Friday 3 February 2017

"Identity seems to be my theme": An interview with Bryan Wigmore

After I finished mainlining The Goddess Project, I found myself very curious as to the influences behind the story. Fortunately, Bryan Wigmore is a very accommodating fellow and readily agreed to answer my questions.

PL: Could you give an idea of the main characters in The Goddess Project?

BW: Sure. Orc and Cass are two freedivers found washed up on a remote beach with their memories blocked. They feel like they were lovers, but because they look somewhat alike, they daren’t act on those feelings in case they’re brother and sister. The book is mostly about the monstrous mess they get into trying to recover their memories.

PL: Was that “can they/can’t they” situation the inception point for the novel?

BW: No, incredible as it seems to be me now, Cass wasn’t even in the story when I began mapping it out. All I had at the start was the idea of Orc as an amnesiac freediver raiding underwater ruins for something, with an otter spirit guide, and the people behind the clairaudio transcripts [PL: which readers can find between some of the chapters.] I still have the notebook in which I was jotting notes about Orc one morning in Costa Coffee, and scribbled “maybe there's a girl too”. Thank God for that three-shot Americano.

PL: Ah, so you're one of the “Powered by Coffee” breed too?

BW: Actually, for health reasons I've largely taken myself off caffeine since. The upside is that when I do now imbibe, it has more effect!

PL: So if not the characters’ situation, what did inspire the story in the first place?

BW: The rough idea for the book came about through a collision between Ken Wilber's Up From Eden, the anime Fullmetal Alchemist, and wanting to include my own experiences of freediving and shamanism. After “finding” Cass, and realising how well she fitted the themes I wanted to play with, I sketched out the religious/magical bones of the world. The story then developed through a combination of constantly-revised planning and pantsing. What that meant in practice was that I thought I'd planned it out in detail, only to keep finding that I'd done no such thing. I always had in mind three or four scenes I wanted to include, though. The difficulty, and the purpose of most of the planning, was to join them up in a coherent manner.

PL: Which particular scenes were those?

BW: One was the climactic fight, though that turned out very different to how I’d expected. The other was the “psychic disruptor” in the hotel room, loosely based on a supposedly non-fictional account of a trap left by a magician.

PL: So you wanted the magic element to reflect the kind people have actually practised?

BW: Yes – I’m no magician myself, but have met a couple of supposed ones, and read books by others, and, being naturally of a mystical bent, the subject fascinates me, especially some of the mystical-magical ideas that were floating around at the turn of the twentieth century: the Theosophists, the ritual magic(k) of the Golden Dawn, and so on. I wanted to include something along those lines, rather than fireballs and whatnot. The basic underpinnings of TGP’s world, that of a realm of information that exists alongside the physical one, fits with the ideas of the Akashic Records and Jung's collective unconscious. And those underpinnings fit with shamanism as well; it allows a lot of scope from just one broad concept. Almost all the magic in TGP is non-physical, and involves the magician or shaman either working on their own mind or someone else's, by connecting through the information-world of the psychosphere (something you could say is a bit like the internet). The physical element, manifestation, is allowed for by the notion that even physical atoms are only information, and that it is therefore possible in the right circumstances to turn thought into matter. And it all tracks back to some massive secrets in the story-world, of course.

PL: *nods* The similarity to real-life occultism was one of the things that really drew me into the book and is one of the things I wish was more common in fantasy. Are there any books that you think do a good job of drawing on these traditions?

BW: Some practising magicians from the Golden Dawn were writers, and the fiction of Aleister Crowley and Dion Fortune are both worth a look. Dennis Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out is a classic, of course, if a bit lurid and sensationalist. I also drew on Andrew Collins's write-ups of his “psychic questing” experiences, such as The Seventh Sword and The Black Alchemist (the source of the “psychic disruptor” idea).

PL: Only one of those I've read is Crowley and Diary of a Drug Fiend which I gave up on and have yet to return to. Have you read The Invisibles by Grant Morrison or Promethea by Alan Moore?

