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Books & Comics | Interviews

Off the Grid with The Traveler – a John Twelve Hawks Interview

June 21

John Twelve Hawks

This is an interview Boomtron is presenting, but not one our regular contributors conducted. To obtain this privilege we had to go off the grid, see other web sites implode, and work cloak and dagger hitting the streets with our communicae network. We are proud to offer the mysterious John Twelve Hawks, author of 2005’s The Traveller and next month’s sequel (the second book in his Fourth Realm series) The Dark River in an exclusive interview conducted by Gabe Chouinard.

Gabe Chouinard — The Dark River, the second in the Fourth Realm trilogy, throws many new kinks and twists into the saga of Gabriel and Michael Corrigan. Was it a difficult novel to write?

John Twelve Hawks — In one way it was easier, because I didn’t have to write pages and pages explaining the particular rules of this fictional world as I did in The Traveler.

I had to remind people who read The Traveler of the realms and the barriers and the Evergreen Foundation, and I had to make it easy for someone who hadn’t read the first book to enjoy the second purely on its own, but mostly I felt like the race car had already been polished and fueled; I just had to get behind the wheel and go.

Gabe Chouinard — The first thing I noticed about The Dark River is just that — in contrast to The Traveler, it is a much darker novel, opening with a particularly harrowing scene. Is there hope left for the third novel?

John Twelve Hawks — I’m fundamentally a hopeful person. Sitting down to write The Traveler was the ultimate act of hope in my own life — hope mixed with a dash of stubbornness and anger. I don’t know if the next book will have a fairytale ending, but I truly believe that “goodness” has great strength against every form of evil.

Gabe Chouinard — In The Dark River, one of the biggest changes is in how your characters — and, perhaps by extension, you yourself? — react to and participate in violent action. Where The Traveler was more stylized, The Dark River moves in closer, showing real consequences to the violence. I guess you’d say that people suffer, both internally and externally. Was this a deliberate choice, or something that came about in the writing?

John Twelve Hawks — It was a deliberate choice, and it comes from my own experiences. At various times in my life, I’ve been around a great deal of violence, and the consequences of that still touch me. You never forget those moments — they become part of your memory and float through your dreams.

When we watch a typical Hollywood film or play a computer game like Grand Theft Auto, violence is always shown very quickly. A person is killed — usually in a stylized way — and then the camera moves on. One of the wonderful aspects of a novel is that it allows us to go inside someone’s consciousness and explore the impact of various events.

So, yes, The Dark River does have some violent scenes, but I always wanted to show the consequences of violence — both for the damaged and for those causing the pain. In the third book, this will become even clearer, as Maya has to confront the violence in herself and Gabriel has to come to terms with what it is to be protected through violence.

Gabe Chouinard — Mother Blessing is a new character in The Dark River, only referred to in The Traveler. I found Mother Blessing a rather vivid character. Where did she come from? Where do any of your characters come from, actually? Having admitted to drawing from your personal experiences to write the novels, I have to wonder if there are real-world analogues to Maya and Gabriel, Michael and Nathan Boone…?

John Twelve Hawks — All my characters contain certain parts of myself. A reader once asked me if I was Gabriel or Maya and I answered: “a little of both.” The part of me that’s Mother Blessing is that part of all of us that wishes we were able to act completely freely, without restraint, without guilt, without indecision or inner conflict.

Mother Blessing has wanted to roar into the action from the early days of the first book. And she’s hard to say no to! But however vivid she is, she’s no different from many strong women I’ve known — except that when she acts on her anger, she has the power to kill anyone who gets in her way.

Gabe Chouinard — One thing that fascinates me about The Traveler and The Dark River is your use of real-world locales. Lately, I’ve been watching Cities of the Underground on The History Channel, and lo and behold! There are the places you’ve written about in your books! Which begs the question — How do you KNOW all these things? Just how much research have you done for The Fourth Realm?

John Twelve Hawks — I’m fortunate that my publisher hasn’t forced the trilogy into a particular genre, since my intent was to make the world of THE FOURTH REALM real. It’s not set in cyberspace or the world of the distant future; it’s the world we live in now, whether we are aware of it or not. The technology of the Vast Machine is here or under development. More information comes out every week about various efforts to monitor us and the choices we make.

