David Holbrook exists everywhere and nowhere.
David Holbrook is a scrawny kid, the victim of bullies, and the neglected son of insane parents.
David Holbrook is the Kallis Episkipos, a vicious murderer turned imprisoned leader of a death cult dedicated to Eris, the Hellenic goddess of discord.
David Holbrook never killed anyone, and lives a lonely and luckless existence with his aging mother in a tumbledown New Jersey town.
Caught between finger and trigger, David is given three chances to decide his fate as he is compelled to live and relive all his potential existences, guided only by the dark wisdom found in a bottle of cough syrup.
Nick Mamatas was kind enough to answer a few questions about his new book, Bullettime.
Brian Lindenmuth: Were there any discussion about pushing the pub date back after the spate of recent shootings?
Nick Mamatas: Indeed, there wasn’t any. The book trade is such that copies of Bullettime were already percolating through the distribution system, so there would no efficient or effective way to recall them anyway. Perhaps a larger publisher putting out a book with a larger profile might have spent some hundreds of thousands of dollars in recalling the book…only to release it a few months later, but an independent press like ChiZine Publications couldn’t do such a thing. While the shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin were surely tragedies and outrages both, they had little in common with the school shooting in Bullettime.
Shootings were certainly a concern earlier in the book’s life. I got a quick rejection letter or two for Bullettime, after some initial interest, in the immediate wake of the Virginia Tech shootings back in 2007.
Were any of the other books about public shootings an influence on Bullettime?
I am a great fan of the book Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre, and I also liked Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, but neither were all that influential. I did read them both closely, but years went by between starting and completing Bullettime, so neither book was at the top of my mind when I produced the second half of the book.
Other books on public shootings seem to demand that the reader feel a certain amount of empathy for the shooter. That this event didn’t happen in a vacuum; that he was a good guy who was just pushed too far; that it was the bullies fault really. Bullettime doesn’t strike me as being that simplistic, does it make the same implicit demand of its readers?
Oh, I hope not! That said, Dave gets picked on a lot in school—in any other context his attackers would simply be arrested for assault and battery. The use of multiple timelines I hope suggests that shooting up a school isn’t an inevitable response to bullying and assaults, and that suffering doesn’t necessarily make someone a saint. I wanted to cut a character in thin slices and observe him from many angles, not just write a revenge tale.
Those at the bottom of a power structure, or those that have no power, may reach for the one thing that they think will give them power, a gun. Is this a peculiarly American trait?
Oh, I don’t think so. What might be peculiar to the US is the combination of guns and individualism. Certainly oppressed communities all over the world rally around the gun (and the car bomb, and the RPG-launcher, and the mass strike) when agitating to separate from the larger nation of which they find themselves a part, and almost every culture has some version of running amok, but it’s the combination of extreme individualism and relatively easy access to firearms that causes problems in the US. Instead of joining a group and engaging in politicized violence, individuals engage in seemingly arbitrary gun violence. Other countries certainly have individualized rampage stabbings, bombings, or even the use of trucks against random pedestrians, so I don’t think the gun itself is a cause. It certainly seems to help increase bodycounts.
Having said all that, it doesn’t seem like most rampage shooters really are at the bottom of the power structure—most seem to have been right in the lower-middle of the power structure. Their rage and anxiety are often born of the idea that they deserve even better. Their expectations and material conditions don’t match up.
Back in the early 1990s, some Maoist-influenced anarchists in Manhattan’s East Village floated the only semi-comical slogan “ARM THE HOMELESS” via stencil graffiti. Nothing ever came of it though, and now the place is utterly littered with fancy shoe stores and Starbucks. Had there been a real craving for power, or revenge against the world, on the part of the people at the bottom of the heap, perhaps there would still be an affordable, if bullet-marked, neighborhood in New York today.
There isn’t a single version of Dave where he has it fully together. Given the nature of how he was parented does this fracturing speak to the importance of parenting?
Parenting is incredibly important to development, of course. But so too are peer relationships. Social isolation and alienation are huge problems, and they’re not easily solved by involvement in post-adolescent social groupings, as anyone who has ever been to a science fiction convention can surely attest.
I didn’t do all that well socially as a young person, but I had good parents and a large extended family, which made all the difference.
It’s possible to read the fantastical events in Bullettime as being all in Dave’s mind. Is Dave crazy?
How funny! I keep having the same argument with Olivia, my wife. This happens a lot, really, for all sorts of stories of this type. Almost any sort of contemporary fantasy/supernatural horror story has the possibility of being conceptualized as a tale of madness.
I wrote a story years ago called “At the End of the Hall.” In it a woman who has never even made a casual wish makes one, with supernatural results. I debuted it at a fancy hipster reading series in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, opening for comic novelist and essayist Jonathan Ames. Without any of the accoutrements of fantasy attached to the reading, nearly everyone understood the story as the dying hallucination of a bitter old woman.The story was then published in the first issue of a magazine called Fantasy, which featured a fairy on the cover and all sorts of other fantastical stories inside. Dragons and shit. It was read, in that context, universally, as a non-realist story about an actual supernatural event. I also recently published a science fiction story in a literary journal, New Haven Review, and most of the editorial feedback was designed to make it clearer to readers of literary fiction that no, my story “Five Days A Week The Commute Was” was not just about some scientist going crazy.
I also teach a multi-genre “commercial fiction” class, and any time any mystery/mainstream/romance reader encounters a fantasy story in the workshop, they always ask whether the events of the story actually happened, or if it was all a dream, taking place in “heaven or hell” (somehow this is more realistic than other alternatives, etc.) or did the main character just kill himself, etc.
I suppose all of this is a variation on “The Turn of the Screw.” Would people still be reading it if Henry James came out and said, “Yeah, the governess was just nuts” or “Sure, those kids were ghosts!”? Probably not, but I would encourage readers prone to reading fantasies as realistic stories about crazy people to at least consider alternative interpretations.
There was a moment when I was right in tune with the book and was thinking about the Principia Discordia and then Dave reached for a copy of it. What, you couldn’t work in a Robert Anton Wilson reference?
Check out Chapter 23.
Is Erin a manic pixie dream girl? A inversion of that trope?
I saw a great movie the other day called Ruby Sparks, in which a manic pixie dream girl suddenly appears, and is under the complete control of her writer-creator boyfriend. The movie gets really dark, really quickly. I recommend it highly. Erin is in a way similar. Manic isn’t fun. Solipsizing another individual for one’s own needs is no way to live one’s life. And dreams…well, have you ever had any dreams? I wouldn’t want to live through most of my dreams, even the seemingly pleasant ones.
Dave’s final act is one of free will. Where he stops being buffeted around by exterior forces and takes charge. Is that one of the things that you hope readers will take away from Bullettime, that there is always a choice?
I hope that people read my work and find themselves developing a taste for greater freedom than they have now. Sometimes, I do that by portraying a setting or character with highly constrained freedoms, or by someone who achieves some greater freedom. With Bullettime I hope there’s a bit of both.
Thanks for stopping by Nick. You can get more information about Bullettime here.