Catching up with Minister Faust, Author of From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain
Minister Faust is one of the most interesting new writers I've come across in the last few years, his first novel, The Coyote Kings of the Space-Aged Bachelor Pad, published in 2004 and his second, From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain, in 2007. He's been a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award, and is a champion of progressive politics in his home town of Edmonton, Canada. His work fits broadly into the realm of science fiction/fantasy but he often focuses on satire, social issues, and a biting sense of humor in ways that align him just as easily with writers like Kurt Vonnegut. It's worth quoting at length the Amazon.com review of The Coyote Kings of the Space-Aged Bachelor Pad, since it does a nice job of giving readers a sense of Faust's fiction:
"What do Edmonton, D&D, cannibalism, Star Wars, comic books, ancient African mythology, black culture, drugs, organic food, magic, and television shows have in common? They all play important roles in The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, a zany, stylish, and fun novel. Coyote Kings, the debut by Edmonton writer, teacher, and radio host Minister Faust, has a large cast of characters but mainly follows two roommates--Hamza, a former graduate student who's been reduced to working as a dishwasher, and Yehat, a video store clerk who invents insane gadgets in his spare time. They're stuck in a rut of self-pity and going nowhere real slow when a mysterious woman shows up and seduces Hamza by quoting his favorite comics and sci-fi films. (The only problem: she may not be human.) Before long, the three are caught up in a quest for a magic artifact, but they're not the only ones. Arrayed against them is a wide assortment of characters--including an old romantic rival of Hamza's, drug dealers who peddle a mystical high, and a former Canadian Football League player with aspirations of immortality--all with their own plans for the artifact. The action takes the cast through the streets of Edmonton and to Drumheller, where an ancient, startling secret is revealed."
While we generally focus on writers when they have a book out, I thought it would be interesting to talk to a writer between books. Minister Faust did not disappoint...
Amazon.com: What have you been working on since your second novel was published?
Minister Faust: Lots. I completed my tenth year of public school teaching and decided to move on. I was a cast member and writer for a sketch comedy television pilot and series. For eight months I worked as a host and associate producer of a national, live, daily lifestyle-magazine television show; then for the following eight months I worked as a freelance journalist, copy-writer and copy-editor, and with a youth group as leadership instructor, dramaturge and stage director. On the side, I continued producing an hour-long weekly Africentric/pro-democracy community radio news programme and a biweekly two-hour global African musics (plural) show for CJSR FM88/cjsr.com.
Writing-wise, I wrote for a local arts weekly, a health magazine, a cooking magazine, Canada’s largest paper (the Toronto Star), and for the Gen-X business magazine called Unlimited, on deejaying with neomillennial technology and the NBC horror anthology Fear Itself which shot in my home town. Recently I went to work for BioWare, one of the world’s leading video game design studios and the one with the best reputation for writing.
I’ve been conducting interviews for a book on HBO’s The Wire and have so far interviewed fourteen actors, directors, writers and producers for that show, with more on the way, plus a number of interested academics, writers and journalists for commentary on the show. [And I've started] work on my newest novel, a mainstream book with enough fantastical elements that many genre readers will still have plenty to feast on. And I’ve been working on a book with a psychologist friend of mine to help Gen-X/Gen-Y men get their acts together at home, school, work and heart.
Amazon.com: Can you describe what an average work/writing day is like for you?
Minister Faust: For the first twenty days of my new book, no matter what, I had to write one page a day, which means 500 words, but which usually became 1200+ and was sometimes over 4000. That meant a lot of exhaustion and missed time with my wife, which I really hate. For the third phase of my novel (I’m in that phase now), I’ve got to do 5000 words every five days. But it’s far better to do 1000 a day than in a single crunch. And then, of course, there’s my day job which is all about writing—creating characters, story, monologues and dialogue.
Amazon.com: What has most surprised you about reaction to your first two novels?
Minister Faust: I’ve been blown away by the praise. The New York Times dropped a reference which, even distally, connected me with James Joyce; CanWest News called my first book something like “the most exciting Canadian debut in decades” (I found that one about three years after the book came out!). That book was short-listed for three awards and ended up on four top-ten lists. With Doctor Brain, the PKD runner-up for 2007, I was stunned and delighted at how many people “got” the book. I was worried that the book’s JLA meets Bamboozled approach might really throw people. But instead, most folks who read it seemed to understand that it was satire and followed what it was satirizing. Some were particularly detailed and insightful (for instance, Prof. Steven Shaviro at the Pinocchio Theory. I guess expect to be misunderstood, misquoted and misrepresented. When that doesn’t happen, I consider it a good day.
Amazon.com: When did you know you wanted to be a writer, and how long have you been seriously working on fiction?
Minister Faust: I’ve known since I was ten that I wanted to be a writer. I first decided to be a writer when I was about twelve because of comic books. I was in grade seven. I’d been collecting comics for two years already—primarily Bill Mantlo’s Micronauts. Then I found Frank Miller’s Daredevil. He was one of the first celebrated auteurs of modern (post-Eisner, post-Ditko) comics, probably because he was in the “big two” of Marvel/DC. I’d never before seen the intensity possible in a work drawn by the same person who wrote it.
Narration in comics had generally been awful. Now I was reading DD #179 (I think), and finding a narrative shift from (I think) omniscient to first-person (reporter Ben Urich, who for some reason reminds me now of Seymour Hirsh). That stunned me. A narrative switch? Twenty years later I’d employ that same approach to the tune of eleven narrators in my first published novel, The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad.
So I’d already known, because of Michael Golden’s and Pat Broderick’s work on Micronauts, that I wanted to be a comic book artist. But as a result of Miller (and now that I think of it, also because of auteur Jim Starlin on Warlock), I was determined to write, not only draw.
