For readers who enjoy strong female characters, supernatural elements, magical realism and the occult, there’s a delicious new Gothic mystery on the market that will satisfy all of these. Author Ivan Obolensky takes time from his busy schedule to talk to us about Eye of the Moon, demons, and who to invite to a literary dinner party.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: Tell us a little about the premise of your new book and what inspired you to write it.
A: Eye of the Moon was inspired by a large house my father owned when I was growing up. I always thought it was a perfect setting for a novel. Strange things happened there. I wanted to write an American story but differentiate it from the typical English gothic novel. Business is a unique facet of American life and sets American culture apart from those of other countries. Such relationships often involve promises of performance. I wanted to explore the consequences for having broken an oath, or a contract, not only in everyday life, but what happens when a promise is broken to an entity such as a demon. What are the consequences? What is trust, and how is it formed? What happens when we discover that we have been lied to? How do we set aside our prejudices and assumptions? These are a few of the questions I wanted to answer in the story.
Q: Literal and metaphorical demons abound as the story unfolds. How do you believe they relate to each other?
A: I think we all face demons. Some are metaphorical. Some are real. We no longer call them demons. Science has moved on and wants no part. We call them narcissistic tendencies, or perhaps we say we create images of ourselves that are unsustainable instead. Not all demons are imaginary. We each face issues of economic survival and threats to our existence. We solve them, or we don’t. In this, we are not alone. Others around us also face their own unique difficulties, but never ours exactly. Achieving wisdom is about the struggle to gain that extraordinary perspective that life was never about us to begin with. Our internal demons on the other hand, argue the opposite, that life is really about us. We are what is important, and we can demonstrate that through either outstanding success or extraordinary personal failure. I wonder which is more destructive? In the past, success was defined by achievement. Today, it is about fame. Through notoriety, we can achieve a similar measure of immortality and in the case of a person who ruins all that they touch, the demon in them is as real as any that we can imagine. The metaphorical demon then becomes the literal, and a reality we must face. Demons are still around because they never left. How we deal with them defines in no small measure who we are as individuals. Do we surrender, or not? Our faith in our goodness, our cleverness, and our humanity are our only defenses against such monsters, whether real or imaginary.
Q: Did you work from a structured outline or allow your characters to “speak” to you as you began writing?
A: I set only two constraints for Eye of the Moon. One was the location. The second was that the action takes place over a long five-day weekend. The plot was never worked out. That the story turned out as well as it did was a surprise. I would not recommend such a loose approach as a usual way of writing because it tends to be more stressful than working with an outline. The writer is constantly trying to understand where the story is going and that creates a great deal of angst. It worked out for me, but it was not easy. I think really great stories require the writer to experience a unique pressure from not knowing and having to figure out an outstanding ending. It is a form of mental torture that requires a special courage. Lucky for me, the characters and my muse helped. I followed their leads and suggestions. It is truly distressing to realize one has spent three years painting oneself into a corner with no conceivable way out. Now that is scary.
Q: Did your characters do/say anything that surprised you?
A: That was almost a constant. None of the characters behaved. They tended to do their own thing and say what they wanted. What surprised me the most was the profoundness of their thoughts.
Q: How much research was involved insofar as incorporating authenticity into the events and character interactions/motivations?
A: It is usually what the character says (the drama) that is important rather than whether a character wore a specific brand of jewelry that was available at the time. A writer can often duck the hard conflicts in favor of doing research. I did my share of it. Ancient Egypt required a fair amount, but when the research became overly involved, I scrapped it. I grew up in the environment that I wrote about so there is a sense of authenticity. The characters had strong personalities and certain inclinations. I had met many of them in real life and then added my own touches. The characters were as real as I could make them, and that kept the story authentic and strong.
Q: Who or what has had the deepest influence on your storytelling style?
A: I grew up listening to legends, myths, and magical stories. That many of them involved the mysterious and strange occurrences should come as no surprise or that the stories I like contain such elements. I also loved the idea of a plot twist. O’Henry was a master at this in his short fiction. So was Edith Wharton in Ethan Frome. I think it is a given that most of the stories that I write contain mysterious elements with a twist.
Q: The storyline is replete with strong, independent women. Were any of these females patterned after women in your own life?
A: Absolutely. I think there was a strong matriarchal streak that ran through all sides of the several families I grew up with. The women tended to be strong, wealthy, self-reliant, and didn’t stand for a lot of nonsense. I, on the other hand, liked a great deal of nonsense, the more the better, which tended to put me on the other side of the fence. I had my charm which tended to ease the struggle of wills that ensued. I won sometimes and lost at others, but it was a struggle I enjoyed. I learned a great deal because those women were often much smarter than I was.
