Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Interview With Author Noah Mullette-Gillman


The following interview with Noah Mullette-Gillman was conducted via email over the span of two days. It is more of a conversation than an interview, and it was truly an interesting and informative experience. If you would like more information about Noah, his work, and his views, please visit his website. If you would like to check out his book, The White Hairs, please visit its Amazon product page.


Journal of Always: Hello, Noah, and welcome to the Journal! I'd like to start things off by asking about your background and what started you off on your journey as a writer?

Noah Mullette-Gillman: Robert, thank you for inviting me.

I was born in a wonderful town in northern New Jersey called Montclair. Growing up, my grandmother’s house was across the street. My town was green and full of trees, but also had all of the advantages of civilization: book stores, video arcades, malls, many friends’ houses only yards away, everything I could want.

When I was a little boy, my mother asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told her that I would be an artist.


“Because I draw such beautiful pictures!”

Now, you may think that this means that I changed my mind along the way, but in my opinion nothing could be farther from the truth. The skills that I gained drawing as a little boy are the same skills I have used when singing, acting, writing lyrics, writing poems, writing comic books, writing screen-plays, and now writing novels. My growth in any of these disciplines has all added together to help me become the artist that I am today.

If anyone is skeptical of this point, I suggest they read the first few pages of The White Hairs, and first imagine it was written by a singer, then once more and imagine that it was written by a visual artist. You can clearly see the DNA of my development in my work.

In my acknowledgments I thanked several musicians whose work has been particularly inspirational to me. I did not simply mean that it gave me creative fuel, but that in fact I learned my craft, in large part, from them!

I owe more to The Cure than to any single novelist. That’s the truth!

But all along, throughout my development I knew that “one day” writing novels would be the pinnacle of my work. Even when I was on stage on Boston singing with one of my bands, I believed that “one day” my mind would have developed to the point where I would be capable of doing the sort of projects I am now undertaking.

This was always the plan.

JOA: I agree with you wholeheartedly - art in all forms have symbiotic relationships with each other. I, myself was a musician, and thought that would be my life. But over the years that plan...shifted. Do I regret this turn of events? Absolutely not. It was naive of me, and I love where I am today. Add to that the fact I'm a much better writer than I ever was a musician.

But music is still extremely important to me. It fuels my love of literature, because in many ways the best music is nothing but, well, musical poetry. It means something. So for you, and your mentioning of The Cure (love Robert Smith, by the way), what is it in particular about their music, or the music you listen to in general, that inspires you?

NMG: The split between literature and music is a modern invention. For most of history, they were a single whole. The Iliad and the Odyssey were written to be SUNG! Once upon a time, there were storytellers who would memorize these stories/songs. They would know the whole thing, every page, every word by heart.

I don’t know when or why the single art form became split. I think the blame has to be laid upon the proliferation of books.

I can’t remember which Greek it was who expressed concern over the spread of the written word. Maybe Homer? He commented that he was worried man would lose his natural powers of memory if he could simply look down at a sheet of paper to remember what came next. It has certainly happened.

More, I think that the nature of writing has changed. We no longer have the need to write stories that would perform well when told out loud. When I lived in Boston I used to spend every Monday night at a club called the “Lizard Lounge.” A group of us would bring poetry and we would read it accompanied by a jazz band. To be clear – we would not arrange things with the band ahead of time. They didn’t know what we were going to bring them. They improvised around our work. This, in turn, led to us writing spoken-word poetry that had the right spaces and meters so that it would work well when read out loud. More than that, so that it would give the band something that they could work with.

To me, the Cure will always first of all mean the song; “Plainsong,” the first song on the album Disintegration. Yes, they have a lot of other wonderful music, but that’s the first thing that comes to mind. That seems to me to be the essence. I spent high school with the lyrics to that song written down on a piece of paper above my bed.

You could feel the swirl of emotion and weather coming together in the beginning, well before the lyrics started. The lyrics then arrived sparse and incomplete. It begins in the middle of a conversation. We don’t know what’s going on. We don’t know who the ‘I’ and ‘she’ are.
But we can feel it. The music tells our hearts how the characters' bodies feel. We hear their chests moving. We feel the ache. We know that even as the conversation is mundane, that the feelings are powerful, overwhelming.

