Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Claudia Casper talks about THE MERCY JOURNALS, writing, the wreckage of the world and so much more. Plus, read an excerpt!

by Claudia Casper (Arsenal Pulp Press, May 10, 2016)
©2016 by Claudia Casper

First, an excerpt:


On October 15, 2071, two Moleskine
journals were found wrapped in shredded
plastic inside a yellow dry box in a
clearing on the east coast of Vancouver
Island near Desolation Sound.  They
were watermarked, mildewed, and ragged
but legible, though the script was wildly
erratic.  Human remains of an adult
male were unearthed nearby along with
a shovel and a 9mm pistol.  Also found
with the human remains were those of
a cougar.  The journals are reproduced
in their entirety here, with only minor
copy-editing changes for ease of reading.



                                                              March 9, 2047  |

My name is Allen Levy Quincy.  Age 58.  Born May 6,
1989.  Resident of Canton Number 3, formerly Seattle,
Administrative Department of Cascadia.

     This document, which may replace any will and tes-
tament I  have made in the past, is the only intentional act
of memory I have committed since the year 2029.  I do not
write because I am ill or because I leave much behind.  I
own a hot plate, three goldfish, my mobile, my Callebaut
light, my Beretta M9, the furniture in this apartment, and
a small library of eleven books.

Addictive, right?
Claudia Casper is the author of the novels The Reconstruction and The Continuation of Love by Other Means, which was short-listed for the Ethel Wilson BC Book Prize Her writing has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Sun, Geist, Event, Best Canadian Short Stories(Oberon), the anthology Dropped Threads: What We Aren’t Told (Vintage), edited by Carol Shields and Marjorie Anderson and Canadian Content. She is writing the screenplay for a 3D feature film France/Canada coproduction of The Reconstruction. Her work has been published in Canada, the US, the UK, and Germany. With Anne Giardini, Casper conceived the Carol Shields Labyrinth, an interactive online labyrinth that honours Shields’s life. I'm delighted to host Claudia here. Thank you, Claudia!

 I always imagine that an author is haunted by something that propels the novel. What sparked yours?

There were two first sparks for this novel, or at least I can’t remember which came first. One was reading a newspaper story about the Canadian General, Romeo Dallaire, who headed up the U.N. peacekeeping mission to Rwanda just before the genocide, being found black-out drunk on a park bench in Hull, Quebec. It turned out he was suicidal and haunted by what he’d witnessed there, and by his helplessness to stop it. He became one of the first spokesmen for soldiers suffering from PTSD, as well as a passionate advocate for humanitarian intervention (he asked: “are some people more human than others?”). PTSD seemed such a fundamentally human response to horror. My main character, Allen Quincy, is partly inspired by Gen. Dallaire, though he is much lower ranking, less idealistic, and the PTSD upends his life more thoroughly.

The second spark came from my family history. My father was German, fourteen when World War II ended. His father was a general in the German army and his mother, who separated from his father during the war, told my father after the war that she was Jewish. I grew up with an imaginative foot on both sides. When 9/11 happened, and with the conflicts it has spawned since, as well as with the Rwandan genocide, I had a strong reaction to the self-righteous rhetoric used by the media and by politicians, that posited that genocidal behavior and other wartime atrocities was behavior that only existed in other cultures, other ethnicities, other nations (the Germans, Africans, Arabs), when I felt strongly that it was behavior common to all human beings in specific contexts. I won’t say any more because I don’t want to give away plot surprises.

The Mercy Journals isn’t just about Mercy, the character, but it’s also very much about the quality of mercy and how we can find it in a world that is mostly wreckage. Can you talk about that please?

Mercy is the opposite of the law, of just punishment. It’s that area in between an act and a consequence that is filled with fellow feeling, with love. Mercy is something we all want. Mercy is true free choice, it’s unmechanical, it’s like a breeze, it simply appears, it cannot be ordered up. Mercy transcends the laws of nature and the bargain and barter of transactions, and yet it’s as wild and unpredictable as nature, otherwise it’s just forgiveness. No one wants to ever live in a world without mercy. That would be a very dark place indeed.

The future landscape you’ve created is so chilling because it is really a “it can happen here” scenario.  What was your research like, and did you get more and more uneasy the more you learned?

Because climate change has had such a pressing reality for me for years, I don’t feel I got more uneasy the more I learned. Ever since I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which so skillfully delineates how impossible it is for humans to control history, that there are too many moving parts and complex interactions for any one person or group of people to control, I have had an acceptance that we are largely on an unpredictable biological ride as a species. That being said, I don’t view that ride as hopeless, or unmitigatedly negative. We are a brilliant mix of beauty and horror, significantly weighted on the beauty side. We bond deeply and loyally, we feel sacred wonder for life, we feel gratitude for creation, we are social creatures who survive through co-operation, but we are also murderous, impulsive, insecure and terrified.

Ironically though, the fact that we can’t control history does not mean we aren’t still responsible for it. We should try and limit the consumption of fossil fuels, and avert the catastrophes that I am convinced will follow if we don’t. We could reduce energy consumption with no pain and even some gain in quality of life. We may be complacent in the west because we assume hotter and poorer countries will take the brunt, but that is blinkered thinking. A 2003 Pentagon report concluded climate change would lead to a future where “once again, warfare would define human life.” Not worth it.

Quincy, your hero, is desperate to forget, yet he writes all his memories down, believing that he can turn fact into fiction. I find this incredibly interesting because of a time when I was critically ill and given memory blockers, so I could not work through what had happened because I couldn’t remember it. It was only when I made it up through fiction that I was able to heal. Do you believe that the brain knows the difference between memory and what really happened?

I don’t think the brain does know the difference between memory and event reliably. New brain research shows that the same areas light up in reading about an experience and remembering it, as actually having it. Fascinating. In a way all memory involves a form of narrative we create about our experiences. I believe, for example, for many of us, the memories from our childhood have either been triggered by photographs or stories other people have told about us. Very few are direct memories of sensations. Perhaps the memories of how it feels to first master something, like swimming, or riding a bike, or throwing a baseball are the most based in real experience. Memories, like dreams, are always infused with emotion, but who can tell if it’s the actual emotion we were feeling at the time? I have always been fascinated with how much of who we are, our identity, is made out of memory, depends on memory for its existence. What we worry most about with regards to death, after our actual non-existence, is not being remembered. Is being erased from the planet. My dog died recently and one of the things that made it so particularly painful was that I couldn’t communicate to her that I would always remember her. Memory was not something we could share.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I am obsessing now about the power structures involved in helping behavior. About the entanglements of ego, status, power-over and power-under, involved in assuming the role of helping someone. As the oldest child and only singleton of both my parents’ union, with two half siblings from my mother’s second marriage, and seven from my father’s subsequent liaisons, I am perfectly set up to try and consolidate my tenuous feeling of belonging with helping behavior. Self-examination and realizing that help is not always, ironically, helpful spur this new obsession.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

What computer game am I addicted to.

1 comment:

Michael Raymond said...

This is such a keen insight: "I had a strong reaction to the self-righteous rhetoric used by the media and by politicians, that posited that genocidal behavior and other wartime atrocities was behavior that only existed in other cultures, other ethnicities, other nations (the Germans, Africans, Arabs)."

Americans are very harsh on other cultures for their genocidal sins but so rarely remember that we live in a country built on the slavery of one race and the genocide of another. That's a tough reality to look at and come to terms with. But them's the facts.

By the way, I'm also wondering what computer game Ms. Casper is addicted to.