You may not know the name Mark J. Ferrari… but you will soon. His debut novel, The Book of Joby, has been released to critical success and is as unique as it is controversial. A standalone fantasy, set in our world, retelling the Book of Job with a comical twist? God and Lucifer are characters? What’s not to like?
Here’s the synopsis pulled from his web site:
Lucifer and the Creator have entered, yet again, into a wager they’ve made many times before, but this time, the existence of creation itself is balanced on the outcome. Born in California during the twilight of a weary millennium, nine year old Joby Peterson dreams of blazing like a bonfire against the gathering darkness of his times. Instead, he is subjected to a life of crippling self-doubt and relentless mediocrity inflicted by an enemy he did nothing to earn and cannot begin to comprehend.
Though imperiled themselves, the angels are forbidden to intervene. Left to struggle with their own loyalties and the question of obedience, they watch Lucifer work virtually unhindered to turn Joby’s heart of gold into ash and stone while God sits by, seeming unconcerned.
Grown to manhood, Joby’s once luminous love of life seems altogether lost, and Lucifer’s victory assured. What hope remains lies hidden in the beauty, warmth, and innocence of a forgotten seaside village whose odd inhabitants seem to defy the modern world’s most inflexible assumptions, and in the hearts of Joby’s long lost youthful love and her emotionally wounded son. But the ravenous forces of destruction that follow Joby into this concealed paradise plan to use these same things to bring him and his world to ruin.
As the final struggle unfolds, one question occupies every mind in heaven and in hell. Which will prove stronger, love or rage?
Mark was kind enough to drop by and give us a little bit of insight into exactly what to expect from The Book of Joby. You might be surprised by what he has to say (it’s not a piece of Christian literature, for instance) and wait until you hear the story of how he got knocked into being a novelist!
Q. Mark, Iâ€™d first like to welcome you to A Dribble of Ink and thank you for taking the time to talk with us!
â€œNo, no! Thank you!â€ as Chip & Dale used to say. Quite sincerely, though, I am deeply appreciative of the generous attention and support you and others have given this book.
Q. Alright, letâ€™s get this one out of the way. The Book of Joby is heavily influenced by the Christian religion and its doctrines. What are your views on religion in general and how did they affect the writing of your first novel? Is The Book of Joby meant to appeal mostly to Christian readers?
I am really VERY glad you asked. Itâ€™s an important question, and there are a few paragraphs on the FAQ page of my own website about this as well.
Though the first impression that this novel may be â€œChristian literatureâ€ is not just understandable but inevitable, that was not my intention at all. What I was really trying to do â€“ for better or worse â€“ was simply to write a fantasy novel set in my own cultureâ€™s mythology rather than in some other cultureâ€™s mythology, (Norse, Celtic, Asian, etc), in the hopes that a â€˜fableâ€™ written to my own culture in our own mythology would communicate in richer ways and on many more layers than a fable set in some culture of which we know very little, and are capable of appreciating only superficially. Make a joke or a poignant reference about Jesus, some saint or bible story, or the Christian church anywhere in America, and most people will immediately access all kinds of unspoken associations and nuances â€“ good or bad â€“ that can enrich the statementâ€™s meaning and impact. Make a joke about Odinâ€™s other eye, and most Americans will just give you a blank stare. See what I mean? Before going on, I do want to stress two things though.
First, when I call Judeo-Christianity my cultureâ€™s â€œmythology,â€ I do not intend any statement at all about whether I think God is real or not. I merely mean that this is my cultureâ€™s body of supernatural lore, and thus the medium I chose to tell this supernatural tale.
Second, I want to make it clear that while the story is not meant to promote Christianity, neither is it meant to attack or criticize it. Using this Judeo-Christian context seemed desirable precisely because itâ€™s content meant so much more on so many levels in so many different ways to the American audience I was addressing. To have â€˜taken sidesâ€™ in doing so would have short-circuited the whole effect for half of my audience one way or the other. The only sane way to touch this material, (if there was one at all, of course), seemed to me to be with great respect for how much the material I am borrowing matters â€“ one way or the other – to those who will be reading the book. Thus, there are important Christian characters in the story that are very, very villainous, and other important Christian characters that are very, very sympathetic. And the majority of this bookâ€™s characters are not Christian at all, because, (and I think this may have been the only way to avoid â€˜taking sidesâ€™ about it), the book is not, in fact, â€˜aboutâ€™ Christianity to begin with â€“ only set â€˜inâ€™ it.
