Angelology, immediately rocketed into the upper echelons of the New York Times bestseller list. The author, who had already published the highly praised memoir Falling Through the Earth, sat down with us to chat about her remarkable book, a layered, carefully plotted story of a young nun, a group of angel hunters, and the winged ones themselves.
Have you always been fascinated by angels? I never thought a lot about them, but once you start noticing them, they're everywhere. It's like they've been hiding in plain sight for, like, forever.
Actually, I wasn’t at all interested in angels per se. In fact, I had no intention of writing a novel that centered around angels, or a group of angels at all. I knew that I wanted the book to be set in a convent, and so I went to stay at one to do some research. While there, I happened upon a trove of books about angels. Once I started reading about them, I had the same realization that you did: They are everywhere in our culture and have been for a very long time.
What made you decide to create the Nephilim to be as terrifying as they are? These aren't exactly harp-playing cherubs. Something about how their wings can fold back -- through clothes -- thus making them undetectable ... I find unnerving.
The Nephilim in my book are sinister in a distinctly modern fashion. The original Nephilim—a group of half human half angel hybrids that are first mentioned as ‘Giants’ in Genesis 6—were the inspiration for the creatures I imagined. I wanted to invert the typical idea we have of angels as being beneficent guardians. I wanted to create a group of angels that were seductive, alluring, dark, and terrifying.
You're being compared to Dan Brown (most favorably, of course) and even to Umberto Eco. Do you feel like you've written a genre piece, and if so, did you study the "history/archeology thriller" world much before or during the writing of your book? There is something undeniably attractive these days about the idea of, okay, yes, so that's why history has unfolded this way. People want clean answers that reverberate a long way, and they sense they haven't been told the truth.
The comparisons to Dan Brown are coming in because of the treasure-hunt that occurs in Angelology, which is a modern version of the quest narrative, a very old and noble story that has been around for a very long time. I prefer the comparisons to Eco, but the truth of the matter is that marketing departments and book reviewers need to compare books to one another and need to create categories. I didn’t have a program or marketing plan or a genre in mind when I began to write this novel. There are obviously some genre conventions, but there are conventions in almost every variety of novel, or there would not be plot. For me, Angelology is a literary historical narrative that re-imagines an obscure passage in the Bible and posits that there is an alternative reality existing alongside our reality. It is also something of a bildungsroman—the heroine Evangeline develops and grows in a surprising fashion.
Angelology was a real discipline, it turns out. What were its practitioners like in the real world?
Angelology was a branch of theology that was practiced primarily in the medieval era. The purpose of Angelology was to discuss and debate the properties of angels, which could be anything from whether they are material or ethereal beings to which category or sphere an angel belonged to. It’s hard to imagine, but the study of angels was taken very seriously.
How was the book sold and what did you learn from that experience? You ended up with a movie deal to boot.
The book went out to publishers in late January of 2009. Within a few days, my agent (Eric Simonoff) had offers for Canadian rights and German rights. It was unusual to sell foreign rights first, but apparently this prompted New York houses to hurry and soon we had offers from seven houses. I was able to speak with editors on the phone about different approaches to editing the book. I am an intensive rewriter, and so I knew even then that I would want to work with a dedicated editor. After I settled upon an editor (Molly Stern at Viking), my agent called and said that we had offers for film rights from three production companies. Needless to say, it was overwhelming. That the book then went on to sell in 32 countries is still astonishing to me. I love that I will be able to reach readers from all over the world.
Your first book, Falling Through the Earth, was a rabidly praised memoir. Beyond the obvious "true vs. not true," how was writing a novel different from writing your memoir? Did the memoir help you find your voice?
I love that you say “rabidly praised’ because it was just that: it was either loved to distraction or met with venom. There was a lot of praise and a lot of critical attention, but there were also negative reactions. I was working on what would eventually become Falling Through the Earth when I was at Iowa, although it was in lots of different pieces at that time, and the version I wrote while at Iowa was never published. Falling was so emotionally draining for me to write that I knew I wanted to move as far as possible away from it. I wanted to let my imagination take over and see what I could come up with. The voice I found for Angelology is absolutely different than the one I found for Falling, but in the end, I think every new book requires a new voice, a new form, a new way of viewing the universe the characters inhabit. If one doesn’t push oneself into new territory it all becomes rather boring and repetitive.
You're already at work on a sequel: Angelopolis. What can you tell us about that, if anything? I don't think it's giving away too much to note that at the end of Angelology, there is a sense that from a broader perspective, things have barely begun. And one word crept into my mind as I closed the book: Superhero. Have you in fact created a franchise a la Da Vinci Code or Twilight?
Angelopolis is a follow up to Angelology, and will follow Verlaine (the hero of Angelology) and Evangeline (the heroine of Angelology) into the next stage of things. I hope that there is room for expansion, and that I’m still interested in these characters, but I won’t write another book about them if there isn’t. I have to be invested in the character and in the adventures they are having or I wouldn’t be able to write a word.
You split your time between France and the U.S. How do you work that, and how would you compare the two countries nowadays? Where do you live, and what's that like?
I live in the south of France, near Montpellier. I’m able to do this because I have Italian citizenship and am a citizen of the EU, so I can live and work here. I’ve always been something of a nomad. I’ve lived in Japan, Bulgaria, England and now France, but I am particularly in love with France, especially the region I live in, which is kind of like Texas—very wild and down to earth and unpretentious.
What was your experience at the Writers' Workshop like, and how did it shape you as a writer?
My time at Iowa absolutely shaped my career. It taught me the discipline I needed, it taught me how to take criticism graciously (which, believe me, was a hard lesson to learn), and it taught me that other people care about books as much as I do. There was also the luxury of having time to write. I came to the workshop with a newborn baby, and would never have been able to write without the fellowship I was awarded. I loved Jim McPherson and had good experiences with other teachers, but the real value of Iowa for me was the abundance of time I had to work.
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