Dead Men Eat No Peaches: An Interview With a Cretin (and a new release!)

The first volume of The Minus Faction Omnibus is now available. It collects the first three episodes of the series (for less than the cost of buying the three individually) and includes some bonus art and additional materials, such as the following interview by my friend and colleague LJ Cohen, who asked some wonderfully insightful questions!

Omnibus Cover Vol 1 with stickerThe Minus Faction is all about people with special powers and abilities. What would your superpower be and why?

I grew up on Batman and X-Men. I mean, I read a lot of comics, but those two more than anything else. As a boy I was always fascinated with Wolverine’s and Bruce Wayne’s seemingly painful indestructability.

Superman is indestructible, as is the Hulk, but they are inhumanly indestructible. Batman on the other hand is completely human, and even where Logan is technically not, he still feels every bullet, every stab, every punch, just as you or I would. He simply has, like Bruce, learned to suffer through it.

That to me is the essence of epic heroism: someone who absorbs pain that would otherwise fall on others, and who does so consciously (and often repeatedly) with the hope it will make the world a better place. It’s why every religion has its revered saints and martyrs, those who sacrifice themselves in the fight against evil.

I am not a hero. As much as I am fascinated by superhuman endurance, I unfortunately have to live in the real world, where the pain of repeated beatings and burnings and stabbings and shootings would take an enormous mental and emotional toll. But as archetypes, both Batman and Jesus can do what none of us can, which is suffer forever.

I am, however, always in a hurry. I’m restless. I’m the type of person who says, “Just tell me how it ends.” At this point I my life, I think I’d like the ability to travel back and forth in time, just to see how it ends: my life, the current era, the history of man, the earth, the stars, and everything. But I’d always want the ability to come home.

Um, Wayne, have you not watched a single episode of Doctor Who? Seriously, man, that never ends well . . .

Maybe that’s why I haven’t been able to get into that series! I enjoy it. Some of it is absolutely brilliant. But there are times where it can get a little bleak for me.

But you write about some intense experiences. What are you afraid of? What scares you?

Well, shit. That’s a tough question.

Like everyone, I have some very pedestrian fears. I’m wary of heights. I’m not particularly keen on spiders and snakes, although my primary training is biology, so I am comfortable holding them once I know there’s no threat. But a few years ago, for example, I was watching TV in the basement. It was dark outside, and I had the lights off, and I noticed something moving across the carpet. When I turned on the light, I discovered a large brown recluse spider crawling toward one of my dogs. I’m not sure I’ve ever freaked out that much about anything. I must have killed that spider twenty times over, and I was screaming loud enough that my two 120-lb. canines tucked tail and went for the corner.

Blood and gore, on the other hand, have never really bothered me. I went to medical school, after all, and had to dissect a dead human. It was fascinating.

I think my biggest fear is probably the existential one: that somehow I’m wasting my one and only life, that there’s something else I should be doing, that all of my work will amount to naught and I should have stuck with medicine. That kind of thing.
I’m not sure it’s something we can ever really shake, which is one of the reasons I don’t enjoy literature that plumbs those depths. I have enough of it in my day-to-day life. I don’t need it in my fiction as well. I want to get away.

As a reader, I really appreciate the way you go to dark places, yet bring us back to some semblance of hope and humor. You’re not the only one who needs something to counteract the bleakness.

Well, thanks. A little bit of despair really goes a long way. In fact, it’s at the darkest times of our lives that humor becomes so important, and any recognizably human character should reflect that.

I think it’s also important to respect the reader’s time. As a writer you’ve asked them along on this journey. It needs to amount to something. That’s not to say every story needs a happy ending. But there should be a point. Otherwise you’re just a sociopath relishing the meaningless suffering of your characters.

How would your characters describe you?

John would say I’m not much of a fighter. He’s probably right. I don’t have a particular talent for advocacy. I’m not even that good at advocating for my books, and my livelihood depends on it! But then, I’m pretty sure most writers would not be beloved of their bad ass fighters. I know Scottish author Ian Rankin has said something similar about his character Inspector Rebus—namely, that if they met, Rebus would say Rankin was something of a pencil-necked wanker.

Vernal Wort, my shape-changing scoundrel from Fantasmagoria, would say I’m an easy mark, that I’m too trusting because I choose to assume the best in people (until proved otherwise). But I’m going to stick with that anyway. It inevitably leads to disappointment—people are often shitty, as Vernal would be quick to remind you, either directly or through his actions—but it also creates far more lasting connections than any practical alternative.

Harriet Chase, the ass-kicking monster-hunter from the third book of The Heretic Arcanum, would say I had a healthy imagination, and that therefore I might actually survive the creeping tide of occult evil that swarms under our feet. Although she wouldn’t bet on it. And could I spare some change?

Pretty harsh for your own imaginary friends!

Why should they care about me? I’m nobody. 🙂

Okay, so if you could be the character in any story (yours or someone else’s), which would you choose and why?

I’ve been creating hero-versions of myself, in my head, since I was a teenager. Not fiction, mind you. Personal adventure-myths that would make terrible books. In fact, only since my divorce—after which I had to face my life baldly and without shame—has that myth-making impulse subsided. (It hasn’t disappeared, but I find myself indulging it considerably less.)

I was never unsatisfied with my life. And I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never had to wrestle with suicide or severe depression. (So far.) But we all dream of more, and it’s only lately that I’ve felt my life is uniquely worth living, something one might actually choose versus the series of default options it had previously become.