It was my hope that using real locations in the books would connect the story to the direct experience of my readers. It was important right from the start, then, to travel all over the world to research the trilogy — so much so that one of the challenges I faced in writing The Dark River was not letting the research get in the way.

Gabe Chouinard — One thread woven through the books so far is the concept of personal freedom, and how much of it we give away in our society. Do you think things are as dire as you portray in the novels? As a society, is it possible to back away from the brink at which we stand?

John Twelve Hawks — I don’t believe that there’s an international organization like the Tabula trying to control everything, but many people would be surprised to discover how both governments and large corporations are cooperating with each other to create a massive “total information” database.

Because of the internet, alternative points of view are available. And that gives me hope. What is “dire,” however, is the willful ignorance regarding the attack on personal liberty shown by people today. Because so many of us feel powerless, we chose to ignore the massive changes going on in our society — and that is an enormous mistake. We’re allowing ourselves to be distracted as elements of freedoms people have fought long and hard for are taken away.

Gabe Chouinard — Your novels are very political, without being ostensibly political; that is, characters aren’t mouthpieces to spout out anti-Bush Administration slurs, for example. In many ways, I think The Fourth Realm trilogy can be viewed more as social commentary, in line with writers like Orwell, Thomas Pynchon, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoevsky…. Do you think this is an accurate assessment? Is this at all what you aspire to create when you sit down to write?

John Twelve Hawks — It’s amazing that you’ve named the four writers who have had a major impact on my life, especially Orwell; I’ve re-read his Collected Letters and Essays many times. So you’re exactly correct. But I believe that most writing is political — even Jane Austen (in fact, especially Jane Austen). Overtly political writing is awful because the authors rarely believe in the intelligence of their readers; political writers try to coax or shame or force readers into a particular corner.

I try not to be political in that way; while I have a strong personal point of view, my goal is to allow people to make their own conclusions and think for themselves.

Underneath all that, when I sit down to write I’m just hoping I’ll be able to complete the book…and that it will be good.

Gabe Chouinard — I would say both The Traveler and The Dark River speak deeply to a particular segment of society, those people who are disenfranchised or disappointed in the culture in which we live. As the author, are you at all concerned with people taking these fictional works too seriously, especially when popular culture has been blamed for so many tragic events? Are you at all worried that impressionable minds will take what is admittedly fictional and believe in it too much?

John Twelve Hawks — Random acts of violence come from people who essentially feel powerless — who feel that only extreme action will show that they matter, that they exist, that they are alive. In my books, the violence is not random and it has serious consequences for those who commit it.

As for the other elements of the story, in an odd way I’m hoping to make readers less impressionable: with luck the trilogy inspires people to ask more questions, to look around and see what’s happening and not accept the messages the talking heads would like you to accept.

Gabe Chouinard — I think it’s safe to say The Traveler was… shall we say, exuberantly hyped? As an author, did this reaction to the book affect your writing? How do you divorce yourself from the hype, and concentrate on writing?

John Twelve Hawks — It wasn’t my choice to focus on my not wanting to be part of the publicity — but at the same time, that choice didn’t bother me. My part was to write the best book I could, not knowing whether I would complete it or whether it would be good or whether it would ever find readers.

When it was finished, I was glad to accept a contract with a publishing house for it to be published. To then expect them not to want to do their part — sell copies — would have been foolish. They had the right to publish it however they wanted, and I understand why it may have seemed a good way to get attention for the book to talk about my refusal to encourage the culture of celebrity.

Still, to insulate myself even further, I made sure I was out of the country — traveling through Europe and Africa — when The Traveler was published in America. I never actually saw copies of the books stacked up in book stores. This meant I was far from the marketing…and from the backlash to it.

This time, when The Dark River comes out, I’ll be traveling through Central Asia in an area with no electricity, let alone internet connection. I’m not going to minimize the poverty, famine and lack of medical services in the developing world — but traveling through these countries has given me moments of great beauty and peace. It’s helped me get a perspective on what’s important in life.

Gabe Chouinard — In your Amazon Short essay during the release of The Traveler, you said television is one of the main instruments creating the “culture of fear”. How do you define this culture of fear, and how does it inform what you write?

