After enjoying The Epiphanist more than I ever expected, I asked author William Rosencrans to answer a few questions about himself and his book by e-mail, and he agreed.
Your author biography on Amazon.com says "William Rosencrans was born and raised in New Orleans, the entropic center of the universe. Immediately after receiving a degree in medieval studies from Tulane University he fled for the wilderness. He spent years living in the Ozarks, then wandered the US before settling down in the mountains of western North Carolina, where he currently works as a stonemason and writer." An unusual career path-- could you tell us more about it, and about your life in general?
Sure. I was raised in a wonderful family by a mathematician, an artist, and a lawyer, who allowed me (mostly) to do whatever I wanted. I never had a curfew; I ate and read and dressed as I liked; and I made friends among the city’s criminal underbelly, its aristocracy, and various layers in between.
In college I declared a major in linguistics, then in astronomy, then in anthropology before deciding on English and medieval studies. Lovelife, employment, hairstyles: all very erratic. In the early 1990s, as New Orleans was becoming the most violent city in the industrialized world, I joined a commune in the Ozarks and learned how to weld, slaughter, garden, and weave a hammock. Four years later I abandoned the commune with my wife and baby daughter; moved the three of us, naively, into a van; traveled the country for two years...
Things are settling down now. For the last twelve years I’ve practiced stonemasonry in Asheville, North Carolina – the longest I’ve stuck with anything.
Tell us something about your development as a writer. Have you always wanted to be one? The Epiphanist is unusually polished and complex for a self-published first novel: is there earlier, unpublished fiction, or other writing? Who and/or what do you see as influences on your work?
Well, I’ve always told stories. But writing? You should take a look at the sample rough draft on my Amazon page. Two and even three lines of writing to every college-ruled line on the paper, heavily annotated, crossed out, arrowed, systems of colored ink violated impatiently... Even a simple three-word phrase can induce a fit of compulsive rewriting and re-rewriting: it might be a better use of my time to rock back and forth in a closet with my knees clutched to my chest.
The problem is that I love words so much. Now and then I open the dictionary at a random spot and read for a while. Boustrophedon, gowpen, sitzmark, slinkskin... Wow. I love them too much to be completely comfortable with the writing process; it should probably only be entrusted to a master.
At the top of my current list of masters are Graham Greene for how much meaning he can condense into a single sentence and Dickens for writing so beautifully and with such generosity. Science fiction favorites: Philip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard, Stanislaw Lem, Rudy Rucker... But lists are boring, aren’t they?
What are your hobbies and interests outside of literature?
Stonemasonry has been a major part of my life. I love it. I’ve practiced it for over a decade, building walls, paths, steps, columns, ponds, waterfalls, and so on. (There’s an online portfolio of some of my work at www.stonebyrosencrans.com.) A few months ago I herniated three discs in my back working on a small dam for a distillery in Tennessee, though, so I’m doing lighter masonry work at the moment.
I could also draw all day, and on walks in the summer I like to take a sketchbook with me. Doing pen-and-ink drawings and sketches are an indispensable solace. My mother was a tremendous artist and allowed me unfettered, uncritiqued drawing time whenever I wanted it. And I’ve recently done some woodcarvings, working on big dead treestumps with a chainsaw and chisels.
How did you come to self-publish The Epiphanist? What was the experience of preparing print and electronic editions of the novel like?
It was great. Many fantastic books get rejected a dozen or more times before their publication, which begs the question of how worthwhile it is to try and run the gauntlet of agents and other gatekeepers in the first place, especially since publishers more and more leave the burden of marketing to the author. I was already skeptical of the industry, and after just three rejections I opted to self-publish.
I was encouraged by editing another book, Jean Henri Chandler’s The Codex Guide to the Medieval Baltic, a great work by a great scholar who had decided to self-publish. The draft copy he sent me was a perfect-bound book with a gorgeous cover, lavishly illustrated and beautifully formatted; I was floored to find out that this copy had cost him less to set up and purchase from Lulu, a self-publishing company, than the manuscript of The Epiphanist had cost me to print out at Kinko’s.
After doing some research I decided to do it through Amazon. Incredibly easy. Contractual obligations are negligible. I bought my own ISBN directly from Bowker for about $125, and have purchased copies of the book for potential reviewers. Beyond that I haven't spent a dime.
Editing, cover design, and promotion are all things one could hire out and which I opted to do myself; I think you could expect to spend several thousands of dollars otherwise (the bulk of it being for promotion). I’m a part-time copyeditor and edited a newspaper for a while, so that much was simple. Designing a cover was a painstaking process but I’m satisfied with the result. Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing service makes the e-book process very simple, and its Createspace branch does the same for printed matter.
Promotion is the tough part. I've been fairly lackadaisical about it, asking as many people as possible to review The Epiphanist or tell friends about it on Facebook or otherwise. Typically I've looked at reviews of books which were similar in style or content to mine, culled the best-written of those reviews, and emailed the authors if their contact info was available to see if they were interested. Out of 102 queries, 33 have responded; 19 of those have agreed to review it.
But those efforts are paltry. It takes real determination to do it right: setting up interviews on local radio stations and book signings at local bookstores; establishing a presence on forums related to your work, and, after you've built up some credibility, announcing the publication of your masterpiece; developing a website... I haven’t done any of this yet.
