By Mark Alpert
We can identify authors by their obsessions. Ernest Hemingway? Manliness, war, grace under fire. F. Scott Fitzgerald? Money, class, mercurial women. Flannery O’Connor? Salvation, senseless violence, Southern mulishness. I could go on and on.
We’re born with certain obsessions and we develop others as we mature. I’ve always been obsessed with death. (I suspect that many other thriller writers are, too.) Related obsessions fixate on whether there’s an afterlife, whether God exists, and what’s the point of existence in general if the whole universe is racing toward inevitable annihilation and everything, EVERYTHING, will be lost?
As I got older, I fell in love with science fiction (the Foundation series, the Dune series, etc.) and my obsessions grew more elaborate. I was fascinated by interstellar travel, pandemics, nuclear weapons, and quantum theory. I studied astrophysics in college and eventually became an editor at Scientific American. And nobody was too surprised that the subjects of my first published novels were Albert Einstein, quantum computers, cyborg insects, and alien AI programs.
Our obsessions creep into everything we write. So when I became interested in Joan of Arc and decided to write a modern-day retelling of her story (as I described in parts one and two of this series of blog posts), my passions and preoccupations shaped the narrative. The heroine of my novel, SAINT JOAN OF NEW YORK, is a 17-year-old math prodigy who’s determined to discover the holy grail of physics, the Theory of Everything, which would unify the laws of nature and explain all the particles and forces. But as my fictional Joan tackles the complex equations, she falls prey to disturbing visions of a divine being who wants to help her unveil the universe’s mathematical design.
Needless to say, it was a lot easier for me to tell the story from the point of view of a contemporary New York City high-school senior than to try to put myself inside the head of a 15th-century French shepherdess. And while I was writing the book, I was living with my 17-year-old daughter, who isn’t a math prodigy but certainly gave me a lot of material to work with. (She’s gone off to college now, and oh how I miss her.) My fictional Joan takes the subway to school and truly despises some of her teachers and slams her bedroom door when she wants to make her dissatisfaction clear to everyone in her apartment building. She’s brilliant in some ways and very foolish in others. But when she sets her mind on a goal, nothing on Earth can stop her, which is of course the characteristic that defined the original Joan of Arc.
There are also some important differences between the original Joan and my 21st-century version. The possibility of supernatural visitation — in the form of angels, saints, heavenly voices — was much more believable during the Middle Ages than it is today. When my Joan starts seeing God, she assumes she’s going crazy. She just wants the visions to go away. But they don’t. Instead, they get more demanding.
I have to admit, I felt very fatherly toward this fictional Joan. The transference process was enhanced by the fact that Joan’s fictional father is a bit like me, a disheveled freelance journalist. I tried hard to inject myself into the Joan of Arc story, imagining how I would feel and act under outrageously strange conditions. I think that’s a good strategy for any fiction writer: get involved in the story. Make it your own.
SAINT JOAN OF NEW YORK was published a few days ago, and so far the novel is doing very well. For most of the past week it’s been the top-selling new release in Amazon’s Psychology and Religion category. (It’s funny that they lump those two things together, right? In my novel, Joan has an appointment with a psychologist named Cauchon, which is a familiar name to anyone who knows Joan of Arc’s story.) I’ve also gotten some nice feedback from scientists who enjoy all the discussion of physics. It’s a good book for people with a philosophical bent. (And finding holiday presents for those types is never easy!)
If you read the book (the buy links are here), I’d love to know what you think of it. It’s a thriller — a retelling of Joan of Arc’s story wouldn’t be complete without battles — but it also raises some provocative questions about faith. What’s more, I scattered a few obscure allusions to Joan of Arc in the text (much more obscure than the name of my heroine’s psychologist), and I’m hoping that at least a few readers will catch the hidden references.