Today, Tyler R. Tichelaar of Readers Views is pleased to interview Richard Donahue, who is here to talk about his new novel “The Sixth Coming.”
Rich is sixty-two years old and has just completed his first book, and he is busily working on the second.
Rich likes to point out that he was born in New Jersey—when the world’s population was only 2.5 billion people—and that his father was born when the world’s population was only 1.5 billion people—so between the two of them, he and his father have seen much of what he talks about in his book as happening—new housing developments being built at the expense of forests and fields of wildflowers.
As far as his being an author, Rich likes to mention that he foolishly thought writing a book would be a “fun” experience, as he says—to paraphrase loosely (and badly) Winston Churchill—“That which starts out as an innocent flirtation soon becomes a serious relationship, which culminates in marriage and ends in a bitter divorce.” The first half of his book was basically a fun flirtation, but then became a serious obsession, which consumed four or five hours every day for seven years, so he was most happy to “fling his book out upon the street of public review” and to send it bundled up and off to a publisher to let it be judged fairly and impartially by the reader.
Tyler: Welcome, Richard. It’s a pleasure to have you here. To begin, will you tell us what the title “The Sixth Coming” refers to? It sounds religious or mythical.
Richard: It is both. For too long we’ve been inundated with Western European Mythologies and Religions, so I thought it was high time that North America prepared a Native American alternative to Tolkien’s magnificent “Lord of the Rings.” I’ve loosely based my book on the Aztec Legend of The Five Suns, which talks in terms of birth, death, and rebirth.
Tyler: How did you become interested in Aztec mythology?
Richard: By way of Chaco Canyon, and The Chaco Culture National Historical Park, located in The Four Corners Area where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah join.
As a somewhat longwinded explanation, Chacoan Culture—as preserved in the Chaco Culture National Historical Park—contains not only the most extensive and concentrated collection of ancient ruins north of Mexico, but also one of the most important pieces of archaeoastronomy discovered on the North American Continent, the Sun Dagger petroglyph at Fajada Butte. This is how my book starts out—with a sun dagger petroglyph being carved.
Additionally, since it is widely believed that climate change and deforestation forced the emigration of Chacoans and the eventual abandonment of the canyon, this fact ties nicely into the environmental themes of my book.
Tyler: What is the setting and timeframe for the novel?
Richard: The Aztec Calendar is built on cycles approximating 25,000 years. As I suspect you are aware, the current cycle will end next year, December 21, 2012, on the winter solstice—and a new cycle will begin. Therefore, the book takes place perhaps 25,000 years ago when the cycle of destruction and rebirth is about to take place.
Tyler: In the book, the main character, Soyala, is a Hopi. Why did you choose the Hopi over another Native American tribe?
Richard: I didn’t choose the Hopi over any other tribe—I chose a name which means The Time of the Winter Solstice—which happens to be, I believe, of Hopi origin. I hope to borrow from all of the Native American cultures. In fact, Book Two will borrow heavily from the Northwestern Coastal Native Americans. Shamanism, for example, will be a central theme.
Additionally, I wanted to build my book with reference to the different calendars, some of which are still used in different parts of the world—Sun Calendar, Moon Calendar, and also the calendars based upon Venus and The Pleiades—and how competing religions have been, and still are, built upon these calendars.
Tyler: What is the significance of Soyala’s name referring to the sun and solstice?
Richard: Soyala means The Time of the Winter Solstice. It is significant in that the story takes place at a period of time where various religions are vying with one another not only to maintain relevancy, but also to become dominate over the others. Again, we find ourselves in a most similar situation today, where our three “desert” religions—all claiming the same roots—are vying with one another.
The “link” to Soyala’s name and the Aztec Calendar is the winter solstice—e.g. December 21, 2012, when the “reign” of the fifth sun will end and the sixth will begin. The “link” to Soyala and to Chaco Canyon—is the marking of the solstice.
Tyler: What is this story she hears about a self-proclaimed Sun King, and why does that interest her?
Richard: It interests her father, The Emperor of the Turquoise Tower. It is important for him as emperor to establish and maintain trade agreements with his neighbors to the south. For this purpose, he needs an emissary.
Also, as far as my choice of the word “turquoise,” I tried to choose a “stone” that is representative of the southwestern cultures. Plus, Turquoise Tower has a nice sound to it, don’t you think?
Tyler: What happens next? Is it a journey story where she goes to find the Sun King?
Richard: It is a coming of age story—a story of self-discovery. Her father has asked her to be his emissary to forge trade agreements with the ruler to the south. During her journey, she discovers her heritage, and by doing so, comes of age. Additionally, I play with the Aztec themes of birth-death-rebirth—by creating dream sequences and “reflections behind the mirror”—that is, which is the reality, the person standing in front of the mirror, or the reflection? Is time linear or a series of discrete points, each existing simultaneously?