What the book is actually about is us, specifically through the lens of three related themes, which I and the whole town I was living in at the time were forced to struggle with one year after three of that small communityâ€™s children were killed in separate tragic accidents over six months almost exactly two month apart from each other. This isolated rural townâ€™s official population was 1,100 people, and so these terrible losses were not just â€˜familyâ€™ tragedies. Almost all of us knew these children pretty well, and so their loss was traumatic for the entire community. The three themes of my novel were brought into relief as I watched that whole community struggling with the grief and almost personally hostile feel of such an inexplicable series of painful and utterly â€˜unfairâ€™ events.
The first of my novelâ€™s themes, then, is the assumption most of us in America are taught from the cradle on that there is some reliable â€˜cause and effectâ€™ relationship between what we do and what we get. If we do any of these â€˜desirableâ€™ things, we are taught, the following desirable consequences will follow. Do any of these â€˜undesirableâ€™ things, and the following undesirable consequences will result. As we grow up, however, this reassuring assumption is betrayed again and again as we discover that the world rarely behaves so neatly.
The second theme is a corollary faith we seem to cherish in what I like to call, â€œthe last minute cavalry charge.â€ Itâ€™s in almost all of our books and films and television shows. It was celebrated even in the way my generation was taught history in grammar school. When some unthinkably terrible thing is about to happen, weâ€™ve learned to anticipate rescue via some heroically clever and utterly unexpected solution just when all seems lost. This hope is also betrayed again and again as we grow up in the actual world.
The novelâ€™s third theme in which these first two are embedded is the question of what one is to do with all the disappointment, anger and thirst for greater control that often results from having such childhood convictions dashed again and again. If there were a God, why would he allow such obvious injustices, why not â€˜makeâ€™ the world work as it should? What does justice mean? How far would you go to â€˜makeâ€™ the world operate as you think it should? Whoâ€™s to blame, and what should be done to, or about, them? These were some of the questions that many of us in that small town were struggling with for a year or longer after the tragic loss of those three children, and thatâ€™s what the Book of Joby was really attempting to explore, though certainly not to â€˜answer.â€™
Q. One curious thing that most readers may not realize is that you are also a successful artist, having worked with such recognizable companies as Tor, Doubleday, Lucasfilm & Lucasarts Software, Acclaim Software, Interplay, and Electronic Arts. How did you transition from a successful artist to become a novelist?
Er â€¦ slowly?
I enjoy the looks I get when telling people that I always really wanted to write for a living, but that didnâ€™t seem realistic or responsible, so I became an artist instead. As funny as that sounds, it is somewhat true. I enjoyed the part of my life spent as a commercial illustrator immensely, and will always be grateful for the success I experienced in that field, but I can say without any hesitation that, even at the peak of my career, I never enjoyed art nearly as much as I enjoy writing. Nor, though I think I was a reasonably good illustrator, did I ever have as much potential as an artist as I believe I have as a writer.
The transition was given a small assist, however, by an event in the year 2,000, which rather decisively helped me make up my mind to switch. I had been working on the Book of Joby for several years at that point, but going very slowly, because my illustration workload simply didnâ€™t leave much time or creative energy for writing. I often tell people who express their envy of my self-employed status that being a freelance anything tends to mean that you can work whatever 80 hours a week you wish. For quite a while, I had been writing for two weeks, then working, often 6 or 7 days a week for two months, when I went out one evening to ride my mountain bike on a local logging road, and ended up celebrating the millennium by riding around a sharp hairpin curve into the grill of an oncoming truck.
I learned three important lessons that night: always wear a helmet! (all five pieces of the one I was wearing are still enshrined at home today), never wear a walkman while riding!( I might have heard the truck a moment sooner, I suppose, if I hadnâ€™t been listening to Smashmouth, (no lie!)), and â€“ if anyone so much as breaths the words, â€œurinary catheter,â€ shoot first, ask questions later, (I would rather do the truck again. Twice.).
