them off, though, I was startled at how good they were.

Is there any advice you would give to writers because of all this? It seems that you had two novels that were shelved before you finally wrote one that got published, and only then did these two novels “make it”.
More than two… I had like five complete manuscripts and a couple of half-dones before I wrote the Noah book. Some of those false starts were dead ends but some were salvageable, which is great. As for advice, you know, nothing original. Just: don’t quit. There is never a guarantee of success, but there is a guarantee of failure if you just give up. What was the sign Samuel Beckett had taped above his typewriter? “Fail. Fail again. Fail better.” That’s pretty good advice I think.

Do you have anything else hiding in your drawers?

I’ve completed the first three books in The Chronicles of Avin; Gamble is #1. I have the fourth in my head, or about half of it and some major plot points. I have ideas for at least that many more, so this should be epic if it takes off. As for other stuff from the past, no, I think this is about all that’s salvageable.

Biblical novels, Sci Fi, Fantasy, Lit Fic, any other genres you plan on tackling on the future?

I want to write a historical novel about a man named William Potter, who was hanged in New Haven CT in 1665 for sodomizing animals. What’s interesting is that the animals were hanged along with him, as they had been tried and convicted along with Potter. My agent just read those sentences and is now weeping quietly in a corner. I also have about 60 pages of a mock-epic written in skaldic verse, like Beowulf, about Vikings who travel to North America in the year AD 1100 before being abducted by humans from the future and taken into outer space to fight aliens in a giant arena. My agent is now drinking heavily, his tears dripping into the glass, lending the whiskey a watery, salty taste.

You describe “The Gamble of the Godless” as “an epic fantasy in the Lord of the Rings tradition, complete with sorcerers, talking animals, telepathic owls, drug-addicted cheetahs and (of course) a threat to the entire known world.” Everything else I get. Drug-addicted cheetahs? Please explain.

In this fantasy world, various non-human animal species have intelligence, language, magical powers and so on. Each species has its own social organization, legal system, attitudes toward outsiders, likes and dislikes. The horses have a taste for luxury. Rhinos write poetry. Owls are incapable of lying. Sharks take every third day as a holiday. And felines, well… Cats like to get stoned. They chew narcotic grass, which they refer to as “medicinal herbs,” and sometimes they try to sell it to other species. And sometimes they get into trouble.

Dogs, of course, never get stoned. It’s against the rules.

From Connecticut to Morocco, Pakistan and now Honolulu? How have these many different places around the world affected your writing?

That’s a tough question to answer, because I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t moved so much, you know? I suspect it’s opened up my subject matter a good deal; I’m no longer confined to the milieu of the US, of middle class life. I on’t mean confined in terms of, “This is all I will write about,” so much as in terms of, “This is my comfort zone, my home base, everything else will be a deviation from that.” That just isn’t true anymore. I’ve lived in places where religion is public currency, where I have felt more at ease or less, where I have felt like more of an outsider or less. These things have deepened my understanding of, for example, how a character like Noah or Avin might feel as he moves through these landscapes where he doesn’t belong.

Do you think that living around the world has made you a better writer?

I think I can say that much, sure. Given that the writer’s job description is, essentially, “Understand the world through someone else’s eyes,” I think my living abroad has forced me to do just that. And not only living, but teaching kids from those places, interacting with literally hundreds of people. It forces you–forced me, anyway–to reconsider my preconceptions, my assumptions about everything from social organization to gender roles to the role of the state in civil society to religion to charity to art. All this stuff, and a lot more, gets sort of bombarded into you when you immerse yourself in a place that’s so unknown to you–a place where nobody knows what Thanksgiving is or what a quarterback does or who Thomas Paine was or whatever. Meanwhile of course you don’t know what Eid is or what a leg-spinner does or who the Aga Khan was, so you’re getting an all-around education in a hurry.

Do you think that it has made your books more marketable?

I can’t really say. I think the pattern of my life has made me a better writer than if I’d spend my life sitting still. Do more people buy me as a result? I don’t see that. Dan Brown wrote The Da Vinci Code and sold a zillion copies and never left New Hampshire, right? Or Stephen King in Maine. No, I don’t see much connection.

Are there any other Biblical characters that you have not yet explored that you would like to? Or have you moved on in your writing career?

If I ever return to the Bible, it would be in an entirely different format. I love love love comics and would love to write a comic about Jonah. I think there are some very powerful visual images that could be constructed around his story. Trouble is, I can’t draw to save my life. Anybody out there want to collaborate? I’m serious. But I warn you, I’m sort of a control freak.

Thanks so much to Dave for taking the time to answer my questions. Yesterday Booksexyreview gave us her thought’s on Gamble of the Godless, and tomorrow we go back to the TNBBC for mini-reviews of all of David Maine’s books, a full review of Gamble of the Godless and links back to all of the blog posts for this rocking blog party week.

Visit David’s blog here, and the Chronicles of Avin website here if you can’t get enough of David – I certainly can’t!

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