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Less than a year after his collected short stories, Most Excellent and Lamentable, was published, Jason Erik Lundberg is back with his 25th book and first novel: A Fickle and Restless Weapon.
The novel has been 15 years in the making, and it follows three transnational friends–Zed, Tara, and Vahid–and their resistance against the surveillance state of Tinhau, all the while unaware of an even bigger enemy that looms above them, threatening to destroy them all. We sat down with Jason to uncover the ins and outs of his writing process, and of course, his newest book.
Let’s kick it off with a little bit of fun. In 20 words or less, could you tell us what the story is about?
Three transnational friends resist a surveillance state, unaware of a looming enemy from above that threatens to destroy them all.
What inspired you to write this story?
A number of things inspired this particular novel: 1) my growing unease with the way that government and corporate surveillance has infiltrated so much of our daily lives, 2) the conspiracy theories that claimed 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration, 3) the role of the arts in times of peace and times of resistance, 4) Rachel Pollack’s narrative of the Major Arcana in the Vertigo Tarot designed by Dave McKean, and 5) my visits to Singapore in the early 2000s and exposure to its culture.
More specific inspirations come from the following sources: Franz Kafka (The Castle), Milan Kundera (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting), Anoushka Shankar (“Red Sun”), George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four), Alec Wilkinson (“Man of Letters”), Anna Citelli & Raoul Bretzel (Capsula Mundi), Christian Bök (Eunoia), the writers and showrunners of Doctor Who, Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), Ernesto Guevara (The Motorcycle Diaries), George Lucas (Star Wars), the many T-shirt designers at Threadless, Barry Hughart (Bridge of Birds), Italo Calvino (Cosmicomics), Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (Watchmen), Jim Morrison (“Celebration of the Lizard”) and Pieter Bruegel the Elder (The Tower of Babel). Especial mention must be made of the sonic influence of Trent Reznor’s music, so much so that I named all the section titles in the novel after Nine Inch Nails songs, and even included a fictional appearance of the man himself and his live band.
This novel revisits the fictional island nation of Tinhau, which was first shown in your novella, Diary of One Who Disappeared. Why set it in the same universe? Does it limit your world-building, or does this mean there may be more Tinhau stories?
I found that I had spent so much time at the beginning of this process on the world-building details that Tinhau became a real place in my mind, and a fascinating setting for any number of stories. In Diary of One Who Disappeared, it’s revealed (and this is not a spoiler) that Tinhau is an alternate universe version of Singapore, but it’s more complex than that; Tinhau’s geography and history are different, though the culture looks (on the surface) very similar. A Fickle and Restless Weapon is situated 25 years before Diary (and was written before the novella, which means it is not a prequel), and explores a number of background events referred to in that book, including the devastating global attacks by the Range.
There is also an existing short story that takes place in Tinhau, called “Complications of the Flesh” (which can be found in my collection Most Excellent and Lamentable), and I have a number of other story ideas that occur there. I am currently at work on the third book in what I’m calling the Tinhau Sequence, a novel entitled One Nine Eight Six, which takes place five years after the events of Diary and deals with the aftermath of that book’s ending. I had just written the first few short chapters when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and then my creative energy was sapped by anxiety and survival instincts, but once things (hopefully) ease up again later in the year, I should be able to free up enough headspace to return to it.
This novel took 15 years to finish. Why did it take so long?
This is a complicated answer, so please bear with me.
I wrote the first words of the novel (which, to be clear, ended up not being the first words in the novel) in late 2004, while a Master’s candidate in creative writing at North Carolina State University in the US. It was my first genuine attempt at writing a work of considerable length (the published book is 456 pages long), and it was a terrifying yet exciting prospect. How could I hold such a massive story in my head, and develop it into something that actually had something to say? I toiled away at it slowly for the next few years while also still writing short fiction.
In 2007, I relocated from the US to Singapore, and the following year began a teaching job at one of the country’s top independent secondary schools. By that point, I had written around 30,000 words, but had gotten stuck there. I knew that I was still less than a quarter of the way through the entire narrative, but I just did not know how to continue. So I put it aside and concentrated on my teaching duties, which occupied nearly my entire waking life anyway. However, it thankfully turned out that my subconscious mind was still grinding away at the problem; halfway through 2011, it reconnected with my conscious mind and I suddenly realised what I needed to do to unknot the narrative snarl: I had to rewrite the point of view character from Part One of the book so that he was much more sympathetic, in order to properly invite the reader into the story. Once I did this, I was able to continue on to the end in a largely linear fashion, and the first draft was finished in August 2012.
Completing the draft and typing THE END were incredibly important, but I knew that my work wasn’t done. After laying the manuscript aside for a sufficient amount of time, I had to come back to it with fresh eyes for self-editing. After I did this, I needed to send it to a small group of trusted beta readers (all of whom are thanked in the book’s acknowledgements) for critical feedback. I made further revisions based on comments by my (now former) literary agent in the US, and kept tinkering away on my own. Then, once the novel sold to Epigram Books, the editorial process there meant more revising. In all, the book went through eight solid drafts in order to get it into its final published state, and for a project of this size, it needed that amount of time to elevate it to its best self.
Correct us if we’re wrong, but there are socio-economic and even socio-political issues the novel brings up. Why are those important to you?
These things are important to me because I believe that, as an artist and a human being, I should be questioning the established order. Fiction can be consolatory and remind us that we are not alone (and we especially need this aspect of fiction right now during such uncertain global times), but it must also invite the reader to see reality in a new way. It’s very easy nowadays to get isolated in our own belief-bubbles, where we only see the world through a very narrow lens; it’s the imperative of fiction, and all literature, to throw that lens wide open, to introduce new perspectives and ways of understanding. Even before the pandemic, the world in general was becoming more divided and divisive, where one was encouraged by strongmen authoritarian leaders to only be concerned with one’s “tribe” and to blame all the problems in society on the Other. But we’re all much more similar than we are different, and the investigation of themes such as the ones found in A Fickle and Restless Weapon serves as a reminder of this fact.
What can readers expect from this book?
Readers can expect very human characters in the protagonists of Zed, Tara and Vahid (even if they do have superhuman abilities), all of whom are flawed but trying to live life in a moral way. Readers can expect a riveting story of resistance and, ultimately, of hope. They can expect the grappling with ethical and philosophical issues. And they can expect explosions. So many explosions.
Get A Fickle and Restless Weapon here.