To Hell, and Back Again: An Interview with Arik Bjorn about his Novel “The Prodigal”
My former City Paper colleague, Jaroslav Dampfstain, said he wouldn’t mind if I posted this interview on my website while he shops it about to various periodicals. Thanks, JD! My novel, THE PRODIGAL, will be published on September 1. Click this link to buy it!
Author Arik Bjorn tends to stand out in a crowd—as if he were wandering about lost in the wrong century. Or perhaps he just fell out of a fresco of a Scandinavian Old Testament prophet by Michelangelo. It’s not just the long beard and wiry locks on his slowly balding pate—or the bulging triceps and calves that seriously don’t match the stereotypical “bookish” personality. (By the way, I’ve never seen Bjorn wear anything other than cargo shorts, even in the dead of winter.)
Funny enough, Bjorn happens to describe himself in his novel, The Prodigal: a divine comedy, of sorts (Viking Word, 2020): “Though neither abnormally tall nor wide, there was something about him that suggested he should be.”
That in itself merits a question: why is the author describing himself in his novel?
Bjorn shrugs and downs a shot of bourbon, “Painters craft self-portraits all the time. Why not writers?”
I admit I’d never thought of it like that.
But I’ve done my homework. I note that in that same passage, Bjorn describes himself as “…the kind of man a woman might die for, yet would never sit beside on a bus.”
Bjorn motions to the bartender. “Don’t know, guess I give off a vibe. I once rescued a kitten in Old City Jerusalem at 2 a.m. Tucked it in my leather jacket and brought it back to the university on Suleiman’s Wall where I was staying. A nice lady adopted it the next day.” He cocks his head. “The kitten liked me.”
Okay. I clear my throat. Time for brass tacks. Bjorn calls for several shots for us both so that we can “engage in interview” uninterrupted for a time.
JD: First things first. What the hell is with that first chapter?
BJORN: Circle. No chapters. Remember, it’s a reshaping of The Divine Comedy. Bjorn cracks a knuckle. Well, and I get that. It’s a labyrinth. Totally intentional. Remember, this might be literary Hell, but it’s still Hell. Everyone—characters, author, narrator, reader, publisher, editors—everyone has to work their way through this infernal space. But there’s quite the payoff, at least in my opinion.
JD: You mean all the sex?
BJORN: Huh? No, not at all. I mean, yes—there’s a ton of sex in the book, especially at the front end. (That wasn’t a pun.) I meant more the narrative flow. I’m not trying to spoil the narrative magic, but it was my intent that the book be progressively easier to read, the closer the reader reaches the end. You know, the light of Beatrice at the end of the tunnel and all that jazz.
JD: Hmm. Interesting. Back to all the sex.
BJORN: Yes, there’s a lot of sex in the book. But, to my mind, there’s a difference between graphic and explicit. To me, explicit means we’re really going to delve deeply into a sex scene, or a scene of violence, or some other human extreme, for a directed purpose. We’re not just doing it to throw naughty parts or bloody parts at your brain–we’re doing it because I am, as the author, inviting readers to think about “things” in a fresh light. Graphic, or gratuitous, means just thrusting body parts at one another for no particular reason. To me, that’s the ultimate blech, from Sharknado to Porky’s.
There are two incredibly explicit scenes of violence toward the end of the tale. I mean, it practically ripped my heart out writing both of them. One is semi-imagined, and, sadly, one is real. The real one I experienced personally, even if by second-hand. They’re not there to disgust the reader. They’re there as evidence regarding a case I’m building about the Problem of Evil. (Some call it the Problem of Pain, or theodicy.)
Also, the bombing of Hiroshima figures prominently in the book, near the end. What I tried to do there was take an event, a phenomenon, that we’ve all compartmentalized (except those who experienced it), and transform it into the ultimate, sheer, awesome act of incomprehensible violence that it was. There, I worked hard to turn it back into something explicit—because for so many years, we’ve been detached from its awesomeness, the holocaust nature of the moment.
JD: Why Hiroshima?
BJORN: That’s my birthday. August 6. You try waking up every birthday to constant news headlines about the anniversary of the nuking of thousands of innocent civilians. I actually hate my birthday.
JD: Back to explicit. Or graphic. Didn’t you dedicate the book to a porn star?
BJORN: Dang. How easy it is to jump from mushroom clouds to porn. I have to say, you’ve done your homework. You know, The Prodigal took me over 20 years to write. People would ask me, “What’s your book about?” I’d answer, “It’s the story of a priest who becomes a porn star.”
JD: I’ve heard you say that before, but that’s not really what happens in the book.
BJORN: Well, that’s not what happens yet. My reshaping of Dante’s Purgatorio has yet to be writ! Well, I mean, it’s kind of writ. It’s not finished, but I know what’s going to happen to our well-endowed protagonist between Hell and Paradise.
JD: Okay, fair enough. We’re going to include a few questions from some of your social media followers. Seems an appropriate time to slip this one in. Noel asks: “Why did your novel take 100 years to write, how did you stick with it all this time, and why finish it now?”
