What would an Egyptian goatherd have thought watching the great Exodus led by Moses? What if you were to be sacrificed in the morning, and were looking forward to it? What if there is an afterlife - what would you bring with you from this lifetime? What if the next life is just like this one? These are the questions that author E.A.A. Wilson pondered upon when writing her comic fantasy book, Ascension Denied, the first story in the open-ended Jacob's Ladder series.
Wilson wanted to write what she truly believed in: The inevitability of death, the pointlessness of striving for any goal other than our own, and the existence of angels. She loves the way Douglas Adams discusses religious topics and Terry Pratchett's thrilling way of squeezing our preconceptions about religion, business, and the mundane. Here's the synopsis for Ascension Denied:
Purgatory is in trouble. Strange deals and corruption are preventing the dead from ascending to their final resting place. The ferryman is still bringing daily loads of freshly perished souls to the shores of the afterlife. Guardian angels are rebelling. But worse, the mayor has restricted all afterlife beer-drinking. What is the point of death if not to enjoy the fact that liver disease is no longer a threat? Alice Shepherd, who has only been dead for five years, finds herself at the helm of a band of activists determined to set things straight. But can Alice unclog the system before the streets are overrun by dead people? And what happens when two drunk guardian angels accidentally open the doors to Hell?
Interview with E.A.A. Wilson
Why do you think "Ascension Denied" is considered "too controversial for Americans"? Did you expect to get that kind of reaction from you readers?
Religion is always a sensitive topic, especially when you get a pair of garden shears and clip away at some of the world's favorite age-old institutions and slap it into a comic fantasy. But I was delighted to find (as I'd expected) that the publishers who feared Americans couldn't take this sort of satire were completely wrong. Readers are intelligent, broad-minded, creative and questioning. Since the beginning of the written word readers and writers have come together to put question marks around the pillars that hold up stagnant dogma. And when you wrap it up in a hilarious fantasy story, it's a winning combo.
Tell us something interesting about the characters in "Ascension Denied".
One of the interesting things I discovered about my characters is that dead or alive, angel or human, all wildly different, they all seem to share the same weakness: A fear of their ability to handle what they believe they've been assigned to do. The intriguing thing is how they handle that fear, regardless of whether or not it's valid. Take Mayor Jagger T. Fleisch for example. He is simply terrified of our heroine Alice Shepherd, and has implemented a stringent bureaucracy to keep purgatory under his control. In between drags of his soggy cigarette filter, his lipsticked pout barks condescending orders to assert his authority, sending him into fits of juicy coughs. He would do anything to increase his power. On the other hand, Raen-El, a guardian angel brimming with divine might, is crippled under the responsibility of protecting the living. He knows that every piece of advice he whispers will send ripples of cause and effect like aftershocks through the present and future of every living human. He would do anything to quit his job.
How is the world of Eadar different from Earth or other versions of the Purgatory from other pieces of literature?
Since Eadar, like Earth, is manifested by the mind viewing it, it's very similar to both our world and other literary and mythological depictions of purgatory. Apart from the fact that the world is shared by dead people and guardian angels, there are some striking parallels. We have a tendency to create the reality we expect, don't we? To that end, it makes sense that the experience of purgatory depends entirely on the poor soul that had perished. For example, the capital city of Anglarnir is a buzzing metropolis, filled with the paperwork, traffic, pollution, vandalism and nicely manicured public spaces that the general masses require to feel at home. Inland stand great silver mountains with the magnificent Mount Olympus at their summit. The rolling green hills of the Garden of Eden surge and swell as far as the lush meadows of Folkvanger. Industrious quarries and mines in the country of Asgard in the north lie in the shadow of the great structures of Valhalla presiding. And the world’s curvature sits like an event horizon at the end of the never-ending turquoise seas of the great Styx, waves twinkling in the Light as they separate the dead from the living. But the way in which Eadar is most similar to our world, is that its inhabitants are still searching for something. That's what is so great about fantasy--we use the fantastical to explore our own realities.
How do you portray religions and deities in "Ascension Denied"?
In "Ascension Denied" beings that were worshiped as deities by the living are in fact misunderstood angels. Odin-El, for example, has a fairly good relationship with the dead Vikings that still hang around Asgard. Zeus-El still wreaks havoc with the Greeks. But their commonality is that they still really have no idea about Prime Source. You see, while I don't reject any religion or claim any one belief system to be truer than another, I do like to think that the mysteries of the most high can't be explained by any of us, dead or alive. That's what makes it fantasy. So I leave the question open for debate.
Does your fiction reflect your religious beliefs in some way?
I think so. When I started writing I was solidly agnostic, but the process of exploring these concepts required a lot of painful introspection. Through fairly intensive studies of theology, quantum theories, myth and legend, I found myself staring into my own spiritual awakening, so to speak. Most uncomfortable at the time, but one of the best things that ever happened to me. I went on to completing ministry studies and am now a practicing minister of metaphysics. The book doesn't seek to influence one way or the other, but I think it's impossible for any author to write from the heart without investing at least some of your convictions into the voice of the story.
How are angels depicted in "Ascension Denied"?
Despite being celestial creatures the angels are like us: still flawed, still searching, still evolving. Their superior insight and metaphysical abilities don't change the fact that their responsibility is enormous - particularly for the guardian angels: They face consequences of unimaginable magnitude when they screw up. It's a pretty hefty job, looking after people. And yet, of course, there is comfort in knowing that somewhere out there exist beings far more evolved than us. I guess we just didn't realize how much beer they drink, but then, can you blame them?
Why do you think your characters share that same "fear"?
I think we all do. We're torn between "follow your dreams" and "this is your lot, make do". Throw in a bit of guilt-tripping and some stern words of advice from our elders, coupled with absolutely no idea what happens next, and I think we're all pretty terrified at the core. But then, like my characters, we plod along, making life up as we go along. And it is some comfort that nobody in the history of humanity had any more of a clue about life than we do. So we turn to the fantasy genre!
What could possibly be at stake in after-life if death is no longer a threat? What makes your characters vulnerable?
I'm not sure that death is the thing we fear most. I'm certain that fear of the unknown, the unknowable, is much more pressing. When you're dealing with infinity there's a lot of the unknown going on! Just as us living look with trepidation towards the end of our life, so do the dead view with suspicion the looming next stage of theirs. And what would happen if someone in the afterlife murdered someone else? Can you die--again?
What kind of actions scenes shall we expect to find in your work?
Without spoiling anything, I can reveal there's a slimy chase through the repugnant end of town that involves nakedness and a herd of muddy swine. There's also some angels' illicit snorting of blackpowder that causes a spiritual maelstrom through spacetime. In the underworld there is the frantic race to build a human stairway to heaven before the soul-sucking fallen can reach the only heroes that can save existence. And, of course, the accidental explosion somewhere in the Void that causes the destruction of the afterlife's first prison, only recently converted from a steel oyster-shucking plant.
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