First vignette, Selwyn:
Zero Genesis: the Fine Art of Swordmaking
Musashi, made his rival wait.
I forget, or maybe deliberately repress, the rival’s name right now, but Musashi won that fight by psychologically dominating his opponent and showing up nearly 90 minutes late.
It was a rivalry nearly a decade in the making. The rival was everything Musashi was not. Everything about the old feudal order that had tamed the samurai and made them toothless. The rival was ritual, and punctuality, poetry and cleanliness, over-adherence to custom without understanding the reason for that custom, over-dependence on formality and “courtly” tradition. The rival would never let go of his sword, because one’s sword is one’s soul. Musashi, on the other hand, was a fierce innovator in a time when innovation was a warrant for death.
When he arrived on that beach, the first action he took was to toss away his sword and assume a defensive posture with a planed down oar from one of the rowboats that had brought him to the island. The entire duel was its own kind of haiku, last only some eight moves, with Musashi striking only three blows. His opponent would die, and Musashi would never again kill another human being in personal combat. He would instead retreat to a monastery and pen possibly the most elegant meditation on Budo and Japanese samurai culture, the Book of the Five Rings. With this one fight, Musashi would inaugurate a new tradition, a tradition of innovation. The idea of the ronin, the “disgraced”, masterless samurai would be reclaimed as a cultural icon, one deeply imbricated with creativity and innovation.
The rivalry between Musashi and his “final opponent” turns out to be not a battle with a single human being at all, but the war on a concept. Can inventiveness win through? Will it? This war on concept mirrors deeply the rivalry between Mark Antony and Cicero. “Low”-born, Cicero worked his way up into the Senate by adopting all the Roman traditions without question. “High”-born Antony focused becoming populist and appealing to the greater majority of Romans. The rivalry would end in Cicero’s death. But the idea of the popular, the idea of cultural innovation will again be preferred to staid, non-evolving traditionalism.
When I skim the pages of Voodoo Child one last time before the interview, it’s a little after 2PM Eastern Daylight. No surprise that reflexively I know the time in LA. But it’s more than surprising, it’s a little disturbing that I can know the time in Rome and Moscow and Tokyo as well. That I can know these times just as reflexively as I know the time on the West Coast.
There’s a kind of militarization that’s building up in my mind. That facts and details and information will save the day. Of course they never will. Strategy and inventiveness will win the day. I need desperately to unplug from the spiral. But what can I do? Voodoo Child is that kind of book that in the very best of senses, demands more from you, and makes you better just by reading it. We’re definitely standing on a beach, Selwyn and I, Voodoo Child open between us like a chess game with destiny. And in the handful of minutes before I get the phone call, I want to make certain I know enough, have enough information to get to the heart of not only the book but the project (capital “P”) that Selwyn’s getting at with Voodoo Child.
Voodoo Child is sublime. It’s as much a story of power similar in scope and grandeur to the Godfather, as it is a story about New Orleans post-Katrina. And it’s a courageous work. It’s a story that will venture into the commercially uncharted waters of the supernatural underbelly of New Orleans. Treme works wonderfully. As did 100 Bullets: the Hard Way, released within the same month as Katrina back in ‘05. But they’re both works of a different sort. Jazz and deep noir and Dostoyevskian glances as society. Voodoo Child is everything else. It’s why you’d want have an acid trip like Peter Fonda, in That Cemetery. It’s the Old World stuff, crammed into street, it’s the bluesmen who trumpet joy at funerals. It’s magical, but also supernatural.
When I ask Selwyn about how he gets to a point where he can weave out this kind of story, an easy, accessible, adult version of some of the teen-angst horror/magick books we’ve been graced with over this past decade or so, his answer is simple, but elegant.