Where did the idea for The Epiphanist come from? How did you develop its unusual setting, which mixes contemporary and futuristic technology with historically-influenced social, economic, and political structures?
Well, the basic notion of a world in which high and low technologies exist side by side is hardly a new one, but I suppose the specifics here are more heavily researched than normal.
Of course my university studies provided some background. The Middle Ages were actually a time of incredible technological sophistication, every bit as revolutionary as current developments in nanotechnology are for us. A peasant lad travelling from his farmstead in, say, rural Prussia to a major city like Danzig would have been astonished no less than Vladimir is in The Epiphanist when he reaches the Holy City. It didn’t seem like too much of a stretch to superimpose current and future technologies on that same milieu.
The world is like that, though: it’s a temporal palimpsest whose earlier traces underlie everything. I have a certain fondness for the terminology used in medieval European social systems, and I used it extensively in the book, but those systems themselves aren’t too different from what one can find now in much of the world, even here in America in some ways.
The physical setting of The Epiphanist is crucial to this aspect of the story; all that simultaneity seemed to need a hot, overgrown environment to melt together in. The island is actually Borneo, whose jungles and swamps and mountains I spent several years researching – I amassed a huge pile of information about Borneo in the process of writing this book. I don’t like inventing things willy-nilly and I get a bit annoyed with science fiction and fantasy authors who pull implausible concepts out of thin air to move a story forward, or make up weird-sounding words to introduce a note of exoticism. Every strange plant and animal in the book, every peculiar geological feature, from the corpse lilies to the karst forests, is absolutely real. The same holds true for technologies (self-healing ceramics, biomimetics) and religion (early Gnosticism).
Religion is a major topic in The Epiphanist, with different characters offering a variety of views on its legitimacy, its ethics, the question of free will, the nature of visionary experience, and other issues. Would you be willing to discuss your own history with and perspective on religion?
Sure! I was raised in the Episcopalian church until about the age of eleven, at which time two things happened: I read the story of the Golden Calf, and my mother stopped attending. Both things extinguished my interest in religion for many years. The Golden Calf incident... Well, it seemed to me that only a psychopath would order his followers to kill their own sons, brothers, friends, and neighbors for praying to an idol.
For the next decade or so I thought of religion as a profoundly bad thing; there were just too many examples of devout people wreaking havoc in the name of their faith. I’ve since made a sort of peace with it, and a few people have taught me the extraordinary extent to which a religion can ennoble its followers.
Religion is a great framework in which to pose questions about ethics and free will. And it does give people a sense of community and hope. Beyond this, it fascinates me as a writer. The teachings of the Church in The Epiphanist are lifted straight from classical Gnosticism. The notion that there was once a God, that the female half impregnated Herself, that She cast the unborn child from Her womb into the void, that it survived and created a world for itself to be God of, and that we live in that world... Fantastic. Pure science fiction.
Politics is also key to The Epiphanist, which is set in a place in which it and religion are intertwined. Certain characters put forth what might, depending on one's perspective, be called a cynical or a realist view of the concerns and tactics of political leaders. What are your own feelings about the relationship between government and its citizens, and how do they relate to the content of The Epiphanist?
Generally the relationship looks like a pretty bad one, doesn’t it? Everyone seems to agree that it could be much better. Democracy, like Gandhi’s quip about Western civilization, “would be a good idea.”
In The Epiphanist, a nanorobotic fly introduces Vladimir to the concept of the state as an egregor – an entity with its own agenda, distinct from the individuals who nominally control it: a sort of demon. The initial idea came from the concept of demonic “powers and principalities” as expressed by William Stringfellow, a theologian who adapted the idea from the Book of Revelations to American politics.
Do I believe that the state is a demon, complete with horns and tail? Of course not. But it’s a useful metaphor for some states, at least, and the personae they seem to acquire as they grow. And, leaving the metaphor behind, it’s painfully obvious that most people in positions of political power have no concern for average citizens.
In the part of North Carolina where I live, until the late 19th century, we had a population of yeomen, which in the US meant non-slaveholding, small-landowning family farmers. I’m not one to romanticize hard physical labor, especially since my back went out (though white-collar workers throw their backs out, too), but these were independent people who got by perfectly well and had a supportive community. They got sick, like we do; they died, like we do. But they had a degree of autonomy unfathomable to us now. It was a far better situation, in my opinion.
What do you think you'll write next? Is more fiction in the world of The Epiphanist a possibility, or have you said all you want to say about that setting?
I’ve thought about writing a sequel, but Vladimir’s transformations make it pretty much impossible to write from his point of view ever again. It would be a shame to leave the jungles of Borneo forever, though; I really fell in love with them. I’d like to tackle a sequel from another character’s perspective.
I have a number of ideas for other novels. I’ll avoid mentioning specifics. The goal in writing any future novel, for me as much as any other novelist, is to use our beautiful English language as well as possible, pack in some interesting ideas, and do it all in the context of a ripping good yarn.
I'm grateful to Mr. Rosencrans for taking the time to indulge my curiosity, and obviously I encourage you to read his novel. Now.