Q: Fictional characters are frequently confronted with forks in the road that force them to either take a leap of faith or play it safe. Was there ever a time in your own career that later caused you to revisit decisions you made or didn’t make?
A: I used to constantly second-guess myself. I did so for most of my life. What changed that tendency was having nearly died. After several near-death experiences, the second-guessing fell away. I realized I could have chosen one way or the other and still ended up dead, or made a decision that was obviously flawed in hindsight, but the result was I lived. The logic of my choices did not have a high correlation with the happiness or success of the outcomes. At some point, I understood the futility of revisiting and second-guessing a decision. I look at it this way: if the decision was bad or good is irrelevant when one is standing in a happy place. Had the choices been made differently, that happy outcome may never have occurred. I am happy with everything that has happened. I wouldn’t change a thing, and that is a good place to be. I have no doubts about it.
Q: Physical settings—such as the house and grounds of Rhinebeck—often assume personalities of their own. What inspired your development of this particular backdrop?
A: I visited when I was small. Rooms were gigantic, shadows crept out of their hiding places and lengthened during the late afternoons. Thunder would rumble at the edge of hearing when there were storms, and tense silences would descend. The governesses would get nervous. We were after all cut off from the outside world. The grounds and the house I found thrilling, but adults often felt differently. They were either hypersensitive, or I was much less so. Adults would get jumpy as night fell. They drank more. I wanted to see a ghost, but then I didn’t. I did try, but with no success. I think the adults felt similarly. Many wished they hadn’t after they did. I think the possibility of seeing a ghost and the sporadic rumors that guests had occasionally seen one made invited guests uneasy. It was this tension that was a defining characteristic of the house and growing up in it. It gave the place a creep factor that was delicious.
Q: How much of your personality and personal experience is embroidered into the plot?
A: I think a great deal of me is in each of the characters. Percy and Johnny are two sides of my normal self, the optimist and the pessimist, but that may be overly simplistic. I always wanted a good friend. Johnny came from that idea. The wonderful thing about writing a novel is you can put yourself in the middle of your own play. Whatever you can dream can happen, and there are so many wonderful things to dream about. There can be characters that are realer than life and impossibly wise. There can be people more beautiful and more alive than any reality. The characters of the novel are people that visited me many times in my dreams and in my thoughts. They’re old friends and very dear. I’m happy that others can meet them.
Q: By the time you typed The End, what had you learned about yourself that you didn’t know when you started?
A: Writing is a scary business. The result may be enjoyable, fulfilling, worthwhile, and all that, but there is more to it than simply writing a story and then typing The End on the last page. It’s a whole other world that you have created. What other people think about that world becomes something out of your control, and one’s vulnerability as a result can be unsettling and disturbing. The reader may not like what has been written. The story may not communicate in the way the writer, me, thought it would. The characters were too shallow, or too loud; the dialogues, too unreal. It is hard to relinquish that control to the reader and let them decide and stand in judgement. Placing this power in the hands of another is much harder than I would have thought. Every writer knows that the work has to stand on its own, and either it does or it doesn’t. Reader acceptance is the ultimate test, and there is no avoiding it. I love it when it passes, and dislike it when it doesn’t. In the end, one realizes that one cares about what others think. That’s why it’s scary.
Q: What’s the best book you’ve read this past year?
A: Travels by Michael Crichton
Q: Do you listen to music while you write? If so, what’s on your playlist?
A: I rarely listen to music when I write. I work in an office where there are many different conversations and other activities. I have to focus so everything gets drowned out including any music.
Q: If you could relive a certain age in your life, what would it be and why?
A: I suppose we would all like to be shockingly good looking. I think we all have achieved that at one time or another as well. I really do. It is amazing to look at pictures of what older people looked like in their prime. I would certainly like to revisit that time of my life when life was forever grand, only this time with the wisdom that was singularly absent during that period. One may look great but have the mind of an idiot. That was me. It is rare when both are present in a human being.
Q: If you threw a dinner party and could invite any five people (living or not), who would they be and what question would you most like to ask each one?
A: I would probably throw Oscar Wilde, Richard Feynman, Raymond Chandler, Nancy Mitford, Stephen King, and Jane Austen in the same room just to see what would happen. There would be no particular questions that I would ask, but I would seriously listen to what was said. I would be enchanted. I would also make sure that Stanley had plenty of spirits on hand and that Dagmar had a free rein with the menu.
Q: What’s next on your list of projects?
A: I’m writing another novel. This one is about what happens if you manage to meet a god.
Q: Where can readers learn more about you?
A: My website: Ivanobolensky.com
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Keep reading. Keep thinking. Keep wondering. Be curious forever.