Trip to the Stars moves quickly through Boston, New York, Las Vegas,
Vietnam, Hawaii, and Greece. If you traced those locations as dots on
a map, would they form a constellation?
I'm sure it would but I haven't done it yet. The book is about the idea that our fates aren't direct lines but are sort of zigzags as someone in the book says. We all think of our lives as neat parabolas and arcs but if we really made a star map of our lives and our fates it would be zigzags, crosses, backtracks, dotted lines, all kinds of things like that so the constellations would be the neatest way to describe it. I would hope it would form a constellation.
Joining us to our fates, to our places, to why we'd ever be anywhere we are.
And we'd only see it after the fact from above when it's too late.
Do you mean when we've passed from this life or when we've gained distance on events?
After life or sometimes when you have an epiphany and see your own life. You get to a certain juncture and either say "How wonderful" or "Oh my God, how did I get here?" And you look back for a second and see a pattern. I think the patterns are always shifting. There's this other line from Plotinus that I read when I started the book that says "Our fates are written in the stars but are they fixed for all time or, like the stars, are they always moving?" The oldest question: are we master of our own destiny or is it written before our birth or do we write it as we go along? The book, on the crudest level, is about that tension constantly.
Your appreciation of the stars in this book is magnificent.
My books have always been full of stars and this is the culmination of constellations but not in the romantic sense that they look beautiful. The notion that we place significance upon them and that each of us has one of these signs for our birthday and all the rest of it has always interested me. That tension of the small and minute and giant and trying to make sense of it sounds like the question you confront when you're twelve: what are we doing here, how did we get here and where are we going? I don't think that question ever leaves you until you die. It certainly never leaves an artist. It is the unlayering of that question with these different characters within this story where people are constantly trying to unlayer their stories or their destinies and find out who they are, where they came from and where they are going and to make sense of the world around them which is completely chaotic. If you look at a night sky, if you're untutored, it looks chaotic, beautiful but chaotic, and you can impose order to it. If you are ever in the tropics, say, or even outside a city and you look at the sky through binoculars, forget a telescope, you see so many more stars.
This narrative explores many areas of scholarship; do they reflect areas of previous learning on your part?
The areas that were real interests of mine were explorers, aspects of the desert, certainly travel and the tropics and Greece but I knew next to nothing about arachnology, pomology, Atlantology or astrology never mind celestial navigation when I started this book. I did a lot of research into astronomy and physics. I read The Air Force Survival Manual.
I do very organic research. I don't sit down and a read a pile of books when I start writing. I have a basic story or an idea and then I research as I go along. In the case of this book, the spider business was the notion of webs and fate and destiny. Spider webs call up the film noir sense of a web as a trap as well as our destiny; I was interested in that and I'd read somewhere about spider venom being purifying. My heroine, Alma, ended up with an arachnologist and only after she did, did I read like crazy about spiders so I'd know what I was talking about.
Is there such a spider as the Ummidia Stellarum that can strip our soul to its purest state and, if so, when can I meet one?
I made up the Ummidia Stellarum but the others are real. The trap door spider is what I know a lot about now. They have only one predator, a certain kind of wasp that comes in and paralyzes them. They dig burrows and line them with a silken web. They literally have a trap door that they camouflage. As prey or insects come by in the desert they open the trap door and pull the prey down in a terrifying manner.
What did you learn while researching and writing that surprised you the most?
The asteroids truly took me aback but also the intricacy of spider's lives, the numerous theories of Atlantis: I had no idea there were so many. The feats of memory in Quintilian and Cicero--just the ancients--forget about modern research into memory methods. I read about a Greek king who memorized the name of every subject in his kingdom, another guy who knew every soldier in his army, a man who had memorized all of the contents of the Alexandria library that burned down. What sphere was he operating on? Some of them are historically true. Some are sort of legend.
Another thing that is closer to our own time and surprised me was what nurses had gone through in Vietnam. I didn't have a clue and I keep up on what goes on. That was quite amazing to me. The heroism of these women and their sheer guts and what happened to their lives afterwards. I take facts and history and work with it. I think that is what a fiction writer does. I tried in that section of the book to be very respectful to what had happened. When I made Mala a nurse there, I wanted it to be very close to what happened to the other nurses there. That was my decision as a novelist. Samax, another character, is a gambler but I didn't feel that same responsibility to the art of gambling.
There are extraordinary names for the characters in this book. They resonate. What is the significance of these names to the particular characters?
A lot of the names in the book are star names and angel names. I started doing that initially because I wanted names that were very beautiful but felt natural and were faintly familiar to the reader, in a way. There are a lot of people that have names that I completely invented and/or everyday names. There are people like Ivy and Desiree--maybe not that everyday--Dolores. Also, a lot of angel names: Samax, Cassiel, the doorman Azu at the hotel.
Azu is an angel name? What kind of angels are they?
They're often minor angels. Samax is, I think, a minor deity among the angels, an angel of Wednesday evening. Azu was a guardian angel of doorways and I made him a doorman.
Are angels protective of time and place in the way that saints are guardians of particular situations?
It's both. Some are locations, some are purely utilitarian, some are just days--angel of the day Monday--that's it. There are others like Gabriel who have much bigger powers. I used the names of stars and, in some cases, I just gave people star names or used variations on the word star. For example, there are two women that are primary, older characters from the past named Stella and Astrid. They are like two guiding stars and they are two wild women--I don't know how else to describe them--involved with three different men in the 1920s and 30s and a lot of the characters find out they descended from these women.
