So, answering your own questions.  How does it feel?

Spooky, and yet, oddly familiar.  What else, I suppose, does a novelist do all day?  Separates into characters, voices, sets them talking.

 

It reminds me of Fred’s twin George, who despite his cancer-induced coma, still haunts Fred, talks to him, at first in his imagination, and then it seems . . . in other ways.

The interesting thing about voices in one’s head—which of them is truly yours?

 

As Luminarium begins, Fred is losing his twin to illness and their company to corporate theft.  He’s lost his fiancé and his swanky apartment, and he’s living with his parents.  And then things really start to go wrong.  Do you enjoy putting your characters through hell?

Somewhat.  But I tend to go through it with them.  In an earlier draft, I gave Fred a heart condition, and within a couple months I myself was in the hospital for chest pains.  Nothing serious, thankfully, and lucky for both of us, that storyline wasn’t panning out.  In retrospect, too, I can see that my protagonist’s strange odyssey was a way for me to make sense of my own twists and turns over the last several years.  So: Fred’s author was right by his side in spirit.  (Haven’t we all hoped for as much ourselves?)

 

Where did you get the idea for Fred’s company, Urth, the virtual-utopia software firm which transmogrified into an appendage of the Military-Entertainment Complex?  (And is that a real term—“Military-Entertainment Complex?”)

It was loosely based on a friend’s company, which started up with lots of venture capital in the nineties, as a cartoonish, happy, virtual world for children, and then, after 9/11, got caught up in the military contracting gold rush and was reborn as a virtual training environment for soldiers and urban emergency responders.  The military simulation industry was booming with the war dollars, and its white-hot center was (still is) around Orlando, where military contracting conglomerates were teaming up with former Disney animators and game company programmers.  Insiders were calling it the Military-Entertainment Complex.

 

What about the experimental “god helmet” Fred signs up for, which spurs his metaphysical adventures?  Does such technology exist?  Will it?

I originally got the idea from a Canadian researcher who’d designed one which, he claimed, gave people “sensed presence” experiences.  The helmet in Luminarium does a lot more, but everything it does is theoretically possible and based on current research.  There’s all kinds of other technology around, too.  People are selling machines to help you meditate—I’ve tried out a few.  Doctors are starting to use electromagnetic “wands” to treat depression.  An alternative healing company is selling an EM wave-generator you lie down on which is gaining in popularity.  So, paradoxes be damned, what you might call transcendence technology is not only possible, it’s inevitable.

 

Fred’s experimenter Mira speaks of her ideal of a “faith without ignorance,” by which she means one which takes into account the neurology and science involved, and is perhaps therefore true for oneself only.  Do you think such a faith is viable?

The interesting thing for me was the way the meaning of that term, “faith without ignorance” evolves for Fred, as his experiences, both with the helmet and in his life, start to snowball.  Even the word “ignorance” turns out to be an unfolding mystery.

 

Is it true that a psychic helped you find the book’s title?

She wouldn’t tell me outright.  But she gave me a strong hint.

 

Drunk with his experimenter in a bar, Fred makes fun of 9/11 novels, of a lady who said her cat died before 9/11 to escape the madness, of the fact that everyone seems to feel compelled to imbue the event with some personal story or meaning.  Then, too, Fred’s got his own ghosts in that department.  Is Luminarium a 9/11 novel?  An anti-9/11 novel?  A post-9/11 novel?  A post-post 9/11 novel?

Not a 9/11 novel.  Not not a 9/11 novel.

 

Some people who’ve read Luminarium believe it’s against religion and magical thinking.  Others believe it’s against the new atheism.  Which is it?

Over the years of writing, the way I personally relate to existence has shifted considerably.  But only as the last pieces of Luminarium fell into place did I see that the novel itself could function like that crater, around which, on the attack’s fifth anniversary, the crowd and the newscasters and the world entire were spinning.  Allowing no easy views, just a plunging glimpse through a little crack one might not have previously thought to look.

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ALEX SHAKAR'S first novel, The Savage Girl, was selected as a New York Times Notable Book and Booksense 76 Pick, and has been translated into six foreign languages. His story collection, City In Love, was the winner of the FC2 National Fiction Competition. A native of Brooklyn, NY, he now teaches fiction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and lives in Chicago with his wife, the composer Olivia Block. His new novel, Luminarium, comes out August 23, 2011.

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