John Twelve Hawks — Compare the life of the average American to the life of a European peasant in the 13th Century or the life of an African farmer currently living in the war zones in Sudan or in the Eastern Congo. Simply put, there is an enormous dichotomy between the actual and perceived safety of our lives.

That perception is largely a product of media. It’s obvious that public fear is encouraged and manipulated in order to establish a more pervasive system of control. Television is one of the easiest ways to make people fearful about a variety of distant enemies. In order for politicians to pretend to defend us, they must exaggerate and manipulate the threats to our safety. The reality is far different — but meanwhile people have willingly given up their personal freedom for the sake of “safety from the terrorists,” or in the belief that their government knows best.

Gabe Chouinard — You’ve mentioned some of your influences, from George Orwell’s essays to your own real-life experiences, but if I may, I’d like to dig a little deeper. Where does your conception of The Vast Machine come from? What is the genesis of your theory of the Realms? Can you give us some hints?

John Twelve Hawks — The genesis of the book came from a significant personal crisis in my life and the realization that everything I could perceive around me was only a thin layer covering a different reality.

While I was having this deeper, personal realization, I was also reacting, like many people, to the changes in America and throughout the world brought on by the response to 9–11. I realized that the old model of a “policeman on every corner” was no longer a necessary form of social control. The Vast Machine — the real-life electronic system of surveillance that surrounds us — has made it possible to monitor the lives of entire populations.

I needed a spiritual element in the trilogy, so that the overriding “myth” of the book would be directly connected to something actual — a cosmological system that came from a vibrant faith — so I borrowed the six realms from Tibetan Buddhism.

That conception of the universe is also compatible with brane theory, and that worked with some of the physics that interested me. But my conception of the realms is influenced by aspects of other world religions as well, like Eden and Hell. I would never say that my version is an accurate representation of Tibetan beliefs.

Gabe Chouinard — The characters in your books use the internet quite a lot, for both good and ill. How do you feel about the internet? Do you dare to suggest that it is good for something other than searching for furry porn?

John Twelve Hawks — There’s a 1993 New Yorker cartoon where a dog is sitting at computer keyboard. He turns to a fellow canine and says “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.”

The pervasiveness of the internet, and the ability it gives us to break free of our culture and identity, is one of those technological advances that can also result in a fundamental advance in human consciousness. It doesn’t bother me that a great deal of the internet seems to be taken up with amateur porn and YouTube videos of cute cats. The internet allows human connections to extend beyond borders and political boundaries. It allows alternative sources of news to be freely available to everyone. It is the ultimate expression of free speech.

One misreading of THE FOURTH REALM trilogy is that I’m an anti-technology Luddite living up in the mountains with a cabin filled with guns. There’s nothing wrong with computers and the internet. Technology enables me to lead the life I live. The new inventions of the last twenty years can either be used as an ultimate form of control and oppression — or as a tool of liberation.

Gabe Chouinard — The Fourth Realm trilogy has some very pointed things to say about the world we are living in today. In a perfect world, what would you like your readers to take from the novels?

John Twelve Hawks — I recognize that everyone will take something different from the books. Many readers enjoy them as a diversion, no different than any other entertainment. And that’s fine. Other people consider them a “wake-up call,” a cry that the end of personal privacy means the end of personal freedom. And that’s good, too.

Mostly, though, I hope that people are aware of the many choices the characters are forced to make — especially Maya. As much as the characters may occasionally feel powerless, each one of them comes to realize they DO have a choice. And the same goes for every reader: you are not powerless. You have a choice.

Gabe Chouinard — How do you feel about accusations that you are the infamous Count of St. Germain?

John Twelve Hawks — I can’t imagine anything more boring than immortality.

Gabe Chouinard — Do you think you will continue to write after you’ve finished the Fourth Realm Trilogy? If so, what are you interested in writing?

John Twelve Hawks — Writing helps me understand reality. The idea for THE FOURTH REALM came to me in a moment of intense crisis. When it’s complete, I’ll have to continue writing, but I don’t know what form it will take. Lately, I’ve been thinking of a kind of spiritual biography — with swords.
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Jay Tomio — I want to thank John Twelve Hawks, Gabe, and Colleen for making it possible to be the venue for this interview.

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