Then, while maintaining that simplicity of dialogue, the conversation becomes more profound. Listening to the song teaches me how to sing, how to beat my heart, how to allow emotion to find itself from where it has been frozen in my chest and incarnate itself in the world.

Where else, outside of this song, could I learn so well how to create art, or how to be human?

Can I ask you how music has influenced your writing?

JOA: For myself, music has always been a necessary hedonistic indulgence. I'm an overly emotional individual, and I've spent much of my life trying to push that down during waking hours, which I think is a symptom of the hidden Puritanical elements that still exist today in the northeast. We are hard, we are cold, we are logical and driven. But that's all a facade, isn't it? And it's also the reason so many children grow up confused, not understanding how to deal with those emotions. After all, their parents don't, so why should they?

But music was what allowed me (and others throughout history) to finally take hold of those emotions and make them real, make them meaty. When I was young and angry, of course I gravitated toward the heavier, angrier music. When I grew up a bit, but still wanted to hold on to that Puritanical logic, I fell in love with Rush, because they were the perfect mix between intellect and invention. And as I got older still, my tastes have merged. Now, any song that strikes an emotional chord in me, I love. It could be the most mundane pop song ever written, and yet if in the bridge the music dips and the singer's voice cracks even the slightest bit, I'm enthralled.

And of course, with me being so addicted to emotions, both experiencing them and observing them in others, I can honestly say that music has directly affected the way I write. My major purpose is to give my characters that emotional experience, to run them through the gambit and hopefully make the reader feel what they feel. I'm not sure if I've accomplished that yet, but it's my end goal. And I have music to thank for that, because without it, I'd be a shell of the expressive soul I am now...and almost definitely not an author.

Well, in a way I just explained part of my purpose as a writer. What about you, Noah? What do you want to get across to the readers? Do you want to enlighten, simply entertain? I know the answer is somewhere in the middle, but which way do you lean more?

NMG: My work isn’t agenda motivated. The point isn’t to “say” something. However, my work isn’t meant to be light escapism either. Part of the creative act, for me, is to create big and exciting ideas. This is actually the easy part for me. I have tons of ideas written down in my notebook, and even a slew of unfinished novels in which all I had was the big idea, but I feel like that’s only half of the equation.

To have a story worth bringing into the world, I feel that I need to also accomplish something on a deeper level. Reading my book needs to allow my audience an opportunity to make their lives better. There needs to be a struggle and accomplishment on the psychological plane. NOT because I want to make the world a better place or have some sort of influence on my readers, but I believe that the only stories that really matter to people are the ones that operate on this level!

In some of my other interviews I’ve spoken a little on what I see as the difference between “Fantasy” and “Mythology.” I think that fantasy’s job is to entertain. Mythology has a deeper responsibility. Usually, people think of mythology as being ancient, starring Zeus or maybe Baphomet. But I think the more important difference between the two is that in the case of one everything that happens only occurs at the surface level – everything is essentially what it appears to be. A dragon is a fire-breathing monster. In a work of mythology a dragon is a representation of a construct in the psyche. It still has to be entertaining, but it has the potential to grab and involve the reader in a much more visceral way, even without their necessarily understanding why, as their subconscious - which does understand the world of symbols - responds to the action.

Think about Star Wars. I would call that mythology. You could write a book about the hidden meanings. Why did Luke have to travel to a swamp planet to learn about The Force? Then why did Yoda put him in a situation, in the cave, where he would battle what appeared to be Darth Vader – only to discover his own face on the dark lord’s corpse?

Think about Star Trek. As brilliant as the original series may have been, I think that a phaser was a phaser. A star-ship was a star-ship. Unless I have missed something, I think you can take those stories at more-or-less face value. And they never meant as much to me as the first Star Wars movies did!

So, to answer your question – I believe that my audience will be more entertained when I offer the opportunity for them to use my work to find some sort of forward progress in their lives. To my mind, it is a necessary component to the sorts of stories that I want to tell.

