The Big Idea: Steven R. Boyett

Here at Whatever, I’ve already gone into detail about the enthusiasm I have for Mortality Bridge, the new novel from Steven Boyett, which can be summed up thusly: Fantastic reader journey, one of the best reads of 2011, go buy now or live in regret. So it’s my pleasure to have Steve here to tell you about the book in turn, and how it represented a journey of its own for him. It a reminder that some stories you have to work for… and what work means for the writer.

STEVEN R. BOYETT:

Around 1986 I was living with a startlingly talented poet named Nancy Lambert, and she made a remark about the Greek ferryman Charon as a taxi driver in Manhattan. I thought it was just the coolest idea. A couple of years later I asked her if she was going to do anything with it and she said no and I asked if she minded if I stole it from her took a crack at it. Knock yourself out, she said.

I set out to write a pure-action novel that was all chase scene, Hell and back again. Like a lot of artists I am captivated by the myth of Orpheus, the musician who travels to Hades to reclaim his wife’s soul, and that’s where I imagined I would run with Nancy’s idea. I think every novel I’ve written has started out with me thinking I’d do a pure-adrenalin adventure.

But something always happens to that outlook as I go. In this case it was thinking deeply about the romance and talent and hubris of Orpheus himself. The arrogance and daring of defying divine decree and even mortality itself. And in the telling I began to understand the commonalities of harrowings (stories of descents into Hell) and deal-with-the-devil stories. And in my mind these archetypes began to fuse. And I had a kind of mashup of Faust and Orpheus and the Inferno and the Crossroads legend of bluesman Robert Johnson.

I started thinking about the ways these stories have replayed themselves in cultures throughout history. And because one of my own tropes is to literalize metaphors, I thought, What if those stories have played out repeatedly. The same soul undergoing the same tragic beautiful adventure time after time. A man bound to the wheel of myth by who he is. The admirable courage of going ahead anyhow once he understands this and thinks perhaps his victory might be to simply break the cycle.

Now we’re talking.

Because I have a sort of science fictional approach to fantasy, I thought a lot about Hell itself. Its purpose, its geography (hadeography, really), its design, its traffic flow. Hell, I realized, is a combination of Disneyland and Dachau. Hell is an abusement park. And they’ve got you forever, so they can afford to punish you across geologic time. To pulp you under granite until it weathers away. Bodies of the damned regenerate in my Hell, so whatever they do to you injures and hurts you but can’t kill you. And because it’s their job to punish you forever, demons are bored out of their minds and starving for ways to keep their work interesting. And as I had mashed up the common archetypes of harrowings and harrowers, so I blended common elements from Greek, Roman, Medieval, Dantean, and Miltonian hadeography.

Mortality Bridge became a dark obsession. I worked on the first draft for about six years, and it simply owned me all that time. I worked harder on it than anything I have ever written. It’s disturbingly violent and very funny and the oddest combination of beautiful words about terrible things. And when it was done I knew that I had never written anything like it or read anything like it, and that it was the book I had been born to write.

I also knew that something about it wasn’t right.

==<>==

I wonder if Rodin ever looked at a block of marble and saw a figure buried there and realized that he didn’t yet have what it took to bring that shape to light. I wonder if he tried anyhow. I wonder if he went through many blocks of marble trying to attain that shape he knew was there but also knew he wasn’t ready to unearth. And I wonder if he understood that the broken attempts helped carve the way to the successful one.

When I began Mortality Bridge sometime around 1987, I was talented enough to see the figure in the stone, and young and arrogant enough not to realize that I did not yet have the chops to do that figure justice. To make it what it deserved to be. I was in fact my own musician hero Niko from the book itself — taking on something that is just too big for him, driving forward anyhow, needing to realize fundamental things about himself if he’s to have any hope of succeeding in his oddly personal yet epic Grail quest.

I remain startled by how a novel can know things about its writer that the writer hasn’t figured out.

Intermittently throughout the next fifteen years I returned to Mortality Bridge to revise it. Every time I finished, I emerged exhausted and proud — and understanding that I had just made another trial run through another block of marble. It wasn’t the story. It wasn’t the style or the prose. That’s all technique. I had more technique than I knew what to do with, literally.

What was missing, plain and simple, was something without which technique doesn’t mean a damned thing: Wisdom. Not experience but what you learn from experience. The years and struggles and victories and compromises and understandings that give you entree into these odd ghosts who haunt a page, that lend substance to their being and their circumstance.

