Sunday, February 6, 2011


 I get asked a lot about my plans for my next novel. Actually, science fiction writer Steven Barnes and I have been co-writing for almost a year a sci-fi/murder mystery novel that has the working title, A War in Heaven. Working with Steve on this project (He's providing the meat and potatoes, I'm just adding the literary and philosophical seasoning) has been the greatest of pleasures for me, (1) Because I cut my teeth on speculative fiction when I was kid and I love this sub-genre of fiction, which is so imaginative, free, and intellectually stimulating; (2) Because Steve is an old friend I much admire who is very prolific in this field, and he is the most accomplished, living, black sci-fi writer working today; and (3) Because I have decades of fat folders of science articles I've been saving for this foray into science fiction. (Earlier in my life, I published two sci-fi stories, "Popper's Disease," and "Sweet Dreams.") Check out the current, Jan-Feb. issue of Boston Review, which carries my new, third story, "Guinea Pig," to get a feel for the kind of fusion of science, philosophy, and imaginative writing that I want to be the direction for my fiction at this stage of my life.

But the above described work is a collaborative project, one we're not rushing. Nor am I rushing my own next novel that I've been entertaining ideas for. (That's one of the pleasures of being retired: having time to think, not being rushed.) I know its central philosophical question, the one question that burns in my mind and heart every day as I look at what is happening in the world: What does it mean to be civilized?, a theme I've been working over in articles, essays, and short stories during the last decade. But I want exactly the right plot (conflict and sequence of actions) and central character for it, i.e., a protagonist who can carry the burden of exploring---dramatically and intellectually--all the transformations I see happening around us in America and the world as old, cultural forms die and startling, new ones arise. 

Typically, my novels all experiment and play creatively with one of the literary forms we inherit as writers. I do this as a way to celebrate our ancestors, and to make form itself the subject of my literary meditation. Every literary form limns a particular universe of characters and their possibilities, a specific Lebenswelt  or Umwelt (or  experiential "life-world"), as phenomenologists say. So Faith and the Good Thing is inspirited with the form of the black American folk-tale; Oxherding Tale by the slave narrative, one of the oldest, native American literary forms; Middle Passage by the ship's log and sea adventure story; and in Dreamer we can glimpse the form of the gospel, and Christian writings composed by an elder monk or nun to help novices---think of St. Teresa of Avila's The Interior Castle and the anonymous Theologia Germanica.

For my next novel, my imagination is powerfully drawn to the form of the Bundsroman, or "League Novel," which was popular in Germany in the 19th century.
A few years ago, I sent my lovely editor at Scribner a novel synopsis and summary that uses the Bundsroman as its dramatic structuring device. However, I wasn't satisfied at the time with the way I envisioned Act Three.

So at this writing I have a theme ("What does it mean to be civilized?"), a possible form (the Bundsroman), and a likely protagonist (a black, elderly scientist/philosopher, a kind of combination of W.E.B. Du Bois and Niels Bohr). But like I said, I'm in no hurry. I want this work of fiction to draw together all the things I'm passionate about, and interpret where I think we're headed in the 21st century.

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