Interview: Barth Anderson
by Gayle Surrette
Review by Gayle Surrette
Interview ISBN/ITEM#: INTBarthAnderso
Date: March 2008
Barth Anderson: The Magician and The Fool was a 10-year-long birthing (it was my submission short story for Clarion back in 1998), and it was always trying to be a big sprawling Maltese Falcon-meets-Kafka caper with what might be the earliest known tarot deck as the prize. Forgotten Egyptian gods. Magic Dumpster divers. Psychotic mystics.
But really it was just "big and sprawling" and not much else. My research, though, made me realize that tarot had roots that dug away from Egypt and more toward ancient Rome and the Romulus and Remus myth, and that ancient story helped focus and shape The Magician and the Fool as a stormy love affair and a mystery. The myth anchored the book's key narrative in Rome, where one of the main characters, Jeremiah Rosemont, a lapsed art historian, flies after receiving a plane ticket from a man he's never met before in Nicaragua. There, he bumps into an old flame and a variety of clashing cults with bloodthirsty interest in tarot's history: Is tarot grounded in the foundation myth of Rome, Etruscan divinatory practices, Troy, Egypt, or Babylonian pharmacological cults?
But Romulus and Remus helped provide a backbone for all this. That myth echoes through the love affair between Jeremiah Rosemont and John C. Miles, providing an alternate conclusion to the rivalry between Rome's brothers.
A key chapter cut from The Magician and The Fool discusses the decidedly Roman and Trojan roots of tarot at length. I've retooled the chapter as a short story, which will appear in Strange Horizons in the next few weeks. Tarot enthusiasts may find it a fun read -- or if they're tied to the Egyptian origin story for tarot, they'll hate me forever.
SFRevu: In the book you mentioned the Calvino Method of using the tarot cards; do you use that method or do you actually throw the cards for divination?
Barth: After so many years of throwing tarot cards, I don't use them for divination. I pretty much know the future now. Joke!
I don't know if I'd really call it "divination", per se, as much as, "OK, what am I not seeing?" The images on the cards are a very effective means of jarring you out of your straight-line, all-too-human way of thinking, and that's how I use it.
The Calvino Method of The Magician and The Fool was named for Italo Calvino, who wrote a book in which characters tell one another their stories through the cards, because they don't speak the same language. It's kind of a lengthy pantomime via tarot.
And, yes, I'm fortunate enough to have one long-term tarot buddy, the performance artist and singer Melissa Birch, with whom I have a Calvino Method sort of rapport. We can hold whole conversations via naming cards.
Melissa: How you been?SFRevu: Last question on tarot: Really, what's your favorite deck? Why? Personally, I pick my decks because of the artwork so I'm always interested in what draws people to the cards, no matter how they use them. And it seems that any deck with good art could be a catalyst for stories.
Barth: My favorite deck is Salvador Dali's because it's hysterical. Despite my years of throwing cards, I keep a healthy cynicism about the "aura" around tarot, so I love the image of Dali's smug face cut out and pasted on The Magician. Reminds me not to get too self-important or project too much of myself into the cards.
I'm also partial to the reconstructed Visconti-Sforza deck because those paintings are the oldest we have. While influences and roots go deeper, tarot cards themselves are no older than 1420 or so. I like having access to those original images.
My long-term workhorse deck is my vanilla Rider-Waite, which has about a decade's worth of notes written in the margins.
SFRevu: In reading through The Magician and the Fool, I found myself noticing some of the nice nods to others -- the reference to Italo Calvino's book The Castle of Crossed Destinies, the line from "Jabberwocky", among others. Do you plan these gifts in your narrative or do they just happen and you leave them in for readers to ponder over?
Barth: They just happen.
I mean, this book happens to be about meaning and perception. It could have been about something else (and maybe is!) but once a writer seems to see what her own work might "be about", her images and references line up, as John Kessel says, like iron filings beneath a passing magnet. That's what those references are. Patterns. Textures. "Jabberwocky" (indeed, all of Lewis Carroll) and The Castle of Crossed Destinies are both about meaning and, once the reader engages in that part of the story, I think he'll see that even his own perceptions are up for grabs. The readers who get it will really get it, and if not, c'est la vie. The book has other treats to enjoy.
SFRevu: In another review, you mentioned the early influence of Kurt Vonnegut on you. Who were the top writers that had impacts on you as you were growing up?
Barth: Well, Vonnegut was definitely first and foremost. He came early and blew the circuits in my young brain. Herbert, Tolkein, and LeGuin were all favorites on my shelf at an early age, too, of course, as was John Varley. My family traveled to Mexico frequently when I was a kid, so the early '80s "Big Boom" of Mexican and Latin American magical realists was a huge influence in high school (so was Herman Hesse, Camus, and, later, Nietzsche). All that primed me for Borges and Calvino when I got to college, which seems to be a fairly common path for many new genre writers practicing today. Borges lit me up the same way Vonnegut did.
