Monday, May 2, 2016

An Interview with Ari Bach

The author of the acclaimed Valhalla series on the creative process, navigating LGBTQ tropes, and writing from the deepest places. ♦ 
When my recent review of Ari Bach’s Valhalla trilogy came out on Turning Page, the first thing I did was submit a link to it on the official blog for the trilogy, The Walrus Squad. I remembered that I’d seen a post where the author had said that he liked seeing reviews of the books, so I thought, “Why not?”

I certainly wasn’t expecting to get an author interview out of it.

Nevertheless, not long after the review went up, I got a message in my inbox from Ari Bach saying that he really liked it and that, if I was interested, he’d be willing to speak with me about the trilogy to discuss some of the issues I’d raised in my reading, which he hadn’t had the opportunity to speak about before.

Naturally, I said yes.

The result is the following wide-ranging interview—designed as a sort of companion piece to my review, which you can read here—with Ari Bach, author of the Valhalla trilogy and the mastermind behind the blog Facts I Just Made Up.

As I talk about in my review, your series has a very interesting relationship with the “bury your gays” trope. How do you consider the deaths of Violet, Nel, and Vibeke in relationship to the trope?

My hope is that the books are something different enough from the usual trope that they're immune to it. My fear is that they still have all four lesbian characters dying. The differences that come into play include the fact that in the case of Vibeke and Nel, death together is the best possible happy ending for them, and in that just about everyone else dies too, over 19.9 billion of the 20 billion people existent at the start of the first book.

In the typical trope, the motive seems to be to deny happiness or positive closure to the characters, or to kill off the gay person to give the straight people more attention. In the case of the Valhalla trilogy, this is well beyond that issue. The lesbian trio you mentioned are always the center of the books, Violet is clearly the main character of the first two, and Vibeke and Nel occupy pretty much all of the third. The deaths are never punishment for homosexuality or a sacrifice for the good of the hetero cast.

But still, part of me worries that all this doesn't matter. The books still kill off the gay characters and end with two hetero men on the moon, and one neutrois character underwater. Had I known of the trope when I began writing the series in the 1990s, I might have given the books a lighter resolution to avoid anything like it. As it is, though, I felt it would be worse to butcher a poetic story to avoid a semblance of the trope.

In a similar vein, with the multitude of LGBTQ tropes, how did you navigate writing a lesbian protagonist?

I think the only trick you need to write a good character is to treat them with the respect you would give to a real person. There are negative stereotypes of every type of person out there so the instant you write a person, you risk partaking in the problem. But if you keep the character realistic, then they can exhibit a trait that's been used as a stereotype without succumbing to the negativity, even if that trait is outwardly negative. I don't think you need to cut off your options in developing a character out of fear of running into a trope. What you need to be wary of is attributing a stereotype to a character because you think all Xs are X or all Ys are Y. As it is, I don't think I ran into any typical LGBTQ tropes really. They're all unique and realistic characters to me without any signs of cliché, or at least that's what I went for.

One other trope I wonder if I ran into is the Women in Refrigerators trope. Violet's death was intended from the very first draft of the screenplay, meant as a big shock that the main character dies in the middle of the movie (as it was then intended to be) and doesn't come back. Since then the trope has been recognized that you kill off a woman to justify the pain of another character. Usually male, but Violet's death is very much a motivation for Vibeke. Not male, but she still dies in part to give another character a motive. My only defense there is that Violet wasn't wasted, a strong woman wasn't killed off just to enhance some guy [ . . . ] rather she dies because that's pretty much the core of the story, poetically.

Vibeke and Nel would run the same risk as they're survived by two men, but I think this is cancelled because the books end there and won't continue. If the books did continue and used their lesbian characters as nothing but an origin story for the Geki on the Moon, then I would be guilty of that trope in the worst possible way. So I guess a lot of the tropes I risk running into are avoided because the books stop an inch short of them.

But because I never used the tropes for their intended use, to denigrate gays or throw away women, I feel that if they somewhat resemble the tropes this resemblance can be just that and nothing more.

Also it is my hope that the series is so overwhelmingly progressive in its philosophy and nature that it's earned the benefit of the doubt.

It’s made clear that rape is the worst of the worst when it comes to crimes. What was your reasoning and thought process behind writing the sexual assault scene with Violet and Vibeke?

It functions on half a dozen important levels. First and foremost, it's the fulfillment of her darker side. She gets herself booted from everything she's a part of, and Valhalla really was no different in the end. That sets her apart as a fully separate entity, one that simply can't exist in this life. That's why she gets another one as Nel. Nel would not need to exist if Violet hadn't done it.

Second, it's a commentary on heroism. Heroes are so often perfect, they're kind and loving to their families as they blow up the villains. The reality is closer to this. The lives of real spies and heroes often involve abuse of loved ones. I wanted to subvert the Harry Potter / Katniss Everdeen syndrome of kind flawless heroes who can act with violence when necessary but always regret it. I wanted a 'hero' who acted on her emotions for good, and acted on them just as strongly for bad. I think that's a realistic character and I think it's an insult to readers that there aren't more heroes with real flaws. Not flaws pasted on to make readers think, “oh, a flawed hero, how novel,” but a real problem. The worst problem. Maybe it's because all my own heroes are movie directors and artists, and many of them are rapists and pedophiles and racists. That's a tough conundrum to deal with, respecting someone's art while admitting they're actually horrible people. Violet kicks ass, she's awesome, but she's also the worst kind of person. I think that's closer to reality than any John McClane or James Bond or even Rambo.