Tyler: Does the story tie into prophecies about the end of the world in 2012?
Richard: Definitely. Not in a literal sense, but in the sense of Birth, Death, Rebirth, Redeath—if I might create a word or two to better explain the concept.
Tyler: Rich, what genre would you say you are writing in? I understand the book is full of magical events. Is it historical fiction mixed with fantasy, or magical realism perhaps because the characters live in a society where magic is feasible to them?
Richard: My favorite author is William Morris—The Father of the Modern Fantasy Novel. Tolkien borrowed heavily from Morris in writing his masterpiece, “The Lord of the Rings.” I would prefer to use the term Fantasy Novel because the magic is kept to a minimum, and what appears as magic is oftentimes just an illusionist’s trick. What is religion and the power of a god is also oftentimes just an illusionist’s trick. My book is full of fantasy, which should not be necessarily confused with magic.
Tyler: So we’re not talking about a story of Native Americans living in the real world, but perhaps in what they perceive as the real world? Would that be a fair judgment?
Richard: We are talking about a culture which is seeing profound change. Although they are still in contact with nature—as evidenced by The Hunter and Soyala’s ride through the landscape—we are also starting to see the end of that “connection” with nature, e.g. Towers, Temples, and Tombs. The book starts in a center of culture and commerce, bolstered by a fledgling science, then slowly gravitates toward another entirely different world—a world of magic and religion.
Yes, you are correct that the characters “perceive” different realities, sometimes by virtue of looking at a reflection in a mirror or by viewing a mosaic history of the people—The Stations of Remembrance. Illusions and perceptions of reality play a very real role in my book.
Additionally, if one subscribes to the Three Migration Theory to North American—with those folks related to the Ainu being first, those whom we normally refer to as Native Americans being second, and the Eskimos being third—this is the all-encompassing meaning of the term as I use it in my book. Additionally, should I ever be fortunate enough to have my book transformed to film, I would definitely want Native Americans to play the lead roles—e.g. Soyala, Kajika, and Jaguar Claw.
Tyler: Will you give us some examples of what would be considered “magical” in the book?
Richard: An example of magic is trapping the spirits of a people in a snowflake obsidian throne. An example of illusion is The Sun King, apparently descending from the sun, but in reality, using a hot air balloon. An example of fantasy is taking a feathered dinosaur, which actually existed tens of millions of years ago, and making it large enough for a warrior to ride.
Tyler: I don’t want to ask you to give away the ending, but can you tell us a little about your plans to carry the story into two more books to make it a trilogy?
Richard: The basic theme is: Paradise—Paradise Lost—Paradise Regained. I have to admit that as a painter, who is painting a floor, sometimes paints him/herself into a corner, I’ve written myself into a corner and am busily writing “back-story” to a lot of the references I’ve made in the first book.
For example, I’ll explain how the Seven Queendoms (I had to make up this word because of the male-dominated western European mode of thought) became one realm ruled by an Emperor. I’ll also better explain Soyala’s lineage, and the relationship between Jaguar Claw and Soyala.
Tyler: Rich, in speaking of the backstory, how well do you know your characters? Do you know a lot of their history that isn’t included in the book, or do you make it up as you go along in the second book? What is the need for this additional back-story?
Richard: No, I don’t make it up as I go. I know a lot of their history that isn’t in the first book. It would have been too cumbersome to have written into the first book—and would have slowed down the flow of the story. Therefore, I’ve inserted “place markers” where I can go back and flesh out the narrative with a back story. What is the need for the additional backstory? You, the reader, need to tell me that—did you understand the relationships of the characters? Did you understand the subtleties that I was hinting at? I don’t mean this in a demeaning sense, but rather in the sense that I’ve tried to write the story at different levels. If one reads the book with the bias of Western European perceptions, some of the subtleties might remain obscured or not even noticed. Do you believe in reincarnation for example? Do you believe in the Christian concept of soul—which can be thought of as an onion, the essence of the soul “layered” with experiences—whereas, some of the Asian religions view the “soul” as the essence from which all experience has been stripped away—reincarnation as a hummingbird or a butterfly—without memory of the previous human existence, for example.
Incidentally, character development was the most difficult part of writing my book. Once I had conceptualized a character, I named that character using a descriptive name—e.g. Soyala or Kajika or Burilgi. If I had done a good job of character development, I then created a situation and “copied down” what the characters said to each other. That is the trick—letting the characters speak to each other using their own words and personalities within the context of the situation.