During the following few years, I learned another important thing. My ability to render images in colored pencil had apparently been left in the large indent on the front of that truck. Now I was â€˜free at lastâ€™ to write without fearing the loss of more established pastimes. Donâ€™t cry for me, Argentina. At the time of the accident, I imagined some guardian angel hovering between that truck and myself, helping me to negotiate the impact. Now, in hindsight, I imagine that angel pushing me in front of that truck â€“ THEN helping me negotiate the impact. It has proven nothing but a very fortunate and, frankly, very happy transition. These stories I want to tell have been backing up rather badly as they circle the airport in my head waiting to land.
Q. Wow, thatâ€™s quite a story; Iâ€™m glad everything worked out for you! Another interesting fact is that you actually designed and illustrated the cover for your novel. In an industry that generally tries to keep the authors as far away as possible from the marketing descisions, how did you manage to swing such a coup?
Um â€¦ I didnâ€™t, actually. I am given cover credit inside the book apparently because the little dragon they placed on the cover was snipped out of a piece of art I did much earlier for other purposes, and that has generated a rumor that I did the cover, but I didnâ€™t. It was designed by others, and I was kept about as far outside the process as any other author is. Am I upset? No. If this were all about getting to do art, Iâ€™d have just stayed an artist. And the cover they designed must be working pretty well, because a lot of people are buying and reading this book, I am delighted to say. So, whatâ€™s not to like?â€
Q. Well, it’s nice to clear that one up! Now, youâ€™re stranded on a desert island and can only bring your painting gear or your typewriter. Which do you grab?
Ah! At last a question I can answer easily and concisely. The laptop! â€¦ Er â€¦ that was one of the choices â€¦ wasnâ€™t it? â€¦ And a plug-and-play solar panel maybe? â€¦ Pretty please?
Q. While writing The Book of Joby and subsequently trying to find and editor/publisher for it, were you ever worried that the Judeo-Christian overtones and themes to the novel might limit your audience?
Oh yeah! I was not unaware of the risks involved in writing a book that might offend fantasy readers because of itâ€™s Judeo-Christian content, while offending Christian readers because of its fantasy content and orientation. There were nights I laid awake wondering why I felt compelled to kill my new writing career right out of the gate, and whether I was going to end up sharing a hotel room somewhere with poor Solomon Rushdie. Happily, the potential implosion has been far less traumatic than I feared. I got one very, very bad review from a critic at Publisherâ€™s weekly, who seems to have stopped reading at about chapter six and written me off as relentlessly grim fundamentalist literature for â€œthe Left Behind crowd.â€ Happily, that critique is now surrounded by literally dozens of glowingly complimentary, and more accurate reviews that disagree with the PW assessment rather strongly. Other than that, I have had literally nothing but very generous and appreciative reactions from scores of readers â€“ atheist to affirmed Christian â€“ who seem to be enjoying the book a lot. Iâ€™d like to take this opportunity to say how much I appreciate the letters Iâ€™ve been getting, and the time I know it takes to write them!
Q. Iâ€™ve mentioned before, here on A Dribble of Ink, that Iâ€™m a big fan of standalone novels. What made you decide to settle on a single volume instead of extending the story across multiple volumes?
It was tempting in lots of ways â€“ both for me and for Tor â€“ to try splitting this novel into two volumes. But in the final analysis, the storyâ€™s ending is so tied up in the very particular details of itâ€™s beginning that to have read that ending years after the beginning itâ€™s tied to would have really diminished the read. This was just one of those stories that has to be read straight through to get it clearly.
Q. Despite being only a single volume, The Book of Joby is full of ambition. How does one go about even attempting to write a humorous, emotional novel about a battle between Lucifer and God?