Soon after Elegy Beach, my first novel to be published in nearly seventeen years, appeared in 2009, something in me said, It’s time. And I went back to Mortality Bridge once more. And this time I sent it off to my agent, Richard Curtis. Richard was more enthused and effusive than I have ever heard him, and that felt great. But he felt the book needed to be restructured. Through all those drafts — thirty, at a guess — the back story had been revealed in pieces as the action progressed. The novel was still colored by my original view of it as an adrenalin-fueled action-adventure. Richard suggested simply rearranging the novel chronologically. I’d considered that notion years before but rejected it — too much work, too commercial an approach, this is exactly the book I meant to write, blah blah blah. (Hubris, party of one? Hubris?) And when Richard made his suggestion I realized that not only was he dead-on right, but that I had earlier resisted the notion out of fear. Fear that I wasn’t ready to write the connective tissue and character-solidifying detail that such reorganization would entail. And now I was. That simple: I was ready. It was time.

So I rewrote Mortality Bridge one last time, and knew that it was the last time. I knew this because as I worked on it I realized that this time out I saw the figure in the stone and at last knew how to bring it out.

It’s supposed to be bad PR to play favorites with your books. I say hell with that. This is the best thing I have ever done. It’s Terry Gilliam directing Orpheus with an unlimited budget, special effects by Digital Domain, creature effects by The Jim Henson Company, a screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, a soundtrack by Eric Clapton, and starring Bruce Willis as Faust. I feel gratified by some of the reactions the novel has gotten, and more redeemed than anyone (including me) could possibly have known. Now when someone asks how I can justify the oxygen I’ve used up on the planet, I can point to Mortality Bridge. If it’s the last thing I ever write, I can live with that without a moment of regret. Because it’s finished. Because I became someone who could rightly bring that figure from the stone. And because at last it’s out there in the world.

Rodin himself plays a small role in Mortality Bridge. I think he was trying to tell me something.

—-

Mortality Bridge: Amazon | Subterranean Press

Read sample chapters. Listen to audio sample chapters. Visit the book site. Read Boyett’s blog.

39 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Steven R. Boyett

  1. I picked this up because I’d heard it kicked around here and there and I agree, this is probably the absolute best thing I’ve read yet this year.

  2. Hands own one of the best novels I’ve read in a long, long time. I know that sounds like a jacket blurb but it’s the whole truth.

  3. I’m in the middle of Mortality Bridge right now and it is outstanding. Poignant and painful too, but the best kind of poignant and painful.

    Great work, Steven!

  4. Good to hear the positive feedback from other readers. I read a sample chapter last time you mentioned it, but though I loved the concept, the stream of consciousness style didn’t work for me personally. This time I read all three… still found it hard going, but from the reviews it sounds like it is worth reading just for the story. Will track it down and hope the technique grows on me.

  5. This sounds very much like a book I want to read. Very much looking forward to the ebook version! (note to all: there is a form on the book’s web site here: http://www.mortalitybridge.com/order.html) where you can enter your e-mail to be notified when the ebook (and trade paperback) versions are released.

  6. Boyett is dead to me till he provides me with the rest of the Architect of Sleep novels. DEAD TO ME!

    Okay that’s total baloney but man I really want him to finish that series.

  7. I would agree with #6 that I don’t much care for stream-of-consciousness style when it *is* the story, instead of a small part of the story. After all the rave reviews MacCormac’s (sp) “Angela’s Ashes” got a few years ago, I purchased a copy at Half Price Books. I was immediately grateful I hadn’t spent full price, the entire story was written in SOC style with little thought given to spelling, punctuation, etc. I don’t mind SOC as story *element*, but when an author writes entirely in that style, I spend more time trying to translate what the author/character is trying to say, and less time simply enjoying the story.

  8. Thank you all so much for your support, and thank *you*, John — I am less than dust beneath your chariot wheels.

    There will indeed be a trade paperback and an e-book of MORTALITY BRIDGE. That will be firmed up in just a few weeks. Meantime, as @Jim C kindly wrote, you can visit http://www.mortalitybridge.com/order.html and sign up to be notified when the trade paperback & e-book are released (hopefully within a few months).

  9. Just finished it; great read!

    If you like it, also check out “Inferno” by Niven and Pournelle, in which a (deceased) sci-fi writer finds himself in Hell – or is it “Infernoland”?

  10. “Because I have a sort of science fictional approach to fantasy”

    This might actually get me to read this book. I’m a science fiction guy who has an interest in old myths. But I don’t read fantasy since I hate most fantasy.

  11. @Don #8 – enough people believe as your first sentence that it’s probably not going to happen. ;-( But, we did get a followup to Ariel!