JOA: The White Hairs, your first book, is a novella packed with commentary on spirituality that seems to promote an inclusive philosophy when it comes to different systems of beliefs. How does this aspect of your writing equate with your own personal beliefs?

NMG: Inclusive….exclusive….Hmm… I’m not sure if the story is either to be honest. I neither tried to stay neutral in the Christianity/Budhism/Hindu/Druidry/Judaism/Muslim/Asartu/Olympian debate, nor to take a side. I believe I stepped entirely around it!

We encounter two belief systems in The White Hairs. The first is that of the white haired creatures themselves. They have ceremonies where the leave their bodies astrally. This involves a world view that holds that giants came before and gave them most of their knowledge. It involves a strong belief that there is no afterlife whatsoever, that when one dies that is the end. They base this on their ability to see astral bodies, souls, and not seeing any anything remain after death.

Later in the book, Farshoul meets an old human man. The old man believes that when he dies his soul will go up on the mountains and be reunited with the souls of his ancestors, but I really don’t say any more than that about his beliefs.

Is this inclusive? I don’t know. Perhaps in the same sense that Star Wars is religiously inclusive.
The White Hairs is not a religious work.

Myself, I am not a member of any religion and have never been. I was raised by Astrologers; my mother, my father, and my grandmother across the street. Obviously, astrology is not a religion. We celebrated Christmas because of Santa Claus. We did not go to Church, although I was christened as a baby. In many ways, I think that I have more in common with religious minds than atheistic ones. The concept of a purely mechanistic universe is contrary to my physical observations.

I am a serious thinker. I do have a degree in Philosophy, and rather than being afraid of or hesitant to consider metaphysical issues, I’m drawn greedily to them. I love thinking hard! And so, I am actively working on the problems which religions attempt to solve. So far, I believe that I have three maxims. You could say that they are my beliefs:

#1 The world is on purpose.

#2 It loves me.

#3 I do not believe in any deity who is less emotionally mature than I am.

Number one is related to my experience of life. I see signs, I see patterns. I am aware enough to be certain that “Life” is intentional - has intentions and plans of its own - even more, has a sense of humor!

Number two is entirely experiential. My own life has been hard more than it has been easy. My manner, and my way, and my undying optimism usually lead people to think I have lived a charmed life, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Still, throughout it all, I am aware experientially of the love of the Universe, taken as a totality. Some might call it “God’s love.” I do not.

Number three is an indictment of the stories we find in the old books. The idea that any being could exist for billions of years and still behave like a spoiled and selfish child is ridiculous at its face. No, I don’t believe in a God who would create people so that he could test them and then punish some for not loving him enough. That’s silly. I don’t believe in a God who has created the universe simply for his own sake. Neither do I believe, as the Buddhists do, that the goal of our many incarnations is to cease to exist simply to stop the pain… That strikes me as chillingly dark, and turns existence pointless.

If there is something like a “God” in charge, that being would be generous and kind well beyond the dreams of Mahatma Ghandi and Mother Theresa. He would be selfless and would have no motivation beyond helping us all to grow and become better than we are. Even if he were less than that a few billion years old, I believe that simply having all of that time to think would have straightened him out.

You might consider that Farshoul’s difficult journey did turn out to be for his profit at the end. As terrible as his loss was, he was only put through it so that he could grow. That might be my own belief system creeping in. Throughout all of my travails, what keeps me going is a hard-worn faith that this will all turn out to be for the best. Life has made me suffer, simply to give me the abilities I will need later on.

JOA: You see, answers like these are why I wanted to interview you.

I like (and agree with) your three points. Of most interest to me is number three, however. It has long been my standing as a man raised Roman-Catholic that the God of the bible is nothing more than an abusive father figure. What kind of deity, with the power of the cosmos at its hands, would require servitude or worship? I much prefer the "Conversations With God" point of view - though even that version, when you think about it, is entirely anchored in humanity. How could it not be?

Which is why it bothers me to see the "new" rise of dogmatic belief in this country and around the world. What do you feel are the reasons for this? Why are so many now turning to restrictive guidelines and theocratic fanaticism?

