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Exclusive Interview: Weston Ochse on His OPERATION ARCANA Story “American Golem”

SF Signal is pleased to present a series of interviews with the authors of the military fantasy anthology, Operation Arcana edited by John Joseph Adams and available now from Baen books.

Here’s what Operation Arcana is about:

In the realms of fantasy, the battlefield is where heroism comes alive, magic is unleashed, and legends are made and unmade. From the War of the Ring, Tolkien’s epic battle of good versus evil, to The Battle of the Blackwater, George R.R. Martin’s grim portrait of the horror and futility of war, these fantastical conflicts reflect our highest hopes and darkest fears, bringing us mesmerizing visions of silver spears shining in the sun and vast hordes of savage beasts who threaten to destroy all that we hold dear.

Now acclaimed editor John Joseph Adams is sounding the battle cry and sixteen of today’s top authors are reporting for duty, spinning never-before-published, spellbinding tales of military fantasy, including a Black Company story from Glen Cook, a Paksenarrion story from Elizabeth Moon, and a Shadow Ops story by Myke Cole. Within these pages you’ll also find World War I trenches cloaked in poison gas and sorcery, modern day elite special forces battling hosts of the damned, and steampunk soldiers fighting for their lives in a world torn apart by powers that defy imagination.

Featuring both grizzled veterans and fresh young recruits alike, including Tanya Huff, Simon R. Green, Carrie Vaughn, Jonathan Maberry, and Seanan McGuire, Operation Arcana is a must for any military buff or fantasy fan.

You’ll never look at war the same way again.

In this “mission debrief” Weston Ochse talks to Hannah Huber about his Operation Arcana story “American Golem”…

Weston Ochse is the author of twenty books, most recently SEAL Team 666 and its sequel Age of Blood, which the New York Post called ‘required reading’ and USA Today placed on their ‘New and Notable Lists.’ He is a military veteran with 30 years of military service.

Hannah Huber: What inspired you to drop a golem into the midst of the war in Afghanistan? Why Afghanistan?

Weston Ochse: Well, I was in Afghanistan when I started writing the story and they do say write what you know. I could have set it anywhere, really, but since I was living and breathing in the terrior (what the French pronounce as TearWarr representing the geology, geography, and climate of a certain place, usually in relation to wine). The sounds of horns and engines and planes and helicopters and explosions were my constant soundtrack. It was the war I knew best because I was in the middle of it, so truly, if I wanted this story to be my best, I had no choice but to set it in Afghanistan. And why a golem? Golems are a grossly under-respected, underappreciated, and underused monster. Their very nature represents the seeking for justice and protection. If you want to know what came first, the golem or the plot, I can easily tell you the golem did. He wanted into the story and I let him and the rest, as they say, is his story.

HH: In Isaiah’s creation, both Jewish and Navajo magic are invoked to waken him, making him a truly American golem. Yolam Drachman also references Chinese golems later on. Did you draw on more than one golem tradition to make Isaiah, and if so, from what cultures?

WO: In “American Golem,” I plumbed the original Golem of Prague for a foundation, then began to extrapolate. I said to myself, what if the terracotta army of the first Qin emporer were actual golems? Is there another likely explanation? I don’t think so. I also wanted to make this golem distinctly American, so I involved the Navajo, who were able to imbue the spirit of the golem with the spirit of the land, bringing to it their rich history of Kachina and the enigmatic white coyote spirit. This spirit is a core symbol, personifying mobility, spontaneity, and curiosity. Combined with an inner sense of righteousness, sharing in both the good and the bad, the spirit represents the potential for man’s capacity for self renewel. In the end, what is America if not a great melting pot of cultures and languages and ideas—in this case the idea of a particularly American golem.

HH: Your story plays with concepts of parenthood: Isaiah calls Isaac his “brother”, but Isaiah inherits his memories and to some extent his DNA, possibly even his soul. Yoram Drachman also hands down Isaiah’s mission and his own blood, as well as the earth from which Isaiah is made. These are rather unconventional parents for an unconventional figure. Is this a theme that you explore often in your work, and if so, how?

