Michael Prescott Interview

MP: The most challenging thing was that Robert Garrison is supposed to be brilliant, a genius, yet he practices an archaic pagan religion that probably would strike most people as rather silly. My original concept was that he simply believed in the pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses--Hera, Zeus, Athena, etc. But I couldn't convince myself that any modern person, even a psychotic, would take these colorful figures literally. In the course of researching ancient religions, I learned that Greek mythology was largely an offshoot of an older, primordial religion centered on the Mother Goddess. I also learned that the British poet Robert Graves, an eccentric genius in his own right, believed literally in the Goddess. So I read Graves' main work on the subject, a rather difficult nonfiction book called THE WHITE GODDESS, and got an insight into how a highly intelligent, modern man might come to take this ancient religion seriously and even practice it. I also learned that Goddess worship persists today in some circles, though I gather that its practitioners vary considerably in their commitment, with many just doing it as a political statement. So this is the kind of research I did -- not research into psychology, exactly, but into the philosophical or theological outlook of the character.

What really interested me about this research was how mythic and ritualistic patterns have persisted across the centuries. For instance, cave paintings and stone carvings from the Paleolithic Era show a shaman wearing horns and an animal hide, leading worshipers in a dance. Read Euripides' play THE MAENADS (a.k.a. THE BACCHAE) and you'll see how the Dionysus cult was simply a further development of this primordial religion. Then fast-forward to Shakespeare's England, and read eyewitness accounts of "witch cult" rituals; it's the same ceremony, led by the same satyr-like figure. So this basic pattern has continued unchanged for more than 8,000 years! The image of the horned man persists even today, in such things as Mardi Gras masks and popular depictions of the Devil. 

The same is true of Goddess worship, which is part of this age-old religious tradition. (The horned man was the Goddess's consort and an intermediary between the ordinary worshipers and the deity.) The Goddess religion started in the Stone Age and has continued, in various permutations, down to the present day. The Christian Church tried to stamp out all vestiges of the Goddess, but the old patterns re-emerged as Marianism, i.e., devotion to the Virgin Mary. Mary was eventually given the title of the Queen of  heaven, the same honorific used for the Goddess. Most of the Goddess's temples were rededicated to Mary.

These images, ideas, and rituals are so persistent that one wonders if Jung was right in thinking that there are archetypes hardwired into the human brain. In any case, the more I learned, the less far-fetched Robert's obsession with the Goddess started to look. By the end, I was beginning to wonder if he was on to something!

As for my favorite villain in literature, there are several possibilities. Iago in Shakespeare's OTHELLO is probably the most influential villain ever created by an author. He certainly helped to inspire Milton's portrait of Satan in PARADISE LOST -- another great, larger-than-life villain. On a lighter note, Ian Fleming came up with some brilliantly inventive villains for his James Bond books -- Dr. No and Goldfinger comes to mind. Dracula, in the novel by Bram Stoker, is a terrific villain; no movie has ever captured all the dimensions of the character. So I guess I like villains who are kind of melodramatic and operatic, bigger than life in some way. Hannah Arendt famously talked about the banality of evil, and I think in most real-life situations, her observation
holds true. The challenge in creating a fictional villain is to do a portrait of evil that is not banal.

FF: Which approach would you recommend for new writers, still developing their writing styles: over-writing and cutting back or getting the basics down on paper and then embellishing later on?

MP: Frankly, I have no good answer for this, except to say: Do whatever works. In my own case, I started off writing screenplays, which have very little description and no introspection. In writing a novel, I had to force myself to learn those techniques and then use them to flesh out the text. I think William Goldman has said that screenplays are compression, and novels are expansion. (He's been successful in both media.) When I was getting started, I tended to put down the bare bones first -- such as the dialogue--and then add descriptive and emotional details in the rewrite. But for another writer, the opposite approach might be called for. I'm wary of anybody who tells you that there is only "one right way" to do it.

FF: Do you keep a writing journal? If so, can you tell us about it--what kinds of things you write there (images, characters, scenes?), and how often? Do you work on one novel at a time, or do you have several projects going at once?

MP: I don't keep a journal, other than the notes I scribble to myself when I'm doing the research or writing the book. Usually if I have a problem with the book, I start writing out the possible reasons. This often yields quick results. For instance, if I find a particular scene boring to write, I'll scribble, "This scene is boring to me because..." Then I'll just start writing possible answers one after the other, like brainstorming. One of those answers (often the first one) will actually be correct (i.e., "because it's too similar to the scene ten pages ago," or "because we already know this expository material, so it's unnecessary to repeat it"). The answer is frequently obvious once you see it before you, though it eluded you until then. But I don't think of this as a journal; it's too haphazard, and I don't keep the notes.

As for multiple projects ... no, I do only one novel at a time. I can't even think of another story until the current one is finished. Splitting my focus doesn't work for me, although it does work for some other writers, who switch from one project to another with ease.

FF: Have you ever written short fiction? If so, how would you compare or contrast it with writing novels?