Burn Down the Sky by James Jaros

by Michael F. Stewart

The world drawn by James Jaros is parched, the future bleak. Many describe his writing as dark; I prefer searing. As I finished the first chapters I had a deep unsettling sense of hopelessness. The comparison to the Mad Max series is both apt and undersells the emotional depth here. One of the great benefits of being an interviewer is that you often read works that you likely would not have otherwise discovered. I’m thirsty for more. And I’m not the only one…

“An intense, amazing, post-apocalyptic tale of unleashed terror and undying hope. This is gifted writing, and a superb, brilliant thriller.”
—Bill Evans, New York Times bestselling author of “Category 7”

“Jaros has crafted such a vividly ravaged world that I could almost feel the grit on my fingers as I turned each page. And I couldn’t stop turning them!”

— Marcus Pelegrimas, author of the Skinners series

“This gripping tale immediately ushers us into an all-too-plausible post apocalyptic world. It’s Children of Men meets The Handmaid’s Tale – with The Road Warrior to rev up the high octane plot.”

— Mark Feldstein, author of Poisoning the Press

Here’s the back cover copy:

In the latter part of this century, climate change has devastated the world. Order and reason have been replaced by violence and terror. The Wicca virus has driven billions to madness and suicide. In the parched ruins of what once was civilization, one commodity is far more valuable than all the others combined: female children. When they are abducted from a remote compound of survivors, a mother sets out on a journey across a blasted landscape — joining up with the desperate, the broken, the half-mad, to storm the fortress of a dark and twisted religion and bring the children home.

Burn Down the Sky
blends science fiction and thriller genres but I’d call it one of the more literate novels I’ve read in 2011 with lines like “the vans gunned their motors, belching black smoke, more earth to stain the sky.” To tell us about his novel, please let me introduce James Jaros!

Hello, James. I, of course, already knew that women are worth more than men, but what gave you the inspiration for Burn Down the Sky?

I’ve been writing more about the environment in recent books.  It’s always formed a strong subtext in my novels, especially in Hush and Search Angel, which were serial killer tales.  Primitive, published in ’09, was a suspense tale about environmentalists desperate enough to commit a putative act of terrorism to draw attention to climate change.  So Burn Down the Sky continues with an evolving theme that began in Primitive, but has roots in earlier books.  Because my novels have always been edgy, regardless of their subject matter, writing a post-apocalyptic thriller, where authors have a bit more license to deal with grittier subjects, was a natural confluence of my interests in climate change and my inclination to evoke the extremes of emotion and environment.  But I don’t want to leave readers thinking that this is all a conscious and well-thought out plan, because, most assuredly, it is not.  I write the stories that choose me.  Jesse came to me, and the story flourished from there.

From the outset I have the sense that this is a family drama. Tell me more about your protagonists, particularly Bliss and Jessie.

Jessie was a wildlife biologist before the planet suffered environmental collapse.  I knew this about her almost immediately.  It wasn’t until later that I recognized what a natural means that provided for having intelligent observations and insights about the destruction of the natural world.  She’s early forties, physically strong, and, as critics have noted, emotionally complex.  She endures some profound losses, but has to regroup psychically for the sake of her daughters.  We see Jessie go through a great deal, and we learn a lot about her because I use free-indirect a fair amount with her and all my major characters. That’s not new for me in this novel, it’s been a feature of my work almost from the start, but it serves Jessie – and, I think, readers – well.

Ananda is twelve and is not as sheltered, if that’s not too preposterous for any child in BDTS’s world, as her mother thinks.  She looks a  lot like her mom and sister, Bliss – lean, as most people are in this world, with dark hair and pretty features.  She doesn’t know she’s attractive until a moment in the book when she looks in her first mirror and recognizes not herself so much as her sister and mother.  We see similar emotional responses in Ananda and her mom, more so than we see in Bliss, who’s less approachable, perhaps because as the older sister she has to make harder choices almost from the get-go.

The world of Burn Down the Sky features two major catalysts for change, one environmental and the second due to the spread of the Wicca virus which confined safe sex between men and women to the twelve months after menarche. In the novel Jessie says to her daughter, “After that, sex will almost always kill you. So sex can’t happen, Ananda, Ever.” Can you tell us more about the context to the book, why you chose these two disasters to set up your post-apocalyptic setting?

The disasters are linked, which is explained in the novel.  We’re already seeing trends, from the standpoint of viruses, that are alarming.  Mosquitos, for instance, take more blood in warmer weather.  The areas these creatures can inhabit move both north and south as the warming proceeds.  They’re also moving up in elevation.  The idea is raised in the book that earth itself is responding to its greatest threat – humankind – by responding as a host organism trying to rid itself of a dangerous threat.  When I say “raised,” I’m not be elliptical.  It’s an idea, and this is a novel of ideas, despite its fierce pace. I’d say the most prominent of the ideas, certainly the one that forms the foundation of the novel, is that we are greatly underestimating the impact of the warming we’re already experiencing.  I read extensively in this area, and I find it shocking to see the disconnect between what much of mainstream media reports about climate change, and what scientists are actually finding.  Suffice it to say that the outcomes are trending toward the worst case scenarios, as climatologists envisioned them only a few years ago.  A couple of degrees of warming in this century?  Remember that one?  A joke.  So, sadly, climate change of the most grievous nature is a real possibility.