“I think my answer to the first part of the question is,” Selwyn begins, “when I’m writing it, I never draw, a box or a circle and write ‘Horror’ on the top of it, and then see how I can fit the story inside. I think that alone has a remarkable effect. As a writer, I tend to write a lot of stories in this general speculative space, that may cross from scifi to supernatural to horror. But I think for the kind of story Voodoo Child ends up being, it’s a real mishmash of a lot of different things. So the clearest, I guess, narrative identifier for me is sort of, what’s the particular emotional chord that I want to hit in the reader at a certain point… Whatever I want you to feel… where do I want you to feel empathy, where do I want you to feel interest. And I think those decisions drive the narrative forward. I think once you start putting your writing in those circles [of “Horror” or “Scifi” or “Fantasy”], you can’t help to find yourself pulled to whatever those conventions or tropes end up being. So that’s why I think I avoid that trap.”
“The second part of avoiding that trap, is what you mentioned, in terms of really grounding the story in the place that it’s written. This is something that goes back to when [DC/Vertigo EIC] Karen Berger and I were talking about what kind of series did I want to write at Vertigo. And I knew that I really wanted to do a series where place was the first character. Where the city was… where, where the story took place was the primary character. And that would influence every narrative choice made after that. And that was a real happy meeting of the minds and real happy circumstances. Because Karen had just been to New Orleans a while ago. And I’d been fascinated by New Orleans way back into my career in journalism.
“And its just a place that has such a history, that feels so magical, that feels so musical, that feels, and I may have said this before, its one of the only places in America that feels like it has one leg in modernity, one leg in another age and one leg in some sort of weird crazy antiquity that hides behind the shadows. You just don’t find many cities in this country that are like that. You may find a spooky neighborhood, you certainly have the whole trope of haunted houses, but you don’t suddenly get off a plane and go into a city that in America, feels like you could be in some older, some much more ancient much less certain part of the world. And then there’s a particular history in terms of voodoo… I wanted to write a story, and this is one thing that I’ve always loved about Vertigo, that would be the kind of story I love reading. I wanted to write a story about pantheons, and this is the thing about readers of Vertigo. Stories that have this idea of demigods and powerful beings, who still have these human foibles. These stories go as far back as the Iliad and the Odyssey, which form such a classical part of the Western canon. And I think this is an essential part of Vertigo’s art.
“So for me the question was, what part of this is untouched, and untapped. And not just in comicbooks but in literary and popcultural space in general. And Voodoo for all these years, has been working through all these tropes of pins and needles and dolls and what have you. And everyone’s gotten away from the fact that the real core of this myth is a religion. It’s a religion that proposes a relationship between man and a set of godly ideas, and I thought that that was fascinating. Especially as a writer of color, talking about building a pantheon who evolved first out of West Africa, then it’s the Caribbean, then it’s New Orleans.”
I’m just lost in the sheer musicality of Selwyn’s speech patterns. He drags out certain sections of his responses, repeating them, looping them. It’s a question of building attention, until I’m able to fixate on nothing else. Then, he hits with rapid fire phrases, flying like spores from trees. It’s the art of managing listener attention, the art of involving me in the music he already hears. I think back to my framing of the moments before the phone call came. “A little after 2PM,” and I know its that little bit of human, that little bit of the popular that crept into the militarizing of time and my militarizing of this interview that won the day. This has been about creating the right environment for Selwyn’s inner music to shine through, without being edited.
And that’s what Voodoo Child is about, that inner music.
But at the same time I’m swept up in how Selwyn says “New Orleans”. It’s not New_Or_Lian’s as I’ve come to say it. It’s not Nor_Leans as we’ve been indoctrinated into believing New Orleans’ locals say it. But listen just right, catch the phrase with just the right amount of emotional drama that Selwyn’s built in with his rhythmic rise and fall, and you’ll hear “Noirlands”. Lands of Noir. But also the idea that Noir comes from somewhere else, and lands in this place. Inner music, and inner darkness that gets exported. And if the experience of a European Dadaist like Max Ernst can be reengineered, this is what it would look like, New Orleans, after the rain.