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Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Interview with Josiah Bancroft (Interviewed by David C. Stewart)

 

Official Author Website
Order The Fall Of Babel over HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Senlin Ascends
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s review of Arm Of The Sphinx
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s review of The Hod King 
 
First of all, I want to thank you, Mr. Bancroft, for writing what I think is the best series of novels of the last decade, and for agreeing to this interview. Your work is difficult to dissect, not because it’s obscure or confusing, but because the mystery of it all is precious and to unravel it would feel like pulling at the threads of a fine Persian rug. But, it would be remiss of me not to pick at a brain that has produced this sprawling (in a vertical sense, towering might be too on the nose), epic, and thoroughly enjoyable work.
 
Q) What are your favorite themes throughout Babel?  Would you say the books all had different themes?  Do the different parts have their own themes?  For instance, the first part of The Fall of Babel seems to take inspiration from modern voyeurism, reality television, etc. 
 
JB: When possible, I try to avoid talking about the themes of my books because it’s so easy to slide from themes into a discussion of meaning, and I would hate to tell anyone what my books mean.
 
I will say I am interested in the effect of consumerism upon identity and voyeurism upon artistry. I’m fascinated by the incompetence of tyrants and their eternal popularity among nervous constituents. I’ve dwelled upon how avarice drives environmental collapse, how journalism often eschews societal obligation in service of itself, and how generational entitlement makes victims of children, born and unborn. I’ve spent a moment pondering why the Tower fell—not from the ambition of the many, but by decree of the jealous few. Still, I would never tell you or anyone what the books mean.
 
Q) If someone were to pluck out the eye of Josiah Bancroft, what would be the resultant scintillation?
 
JB: It would be an even split between me checking my dwindling hairline in a mirror or shop window and me gazing blankly into a ceiling air vent as I eavesdrop on the conversations of those seated around me.
 
I’ve always been a hopeless snoop. I’d like to say I’m a student of the race; probably, I’m just nosy. But people are so fascinating! We are such bizarre animals. I find writing in public impossible and most social outings intolerable because I feel like I’m drowning in voices, in emotions, in lives. Oh, this ubiquitous, inescapable zoo! These books are as close to plucking out my eyes as I hope to come.
 
Q) Do you have any blatant inspiration? Ida Allod and her son remind me of the characters from The Emperor's New Groove. Is this a random connection from my mess of a brain, or is there some inspiration? Are there others?
 
JB: I love The Emperor’s New Groove, and I’d never dissuade a reader from drawing a line between my work and that cinematic masterpiece. I didn’t have it in mind while drafting The Fall of Babel, but I’m sure it was rattling around in the back of my head somewhere. Honestly, I envisioned Tilda Swinton as Ida Allod the entire time I was writing her. Swinton is so talented at playing characters who are both aloof and insecure, domineering, and fragile. It’s rare that I have an actor in mind while drafting a character; Allod was an exception in that regard.
 

The single film that was most influential to the series is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. I borrowed heavily from that work—its iconography, themes, and tone. Senlin Ascends started as an ode to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, but it was Metropolis that gave me a sense of scope and possibility.
 
Q) Can you talk about your epigraph usage at all?  Is there any pattern to it, outside of the journals' continuity and the Everyman's Guide? Are there any hints to find within the crossed-out passages?
 
JB: The chapter epigraphs aren’t a unified device. By that I mean, I use them to do several things along the way. They alternate between world-building notes, thematic signposts, and ironic red herrings. Or more simply, the Everyman’s Guide is a compendium of lies except when it isn’t. One of my intents with the epigraphs was to create an archive of unreliable sources that were often treacherous, yet still sometimes astute. Many of the epigraphs are also ambivalent by design. You might read them one way at the start of the chapter but interpret them very differently by the end.
 
I spent nearly a decade teaching composition and literature at the college level. The pay was middling, the commute interminable, and the committee work abysmal, but what kept me going through it all was that I really enjoyed helping students discover and develop their own critical process. I didn’t want to tell them what to think, only how to examine and evaluate a source, an opinion, an authority. The epigraphs, by their very nature and placement at the head of chapters, exude a certain authority, but it’s up to the reader to decide whether it’s earned.
 

Q) The Fall of Babel has a strange method of separation. You have distinct Parts, but also what seem to be different parts, almost books unto themselves. This was not done in your previous books. Why the division this way?
 
JB: I have often said that there will be something in this series for everyone to dislike. I’ve received several notes from readers in which they express how they preferred one section over another, or how they wished I would’ve continued in this vein or that. Their disgruntlement, I think, is partly a result of the series not being any one thing. The story doesn’t even inhabit the same genre from section to section. It’s frankly absurd, but intentional. Which is not to suggest that my variations are all equal or even good. I try on a lot of hats. I suspect I look foolish in half of them.
 
One of the reasons I decided to call the series The Books of Babel rather than The Tower of Babel (as many still prefer) is because the series isn’t ultimately about the Tower. It’s about the witnesses, the interpretations, and documentations that attempt to articulate this object. The Tower is full of competing sources, viewpoints, and authors. The literal tower is just bricks on bricks, but the Tower-as-construct is a sprawl of disagreement, a bramble of individuals, a pageant of competing ambitions.
 
My hope is that those structural choices created a fuller vision of this strange and unlikely monument, but also, the story’s structures catered to my own struggles with focus and follow-through. The shifts in tone and theme and genre kept me invested in the project. If the sections had carried on as they began in chapter one of the first book, I suspect I would never have finished writing Senlin Ascends.
 
Q) Which Ringdoms did you want to write about but could never find a way into? Do you have names for every one of the 64 layers? 
 
