Excerpted from One King, One Soldier by Alexander C. Irvine. Copyright © 2004 by Alexander Irvine. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
DR:Tell us about your new novel, One King, One Soldier.
AI:One King is a kind of secret history involving Arthur Rimbaud, imperialism, the Ark of the Covenant, baseball, and the Grail legend. Also the emergence of beat literature, the importance and danger of belief, and the possibility of atonement. At least that’s what it seems like to me; readers will come to their own conclusions.
DR:Where does the title come from?
AI:Good question. I have a miserable time with titles, and didn’t come up with this one until after the book was done. At any given moment in the book, one of the three main characters is a kind of soldier, and another is a king–whether he knows it or not. Their relationships with each other shift constantly but take place within this framework. In that way, the title glosses what happens in the book without referring to a specific event.
DR:I was reminded of some of the fiction of Tim Powers, especially his novel Last Call. Was he an influence? What other writers have influenced you?
AI:I’ve read all of Tim’s books and enjoyed them. For the idea of taking gaps in history and backfilling them in interesting ways without contradicting the historical record, I’m indebted to him, and Last Call certainly rang some cool new changes on the Arthur story. I think our approaches to the world–insofar as you can infer this from reading someone’s books–are very different, though. Other influences, man, that’s a long list. I carry around little bits of all the writers I admire, from Cervantes all the way up to whatever it is that’s in my pocket right now. Which happens to be Elmore Leonard.
DR:I’ve always been fascinated by the life of Rimbaud. What made you choose him as a major character in your novel?
AI:He’s too interesting not to. I was reading a book called Rimbaud in Abyssinia in which the writer tried to retrace the poet’s (or, by that time, ex-poet’s) movements in the Horn of Africa, and I was captivated by the combined bravura and incompetence and bad luck that characterized the last half of Rimbaud’s life. He tried to do everything, and wasn’t always very good at it, but he had determination and willpower in spades, and he wrote these amazingly cranky and demanding letters to his mother and sister all the time, wanting them to send him books and scientific instruments. He was so outsized that I wanted to dig into his character a little. Then I’d also been reading some Grail stuff for a grad-school class, and when I read that Rimbaud had died of a tumor in his leg, I thought, hey: that’s kind of a Fisher King wound, isn’t it? And things went from there.
DR:Where does the baseball angle of the novel come from? Is the character of George Gibson based on a real player?
AI:Well, this is where Jack Spicer comes in. I’d read his poetry and appreciated it, and had this cracked idea to write a book in which he and Philip K. Dick are characters; Dick and Spicer were roommates for a short time in, I think, 1949, and Spicer remained a fan until he died in the 60s. But Spicer took Rimbaud very seriously as a poetic ancestor, and he also wrote these exploded Arthurian poems...and he was a big baseball fan. He even wrote a couple of baseball poems, and I decided that one of the characters in One King should be deeply involved in baseball, which is a kind of rite of spring that–if you’re in the right frame of mind–can be made into a fertility ritual. So that’s why George Gibson exists. He’s not based on a real player.
DR:George’s nightmarish journey through an Africa despoiled by its Colonial masters rivals anything in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Is there historical documentation for the atrocities George witnesses, or have you exercised a novelist’s prerogative and made things up?
AI:There’s a guy named George Washington Williams who documented much of the worst horror of Leopold’s Congo as it was happening, and published some of his findings in American newspapers. I used some of that. The Congo in the years after 1890 was one of the worst places to be in the history of the world, as books like King Leopold’s Ghost have made clear. Then I also made things up. All of the logistics about Stanley and Emin Pasha is historical.
Heart of Darkness itself was of course an inspiration as well, and Conrad makes a brief uncredited cameo appearance.
DR:You mentioned the poet Jack Spicer. One King features epigraphs from his work, and he also appears as a character. I don’t think many people are aware of Spicer today. How did you discover him, and what attracts you to his poetry?
AI:I first read Spicer in a poetry seminar in grad school. His poetry is interesting for its odd combination of rhetorical whimsy with this intense passion for love and connection. Apart from his Arthurian poems, he wrote a longish poem called “A Fake Novel About the Life of Arthur Rimbaud”; so that connection was there for me to explore. And any guy who said, as Spicer did, that his source of poetic inspiration was Martian radios was impossible to ignore. He was this literary magpie, picking up little bits from Lorca and Rimbaud, and also his contemporaries like Creeley and Olson and Duncan, which makes his poetry read like a kind of palimpsest, and in that way Spicer’s poetry maps nicely onto the secret history of the book.
