Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Interview with author of "Brilliant Disguises," Christian writer William Thornton

William Thornton's debut novel, "Brilliant Disguises," focuses on a man who pretends to be a Christian to get a coveted job with a famous philanthropist. A natural mimic, Cameron Leon, through his work and personal experiences, comes to see the evangelical Christian world from an outsider's perspective. I talked with Thornton, a co-worker and friend, about the book:

What inspired you to write this book?
Two things. I actually got some inspiration from a book I only saw the title to: "The Double," by Dostoyevsky. I've always been fascinated with the concept of identity -- how we assemble our own, how we change it, consciously and unconsciously. It's something that is a constant in literature. Think "The Great Gatsby." I saw the title and immediately, I had a rough concept for the main character.

And also, this novel grew out of a short story I had written about five years earlier about a man who is a mimic, and is asked by the widow of his late brother to imitate that brother's voice, just to get her through her grief. That is another part of the novel -- the idea that even when we imitate someone, a little of us shows through and seasons the mix.

Your main character, Cameron Leon, pretends to become a born-again Christian just to get a job, and fools everyone but himself -- and, of course, God. What was your thinking behind this device?
Part of the Christian experience, as Thomas à Kempis observed, is that we are supposed to be the imitation of Christ. I was interested in the idea of someone who was pretending to be a Christian. But I needed a motivation for the character, and holding down a job seemed like a good one. Occasionally, you'll read about people who are fired from jobs for failing to live by a morals clause in their contract. I thought I would take that a step further.

And, I liked the idea that Cameron is giving an insider's perspective of the evangelical world, per se, but he's doing it as an outsider. So things that churched people take for granted are new and alien to him. By seeing them through his eyes, it gives the reader a different perspective, or a new one, if they're coming from a secular background.

Which character in the book do you most identify yourself with and why?
There's no one character I identify most with, besides Cameron. I think everyone, on some level, feels they're "about to be found out." H.L. Mencken once defined self-respect as "the secure feeling that no one, as yet, is suspicious." And I took some inspiration from my life -- because like Cameron, I have an older brother who's much better at mimicry and imitations than I am. He's still alive though, thankfully. There's some minor characters I also identify with.

You sprinkle quotes from philosophers and other famous people throughout the book. Who are some of your favorite philosphers and how have they influenced you?
This was a device I chose to show that Cameron is so much of a mimic that even his ideas are somebody else's. I tinkered with this part of the manuscript for a long time because I didn't want somebody to read it and think, "Oh, this is Bill showing off his library." But I did want to give the impression that these ideas we carry around impulsively inside us actually come from somewhere and have been articulated before. Modern pop culture tends to leave us with the impression that "no one's ever gone through what I'm going through, and they've never had thoughts as profound as I have."

As for philosophers who have influenced me, in college I took several philosophy courses and studied under Dr. Richard Cohen, who was a student of Emmanuel Levinas. I managed to work Levinas into the novel, as well as Franz Rosenzweig. But strangely enough, the parts of the course that appealed to me the most were the Old Testament prophets. The book we studied, besides the original Scriptures, was "The Prophets" by Abraham Heschel. Great book.
The prophets don't dwell in concepts of time, space, the Other. They deal in the everyday, which is where philosophers and street people both live their lives. If you can't feed somebody, then it really doesn't matter whether our perception of time and reality is flawed.

Writing fiction is a bit like putting yourself in God's shoes -- creating your own world and populating it with whichever characters you choose. Did writing this book give you any insight into God's perspective on humanity?
Any writing does, just like being a parent does. I think we tend to see our lives as one narrative, with foreshadowing, key scenes, and an ending that we seem to race toward that's already foretold. Our minds help us do this. But life is much more complex and messy, and I think God sees our lives not necessarily as that one strand, but all the other possibilities that fall with each passing second.

It's like when you play chess with a computer -- the computer not only plots its moves, but plots ahead to every conceiveable move that you or it could make, based on the last move. I think that is how He sees it, and it gives us another window into just how ... the old English word would be terrible ... He is. That's a being of unimaginable, awe-inspiring power and complexity. And yet, He cares. With that kind of window, He not only observes but cares, interacts, shapes, steps aside, and blesses.

An author can see possibilities, but they're focused on that narrative, and on the demands of the story. It has to satisfy on some emotional level, which means that it can be manipulated, The key is being, like God, almost invisible. I think it was Raymond Chandler who said, "When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun." Sometimes, you have to step in.

What do you hope readers take away from "Brilliant Disguises"?
I hope they find it a satisfying read. I also hope they see it as something different. I think a lot of -- the market term is Christian fiction -- tends to try to satisfy some of the secular cravings we as readers have. The spy story. The romance. There's a lot of allegory and fantasy with some spirituality or Scripture leavened in for the market. And all that is fine. A good story is a good story.

But we run the risk sometimes, I think, of reinforcing what the secular world suspects -- that we live in a fantasy world, that we escape through our faith. And I don't see Christians as escapists at all. It takes a great deal of clarity to look at the world the way it is and look past all the grime and glitter, tune out the noise, and focus on finding the Almighty in the other person. Part of what Cameron does is make that journey, as we all must.

"Brilliant Disguises" by William Thornton is available at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, BooksAMillion and on the website www.brilliantdisguises.com. Thornton also has a blog, brilliantdisguises.blogspot.com, which deals with Christian themes in literature and contemporary culture.