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One Part Angelby George Shaffner
Author Q & A
A Conversation with
Jennifer Morgan Gray is a writer and editor who lives near Washington, D.C.
Jennifer Morgan Gray: It’s great to talk to you again, George! So here we are, back in Ebb, with the same colorful cast of characters. Was writing about these characters a bit like visiting old friends– some of whom had gotten into quite a bit of trouble? Did you ever stop thinking about them?
George Shaffner: I do stop thinking about them every so often, but sometimes I ﬁnd myself quoting them! So they do take on a life of their own. That’s very true. And in fact, from a novelist’s perspective, they have to have a life of their own. The most signiﬁcant thing about characters like these, and coming back to them, is that every one of them has a point of view. And you have to look at what they’re doing, look at what they’re saying, from that point of view. This book was very much like revisiting old friends, although in this book I did have to create some new characters. In many ways, the setting is different this time, because we have a new malevolence that’s moved to the outskirts of the county. A lot of what happens takes place in the courthouse and the county jail. So it’s set in the same town [as the ﬁrst book], but the scene overlap is not extraordinarily high.
JMG: Do you do an outline or a family tree?
GS: I have a real clear picture in my mind–and one time I charted it out–of what Ebb looks like. I’ve never done a detailed family map, but I’ve always known what the geography was like. Before I sit down and write a book, I’ll probably have ten or twenty pages of notes that include primary and secondary plot lines. Tempo is a big issue in a book like this.
JMG: Was it easy to get back into Wilma’s voice? It seems as though her eyes would be good prisms in which to see all the workings of Ebb unfold.
GS: It’s a piece of cake. I can sit down and write Wilma anytime. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, why that’s so easy! I’m sure that it’s some kind of serious psychological problem, but it’s really easy for me to look at things through her eyes.
JMG: I was shocked that a grandson of Wilma Porter’s would be involved in what amounts to a hate crime. Given that, do you think that Ebb is still the last oasis of nice? Or is the outside world encroaching upon it? If there are problems in Ebb, it seems like the rest of the globe must be in dire straits.
GS: Well, it is still the last oasis of nice, but it’s a struggle. What Matt has become is a garden-variety disaffected teenager, and one of the big points of this book is that kids like that are incredibly easy to manipulate. They don’t have any self-esteem–or not enough. They don’t have any direction. With no self-esteem, there is no conﬁdence. There just isn’t any keel there. And it makes it easy for someone who comes along and says, “You’re great. We have a different kind of solution for you. All these different people are wrong and we’re going to help you become the real you. And, by the way, all you have to do is become a suicide bomber.” That’s the metaphor for this whole thing. Showing how easy it is for a teenager, particularly for a young male, to fall into a trap like that. There is a stratum of teenagers who are a lot more disaffected than others. They are underachievers. They don’t have the type of self-esteem they’d like to have. They’re not comfortable where they are. They want to go someplace else, although they don’t have any idea what or where that is. A sweet-talking someone who comes along with that destination, and who basically ﬂatters them, can fall in with them very quickly. And because teens are young, and because they’re inexperienced, and because they’re so incredibly na•ve, they’re very easy to manipulate. And because of their arrogance, they don’t know it.
JMG: And that’s why someone like Matt would take refuge in a religious sect.
GS: And that’s why they all do! Or why they fall in with gangs. Or why they disappear into vicarious forms of self-gratiﬁcation, like video games. Those are all ways of adapting badly to the problem, rather than facing it and solving it. And in this particular case, Vernon’s challenge coming in–in his usual six days, a theme that carries on, by the way–is that he has to break Matt out of it. He has to ﬁnd a way in a very short period of time ﬁrst to get through to him, and then to give him a way to deal with all these issues. And that’s what this book is about. It’s the “charity” book of faith, hope, and charity. But the real underlying theme of this book is: What do you give a teenager that will give him or her the ability to look at their situation skeptically and intelligently when they need to? That’s where the trilogy comes in. In the ﬁrst book, Vernon sold hope to Calvin Millet. In this book, he sells charity. It turns out, as he says, that charity is where being smart and being strong overlap. In the third book, he comes back to sell faith. If you look at conventional religion, there are basically three parts that really matter to people. One is belief in life after life, which was book one–which was hope. Another is faith and the possibility that God can intervene, that he can answer my prayers. That’s book three. Book two, this book, is a code of conduct. But if you take a look at the existing biblical code of conduct that we have, it’s not very useful, especially when you’re confronted with modern problems. And this is the ultimate question of the book.
JMG: How did all the tumult in today’s world over long-held beliefs–and delusions–affect your writing of this book? Did you aim to make it topical and political, or was this a case where life imitated art?
