Risingshadow has had the honour of interviewing Zachary Jernigan.
Zachary Jernigan's debut novel, No Return, was published by Night Shade Books in March 2013.
AN INTERVIEW WITH ZACHARY JERNIGAN
Could you tell us something about yourself in your own words?
Sure! I’m a 33-year-old man who likes riding around in a wheelchair (I’m serious; this is not a joke aimed at handicapped folks; I really like wheelchairs), Indian and Greek food and every other type of food, sunny places, and sitcoms from the 80s and 90s.
How did you become interested in speculative fiction? Have you always liked fantasy and science fiction?
Well, I’ve always been a fan of the genre, but until my mid-teens most of my exposure to science fiction and fantasy was through movies and TV, comic books, and video games. When I started reading literature in earnest, it seemed a foregone conclusion that it would be mostly speculative fiction. Still, for a few years I tried to be “respectable” and read The Classics, but I always found myself hoping a super-powered astronaut or two would show up in the text!
What are your favourite authors and novels? Have they been an inspiration to you and your writing career?
Oh, that’s a great question. Right at this exact moment, here are the five authors that most come to mind: Roger Zelazny, James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon), Samuel R. Delany, Cordwainer Smith, and Joanna Russ. As for novels, we’ve got Resurrection Man by Sean Stewart, Flesh and Gold by Phyllis Gotlieb, Creatures of Light and Darkness by Roger Zelazny, To Reign in Hell by Steven Brust, and Terminal Cafe by Ian McDonald. Ask me tomorrow, of course, and the lists will be different.
As for influence, I’d list Roger Zelazny and Samuel R. Delany as the two most obvious (to me, at least). Both author’s early novels explore mythology in spectacular fashion and had an enormous impact on me. I love daring, large-scale works that attempt to create a sense of immense legendary history.
Do you watch fantasy and science fiction TV series and movies?
TV series? No, or at least not often enough to call myself a fan. When it comes to TV, I’m a comedy fan exclusively — besides Antiques Roadshow, that is.
As for movies, I do watch sff films whenever I can, but they usually disappoint me. This isn’t because I think they’re objectively bad; it’s simply because I think written sff is so much better. Sometimes, a movie like Gattaca or The Fifth Element comes out and I’m shocked and thrilled, but movies that really compel me are few and far between. I wish I liked movies more, honestly. I always go in hoping I’ll like them.
The exception to the above is movies that blend sff and comedy. Galaxy Quest, Shaun of the Dead, Ghostbusters — that kind of movie floors me. I’m embarrassingly excited about Knights of Badassdom.
Your debut novel, No Return, was published a while ago. It's an amazing achievement in terms of story, depth, style and prose. What did it feel like to have it published?
Why, thank you! That’s a huge compliment. It makes my day to know you think that.
And the feeling of it being published...? Well, I don’t think there are enough exclamation points in the entire world to communicate my excitement and gratitude! Really, it’s about the most fantastic thing that’s ever happened in my life. I used to imagine having a book on a bookstore shelf, and the thought would make me sad because I thought it was an impossibility, a ridiculous dream. Now... Now I just smile a lot!
How would you descibe No Return to a reader who hasn't read it yet?
No Return is a violent, sexually-charged story of religious warfare on another planet. It’s got a badass mercenary woman who fights with a dull sword, a constructed man with glowing blue eyes, a fighter and a god in skintight armor-suits, the ghost of a little girl, and alchemical astronauts.
When I read No Return, I noticed that the planet Jeroun is close to a traditional fantasy world, but it has been spiced with science fiction elements. This is an interesting and original approach, so I have to ask what made you decide to write about this kind of a world?
Again, thanks! That’s a great way of describing my world, I think. When I first came up with the idea for the novel, my thought was SPACE OPERA, WITHOUT THE TECHNOLOGY. Though No Return ended up being a bit smaller in scale than most space operas, from a worldbuilding perspective the effect is much the same as in my original vision. Basically, I wanted to place readers in a world that felt old, full of history — and most importantly, founded upon a type of magic that could, possibly, maybe, in all actuality be a form of technology.
