Today I am interviewing James Morrow, author of the novelette, “Bigfoot and the Bodhisattva,” recently released as an e-book under the new Particle Books imprint from Tachyon Publications.
Over the course of a long career, Jim has published ten novels, four stand-alone novellas, and three short-story collections. He has won the World Fantasy Award (twice), the Nebula Award (twice), the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire, and the Prix Utopia. His fiction has been translated into thirteen languages.
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DJ: Hey James! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview! For readers who aren’t familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself?
JM: I’m known primarily as a creator of theological fantasy with a satiric edge. My most popular novels in this vein are Only Begotten Daughter (concerning the tribulations of Jesus Christ’s divine half-sister in contemporary Atlantic City), Towing Jehovah (about a supertanker captain charged with burying God’s two-mile-long corpse), and Blameless in Abaddon (in which the Corpus Dei from the previous novel is put on trial for crimes against humanity).
But I’ve also written straightforward historical fiction (albeit filtered through a fantasist’s sensibility), notably The Last Witchfinder and Galápagos Regained.
“Bigfoot and the Bodhisattva” came about because readers (mostly at science fiction conventions) occasionally challenged me to think outside my theological comfort zone. It’s all very well to play games with Christian doctrines and Western philosophy, they argued, but why don’t you try applying your sensibility to Eastern religion?
DJ: Where did “Bigfoot and the Bodhisattva” first appear?
JM: I wrote it, at the editor’s request, for the Betwixt the Between issue of the literary journal Conjunctions: an esteemed and prestigious venue, but with a circumscribed readership. “Bigfoot and the Bodhisattva” was an ideal candidate for the Particle Books program, which is committed to offering (as the Tachyon website puts it) “a dynamic mix of original, newly-collected, hard to find, and out-of-print material.”
DJ: What is “Bigfoot and the Bodhisattva” about?
JM: The plot turns on the angst of the Abominable Snowman, Taktra Kunga, denizen of the Himalayas, who feels compelled to devour the cerebrums of doomed yuppie mountain climbers. In a quest to enlarge his soul, my yeti apprentices himself to the Fifteenth Dalai Lama, His Holiness, Chögi Gyatso, who promises to teach him about Tibetan Buddhism. Taktra reciprocates by protecting Chögi from the predations of the Chinese, who for generations have sought to destroy, or at least assimilate, Tibetan culture.
DJ: What were some of your influences for “Bigfoot and the Bodhisattva”?
JM: The biggest single influence was John Gardner’s short novel Grendel, which gamely tells the saga of Beowulf from the monster’s point of view. As I began the project, I assumed I would also draw energy and inspiration from B movies about the yeti—I’m always looking for excuses to collect DVDs of dubious horror and science-fiction films—but it turns out they’re unwatchable, with the exception of an obscure British effort called The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas, based on a BBC teleplay by the prolific Nigel Kneale, creator of the Professor Quatermass cycle.
DJ: What do you hope readers will be talking about after they finish your novelette?
JM: The political dimensions of “Bigfoot and the Bodhisattva” were not in my original outline. But during the composition process, I found myself—courtesy of Taktra Kunga’s consciousness—discoursing on the outrages committed by Mao Zedong’s soldiers against the Tibetan people, and I like to think readers will find that material gripping and moving. The climax turns on the efforts of Chögi Gyatso’s firebrand brother to sabotage a Chinese troop train, sending it off railroad bridge into the river gorge below.
I also hope readers will appreciate my portrait of the hypothetical Fifteenth Dalai Lama. For all of my religious skepticism, I present Chögi as a fundamentally positive and energizing force in Taktra’s life, and my heart was really in that characterization. In imagining Chögi’s psyche, I drew on the fact the real Dalai Lama, the Fourteenth, Tenzin Gyatso, reportedly came of age watching 16mm prints of Hollywood movies. Hence this exchange (the first-person narrator is my yeti).
To this day I’m not sure why I assented to become His Holiness’s paladin. It certainly wasn’t the money or the prayers. I think my decision had something to do with my inveterate affection for the perverse — that, and the prospect of discussing secret-agent movies with a young man whose aesthetics differed so radically from my own.
“I had no idea you were a James Bond fan,” I said as Chögi Gyatso took leave of our lair. “Now that I think about it, the titles do have a certain Buddhist quality. The World Is Not Enough. You Only Live Twice. Tomorrow Never Knows. Live and Let Die. Is that why you like the series?”
“You are quite correct, Taktra Kunga,” His Holiness replied. “I derive much food for meditation from the Bond titles. I also enjoy the babes.”
DJ: Did you also end up critiquing or satirizing Eastern religion, as your readers suggested?
JM: There is much to admire about the present Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. Evidently he has gone on record as saying that science should be privileged in conversations concerning the nature of the physical universe, which puts him one up on the Republican Party and the scorched-earth scholars of postmodern academia. And, of course, Tibetan Buddhism has many dimensions worth celebrating, as I learned during the course of my protracted research. Of all my shorter works, “Bigfoot and the Bodhisattva” took the most time to write. Perhaps it offers more of a caricature of the religion in question than the real thing, but I believe I wrote it in good faith.
