Zachary Jernigan’s debut novel, No Return, comes out on the 5th of March, 2013, from Night Shade Books. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Crossed Genres, and Escape Pod, among others. Nick Sharps got the opportunity to sit down and talk to him, while enjoying a nice cold beer. The following interview is an in depth discussion of No Return, religion, sexual deviancy, world building, sociology, He-Man, female protagonists, future novels, and ice cream.
Nick Sharps: Sell me No Return in as few words as possible.
Zachary Jernigan: Do you like men made of metal? Or fighters in skintight suits? Or alchemical astronauts? A lot of sex scenes? Buy my book.
Oh, and violence. There’s a lot of violence.
NS: Now sell it to me without any nouns.
ZJ: Goddamnit. Explode! Run! Stab! Groan! AAAAAaaaaahahhhhhh!
NS: Is there a theme to No Return? And if so, what influenced the message you are trying to get across?
ZJ: Wow. Theme? Was I supposed to think of one of those? I’m kidding, sure, but that is a tough question—one I haven’t thought about it in some time, since before I finished the book, probably.
I think the major theme is morality. Inevitably, this makes it sound as if I’ve written a fable or something—a black and white, good vs. evil narrative—but I don’t think that’s the case. Instead, I’m concerned with how someone becomes a moral individual (a “good” person). This theme is most apparent with Vedas, the character who most clearly goes through a traditional character arc. He spends much of the novel plagued with guilt over the way he’s conducted himself.
I suppose this emphasis on morality is influenced by my own upbringing. I was raised Mormon, and though I’m no longer a member of the church, I continue to have conflicted feelings about living a life outside of what my parents’ taught me. Finding your own way as an adult can be difficult, especially without the faith that once defined your concept of morality.
NS: I’m glad that you mentioned religion. No Return features the god Adrash, a conflicted figure if I’ve ever known one. There’s really no denying the existence of “god” in your novel, yet people of Jeroun react to that in different ways. How do you think you would react in their position?
ZJ: Well, I’d like to think I’d feel the same way about a “real” god—one whose bullying is an undeniable fact—as I do about one whose existence is hardly concrete. I’m no friend to religion; nor do I see the virtue in faith. I’m a person who believes very strongly in mankind, in the virtue of brainpower. If God were an undeniable reality, my argument would be little different: having a boot pressed on your intellect is a very bad thing.
I am an enemy of God now; I would be in that situation, too.
Let me clarify a little, if you would. When I call myself an enemy of God, I’m very explicitly not saying I’m an enemy of people who believe in God. I love people. Most of my role models are (or were in life) religious. My beliefs reflect more this sentiment: ”[Evil] is built into the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior.” – Havelock Vetinari (Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals)
So, this is one of the things No Return is principally about; it’s about people understanding that the enemy is not other men. The enemy is the existence of a network that supports a deity who is proven to be mad, inimical to mankind.
The real world parallels are obvious, if not altogether lovely. The god I’ve created in my novel seems little crazier than the god of The Old Testemant or the Quran.
I get into a lot of trouble with people because statements such as these. It’s my hope that people who hold religious views aren’t turned off by my views, but I can’t expect everyone to be so forgiving of my statements. I understand that. I try to be honest with people, and hope they understand that I too am a work in progress. Sometimes my words come out more aggressive—or arrogant, or hateful—than I mean them to.
NS: So in a way, it could be said that Vedas’s journey is your own?
ZJ: Definitely. He experiences a lot of the same realizations that I have. I didn’t realize it so much when I wrote it, but that fact is very clear now. In fact, there’s so much stuff in the book that stinks of me that if I sat down with a therapist and discussed all the symbolism in the book, I have no doubt I’d come away believing I wrote a veiled autobiography.
Of course, this isn’t to say that Vedas and I are all that alike. Certainly, we’re physically different. He’s beautiful, a perfect male specimen. And while he’s uptight like me, we’re uptight in different ways. He shies from people, while I’m constantly drawn to others.
NS: Plus Vedas has a totally badass suit made of elder skin…
ZJ: Yeah, that too. I wish I had a badass suit made of elder skin—something that conforms to my body, making me faster and stronger. It’s funny; the elder-cloth suits were so important to me, as was the divine armor that covers Adrash from head to toe. It harkens back to my period of comic book reading.