As to why I wanted to write that kind of world? Good question. I think it stems from the fact that, again, I like worlds that feel grounded in history to the point of having returned (or regressed) to a state of tecnological simplicity. I prefer the sense of gravity that it lends to the narrative.
You combine fantasy, science fiction and weird elements in an interesting way in No Return. Was it easy to use these different elements?
In all honesty, I don’t think anything about writing is easy. Among the tasks I had, however, combining those elements was one of the easiest. I had so many great examples of science fantasy writers to light my way, from Roger Zelazny backwards through the alphabet. I hope it seems new and exciting to readers, but from my perspective I’m doing an awful lot of copying the masters!
One thing I do find to be interested is the “weird” label, because I’m still sort of unsure exactly what it means. To me, the New Weird books I’ve read are simply intensely speculative science fantasy. Still, I like the books that are in this relatively new category, so I’ll gladly accept the comparison!
The cast of characters is wonderfully diverse from mages to fighters. It was interesting to read about the characters, because all of them were different from each other, so I'd like to ask what made you write about these characters?
I think, at its most basic, No Return is a series of character studies. I’m fascinated by people, especially those among us odd and intelligent — and yes, to a certain degree broken — enough to really surprise the people around them. I’m always disappointed by fiction that provides me with stock characters, acting in the same ways I’ve seen so many characters act in similar situations.
So, fundamentally, I wrote about the people I did because they are the kind of people I like to read about.
Of course, I have no idea if they’re as unique to the reader as they are to me — that would depend on so many factors, not least of which is my own capability a writer I am (which is a question all its own; one I’m hardly fit to judge) — but I do think they defy a few expectations. I think, in general, they’re more introspective than a lot of characters you see in speculative fiction.
Berun is an especially interesting character because he is a construct and is haunted by the spirit of his creator. What inspired you to write about him and his creator?
Oh, I’m so happy you mentioned him! He’s a particular favorite of mine. I think what inspired me was the traditional self-determination problem of robots and other constructed men. Whether it’s Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation or Bender from Futurama, artificial beings often express a desire to be their own creatures, determining their own fates. I’ve always liked that dilemma, and Berun is my particular riff on it.
Are any of the characters based on real people or are they products of your imagination?
All of them are products of my imagination, more or less, except for Churls and Fyra, who are based somewhat roughly on (maybe “inspired by” is a better way to put it) my ex-girlfriend and her daughter. I wanted their relationship to mirror the co-mingled love and emotional disconnect I think parents and adolescent children express toward each other. If it actually comes across that way at all in the text, who knows?
Because the suits and armors that the characters wear reminded me of comic book heroes who were costumes, suits and armors, it would be nice to know if you like to read comic books?
This is yet another observation I’m happy you mentioned, because it was a calculated attempt to summon the superheroic.
But to answer your question: No, I don’t read comic books. I did quite a bit from ages ten to thirteen or so, but I can’t really get into them anymore. I still love a lot of the concepts and the imagery — which is why they’re in my book — but the stories do next to nothing for me. Much like with movies, I find myself wanting to like comic books, but it’s just not in the cards, I guess.
I was impressed by the way you wrote about magic, because using elder coprses as a source of bonedust added a touch of dark fantasy to the story. It would be nice to know if you're interested in dark fantasy?
I am interested in dark fantasy, yes, though it’s another subgenre I have a tough time identifying/defining. Much of what ChiZine Publications produces falls in that category, I think, and I love their books. In general, I’m all for a dark and powerfully forboding element in fantasy stories. It adds such a compelling facet.
You write fascinatingly about sex, sexuality and sexual situations, and the sex scenes are explicit. What inspired you to write so boldly and uninhibitedly about sex?
Again, thanks! I agree: those scenes are very explicit, but my hope is that they move the plot and character development forward. As to why I write about sex, it just seemed natural for the story. I think that, among my one or two strengths, I write a lot of sensual descriptions. I’m fascinated by bodies, male as well as female, and by the appreciation of beauty in general. Sex is — for me anyway — a natural extension of that appreciation.
