Excerpted from Cast of Shadows by Kevin Guilfoile. Copyright © 2005 by Kevin Guilfoile. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Kevin Guilfoile has written for McSweeney’s, Salon, The Morning News, and The New Republic. His first novel, Cast of Shadows, has been translated into more than fifteen languages. He lives in Chicago with his wife and children.
Q: What was the genesis of this project? Did the complicated ethics involved in cloning strike you as good material for a thriller, or was the inclusion of cloning an afterthought? Did any newsmaking events inspire the premise?
A few years ago I saw one of the prosecutors in the OJ Simpson trial on television and I turned to my wife and said, “wouldn’t it be something if Christopher Darden had secretly cloned Nicole Simpson’s killer and fifteen years later he brought out this teenaged boy and said, ‘Does this little guy remind you of anyone?’” I started thinking about it as a concept for a novel and Cast of Shadows evolved from there.
Q: How much research was involved in this book? Talk a bit about how you approached the writing of it.
I did about the minimum amount of research I could, frankly (although I did give the manuscript to a doctor and a Chicago cop to make sure I got the big things right). I didn’t want the technical aspects of cloning to bog down the plot, which was why I set it in this just barely alternate universe where cloning is legal–if you accept the premise that human cloning is commonly used as a fertility treatment then you don’t need to be concerned with how Davis manages to clone AK’s killer. Once that decision was made, it opened the story up to the political and ethical debates in such a world and that in turn led to other revelations, like the character of Mickey.
Q: Where did Shadow World, the computer game featured prominently in the plot, come from? Do you think such a game is in our future–and if so, what kind of issues does it raise?
Initially I inserted it as a device to show the passing of time. One of the structural problems I had with the book was that it takes place over twenty years. If you accept that the start of the book is the present or the near future, then the end of the book must be twenty years on. I didn’t want to try to anticipate all the technical advances of the next two decades because I thought that would date the book very quickly. I wanted the world at the end of the story to feel not too different from the present. But I also wanted to acknowledge that time was passing and I thought if I introduced this game and then recognized the technical advances in Shadow World as years went by, the reader could feel time passing without being distracted by all the flying cars and light sabers and so forth. But once I had Shadow World, I realized it presented opportunities–for instance, a teenaged boy could be involved in a violent action sequence. I also became interested in exploring the “True-to-Life” idea as a parallel to cloning. Of course, in real life there are games that do a similar thing on a much smaller scale–The Sims for instance–and it’s not surprising to me that The Sims is the best-selling video game of all time. I don’t know if it will ever be taken to the extremes portrayed in the novel, but the connections Sally and Justin and Sam have with Shadow World feel genuine to me.
Q: Cast of Shadows offers some real social commentary–on cloning, religious radicalism, video games to name a few–was this one of your goals or just a function of the various turns the plot takes? How much of this did you intend?
I didn’t think to myself “I want to write a book that comments on this particular issue” and then sketch out the story. My main concern in writing CoS was to develop this situation and these characters and find out what happens to them. The political, ethical, and social issues were raised and considered in the course of the telling.
Q: Did you set out seeking to answer any particular question with this book? Was there any point that you wanted to make? If so, do you think you’ve accomplished this?
Normally if I sense a writer is going to lecture me I put the book down right away, so it’s pretty rare that I feel compelled to write because I want to tell somebody something. Even when I’m writing short humor (http://www.guilfoile.net/kevin.php) I generally write about things I’m still trying to work out in my head. I’d rather write stories that raise a lot of questions and then the reader and I are free to come to separate conclusions off the page.
Q: What, for you, is this book about?
For me it’s about how all our decisions (or nearly) are made with imperfect information. We are fated to live a life in which the number of things we know is dwarfed by the number of things we don’t. No one in this story knows the whole truth (even if they believe otherwise) and the decisions they make are frequently disastrous. Together they might have been able to connect all the dots but they never do. In the end it is Joan, still acting with incomplete information, who finally says, “Enough. It ends now.” Although that was done selfishly and it was certainly not the “right” thing to do (with respect to the fate of Sam Coyne of course, it’s tragic) in the context of everything that went before, I hope the reader feels a kind of relief.
Q: Talk a bit about the current scientific and moral debates of cloning, and where you think it’s poised to go. What is the most confounding question, in your opinion, facing us with respect to cloning?
Midway through Cast of Shadows Davis gives a speech in which he says:
“Walter and I debate this issue every time we get together. He suggests that just because we can clone human beings, doesn’t mean we should. I tell him he’s answered the wrong question. If we can do something–to increase health, to increase happiness–doesn’t that mean we must?”