That’s not to say my life is better than anyone else’s. It’s not a competition. It’s just that I no longer appreciably aspire to be the hero of a different story. I think a lot of that simply comes from experience and the realization that the scope of realistically possible stories is far more constrained than we expected as young adults, but that that diminishes nothing, that our lives can be every bit as magical as we had hoped, just not in the same way. And that’s okay. None of us should be slaves to our sixteen-year-old selves.

But I will add, if I had the option of living in a fictional universe, I would want it to be a simpler one where the monsters were always out in the open and I owned a fleet of giant mecha.

I found it interesting that my questions specified ‘character’ and you answered in terms of heroes. So here’s a follow up question: what aspects of your characters’ selves have an analogue in your own self?

Well, there’s two aspects of ‘hero’ there. In my youth, it was definitely the traditional sense. Like most young people, I wanted to be a victor. But even as that immature desire fades, as a rational adult, I’m still the central protagonist of my own life. (How could it be otherwise?) And I’ve come to see my story, my life, as one that’s actually pretty unusual: traveling the world, eating insects, falling in love, hammering chunks off the Berlin Wall, dissecting a cadaver, feeling the blast of a bomb, getting married, getting divorced, writing books. I’ve come to the point where I don’t want to be a character in a different story—I’m finally the “hero” of my own. And it only took forty years.

But I wish I could pass your question to my loved ones. I’m not sure there’s much of any of my characters in me, to be honest. The closest is probably Ian—his fascination with hentai and his somewhat selfish need to have his death count for something. That is, he’ll sacrifice, but only where the benefit approximates the cost. Such a requirement isn’t necessarily wrong or bad, but practically speaking it demands a lot from the world. Things wouldn’t be nearly as good as they are today if folks in the past—your average WWII vet, for example—had set such a high premium on their participation in history.

But then I think we share that trait with almost anyone raised in the suburbs of North America.

There are attributes in my characters that I value and aspire to—Xana’s dedication to her son, for example, is something I hope I could approximate. And I definitely wish I were more like Harriet. I wish I could just not give a fuck about anything, or wake up one day and just decide I wasn’t going to be afraid of anything. But I’m a normal, average, everyday cretin.

There’s that famous quote from Red Smith, often misattributed to Hemingway, that goes something like “There’s nothing to writing. Just sit at a typewriter and open a vein.” If that’s true, then I suppose I am a very bad writer. I always prefer to imagine richer miseries than my own.
But honestly, my family and friends might give an entirely different answer. Now I’ll have to ask.

Another of your stories, The Heretic Arcanum, features an occult, reclusive chef. What would be your most perfect meal?

As a retired foodie, I can legitimately boast that I’ve had quite a few world-class meals. But haute cuisine, like any couture, is built on ephemeral tastes and so I’m not sure there could ever be a single perfect meal, at least not one that could hope to last for more than a fashionable season.

I tell people that Etude—the shaman-chef of The Heretic Arcanum—is one part Sherlock Holmes, one part Doctor Strange, and one part Ferran Adria. Since I’ve not experienced a meal by Adria, that opportunity might be the only one in the world capable of bringing me out of my self-imposed retirement.

My two favorite foods—outside of the typical Western stand-bys like pizza and ice cream—are nigiri sushi and foie gras. Both are disgusting if done poorly. If done well, there is little to compare. Honestly, not even orgasm. Orgasms are awesome, and I wouldn’t want to stop having them, just like I would never want to stop eating pizza, but orgasms don’t have the depth or complexity of either of those foods. But again, that’s only if handled by a master.

Although to be fair, I suppose some people would say the same thing about orgasms.

Really though, any of the meals I’ve invented for Etude would be mind-bendingly awesome—if anyone could pull them off. My favorite is probably the first, mentioned in the first mystery in the series, Agony in Violet, which also happens to be the first story I ever published. Now I want to read it real quick.

So, I don’t want to take us off track, but to give you an example of the man—and remember, I didn’t know any of this when I met him—you should know about one of his more outlandish dinners, the Safari Gastronomique. Even if you haven’t heard of it, you probably saw the pictures because they went viral. There was one in particular that even I had seen: wildebeest tartare ground with turmeric and tapioca, covered with a goat’s-blood foam sweetened with freshly tapped acacia sap and served with a side of wild beet, mixed legume, and alligator succotash all in a woven bowl of edible leaves soaked in orange essence and tamari. It was dark when the picture was taken and a fire (not in frame) lit the foreground, including the basket and the strong black hand that held it. At the back, you could see the silhouette of a few sparse trees along the horizon of the African plain, stark against the fading glow of the just-set sun. The rest of the picture disappeared into darkness. In fact it was surrounded in darkness. The whole thing seemed to evoke the red-clawed mystery of the Dark Continent. You could almost hear lions rustling impatiently, preparing for their nightly hunt.

I love well prepared food, but my tastes run to the very simple. Right now, the first taste of a fresh picked tomato straight off the vine is enough to make me drool. A piece of dark chocolate. A bite of a ripe peach. Though I think I wouldn’t turn down a meal by Etude. No. That would be something.

Well, you said it exactly. I believe, following Joseph Campbell, that people aren’t so much looking for the meaning of life as the rapture of being alive—the affirmation of life.

Fantastic food, like fantastic fiction, or friends, or any of the rest of it, is a path to that rapture and if we’re mindful of it, it can be as simple as eating a peach.

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Thanks to LJ for allowing me to share part of our ongoing conversations! Check out her young adult space opera Derelict, the first in the Halcyone Space series.

DERELICT and ITHAKA RISING, side by side
DERELICT and ITHAKA RISING, side by side