On a larger, more ideological level, I wanted to make a statement. I think it’s rather ridiculous, how sex is viewed by readers in my country. It’s still treated as if it’s something immensely dangerous and offensive, especially in genre literature. It’s... well, to be frank, it’s a stunted viewpoint. Sex is a huge factor in most people’s lives, so to view its portrayal as somehow out of the ordinary is — again, to me — ridiculous.
I’d love it if my book got adults thinking more about how we use sex as a device in sff. I’d love it even more if it made them think about how sex is viewed in the larger context of their culture.
It was interesting to read about homosexuality, because homosexuality isn't usually explored in speculative fiction. Was it difficult to write about it?
That, I can say definitively, was not difficult to write about. In the past it would have been, but at this point in my life sex is sex. I’m heterosexual, but acts between men and men or women and women are in no way objectionable or weird to me. The sex is just as beautiful or ugly, depending on how attractive I find the people involved to be. This is a hard-fought perspective, because I was raised in a fairly conservative household. I’m happy that I see no division anymore.
Unfortunately, I do believe there is a kneejerk fear of homosexuality in certain genre circles, just as there is in the wider culture. I intend to continue fighting what I consider to be the good fight by promoting the full range of adult sexuality.
You write fluently about violence and what it does to the characters in a thoughtful way. Was it difficult to write about violent happenings this way?
Yes, that was immensely difficult. I’m not a huge action scene guy, and I’m new to writing so explicitly about violence. For a long time, I couldn’t even read most violent scenes. I’m really not even sure when — or why — I became open to writing about violence. I take it as a challenge now, writing about the subject. It puts me in a bad place emotionally, considering what people to do one another in their rage (or “merely in the spirit of competitiveness}, but I think it’s important to stretch yourself, to try and imagine what motivates an individual even in their darkest moments. Also, I believe writing about violence can help you understand how greatly everyone involved is impacted by the phenomenon.
You also write about religion in an interesting way. What inspired you to write about religion and the sectarian battles?
It comes from two places, actually:
1. An interest in religion. It’s, literally, among my top five favorite subjects to discuss.
2. A dislike of religion. While it’s one of my favorite topics to discuss, it’s also one of the most problematic. I’m not shy about my antireligious/pro-humanist stance, and this makes commenting on anything related to the subject difficult. It’s my hope people can read my book and not feel that I’m making a statement about my own beliefs, or if that’s not possible at least look beyond them.
The cover art by Robbie Trevino looks amazing, because it perfectly captures the brutalness of the fight scenes. Did you work closely with the artist?
I think it’s amazing, too! Oddly, I didn’t work with him at all on it; it’s the sole product of his immensely talented brain and hands! I think he’s got a huge career ahead of him, honestly, and I’m so honored to have his art (his first book cover image) fronting my novel.
No Return is a standalone novel, but there are certain things which are left a bit open. Are you thinking of writing a sequel or a companion novel to No Return?
I am, definitely. At the same time, I’m not going to rush. I’m trying to be happy writing at my own pace, which is admittedly halting and quite slow. I can wish my process were faster, but ultimately we are what we are, no? It may be that when the next book — a companion novel to No Return that “completes” the story — comes out, I’ll have to build my audience up again, but, once more, it is what it is.
Another factor is my contract. Night Shade Books has an option on the next book in the “series,” but have yet to express interest in it. If they want another novel from me, they’ll get in touch. Until then, I have other projects in mind.
Are you planning on writing more novels or short stories in the near future?
Yes! I’ve currently got a very dark fantasy novel proposal (plus 20,000 words — as far as I’ve gotten in the story) on the desk of one of my favorite editor teams, and maybe they’ll bite and I’ll have a reason to finish it soon. I’ve got several short story ideas dancing around in my head, as well.
Is there anything else you'd like to say or add?
Just this: Thanks so much for having me, Sami! I enjoyed answering these questions immensely!