Exclusive Interview: Wonderblood Author Julia Whicker
At a time when believing in science is practically a radical act, it’s interesting to contemplate a world where such knowledge is blasphemous to some but a religion for others. Such is the setting for Julia Whicker’s post-apocalyptic fantasy novel Wonderblood (hardcover, Kindle), in which people worship remnants of the space program. Though as she explains in the following email interview, it wasn’t a science book, or even a science fiction one, that inspired this story.
Photo Credit: John Eicher
To start, what is Wonderblood about?
In the city of Cape Canaveral, the royal establishment is steeped in excess and bloodshed. Within its walls lies the ultimate corruption of science, transformed now into a horrific religion. The time of rational thought is long past, as even medicine is outlawed. Meanwhile, in Kansas, an opposing sect sends a criminal on a mysterious mission to infiltrate the fortified Cape. When a self-styled prophet and warlord likewise descends on the Cape — along with several armies and his captive bride, a doctor’s daughter — to seek the crown for himself, a conflict of faith becomes inevitable. At last, two strange lights appear in the night sky, and all must decide if the space shuttles have indeed returned, or if their beliefs have led them to ruin.
Where did you get the original idea for Wonderblood, and how different is the finished novel from that initial concept?
The original idea came the way most of my ideas do: from synthesizing multiple interests. Before I began Wonderblood, I had just read Richard Lloyd Parry’s wonderful In The Time Of Madness: Indonesia On The Edge Of Chaos, a nonfiction account of Indonesia at the end of the 20th century, which has some very mystic and apocalyptic themes. The violence of the imagery in that book, along with the description of severed heads as objects to intimidate, really intrigued me. I was also reading a lot about cult leaders who had inspired their followers to take their own lives.
The finished novel actually isn’t terribly different from how I envisioned, but that could be because I have a fairly plastic view of my work and am usually open to changing it as I go along, following new interests, or seeing where certain characters take me.
Why did you decide to have people in Wonderblood worship astronauts and NASA stuff as opposed to, say, the Lincoln Memorial or a Civil War statue?
When I thought about achievements that might continue to inspire awe in everyday people, even a thousand years from now, the space shuttles seemed like a great choice, especially if the world itself was in ruins. That astronauts once left the Earth entirely seemed to border on magic to me, especially to people who might have lost the capacity to understand how it happened in the first place. Thus, it seemed like a great vehicle for fusing science with magic and thus perhaps making their religion more relatable for my readers.
Along the same lines, why did you set Wonderblood a thousand years in the future as opposed to five hundred or a million?
I felt like five hundred years would be too short a time period for the “collective forgetting” I needed to happen to have happened. For instance, I thought a lot about the amount of knowledge a regular person today has of the year 1000 AD. Anecdotally, I don’t think it’s terribly farfetched to believe that in the absence of organized education, and without much access to archived information in the form of books or the Internet, culture could evolve into something resembling the society in Wonderblood: one based more on superstition than science, even if science was once the dominant paradigm.
While Wonderblood is your first novel, you’ve previously published poems in such journals as the Iowa Review, The Millions, and Word Riot. But do you think there’s anything especially poetic about Wonderblood?
I love language and I hope there is some beautiful language in Wonderblood. However, I don’t consider myself a poet. I’ve always written fiction. The poems I wrote were all love poems for my husband. I got lucky and they were published, but I’ve been writing fiction the whole time, and fiction is where my heart it.
What writers or specific books do you feel had a big influence on Wonderblood? And I just mean on Wonderblood, not your writing style as a whole.
Books I looked to for stylistic inspiration were Kepler by John Banville, The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley, and Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth. I’m in awe of all three of those books; they go everywhere with me, all the time, and have for ten years. I also read nonfiction books about everything from David Koresh’s mother to the reign of Mad King Rudolf II in Prague, and these influenced me as well.
How about non-literary influences; are there movies, TV shows, or video games that had a big impact on Wonderblood?
I’m not actually a fantasy or sci-fi buff; I mostly wrote Wonderblood as a fantasy because I wanted to write historical fiction more freely, if that makes sense. I love history, so most of the things I read and watch are nonfiction or documentaries. I’ve never seen Dune, or even Game Of Thrones, though several people have told me to watch it. So, I suppose any of the documentaries I’ve seen about the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries would have been influential. I especially love the time period from 1500-1600, which to me is intriguing because it feels like the cusp of the age of reason and science, really the beginning of the modern age.
Now, a lot of fantsy novels I’ve read lately have been part of a larger series. Is that also true for Wonderblood, or is it a stand-alone novel?
I dearly hope it will be part of a longer series. I have ideas for a second and third book, and I’m itching to write them. But I decided to write it as it is because I wanted the ending to be somewhat satisfying in case I don’t get the chance to write more, though I definitely hoped to leave readers with characters and plot-lines to follow in case I get do the opportunity to write more in the series.
If you do get to write more, what are your tentative plans for this series?
I’m not sure about when a second book would come out, but I hope soon. I would envision at least three books, possibly more, since I feel the world is begging to be fleshed out in many directions. For a second book, I can say I’m interested in writing a version of a picaresque. My characters will move across the dangerous and poisoned continent toward Kansas, the home of the despotic Mystagogue, and I’m fascinated by what horrors and paradises they might encounter, how they would live by their wits. For a third book, I would love to reveal more about what the shuttles and/or the comets really are.
There’s been a lot of cool post-apocalyptic movies, TV shows, and video games lately. But has there been any interest in adapting Wonderblood into a movie, show, or game?
I think all authors secretly — or not so secretly — hope to have their book adapted for TV or a movie. I would love a miniseries or a TV show, as I feel they’d be the best medium to explore the themes and characters, especially if I get the chance to write more in the series.
If Wonderblood was to going to be adapted into a miniseries or TV show, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles?
I love this question because I think about it a lot, but it’s also very difficult because I wrote my characters as aspects of real people I know or have read about, not actresses and actors. However, I can see Anthony Mackie [Captain America: The Winter Soldier] as John the Astronomer. He would be absolutely perfect in that role because he can convey a pensive, restless-but-focused energy. Or Jared Leto [Suicide Squad], he is the right age and very handsome, but also wonderful at playing “non-sexy” characters, which is exactly how I imagine John. For Aurora, I would love Millie Bobby Brown [Stranger Things] when she is older, as she is adept at conveying emotion through silence in the way I imagine Aurora does. I based Tygo largely on my upstairs neighbor in Iowa City, so it’s quite hard for me to imagine him as anything other than my friend. The same with Mr. Capulatio, who I modeled mostly on David Koresh, the cult leader.
Finally, if someone enjoys Wonderblood, what would you suggest they read next?
I would suggest reading Jonathan Strange And Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, which reimagines magic in a new way and in a surprising setting, and that’s exactly what I tried to do with Wonderblood.