"What's the response been so far?"
"Oh, it's been very nice. There have been enough people at every reading for it to feel comfortable for me to stand in front of them and present myself. And the questions have been pretty engaged too so it's been a good time."
"What kind of questions do people ask that surprise you?"
"Well, everywhere I've been, somebody or another has asked me about Coca-Cola. Whether I've been contacted by them, and whether I've had to sort through any legal difficulties. So that's one.
"I've also read at a few elementary schools and libraries for kids that have been on the tour, just from the children's book, and you never know what sorts of questions you're going to get from an audience like that. I had one boy ask me if I would put his name in my next book. And his name is Jesse Wren. Wren like the bird."
"Oh, what a great name."
"It's a great name so I told him I would. And wrote it down and he was very excited, but it was a mistake because 50 hands shoot up in the air and everybody [wanted] to tell me their name so that I can write it down and put it in the next book."
"Can you talk to me a little bit about how you devised the notion in The Brief History of the Dead of this, our world, and the 'other world' into which the dead pass? You quote, at the beginning of the book, from Lewin's account of several African societies having that belief. Is that where this idea came to you?"
"That's exactly where it came from. Lewin's discussion of it lasts no longer than the epigraph I've used in the book which is only a short paragraph. He talks about this African idea of the three terrains of existence; the living, the sascha and the zimani. The sascha are those who have died and not yet fallen out of living memory. The zimani are those who have died and have fallen out of living memory. Although there might still be some cultural lingering memory of them, there's nobody left in the world who actually encountered them.
"He uses the notion as a way of introducing the idea that high school history classes should take advantage of the testimony of people who were alive to live through some of the events they're talking about. But, to me, it just seemed like a really intriguing concept. I probably read his book six or seven years ago. But the notion lingered with me, and eventually, I decided that it would make a nice kernel for a larger piece of fiction."
"I was interested that there are figures from the past whom everyone knows, Shakespeare, Henry Ford, or Mahalia Jackson, for example, that don't make an appearance in 'The City.'"
"I guess I would say two things about that; one of them is that these past figures, no matter what their cultural currency might be, no longer remain in the memories of those who are still alive. In other words, there's nobody around who actually encountered those people. Even if we can speak about them with some authority, at least in the case of Mahalia Jackson and some of the more recent people. The other thing is that in constructing this world of 'the dead but not yet forgotten,' I made a deliberate decision not to incorporate celebrities into the population of the place. You know, those people wouldn't necessarily be there if you actually try to work through the ramifications of the idea through which The City is constructed. But, I just have the feeling that using those sorts of characters would make The City an uglier place than I would like it to be.
"It just seemed to -- I don't know -- kind of tarnish the purity of the notion. Or at least the notion as I wanted to play with it. And, so I just ignored them."
"I noticed that in 'The City,' as you call it, some people seem to redeem themselves and their relationships and other people continue to behave as deplorably as they did in the real world. I don't sense any sense of Christian moralizing or judgment about that."
"Well, I guess I would say that even the people who continue to behave deplorably in this world, chief among them I'm sure you're thinking about Lyndon Trimble, even if they're problem children in a way, still, I would never be willing to withhold my own affection from them. The first thing I'm trying to do is understand them and...I hope there's not a character in the book who fails to present something pretty close to the center of their own humanity. Which is what I try to do in all the fiction that I write."
"Did you grow up trotting off to church as a child?"
"I did. I was born and baptized Catholic and then raised and re-baptized Methodist. I went to a Church of Christ School for about nine years -- first through ninth grade. It's very much part of my own background. I would consider myself an agnostic today. But, I'm still very interested in religion and I still read a lot of theology and a lot of fiction about religious matters. So, it's...a part of my sense of what people seem to hold dear."
"There seem to be two camps of readers: 'the happily ever after,' and the folks who are fine with ambiguity. What is it, do you think, that causes some readers to need that sense of closure?"
"I think that with readers of any type of novel, or viewers of any type of film, encounterers of any type of story, you will find people who feel the need to have every question answered and every spool tied off. And you will find people who are willing to allow the story's shadowy places to speak to them just as much as those places that are well-lit. I'm one of the latter. The stories I've always liked best are the ones that seem to continue growing and asking new questions after I've finished reading them."