BJORN: It did actually feel like a century. I started outlining some basic concepts at the end of my undergraduate studies at Wheaton College. So about 1995. I started “writing writing” in 1997/98. From that point, I wrote seven days a week, 365 days a year, no fewer than four to five hours a night, for about ten years. With no breaks. Something like 15,000 hours at the keyboard. Since 2008, every now and again, I’d put in a few months of editing and rewriting. About three months ago, I published a book about life during the COVID pandemic. After I finished that, I thought to myself, “You know what, now is the time to finish and release The Prodigal.”
I mean, just look at 2020. Has anything ever seemed more “Inferno”?
JD: Funny thing is, 2020 also just happens to be the 700-year anniversary of The Divine Comedy.
BJORN: Right. I know. That was all part of my mad plan back as a senior in college. I’ll spend 25 years reshaping Inferno and then crash Dante’s 700-year birthday party. Bjorn cackles like a mad scientist.
JD: Knowing you, I wouldn’t put it past you.
Bjorn smiles and takes a shot.
JD: Seems like a good time to ask the question posed by your Facebook friend Jonathan: “What did you use for motivation/discipline to keep at it all these years?”
BJORN: I think I already answered some of that. I really wanted to show-up Mr. Alghieri on his big anniversary. Totally kidding. I’ve said this in several other places, but I’m really not exaggerating when I say I’ve read every sentence of this novel at least 400 times.
Originally, there were over 4,000 manuscript pages. Tons of scenes never made the cut. But the ones that did, I was determined that every sentence be perfect in my mind. (Like the character in Camus’ The Plague, trying to craft the perfect first sentence.) By the way, that doesn’t mean every sentence is actually perfect. But inside my head, at this point, they are. The flow, the rhythm, the connection to other sections. It’s a “lifetime work,” as I call it. I poured my entire adulthood into this work.
How many works of art, down through history, took more than two decades to complete? Not too many. Leaves of Grass. Proust. The Taj Mahal. There really aren’t that many. I’m not saying The Prodigal is a masterpiece. But it is my lifetime work—and, so, I spent more than half my life working my ass off on it.
Actually, one of the things that has crossed my mind lately is: how am I going to handle “being finished” with the damn thing?
JD: Marketing plan?
BJORN: I would sooner die. But you’re probably right. Honestly, if the book sells 100 copies or 100 million copies, I don’t even know that I care. Did you know it was something like 150 years before Dante’s work was even printed? Moby Dick, Leaves of Grass, there are quite a few works I could rattle off that weren’t understood for quite some time. The thing is, to put it out there. All these years, my lifetime work was just sitting in a hard drive, in a desk drawer. Now it’s out there for the world. I don’t really care whether they love it or hate it. It makes me laugh; it’s the kind of book I would want to discover and read. And that’s enough for me.
JD: Do you consider The Prodigal to even be a novel?
BJORN: Interesting. I mean, The Divine Comedy certainly isn’t a novel. It’s a poem. As I’ve told the tale, Random House received and read my manuscript twice back in the late 90s—or whenever it was; long ago. It was a complete and absolute honor to be received, as an unrepresented, previously unpublished author, by one of the biggest publishers out there. As I recall it, they loved my book; they invited me to submit it twice. But, also, they were really confused by it. It was a novel—but also it wasn’t. There were so many narrative pitfalls and secret passageways. And the damn thing takes place in one day—so there’s the whole Joyce homage, on top of the bowing to Dante.
Wait, what was the question?
JD: Is The Prodigal a novel?
JD: Wow. A one word reply.
BJORN: throws back another shot You know what I’m really worried about?
JD: So you’re asking the questions now?
BJORN: Seriously, what happens when you spend 25 years working on something, then call it a day? What kind of a postpartum spell gets cast upon you?
JD: Are you worried about that?
BJORN: Hell. Yeah. I’ve published nine books in six years. But this one—look, I’m proud of those other eight books. But The Prodigal is my soul as script. I’ve laid it all out there.
Yes, I’m verbose. Yes, I like big words and complex narration. I like gimmicks. I love the vividness of language. I love a joke within a joke within a joke. I love it when history and contemporary scenes collide and blow themselves to smithereens. I wrote a book that I would love to discover in a bookstore, then take home and devour—and pout like hell when I was done, because I’d know I wouldn’t be able to find anything else like it anytime soon.
JD: Where do we go from here?
BJORN: Any other questions from my friends?
JD: Um, sure. Jonathan asks: “What did you use for motivation/discipline to keep at it all these years?”
BJORN: Let me think about that one. Eats a couple of cashews from the community bowl. Well, I know people are going to start howling if I say his name, but Harold Bloom often wrote about agons that artists have with other artists. Look, if you study the works of Kurt Vonnegut, he couldn’t stop talking about Ernest Hemingway. The two writers had very little in common, but Vonnegut couldn’t stop going on about him. I don’t think he even realized it, but [Vonnegut] constantly compared his own work and fame to Papa.