I took a long break from mainstream SF and F in my twenties because I thought I was going to be a journalist, a filmmaker -- I had a pretty hefty scholarship to NYU's film school but couldn't come up with all the money required for tuition -- or maybe a Great Big Ol' Serious Writer, but Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood and Eleanor Arnason's excellent A Woman of the Iron People called me back. Ellen Kushner's flaming swashbuckler Swordspoint made me giddy with the idea that there might be a place for me in the genre after all (and I think readers may recognize that there's a lot of Alec and St. Vier in The Magician and The Fool).
China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh sealed the deal. That book made me feel completely at home in SF and F, as a writer and a reader.
SFRevu: Do you see a synergy between your SF/Fantastic/Mystery writing and your foodie writing?
Barth: Maybe not the foodie writing, but certainly my writing about agriculture intersects with Patron Saint of Plagues in a pretty obvious way. In that book's future, U.S. agriculture has been devastated by a package of viruses that recombined themselves from viruses used for introducing genetically modified material into various agricultural crops. These viruses, Gold Mold as they're known, are responsible for crippling the U.S. farm economy, which sets up a new relationship between America and an ascendant superpower in Mexico.
But I wish there were more synergy between my food writing and my genre work. My passion for food, sustainable ag, organics, etc., came very late in life, so it's actually competing with my fiction writing at the moment. I'm finishing A Skeptic's Guide to Natural Foods for Wheatland Press and it's been rough going because the fiction writing and food writing come from such different parts of my life. It feels like having two horses pulling in very different directions.
To say nothing of throwing parenthood into the mix. That's a third horse that frequently jumps in the driver's seat.
SFRevu: What has surprised you most about your readership and their response to your work?
Barth: Well, we'll see what happens with The Magician and The Fool. I don't have any perspective on this book, so I'm eager and anxious to see what readers think.
For the first book, The Patron Saint of Plagues, I was surprised and tremendously pleased that the book's most dedicated readers tended to be people working in microbiology, public health, etc. I worked very hard to get the details of a viral outbreak right, so having epidemiologists write and ask me where I interned was enormously gratifying, especially for a writer who has absolutely no medical training!
SFRevu: You attended Clarion in 1998; how did that impact your writing of SF? I guess I wonder, as do many others, if the time in such a concentrated workshop setting is as transforming for those who go through it as many people imply?
Barth: Clarion helped me take myself seriously as a writer. I needed colleagues and a community of writers, and that's what I got.
I felt that I understood experimental writing quite well, but I didn't really understand traditional stories, and I wanted to. Clarion helped me communicate with normal people, one could say.
SFRevu: When you're not writing or working -- what do you have for hobbies and pursuits? What do you read for fun? Films?
Barth: Hobbies? Oh, yes, I think I remember hobbies! Well, before I became a parent, I was an avid filmgoer, on the order of two or three per month in the theater, and more on top of that at home. I'm pretty fluent in film from about 1970 to 2003. Now I'm in a wide cultural void filled with Thomas the Tank Engine and SpongeBob Squarepants.
You probably guessed that I love to cook. I'm not a gourmet or even a gourmand. I learned to cook when I was a produce-aisle grocery stocker, taking what was ripe and perfect and learning what to do with it. So I'm an improvisationalist, not a chef by any means. My wife, on the other hand, is very good with recipes, a veritable magnet for drawing awesome, creative concoctions to herself. We're a good pair in the kitchen.
My 4-year-old and I like to garden together. We're planning our garden right now, and I think we're leaning toward more flowers, more perennials, this year. Poppies and sunflowers and moonflowers and cosmos. (The squirrel situation in my neighborhood makes vegetable gardening maddening. I'm looking into squirrel recipes, squirrel clothing, squirrel draperies. ...)
For fun, I tend to read wonky food books. Big surprise, huh? I'm currently reading a book on the banana industry, Michael Pollan's In Defense of Eating, and Dean Cycon's Javatrekker. I'm also rereading K.J. Bishop's The Etched City, because it's sheer comfort food for me.
SFRevu: How has your life been different than what you'd imagined it would be?
Barth: I recently came across something I wrote in eighth grade, about where I thought I'd be in the far-future year of 2000, when I would be very, very old at the age of 36, and I thought I'd be (drum roll) a science fiction writer. The irony of winding up exactly where I thought I'd be is mind-boggling to me.
What I never thought I'd be is a parent. I always thought I was too irresponsible to have kids, too focused on writing and creating and "making it" and blah blah blah. But I think that was just the child in me talking, the kid who didn't want to give up childhood. The woman of my life, Lisa, valued being a parent almost more than anything else, so her dream infected mine, and now I can't imagine life without kids -– or what I used to do with all that free time.
SFRevu: What does the future hold -- next project?
Barth: There's the Natural Foods book for Wheatland, and then there seems to be a book about the Minneapolis bridge collapse swimming around inside me. Everywhere I turn, I meet someone who was profoundly affected by that event. And I'm not exactly sure, yet, but this bridge story may be related to The Magician and The Fool.
Or it may be a story about occult farmers! Hard to say. We're pretty early on in the process here, so only time will tell.
SFRevu: Thanks for your time.