By grade ten I found Frank Herbert’s Dune (hm… two Franks?). I’d known of the work for some time and had seen the David Lynch film on opening night, but what truly excited me about the work was the glossary. My friend Robert Oska had written his own story (for a class project) set in the Dune universe. I’d never seen a work so rich in imagination it demanded its own glossary. I determined one day to write my own novel with a glossary. I’ve now written two (unpublished) SF epics with glossaries. Hopefully, when I have time to put each of those megabooks on a diet (one is 300,000 words and the other is closer to 400,000), they’ll be in a bookstore near you.
I gave up on comics when, around age 20, I’d seen the demands that drawing them made on my friend Adrian Kleinbergen, a terrific cartoonist who created the R-Mer costume that ender up in Coyote Kings. A ton of work for little pay, and grueling hours to meet deadlines. And hell, a page took a day and if it had mistakes, it meant starting over. As a writer, I could create a bunch of pages in one day and fix them with a few clicks or at worst, a couple of hours of revision.
Amazon.com: Where did you grow up? How has it influenced your writing?
Minister Faust: I was born and have spent my whole life in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. My mother’s family came to Alberta in 1910 when the province was only five years old; my family first lived in Edmonton in 1940. My mother was a community builder here; as a school teacher, union leader and multiculturalist. The world’s largest multicultural celebration, the Heritage Days Festival, is right here, and my mother was one of the founders. It arose in part because of the arts and multicultural programme my mum started in E-Town’s inner city following a wave of Chilean immigrants fleeing the American-backed neofascist coup of September 11, 1973; that programme also included Italian-, Portuguese- and other Canadians.
I’ve been a part of the arts scene here, including theatre, improv and sketch comedy (onstage and on-screen), and have performed in two seasons of the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, the second-largest Fringe festival in the world. I taught in the public school system here for more than a decade, and have been involved for twenty years in community broadcasting, and more than that in community activism for peace, multiculturalism and development.
I can do all of that here because this city is such a vibrant place filled with remarkable people. And in province known for its conservatism, the progressive community has earned it the nickname of “Redmonton”—curse from some, praise from others. Being this far north and this distant from most other cities, we’ve developed a tremendous self-reliance in this town, and a no-nonsense, we-don’t-brag sensibility. That’s why of the six novel manuscripts I’ve written, four of them take place in whole or in part right here.
Amazon.com: Do you find readers making assumptions about you or your fiction if they know you're black?
Minister Faust: That’s a great question, and honestly, I’m not sure. I have been amused by a few weird descriptions: one blog review which loved Doctor Brain also warned readers that the book’s author was a “Black militant,” whatever that means. It’s possible that some people are making positive or negative assumptions about me based on their perception of race, but in general I’d say I’ve been treated with respect and kindness.
Amazon.com: How does Philip K. Dick fit into your pantheon of influences? Who else is in there?
Minister Faust: I love PKD’s work, which has had a major influence on my high-level approach to writing. Like PKD, I’m not much interested in space princes and capital-V villains; I’m definitely intrigued by psychological realism, nuanced characterisation and ordinary folks in extraordinary circumstances. I first became aware of PKD just before Blade Runner came out; I read a series of articles in a Blade Runner-themed issue of Cinefantastique that was fascinating for its wide-ranging commentary on PKD and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? PKD’s treatment in that book of the issue of psychopathy has fascinated me since I encountered it back in 1982; I spoke extensively on PKD for a television spotlight on him for the series The Word This Week and was drawn to his work for his combination of a series of elements and issues that intrigue me: spirituality, metaphysics, altered reality, altered cognition, environmental decay, paranoia, and the meaning of being human. Like most PKD fans I love The Man in the High Castle, but I consider Valis his best novel. It’s a frustrating book in its first half, but worth every moment of brow-furrowing.
The other major influences on my work are varied: Dune for the scope of its imagination; Flowers for Algernon for its structural brilliance and its psychological depth; John Gardner’s Grendel and Watchmen for their lovingly twisted revisionism; Richard Wright’s stunning, full-length autobiography Black Boy for its social commentary and priceless poetical prose, and the same goes for Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Ellison’s Invisible Man and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice; and Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye for its voice, characterisation, and emotional honesty. Poets have also had a major influence on me, especially Claude McKay, the original Last Poets, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Seamus Heaney (especially for his translation of Beowulf).
Amazon.com: As a Canadian looking in at the U.S. political system, what do you see now that the dust has settled?
Minister Faust: I’m saying this as a Kenyan-Canadian leftist: I’ve been worried about Obama since he first made a US-national splash at the DNC in 2004. I was worried then that he’d be the fake-progressive that the American Oligarchs would back because so many people would focus their dreams on him, using him as a blank slate for their (understandable) yearning for racial/multicultural/anti-corporate/anti-imperialist/pro-democratic progress.
But I knew then, and it’s been confirmed, that any candidate, now president, backed by nearly a billion dollars (most of which came from the oligarchs) could not possibly be the progressive deliverer; if he were, he’d have gotten the same treatment that the real deal, with a five-decade track record, got—that is, he’d’ve been shafted badly and hypocritically as Ralph Nader has been for the last eight years.
There’s an old saying: You dance with the one that brung ya. And here’s one from journalism: follow the money. If you know those two things and nothing else, you know more about the world than someone who doesn’t know those two things but does know everything else. So you can figure out how I feel. And for five years I’ve been warning people that [to use a Dune reference] just because the Oligarchs backed the gorgeous Feyd-Rautha, doesn’t mean they weren’t the same people who’d backed the Beast Rabban.
Amazon.com: What do you most fear?
Minister Faust: Vulnerability. It’s the only thing to fear. And giant, destructive space robots. Duh.
Amazon.com: What do you most love?
Minister Faust: My wife and daughter and sister.