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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Interview with Jacob Asher Michael

Order Buddha's Thunderbolt here
Read the first 5 chapters of Buddha's Thunderbolt here

Jacob Asher Michael is the author of Buddha's Thunderbolt (Read FBC's review here). Fantasy Book Critic's reviewer Mihir Wanchoo was able to interview Michael on many topics ranging from who his inspirations for writing are and what inspirded him to write such a unique story as Buddha's Thunderbolt.

Fantasy Book Critic would like to thank Jacob Asher Michael for agreeing to interview with us.

So could you tell us about yourself, your background, how you came on to the path of a writer and your journey towards publication.

I am a kid from suburbs who got into writing music, and ended up having had some success as a lyricist. Then about ten years ago, I read a book called Catastrophe by David Keys about the environmental changes that forced the Huns and Saxons to migrate after the fall of the Roman Empire. From that, I came up with an idea for a graphic novel about a Buddhist monk taken east to Europe with the Huns. I took courses, found other writers, and twenty-seven drafts later, I had a novel.

What were the books you think helped get you hooked on reading and thereby get you started on to this path?

Cat’s Cradle and Kerouac’s On the Road were both favorites of mine, and I may be the only person on earth who thought Moby Dick was a page-turner. All these stories deal with an outsider taking a strange journey with a cast of oddballs. That was what I ended up writing about.

How do you go about writing Buddha’s Thunderbolt, did you have a concrete outline from the beginning to the end or did you have a vague idea which ended up with you finishing this uncredulous tale? More specifically what school of writing is your preference [Outlining, Freewriting] and is there an example of a character developing into something that you never expected?

I always knew how the story would begin and end. The middle was the hard part. I have been a songwriter for years, and if I can get a good first line and a good last line, I can usually finish the song. So initially, I wrote it like a song. Although I never had a formal outline, I did have a sense for where Merlin needed to travel. I had to get him from Britain to India, to China and back to Britain. That required a series of stories. I also followed the Arthurian legends, but threw in some new characters, in part to add more women’s voices. One new character, Thumbs the hunchback, started out having a minor role, but I kept finding reasons to make him reappear. He ended up being Merlin’s doppelganger. While Merlin was a moral man who did unethical things, Thumbs was a con- man with a heroic side.

How would you classify Buddha’s Thunderbolt in terms of genre [I have heard of it being described as Buddhist fiction] What would you say to a new reader to give your book a try?

I took a course from sci-fi writer Gregory Frost, whose courses I highly recommend, and he told me to write first, then figure out the genre. I like to think of BT as a surrealistic historic fiction. I suppose the term “speculative fiction” would work as well. Anyone who likes quirky stories with lots of twists, would like BT.

When you began writing Buddha’s Thunderbolt did you plan it to be a standalone or is there any possibility of a sequel to it?

I originally had no plan for a sequel, but now I am writing one. In this story, King Arthur is not killed at the battle of Mount Cam, but is captured by the Saxons, and eventually travels east to China. I am merging his story with legends from Persian, the Silk Route, and China. I also have a prequel outlined about Atilla the Hun’s African Dwarf, in which Merlin plays a prominent role.

As far as plot settings go, the Arthurian mythos has been used wide spread by many, many authors. What made you think of choosing it for the basis of your plot? What parts have you incorporated in your tale and what parts did you choose not to?

I originally just wanted to write a story about a Buddhist stranded in Roman Europe. I half-jokingly described it as “a Buddhist in King Arthur’s court.” My sister Ann said that if I made the main character Merlin, the book might actually sell. From there, I did some research about the Arthurian tales, and I decided to focus on the bits that had some sort of historical possibility. So the dragons dropped out, but the Saxons stayed in.

What specifically was your intention behind writing this tale and what research did you undertake while writing about it?

I suspect it would take years of therapy for me to figure out what my intention was. But one of my goals was to present historic figures and events in a way that we could relate to today. I spent ten years writing and researching. What I find intriguing about the 4th and 5th Centuries is that the Western World regressed, and people stopped writing. As a result, you can only get scraps of reliable information. This is nice for me as a writer, because it leaves me huge gaps to fill.

The main narrator of your tale is Merthen[Merlin] amidst all the characters of the Arthurian saga, what made you focus on Merlin alone as the primary focus of this tale?

Among the Arthurian characters, Merlin’s origins are most murky. If I wanted to have someone travel to India, Merlin was the one who could do it. In a way my approach was quite like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, with just one character out of place.

Who are the people who can lay claim to being your literary idols and which books are your favorites amongst the many genres that you read in?

Kurt Vonnegut is pretty much the Zeus in my pantheon. I also like Redmond O’Hanlon who documented his travels in Into the Heart of Borneo and In Trouble Again. I like the way he describes exotic cultures in a way that shows they are just folks like us.

What do you do when you are not writing or reading books? What are your other hobbies?

I write songs and perform music with a reggae-samba band called the Flying Mangos. And for my real job, I work as environmental and open space land planner for Chester County, PA. I write guidebooks and plans for local governments, which is actually a good way of keeping up my writing chops.
What led you to the choice to write this book using the third person narrative considering it’s your debut. How difficult/easy was it? What's your idea in the debate between using first or third person narratives in any story?

I originally wrote it in the first person, then the third. My biggest problem was that I had to describe some rather obscure historical stuff. Everybody knows what a knight looks like, but the ritual scars on a Hun’s cheeks take some explaining. These explanations kept bogging down the pacing, so I finally rewrote BT using third person omniscient where the narrator only knows what the main character knows. This worked perfectly. I only recently found out that the Lord of the Rings was written that way.

What books have recently impressed you the most? What are you currently reading? What titles are you most looking forward to?

I am currently reading Musicophila by Oliver Sachs. Next on the list is the Shamena: The Persian Book of Kings written in the 10th century.
Usually stories with an Arthurian-Merlin setting often deal with magic and violence as was the original mythos, your story is a rather clever departure from these aspects, what would say to readers looking for the same over here as well? How do you justify your take on these events?

There is indeed a great deal of violence in most ancient legends and modern popular books. Since I was trying to write Buddhist fiction, I was not keen on glorifying violence. Besides, every story I ever heard from a Vietnam vet was very un-glorious, and they saw the real deal. So I decided to make all my violence clinical and kind of gross. Buddhism is all about transforming unpleasant suffering, so I wanted to make sure the suffering was unpleasant. I got rid of magic because I wanted my Merlin to be different from all the rest. That book has already been written.

This book has also won first prize for Science Fiction and Fantasy at the 2006 Philadelphia Writers Conference. Could you recant the events which lead to this momentous event and its ramifications for your professional career?

I simply mailed in my manuscript and was amazed that I won. I wandered the streets of Philly in a joyous daze, and found myself walking down a completely empty street, until a line of women on motorcycles slowly drove up behind me. Turns out it was the beginning of the gay pride parade. All joking aside, that award significantly helped get my e-mails answered when I contacted agents. I put it in a frame. It was a greatly needed encouragement. I recommend all starting writers hit the conferences.

In closing, any last words for our readers and what we can expect from you next?

I have a few more novels sketched out in my mind. One is about the Miami Indian Chief Little Turtle, and another is about six inch-tall aliens who eat hair and sleep for twenty-three hours a day. The last is a retelling of the Biblical story of Joseph in which Pharaoh has dreams about locomotives and overhead telephone lines.



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