I posted a review of Michael Wallace’s latest book in his Righteous series, The Gates of Babylon, in several locations including The Late Last Night Books website I contribute to. Wallace graciously agreed to humor me by answering a few of the burning questions I had about him, his process and his latest book.
Me: I’ve always wanted to ask you about your background. Your bio says that you grew up in a religious community in the desert. Knowing that we write best when we write what we know, how much of the Latter Day Saints communities we see in your Righteous series comes from your own upbringing?
Michael: So much of this story is my own childhood that I didn’t have to crack a book for research, except maybe to look up a scripture or two. My immediate family wasn’t polygamist (thankfully), but I have polygamist relatives and ancestors.
My great-grandfather went to Ireland on a mission and came home with a new Irish wife. His first wife (my great-grandmother) was from England and found this an unwelcome development. The two women and their children lived under different roofs. When someone would come looking for my great-grandfather when he was out, my great-grandmother would sniff, “He’s spending the night in Ireland tonight.”
Q: As if living with one woman isn’t complicated enough! We’ll get to more of the plural marriage thing a bit later. First, the rest of your bio reads like something out of an adventure novel. I wish I could get more details on all of it, but because of my military background, I will restrict myself to asking about the – smuggling refugees out of a war zone — part. Is there anything more you want to tell us about that or any other part of your bio?
Michael: It sounds much more exciting on the outside, believe me. I could have easily talked about the boring jobs I had temping in warehouses, doing data entry, or busing tables before I finally got my feet under me, but that would make a terrible author bio.
I don’t want to oversell the smuggling refugees part, since I wasn’t in any physical danger myself, and there were those who were. There isn’t very much heroic about what I did, since I was safe at all times, but I’m proud of my small role. At the time I was doing work for a charitable group, and there was a child from a tribal region of Pakistan we were trying to get an air ambulance for so he could have life-saving heart surgery. There was some effort in getting him and his family out safely. It involved a little bit of subterfuge.
Q: Back to the plural marriage, some people…well, men… think, on the surface, plural marriage is a great idea. What could be bad about having several women in your life? Then we see Jacob Christianson, who by book six, is a man who isn’t in a plural marriage but still has massive weight on his shoulders. In each book, it’s as if he becomes responsible for more and more people. What is the message about plural marriage you want people to take from this?
Michael: The number one thing I have tried to do in The Righteous is to show that the members of this community are people just like anyone else, filled with good, bad, and everything in between. Of course this religion and polygamy in particular inform everything they do, but at the end of the day they are simply human beings.
Having said that, it’s a system that is quite obviously oppressive to women, and is terrible for many men as well. In the early books, most of the young men must be driven out of the community. There is no room for them. And of course the women are traded like property. What’s worse is most of the women believe this is God’s will for them. They wouldn’t run away if they could.
Perhaps for that reason I needed to work doubly hard so that my female characters didn’t come across as weak and oppressed or worse, deluded, brainwashed fools. That doesn’t make for satisfying characters. But then it turned out that I created so many strong women (often strong in different ways), that there starts to be a major feminist movement within the community. I never would have guessed that when I started. But I have tried to let things evolve naturally.
Q: Your books are successful in giving us an intimate look at LDS communities, not just the family life but also the religion. In several of the books, we’re shown things about the church, the temple, the ceremonies and rituals that are supposed to be super secret. Have you ever had any backlash from the LDS community for revealing this kind of thing? Is it all accurate or have you created some of the secret sect stuff?
Michael: Yes, it’s accurate, and yes, I have had some backlash. Many liberal Mormons love the books and send me emails. The Association of Mormon Letters wrote a glowing review of the first book. But more conservative people send me nasty messages or hit the books with bad reviews. I’ve even had a couple of death threats. On the other side, some evangelical Christians have also reviewed me negatively, since they think that I’m either not showing how un-Christian Mormons are or am subtly trying to convert people to Mormonism.
All I’m trying to do is be fair to the people I’m writing about, and to show the good, the bad, and the ugly. But as soon as you say something controversial, you’re going to upset some people. I feel bad about that, but I made my story decisions long ago and there’s nowhere to go but forward.
