A Conversation with Brian D’Amato
Trying to find a comparison series, or even a single title, for your books is nearly impossible. These novels are so unique—what prompted you to tackle the 2012 prophecy and run with it as a science fiction story?
It’s not a good idea to refer to the series as “science fiction”, not because I’m too good for the Golden Ghetto, but because (A) I think all ambitious fiction now is partly science fiction and (B) some science-fiction readers may pick the book up and not be expecting so much of the book to partake more of other genres—the thriller, the literary psychological novel, the historical novel, and even others. And, (C), there are readers out there who like the first book but who almost didn’t pick it up because science fiction is usually weak on the level of the sentence.
As for the 2012 issue—well, I’m very interested in a book by David Benatar called Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. It’s quite radical, philosophically, and naturally it ties in with all sorts of doomsday scenarios. Of course, one can barely do a novel that’s both about the Maya and the world of today without dealing with the 2012 thing somehow. But as far as I know, all cultures have some species of institutionalized death wish. The Maya and other Pre-Columbian civilizations had a very strong one, and they made it explicit in a different way from any other civilization.
Jed DeLanda is a really fascinating narrator—he’s incredibly smart and sarcastic—but he’s also fallible. Did you model Jed after anyone in your life? Was it difficult to take on his voice, or did it come easily?
Lolita was my Harry Potter when I was a kid, so I internalized the idea of the unreliable or at least unconscionable narrator pretty early. In first-person narration, one tends—well, maybe it should just be “I tend”—to take one’s least attractive characteristics and run with them. Otherwise, it’s hard to take the self-congratulation that comes with writing things down at all. On the other hand, the voice has to be at least intermittently amusing, and self-aware enough so that the reader doesn’t feel like he or she is, say, trapped in a stuck elevator with a Raelian.
In the Courts of the Sun and The Sacrifice Game are both packed with richly detailed accounts of Mayan life—from class systems and wedding rituals to methods of torture. How do you research your novels, and how long have you spent studying this particular topic?
The whole Trilogy project’s taken nineteen years so far, and I spent the first five years just on research—that is, not just reading and having Mayanists go over the text, but traveling. Still, having a mountain of research next to you can be a negative because there’s a lot that you’d love to get in which might not move the plot forward. Also, it can lock you into an interpretation. One of the best things about writing fiction about the ancient Maya is the amount of stuff that isn’t known. To be honest, I don’t ever think “we” will understand what made “them” tick. It’s helpful to hang out with the Maya of today, but even after spending time with them—and with some families who live as far up in the bush as it’s feasible to go—one doesn’t really know what it was like there before Catholicism, before wheels, before metal tools, before Q-Tips…
While you were conducting your research, did anything in particular stand out as shocking or surprising to you? What sort of knowledge did you gain from your visits to Central America and Mexico that you couldn’t have learned through books and secondary sources?
There were hundreds of surprises, and those were the things that attracted me in the first place—even something as simple as the fact that for the Maya the number 13 has a benevolent association, while for Occidental folk its vibe is negative. One of the main efforts I make in the book is to have some kind of surprise in every sentence. And I want them to surprise as many readers as possible—even people who’ve read a good deal about Mesoamerica and the Maya. When I was quite little, my dad pointed out to me how every sentence in Kafka’s Metamorphosis was a surprise, but not one that comes out of nowhere. For instance, when Gregor starts pacing around on the walls and ceiling, one thinks “why didn’t I anticipate that?” So staying ahead of the reader in that way is almost my prime directive.
There are thousands of things about the Maya area that I couldn’t have anticipated just from reading. There are the continuities between the Maya of today and those of the past, especially the way they know that they’re in the right place—a hard state of mind to describe, but very obvious when you’re there. The color in Central America is different, and I made a big point in the first book of the riot of contrasting colors you see in the fiestas. And of course just looking at pictures of the ruins you don’t get the sense of immense scale, or how, in cities like Teotihuacan, the way the distances between structures keep scaling up and down, usually by a kind of trifurcation that’s almost like a fractal construction. And I could go on and on, and I do.
Were there any unforeseen challenges that arose while writing The Sacrifice Game that you didn’t experience with the first novel in the series?
Someone once asked Stanley Kubrick what was the hardest part of making a movie, and he said it was remembering what interested you about the material in the first place. That is, finding energy for the finishing touches. To be a Bunthornesque artiste about it, the second book nearly killed me. But of course this is why there are so many nearly-finished novels out there in peoples’ drawers, or drives, rather. Some of them are probably quite good, but they’re not going to get finished. The difference between people who get stuff out there and people who don’t isn’t much in the talent or ideas or anything other than the sheer steam power to following the idea to its conclusion—not just in terms of length, but thematically. As Nabokov put it in one of his in-text poems, “The last long lap is the hardest”.