What can I say? I like buff dudes in skintight outfits…
NS: Which brings us to the elders and dudes loving dudes. Do you have a preference on which to tackle first?
ZJ: Uh. Dudes loving dudes. Fire away!
NS: No Return features all sorts of love – self love, man on woman, elderwoman on elderman, elderman on man, elderman on elderman (I’m just now realizing how lonely Berun must be). The other day in discussion you said something really cool about homosexuality from a heterosexual’s standpoint and I was wondering if you could repeat that here?
ZJ: Sure. I think one of the things that my comment above reveals is that I think the male body is quite erotic—not in any actual practical way (as I don’t find myself attracted to men in the same way I’m attracted to women), but certainly in an aesthetic sense. The male body is easily as alluring as the female body. And the thought of two stunning men having sex, appreciated the beauty of one another? Well, that’s just cool. It doubles the beauty, in fact!
What’s funny and sad is that most men already have an erotic appreciation of other men. What are all those bodybuilding and fitness magazines doing in the store? They’re for men to look at other men, to linger over those details of physique that they might not allow themselves to do in public. There is a sexual component to it, if only in that many men imagine themselves having such a body to inhabit (and have sex in). Men love other men. I wish guys would just admit it and move on.
But yeah, I like describing male bodies. It hits the same sweet spot as drawing muscles on superheroes did when I was a kid.
NS: Regarding the rest of the…bodily appreciation…No Return is a pretty sexually explicit book. I mean, it’s not 50 Shades of Grey or anything but it had been a while since I encountered sex in my reading. What drove you to such deviancy!
Short answer: I like deviancy.
Long answer: It’s exciting to write sex. Back when I first started writing stories seriously—2008, approximately—I set it up as a challenge, writing erotic material. It was a big deal for me, I remember. (As I said, I was raised Mormon. For the first 20 years of my life I shielded myself from most sexual explicit material.) It was liberating as hell.
Now, I find myself a little shocked whenever it shocks someone else. I forget that I once felt exactly the same way when I encountered a sex scene in a book. I was like, “Whoa! Where the hell is THIS coming from?” Of course, that’s ridiculous. Sex is a given, a universal. It’s so far from being an exceptional situation to find a human being in. The exceptional thing is that it would ever be a shock to us to read descriptions of sex. What’s there to be frightened of? Being aroused?
And here I’ve answered my own question. Obviously, that’s the danger. Can’t have people being all aroused when they read. They might masturbate or, even worse, find a partner!
Now, don’t get m wrong: I don’t think I’m such a great writer as to inspire other people to get down, but that would be cool if it happened. Can you imagine? Somebody’s reading your words, they look over at their partner (or in the mirror, or inside themselves, or over at their computer, or whatever), and think, “I could be having sex right now.” That would be AWESOME to have inspired that train of thought!
NS: Now onto the elders. Reading No Return I found Jeroun to be a wildly fascinating world, and most fascinating of all are the elders. I expect fellow readers to feel the same. Can you give some insight as to how the creation of the elders came about?
ZJ: Thanks! I hope people like the world I created!
The elders, first off, are the extinct species of the planet Jeroun. Their corpses are sometimes found in the open, but are most often mined from their graves. Why are they mined? Because their bodies can be used to create very powerful magic—the kind of magic, in its most potent form, that can lift mages into orbit. The entire population of Knoori (Jeroun’s one habitable continent) relies on the elder-corpse trade because the magic produced by the corpses is so necessary to life.
Before I even started writing No Return, I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be cool to write space opera, only without any advanced technology?” From there I wondered where the people of my invented world would get the magic necessary to have a space program. Somehow, from there I came up with the elders.
I say “somehow” because, as unsatisfying as it may be, I have no idea how I got from “need magic” to “harvesting the bodies of extinct species is The Answer!”
NS: Space opera without science, would it be safe to assume that you don’t like research? I’ve always been a fan of science fiction but it is an intimidating genre for some of the less technically minded.
