Article published on August 15, 2017.
Reviewer Philipa Coughlan put her questions to The Book of Luce author, L R Fredericks:
PC: Using L.R. as your initials for the books follows a recent theme of cross-gender use mainly by men writing ‘women issue/character’ novels. Does it help you appeal to the many male science fiction readers?
LRF: I hope so! I love science fiction, and have a few ideas percolating for a future novel in that genre. Writers have chosen to use their initials for a lot of reasons – for me the gender-neutrality of it is appealing, because I do feel quite androgynous in myself, especially as an artist and writer. But mainly … I like the sound of it, and my publishers seem to like it, too!
PC: I hadn’t read your previous Fate or Farundell novels (sorry!) Is that a barrier to understanding any themes in The Book of Luce?
LRF: Not at all! The three novels share some characters, ideas and settings, but totally stand alone. One can read them in any order – they’ll enhance each other in some ways, of course, but each one is complete in itself. The first, Farundell, is set in England in 1924. The second, Fate, follows one of the minor characters in Farundell on his adventures in the 18th century. And The Book of Luce covers the period from the Fifties to the present day, with a particular focus on the Sixties. I’ve always made sure that each book was read by people who had not read the others, to make sure it all worked.
PC: I loved the obvious link to David Bowie as an androgynous singer Luce and his band the Photons who are mysteriously portrayed. Did you ever see Bowie live in concert? Favourite Bowie track?
LRF: Bowie has been such an inspiration to me, I’m still upset he left so soon! Wonder who he’ll be next … He was truly one of the greatest artists of our time, in any medium. I saw him live several times, from the Seventies (the Heroes tour, Madison Square Garden. Mind-blowing!) to his last tour, the Reality tour, at Wembley. I also had the privilege of seeing him in The Elephant Man on Broadway, twice, the second time from the front row. What an experience! The intensity of his presence is a quality I also observed in Luce. I saw his musical Lazarus in London this past January – on the anniversary of his death, though I hadn’t realised that when I booked a ticket months in advance. His presence in that extraordinary piece of theatre was as vivid as if he’d been there in person. I hope they put out a dvd sometime, though it could never match the live experience.
Favourite track? That’s too hard a question! There is a fabulous Bowie song for every situation. Trying to answer it for you, I’m playing through all my Bowie today, and I suppose I can narrow it down to the albums of the Berlin trilogy: Low, Heroes and Lodger. The collaboration with Brian Eno was an alchemy that produced extraordinary flowers. So sophisticated, subtle, powerful and exciting. And, like Luce and the Photons, genre-defying. Those albums were the soundtrack to a great time in my life – late Seventies to early Eighties, when I was living in the East Village in New York, painting, doing performance art and hanging out at places like the Mudd Club and CBGB’s.
PC: Did your Quaker education influence any characters in your writing?
LRF: You mean, was it like Hogwarts? Sadly, no. In the States, where I grew up, Quaker schools are quite ordinary, though there is a fair bit of emphasis on the arts. President Obama’s daughters attended a Quaker school in Washington. One does get an excellent basic education – literature, the Classics, mythology, etc. I had a brief and much-enjoyed spell at a well-known Quaker boarding school … in fact, that was where I smoked hash for the first time. Ah, the ‘Golden Years’! (Just listening to that Bowie track right now) You may just have given me an idea for a story … there were some very interesting characters at that boarding school …
PC: All your books have striking covers. Were you involved in choosing them?
LRF: Yes, much more than authors usually are, apparently. My publishers (Hodder/John Murray) have been amazing. I started out, with Farundell, offering tentative suggestions, and was stunned to see how magnificently they’d manifested my ideas. The novel is set in the Twenties, and the cover was inspired by the cover of an old book I found called Hesper – a woodcut with wonderfully evocative colours: olive green, black and yellow, bare trees receding to a hilly horizon…
For the second novel, Fate, I tossed out the idea of a rose surrounded by thorns, which seemed to represent the beauty and sweetness of the ultimate goal toward which the book’s hero strives, and the difficulty and suffering required to reach it. The resulting image captures the feeling really well, in an enigmatic and intriguing way. In fact, I think ‘enigmatic and intriguing’ might be the constants in all the briefs given to the designers for my books!
The Book of Luce was more challenging. We wanted it to look trippy without being period-Sixties psychedelic. I didn’t have a lot of specific suggestions, just the general idea of the dark/light duality (the front and back of the cover are the same image with the colours reversed: black for white, red for green, etc.) and an absolute requirement that if a figure is shown, it must not be identifiable as male or female, because one of the central themes in the book is the mystery of whether Luce is a man or a woman. And although that question is answered eventually – sort of – the reader never knows whether the book’s narrator, who goes by the nom de plume Chimera Obscura, is male or female! So gender-ambiguity is a big theme, and I was adamant that the cover should not skew people’s perceptions either way.
PC: You have an amazing variety of past studies and careers. Which gives you most satisfaction and peace of mind?