GS: That’s a huge part of this book, a huge part of this theme. It was that way all along. The issue here, because once I’m in the code of conduct, it allows me to philosophically explore some things that I couldn’t explore in book one or book three. But it strikes me that one of the key parts of this book is that belief is the gray area between fact and delusion. When you think about what’s going on in the world with religious fervor, these are all people who are killing and maiming each other. Terrorism. Closing borders. Kidnapping. Beheading. All of these horrible things–all based on belief. They’re guessing. Since the get-go, we have murdered millions because we’re guessing. Because we think that our guess is better than their guess. Isn’t that the most appalling and stupid thing you’ve every heard of? I might have entitled [this book], “Put Him on the Speakerphone.” I get so tired of people like Pat Robertson saying that they talk to God. Let all of us hear it. And if you can’t, you know what? I don’t think He’s talking to you. I think you’re making it up. These are not books about a small town that happen to have a philosophical foundation. These are philosophical books that happen to take place in a small town. That’s the stage.
JMG: That was a conscious decision on your part, to present these philosophies in a way that people would not be intimidated by it?
GS: When I wrote the ﬁrst book, I didn’t know yet that there were three paradoxes. I knew there was one, but I didn’t know I’d have to solve two more. But I was a business executive. I know that to solve difﬁcult concepts, you need to make them understandable to people. And you want to make it entertaining. And from that perspective–even though I’d never written a novel before–it was Novel 101. But look at somebody like Hesse. The difference between him and some of his Germanic counterparts is that a book like Demian is very easy to read. And my objective from the beginning was, how can I take Hesse and move him closer to Mark Twain? I think that the best storyteller in the history of American literature was Mark Twain. He has to be updated, because at the time that he wrote, the pace was slow. Everything was slow. His books were slow. Life on the Mississippi was incredibly slow–but then, so was life on the Mississippi. In contemporary terms, you have to speed things up.
JMG: And talk about someone being able to weave in relevant, controversial themes with everyday life. Mark Twain was a master at that.
GS: And how did he do it? He did it in small towns. He did it with people who were street smart, but intellect never plays a role in his novels. Instead, it’s about people exploring simple, common themes that require common sense.
JMG: Loretta is targeted because she’s different in many ways. What about her differences make some people in Ebb uncomfortable? How does her color–and her status as a single mother–play into that?
GS: Well, gee. Let’s take a bunch of low-self-esteem, weak white men and put them in a room with an intelligent, strong black woman, and tell them to go ﬂy a kite. What would be worrisome about that? To me, she’s the embodiment of what a lot of weak men fear. She’s a business owner. She’s articulate. She’s one of the smartest women in town. She’s very strong. She’s nobody’s fool.
JMG: And now she’s an unwed mother.
GS: In the book she says, “It wasn’t Vernon’s fault. I seduced him.” There’s no way that she would cede that kind of control to a man, whether it was true or not.
JMG: What was the point you wanted to make in this book about the value of diversity?
GS: It’s another one of those issues where the human race doesn’t even approach intelligence. We take diversity so much for granted that we’re constantly killing it off. And it is one of the great values of life. That’s why Vernon goes through so much time showing Matt the value of diversity. It was handed to us on a platter, and as a species we treat it no better than a child. Diversity is one of the keys to richness in life, and all we do as human beings is organize ourselves to stomp it out. It’s simply unintelligent. If we are going to call ourselves an intelligent race, we need to be intelligent enough to understand that the richness of our life depends upon it.
JMG: We touched on this a little bit, but why do you think that someone like Matt would take refuge in a religion like the Divine Temple of the Everlasting God Almighty? My son was a disaffected teenager also. A committed underachiever. No direction whatsoever. He didn’t know what he wanted–he just knew what he didn’t want, which is what he had. He didn’t want to be put into the box he was in. All he wanted was another box that was built for him, that would make him more comfortable. The world is full of kids who are looking for that other box. And you know what, they’re not very smart about the next box they are looking for. All they know is that they want a box. And if the people in that box say, “We love you. You’re ﬁne. You’re like us,” that’s the attraction of cults. Vernon’s answer to the code of conduct was two simple questions: Is it better to be smart or stupid? Is it better to be strong or weak? And that actually was a huge philosophical exercise underneath the book. As a former mathematician, it was me boiling down a lot of things into these two simple questions. Well, I wish I had been smart enough, when my son was growing up, to ask him a question. Gee, Carl, is it better to be stupid or is it better to be smart? When the options were plainly there, but I couldn’t articulate the question. And the same is true of strong or weak. One of the problems with our culture in particular is that we’ve changed the deﬁnition of strong. Strong is taking care of yourself. Strong, in this society, is doing what you want. And the reason is that it sells beer, it sells cars, it sells chewing gum. That’s the new strong. But it’s merely self-indulgent. And, in fact, that’s weak when you look at it. But strong means only one thing. It’s the way Vernon treats it in the book. It’s strong enough to help others. It’s past the point that you can take care of yourself. That’s the only deﬁnition that matters. An awful lot of this book deals with very simple truths that have been lost, somehow. We can’t even deﬁne words anymore! Strong versus weak. They’re confused. They’re upside down.
JMG: As in the ﬁrst book, the Quilting Circle thinks it all comes back to Millet’s Store as the linchpin of the town. Do you think they’re right about that? What about the store is so integral to Ebb as an entity?