  12. @Scorpius #15: Right there with ya, a lot of the time. So for you I put up a few paragraphs from the novel that I think are illustrative of what I call an SF approach to fantasy. It’s at http://www.mortalitybridge.com/excerpt.pdf

    @Don #8 & @Rich #16: As I’ve learned from the example of Elegy Beach (the sequel to Ariel, with a third book, Avalon Burning, nearly finished), never say never. Which I admit isn’t the same as saying I’ll finish it, but at least it’s a far cry from saying I won’t.

  13. Have I mentioned how utterly cool it is that you’re back doing novels, including older ones you left gestating? Cause it is. And now I have to go find my credit card and you get to work on having Terry Gilliam direct the film adaptation.

  14. About half way through after a wek or so of reading – i’m a fast reader but this is so intense that I have to take a break and read something more trivial every other day.

    -It’s entertaining as hell,(yes i know), and the story certainly pulls you in and carries you forward. I do wish my classical education was both more complete and more recent as there are references I just know I’m missing.
    Damn brave book though and well worth trying.

  15. Drat. Now I’ll have to read it because there is just something about an author who can toss off “Hubris, party of one?” with a straight face.

  16. Rodin? You’re comparing yourself to Rodin? Seriously?

    I mean, Godzilla totally kicked his ass.

  17. Sounds interesting, I went to Amazon to buy it, but the lack of a Kindle version means no sale. You are really wasting your launch inertia by not having one available from the outset.

  18. JSpence – Upthread Steven links to a page where you can leave an email address to be notified when ebook and trade paper versions are out. That’s what I did. I want to read this, but rarely do hardback books. I’d love it if an e-version or trade paper version were out but… they’re not. When they are, I’ll get an email. And then I’ll buy. And read. Luckily, I have plenty to read in the meantime.

  19. JSpence:

    You really might want to look at that Amazon page before going off half-cocked and shooting yourself in the foot. Subterranean Press is a “speciality publisher” that’s brought out a LIMITED SIGNED edition of this book, which is what Subterranean does and does well. Bitching the author because this publisher doesn’t do e-books is just silly.

  20. #24 JSpence– I appreciate you taking the effort to get Mortality Bridge, and I related to your frustration at being unable to find it in your preferred medium. As the author of the work itself, I certainly want it available in the widest possible array of choices, and it is an indicator of John Scalzi’s generosity that he allocates space in such a popular blog to help out books that aren’t necessarily getting a ton of marketing and exposure so that he can raise awareness of them. A lot of people whom I would dearly love to read this book undoubtely would never have heard about it without Whatever and The Big Idea.

    There *will* be an e-book and a trade paperback book, within a few months at the very most — which is actually pretty damned quick after the release of a limited hardcover.

    You can sign up to be notified of the release at http://www.mortalitybridge.com/order.html. Your email address will *only* be used for that notification.

    Thanks so much for your interest!

  21. I find it hard to take a punt on a book I think I’d like (which from the excerpt this one seems to be) if it’s only available in hardback for £20+
    I hope I still remember about this one when it’s out in paperback.

  22. I don’t dare to read a sample chapter, because I have this feeling that I’ll read it over and over again until this website breaks down and no one else can read it. So how do I know I’ll like your book so much?. I’m this 15-year old girl from The Netherlands who LOVES to write and is doing so, she just read some of John Scalzi’s (his last name really fascinates me) articles: 10 Things Teenage Writers Should Know About Writing and On Teens, and the Fact Their Writing Sucks. The guy is right wich is really annoying (nothing personal Mr. Scalzi). So the girl also read his biography (yeah I’ve been busy, couldn’t sleep ;shrugg;) and then she came across this Steve Boyett – never heard of the guy. She was immediatly infatuated with the cover of Mortality Bridge and then she read how he wrote about his book. And she got jealous, REALLY jealous. This Big Idea of yours, Steve, is like finding the Holy Land. I really believe in it, so I know I’ll love your book. And until I create my own flower bed in The Garden of Eden, I’ll crawl around in yours – if you don’t mind, of course.

  23. Steve –
    Just finished reading Mortality Bridge this evening. WOW! I love a quest story and you made Niko REAL. Some of the backstory bogged me down a little, but the Yellow Cab ride into Hell and the Black Taxi ride out of Hell were AMAZING. You should indeed be proud of what you’ve accomplished. It clearly was a labor . . . of love or obsession or penance. WOW!
    Would love you to tackle the story of Odysseus after his return to Ithaka.