NMG: We are at a turning point in history now. So many of the structures which worked for the last few centuries or more don’t work anymore. We are at a point now when an intelligent and spiritually awake person is likely to find the Bible wanting.

So much of the fanaticism that we see now is a desperate attempt to hold onto a dead paradigm. The Bible doesn’t make sense. A modern mind that actually applies itself to it will not react to these stories the way that someone did a few centuries ago.

I remember in college sitting down and reading the first few pages of the Bible. It says, clear as day, that there are other gods! It says that there were giants! As far as I could tell, it didn’t have very much in common with the Christianity I was familiar with. Perhaps it is impossible for a modern mind to accept that everyone on earth is descended from two people who lived together in a garden, had a couple of kids. One of their sons murdered the other and THEN MOVED AWAY TO THE CITY! In an earlier age, when no one could read, and no one was taught critical thinking, maybe not as many people realized how little sense this made. But it’s all falling apart now.

A couple of hundred years ago, in our culture, ‘Christian’ was a synonym for ‘good.’ But now, in 2010, I find it impossible to hear the words ‘Catholic Priest’ without them also summoning up the words ‘child abuse.’ I don’t say this to be cruel. It is a fact of history.

Vast sections of the stories in the Bible are older than Jewish culture. We can read the Babylonian and Egyptian texts and see for ourselves that most of Jesus’ story was lifted from Osiris, and from even Zeus himself! That leaves us with the choice to either conclude that the Devil is trying to trick us, or that the Bible is just a bunch of old stories collected as best they could by some Jewish scholars and applied to the newest state religion.

The limitations in compassion, empathy, and humanity which we see in the Bible are best excused as being the limits of humanity at that time in history. When the story of Job was written, a brilliant man did his best to answer the question of why bad things happen to good people.

Now, the interesting question to me is, if we accept that the author of Job was simply a brilliant man, does that mean that the universe is random and barren? The conversation at this point seems to be limited to the choices of “Religious” and “Atheist;” with Agnostic there for people who simply haven’t made up their minds. I don’t personally find that I fit in any of these categories. I am not a member of a religion. I do not believe in a mechanistic random universe, and I am not an Agnostic. I am actually quite clear about what I do believe, as limited and humble as that is.

But what if there is something really there that we are missing out on? Yes, the Bible is broken, but does that mean the Universe is random and mechanical? I think that, now that so many of us are free of the control of the religions that tell us what to think, we finally have the opportunity to have real and personal relationships with the beyond.

This is an important part of what I did in The White Hairs. Farshoul is told that he cannot leave his body anymore, so he goes off and does it all alone. This is akin to finding Eternity outside of the bounds of any church, and religion. In only the second scene of my book, he does something like leaving his church. Yes, he suffers because of it. He doesn’t have the protections that the rules and structure of White Hair society would have given him, but he also sees things, like the Giants, that his people don’t anymore.

I am a spiritual person who finds all religions wanting. Whatever spiritual progress I make in this life, I have to do alone. This is EXACTLY like Farshoul.

Robert, you were raised Roman Catholic. The most ferociously atheistic people I know were all raised Catholic. I understand that it can be a rough passage. Where do you find yourself spiritually/religiously at this point in your life? And what effect do you feel it has had on your own writing?

JOA: It's funny, really. For a long time, I considered myself an atheist. I just couldn't understand how hypocritical the concept of religion was. The picking and choosing of which rules and regulations to follow was a large part of it. How could you use Leviticus to decry homosexuality and then ignore all of the other hateful and imposing aphorisms? Just because those particular rules don't fit with what you want to accomplish?

Over the years, however, I realized that I never was an atheist, though I gave that belief (or lack thereof) lip service. In truth, I've always been fascinated with the fantastic, and atheism is by definition limiting in that regard. How can I think to write about such magical, out-of-this world occurrences and completely disregard the possibility that there is something much larger than ourselves out there? I couldn't. So therefore, I redefined myself by holding on to the things I do believe in, such as cosmic consciousness, reincarnation, and the glory of possibilities. And I think this is definitely reflected in my own writing. I want the reader to think, more than anything. I don't care what religion you are, but dammit, open your mind! You might like what you find there.

