“It is safer to live off the grid, unconnected to the vast technology, because unseen people are watching our every move, employing technology we have barely imagined”. We’ve talked to John Twelve Hawks about his latest book The Traveler.
Q: Your novel shows many influences, from Orwell’s 1984 to Stephenson’s Snow Crash to The Matrix films. What fiction inspired your writing?
John Twelve Hawks: During one period of my life, I lived with friends in a large run-down house next to a large university. I was sleeping on the floor in what had once been the maid’s room. My expenses were about $100 a month. Every morning I would go to the university library, “steal” a novel from the shelves, and read the entire book. The next day, I would replace the novel and take another one. I basically worked my way through the entire British and American canon of literature, although I encountered the books as an autodidactic and not as a student in a lecture hall.
I’ve read 1984 twice, but a much larger influence was Orwell’s Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. I’ve read this four-volume set countless times, and it profoundly shaped the way I look at the world. Miyamoto Musahi’s Book of Five Rings is an inspiring book – short in length, but filled with wisdom. I’ve never read Snow Crash.
I have never owned a television. In my Amazon Short essay, “How We Live Now,” I suggest that television is the prime instrument in creating a “culture of fear” in our society. When The Traveler was published, it was amusing to hear how I’d had been influenced by TV shows and movies – such as “Alias” or “Highlander” – that I’ve never seen.
I watched the first “Matrix,” but my friends told me to avoid the next two in the series. The Fourth Realm Trilogy and the “Matrix” are completely different fictional creations. The “Matrix” suggests that our world is unreal and that we are fragments of consciousness in an environment manipulated by a computer. Everything in the Fourth Realm is based on reality. The alternative realms are not presented as cyber fantasies, but as real worlds. No one will ever fly in my novels.
As far as cinematic influences go, I’ve seen almost all of Kurosawa’s films. “Yojimbo,” “Rashomon,” and “Seven Samurai” are wonderful movies.
Q: Your novel is incredibly detailed and seemingly very well researched. How much and what kind of background reading did you do in preparation for writing The Traveler.
John Twelve Hawks: Generally the “real life” aspects of the book – such as Maya’s vision of London – are based on personal experiences. The description of the Vast Machine came from a great deal of research. I was obsessed with surveillance and our loss of privacy many years before I began to write the novel.
Q: How long was the novel gestating before you submitted it for publication?
John Twelve Hawks: I started writing The Traveler during a very dark period of my life. In my personal life, I felt like a complete failure. And in the larger world, it seemed more and more obvious that the American people were being manipulated by a variety of negative forces.
If anyone reading this is going through a similar period of despair, I extend my hand to you. This one moment does not define who you are. Try to be with people who will encourage you and not destroy your dreams.
After The Traveler was published, it surprised me when various critics said that I sat down to consciously write a best seller. If such a thing was possible, more people would do it. I wrote the book alone in a small, cluttered room, staring at a computer screen and trying to make sense of my past and our current world.
About six months after the third draft, I got an agent. A year later, I was published. During this time, I was continually rewriting the book with my editor, Jason Kaufman. The entire experience felt like a very odd dream.
Q: How much of The Traveler is informed by your own experiences?
John Twelve Hawks: Some of it is autobiographical, and this will continue in the subsequent books. But my life story won’t “explain” the book. Fictions should have their own power.
Q: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this novel?
John Twelve Hawks: I realize that The Fourth Realm is being marketed as a trilogy, but I’ve always seen it as one long novel divided into three books. Keeping all the plots and characters in order has been very challenging. Sometimes, I feel like a chef in an immense kitchen with a dozen pots and pans on the stove at the same time.
Q: Was this your first attempt at writing fiction? Writing in general?
John Twelve Hawks: I have several cardboard boxes that contain a variety of unfinished or unpublished work. Most of it is terrible. The Fourth Realm is far more ambitious than anything I’ve tried to write in the past.
Q: What goals did you set for yourself with writing/publishing The Traveler? Did you reach those goals?
John Twelve Hawks: There are many things I hoped for – that I might find a way to express my vision of the world, that I might create characters who would come alive and speak and act out a compelling story. But my main goal was just to finish the book.
Q: The Traveler can be seen as many things – a response to the erosion of personal freedoms, a response to the double-talk we receive from the government, a science fiction/fantasy thriller that simply entertains. How would you categorize your own work?
John Twelve Hawks: One of the things that bothers me about contemporary publishing is the way that books are categorized – and, sometimes, “ghettoized” – by the marketplace. I was fortunate to have a publisher that tried to avoid this. Placing books in categories keeps many writers from achieving a much-deserved larger audience.
I was never consciously combining different genres when I wrote The Traveler. I could only write a story that reflected my own personal preoccupations – it wasn’t inspired by other books or films. The spiritual vision of the book, martial arts, political concerns and a feeling of dread all correspond to my actual experiences in life. I would guess that, if the book seems to have many different elements, it’s only a reflection that my somewhat unusual life has led me to see the world differently than other people. I’d guess that a brilliant writer like Philip K. Dick didn’t walk around with “Sci-Fi” tattooed on his arm; he was only writing about the world as he saw it.
That being said, I can acknowledge that The Fourth Realm combines science fiction, fantasy and thriller genres within a dystopian framework. I hope that science fiction fans will think – “hey, this isn’t exactly what I’m used to, but I enjoyed reading it.”
Q: How is work coming along on the second book in this sequence?
John Twelve Hawks: During a phone conversation with film producer Kathy Kennedy, she asked me to sum up Book Two and I said – “It’s dark.”
Kathy laughed and said that all second movies – and books – presented a darker vision. In The Traveler, I established the world and the characters. Now, I’m going to give them a great many problems.
Q: Your identity and background are almost as intriguing as the story between the pages of The Traveler. In today’s day and age of a wired world, how difficult is it to stay “off the grid?”
John Twelve Hawks: It’s an awkward life, but not a difficult one. I’m lucky to have a variety of friends who help me.
Q: Do you envision a time when you will come off the grid and go public, or at least more public than you have since the publication of The Traveler?
John Twelve Hawks: I have no plans to “go public,” though I am considering setting up a website. I have always seen the Internet as an extension of the novel’s fictional world – including the on-line game and the secret websites, which I helped create. But I wouldn’t want to establish a personal site that could be seen as emphasizing ego and/or marketing; I’d like to find a way to give something to the people who read my books.
Q: Many people on message boards and blogs have speculated about your identity. Some say you were published under a different name, others that you are a woman, still others that your identity is a secret is because you are in prison. What is your response to this?
John Twelve Hawks: When a person speculates about my identity, it reveals something about their own background and preferences. If the canvas is blank; the only thing people can see on its surface is themselves.
Interview by Rob