Saturday, March 23, 2013

William Thornton's 'Uncanny Valley' follows up first Christian novel with themes of identity

                                                         (Photo by Greg Richter)
William Thornton's debut novel, "Brilliant Disguises," dealt with themes of identity and authentic Christianity. Thornton explores those themes again in his latest offering, "The Uncanny Valley," available in e-book only, and available at Smashwords for $5.99 (USD).

Thornton recently spoke with me about his new book:

Give us a little background on your new book, "The Uncanny Valley."

It's the story of two film actors in two different eras - the '50s and the present. The older actor, Buck Trapp, was in a famous movie in the '50s shortly before he was murdered. The present-day actor is Newman Self, and through the magic of computer animation, a studio wants to make a sequel to Buck Trapp's movie. However, they want to use animation to superimpose Buck Trapp's face over Newman's, and have Newman reprise Buck Trapp's old role. Sort of like what might happen if they tried to make a sequel to "Casablanca" today, superimposing Humphrey Bogart's face over another actor's. While Newman takes on the role, he retraces some of the steps of Buck's life and realizes his life could end up like Buck's.

Where did the title come from?

"The Uncanny Valley" is the name, in the book, of Buck Trapp's most famous movie. But it's also the real name of a psychological phenomenon that sometimes comes into play with computer animation. If a character in a movie isn't meant to be lifelike, like say, Cowboy Woody from "Toy Story," we as viewers will accept that it's not real and have no trouble enjoying the story. But if we hear Tom Hanks' voice coming out of one of the characters in "The Polar Express," our mind isn't fooled even though the faces of the characters are closer to our own. They don't feel real to us for some reason. That's the Uncanny Valley phenomenon -- the more lifelike something appears, the harder it is to fool someone into believing it is real. The phrase "uncanny valley" also reminded me of Jesus' parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man- - of a "chasm" being fixed between Heaven and Hell. It's that unmeasurable distance between real and unreal, success and failure, belief and unbelief, saved and lost. 

Your last book dealt with identity, and this one seems to, as well. Is that a big theme in your work?

I think identity is one of the great unspoken themes in the Bible, maybe the last one. When God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush, he says, "I Am that I Am." His answer is not quite solid, and yet it is. It's His way of telling Moses that you don't need His name to conjure Him, to summon Him -- He's always there, and that alone is enough to explain Him. Jesus pinned everything He said on who He was: Do this because I say it. But once you get those two questions out of the way, there is a third: If that's who He is, then who are we? We define ourselves by our relationship to the Almighty. Even if we don't believe, that's an identity apart from Him. One of the mysteries of the faith is that there is the person we think we are (which might not even be who we truly are to others), and the person God intends for us to be. Our lives are about the distance we have to travel to get to where He intends, so we are constantly defining ourselves and redefining ourselves, with or without His influence.

And there's the image of the face, too.

Yeah. The face is an obvious one, because this is a real-life scenario. In "Gladiator," for example, the actor Oliver Reed died before filming ceased. So they had to have a body double for some scenes, and they substituted Oliver Reed's face. At some point, I believe, probably in the near future, somebody's going to do this very thing in real life for a major studio motion picture. There's a moral question there, but I was just taken by the obvious image -- you have your face, and Hollywood gives you another person's to call your own. How could you not use that? And also, there's the idea of resurrection. Buck Trapp is dead, but here he is! Alive again! Just for a movie screen.  

In "The Uncanny Valley" you have two movie actors from different eras who face similar spiritual issues. In "Brilliant Disguises" you had a "nonspiritual" man putting on a face of a devout Christian. Here, your characters are church-going believers who face temptations. Are you looking at "acting" from a different angle?

One of them, the actor from the '50s, Buck Trapp, is a believer, but he strays once fame and money come his way. The other character, Newman Self, isn't a believer. To play a character played by Buck Trapp, Newman realizes he has to find out who Buck Trapp was, and that leads him to discover what Buck Trapp believed. The acting portion of it is part of the story, but what's more important is what roles we play in life. An actor is pretending to be someone, but we all more or less "pretend" certain things -- confidence, the ability to do a job, even love. But what do playing those roles do to us inside? That's part of what we're talking about here. For example, you have your friends you work around. You are a certain person at work, and they are used to seeing you be that person. But you may have friends in another setting apart from work who know you in a totally different context. They may never come in contact with your work friends, and they may see a totally different side of you. That's not hypocrisy, by the way. There are just different social rules in different settings. We sometimes "act" just to live up to the expectations of others who are used to seeing us being a certain person. But maintaining those roles can produce a certain amount of unintended tension.

Who is your primary audience, Christians or those who don't consider themselves religious?

It's Christian fiction, obviously, but this is not a typical church setting. I can remember my grandmother on my father's side telling me that they never let the kids go to the movies in her day because to do so would have meant supporting people who had sinful lifestyles. My grandmother on my mother's side, however, used to play the piano at the theater along with silent movies. So I guess my love of movies is in my blood. I think a lot of people who wouldn't necessarily want to read what they think is a "religious" book would be interested in a novel about the movies. Besides, we need to get away from the idea that a "Christian" novel is about the Christian world and would only be something that other Christians would be interested in. If we were are reading a novel set in, say, Spain, and if the story is good, we don't care if it's particularly Spanish, as long as it touches on things that are familiar to all of us. That goes for anyone who's never been to Spain and ever even wanted to go. Christians don't need to think that way, about anything. We have a story to tell in any language, in any place, and in any medium.

Were there any real movies you drew on as inspiration?

Oh, yes. I used it as an example earlier in this interview, but "Casablanca" has always been a favorite. "The Uncanny Valley," as it's described in the book, would be a movie more like "The Maltese Falcon," sort of a black-and-white detective story. I modeled Buck Trapp partially on Bogart, but mostly on James Dean. It's hard to remember, but Dean used to be this tragic hero to teenagers because he died young, almost before he had a chance to be famous. I modeled Buck's wife Olivia on Lauren Bacall, because Bacall is still alive, and Olivia acts as a bridge between the two characters and eras. I also manage to mention the great biblical historical epics of the '50s, and the rise of foreign films. There's a Scandinavian character who vaguely resembles Max Von Sydow, because I love Bergman films. And I think there's a few little moments that anyone who loves the movies will recognize.

Read an excerpt of "The Uncanny Valley."

An interview from the web series "Creating," where Thornton talks about his Twitter page @Christendom144, his novel "Brilliant Disguises," and his background.