Q: One of the most interesting aspects of this series is the religious nature of the setting and plot and yet the main character is so in doubt of his beliefs he’s not even sure if god exists. I find myself asking why Jacob and some of the others stay in the community. Can you talk about that drive to stay within these sects or cults and the fear of being separated from them, no matter what?
Michael: In the first book Jacob is a reflection of me as a young man, if I had been braver, smarter, etc. I was working through a lot of my own issues. After that, some of the developments that maneuver him into becoming a leader in the church came from the sort of plot decisions that push a character against his or her greatest weaknesses.
The same goes for Eliza, although in her case so much of it is loyalty to her brother and her sister. She loves them and they love her. Eliza knows she would be better off leaving, and Jacob even tries to push her into the outside world. For a time she stays on the outskirts because this is her family and her community; there’s a terrible cost to leaving that behind. But by book #6, the community, for all its flaws, is what is helping these people survive in a period of terrible danger and upheaval.
She no longer has a choice. None of them do.
Q: As soon as I started reading Gates of Babylon, it felt as if I were returning to a familiar place. At book six, we really know these characters, the locations, the issues that surround this community of people and I thought I knew what to expect, but then, you completely surprised me. Suddenly the community is facing something they have never faced before. What was your thinking in making this radical change in your series?
Michael: I had originally planned to write five books in the series and then stop, but the books were selling well enough that my publisher asked if I would write three more. I didn’t want to simply keep writing the same thing, and felt that the reader needed some closure with the conflict between the Christiansons and the Kimballs.
It was then that I had an idea. This is a religious sect that has been preparing for the end of the world since it was founded. What if civilization really did start to cough up blood? And how would Jacob, the skeptical, more scientifically oriented leader of this group of believers cope? In a way the first five stand as one story arc, and the last three a different one.
Q: I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in your next book and I’m sure you’re already busy on it. You’ve been releasing at least a book a year in the Righteous series with several other books in other genres in between. How much time do you spend at the keyboard a day? Do you work on multiple projects at the same time?
Michael: Far too much time! Alas, too much of it isn’t spent producing new words. I have a fair amount of email to answer, work to go over with my publisher, marketing efforts on my indie books, and all sorts of other things you never think about until you’re in the middle of it.
When I am working on a first draft, my goal is to write 2,000 words each and every day until the draft is done. If I’m ambitious, I might push that up. If I’m ahead of schedule and struggling with mental fatigue, I might only shoot for 1,500, but I do write each and every day.
I try to work on one book at a time, and certainly never write first drafts of different projects at the same time. However, there are times when one book will come back from my editor while my head is deep in another project. That’s a challenge.
I for one, found the new direction fascinating and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next with this community. Now here are some rapid fire questions about your process:
Q: Outline or seat of your pants?
Michael: I’m kind of in between. I spend a few weeks brainstorming before I start writing, until I have about thirty pages of notes. A lot of this will be dead-ends and discarded, but usually I will emerge knowing more about my characters, my big plot points, and how I’m going to end. I also want to know how the first chapter will play out, since that’s one of the most difficult parts.
After that, I just start and plow through it. The discovery process is half the fun.
Music, silence or something else? (If music, any particular group?)
Michael: Definitely music. After a while it fades into the background. Sometimes I’ll even put one particularly mood-enhancing song on loop and let it play. I have wide tastes, although my favorite genre is probably classic metal and hard rock. My favorite band is Judas Priest. Beyond the Realms of Death is practically the soundtrack for The Devil’s Deep series.
Biggest distracter – Facebook, email or something else?
Michael: Everything internet based: message boards, Facebook, e-mail, you name it. I use a program called Freedom to block internet access while I’m working and start writing at the same time every day. It’s the only way to stay focused, and even then it’s a struggle.
Coffee, tea or something stronger?
Michael: Mormons don’t drink that stuff! Okay, so maybe coffee. But don’t tell my mom.
Ocean, mountain or desert?
Michael: I love all three. There’s something amazing about the ocean, and I grew up at the base of a mountain, which loomed outside my window. When I go home to visit I’m amazed at how it dominates the landscape. But the desert is the one that speaks to my soul. The smell of sand and sagebrush will take me back instantly to my childhood.
Michael, thanks so much for your time. Congratulations on your latest book and I wish you the best of luck with it.