Today I am interviewing Tristan Palmgren, author of the new science-fiction novel, Quietus.
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DJ: Hi Tristan! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview!
For readers who aren’t familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself?
Tristan Palmgren: Hello, and thank you for having me!
I’ve been writing science fiction since grade school, and knew I wanted to keep writing. Unfortunately, that was about the only thing I knew about myself. In my other lives, I’ve been a teacher, a lecturer, a clerk, a technician, a secretary, a store manager, and a rural coroner’s assistant. Quietus is my debut novel.
DJ: What is Quietus about?
Tristan: Quietus is a science fiction novel set during the Black Death, about a transdimensional anthropologist, a Carthusian monk, the weight of loss, and compassion in impossible circumstances.
DJ: What were some of your influences for Quietus?
Tristan: The research! It was in reading about the Black Death that I realized that I wanted to write about it. Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century does not dwell on the Black Death, but the pages it spends on plague were so evocative that I immediately started more research. Barbara Tuchman is a novelist’s historian, and I try to take lessons from her craft every time I read it. Julie Kerr’s Life in the Medieval Cloister helped me solidify Niccoluccio.
DJ: What is the world and setting of Quietus like?
Tristan: Quietus is split between worlds. It takes place predominantly in medieval Europe, and especially in Italy. It traces the path of the Black Death as it spreads through cities like Messina, Genoa, Venice, Avignon, Marseilles, and in between and beyond.
Dr Habidah Shen and her team have come to study these people and their many ways of reacting to the plague. They’re from a multiverse-spanning empire called the Unity. The Unity is as diverse as it is large, with as many ways of life as worlds, bound and woven together by an alliance of AIs.
The Unity might not be around for much longer. Like the people of Italy, it’s suffering through its own plague. There seems to be no stop to it, or quarantining of it. That’s why Habidah and her team have come to our world. They’re not searching for a cure to their plague. Rather, they’re studying how we reacted to so great a mortality, and searching for strategies to export back home. It’s been a long time since anyone in the Unity has had to deal with so mundane a thing as contagious disease.
DJ: Could you briefly tell us a little about your main characters? Do they have any cool quirks or habits, or any reason why readers with sympathize with them?
Tristan: Dr Habidah Shen suffers for her compassion. She constantly fights a humanitarian urge to intervene with the people on this world. She cannot remember the last time she cried, and she wishes she could start now.
Niccoluccio Caracciola is based on a real person: Petrarch’s brother Gherardo, whose story we know only from Petrarch’s letters. Gherardo was a Carthusian monk, and the only survivor of his monastery. He was left alone for months with only a dog as company.
Meloku, one of Habidah’s anthropologists, does not suffer Habidah’s humanitarian urges. Nor her compunctions against interfering. She has the power to bring this world crashing down upon itself, and intends to use it.
DJ: What was your favorite part about writing Quietus?
Tristan: The freedom science fiction gives me to write about historical events from a nakedly modern perspective. Habidah and her anthropologists, for all the alienness of their backgrounds, have a perspective on Niccoluccio’s history akin to our own. They’re scientifically knowledgeable. To them, Niccoluccio’s world is small and explicable in the smallest detail.
One of the limitations of reading historical fiction is that we can never divest ourselves of that perspective. Writing this novel gave me a chance to foreground that, and draw attention to the problems it causes. Habidah’s knowledge limits what she can see.
DJ: What do you think readers will be talking about most once they finish it?
Tristan: So far early reviews have all mentioned the novel’s pacing and dual identity. Quietus is both a contemplative historical novel and grand space opera. This might seem like an odd pairing, but they’re my two favorite genres to read–they’re my chocolate and my peanut butter. I love having both.
DJ: Did you have a particular goal when you began writing Quietus? Was there a particular message or meaning you are hoping to get across when readers finish it? Or is there perhaps a certain theme to the story?
