Hello Tristis, thank you for agreeing to sit down and talk to The Atheist’s Quill about your new book, Bones of the Magus released in October 2011 by Broken Jaw Press. As you know, the Atheist’s Quill focuses on books written by atheists. Though an agnostic, those of us in tune with the APOV (atheist point of view), have deemed that is close enough.
Ward: Thank you. I’m honoured. (Not a typo, she’s from Canada.)Shall we get to it?
APOV: Your first book, Bones of the Magus (BofM), is hard to pigeon hole into any of the familiar orifices (genres) we like to stuff. How would you describe the genre of your excellent book filled with religious relics, a dead mage, goths, a forensic pathologist, and another world?
Ward: That is hard. While I don’t think it reads like it, this is science fiction. It’s from a larger science fiction universe. But that universe has always been full of magic—or at least things which seem like magic until further explored. The known verses the unknown and the ability to understand what is out there from inside one paradigm or another has been a recurring theme in both my writing and my own life. I’m very interested in anthropology and how cultural-specific truths work regardless of how untrue they appear to an outsider. I also have a huge interest in religion. What’s holy? Why? How does it function? Within any belief system, everything has to work. When it doesn’t, or when something new is introduced, reality gets a little shaky for the believers until a paradigm shift, or until they “explain” it into their old system.
It’s the same thing with subcultures. Goths and Vampires have a detailed and complex paradigm to live and play within. It’s been generated by fiction—something they are absolutely aware of—but functions exactly like an organically grown culture. People can live their lives by it and in it. That’s fascinating.
APOV: There’s magic in Bones of the Magus, but there’s also a hint of something deeper going on with that magic. Would you call that “something deeper” science?
Ward: Yes. Most of what looks like magic is science (fiction, of course). But some of what looks normal is magic, or is a mystery I don’t intend to delve deeper into. It’s a lot less fun when everything gets explained. I meld Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy elements together all the time with almost no apology, because the universe is huge and we are mere humans in it. There is no point at all in pretending that we can, or have, to nail down and define every last single particle.
APOV: Okay, we can’t go much further without talking about the fact that this isn’t your normal comic book. When you first described the book to me, I was, like, huh? No pictures? What kind of comic book is that? What a wonderful discovery to find there are pictures – word pictures! How did you conceive of the idea and how long did it take you to decide this was something you wanted to dedicate a huge chunk of time to?
Ward: I grew up inclined to tell stories. I was not so inclined to draw, but comic books struck me early on as the perfect medium for the stories that played through my head. I partnered with a couple of artists. Our projects always lost steam. One of my favourites was a fellow named wayne a. lee (no capitals). He was a good friend and a talented artist. One Christmas I decided to make him a card. Since I was the writer, not the artist, I thought it should be in words, not pictures. It was a description of him as a Frosty the Snowman stand-in, describing his looks, typical dress and the long red scarf he always wore as having magic in it, rather than “that old silk hat.” He said the idea was interesting. That made me think there were more things possible with it.
I played around with different ideas of using words and letters exclusively and this book is the most advanced result. I’ve got a lot of confidence in its structure as a comic. Even so, I thought it was inferior to the “real thing” until I read Understanding Comics. I guess I needed Scott McCloud to give me permission to write a comic with words as pictures. After that, it was all elbow grease and a million hours of editing. I found it harder to make sequential prose than I first thought it would be. It isn’t the same as putting boxes around paragraphs in a story. I had to be solid and singular in every moment. I had to see how the words sat in the panel and how the white space (the negative space) affected them. Then I would look at how the completed panel fit on the page. If it didn’t, it was sometimes back to rewriting from scratch. Some pages became my enemies.
I was happy to play with word images whenever I could. It would have been nearly impossible to tell a linear story if I relied completely on typographical art, but whenever I could take a break from the narrative, or when it was fluid enough, I formed scenic elements out of words. The rest is straight prose in good old proper and easy to read paragraph form.
APOV: That’s an interesting point you bring up about paradigm shifts, and how believers have to reconfigure their fundamental tenants to reconcile reality. Kind of reminds me of Harold Camping’s current dilemma. God just doesn’t seem to want to cooperate with his doomsday predictions. But it’s not just with religion is it? The book industry is definitely going through a paradigm shift with the advent of e-books, and you’re bucking the comic-book scene with Bones of the Magus. Did you think you’d kick up such a storm? Do you think the dust clouds will settle soon?
Ward: I’m not sure that I have rocked the comic industry, or anything. It’s giving me a bit of a jar, though. It’s highlighted a thing or two about people and their beloved institutions. What I thought was going to happen with my book was that comic book readers would do a double take, but then say “Oh, yeah, that’s a comic all right!” I was surprised when the first reader—an engineering student I was brainstorming spaceship battle scenarios with—said that it was not a comic. I asked why and offered debate, but he just shrugged and said something like, “I’m a purist.”
I was pretty geeky growing up and hung out with the gamers in high school, so it’s not like I hadn’t seen hard stands and impassioned debates over technical issues within geek circles as to which was better or more believable, but this sounded like my book couldn’t be in the club at all. That stung a little. Luckily, there are other comic readers who have sided with me, although I still meet a few others who take that stand.
I received responses as recently as this summer from industry people that went, “If it’s text with no graphics, it doesn’t fall under ‘graphic’ novel.” No, they didn’t see that one could have graphics without line art. No, they didn’t want to see the book. No, there was no grey area or wiggle room. I think the company I was dealing with was trying to protect comics as an industry. I don’t know why the medium would have to be protected from the scads of poets and novelists out there polluting the form, but there you go. As for settling matters, that’s pretty much up to readers—and reviewers, of course.