In that way, Noah, I really do envy your work. As any who've read the review would know, I adored the story of The White Hairs. The way you weave your ideas of spirituality into it and make it clear while at the same time being ambiguous is fantastic. So what do you have coming next? Are you sticking in genre (which is a funny question, because I don't even know what genre TWH fits into), or moving on to something different?

Robert, that’s very kind of you to say. No, I don’t know what genre the White Hairs is either. I spoke to a newspaper reporter last week and she asked me if The White Hairs was Fantasy or Sci-Fi. I told her that it must not be Fantasy, because I don’t have elves or dwarves, but I didn’t know if I could call it Sci-Fi either because I don’t have space-ships and laser-guns!

Which is one reason I think it was a mixed choice to have made this my first book. I think that it’s a good beginning for those who do read it, but that it may be a little more difficult to find readers for The White Hairs because no one goes online saying to themselves; “Ah! I'm really in the mood for a well-written story about creatures sort of like Yeti who leave the world traveling astrally, something that will help me work through my own sense of loss over the years and concerns about life after death!”

I think that a less-well written, but more expected book would have had an easier time finding initial readers.

I am almost finished writing the next novel that I’m going to release. In one sense it is very different than The White Hairs. It’s horror/sci-fi. I’m actually dying to tell you all about it, but I think I should wait just a little longer until it’s all ready. (Ask me again in a few weeks!) I will say that it deals with the fall of civilization, and then also life in the post-apocalyptic world. However, it isn’t about zombies, or angels, or a nuclear war, or any device that you’ve seen before. I really think I’ve come up with something new!

That said, in order to be satisfied with my work I need it to have depth. I need to battle my demons on the page. The next book will give you just as much to chew on about the nature of life as The White Hairs, but I hope it will also have an easier time grabbing readers than my first book has had so far.

You mention that you were never an atheist. I have been trying for years to articulate an argument in my mind that suggests that there may not actually be such a thing as atheists – rather that there is simply a large portion of the population who believe that “God”/the Universe/Life doesn’t care. I think that the way we humans relate to the world is to anthropomorphize everything. We are wired to get angry at the car when it won’t start. We are thankful when things go our way, and then angry at ___ when it doesn’t. Even if someone intellectually believes in a mechanistic world, I don’t think anyone actually lives as though it were an impersonal and random place. I don’t think humans are capable. Of course, whether we can then draw a conclusion as to the nature of the universe or simply the nature of humans is another question.

You know, I wrote a zombie story once. It was a cowboy-zombie movie called The Green Sunset. I moved out to L.A. to try and sell it, and it almost looked like it could sell a few times, although it never ended up happening. You’ve written a book about Zombies (The Fall.) In what ways do you think that work was influenced by your own deeper beliefs, or was it primarily intended as entertainment? For the record, my zombie story actually was, but of course the master of the genre, George Romero, is famous for using zombies to tell stories with as much deep psychological meaning as a good Thor and Loki story!

JOA: First off, now that I think about it for a bit, you can classify your book by simply placing it beneath the all-encompassing "speculative fiction" umbrella. Because really, specfic can be about pretty much anything.

As for The Fall, the story is definitely influenced by my convictions, and my life experience. I wanted to populate a world with real people who have real problems and reveal how every single one of them is flawed in some intrinsic way. Also, my belief that there is no such thing as pure good or pure evil is something I felt the need to present. Even the bad guys in the book aren't completely bad (or at least didn't start out that way), and the "heroes" are all damaged. They make poor decisions, they act selfishly. Just like we all do and have, at one time or another.