I wouldn’t be in favor of cloning human beings, of course, but with respect to the current debate over stem cell research I think Davis makes a fairly persuasive argument in favor. We need to be mindful of where we will draw the lines in the future, but I don’t believe the existence of a slippery slope means we should ignore great things that might be possible as we try to make our the way safely down the mountain. Technology will always be opening doors we wish were half shut, but we should never become paralyzed by ideas. Nevertheless, cloning, like nuclear power, might be one of those scientific achievements we stumble upon before we are ready. I suppose Cast of Shadows could be read as a cautionary tale (and that’s the right of the reader), but I really only meant it as a story about particular people who make bad choices. The technology that enables them is incidental.
Q: Metaphysical questions feature in the plot–can a three year old have a past? Where does identity reside? Is it nature? Is it nurture? Was this something you wanted to cover?
I don’t pretend to be a philosopher. I am interested in philosophy. I have been a student of it. I’m a fan. I like to talk about it to the annoyance and amusement of my friends. But I like to talk about baseball, too. That doesn’t mean I think I could play shortstop for the Yankees. I love Walker Percy’s novels (and also Dostoevsky’s), which are largely concerned with similar existential issues, and I imagine most any novels I am lucky enough to complete will tackle similar themes. However, if I live to be 84, as old as Walker when he died, I don’t expect to have answers to those questions. The philosophical stuff is great fun, but it’s tangential. In the end all I’m really doing is making up stories.
Q: You present two sides to the argument over cloning–one, a reasoned look at the pro-cloning scientific community’s rationale, and the other from the perspective of a radically religious anti-cloning terrorist. Was the goal to present two extremes? Where do you stand on the issue?
My motivation for introducing Mickey and the anti-cloning movement was strictly practical–I didn’t want to waste a lot of time on exposition explaining the heated political climate of the novel. So I borrowed archetypes readers would recognize from the real-life debate on abortion, hoping people would say, “Okay, I know what this is like,” and that would give them a shorthand for what was going on. I wasn’t trying to comment specifically on cloning (or abortion for that matter). I took the idea of cloning and I tried to explore the different ways people might think about it, but I wasn’t advocating any of those perspectives necessarily.
Of course there’s a danger in trying to remain neutral when it comes to a character like Mickey. I understand there’s an old axiom of screenwriting that says you never let your villain give a speech justifying his actions. I gave Mickey a big old soapbox because I thought the most horrifying–and realistic–thing about him was the way he rationalized his actions. Very few readers will actually sympathize with him, I’m sure, but they can take comfort that the other insane characters in the book think Mickey is really crazy.
Q: Talk a bit about the character of Davis Moore–his concerns, the sorts of choices he faces and makes. On the one hand, he’s an ethical scientific pioneer; on the other hand, he’s a distraught father playing God with his powers.
To the world, Davis appears to be a brave person, but the choices he makes reveal him to be a man of little courage. He sets out impulsively on a course of action but finds all the subsequent consequences unacceptable. He becomes paralyzed. Nearly every path Davis takes is chosen for him by someone else. As a result of his fear, because he believes he has too much to lose, Justin is able to manipulate him. Justin is right–for Davis free will is an illusion–but this is only true because Davis allows it to be. Clearly Justin, Mickey, and ultimately Joan, make their own choices.
Q: Were there any interesting changes in plot, characters, etc as you wrote the book? If so, will you write a bit about them?
From the start with Cast of Shadows I wanted to play off people’s expectations of a genre thriller and in the original story, I thought it would be very clever to set up Sally as the hero of the book–the too smart character who would obviously be the one to figure everything out–and then kill her off almost immediately. That’s what I did in the original draft. Unfortunately that meant I had to reincarnate her in a different character for the second half of the book. I give Jordan* credit for helping me see that was ridiculous. Sally lived and the two characters were merged into one. Much, much better. Also, the second half of the book (up until the last fifty pages or so) is very different from my original outline, largely because of the places Shadow World took it.
* Jordan Pavlin is Guilfoile's editor
From the Hardcover edition.
1. “A lot of people, particularly women, still find the idea of their genetic duplicate to be a little unsettling. An old classmate of mine wrote an article in the New England Journal of Medicine last year claiming some relationship between this phenomenon and female self-image” [p. 7]. Do you agree that women are more disturbed by the idea of cloning than men are? If so, what reasons—beyond self-image—might account for this?