Um â€¦ by running head first into a truck? â€¦
Well, then, Iâ€™d have to say that any story with such potential for grief and grimness as any variant of the original â€˜Jobâ€™ story had better contain a fair amount of humor and emotional satisfaction too, or people are just going to put it down a few chapters in and go looking for their Prozac, like I guess that Publisherâ€™s Weekly guy did. In my own life I have found that hard times and humor seem very often joined at the hip. Itâ€™s not that hard to joke about disaster. Lots of people do it, though it is hard to do it tastefully sometimes. In fact, the divine characters in The Book of Joby are there partially to function as a kind of â€˜comic relief Greek chorusâ€™ who shuffles in every so often to observe and comment on whatâ€™s happening in Jobyâ€™s life. Their dialogue is often some of the funniest, (I hope), in the book.
I think that in writing, like painting, no composition is as interesting with only light or only dark colors as itâ€™ll be with both, so I donâ€™t hesitate to write dark passages. But I really donâ€™t like the kind of book that just drags you through the mud for 600 miles and then dumps you in some bog at the end with nothing more worthwhile to justify the ride than, â€œoh well, thatâ€™s the human condition.â€ Hopefully, I have not written such a book.
Q. Your web site states that a second novel, unrelated to The Book of Joby, is near completion. Can you give us a hint of what youâ€™ve got in store next?
Oh, well, all right then, if I must. (author looks down, blushing, and shuffles feet)
I can tell you a little about what Iâ€™m working on. I CANNOT tell you what will necessarily be the next of my books â€˜in store,â€™ because I am actually working on two new novels now, and I imagine, (hope?) it will be up to Tor to decide which of them would best follow The Book of Joby. Both of the books I am currently working on are completely unrelated to The Book of Joby, and neither of them is set in a Judeo-Christian context, (which I hope will not disappoint my readers too much.) They are both â€˜aboutâ€™ something more than just the fantasy motif, however, and both contain a certain approach to language, visually descriptive environments, occasionally witty dialogue, and, I hope, quirky, evocative characters with more depth than a postage stamp, all of which will hopefully provide more of what readers are enjoying in my first novel.
One of the Novels I am working on is the first book in a â€˜modern-dayâ€™ fantasy trilogy actually set about 70 years in the future â€“ somewhere around the year 2,080 â€“ after the developed world has been utterly changed by some very bizarre events. Without divulging plot, for obvious reasons, Iâ€™ll just say that, at its core, this book is about the relationship between the worlds inside each of us and the world outside all of us, the ways in which each of them is or isnâ€™t â€˜real,â€™ and does or doesnâ€™t â€˜matterâ€™ to the survival of the whole.
The other book I am just beginning work on is another stand-alone novel set in modern American urban environments right at the present time in history. I expect that it will have a lot of TBoJâ€™s â€˜literaryâ€™ fantasy feel, and some of the same kind of pathos, though it is an entirely different story about what happens when an impossible wish is granted. (And you know what the Greeks had to say about wishes granted â€¦ Or, if not, maybe you had better find out while thereâ€™s still time to change your mind. â˜º)
Q. What has been the best, and the worst, thing about being a published author? Any surprises?
Hmmmm. Thatâ€™s a tough one. There are so many â€˜best thingsâ€™ about being a published author. For one thing I donâ€™t have to dread saying, â€œYeah, Iâ€™m working on a book,â€ now. No more polite smiles and discreetly rolling eyes. Itâ€™s much, much safer and more enjoyable to say youâ€™ve just had a book published. â˜º
But the hugest thing, for me, is the slow, delightful realization that something I created is actually out there, living, (rather than dying), a life of its own utterly beyond my control, finding its audience, itâ€™s own legitimacy and purpose, and, from all the mail Iâ€™ve been receiving, bringing people pleasure. Itâ€™s probably the closest thing Iâ€™ll ever know to having a child and raising it to function happily in the larger world. Iâ€™m still just starting to absorb the satisfaction.
As for the worst thing about being a published author â€¦ More research is needed. Iâ€™ll get back to you as soon as I can think of one.
Q. Mark, I think that covers about everything! Thanks for taking the time to do this. You can be sure that Iâ€™ll be keeping a close eye on you and your novels for the years to come!
Thanks so much!
As you probably guessed, the beautiful artwork scattered throughout the interview was Mark’s from his days as an inllustrator! You can find more of his artwork, and also information about him as an author, at his web site. Also, be sure to check out Fantasy Book Critic’s interview with Mark HERE!