All of the hotels in the book were consciously named after stars: Canopus, Capella, Rigal, and Alnilam. Alnilam was an Arab astronomer. A lot of the stars were discovered and mapped out by the Arab astronomers and they put their name on them. Canopus sounds like it could be a hotel in Vegas. I took the 30 brightest stars and used most of them. Sirius, the dog in the book, is, of course, the Dog Star. Vega is in there as a town. There is a nightclub that plays a passing role that is called the Bellatrix. I was very pleased that a lot of people didn't notice this consciously. I wanted it to work on both levels.
Did you begin by orienting the people and places around stars and celestial beings or did that come later when you began to find and develop the characters?
I started it right away in my earliest notebooks that I kept while I was writing this. It was almost four years ago that I started the book. Samax, for example, I had what kind of an angel he was right away. I was consciously making them up or using my source books for stars and angels to find names.
Samax was the angel of Wednesday evening. Why would that be an angel that you would choose for a masterful character?
Wednesday is a darker day and a day of woe. I think Samax is also an angel of wind and he seems like a magician or a whirlwind that moves people and things around. It's also a name that you or I might hear and maybe it would be a little exotic but it could be in the Manhattan phone book or the Chicago phone book. A man named Junius Samax doesn't sound unreal.
It sounds like a mysterious, powerful, behind the scenes man and that is just the sort of character he is but he is also a benevolent mystery. He also has a great thirst for knowledge. What sparked his curiosity and his desire to find and draw in the many scholars that he hosts?
A lot of the book is about people looking for lost things. My two main characters are lost. Enzo is a lost boy, literally lost; he's been orphaned. As one of the nastier characters tells him, he's been orphaned several times over. Mala is quite lost from having lost people. She's just kind of dazed from having been in a war. I wanted that theme to run throughout. I really saw Samax as a Renaissance man at the furthest point from academia where I have yet to find too many renaissance men in my wanderings as a professor.
He is very much an autodidact.
Yes, and some one very much of this world, the fallen world. He's been in prison briefly, having been framed; he's someone who gambled to make money, someone who came up from the streets and learned what he needed to and his learning is very eclectic. He knows Latin, he knows about nature painting, knows a great deal about certain types of art, and he certainly knows how to manage money, though that is something he treats as a necessary evil to keep his empire of knowledge. The notion of arcane knowledge has always interested me. The notion that there is too much knowledge for any of us to incorporate or to seek in a conventional way. You and I will die and we never will have even scratched the surface of all the books we might have read, the places we might have gone, by definition.
I've always been interested in people who take one little branch of knowledge, which certainly I haven't done as a writer because I'm always bouncing around different things, and explored it to the nth degree. It's as if, in a cabalistic kind of way, you might find an answer or an equation that explains everything. Everything about snails. I'm always interested in the guy who knows everything there is to know about oak trees or blowfish or a certain type of geography and that's what permeated my thinking in this book. The people at the hotel were very focused and obsessive about the knowledge they were after.
Samax would be the ringmaster of such people looking for arcana and keep his finger in many pies. He, himself, is much more catholic in his taste, thinking that one of these people might open a door that he can go through with them, so he is a wonderful kind of philanthropist. The ball he has his eye on is certainly not profit or even glory: it's the notion that someone might open that door.
What is his ultimate quest?
To make a fruit that never existed.
A perfume and a flavor and a texture and experience that never existed, as well.
As someone who has created many books and certainly admired many people in the arts, the notion that someone has created something in nature that's never been there is much more awe-inspiring. The notion of creating a fruit tree that never existed, a fruit that actually flourishes on the planet, seems an amazing act of hubris. It is a maniacal thing that Samax is doing himself. He is doing it in his slippers and robe at his most casual and yet his most intense. What I have happen there, as you say, is create a fruit with a most wonderful texture, color and scent all it's own but when we cut it open, the seeds, which are like kiwi seeds, each form a different constellation. In the microcosmic you find the macrocosmic, which is the oldest idea. I've been fascinated and haunted by the Hubble telescope photographs. I highly recommend to all readers the various NASA Web sites that I was into when I wrote this book. They literally look like things you would look at under a microscope. You are looking at tremendous galaxies and they look like what I remember from biology: the same shapes, the same forms.
Is there also that same motion?
The swirling motion, crescents, very much the same; of course, it is much slower. It is frozen in time. The notion that he would create a fruit and find in the fruit an opening onto the cosmos is hard to explain.
Samax hosts so many scholars in the hope that they will open a door for him into a macrocosm from their microstudies and then finds the way himself.
Well, you get a view of the bigger picture, that glimpse.
What does that teach him?
I have always believed what William Blake said, that if you want to find the universal you have to look and create from minute particulars. In Samax's case, I have him spend a lot of time talking to Enzo in the greenhouse, as he is creating this fruit, about the process, the type of soil, the chlorosis and the different diseases. I learned a lot about pomology while I wrote this book. It is a very exacting science: the grafts, the root stocks, the scions. All of it is a fantastic balancing act. In it there is a rhapsodic, giant moment when he opens the fruit and there is the cosmos and there's a different constellation in each fruit. It's hard to explain symbols from your own book but what I wanted in the making of this minute creation was to make the seed of a tree grow and from the fruit of this tree to find and unlock images of the universe. I don't know if we'll ever get to unlock the rarest secrets but I think that is what we all seek when we read a book, hear a symphony, go on a trip or fall in love with someone. You think you're going to have a glimpse of something you never saw before, some bigger moment.
That's certainly true of your writing.
interview by Catherine McWeeney
|Photo credit © Marion Ettlinger|