Tyler: Richard, I’m struck by the artwork on the cover, and I also understand the book is available in color and in black and white formats because of the illustrations inside. Would you tell us about the illustrations? Who is the illustrator? Why did you feel illustrations were important to the book?
Richard: By “struck by the artwork,” I’ll take that as a compliment since I was the illustrator—my first attempt at oil paintings and some crude color pencil sketches. I had published both a black & white and color version of my book. However, after having seen the black and white version, I’m thoroughly convinced that the Black & White version, while an interesting experiment, fails in complementing the narrative. Besides, since one picture is worth a thousand words, I would have found it extremely difficult to write my book were it not for the complementary artwork. The artwork “sets the tone” for the chapter by providing a “snapshot” of some of the fantasy narration in the book.
Additionally, I enjoy “playing” with words—archaic English, if you will—such as Collective Nouns: Charm of Hummingbirds—Kaleidoscope of Butterflies—Lamenting of Swans. Also, Blacksmith, Whitesmith, Greensmith.
Tyler: Would you say then that a picture is worth a thousand words? Have you done other artwork in the past, even if these are your first attempts at oil paintings? What influences or inspirations did you have for creating the artwork?
Richard: These are my first attempts. I did ask a couple of folks to proofread certain chapters of my book before I had “stumbled across” the idea of doing artwork. It was most painful watching them trying to comprehend what I had written. I vividly remember one proofreader exclaiming: Horses don’t eat meat!
I also extensively researched scholarly articles on feathered dinosaurs—for example, in addition to various artists’ renditions of extinct creatures. I remember having seen a Ray Harryhausen interview where he talked about the film “Mysterious Island” and how the audience had laughed at his depiction of the Phororhacos because its crest looked like a floppy roster crown. This was my inspiration for making the Crest of The Lion Killers a weapon by which they would do battle with each other. Lots of hours and lots of years went into this effort.
Tyler: Richard, will you tell us a little about which writers or books have influenced your writing? You mentioned that “The Lord of the Rings” was a big influence on you.
Richard: I had just purchased the DVD of “The Lord of the Rings” about the same time that I had purchased a documentary on “The Sun Dagger,” narrated by Robert Redford. The two “stuck” in my mind. I felt “cheated” that my favorite character in “The Lord of the Rings,” Eowyn, did not have more screen time, so I decided to write a story about a shield maiden on a journey of self-discovery within the context of North American Native American Culture. However, having said that, my prime source of enjoyment has been those novels written by William Morris.
I’m also a “frustrated” biology major, in that I never had the opportunity to find a career in biology, so I also thoroughly enjoy reading nature field guides and scientific articles, such as those found in “Scientific America.” I suspect that what a lot of readers might speculate is pure fantasy is real or has really existed—e.g. pygmy elephants and giant swans.
Also, in closing, if I may, I’d just like to take a moment or two and mention that my book is not about the Aztecs, or Religion, or Magic, or Extinct Creatures that once roamed the North and South American Landscapes, but an “admixture” of all of these elements—many of which have caused me many a sleepless night.
However, I trust that I have found the right balance, but that is up to the reader to decide for him or herself.
Tyler: Richard, when I think of William Morris, I think of elaborate medieval European fantasies; what made you decide to apply that style to a North American setting?
Richard: Flash of Genius—I hope! J
Morris, as a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, was often accused of “magically” creating resolutions for his hero and heroine’s dilemmas, whereas I’m working to build a rational solution throughout the storyline which I can share with the reader—and then let the character stumble upon the solution.
My setting is “medieval,” although I had to struggle mightily to make it not European. For example, there are competing theories as to the migration of peoples across the Bering Straits—that is, whether there was one single migration or a succession of smaller migrations, with the first migration perhaps being linked to the aboriginal inhabitants of current day Japan—the Ainu—the second of Asian descent and being genetically similar to those whom we refer to as Native Americans, and the third being those peoples whom we refer to as Eskimos.
So, in a sense it is medieval, in that the book starts out in the middle of a cultural center on the banks of a great glacial sea.
Then, disaster happens, and we find ourselves with a retrograde civilization in Book II where people are struggling just to survive in a desolate and devastated world—with the retrograde from a medieval society being a clan based society.
Yes, in a sense, it is very medieval in structure and feel.
Tyler: Do you have a favorite William Morris book, and what about it do you admire?
Richard: I very much enjoyed Morris’ translation of the Icelandic Sagas—“The Heimskringla.” Can you imagine someone teaching himself Icelandic so that he could translate the sagas of the First Kings of Norway—and then even setting some of them to verse in the process? Amazing individual.
I also have a copy of his translation of “Grettir the Strong,” whose saga is the basis of Beowulf. I’ve tried to “build” a little bit of this character into The Clay Warrior, and I have built a little bit of “Howard the Halt” into The Stone Hauer.
