Shambling Toward Hiroshima

Novelist Jim Morrow talks about science fiction, atheism and the threat of nuclear disaster.

By Steven Wells
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 21, 2009

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Do you receive much feedback from religious folk?

I almost never get hate mail, a situation I would attribute to the fact that virtually all serious fiction in our culture — not just blasphemous serious fiction — flies below the radar of religious conservatives. About half of my fan letters are from atheists, but the other half comes from churchgoers. I love to interact with nonbelievers, of course, whose messages normally take the form, “Go for it, Jim! Give the moldering carcass of organized religion another kick in the groin!”

But I also treasure the reactions of believers, who generally tell me, “Thank you, Jim, for setting me on the path of playful theological speculation.” Apparently my fiction has helped some people escape from the clutches of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventists. Such readers rarely make the leap to where I live, total disbelief, but they appreciate the way my books helped them to stop taking religion so damn seriously.

It’s probably a character flaw but I was very taken with the Brugelesque battle scenes between Christian crazies and the feminists/scapegoated Jews in The Philosopher’s Apprentice and The Eternal Footman. Is this something you’ve thought about much? I ask because I’ve met several people recently who have real plans ready (including packed bags and loaded weapons) for what they only half-jokingly call “the zombie scenario”. By which they mean the breakdown of civilization. Do you feel perhaps that the specific fear of a nuclear holocaust has been replaced by a more generalized sense that the center will not hold?

 I have the same character flaw. There seems to be a Brugelesque battle scene — thank you for giving me that descriptive term, Steven — in every damn James Morrow novel. I guess such set pieces are a way for me to express my dark side. The last thing I want to do is legitimatize the “survivalist” mentality, with its love of guns, affection for violence, and general paranoia. With its relentless anti-government rhetoric, the Reagan administration did much to nurture that mindset, which some historians would say culminated in Timothy McVeigh’s horrendous Oklahoma City bombing.

You seemed very much at home in the romping historical novel The Last Witchfinder. Is this a genre you intend to revisit?

You are prescient, Steven. I’ve recently started another rollicking historical epic, all about the coming of the Darwinian worldview, tentatively titled Galapagos Regained. My heroine, Chloe Bathurst, is a woman who gets a job tending Darwin’s private zoo: the odd birds, lava lizards, and giant tortoises he brought back from the Galapagos Archipelago. (This is a bit of a stretch, as Darwin did not return with many live specimens.) She suddenly finds herself with a good reason to recapitulate Darwin’s voyage around the world, and soon she’s off on a series of wild adventures. I don’t think she’ll land in Philadelphia, but who knows?

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James Morrow will be reading from Shambling Towards Hiroshima Thurs., April 23, 8pm. Free. Temple University Center City, 1515 Market St., Room 222. 215.204.TUCC, http://www.temple.edu/creativewriting/events/PnW/index.htm

Also: Fri., April 24, 7.30pm. The Philadelphia Fantastic Authors and Editors Series,” The Philadelphia Fantastic Authors and Editors Series,” Moonstone Art Center, 110A S. 13th Street, 2nd Floor. 215.735.9600. www.robinsbookstore.com

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