Exclusive Interview: ASHES OF EARTH Author Eliot Pattison
Daemon’s Books recently got a chance to interview author Eliot Pattison about his latest book, ASHES OF EARTH. The novel takes place in thirty years after a global holocaust and follows the colony of Carthage, which still struggles to build its new world.
You might also know some of Pattison’s earlier work such as the Inspector Shan series and Bone Rattler series. But whether you are new to his books or an old acquaintance, I’m sure you will find Pattison’s answers enlightening and he might even convince you to pick up a copy of Ashes to the Earth.
What was your inspiration for writing ‘Ashes of the Earth’?
Eliot Pattison: My novels are all about people, and peoples, who have been abandoned by their societies and therefore must deal with a crisis or crime without the aid of formal government. My Shan series is about Tibetans who must find makeshift justice after having been orphaned in their own land by a Chinese government that seeks to destroy their culture. My Bone Rattler series is about Scottish exiles and Native Americans whose cultures are under siege from the forces of colonization and who likewise must resolve injustice in spite of efforts by government to prevent them from doing so. Tales about characters who must find their own solutions to criminal acts provide a fertile ground for the novelist, while at the same time allowing exploration of the roles of government, culture and religion in defining justice.
Ashes of the Earth continues the exploration of these themes, only in its post-apocalyptic world the characters have not simply lost their culture but their entire social context, their history, their technology, their very identity.
What were some of the challenges in writing ‘Ashes of the Earth’?
Eliot Pattison: The successful novelist has to have an innate understanding of his or her characters, and these post-apocalyptic characters were difficult to get close to. The survivors have lost their loved ones, lost everything that defined their existence. They must deal with a near deadly mélange of grief and fear and guilt. By setting the book twenty-five years after apocalypse, I was able to have a second set of characters, the new generation who must live with the remnants of a world they will never really understand. The friction between these two sets of characters drives much of the tension and plot development in the book.
An aspect I did not initially anticipate was the perspective of the survivors toward government and history. Ask yourself how we might feel if the politics and technology of this world, our current world, were responsible for destroying it. My survivors felt forsaken by this world, felt anger and shame toward it. They didn’t want their children to embrace anything of that prior world. And how do those offspring feel? How would you describe our world to someone who has never experienced it? How do you describe a skyscraper or rocketship to someone who is living a log cabin existence? What would be the point of talking about high technology when there was no hope of ever possessing it? And speaking of technology, how would scientists and engineers adapt when they have knowledge of advanced technology but none of the resources to produce it?
These were just some of the fascinating challenges that arose in writing Ashes. Another challenge was navigating genres. If I put too much science in the book it would get pegged as science fiction, too many mutants or “alternate” humans and it would be viewed as fantasy. So far Ashes has attracted labels of steampunk, thriller, sci-fy, literary mystery, and speculative fiction. I am happy to keep critics scratching their heads, and invite readers to pick up Ashes and reach their own conclusion.
What are you hoping people get out of reading ‘Ashes of the Earth’?
Eliot Pattison: I have always believed the best books are those that cause readers in some way to reflect on themselves and their world. I want my readers to be provoked, to think about my books after they put them down. Many books raise deeply personal emotional issues, while others pose big philosophical questions about society. I like to think the questions raised by Ashes span this spectrum.
I know from speaking to readers that the messages they have taken away vary widely, which is very satisfying to me. Ultimately the message is in the eye of the beholder.
You’ve written quite a few books, so I have to ask, what is your writing process like?
Eliot Pattison: I spend a lot of time thinking about my characters and the themes I want to emphasize in my books. Once I have settled on those elements, the process is all about picking up a pen—I do still write all my first drafts in longhand—and letting the words flow. Most days I write after dark, but I do so every day; that discipline is vital.
I write in a very organic way, without any detailed outline. At the outset I know the opening of my book and I know the closing of my book. In between is a journey on which my characters become my companions, helping me navigate from one chapter to the next.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you are currently working on?
Eliot Pattison: I am working on another Shan novel right now and will then do another in my Bone Rattler series. I enjoy building on these series, which have broad and fertile platforms that allow me to more fully explore my characters, settings and themes.
You’ve traveled quite a bit. Which was your favorite place to visit?
Eliot Pattison: When I want a teeming exotic melting pot of cultures, my favorite place is southern Asia. For the solitude I sometimes crave it would be the Scottish Highlands, the Canadian Rockies or –my most recent destination—Iceland.
What book that have you read recently would you recommend people read?
Eliot Pattison: I consume lots of books in the course of a year, and am always reading one novel, usually fantasy or historical fiction, and one nonfiction book. I love early accounts of Westerners in Asia and I recently read one of the best ever, The Years That Were Fat by George Kates, a delightful, well-crafted tale of an American residing in Beijing in the 1930’s. It is a book that utterly transports you, not just to a different time and place, but also to a different way of thinking.