JB: There’s an appendix at the end of The Fall of Babel where I list the names of all the ringdoms and their (nominal) function. It’s taken from the viewpoint of the charlatan and would-be raider of heaven, Capt. Joram Brahe, so I wouldn’t consider his notes gospel. Still, it represents the most complete Tower Directory to date.
 
The Shipyards were a ringdom that I really wanted to delve into. That essential slice of the Tower gets a glancing mention in The Fall of Babel, but it’s hardly sufficient, and I had a lot of inklings that I wanted to develop. I also wished I could’ve explored Algez, which was always meant to be a foil and counterpoint to Pelphia—as is particularly obvious in Part II of Book 1. Algez is populated by repressed stoics, as opposed to Pelphia’s flamboyant and melodramatic narcissists. I think the Algezian culture would’ve appealed to Edith Winters, which would’ve led to some interesting conflicts of interest. I had a few story lines sketched out that I abandoned in pursuit of my ever-fleeing quarry—brevity.
 
Q) Who is your favorite character, and why is it Edith?
 
JB: Edith is who Tom believed he was during his ride to the Tower: competent, judicious, and prepared. That’s not to say she’s infallible or invulnerable. She suffers mightily; she is humbled. And she has her moments of self-indulgence and indecision. But overall, she is pragmatic, capable, and willing to carry the burden of leadership in a way Tom never quite was.
 
What I like most about Edith is that amidst the mounting burdens of her station and situation, she still strives to maintain both her sense of justice and her interpersonal relationships. I didn’t want her to turn aloof in the last book, which I think would’ve been understandable given the circumstances. To me, she is the embodiment of maturity and the real hero of the story.
 
Q) Do you have any notion of seeing your work on the big or small screen?  Is there a danger in handing your work to someone who might give it, for instance, a really bad final season? 
 
JB: I would love to see The Books of Babel adapted to the screen—large or small—if for no other reason than I’m an enormous fan of the medium, which I have studied, copied, and binged. But if such a miraculous adaptation were ever to transpire, it would not be my vision. It would be someone else’s. I’ve already articulated my own concept of this story as well as I ever will. What a producer, director, cast, and crew make of it would be entirely their own.
 
Also, writers have very, very little say in how their stories are brought to life. Screen adaptations of books are like wedding party speeches: they are unpredictable, not entirely accurate, and sometimes embarrassing—though generally arising from a place of genuine affection.
 
Q) Had you always contrived a quartet of novels?  Did you know where Tom and Co. would be from the moment he stepped into the Tower?  
 
JB: I was about halfway through drafting Senlin Ascends when I realized I needed to sit down and sketch out the full arc of the series. Up until then, I had been bandying about the possibility of a much longer series, one that featured a single ringdom per section. Yes, there was a brief period when I thought to climb the Tower rung by rung, ringdom by ringdom. This was back when I thought that I could bang out a novel every nine months, back when I believed my efforts would be promptly embraced by a modest but ravenous readership.
 
But I always knew how this story ended, and I had the major plot movements in mind from the outset. It was drafting the Baths when I decided to axe the Algez plot I had in mind and combine some of those elements (specifically Georgine Haste) with the Pelphia plot line. The Adam subplot was always a sticking point, but in the end, I decided it did not necessitate an additional book. Both The Hod King and The Fall of Babel bear the bloat of a subsumed volume. Perhaps I should’ve gone with five books, but when I was plotting this out in 2012, I’d already begun to suspect that I was penning a boondoggle and there seemed no reason to draw the misery out.
 
Q) Is it fair to say that the ending of Fall of Babel leaves some real dangling questions?  Maybe even some unsatisfied resolutions? This isn’t a critique so much as a probe into why you chose to leave things the way you did – I firmly believe that stories can reflect life in their ability to remain unresolved. If there is too much a risk of spoilers, feel free to pass on this question.
 
JB:  Certainly it’s fair to say there are dangling questions. It’s also fair to say that some, any, or all of the resolutions are unsatisfying. I would never tell a reader how they should feel about the story I’ve tried to tell, nor would I use a postscript or interview to amend what I’ve written. I’ve heard and internalized the disappointment some readers have felt about how I wrapped up certain aspects of the story. Those disappointments are valid. Perhaps I’ve missed the mark with this finale.
 
My hope with the series was to entertain, to invigorate, and to stir my readers toward greater things. The Fall of Babel is a purposeful ellipsis. I will be forgotten; my books will be forgotten; but I hope the ripple that my efforts inspire will contribute to larger waves that carve upon distant, more urgent shores.
 
Q) What's next?  Are we done with Thomas Senlin?  Are we done with the Tower?  Are you looking to begin a new creative endeavor, or is it too hard to step away from this one that has been so long in the building?
 
JB: It is difficult to say goodbye. I spent nearly a decade writing the Books of Babel. I’ve been consumed by the Tower, the characters, the plot almost exclusively for nearly a quarter of my life. I need a break. I need a vacation. I’m 80% of the way through drafting a new unrelated work called the Hexologists. Though it’s set in a different universe, it’s not entirely dissimilar to the Books of Babel. It is broadly modern in its setting, weird in its elements, formal in its prose, and focused upon its characters, who are (I hope) generally likable and recognizably human. I don’t want to give away the shop, but I will say the Hexologists includes a greater representation of the trappings of fantasy: magic and monsters and charmed artifacts abound. Oh, and it’s a mystery book—something I haven’t tackled before. Everything is new, and I’m having a lot of fun with it. Importantly, I’ve also found a willing partner to publish the thing.
 
But to your question: Will we ever return to the Tower, to Tom and Edith and all these characters of whom I’m so very fond? I think so. Probably. Perhaps.
 
David S: It warms the soul to hear it. Thank you, Josiah. It has been a pleasure to walk the road with you these last ten years or so. I, for one, cannot wait for the Hexologists.

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