Third, plot. It serves about ten functions in the plot that all had to happen for the books to work. Not the least of which is a traumatic shift to Vibeke as the main character, or Violet being sentenced to death, of the results of the ending of Ragnarök. Had it not happened, I think Vibeke would have saved Violet instead of the world.

Fourth, it's a commentary on the nature of sexual assault in that it's not always a big tough stranger that hurts a victim, sometimes it's someone they love. Sometimes it's their hero who takes advantage of them. I've never seen a book or film tackle that. I've never seen a couple go on after the assault. And in the real world, it doesn't always end after an assault. Even if there's no forgiveness, sometimes people end up with the people who hurt them most. And they don't need to be hacked for it to happen. We are strange beings, Vibeke is too. I wrote what would really happen between them.

Fifth, it’s cathartic for me. It's a story I had to tell. What's happened to me in life is not what happened in the book but damned if writing it didn't clear up my mind on some things that have bothered me since childhood. The whole trilogy is a snapshot of me working out my own problems. Some are obvious, like Violet's lack of a place in life early on. I shared that at face value. This one is more obscured, but the greatest art comes from the deepest places in the artist. This is a story I had to write, and although this plot point alienates some readers and confuses others it's at the core of what I think writing should be.

Finally, I think it's a damn good scene and sequence of events for a novel trilogy. Ignoring its rarity and novelty, I think it's powerful and disturbing, horrific. And eerily understandable. I think the reason a lot of people react so strongly to it is because you see it through Violet's eyes. The book makes you understand why she does it, the frustration and feeling behind it. That's what great cinema and literature does—it puts you someplace you can't go. Ragnarök is like one of those dreams where you hurt someone you love. You'd never do it in reality but in dreams you have no control. Ragnarök is a nightmare and that moment is the core of it.

The main religious conflict within these books is with Catholicism, particularly in terms of a pretty clear Catholic/Muslim conflict. This being a very touchy subject in the current state of the world, how did you go about approaching that?

I'd not call it Catholicism really, or even Christianity and Islam. The religion in these books is not modern religion, it's what I think will become of religion once humankind outgrows it. I hope that's fairly clear. A lot of readers will take it as “All religion is a baby-smashing hate-mongering brain-deflating monstrosity.” They're not necessarily wrong, but that's not what's going on in the books.

My approach to religion is to show how people function, how they become fascist or how they become irrational and vicious. Throughout history, religion has given people an excuse to be their worst selves. It's not the cause of it alone, religion creates a Mr. Rogers for every Fred Phelps. But the Valhalla trilogy is obviously about hate and murder and death and pain so that's what you see.

So basically my approach to religion is the same as my approach to everything else in the books: You see the worst of it, and the worst of it is pretty bad.

You’ve mentioned a few times on your blog, Facts I Just Made Up, that you are Jewish. How have your religious experiences affected how you approached the religious climate of the Valhalla trilogy?

Not on a personal level. The religious climate of the novels comes from decades of study and impersonal consideration. If I wrote anything from a personal perspective about religion, it would be about how boring it is to sit in a service for hours as a kid who would rather be playing Nintendo. That's all religion ever was to me.

What was your favorite part of the series to write? Or if that’s too broad, what was a scene that you didn’t really plan, but you ended up really liking?

My favorite is the scene between Vibeke and Nel where her hair gets caught in Nel's chest, and she looks at the heart. That was the first thing I wrote, the moment I decided to make it story about lesbian characters, and I think it's the most moving part of the whole thing, save for the end which was designed more carefully later. The bed scene underwater wasn't planned, it was the purest form of writing where it just flowed from my fingertips as I wrote without any rational intervention. As an author, that's the scene the trilogy exists for.

That said, I think the ending of the trilogy exceeds it in most tangible ways. The above is just the author's sentimentality for his first scene. The ending of the books is what dictated everything else in the entire series.

This series takes a lot of risks . . . what would be your advice to young authors about taking risks in writing?

Write anything and everything you want, no matter how risky. You are never obligated to show it to anyone or do anything with it, so there's nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Is there anything that I haven’t asked about that you would like to talk about?

No, this has been an exceptional series of questions that I rarely if ever get to answer. Thank you!!!
Ari Bach's Valhalla trilogy is published by Dreamspinner Press, available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and everywhere else.
  • About the Author
    Thomas Gurinskas is a Creative and Professional Writing double major at Miami University. He’s not sure when he’s going to graduate, but it’s not going to be on time. He likes to live-snap the books he’s reading for his friends on Snapchat to see. Sometimes, if he deems the comments witty enough, he posts the snaps to his blog. Follow his reviews online here.

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