Interview: A.M. Justice, Author of A Wizard's Forge

Leaps of faith: world building, religious disquisition and science fiction

I don’t normally interview authors on this site, but A.M. Justice, who has been supportive of my work, has written a genre-melding work that speaks to the kind of experiments I’ve tried in my memoir  and upcoming novel..

A Wizard’s Forge by A.M. Justice is primarily an exercise in fantasy that presents challenges that might occupy literary purists. Aside from the nods to science fiction, fairytales and fantastical world building, this story of a young woman’s many transformations deals with what could be said to be a contemporary problem. The inhabitants of Knownearth are divided between two religions based on the same founding text. Heretical to each other, they are engaged in both a long war of attrition and a cultural battle that ensnares the protagonist. The mix makes for an   intriguing disquisition on the consequences of religious and irreligious practices, and a prescient discussion on the fear of the unknown, and what happens when that unknown accumulates too much power. 

Q. A Wizard's Forge has two distinct belief systems on one planet. Without giving too much away, I'll say that one interprets its religion literally, and the other interprets it figuratively. Could you explain how this plays out in the characters' actions as they move between these civilizations? How do these different interpretations of the same text color their adherents' choices, decisions?

A. First, I was playing with the notion of literalism as a religious concept. There was a time in Western culture when the predominate view was that the Bible told the literal truth of creation, and anyone who viewed it figuratively was considered a heretic. Giordano Bruno, for instance, was executed for suggesting there might be intelligent life on other planets, and Galileo was kept under house arrest for daring to provide evidence to support Copernicus's theories. That's a bit off topic (although I do have a back-burnered historical novel that hits this topic directly), but I'm fascinated with the passion people invest in their belief systems and I couldn't help slip it into the world of Knownearth by flipping the notion of literal interpretation of a "religious" text on its head. So, over the millennia since Vic's ancestors became marooned on the planet (which is the "real" story of human origins on Knownearth), and their advanced technology eroded away, the myth of Elesendar mating with Knownearth's sentient trees to produce humankind evolved. The Logs--the records of the settlement of Knownearth--don't support this belief at all, unless they're viewed as metaphors for human origins and early survival on the planet. The figurative viewpoint therefore requires as much of a leap of faith as today's Christians who interpret the Bible literally must have. That depth of faith fascinates me, because it's something I don't have.

Meanwhile, Vic's atheism also requires extreme faith, because any proof of her ancestors' off world origin is long gone. All they have left is the hulk of the spacecraft orbiting the world, and they have no way to reach it.

Q. So is Vic’s society in denial? Whatever its condition, how does Vic’s atheism inform her decisions, as opposed to a character who is a believer/is a heretic? Is she more pessimistic? Fatalistic? Nihilistic? Does this give her courage?

A. Well, as the author, my position is that Vic's society is the only one (which remembers) the truth, so they're certainly not in denial. The real reason her people, the Oreseekers, separated from the other settlers and occupied one of the least hospitable parts of the planet is as much a mystery to me as to any reader, because I have honestly not developed the why of it. They do have enough contact with the outside world to know that others no longer believe as they do, and they feel a sense of righteous indignation about that, but since the mission of the Logkeepers was focused on preservation rather than innovation, they discourage any questioning of doctrine, even to the point of maintaining a now absurd hope that somebody will turn up with the knowledge and technology to get them back up into their spacecraft so they can go "home" to Earth. So, yes, I guess you could say the Oreseekers are waiting for a savior to come, and perhaps that's one reason why they've never moved from their remote corner of the world for thousands of years.

As for Vic herself, she realizes very early in the novel that no one is going to save her, and her self-reliance is an outcome of a secular, evidence-focused upbringing, and it also reinforces her atheism. So I don't think any of the adjectives you propose would describe the totality of her outlook, although in the moment she might be any one of those things. She also does call upon her world's deity the way lots of us do when we're in dire straits and covering our metaphysical bases: there are no atheists in foxholes. She sees how the Lathans around her derive strength and comfort from their deity, and she's both respectful and a little jealous of their ability to have faith in something outside themselves, even while she dismisses it as totally irrational. Vic is not a deeply philosophical person, and she's also pretty self-centered and action-oriented, so she doesn't dwell very much on the meaning of life, except to ponder the absurdities of her own life, and her struggle to be free in the face of a lot of people trying to manipulate and control her.