GS: It is the linchpin of the town. If you look at a mall, every mall has one or more anchor stores. If you look at the history of Nebraska and the plains states, even now, one or two towns in Nebraska disappear every year. They just evaporate and go away. They don’t die from the outside in. They die from the inside out. The economy breaks down, there’s no gathering place any more, there’s no focal point. Millet’s is the economic focus of the town. It’s the main thing that brings people to Main Street. It’s analogous to the anchor store that sits on either side of a mall. If they lose it in a mall, they have to go out and get another one. If you’re in a remote rural town of two thousand people, you’re not going to get another store. What you’re going to do is get a Wal-Mart out of town in a ravine somewhere, and the town is dead. The store really is the linchpin of the town. The Circle decides to invest in the store rather than the bank because the store is a corporation unto itself; the bank is a subsidiary. There’s no point to having a defensive position in a subsidiary, because the parent company can tell you to just take a hike.
JMG: Clem Tucker has had somewhat of a rebirth since In the Land of Second Chances. For example, he deﬁnitely seems to be thinking of life as more of a game these days. What’s behind Clem’s new attitude? How did Vernon Moore inﬂuence him and his actions?
GS: Vernon is the inﬂuence. Clem isn’t doing all this for the hell of it. Clem has a strategy. In the ﬁrst book, Clem tried to take a majority position in Millet’s basically so that he could control the future of the town; Vernon prevented Clem from doing that. That taught Clem a lesson. So Clem is now in the process of changing his strategy. In fact, that strategy unfolds here in One Part Angel. Clem’s reason for living is that he’s a pure money man. All he wants to do is to make the trust as big as he can make it. And since he couldn’t own the county, he has decided to change strategy–and that was the point of the Big Buyback. He got out of the farming business, so he sold all the farms. But then the local bank owned all the mortgages. So then he has this fantastic, high-valued loan portfolio, then he used that as leverage to take over a bigger bank–along with many other things. So what’s Clem done? Because he couldn’t own the county, he took his investments out of the county. It’s very much analogous to sending your jobs offshore.
JMG: The interplay between Clem and Vernon is really interesting.
GS: You know, I know a lot of Clem Tuckers. I used to be a business executive before I became a late-onset novelist. I’ve had six C-ﬁll-inthe-blank-O titles. I have had a lot of those interchanges myself. So I know the kind of person extremely well. And I don’t want to portray Clem Tucker as one-sided or stereotyped. He’s not. I may have thought that some of the executives I worked with were relatively black-hearted, and that they were too weak to realize that they could succeed and help people at the same time, rather than succeeding by not helping them, but they were also complex and smart people. I wanted Clem to be that way, too. And Vernon has to be a strong character. You’re only beginning to understand what Vernon really is. All I wanted from the interchange was for Clem to have a strategy and a vision, and for them both to be strong. The irony of this book is that Vernon sees what Clem is doing, and he actually helps him this time. And that should cause a question in the reader’s mind.
JMG: Why would Vernon help Clem?
GS: And the answer to that is in the third book.
JMG: Whenever Vernon Moore appears, amazing things happen. What about him inspires trust–and a suspension in the typical rules of the day, an acceptance that certain odd, miraculous things may well happen?
GS: Vernon is just this guy who goes out and does good work. That’s one reason why people like him. Another reason is that he looks successful, and he behaves that way, but he asks them questions and he listens to their answers. The real reason that people like him, and that he gets along with them, is that he’s very good at what he does! He gets everything ﬁxed. He’s successful at it. By the time he leaves, it’s becoming clearer and clearer to everyone–because he seems to be prescient–that Vernon just isn’t like the rest of us. Remember the “Lady Be Good” theory–the World War II bomber that went down in a failed mission over Naples? When Buford Pickett tried to ﬁnd out who Vernon was, he could only ﬁnd a Vernon L. Moore that went down with it, who was also born in New Boston, Ohio. When Vernon is ﬁngerprinted, they ﬁnd nine ﬁngerprint matches going back to 1954, for a guy who looks like he’s in his mid-forties? How is that possible? Even before we get to the point where Vernon may or may not have helped Loretta, it should be becoming clear that Vernon is not us.
JMG: In the third book, will we actually ﬁnd out what Vernon is?
GS: All of this is explored in book three, which is divine-intervention theory. And that’s when it becomes almost perfectly clear who or what Vernon is. But not quite.
JMG: Another way that Vernon Moore remains an enigma: If he’s retired, why can’t he just settle in Ebb permanently? Seems like everyone would be happy to have him–particularly his daughter Laverne.
GS: And the answer is, he just can’t. He always has somewhere else to go, doesn’t he?
JMG: Can you give a hint of whether Clem and Wilma will ever get married?
GS: No. Book Three!
JMG: When last we spoke, you outlined your plan for three books in Ebb: one where Vernon Moore sells hope (In the Land of Second Chances); one, charity (One Part Angel), and one, faith. When can we expect this third book in the Ebb trilogy on bookshelves?
GS: The third book is ﬁnished. We’re pretty deep into the edits. That book is the completion of the story. It is the philosophical examination of faith. It should be out in twelve to ﬁfteen months; it’s on the Algonquin fall list.
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