DR:Poetry is obviously important to you. How does it influence your fiction? Does poetry has a special relationship to fantastic fiction?
AI:A friend of mine once said that poetry exists at least in part to purify the language of the tribe. It forces language into new configurations, restores its freshness and vitality. I used to write poetry, and then tried to take some of the lessons I learned from it into fiction–with questionable success. I get leery of people who talk about “prose that reads like poetry.” The two enterprises are to my mind fundamentally different, although there are certainly odd borderlands where they overlap and collide. As far as fantastic fiction goes, I think it can have the same effect on literary or naturalistic fiction as poetry has on language. John Updike, for example, reaffirms our experience of our daily lives; Borges bends that experience and forces us to look at it with fresh eyes. By stretching and maybe deforming standard categories of understanding, the best fantastic fiction opens up new fields for everyone to explore. On the other hand, the worst fantastic fiction is every bit as hidebound and boring as the worst grad-school lit-journal fiction.
DR:Did you have any trepidation in setting out to retell the Grail myth, which, after all, has been done countless times, both in fantasy and mainstream fiction?
AI:Sure, but there was also a kind of excitement in seeing if I could bring something new to the story. Some of the people who read early drafts of One King were angry at the changes I made to the boilerplate version of the story: Lancelot wouldn’t do this, the Grail wouldn’t work like that, and so on. But the Grail story we take as the default is sort of a distillation of who knows how many earlier versions, a number of which were begun by one writer and completed by another. I didn’t feel any compunction about taking what I wanted from the standard body of myth and then mortaring it together with a bunch of other things that interested me. That’s what Malory did, after all, and if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me. Also, I wanted to write a Grail story that was about renunciation rather than this constant annihilating desire.
DR:Why did you choose to set your retelling of the Grail myth during the Korean War? Why not a more recent war . . . or, on the contrary, an older one? Why that particular moment in American history?
AI:The primary reason for this is the actual historical distance between Rimbaud and Spicer. Those two poets are kind of the foci of the book, if you want to think of it as an ellipse, which maybe you don’t...but anyway. Then I wanted to map the two soldiers, if you will–George and Lance–into a similar dynamic, and one thing led to another.
DR:Your first novel, A Scattering of Jades, also featured characters from history. Do you see yourself as a “historical fantasist?” Can you talk a little bit about the intersection of history and fantasy in your fiction?
AI:Part of the interest is plain old love of conspiracy stories. They’re all loony, but that impulse to find patterns in randomness is of course very human. I get interested in historical periods or events that seem to lend themselves to some broader topic I want to write about. Not to sound tendentious, because a lot of it is just happy accident, product of a lot of diverse reading and so on, but I encounter stories embedded in or emerging from historical moments, and they seem like stories to me because they speak to something that I would like to have a chance to write about–in this case longing and renunciation. I try not to make too much of a point of using historical people, though, at least not famous ones. Too many times that turns into a kind of fakey Historical Personages of the Year XXXX tour, a way to piggyback on the star power of famous dead people. Jades had PT Barnum, Stephen Bishop, and a pseudonymous Poe, but I tried very hard to minimize the presence of Barnum and Poe. Bishop was different, so fascinating and now forgotten unless you’ve gone to Mammoth Cave and taken the Historic Tour.
The fantasy half of what you’re asking comes from the same wellspring as the conspiracy thing I mentioned. I’ve just never been able to prevent myself from asking, “And hey, what if there’s a monster?”
DR:Here we are in 2004, and you’re still writing the old-fashioned way: not even with a typewriter, but with pen and paper. Why?
AI:Because it’s slower. I type pretty fast, and I get keyboarding away sometimes in a hurry to get to the next scene or the next idea without settling in and taking the time to really feel each word come out onto the page. A lot of moments in writing are pretty time-sensitive; you can drop yourself a note to go back and put in the thing about the streetlight, but then when you do, the texture you initially wanted is lost. Also I like the sensation of making physical words, ink on a page, as opposed to manipulating phosphors. When the longhand pages go into the computer, that’s the first revision.
DR:What other projects are you working on?
AI:A new novel, set in kind of a phantasmagorical Detroit during World War II. And there are always short stories cooking. A couple of them will come out around the same time as One King does.