ZJ: Good Lord, yes, I don’t like research! I’m enthusiastic about how much I don’t like research!
No, wait. I do like research, but only if it’s put to no more useful a purpose than maybe, someday, butting into a conversation and saying something like, “ACTUALLY, guys, Napolean wasn’t that short a man for his time period.”
But directed research? No. Hate it. And I’m not even talking about during the writing process, because it’s while I’m reading, too. If I have to be briefed about the technical aspects—or for goodness sake read diagrams!—I don’t really want to keep reading that particular work of fiction.
For that reason, I’ve always gravitated to soft sf (or sociological sf if you want to sound mature). This isn’t just because I don’t like doing work; it’s because I like it when authors explore people and people’s minds. I’m always into what people are thinking and doing, day-in, day-out, because that’s where all the messy, morally ambiguous stuff happens.
NS: So did you have psychology or sociology classes during your education?
ZJ: I did, though most of the classes I took borrowed from those fields as opposed to being specifically about them. I have a BA in Religious Studies, which is really a subfield of sociology and philosophy. I don’t mean any disrespect by saying that, yet it is a limitation. The mechanics of faith are not, by their nature, practical concerns, and yet the organization and codification of beliefs is very much a practical matter—and so educators and researchers must find a way to bridge this gap that makes sense. It mostly involves recording what this or that group reads or professes to believe, and then noting how such factors have changed over time.
This facet of my education influences my writing a lot, of course. Clearly, religion is a big part of No Return. Sometimes I think I write about faith so much in order to finally come to terms with it. I want to understand why it is that people experience religion, but I also want to understand why I have no such compulsion to experience it for myself.
NS: You’ve been asked to make a film adaptation of He-Man, rebooting the franchise for modern times. They picked you because…the studio has a super tight budget. How do you make a contemporary, live-action, He-Man movie?
Well, first off I’d make the entire cast people of color. No white people. Why? Just because I’m tired of seeing the same damn white people in movies. I mean, I’m white, but I’m so tired of the status quo in this regard. So… No white people. Cast and crew.
Well, almost. Literally, I’d be the only white person on set. I’d do this so that my own contribution to the production would be small. Any dumb, idiotically racist and inauthentic thing I come up with (there’s bound to be some, coming from the ridiculously privileged background I’ve come from) would be immediately shot down. That way, it might be a truer representation of the diverse in an invented reality.
Plus, It’d be NC-17. Because sex is cool, and so is the c-word.
(In all honesty, for completely real: I don’t say any of this to get a rise out of anyone or to be cool and subversive. I think it’s rare in the US to see any film collaboration that isn’t either race-specific—as in, a “black movie”—or almost entirely white. I’d like to see more films that feature a truly racially diverse mix. Of course, such a project wouldn’t need to exclude white people to work, but I think excluding white people, getting that privileged perspective out of the way, would create a unique creative environment.)
NS: Idris Elba as He-Man?
ZJ: If I could, I’d make Idris Elba everything. He’s the coolest looking human being ever. It’s almost incidental that he’s a great actor, he’s so godlike in appearance.
Well, him and Djimon Hounsou.
NS: Righteous dude, it’s no coincidence that Idris Elba would make a totally awesome Vedas Tezul.
ZJ: Yeah! And a large part of the reason is because he’s physically a match. I’m all about the recognition of physical beauty. It’s all over the place in No Return, the near-worship of the human (and not quite human) body. I love the sensual aspect of description. If they ever filmed my novel (unlikely, yes), I’d want a lot of panning shots over the chiseled bodies of the actors.
Funny thing is, I think that this kind of talk makes quite a few people uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s as if we’re not supposed to be concerned with looks. But I disagree. It’s only when the conception of beauty becomes so narrow and restrictive—when it becomes a tool of oppression—that it becomes unhealthy.
NS: If we’re talking beauty it would be a crime not to mention Churls, the human mercenary, and Ebn, the elderwoman mage. We’ve talked a lot about good looking men, but on the flipside No Return has some sexy, strong, female protagonists. Why do you think it’s so difficult for some male authors to write female characters?
ZJ: Um. Good question, Nick. Frankly, I think it’s because they’re trying so hard to write female characters.
