Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Wallace's reply:
Given that my new novel is set in some (indeterminate) post-apocalyptic future, it might seem strange that my recent reading choices have looked backward—specifically to historical fiction.Visit Joseph Wallace's website.
I just finished reading Gringos, a not-very-well-known 1991 novel by the American writer Charles Portis, most famous for his novel True Grit. (And that fame comes more from the two hit movie versions than from the book itself.) True Grit, bleak, violent, and told in tough vernacular prose by a teenage girl named Mattie Ross, is a strange masterpiece, but I think I might like Gringos—a kind of shaggy-dog novel—even better.
Gringos throws together a multinational bunch of colorful characters—pot hunters, archaeologists, smugglers, cult members—in the Wild West-style cities and jungles of southern Mexico. Then it sits back to see what happens next. American expat Jimmy Burns is the narrator, and his laconic voice as he observes the insanity around him makes him great company. The book is smart and funny and insightful about the way people live together…or don’t quite manage to.
I also read 1975’s The Great Train Robbery, one of Michael Crichton’s earliest novels. (This book will be a surprise to anyone expecting something highly technological and speculative, along the lines of Crichton’s Jurassic Park or The Andromeda Strain.)
The Great Train Robbery is a highly fictionalized retelling of a true-life gold robbery in 1855 England that was notorious worldwide at the time. It is witty, lively, and filled with the kind of “information bonus” that can bring historical novels to life: in this case, fascinating details about the world back in the 19th century.
What struck me the most, though, was the way that Crichton puts these details into context. For example, in describing the preparations for the robbery, he points out that the plotters were attempting to rob a vehicle that could move twice as fast as any human had ever moved before.
Think about that: When the plan involved one of the robbers walking along the top of the train, no one realized that 1) the rush of air would be so strong that it would likely blow him off and 2) that he would likely die from striking the ground at that speed. Today that seems so obvious that it’s as if we’ve always known it…but the truth is that it’s hard to imagine something before you’ve experienced it. Before you know what the rules are.
*As I wrote this post, I realized that there is a connection between my recent reading choices and Slavemakers. In my novel, I try to create a world completely unlike the one I’m living in today, which certainly defines Portis’s corner of Mexico. And I also focus on human responses to situations that are completely new to them…when survival depends on the ability to figure things out on the fly, just as the robbers in The Great Train Robbery do.
But mostly I read books like these simply just because it’s fun to be transported to different times and places. That’s works, too.
The Page 69 Test: Slavemakers.