Tristan: I’ve always been entranced by alternate history, but less recently by What-If scenarios, and more by alternate history’s power to make history seem alive. Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt lit a fire under me. It’s easy to look ahead and see an array of possibilities. But when we look back, history starts to seem like just a linear sequence of events. It feels constrained. We can’t pretend that we don’t know the outcomes. Alternate history, speculative history, robs us of that certainty, and helps us understand the choices people made without the benefit of hindsight.
Quietus is not alternate history, or secret history, but it fits on the same shelf. I wanted readers to approach the Black Death without the certainty that hindsight brings. The certainties that Habidah and her anthropologists bring do not help them in the slightest.
DJ: When I read, I love to collect quotes – whether it be because they’re funny, foodie, or have a personal meaning to me. Do you have any favorite quotes from Quietus that you can share with us?
Tristan: Habidah and her team have come to study how these societies react and evolve to the Black Death. Some societies held together remarkably well… for what that was worth. This moment comes right out of the historical record:
“Courts were in session. Habidah listened in on one case, a nephew and a stepbrother disputing the inheritance of a small house. The previous owner had left a will, but all five other beneficiaries had died. When the court reconvened the next day, neither claimant arrived. Habidah tracked them down. They’d perished overnight.”
These paragraphs are Quietus in a nutshell:
“At the breakfast table, Dioneo’s surviving children couldn’t stop talking about something that had happened in the skies early this morning. They hadn’t seen it themselves, but they had heard the story from their housekeeper. Shortly after the last of the stars had disappeared, a white streak had ripped across the sky, as if the firmament could be split like the skin of a fruit.
By the time Niccoluccio had woken, it had long since disappeared. According to the people who had seen it, it had been like a comet’s tail. Comets always heralded disaster.
Dioneo’s children were struggling to determine what could be worse than the pestilence. Finally, they turned to Niccoluccio. ‘Is this the end of days, uncle?’ the oldest boy asked. He sounded as though he were asking if there would be fruit after breakfast.
‘Never believe that,’ Niccoluccio said.”
DJ: Now that Quietus is released, what is next for you?
Tristan: As of the time of this writing, what’s next is a secret. But there will be a “next.”
DJ: Where can readers find out more about you?
Tristan: I’m on Twitter at @TristanPalmgren, and my website is at tristanpalmgren.com. Both good places to find out what the aforementioned “next” will be, as well as make fun of me if you are so inclined.
DJ: Before we go, what is that one thing you’d like readers to know about Quietus that we haven’t talked about yet?
Tristan: Death is looming and it is coming for us all. The clock is always ticking, but the Reaper exempts time spent reading Quietus.
DJ: Is there anything else you would like add?
Tristan: I’ve had two of Quietus’s characters in my imagination for fourteen years. It’s an incredible pleasure to be able to share with readers.
DJ: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to answer my questions!
Tristan: Thank you!
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*** Quietus is published by Angry Robot and is available TODAY!!! ***
Buy the Book:
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In medieval Italy, Niccolucio, a young Florentine Carthusian monk, leads a devout life until the Black Death kills all of his brothers, leaving him alone and filled with doubt. Habidah, an anthropologist from an alien world racked by plague, is overwhelmed by the suffering. Unable to maintain her neutrality, she saves Niccolucio from the brink of death. Habidah discovers that neither her home’s plague nor her assignment on Niccolucio’s ravaged planet are as she’s been led to believe. Suddenly the pair are drawn into a worlds-spanning conspiracy to topple an empire larger than the human imagination can contain.
Tristan Palmgren has been a clerk, a factory technician, a university lecturer, a cashier, a secretary, a retail manager, a rural coroner’s assistant. In his lives on parallel Earths, he has been an ant farm tycoon, funeral home enthusiast, professional con-artist impersonator, laser pointer chaser, and that guy who somehow landed a trademark for the word “Avuncular.” Jealous. He lives with his wife, Teresa, in Columbia, Missouri.