Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Interview with Briane Pagel: Five Questions about 'The After'

Last year, I invited Briane Pagel to my blog for a two-part interview. You can read it here and there (but not everywhere).Since then, he's published a new book, called "the After." After reading and enjoying it, I had a few non-spoiler questions for him about the book. Here are his responses:

1.      What inspired you to write “The After”?
About four years ago, we were set to take a trip to Florida.  I had just finished another novel of mine, one that I haven’t published yet, and was looking for something to write. (I write every day, usually in the mornings.  I have a complicated writing schedule that would be best described as a paper version of an orrery.) 
At the same time, I had had a discussion the day before with one of my kids in which I said that my view of Heaven was that it was whatever you wanted it to be, a perfect place ideally suited to you.  So I decided to explore what that would be like, and began the book with a family taking a trip to Florida because that’s what we were getting ready to do.
2.      Why did you choose William Howard Taft to be in your novel?
Honestly? I needed a character to explain the After to Saoirse; every fantasy or sci-fi novel has an uneducated person as its main character, and that person always needs to learn about the world he or she is moving into – so there must always be an Obi Wan or someone to tell your character about the new world.
When I got to the part where that character was going to knock on Saoirse’s door, I left off for the day – my habit is to write 5 pages, no more, no less, on a novel at a time – and later that day was jogging and thinking about where the story would go next and the song William Howard Taft by “The Two Man Gentleman Band” came on.  The lyrics include the line You can’t sneak nothing past/William Howard Taft.
On that basis alone, I decided William Howard Taft would be the explainer and possible-villain.
3.      Why is he almost always referred to by his full name?
William Howard Taft is referred to by his full name almost every time because of his importance in the After; it’s a way of weighting his significance, like a leitmotif for his character.  Those times when his name is diminished are significant, but the why is left for the reader to decide.
I’ve often said that symbolism is bunk and that everything is symbolic of everything – two views I hold dear as a writer.  So I tend to use symbolism the way I use salt in baking:  If I have it, I’ll use it but I’m not sure why. 
4.      The main character, Saoirse, is confused for much of the novel. Was it difficult to write a confused character yet make the story clear for the reader?
I think the hardest thing for me to imagine was what the After would really be like – if you knew you were there, if you didn’t know you were there, if someone clued you in to it. 
One theme that’s pretty common in literature is the question of whether a memory of something is the same thing as doing that thing.  Philip K. Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale is one of the earliest stories I ever read on that theme, but another good one is Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom, by Cory Doctorow.  In both, people “experience” something by having memories of it implanted in them.
That kind of thing bothered me, because I place a premium on doing that thing.  If you go to the beach, you feel the sand in your toes and the fear when something brushes your foot and the wind blowing the salty smell to you and the sunburnt shoulders and that awesome feeling when you are later on dry and changed into clean clothes, and then you remember it, which to me seems different than simply having a memory implanted, even though the net result is the same, so the question of whether simply remembering something is  as good as doing it is one I like to think about.
Then there are things like The Matrix – where people never “experience” their lives at all, having them only be mental images.
the After is different than both of those, in a way:  people really experience it, but it’s clearly not what we think of as real.  So it raises lots of questions: if you are surrounded by your family but they’re not really dead, is that the same thing? Would it be Heaven if you didn’t have your family there? 
And then I began to wonder: what would you do?  Would “life” be a constant adventure? Would it be humdrum?  Wouldn’t there be people who simply wanted to sit and read a book, even if they could do anything else in the world?
It’s that confusion that you see coming through in Saoirse (see? I didn’t forget the question!):  the confusion about what life is, what perfection is, and what having everything exactly the way you want it means.  People think that would be eternal happiness, sunshine and meadows and songs, but don’t you sometimes want a rainy day? 
5.      What would your After be like?
I thought I’d have a flip answer to this, something like “Unending leftover pizza and sleeping in on Sundays,” but then I thought about it for a few minutes and came up with this:
My After would be all those choices I didn’t make in my life: I’d spend eternity living every possible life I could have led, from simple stuff like the time we decided to go to Las Vegas for vacation rather than San Diego (I’d go to San Diego) to the times I wanted to quit my job and start a new business, to a recent day when I was driving and opted not to pull off at a historic roadside stop because I wanted to get to my hearing early so I could check my email.  In my After, I would have all eternity to take that left turn and see what was historic about that place, what San Diego is like in December, what I would have been like as an oceanographer, as a doctor, as a writer, as a theater actor, as a rock star.
Which in itself might be as unsatisfying as Saoirse’s was, at times – when you never have to make a choice, everything has the same value to you.  And when everything has the same value, there’s a risk that nothing will have any value.
(Sandra: I particularly like those last two lines, which is why they're bolded.)

Thanks for stopping by again, Briane, and don't forget to check out his book!


Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

I love Briane. He's so awesome, creative, and smart. I like how he seems to be utterly unpredictable in his writing.

Sandra Almazan said...

He is pretty cool, Michael.

PT Dilloway, Superhero Author said...

The After is a great book and Mr. Pagel is so awesome I made him my first Everyday Hero on my blog (

Sandra Almazan said...

Thanks for the link, PT!

Andrew Leon said...

That was a great interview with the kinds of questions I like to read. Everyone always asks the same questions to everyone, and that gets pretty boring, because everyone always has the same answers; although, I don't think Briane's answers would be the same.

I need to get to this book.

Sandra Almazan said...

Thanks, Andrew! No, Briane is definitely not in the "same-as-everyone-else" category, and that's what we like about him.

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