BW: The Invisibles I think is a work of flawed genius, tremendously exciting to those interested in magical reality, and I'm not sure I'll ever fully understand it. Promethea is one of the best and most accessible introductions to hermetic magic around, but is badly lacking in plot terms.

PL: Are there plans to look at more magical ways to the same path in the sequel?

BW: Yes -- one character in The Empyreus Proof begins to develop a more scientific-rational way of engaging with the psychosphere, in the hope of avoiding its danger of insanity. Being pre-computer, the analogy she works with is of catalogue index cards.

PL: Apart from the occult aspects, is there anything else about the 1900 period that particularly intrigues you? I want to guess the naval race between Britain and Germany but I could be wrong!

BW: You're not! Something about warships of that period has long fascinated me. It might have started with seeing the cover of Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds album as a kid. The dreadnought race between Britain and Germany was so ruinously expensive, and all to build machines that, though we recognise them as being fairly modern, would be outclassed by the smallest frigate with a guided missile these days. There's something romantic about ships of that period too, which post-WWI vessels lack for me

PL: Modern ships don't look half as cool either.

BW: As for other aspects of that period, the prevailing attitude to the body -- especially women's bodies -- is important thematically to the story I wanted to tell, though this comes out more in the sequel. Clearly we haven't left those attitudes altogether behind, but they were more obvious then. I wanted to try to get to the bottom of those, because I think they're very deep-rooted, and I'm not sure it's well-understood as to why.

PL: Does that theme tie in with the magic aspects at all?

BW: I think so. The whole skeleton of the story-world is based on there having been an exaggerated split between “male” and “female” in ancient times. The north got the male, and the south (Golgomera) got the female, symbolised by the splitting of the serpents in Orc's shamanic vision on the island -- the Mandala, the totality of existence, divides into Saeraf (fiery, winged, armoured, representing male, intellect and ego, sky) and Chthonis (slippery, eel-like, representing female, body and subconscious, earth). This was all laid down at the start of writing. But despite planning the metaphysics, I hadn’t really thought about how it would interact with the gender of the human characters, mad as that now seems, and at the end it started to worry me that the first book might almost seem to be the work of a misogynist.

PL: Because of the attitudes in Highcloud and the Victorian-Prussian-type Empyreum?

BW: Not just that. For example, I expected to be challenged about why there were only male viewpoint characters in the book’s first half. I did wonder about giving Cass an early chapter, swapping one of Orc’s. But then I decided I liked the way it’s all male for the first half, and female-dominated for the second (if you add the Goddess to the mix, though in terms of POV I think even the second half is 50/50 at best). It seemed to suit the theme.

PL: With all this talk of the split, and with Orc and Cass, would it be fair to say there’s a kind of yin/yang thing going on?

BW: Yes. In fact, that was reflected in a draft cover I did when I toyed with the idea of self-publishing.

Bryan's draft

I did show this to Emma Barnes at Snowbooks, who did the final cover. That has some of the same feel, though of course it omits the freedivers.

PL: Which is a major part of your story.

BW: Yes, though not the major part. But it was firmly in my conception for Orc, partly because I hadn’t seen it written well in sci-fi or fantasy, and as a freediver myself I wanted to include it.

PL: What’s freediving like?

BW: Amazing. It has many limitations compared to scuba, but I love the silence, simplicity and grace of it. If you're comfortable with holding your breath for fairly long stretches, then the feeling of hanging weightless in fifteen metres of water surrounded by sea-life is like nothing else. On holiday a couple of years ago I was able to sit on the white sand sea floor next to a (deliberately) sunken tugboat and study all the tiny fish in the wheelhouse, with a reef shark swimming around near me: an experience I'm sure will be burned into my memory for the rest of my life.

PL: You’ve indicated that some of the shamanism was from your own experiences too.

BW: I only go in for shamanism-lite, really, but Otter and Hare are my own main power animals (though “my” Otter doesn’t speak, let alone call me “bruv”). Hence their inclusion in the Fire Stealers myth within the story.

PL: The Fire Stealers myth was awesome. How did you pick the other animals?