One of my favorite scenes in The Sacrifice Game is the massive hipball tournament. Have you ever seen an actual game of hipball played?
I’ve seen some games, but I haven’t been that impressed. So far what I’ve seen felt like exhibition games—that is, the players were a bit too fond of each other. I never got a sense that any of them was likely to get his head smershed. There’s a game called Pelota Mixteca which they play in Oaxaca that I suspect is closer to Pre-Columbian games, even though it’s not hipball. They wear these very heavy mitts, like boxing gloves, thickly studded with round-head nails. And the ball is a solid coil of latex, as in the old days, and they do still have fatalities. When I was describing the hipball game in the book, I looked a lot at team handball, at Canadian junior-league hockey, at the Spanish bullfighter Juan Belmonte, at Mexican wrestling, and at jai alai, which, even though it’s usually fixed, is very fast and still quite dangerous.
The Sacrifice Game is filled with gorgeous and intricate drawings that you did yourself. Have you always had a passion for art? The designs in your books are fantastic supplements to the words—do you find that your writing feeds off of these designs creatively, or do the drawings materialize after you’ve finished the narrative?
I worked in the visual arts full time (if you can say that about smearing paint around) until 1990. I then noticed I was putting way too many words into my paintings, and so just to make myself shut up I started writing art reviews, and then when that started to seem easy I wrote my novel about cosmetic surgery, Beauty. It was really kind of done on a lark, almost on a dare. Then when that surprised me by doing well I started kidding around with The Sacrifice Game. For a while I still kept up with the visual arts—mainly with interactive computer work by that time—and with the illustrations I’m still keeping my hand in the ink pot, at least a little. In the future I plan to go back to the vis biz more full-time.
The illustrations—and the 3-D models I’ve made, which aren’t in the books except the one which there’s a glimpse of in the author photograph—do help clarify themes, at least in my own mind. At some point I plan to get them all together and show them. And yes, I do work on them at the same time as the text.
Do you believe the world will end in 2012, and if not, do you believe there is any credibility to the Mayan prophecies?
Well, of course one has to read the books, especially the second book, to find out. But I’m more than a little bemused by the whole thing, because it was my old professor at Yale, Michael Coe, who let the jaguar out of the bag in a book back in 1966. I can even read you the fateful passage:
"There is a suggestion that Armageddon would overtake the degenerate peoples of the world and all creation on the final day of the thirteenth b'ak'tun. Our present universe would be annihilated when the Great Cycle of the Long Count reaches completion in December of 2012."
Since then it’s just grown so big that Professor Coe regrets starting the madness. To switch metaphors, he’s wished many times that he could coax that genii back into the bottle—which is impossible, of course.
On the other hand, I’d say—for reasons that are briefly given in the first act of In the Courts of the Sun—it doesn’t look good out there. I’m not quite a survivalist, but I’m digging in as much as I can.
What kind of books do you like to read, and what are you reading right now?
Just now I was reading Erich Auerbach’s short book on Dante, Poet of the Secular World. I read a lot about time, and I’m reading Time's Arrow and Archimedes' Point: New Directions for the Physics of Time, by Huw Price. It’s very specifically about the direction of time. And I’ve been rereading Genjii by Lady Murasaki—“alas, in translation” as someone put it. It’s been a long time since much current fiction, “literary” or genre-wise, has generated much interest in me. Fiction’s great for what I’m doing with it myself. It allows me to get in more sheer ideas than any other medium, and to present them in a way that doesn’t (I hope) seem thrown in, but where they’re essential to whipping the plot forward. But fiction in general isn’t doing it for me lately. If there’s a second implied question here, “what influences you”, I have to say – and it’s an artsy thing to say, but please imagine me speaking the line as humbly as possible —“as far as current or recent fiction goes, not much.” Still, there are writers I keep up with, for instance the two Ne(a)(i)ls, Stephenson and Gaiman. And of course I read my Mom’s murder mysteries, which are great.
Without giving too much away, what can you reveal about the third book? Are you planning on the third installment being your last in the series, or are there more Jed stories left to tell?
The third book should put Jed to bed. But since his voice is similar to my own natural one, I think readers will feel his presence in any other first-person narratives I may concoct. As to the plot of the third book, there are a few definite details but otherwise it’s still very much up in the air. I get a lot of readers’ suggestions, and usually they’re ideas I’ve already thought of and rejected. But maybe this time some reader will have a solid-gold suggestion. Or maybe I’ll be visited by the uay—one of the several souls—of some ancient Maya bard and that’ll solve everything. Stranger things happen.