Q. When does a lost civilization decide it is no longer lost, and decides to settle down? I ask because of the difference in interpretation each society has of its religious text. One seems to be waiting for something to happen, some kind of rescue or reunion with its original purpose; the other is resigned to staying where it is, if this is the one that interprets the text literally. Are you making a comment on how advanced or mature a particular society is by introducing this notion?

A. Vic's people, who interpret the Logs literally and believe in the off-world origin of humanity, are the ones waiting for somebody to show up and take them home to earth. They've had a very long wait but perhaps because they're isolated from the other human civilizations, their beliefs have stagnated along with their language, which is English. The reader's clue to this is that Vic's people all have English/American names and all their towns and villages are named after cities of Earth. So there's less a notion of maturity than of evolution. Everyone else in Knownearth expanded across the continent and over time developed systems of commerce and governments that changed and evolved as the human population expanded and encountered new resources and new challenges. Their mythology developed as society changed and people put down roots and made their new world truly theirs.

Q. So what you're saying is that the society that interprets the religion literally is really the backward or stagnant society; it can do nothing more than await some supernatural like force (even if it is a scientifically feasible spaceship) to wrench it out of its doldrums. That's not what I would've expected – – they’re hoping for a kind of fairytale ending – – from a society that probably prides itself on maintaining the reality of their situation.

A. Yes. As I mentioned earlier, the Oreseekers are stuck in a rut where they're extremely dogmatic and stubborn in their beliefs and even though their beliefs are correct in the sense of being historically accurate, they've held them back as a society. Meanwhile those societies more willing to take a more fluid view of the world are able to embrace their circumstances and make the best of them. Hence Lathans developed telepathy (called mindspeech in the novel) along with their spiritual beliefs, and Trainers developed commerce and amassed wealth and power by trading with the indigenous species on the planet. Trade with the indigenous also gave humanity access to the Woern of the series title. Vic doesn't learn that name until Book 2, but the Woern are a neurological parasite that (confers upon) her telekinetic abilities, which people call wizardry in the book.

Q. Because you are mixing genres, could you tell us something about your influences? In the book, it's easy to see where you are borrowing from fantasy, fairytale, and science fiction. Are there specific authors you turn to in each of these genres? Why did you want to combine them in this book?

A. I combined the genres because for me that was the natural way to tell this story. I'm totally agnostic when it comes to the supernatural, but the one thing I do believe is that if there (were) a creative deity, it would operate in such a way that everything could be explained if one had the knowledge and resources to run the experiments needed to explore the nature of the problem. I grew up loving pure fantasy like Tolkien's  Lord of the Rings trilogy, but because I have an analytical mind, I really liked books that provided a scientific, or science fiction-y, rationale for supernatural occurrences (although I hate it when science fiction explanations in books/movies don't jive at all with known science). As a teen I loved Anne McCaffrey's Pern books , and it's pretty obvious there are parallels between Vic and Lessa as well as between Pern and Knownearth, which are both lost space colonies where the present-day civilizations subsist on pre-Industrial technology. The Harpers Guild of Pern was also a model for Latha's Minstrels Guild, and then I decided to base Latha's entire economy on a guild system. The fairytale influences were more subliminal, at least in the early drafts. I grew up reading and rereading Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen. I loved those stories and probably internalized them to a large degree. Certainly Andersen's work influences the grim, dark aspects of my stories, where the heroes and heroines don't necessarily end up on top, and the villains don't necessarily get their just desserts, as they do in Grimm's stories.

Q. Does mixing genres have any disadvantages: I can think of one, in terms of marketing. I’m also wondering whether people are willing to accept science fiction in their fantasy, or do readers tend to be purists?