WO: I love taking traditional mythology and twisting it a little. I first began doing that for my SEAL Team 666 series, which takes a special SEAL team and puts them in extreme supernatural conflicts against the mythological creatures of a certain place. That said, when I researched Rabbi Loew’s golem of Prague, I saw how it had been taken from the earth, which by doing so, connected it to a place. The Golem with few exceptions comes from the Jewish tradition. I was worried because of this that the plot would be too Jewish and become just another Jewish vs Islam story. I had to take the tradition and transport it, which I believe I was able to accomplish. I do explore this augmentation of reality, this transmogrification of mythologies, in order to serve my plot. I’ve always insisted that history is like that Norman Rockwell telephone painting where one person talks to another talks to another and so on until the message is so garbled as to be indecipherable. So by treating history as literature, I have the universe’s permission to twist it, turn it, even spin it on its head on occasion. I believe I achieve the most success when I begin with something culturally recognizable, then reshape it. I think readers appreciate the ingeniousness of this literary maneuver.

HH: Is there anything in Isaiah’s origins and progress, his conflicting emotions and the betrayals he witnesses by authority figures, and his considerable development in humanity, that could be taken as parallel to or allegorical for the experiences of a flesh-and-blood soldier?

WO: Isaiah is a product of a murder – literally. He was never able to grieve for his spiritual brother Isaac, nor should he have. So instead, I had him grieve about life. Life is hope. Life is possibility. Life is good. So when he discovered the skateboarders and found out the true reason for them, a part of him, that spark of hope which had been kindled inside of him, began to die. I then force Isaiah to go through Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief. Once he achieves the final stage—acceptance –he truly becomes the golem of legend, so by the final lines of the story, we know that he is justice incarnate. This is also allegorical to an actual flesh and blood soldier, as you discovered. We go to war for the person in the foxhole next to us and to fight for our ideal and against another’s ideal. But just as no mission plan survives contact with the enemy, no ideal survives contact with reality. For all of our red, white and blue chest-thumping, we become weak-kneed and sore of heart when we see what war does to a populace. I noted that the very nature of the dust in Afghanistan is different. It has a different texture and a different feel. It’s as if it’s been so compressed, so battled upon, so trudged upon, that the dust itself is a skeletal version of what it should be. This of course refers to the endless wars, the endless conflicts, and the desire for so many to have what they have.

HH: Do you have any exciting upcoming projects you’d like to tell us about?

WO: Grunt Traitor is coming out in July. This is the second of my Solaris book series which began with Grunt Life. The appeal of the Grunt series is that readers are street-level with the madness of war and enveloped in the PTSD of the main characters. This is a dark series because it deals with PTSD at such a molecular level, but it’s also about redemption because this is a PTSD-positive series. In the case of my Grunts, PTSD is good.

HH: What is the appeal of military fantasy? Why do so many writers – or you yourself – write about it? Why do readers love it so much?

WO: I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ve always wanted to be a warrior. I was lucky enough to become one, much to my own chagrin. Ever since I read about Bilbo, my first experience with a literary warrior, all their ideals and travels and adventures have been something I wanted. Conan sealed it for me. Who never wanted to be like that simmering Cimerian by Crom? So given the chance to write something, I’m much more inclined to write something I’d like to read than not. I’m just so thrilled that the tradition has stood the test of time.

HH: What are some of your favorite examples of military fantasy, and what makes them your favorites?

WO: I mentioned Tolkien and Conan already. The Black Company books immediately come to mind when asked this question. Glen Cook plopped a regular infantry company into a dark fantasy scenario with such lustrous ease, I was both hooked and jealous of his talent. Essentially, I like it when a believable humanistic character is beset on all sides by the terrors and dangers of war, and has to overcome his own demons and short-comings to accomplish the mission. Here’s a true statement. Born and raised an only child most of my life, I learned to play by myself. I’d go out into the woods and play war. With all the choices of fiction heroes I had at my disposal, I’d always choose my comic book hero Sgt Fury (before he became involved with X-Men). I’d climb upon on top of my rock fort (really just a clearing between three huge boulders) and I’d direct my men to fire at the advancing enemy—usually hordes of goblins or orcs or trolls, intent on raping, pillaging, and burning the innocent. Somewhere during the battle, I’d get wounded, preferably in my thigh, arm or abdomen. Then I’d play Shatner, limping, falling, stumbling dramatically about my fort, where eventually, through my own unimaginable stoicism, impeachable fortitude and unending desire to live, I’d be the last man standing and somehow win the day. (My mother wondered why I was exhausted every afternoon after playing.) Is it any wonder now why I write military fantasy?

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About Kristin Centorcelli (842 Articles)
Kristin Centorcelli is the Associate Editor at SF Signal, proprietor of My Bookish Ways, a reviewer for Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly, and has also written for Crime Fiction Lover, Criminal Element, and Mystery Scene Magazine. She has been reviewing books since late 2010, in an effort to get through a rather immense personal library, while also discussing it with whoever will willingly sit still (and some that won’t).
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