For me, there’s just something about Hell, and all the mythos of Dante built up over time, that I find compelling. I grew up in an ultraconservative home. I had the fear of Hell forced down my throat from a very early age. I once got spanked for watching Transformers. I had to hide my first album, a cassette tape of U2, under my mattress. Hell, we were taught that Wonder Bread was a diabolical plot of Satan. (Actually, now that I think about it, it probably is.)
Anyway, to me, Hell was real—as in, I was going to go there for the littlest slip-up. Later, I attended the mecca of Evangelical higher education, Wheaton College. And they continued to perpetuate that bullshit. So, in response, I’ve devoted 25 years of my life to shoving their bullshit back down their throats. You want Hell? I’ll show you Hell.
JD: Theological revenge porn?
BJORN: Wow. Let me digest that for a second. takes a moment Perhaps, in a certain light.
JD: One last question from the social media peanut gallery. Heather asks: “What are the main takeaways you want your readers to walk away with? What do you hope they gain knowledge-wise? And: what have you learned in this experience?”
BJORN: First and foremost—above all—I want people to laugh. We all have funny parts. Penises and vaginas. Earlobes. Bellies. Hairs in our nostrils. Farts. If we can’t laugh about ourselves, at ourselves, I don’t much see the point in living.
JD: What do you want readers to learn?
BJORN: That bit about prairie dogs. In the museum. I think everyone should look up YouTube videos of prairie dogs jump-yipping. Also, the difference between how Americans and the Brits spell “traveling.” Also-also: whale testicles are really big.
JD: What have you learned?
BJORN: More seriously … the second to the last paragraph of the novel. That’s not Dante’s stream of consciousness. That’s me. Literally me, Arik. Putting pen to paper and identifying what I believe is the solution to the Problem of Pain. It took 25 years to get there. And several other books, to boot. I think I’m finally on the trail of the greatest mystery in all theology. But I’m not going to just give away my discovery. If you want this particular peach of knowledge, you’ve got to wade through Hell, just like I did.
JD: All right, we’re winding down. So tell me about the hippo.
BJORN: Ah, the bronze river horse. Way back when, I was renting a room in a George Washington University frat house in DC. I was working for CNN, but I also had a part-time gig at the GWU library in the morning. For several months, every day I passed this oddly-placed hippo statue on campus. And art being what it is, it got my creative juices a’ flowin’. Before I knew it, “The Bronze River Horse” was a central figure in my reshaping of Dante’s “Inferno.” (Hippopotamus literally means “River Horse,” in Greek.)
Of course, the bronze hippo in my novel is just a wee bit more towering and insidious. And a bit more erotic—sounds weird, I know. You’ll have to read about it for yourself.
JD: Towering. Insidious. I agree. Erotic? Hmm. Maybe a guardian of perverse human sexuality?
BJORN: Yep, that’ll do.
JD: Is there anything else you want your readers to know?
BJORN: Yes, of course. Again, this is a work that took more than two decades to complete. I could keep talking until the cows come home. In my first book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good Parrots?, the title essay was about the Problem of Pain. I spent 20 years writing that too. So it seems that this theme is my life work.
Academics often call the Problem of Pain, or the Problem of Evil, “theodicy.” It means something like, “God in the dock.” Or “God on trial.” When we humans take a look at the world around us—heck, the Universe—it’s scary out there. Bodies colliding constantly. Extreme coldness and vacuum. Extreme heat and blinding light. Innocent travelers, banana slugs, geraniums, human beings, all caught up in it—getting beat up to holy hell.
And we ask ourselves—no, we demand: Why? Why does it have to be like this?
JD: And you think you know why?
BJORN: I think I have a couple of answers. They work for me. It’s a complex cosmos. There are probably as many answers as there are stars. But you only need a handful of stars to be guiding lights. Sometimes only one.
JD: What’s your most singular guiding light?
BJORN: Today? Touch. Human warmth. That’s what I hate the most about this pandemic. We need warmth in the midst of such coldness and fear.
I’ve been single for almost a decade. I’m a single parent. It’s tough. Being alone is no fun. But my daughter and I, we’re warmth. My mother and I. Me and my best friends. A cat purring in your lap. Take warmth and love wherever it presents itself.
I don’t know what the hell that has to do with my book. Although, if I think about it, so many of the characters are running around, seeking just that. They want to belong. They want contact. There are so many different ways of achieving that. But also, so many ways to fall on one’s face trying to achieve that.
Good lord, are we done here?
JD: Yep, that’s a wrap.
BJORN: lifts his final shot of bourbon Great. Cheers to Dante, the original, and mine. And so it goes.
Jaroslav Dampfstain has deep ties to the Palmetto State. He wrote for years for Columbia City Paper. Prior to that, he was the founder of the Loudoun Arts Journal in northern Virginia. He is now a travel writer/blogger living in Cappadocia, Turkey. His book, Around the World in 80 Bodegas, will be published later this year by HarperOne.
Again, click this link to purchase an ebook or hardcopy version of The Prodigal.