That said, I guess I’ll always be chary of worldviews that insist on hidden or parallel realities accessible only through particular religions devotions. I can’t find any compelling evidence that we’ve inherited that sort of stratified universe (as opposed to the universe we might wish we’ve inherited). Many honorable people are prepared to claim that a stratified universe is the case, but I’ll probably never be one of them
Here’s how Taktra Kunga critiques the worldview of his tutor in the novelette’s final beats.
So what is it like to be enlightened? What rarefied phenomena does a bodhisattva perceive? I regret to say that the gift was largely wasted on me. To be sure, shortly after eating Chögi Gyatso’s cerebrum I found myself praying compulsively, chanting incessantly, and meditating obsessively, much to Gawa’s consternation. For a few incandescent days I saw the world as he had, lambent and fair and full of woe, abrim with beings who, without exception, every one, each and all, deserved my unqualified kindness.
But my wisdom did not endure. It faded like the westering sun, and what I recall of ecstatic emptiness cannot be framed in any language, human or simian.
I suppose this loss was to be expected. As these pages attest, I was always a lousy candidate for wakefulness. In my heart I’m a child of that other enlightenment, the one personified by such cheeky contrarians as Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and Benjamin Franklin. At the end of the day I’m a carpe diem creature, a rationalist, really, the sort of primate who can’t help wondering whether a compassion born of emptiness might not be an empty compassion indeed. I love my life. I treasure my attachments. That is not about to change. True, this ape may eventually evolve, in the Darwinian sense, but for now I shall leave transcendence to the professionals.
Having said my piece about the shadow side of Buddhism (as I perceive the problem), I think it would be presumptuous of me ever to deal with Eastern religion again in my fiction. I was not born into that world, and its idioms are not second nature to me, as opposed to the tropes and assumptions of the Christianized West.
DJ: Do you believe in Bigfoot?
JM: I’ve occasionally seen him shambling through the brush in our overgrown side yard, but I don’t believe in him. Cryptozoology is not the dumbest thing people do with their time, but it’s on the spectrum.
DJ: When I read, I love to collect quotations—whether it be because they’re funny, foodie, or have a personal meaning to me. Do you have any favorite quotes from “Bigfoot and the Bodhisattva” that you can share with us?
JM: After the novelette appeared in Conjunctions, a couple of people blogged their approval of the first sentence—and I’m fond of it, too. I think it’s both funny and foodie.
After thirty years spent eating the chilled coral brains of overachieving amateur climbers who believed they could reach the summit of Mount Everest without dying, a diet from which I derived many insights into the virtues and limitations of Western thought, I decided that my life could use a touch more spirituality, and so I resolved to study Tibetan Buddhism under the tutelage of His Holiness, Chögi Gyatso, the fifteenth Dalai Lama.
DJ: Now that “Bigfoot and the Bodhisattva” is on the runway, what is next for you?
JM: I recently handed my agent the manuscript of my latest novel, Lazarus Is Waiting. It dramatizes the seriocomic adventures of “the world’s second most famous resurrectee,” most especially his attempt to influence the outcome of the A.D. 325 Council of Nicaea (my Lazarus is a time traveler).
DJ: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to answer my questions!
JM: My pleasure.
Want to find out more about James Morrow?
Website, The Island of James Morrow: www.jamesmorrow.info.
Blog, The Passionate Rationalist: james-morrow.livejournal.com
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*** Bigfoot and the Bodhisattva is published by Particle Books and is available TODAY!!! ***
Buy the Book:
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After thirty years spent eating the brains of overachieving amateur-climbers—who foolishly believed they could summit Mount Everest—a James Bond-loving yeti decides that his life needs more spirituality. But can an abominable monster truly change?
Thus begins an improbable journey overseen by the true Dalai Lama himself, an adventure of attempted enlightenment, dietary restriction, unlikely friendship, and political intrigue.
Bigfoot and the Bodhisattva is award-winning author James Morrow (Towing Jehovah, Shambling Towards Hiroshima) at his best: witty, incisive, and always nonpareil.
About the Author:
Born in 1947, James Morrow has been writing fiction ever since, as a seven-year-old living in the Philadelphia suburbs, he dictated “The Story of the Dog Family” to his mother, who dutifully typed it up and bound the pages with yarn. This three-page, six-chapter fantasy is still in the author’s private archives. Upon reaching adulthood, Morrow produced nine novels of speculative fiction, including the critically acclaimed Godhead Trilogy. He has won the World Fantasy Award (for Only Begotten Daughter and Towing Jehovah), the Nebula Award (for “Bible Stories for Adults, No. 17: The Deluge” and the novella City of Truth), and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award (for the novella Shambling Towards Hiroshima). A full-time fiction writer, Morrow makes his home in State College, Pennsylvania, with his wife, his son, an enigmatic sheepdog, and a loopy beagle.