The Bookshelf: Fear and Fearlessness in Jeremy Robinson's Novel, 'MirrorWorld'
The Bookshelf is NHPR's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves.
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This week, The Bookshelf features Jeremy Robinson. In many ways, our ability to fear keeps us safe. It’s our brain’s way of telling us to steer clear of danger. In the new novel by New Hampshire author Jeremy Robinson, MirrorWorld, we’re introduced to a character who feels no fear. Something has happened to him—he can’t remember what—that prevents him from feeling what we all feel from time to time. And when he wakes to a world he doesn’t seem to fully understand, he sees a world that is ruled by fear. Mobs of people in New Hampshire and around the world are protesting the things they fear, and they’re haunted by a mysterious darkness that points to an alternate and terrifying reality. Take a listen to Robinson's conversation with All Things Considered host Peter Biello, or scroll down to read the Q&A below his book picks.
Jeremy's Top 5 Book Recommendations
1. The Descent by Jeff Long. "This has been my longtime favorite novel, not because it’s profound or moving, but because it fully pulled me into its strange and twisted subterranean world. I found my imagination returning to the story for weeks after reading the book."
2. Subterranean by James Rollins. "I grew up hating novels. Sad but true. As a child, the books I was introduced to (by school) were horribly boring and not relevant to my life at all. I grew up believing that all novels were boring, and by high school, I cringed at the sight of novels. I read comic books throughout high school and college, and it wasn’t until I came across Subterranean (on a flight) that I realized people wrote fun books. So, this is the book, and the author, who got me reading novels and opened my eyes to the possibility of writing them myself (I was a screenwriter at the time)."
3. Prey by Michael Crichton. "While I have been compared to Michael Crichton in a few big reviews, he is still the master of the science-based monster story. Jurassic Park should probably also be on this list (the movie had a profound influence on me...back when I wasn’t reading novels), but for me, Prey is the most readable of his books, and the first of his I read that was in first person. That stuck with me, and over the years, I’ve shifted most of my writing from third person to first."
4. Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry. "It’s a perfect example of a YA book that can be enjoyed by adults. YA books often are allowed a bit more creativity and character depth and emotion than adult thrillers, so you really get a feel for how a horrific post-apocalypse might be with this one."
5. The Bible. "In terms of source material for my books, with its monsters, flawed heroes, and strange events, this is probably my most frequently used book, whether it be as a direct reference, for inspiration or for metaphoric use. Whether or not you’re a believer, the stories, characters, locations and events described in the Bible are compelling."
It seems like we should be having this conversation now about fear, given what’s happened in Paris and the response. Fear of terrorism. Fear of refugees. I don’t know if it’s fair to say if you’ve written some kind of parable about fear and written it disguised as a thriller.
When I first started writing this book, it was with the idea of Crazy being fearless—
Crazy being the name of the protagonist.
Crazy is the main character whose real name is Josef. He’s a fearless character. I read an article in Psychology Today who had damaged amygdala, which is the part of the brain that manages fear, and they were talking about what daily life was like for her. She would cross the street without looking both ways. She would have no fear about reaching down and picking up a rattlesnake. So I thought about what life without fear would look like, and what would be the positive ramifications of that, and what would be the dangerous ramifications of that.
So I just started thinking about fear and life and paying more attention to it, especially in regard to the news. Just noticing how much fear is almost used as a weapon now, to motivate people and to get people to do what people, other people want. It was almost accidental in the way that the story came out of Crazy, the character, rather than coming up with the plot first. This was really my first character-driven novel, where the character came first and the plot came out of him. So, yeah, it was interesting to see how the story evolved in terms of fear and the exploration of fear and what it means for our lives.
And in Crazy’s case, he tends to not fear confrontation. He’s fighting and he’s winning. He’s cleaning up. He is very good at defending himself, though he feels that need though, at times, he’s not sure why.
Part of the interesting thing about a man who fights and interacts with people but feels no fear is that he’s willing to fight dirty. He feels no social fear, so he also is willing to say what is on his mind. There’s no filter for Crazy. So he does and says things the rest of us maybe think of doing or saying, but he can just unload it all and the consequences for his action never cross his mind.
Though he can’t really remember anything that occurred a year prior to the start of the novel, so he doesn’t know why he’s this superior fighting machine.
Exactly. In addition to having no fear, he has no memory up to a year, and that’s part of what we learn throughout the novel, and what he learns as he progresses.
So do you think this is also a story about memory?
To a lesser extent, but yes, but also: what would a man with no fear make of the world if he had no previous knowledge of it. And think that’s part of what allows him to understand the fear that the world is feeling. In the real world that we all live in, we have our whole lives to look back on and news and events around the world that kind of shape our fear and tell us how to react to that fear. He doesn’t have that. He’s actually able to see the possibilities that the rest of the world is not open to because of traditional fear, I guess.
Do you think the world right now—not necessarily in your book—but the world now, as we know it, is there too much of it? Too much fear?
Absolutely. And we’re just always responding to fear with more fear. We create it and we expand upon it and we react with violence most of the time rather than stopping and considering other possibilities and maybe seeing all the sides of an issue. We just go right to reacting.
The rational part of our brain could do a lot for us if we tried to not feel fear.
So if we were fearless like Crazy—he’s definitely a violent man in the way that he reacts to some things, but he also has no fear guiding him to make quick decisions in the wrong direction that are based solely on fear.
I want to talk a little bit about the monster element in this book. I mean, that’s a fascination in some of the other books you’ve written. What draws you to the monster motif?
That’s hard to say. I grew up watching science fiction and monster movies and that was really a huge part of my childhood. As an adult, and especially with MirrorWorld, I think I’m attracted to monsters because they help us process fears. Even before MirrorWorld, that’s always been a theme.
Monsters like Godzilla. [It] was created post-World War II Japan, and it helps Japan process the horrors of the nuclear bomb. Godzilla was spawned from radioactivity, and it’s helped Japan process that, and I think that modern monsters also help us process this.
In MirrorWorld, the Dread could very easily be said is our representation of terrorism. Terror and dread, they mean the same thing. Monsters nowadays really help people process those fears of the world, whether it be terrorism or nuclear war or Donald Trump’s hair.
Is this a subject you’ll be revisiting in future works?
In the sense that all my books are meant to make people feel afraid, yes. In as depth as MirrorWorld, I’m not sure. When I wrote MirrorWorld, I hadn’t intended to explore fear quite as deeply as an analogy, as I did in MirrorWorld, so it’s almost like: we’ll see. I don’t know ahead of time when I start writing a book what exactly it will look like when I’m done.