In fact, the whole series is nothing but one huge allegory for the things in life that concern me - racism and bigotry against differing sects of people being foremost in my mind. There wasn't much of that in the first book, but starting with book two, it's there, and it cannot be ignored. This is a direct reflection of one of the most maddening statements I've heard, which has been spreading like wildfire through society - "Racism in America is dead." I've worked blue-collar jobs for going on twenty years now. I can tell you from first-hand experience that racism is surely not dead in this country. I see it every day. It might not be as in-your-face blatant as it was in the past, but it's still there. Be it through the snide comments said on the sly, ignoring an individual for a promotion or an easier job, or simply not inviting those of differing ethnicities out for a beer after a long work day, it's there. Sure, we've made strides. Great strides. But that doesn't mean the work is done. And I fear that the more people who proclaim racism to be dead could potentially damage all the work we've done over the years. It will never be dead. Proposition 8 is proof of this. As long as there are people who are different than others, it will exist. We simply have to work, work, work at it, and never, ever forget how bad it's been.

Do you agree?

NMG: For much of my life, I never considered race a big issue. I grew up in New Jersey. My school was about 50% white and 50% black - completely integrated! When I was a freshman in high school, my family moved to upstate New York, an area with probably about 96% white people. For the first time I heard kids telling jokes using the "N-word." It was shocking to me. My college experience was also mostly white.

But it wasn't until I moved to Los Angeles that I saw real racism. L.A. is an incredibly segmented society. The Blacks stay in their part of town. the Hispanics in theirs. The Whites are in the north. Heck, until I moved to L.A., I had thought of Hispanics as White! It was all very strange for me to discover that many of them didn't!

No, racism is not dead and I think that it is playing a big role in current events in our country. If you want to understand the Tea-Party you can't do it without looking at race. If you want to understand the war that the richest people in the country seem to be waging against the rest of us, you have to understand that large role that race plays in that.

What racism has done is become taboo. We cannot talk about it. There are rules about which races are allowed to use which words...and a large portion of the country afraid of what the explosion in population among the poor and uneducated classes/races means to the country.

I think it all points to the larger issue that we in the U.S. do not feel like we are a "people." We do not feel that the good of us all is linked to the good of every one of us. We are divided by race, by education, by geography, even by political party - as if that were a football team and not a discussion about how to run the country.

I will always remember a conversation I had with an older gentleman in a bar in Boston. he asked me if I was a Red Sox or a Yankees fan. Now, I don't personally care about sports. I have no opinion. I asked him; "Do you like the Red Sox because you think they're better, or because they're from your town?" He admitted it was because they were from his town.... I think that a lot of what goes on politically can be traced similarly. There are places who see the Republicans as their "home team" despite the fact that every Republican policy is against the self-interest of the people living there....

I wonder if our country is simply too large? Or if our perspective is too small? We need to re-imagine the world.

JOA: Like Agent Starling says in Silence of the Lambs, "We covet what we see every day." Perhaps this gets to the root of the problem. For as small as the world has become, what with the internet and one thousand cable channels, things are also becoming horribly segmented. I don't know if folks are simply not going outside of their comfort zones. And honestly, I'm really not sure if they ever have. On a personal level I feel I must integrate myself into everything in order to have a balanced view of the world. I want to know about different religions, governments, and social principles. It does me no good to segregate myself from that which makes me uncomfortable. It doesn't make me a better person. And I wouldn't be able to have conversations such as this if I did that, either.

This has been a wonderful interview experience, Noah. I would like to thank you for that. And I would like to close things out with one final question. Based upon the multitude of subjects we've covered here, what is your wish for the direction we, as a people, will eventually take? Realistically, what kind of understanding about life, spirituality, and community to you hope everyday folks will eventually achieve?

NMG: I've really enjoyed this. You know, when I started my own interview series a couple of months ago at one of my biggest motivations was to try and create a format that allowed for more depth than online author interviews usually enjoy - but I think you've gone well beyond what I accomplished! Bravo!

As far as your final question: I'd like to see people start enjoying thinking. As simple as that sounds, it's a rare trait. So many people are not in habit of serious concentration, of in-depth consideration. We aren't taught to be any better than intellectually shallow. I think that when we learn to be greedy for serious intellectualism, then anything will become possible.

Thank you for chatting with me over these last few days, Noah. And be sure to let me know when the next novel is finished. It would be an honor for me to take a look at it.

NMG: It's been a pleasure, and don't be surprised if I take you up on that offer in the not-so-distant future!

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