BTW, the planet’s going to be just fine.  It’ll be the humans who will suffer most.  That will be our children and grandchildren.  The reckoning is not that far off.  It is eminently forseeable.

I find it interesting how bits and pieces of an author’s life over time often inform their novels. And you’ve done some major investigative journalism into pedophilia, killers, environmental reporting, etc. it seems to me that Burn Down the Sky incorporates all these and more. Do you feel this is your breakout novel and, if so, why?

How nice to have an interviewer who’s taken the time to go back over my books and journalism career.  Yes, you’re absolutely correct that my concerns over much of the past forty years of my life come to the fore in BDTS. I’m smiling, though, over the idea that BDTS could be a breakout novel, because with each book I’ve published I’ve been hoping for that outcome.  It has not happened.  I’m much more unflappable on that point now, much less attached to it as long as I sell enough books to keep publishing.

Let’s face it, my fiction is dark.  With every book, I’ve tried to write as honestly as I can about human emotions, whether under duress or in love.  In BDTS I tried to write the same way about the planet.  I wrote it at a time when Primitive hadn’t found a publisher; my previous agent and I parted ways, and I was left to find a house on my own.  P was literally pulled off the slush pile by Debra Dixon at Bell Bridge Books (a really fine smaller house, btw).  So in an odd way, I felt extraordinarily free in writing BDTS to say exactly what I wanted to say, and to be as visceral as I felt was necessary to convey the distinct possibility that climate change will take a tragic toll.

There are clear environmental themes in the book—none of it heavy handed, I would add—what do you hope the reader to walk away with in this respect?

I didn’t write BDTS to scare people into doing something substantially helpful for the planet or our species.  I wrote it because the tale gripped me.  (When I write my novels – I’m also a ghostwriter for others, including a prominent personality – I don’t outline.  I let my characters take me with them.  I want to be as surprised as my readers.) That said, I’d be pleased if the book moves people to rethink this issue and get active.  In the next decade, I think we will embark on a particularly turbulent period in which activists, using whatever means they find necessary, will try to shock people from the lethargy and denialism so prevalent in much of the world, expecially North America.  They will not go gently into the night.  This is already flying under the radar screen of mainstream culture.

Bruce Grossman of Bookgasm.com had this to say about Burn Down the Sky:

“Takes the idea of the post-apocalyptic men’s adventure tale and turns it on its head, with the simple idea that it focuses on female leads…Jaros’s characters are not two-dimensional stereotypes or caricatures…With truly stand-out moments, BURN DOWN THE SKY never falters.”

Bone parade, Search Angel and Hush are serial killer novels penned by you under the name Mark Nykanen, all feature female leads, Burn Down the Sky included, why is that?

The protagonists in all of my fiction have been women.  Simply put, I find them more interesting than many of the men I’ve known.  I think that’s because in my lifetime women, thanks to second-wave feminism, have been wrestling with who they are and how they want to live their lives more than a lot of men, for whom complacency has been the emotional modus operandi, it seems, all-too-often.  Look, I’ve known amazing men and been privileged to have worked with a number of them.  I would include Jerry Brown, who’s as bright and complicated and deep as anyone I’ve ever met, regardless of gender. (I was Jerry’s press secretary when he ran for the Democratic nomination for President in ’92.)  But I’ve found women, in general, to be more complicated creatures than men – and from a novelist’s point of view, if he or she is serious about character, that’s pure gold.  Even with my antagonists, mostly men, I’ve worked hard to provide them with rich interior lives.

But I’ve seen that predominant emphasis on women shift a little bit with the principal male character in Burn Down the Sky. I won’t name him because it would give away too much to readers, but after I wrote the book I realized that my most complicated male character had emerged.

This is a darkly-searing book, darker than I would have expected from a mainstream publisher. What is changing in the market or readership for a publisher to be seeking this novel out?

I don’t know that anything has changed in publishing.  I do know that my agent, Howard Morhaim – who read the book virtually non-stop, and emailed me right away to say that we should talk – sent the book to seven houses on the first go-round, and that five them reported back that it was too dark for them.  So that doesn’t suggest to me that there’s a sea change taking place.  To put it simply, this book has been published because an editor, Will Hinton, championed the  novel at HarperCollins.  If he hadn’t done so, Howard would have made more submissions, but it might not have found print.  So you can probably sense that I’m grateful to both Howard and Will.

What’s next for James Jaros? Is there a planned sequel to Burn Down the Sky?

Yes, it’s called Carry the Flame. I’ve been writing away, seeing where my characters – some new, some old – take me.

Good luck with your launch, James!

Many thanks for a fine interview!

James Jaros is the pen name of four-time Emmy winning investigative reporter Mark Nykanen, the internationally best-selling author whose thrillers have been praised by critics as “irresistible,” “vivid and emotional,” “nerve-wracking,” and “furiously paced.” Nykanen’s books have been reviewed in newspapers and national magazines here and abroad. Europe’s largest newspaper called him “The new master of the psycho-sexual thriller.” His books have been translated into six languages. Follow all of Mark’s latest exploits and news on his Blog, or go to his website for updates about Burn Down the Sky, and links to the important climate change news stories.

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