2. Davis spells out the strict guidelines governing human cloning for the Finns [pp. 6–9]. Do these regulations adequately cover all the ramifications of cloning a human? Do Davis’s approach and the reactions of Martha and Terry [p. 10] raise questions about the screening process and other aspects of the system?
3. Is Davis’s overwhelming need “to look into the eyes of his daughter’s murderer” [p. 62] the normal reaction of a grieving father? How realistic is his assumption that confronting the killer will bring an end to his suffering and restore his and Jackie’s happiness?
4. The anti-cloning movement is presented from the point of view of Mickey the Gerund [pp. 46–50, for example]. How does this influence the reader’s impression of the movement? To what extent does Guilfoile draw distinctions between Mickey’s fanaticism and more sympathetic arguments opposing cloning? What parallels are there between Mickey’s attitudes and tactics and those of current anti-abortion protesters?
5. How does the Finns’ relationship with each other affect their attitudes about Justin? Is Terry’s interest in tracing the DNA donor understandable, or are his motives suspect? Why is Martha so confident that Justin will “get more of his personality from us than he will from some mystery man” [p. 53]? What does her attitude reflect about her attachment to Justin? What does it reveal about her own needs as a mother? At what point in the novel do her feelings change, and why?
6. Does your opinion of Davis change as the novel progresses? What particular incidents make him a sympathetic character? To what extent are his difficulties the result of selfishness or arrogance?
7. Is it unethical of Davis to ask Joan to keep his secret [pp. 71–72]? Does she acquiesce because she agrees with his argument? Are they primarily concerned with protecting Justin, or is it equally important to them to safeguard their reputations and their practices? When Davis later lies to his lawyer about the nature of his experiment [p. 163], is he motivated by fear or by what he believes is an inviolable ethical obligation to Justin?
8. When Justin exhibits violent tendencies at age seven, Davis dismisses it—“He’s a kid. Kids get in trouble”—and declares with confidence, “Genetics have nothing to do with it. . . . If there’s ever been a killer who had a killer for a son, it’s because the child learned the behavior from his pop. . . . Not because he scored the evil gene” [p. 97]. Why does his certainty gradually erode? Is it possible for Davis to be objective about the nature vs. nurture issue?
9. Guilfoile portrays Justin at various ages, charting both his extraordinary intelligence and his increasing tendency toward violence. How does this technique help to create an escalating sense of suspense? How does it set the groundwork for the ultimate confrontation between Justin and Davis [p. 203]? What does their conversation at this clandestine meeting reveal about each of them? Does the balance of power between them change?
10. Why does Guilfoile introduce the computer game Shadow World? Is it an effective plot device? How does it enhance the themes of the novel? How does it relate to the novel’s title? What other interpretations of the title does the author suggest, either directly or indirectly?
11. Justin says, “We’re not made up of our thoughts, you know, even though that’s the only way most of us can approach the question of identity” [p. 212]. Do you think it is necessary, as Justin maintains, to separate the thinker from his thoughts? Does he offer a credible alternative theory about how humans develop a sense of individuality and identity? What role does this, along with his contention that there is no such thing as free will, play in his quest to expose Sam Coyne? How does it affect the decision he eventually makes about his own life?
12. At the conference sponsored by the California Association of Libertarian Scientists, Davis contrasts his approach to that of a colleague: “He suggests that just because we can clone human beings doesn’t mean we should. I tell him he’s answered the wrong question. If we can do something—to increase health, to increase happiness—doesn’t that mean we must?” [p. 179]. Looking at this question in terms not only of cloning but also other radical medical procedures, which viewpoint is closer to your own? What experiences, religious beliefs, or personal philosophies support your position?
13. Mickey and Davis are both driven men, ignoring the law and the rules of society to achieve their ends. In what ways are their motivations and their methods similar? Does the fact that Davis’s quest is grounded in science and Mickey’s in religious belief make an essential difference in the validity and morality of their actions?
14. For Davis, an agnostic, “cloning was never about playing God. It was about replicating God’s work, following the blueprints of God’s greatest achievement and creating life” [p. 139]. After bringing Justin into the world and watching him grow up, however, Davis is forced to confront the enormity of his actions: “Justin was not conceived in a lab or in the womb but in Davis’s mind. He existed because Davis had wanted him to, and what kind of being does that describe if not a god?” [p. 240]. What are the implications of Davis’s confusion, both in terms of the novel and in a wider sense?
15. Cast of Shadows ends with a surprising confession. Do you find this a satisfactory conclusion? What light does it shed on the philosophical and scientific certainties that inform discussions about the balance between genetics and environment in shaping character? What do you think is the ultimate message of the novel?