A. To answer your question, yes, marketing and reader acceptance are a little challenging. I recently joined a group called the SciFan Society, which was founded to promote the science fantasy as a stand-alone genre, because there are actually a lot of works out there that blend the science fiction and fantasy. Still, quite a few readers/reviewers have been baffled by the blended story. The hard core (science fiction) people want less romance and more tech. For instance, one reviewer wanted a story fully centered around the Device--the novel's transporter/teleporter/time-space portal. The fantasy readers, who probably aren't that experienced with (science fiction) world building, wondered why Vic's planet was so earth-like. I wrote a blog to answer that question.

In terms of marketing, it is a bit tough to check the right boxes and make sure you're reaching the right audience. But having put the book up on NetGalley, I found the real audience problem wasn't with the (science fiction) and fantasy readers. Instead, my publisher and I made the mistake of classifying it as a New Adult book as well as a science fiction/fantasy one. Thus it attracted a lot of people who like (Young Adult) and thought that's what they were getting because it's an adventure featuring a teenage-to-young-adult protagonist. A lot of these readers were unprepared for the story's grim and dark aspects, and most of them have missed the deeper threads you so astutely picked up on.

Q. Again, without your having to give away too much, how are you going to handle the second book in this saga? I'm specifically thinking of the trouble many second or third books or movies in a trilogy or a quartet have that the first and last books or movies do not have. How do you hold off on certain actions or resolutions, while still keeping the tale suspenseful?

A. The second book (A Wizard’s Sacrifice) is written to stand on its own and it also completes Vic's and Ashel's story in the sense that one chapter of their lives will close at the end of that book. The nature of Vic's power, the … prophesy about her, and the intrigues that tie Vic, Ashel, and Lornk, and their families together will be all be covered. Then, the third book in the series will recount events that happen nearly twenty years after A Wizard's Sacrifice ends. In many ways, the third book is a separate story altogether, but one featuring the same characters and detailing the long-term consequences of actions taken in the first two books.

Q. You’ve said in reader’s guides that A Wizard’s Forge is based on Grimm’s Rapunzel. Why Rapunzel? Why did you want to start there? Do you consider her particularly helpless and therefore a great place to begin developing a woman who will someday become the mightiest?

A. I wish I could say the Rapunzel influence was intentional, but I wasn't that clever about it. I realized after I wrote the first draft that A Wizard’s Forge was a retelling of Rapunzel, and then I worked on shaping the story to emphasize some of the Rapunzel elements, like the hair and the tower, the commoditization of children, and the notion of controlling a woman through her sexuality. But the ultimate aim was to tell a story of a woman who undergoes a transformation from powerlessness to total empowerment and how she deals with each phase of her transformation. I'll note that in the second book, I do deliberately continue the Rapunzel theme. Vic and Ashel will overcome some difficulties and marry pretty early in book 2, and almost immediately afterward they'll be forcibly separated and spend the rest of the novel trying to get back to each other. Even though it's the briefest part of the original Grimm’s Rapunzel, it's my favorite part--the idea of this couple wandering in the wilderness, separated and in despair, and then finding each other in the end.

Q. Fairytales are about many things, including transformation and survival in a hostile, adult controlled world. Once these two characters marry, how much of the fairytale arc must they find their way through? Will they not be fully ready for each other, or fully adult and in control of their fate, until they undergo other fairytale like transformations?

A. It's a bit of both. Ashel and Vic have A LOT to work through in A Wizard's Sacrifice Vic carries a lot of guilt about how things go down at the end of A Wizard's Forge, and Ashel carries a ton of resentment that emerges out of what he learned about his family and also Vic's actions. Neither of them will be in control of their own destiny nor ready for the hard, day-to-day grind and compromise of married life until they work through these issues. I think of it this way: A Wizard's Forge is about revenge and its really dire consequences for both the avenger and his or her target. A Wizard's Sacrifice is about forgiveness, and how really difficult it is to do, especially when you must forgive yourself or someone you love.