APOV: I’m sure once they give BofM a chance, they’ll realize what a-holes they are being and acknowledge your brilliance. But, let’s get back to the story. BofM is set primarily on this world in a unidentified city. The very first scene is in a church. You describe the layout of the church detail, guiding the reader through the main pulpit area, the cloister and other rooms. I, and many other atheists, find churches fascinating simply because they are often great examples of architecture. Did you have a city in mind when writing BotM and/or a particular church?
Ward: It is intentionally Any-City, Earth (I guess, Any-City, West, Earth) for the moment. It’s an expanding awareness Sical has, first just his fading memories, then bones, then skeleton, church, city. The Church is completely fictional. It’s based on the design elements used repeatedly by church architects through the centuries. I am also fascinated by the architecture there. All public architecture is interesting, but it gets more so when choices are made based on psychology and the effort to subliminally (or not quite so) bend people’s attitude to suit a purpose. Churches and cathedrals grew higher and higher down through the ages, as fast as architects could work out how to do so. The goal was to draw worshiper’s eyes upwards through gloriously lit air to the vaulted ceilings to make them think of heaven and God. That’s amazing. It was expensive and time consuming, but it was vital for control. It underlined the message. For a long while, when congregations were mostly illiterate, the building was a book made of stone and glass and wood and cloth. It was a literal structure for belief.
Think about what stained glass does to light. We have a star out there burning away for millions of years. It is simple and it’s real. For a while, it hit us unfiltered except by atmosphere. Then we started building beliefs around it. We gave it names like Ra and a myth about how and why it was up there (Ra rode in a chariot which he raced across the sky). A name was one of our first filters. It changed the hot, overly bright object in our landscape into a being with a personality that could be pleased or angered depending on how we behaved. When beliefs got more complex we used more complex filters. When we could throw up coloured glass to physically filter it, we did. Sunlight passing through stained glass is transformed into a message that backs up a belief, not just in the picture on the glass, but as mottled light in the space itself that highlighted elements and the tint that helped give the sanctuary an otherworldly feel.
It’s rather cool that my first online interview for Bones of the Magus is done on a site that examines religion as a problem, because that’s exactly what it is for Sical. He has zealotry issues he has to deal with. Until he does, he is bound to repeat himself over and over. In the book there are two churches and five crypts (one for each church, the body storage area of the morgue, the hidden cellar of the goth bar and the tombs of the jailhouse). It’s in the depths of religion that he makes some of his worst decisions.
APOV: The main character in BotM is an alien from both another planet and time. How does the story you tell in BofM fit into your larger universe?
Ward: Funny you should mention that, because it turns out that I’m going to have to bring in some of the wider story as a means of convincing comic book readers to pick up the book. I decided to do this after one of the comic retail owners complained that he couldn’t even get any of his staff to read the book, “because without pictures it’s impenetrable.”
Since it’s not particularly dense story-wise or word-wise, or even length-wise (for a novel—it’s 54,000 words) I pushed him to explain the problem. “What about it felt impenetrable?”
“When we flip it open, it looks like it’s just jammed with words. It looks like it would be hard to read. It’s too different from comics.” He thought I should teach people how to read the book by starting them off on something small like a single issue comic, or a three or four page promo, or even a strip.
It’s a good idea. I’m now working on a kind of prologue issue that takes place in the wider universe. It’s centred on Sical’s mother just as she goes to confront her son at the height of his challenge war.
But to answer your question, what I write most of the time is science fiction with fantasy elements. It’s all about a space-faring human ethnic group that has a very long history of war, development and a very static religion that is the centre of their culture. Their sometimes enemy, sometimes servant nemesis is a race of inorganic beings who were mistakenly mined off a planet-sized “parent.” These two races bring out the best and worst in each other over a multi-generational struggle to understand and accept something utterly alien. Sical’s problem with his identity stems from this strained relationship.
APOV: Okay, so I’m getting a signed copy of that prequel single issue, right? Just joking. Sort of. Well, you’re going to be busy since not only do you have to get out those promotional pieces, but there’s the sequel you have to write, too. Correct? I mean, with that emphatic ending to BofM you kind of owe it to your readers, don’t you think?
Ward: Well, yes, because I’m true to comic book tradition, there’s more to come. There’s always another issue, or a new series, or a next story arc, or, if all else fails, a relaunch. Comic books are like soap operas in a lot of ways. I have some decisions to make, of course, about how to proceed. There certainly is more story to tell. I’ve been working on it. I’ll keep you posted on how and when it comes out.
And I’d be delighted to sign you a copy of the prequel (prologue, whatever). I’m absolutely floored that people want my signature for something more than paying bills.
APOV: It’s been an honor to have you here on The Athiest’s Quill. Is there anything else you’d like to tell your readers?
Ward: That’s tricky. Of course I could talk forever about all this stuff. I guess I want to say thanks to all the people who helped me during the process. I wrote a thank you at the beginning of the book, but I used an awful lot of material provided by people I cornered and pummelled for information. There are so many of them they just couldn’t be listed with any kind of fairness at all. One such individual is Shantell Powell. She had a website on the history of the witch hunts. I didn’t use that material here, but she is also very in tune with the Goth scene and came in handy for Issue 3 of the book. A lot of the various Goth styles that show up in that issue were drawn from leads she gave. She calls me a not-a-goth, as in a Goth who insists they are not one.
APOV: Thank you for your time, Ms. Ward. We wish you the best of luck with your new book. It’s an award winner.
The APOV recommends Ms. Ward’s exciting, ground-breaking, new comic book, Bones of the Magus. Available now through Broken Jaw Press.