Short, hopefully illustrative story: In a writing workshops several years back, somebody complimented me on one of my female characters, saying that she rang true as a woman. I was flattered, of course—it made me happy to hear that—but I did think it was kind of amusing, because I’d originally written the character as a dude, and only switched the sex a little while before handing the story in.
The point? I try to avoid writing specifically female or male characters. It sounds pretentious, yet it’s true: you’re best off just learning to write human beings, as opposed to gender stereotypes. There’s this belief among people who like to hold such beliefs that women and men are so vastly different in their motivations that each requires special knowledge in order to portray correctly. But in reality, I think women and men are similar enough that writing one is much like writing the other. The societal factors that influence gender dualism—the ones you’ve likely internalized to such a degree you’re not aware they even exist—will continue to influence your writing, but at least you’ll have a solid foundation of simple humanity.
As to Churls, she was a hard one for me to write, because she was specifically inspired my (then) girlfriend. She was also, like my girlfriend, a mother of a young child. (Well, in No Return Churls’s daughter is a ghost, but whatever.) This forced me to write her as more specifically female because I had a living example. Still, I’m pleased with how rounded a character she turned out to be. She’s beautiful in a very badass way, I think. She’s got the body and demeanor of someone who’s fought and lived hard, and a rugged sexual appeal that no one else in the book has.
And then there’s Ebn. She’s an elderwoman, a hybrid human/elder creature. She’s got tongues in the palms of her hands. She’s whip-thin and as hard as a tempered blade. She’s a beautifully spell-preserved elderly female, and her personality is not forgiving. She’s also in love with her young protege. She obsesses over him, masturbates to the thought of him, and is always at odds with him. The entire scenario makes her uncomfortable, because in her own estimation she should not be so easily swayed to irrational lust.
Out of every character in the book, she’s the person I think I feel the most sympathy for. She’d rip me apart for saying so, of course, which makes it all the cooler.
NS: No Return could be read as a standalone novel but the conclusion does hint that there might be more to tell. Do you think you’d like to return to Jeroun and flesh out the beautiful/terrible world you have created? Or do you have other ideas gestating in that twisted mind of yours?
ZJ: I hope it can be read as a standalone! I’d hate to think I leave people completely in the lurch. I’m glad you think so, anyway.
There is indeed a lot more to tell. Though I attempted to complete the narrative, I still conceived of No Return as a two-part experience. I fully intend to write a sequel. The only thing is, well, I’m not somebody who really likes serial fiction. I like new characters, new approaches. When I do return—which will be any day now; I’ve got an outline and I need to get started, dammit—it may very well be with a few new perspective characters. Or maybe just one. I’m really, seriously throwing around the idea of telling the rest of the story from one person’s perspective.
I do have other ideas, however. I’ve got a healthy start (20,000+ words) on an unrelated novel called “History of the Defeated.” The protagonist, a heavily modified female warrior who is the utter embodiment of imminent death for anybody who pisses her off, is contracted to transport a totally evil little child across a wasted landscape. It’s post-apocalyptic, post-steampunk, violent madness. Hopefully, I’ll finish it by year’s end and send it out.
NS: And now the last and most important question – if No Return was an ice cream flavor what would it be?
ZJ: Coffee with heath bar pieces. Everything good in life is coffee ice cream with heath bar pieces. I just… I… God, I really, really, really… —I’m not fooling around: REALLY—love coffee ice cream with heath bar pieces.
NS: Because that was the last question I’m just going to state this and you can reply how you see fit. Last words.
ZJ: Nick, Nick, Nick, Nick. Nickolas.
Thanks so, so much! This was undoubtedly the best interview I’ve ever been part of. Bear in mind, it’s not really much of a horse race; I’ve only been interviewed like three times. Still, I think this one’ll keep.
Oh, and: if you’ve been reading this craziness, buy my book! You won’t regret it, and even if you do you can complain on Amazon and Goodreads, which feels pretty great. Also, if you alert me to whatever it is you’ve said about my book (my email is firstname.lastname@example.org), I’ll send you a drawing of a space unicorn. I’m so not kidding.