  24. I can hardly wait to read Mortality Bridge and the feedback just makes it all the more torturous but I’m determined to stop buying hardcovers as my shelves are full; my responsible alternative if the eBook is yet unavailable is to have my kids chip in for a Christmas present. I came to Steve Boyett through his second work, The Architect of Sleep; like many others. I still remember returning often to Croton Book and Records and gazing in fascination at the cover art of the paper back. I own three of those original paperbacks now and buy them whenever a used book store has one. For years Steve patiently responded to my emails that he would one day complete the work. Then a few years ago he posted a statement that stories about intelligent “Furries” were not sellers implying or stating that he was done with Truck and his Bald Ape. Ironic that he and John Scalzi are such mutual admirers; perhaps with John’s latest success in Fuzzy Nation we can hope Steve will blow the dust off that uncompleted project and get either a trilogy or some completed form of the story out to we who have been aging patiently with him. In waiting for “Sleep” I finally picked up an old copy of Ariel and loved it, perhaps more than Sleep. Just the details about learning swordplay and the loving care and handling of a katana … and then the rereleased Ariel in hardcover with restored chapter and its sequel Elegy Beach gave us new insight into the potential practical application and practice of magic and succinctly brought the story begun in Ariel to a close. Steven Boyett may not be the most prolific author, but he delivers in quality. Like Maria said in August, I don’t dare read the sample chapters; how can I be put on hold for Chapter 3 indefinitely? I think I’ll go read Ariel and EB back to back again!

  25. Brian, et al.–

    I’m delighted to say that the Mortality Bridge ebook is now available.
    Amazon Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/Mortality-Bridge-ebook/dp/B0063LHC10/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1320965594&sr=8-6
    B&N Nook (ePub): http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Mortality-Bridge/Steven-R-Boyett/e/2940013206762

    We are currently negotiating trade paperback publication. You can sign up to be notified about availability at http://www.mortalitybridge.com/order.html

    Thanks so much for your support!

  26. I finished it. I am a bit at a loss for words. Yes I enjoyed it but my deeper impression is that I had no idea how bad hell might actually be. Steve writes a landscape of despair like I’ve never experienced. As a former Catholic, I’m again a little bit afraid of the consequences I might face when I die; honestly. But there is hope and triumph too. No spoilers from me but I highly recommend this book. Thanks Steve and thanks John for posting this on the Big Idea.

  27. To those still on the fence about whether or not to get this book: GET IT. Get it. Read it. Love it, as did I.

    Only Steven Boyett can take the reader to a journey through hell and manage to describe in agonizing detail the brutal and infinite suffering of the poor damned souls while simultaneously making the demons who inflict such torture seem…well, likeable! There’s an overall mood of heavy depression, (naturally. It’s describing hell) but somehow I didn’t feel bad. How’d he do that?? This can’t go unresolved…haha –READ THE BOOK!– That was my favorite demon, by the way. If for no other reason because it was TWICE the fun!

    I love that the entrance to hell is somewhere in downtown L.A. It was nice to see some familiar faces. I’m pretty sure Cockroach Man is one of the regulars on Los Angeles & 8th.

    Ok, so at 1:00 am I’d just finished chapter VIII & decided to call it a night, when I casually flipped over to the next page & read the 1st sentence of Chapter IX: “Half an hour later Niko encounters his first demon.” Shiiit! I knew I’d be up a while yet.

    So I’m all apprehension & goose bumpy as I read about this phenomenal encounter, my first thought is, “Oh, they speak. Ok, cool.”

    My secong thought is: “Maurice?!” —(READ THE BOOK)—If you hadn’t already had me at “Phil”you’da had me at Maurice.

    I hate to admit I couldn’t get enough of the demons. If it weren’t for their whole raison d’être I could totally see myself hangin’ out with ‘em.–but then I’ve always been something of a cat person. Or maybe I’ve known so many of them, having grown up in L.A., that the book made me – sniff – nostalgic.

    I could go on but I don’t want to give away too much. But I would like to say thank you thank you thank you for the part with Salome. What a richly just ending for that wench. And I love what Phil says about her. Steven, I think you should start production on the salome-bot and market it to stores with names like “For the Man Who Thinks He Has Everything.” Can’t be any worse than that Italian “Fragile” lamp from A Christmas Story, eh?

    I will say my only disappointment was at not seeing a section of hell reserved for civic engineers who insist on putting stop signs on streets where your head has to do a total 180 degree turn to check for oncoming traffic FROM BEHIND YOU! I imagine they’d have their heads chopped off & sewn back on backwards as their eternal punishment. (I think I got a little too into the book). :)

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