BW: Raven and Fox are classic folklore tricksters; Sparrow for her cheek (I once saw one pinch nesting material from a blackbird's beak!) and Eagle probably because it would appeal to Raven's vanity to have so prestigious a creature involved.

PL: If anyone was interested, is there a particular starting point you’d recommend for shamanism?

BW: Fire in the Head by Tom Cowan is a good general intro with a Celtic focus. Healing the Wounded King by John Matthews, though a self-help book, was my introduction to the actual exercise of journeying (“scaping” as it's called in TGP), and is based on parts of the Arthurian stories. The whole tying up with the wild woods of England and Wales was part of its attraction to me. That’s also true of some of my favourite fantasy, such as Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood. I like fantasy that explores the nature of reality, or the margins where one thing turns into another, for which watery places and woods have long been associated. I also like stories that hint at occult secrets I might almost have believed in my more credulous twenties: I love allowing myself to slip back into that kind of mindset. My favourite stories also explore the magical side of nature, especially the darker side.

PL: If I was to say there's one big theme about the book (and I'm a pretentious git so I will), I'd say it was identity. There's not just the situation of Orc and Cass, there's Tashi's struggle with coming down from the mountain, the contrast between him and Ranga. Anything deliberate there?

BW: Nothing deliberate as such, but I could have predicted it -- identity seems to be my theme, for some reason, and always has been. If I can out-pretension you, it also links with the story-world, in that a crucial part of its history is the point at which the truly separate self-identity, or ego, became possible. In the history of this world, this is the point at which the Sun-King refused to sacrifice himself to the earth (as alluded to in Daroguerre's exhortation to Skalith). Orc witnesses it in his shamanic experience on the island as the two serpents separating. It's also the root of the exaggerated gender split I referred to above, and the Fire Stealers myth too.

PL: And now we’re reaching the end, what's been the hardest thing about writing your first book?

BW: Though this is my first published book, I have written others. But TGP was the first with more than two viewpoint characters, and managing the complex plot this allowed took some doing. It was also the first I'd written whilst being a member of a writing group, and though this brought many advantages, it did make me more aware than previously of the inevitability of someone reading it. And once it started to seem that I might actually have hit on something, there was the pressure to not muck it up!

PL: What were the preceding ones, if I may ask? How long would you say you've been seriously writing?

BW: I've been writing for almost 25 years, and I've always taken it seriously, though not always in the sense of applying a serious amount of energy to it. My first novel mixed ideas of the Nephilim, the Antarctic theory of Atlantis, the Anglo-Saxon legend that the faery were the third of the angels who refused to fight against Satan, and the story of a young man growing up in a seaside town in Sussex -- with identity issues!! -- who turns out to be et cetera. The only other long one I've completed was about a young man growing up on the edge of a desert -- with identity issues!! -- who teams up with an explorer girl to head off into the wilderness and find the secrets of their world and his birth. A massive laser cannon was involved.

PL: And what was the best bit of advice you got from the group?

BW: No one particular piece of advice, but thousands of specific pieces that can be broadly collected under the umbrella of not letting me get away with slacking off. And they got me out of a couple of horrible plot-holes.

PL: Also, what's the worst bit of writing advice you've ever seen?

BW: I had feedback on the desert novel that contained (roughly) the line: “If she isn't interested in being a mother, why make her female?” (And this was from a female agent!)

PL: Good grief. That's... kind of magnificent. Last question: what's your favourite moment in the book?

BW: That's a toughie. I think it might be the back-and-forth between Orc's and Cass's points of view at the Great Ziggurat. Or when Tashi both loses and wins in his final chapter. Or when Tashi runs with Yaggit on his back to save Shoggu. Or maybe when Orc first calls Otter. Or it might, now I think of it, be the story of his Initiation.

I'd agree with the latter three as well, although like Bryan, I found it pretty tough to pick as well. Thank you very much to Bryan for taking the time to talk about The Goddess Project. I hope this provided further elucidation to those of you who've read it - and to those who haven't, further inspiration to pick it up.