Also, since you were kind enough to ask, and in reference to your earlier question about back-story, if you are familiar with Morris’ translation of “Sigurd the Volsung,” and the story of Signy and Sigmund, then you already know of Soyala’s heritage. Therefore, you would need no back-story in this instance, but I suspect most readers will.
As far as Morris’ fantasy novels, I have a copy of “The House of the Wolflings” (1889); “Roots of the Mountain” (1890); “The Story of the Glittering Plain” (1891); “The Well at the World’s End” (1896); “The Water of the Wondrous Isles” (1897); and “Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair” (1900)—with my favorite probably being “The Water of the Wondrous Isles.” Although I can’t afford first editions, I do enjoy the feel of an old hardcover book in my hands as I read it. In regard to your question as to why this is probably my favorite, I guess that it has to do with my being a romantic at heart—because out of the deepest depths of despair, Morris can usually find a happy ending for all.
Tyler: Richard, William Morris’ books are over a century old and he has few readers today. What does his writing have to offer the modern reader, and in writing in a style similar to him, don’t you risk the charge of being archaic in style? Why do you think your and Morris’ writing will resonate with twenty-first century readers?
Richard: Morris is timeless—his themes are timeless. However, yes, you are correct in that I will be accused of being archaic in style. Of the folks I’ve given my book to—(I have yet to sell one)—only one or two has actually read my book. Of those who have started and given up, a common complaint is that the hyphens make it “hard” to read. I purposely wanted to “slow down” the pace of reading. I wanted folks to “stop and smell the roses,” not rush through the book and on to the next one—without have taken the time to enjoy the sound and the flow of the words. I would like to think of myself as James Joyce—with hyphens—writing in a style I’d like to call “Nested Thoughts.”
I love the sound of Morris’ words—“Weltering Waters” comes to mind. Morris had a beautifully expressive way of writing—if I can come close to his style, I will be most happy.
In regard to readers’ views on my style—our current religions have separated God from the Creation—the Creation from Nature—Nature from Man—and Man from Woman. The Native American Heritage sees all as one part of the whole—everything interconnected. For the Aztecs, their creator god, Ometeuctli, was a dual being both male and female. Their god did not separate the sexes with one sex given domination over the other—both sexes were equal. I’ve written my book such that the Creator God created of him/herself making the god and the creation one. This is a powerful distinction between the Western European concept of a god.
In fact, each part being part of a larger whole was a concept most powerfully grasped by George Lucas when he wrote of “The Force.” Because of this, Joseph Campbell considers George Lucas his greatest pupil.
In summary, my intent is to write an entertaining story—but a story with a message—that we need to be more aware of the beauty and magnificence of the world in which we live—and as a result, become stewards of our wonderful planet. If readers resonate with this message, they will not see me as archaic. Time will tell.
Tyler: When can readers expect Book Two and Three of the Trilogy to come out, and do you have a name for the entire Trilogy series?
Richard: I expect to finish Book II in approximately nine months’ time, which means it should be published next spring. Book II will be largely back-story, helping to flesh out some of the abbreviated narration of Book I. Additionally, it will take the reader on a journey into a retrograde civilization—a desolate world, existing long after the beauty and diversity of the world of Book I have disappeared. The change will be so great—and so long ago—that even the living have no memory of the world in which their ancestors lived. For example, how many folks today can remember a world without television, cell phones, Internet, or digital cameras? I can—and this change happened in only two or three generations. Book II will start thousands or tens of thousands of years after Book I has ended. Book II will probably conclude with some horrific battle or noble sacrifice—much as discussed in Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey.” I have some general ideas as to how I will structure Book III, but they are not clear enough in my mind at this point to discuss. No, I do not have a title for the overarching concept, but when and if the idea does come to me, it will most probably happen at two o’clock in the morning!
Tyler: Thank you for the opportunity to interview you today, Rich. Before we go will you tell us where our readers can go online to find more information about “The Sixth Coming”?
Richard: “The Sixth Coming” is published by Author
House. If you Google “Author House Bookstore,” then enter either the
title of my book or my name, you should see different purchase options
available. Currently, the link is: http://www.authorhouse.com/Bookstore/BookSearchResults.aspx?Search=the%20sixth%20coming
I strongly recommend the color version over the black and white version, for reasons stated above. It is a tad “pricy” but that is because of the better quality paper required for the color pictures complementing the narrative. I hope that you enjoy.
Tyler: Thank you very much, Richard, for letting me interview you today. I’ve truly enjoyed the experience. I wish you much luck with “The Sixth Coming” and hope you’ll come back when your next book is published.