LRF: Writing fiction is the most amazing and satisfying thing I’ve ever done, and I need to do it like I need to breathe, but it totally fails on the ‘peace of mind’ front. For peace of mind I pootle about the garden or paint in watercolours, which I find soothing. Or meditate, obviously. But writing a novel is like having a constant itch. Unlike a painting or a sculpture or even a poem, it can be endlessly, literally endlessly worked and re-worked – at the micro level (words, sentences, punctuation – the agonies of the smallest choices can go on for hours) and the macro level – plot, characters, etc., which require days and weeks or even months of pondering. Not to mention research! The sheer size of the enterprise (160,000 words, in the case of The Book of Luce, and four years of my life), the utter flexibility of the medium (language) and the author’s complete god-like power to create any reality in the reader’s mind mean that every moment is full of intense decisions that have to be made, reconsidered, retracted (ah, the blessed Undo command!), remade, re-evaluated, etc. Ad infinitum.
PC: Do you believe in reincarnation?
LRF: Yes – or possibly more accurately, multiple incarnations experienced sequentially, but really simultaneous. In quantum physics, it’s called the many worlds interpretation.
PC: You mention mystical places in the US such as Warm Springs and Area 51 which were fascinating but what’s the most mystical place for you here in the UK?
LRF: I love the great stone circles, and have had many magical moments (especially with my druid friends) at Stonehenge and Avebury. The Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire are quite intense … but my favourite circle is Castlerigg, in Cumbria (which gets a passing mention in The Book of Luce). I used to go for a week every year to the island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland (again, with my druid friends), and had amazing experiences there. But … here in the now, just a short walk up the hill from me in Devon there’s an old, tumbled ‘round pound’ (Neolithic enclosure) of the sort that’s quite common around here, and it has a wonderful atmosphere …
PC: I felt that the pictorial clues to Luce and the Band were like Banksy’s art appearing from nowhere. Who’s your favourite artist?
LRF: Yes, Luce is like Banksy – no one knows who he is, but his art affects people so powerfully. Also, in New York in the early eighties, there was a sort of proto-Banksy artist who called himself Shadowman (really Richard Hambleton), who painted enigmatic black shadows all over the Lower East Side, Soho and Tribeca.
My favourite artist? Again, too hard to come up with just one. In painting, I think the late Howard Hodgkin and Anselm Keifer are two of the greatest of our age. From the past, I love Dürer and Caravaggio, though my single favourite painting in the world is the early sixteenth century Isenheim Altarpiece, by Matthias Grünewald. I love it so much I gave it a prominent and dramatic role (based on its true history) in my 18th century story, Fate. My favourite contemporary artist is the fabulous videographer, Bill Viola. He appears in The Book of Luce as ‘Robert Cello’ (Hope he doesn’t mind!)
PC: Any more novels planned?
LRF: Oh yes – like lives in the multiverse, they’re infinite. I’ve discovered that this world I’ve created, or these interconnecting and slightly overlapping worlds, themselves link in any number of ways to other worlds, other stories. Several minor or tangential characters from previous books are demanding that their stories be told; new people are still waiting in the wings. I like playing a bit with genres – Farundell is the ‘English country house novel’ with a twist, or several; Fate an alchemical take on the swashbuckling picaresque. The Book of Luce is a bit harder to pin down … an unreliably-narrated- psychedelic-mystery-quest-cum-gnostic-pseudo-biography? Something like that! Other semi-planned books include a science fiction epic set a couple of thousand years in the future, when Lucianity is a galactic religion and Chimera Obscura is revered as a saint and apostle. Also, a sort of occult espionage novel dealing with Nazis and eugenics, psychic murder, MI6, antiquarian booksellers and English magicians, set in the Thirties (after Farundell and before The Book of Luce). I’m also tempted to go back to the sixteenth century, and tell the story of the immortal Rosicrucian Tobias Damory (a minor character in the other three books); alternatively, I’m drawn to ancient Egypt, which is where it really all began…
A mind-bending mystery spanning continents and centuries for all fans of Neal Stephenson and David Mitchell.
My obsession begins in the magical year 1967, at Luce and the Photons’ legendary last secret gig. That night changes my life: I must know who Luce is. But the deeper I dig, the more questions I turn up. Is Luce a rock star or a pretender? An artist or an acid trip?
My redemption . . . or my delusion?
Drawn into the machinations of mysterious powers, I become the dark shadow who follows the light of Luce. But who follows me? Are they agents of evil or figments of my imagination? And do they follow me still?
The quest for Luce will lead me to the farthest corners of the earth and into the deadliest danger. I will lose everything and everyone I love . . . except for Luce.
Who is pawn and who is player? Murderer or victim? Betrayer or saviour?
I am the only one who knows the truth.
This is the truth.
This is The Book of Luce.
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The Book of Luce by L R Fredericks, published on 10 August, 2017 by Hodder & Stoughton, in hardback