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By Michael F. Stewart

The end date of the Mayan Long Count Calendar fast approaches, but do we fear the wrong mythology?

With all eyes focused on the Middle East, do we ignore the danger lurking in our own back yard?

These are just two of the questions posited by author and self-described devil’s advocate, Erec Stebbins, in his debut novel THE RAGNARÖK CONSPIRACY coming October by Seventh Street Books. For more, here’s the back cover:

An American bin Laden and an FBI agent, connected by a terrible loss on 9/11, now confront each other over acts of vengeance so horrific, the world is brought to the brink of war.

As Muslims around the world are being targeted in a series of devastating attacks, Agent John Savas is drawn into a web of international intrigue.

In a thriller that spans the globe in an ever-widening arc of intrigue, violence, and personal conflict, the stability of the world hangs in the balance. Only by transcending his own devastating loss can Savas hope to prevent the ultimate calamity unleashed by the Ragnarök conspiracy.

What acts of vengeance? Who is targeting Muslims? Will Savas save the world? Of course, there is only one way to find out!

By all accounts THE RAGNARÖK CONSPIRACY is already a winner.

“Stebbins … strides into fiction by invoking an ancient Norse legend of destruction. … the novel showcases the hallmarks of the traditional thriller with high marks for the well-rounded characters and for the relentless pace and gore of the action. Fortify your shelf of Armageddon thrillers with this promising newcomer.” –LIBRARY JOURNAL.

“Outrageously entertaining: epic, explosive, subversive, engaged and compassionate, like a Michael Bay movie written by Aaron Sorkin.” –Chris Brookmyre, author of WHERE THE BODIES ARE BURIED.

“Erec Stebbins’s debut novel signals the arrival of a monster new talent in the thriller genre.” –Allan Leverone, author of THE LONELY MILE.

Please welcome, Erec Stebbins, author, scientist provocateur, flute maker, and quite likely DARPA secret agent.

Erec, I’ve read that you found your drive to write this novel when witnessing the attacks of 911, but I’m not sure I agree with you. I think you subconsciously live and breathe a strange world in your role as a scientist. Let me report on your answer to a question in a NEW YORK TIMES interview, but instead of Salmonella, I’m going to use another word – see if you can spot it.

Aliens that aren’t killed by the acid in the host’s stomach migrate to the intestines, where they attach themselves to intestinal cells. The aliens have this molecular syringe, like a hypodermic needle, to inject their own proteins into the intestinal cell. They make a hole in the cell and dock with it. The alien staples itself onto the human cell and then begins to build a kind of scaffolding that gets them inside it. To do this, they hijack our proteins to make a cell do things it would never ordinarily do.

Indeed! I’m just surprised you don’t write SciFi.

Well, I have written a SciFi novel, but it’s been classified.  Please direct all inquiries to DARPA. And I’ll just add that in the natural world, truth is often creepier than fiction.

Your back cover blurb and your trailers signal a novel of massive scope. One trailer in particular hints at World War III. Can you tell us more of the specifics? What’s the novel about?

Anger, vengeance, prejudice and pain, hard choices in a world where moral choices are hard, but the consequences of choosing tolerance over hatred might literally be played out on the scale of our fragile global civilization. More specifically, it’s about a man terribly wounded by Islamic extremists, who has dedicated his life to fighting terrorism as a result.  When he is confronted by horrific acts of terrorism against Muslims, and must work with an Islamic CIA agent to solve the mystery of these attacks, he is sorely tested.  His humanity is basically placed in an emotional crucible.  His son was murdered by Muslims. In THE RAGNARÖK CONSPIRACY, how his spirit responds to this test determines the fate of the world.

William Greenleaf, author of BLOODRIGHT and THE TARTARUS INCIDENT, called your novel a ‘timely thriller’. Why, over a decade after the events of 9/11, is this timely?

In America now, we fear the Muslim world, the Islamic faith, more than ever before.  Our fear has grown, not lessened, since 9/11. It is ironic. In a nation founded by persecuted minorities on the ideals of religious freedom, many of us are appalled and afraid of Muslims building mosques.  Home-grown terrorists have fire-bombed them, while others have lobbied and legislated against their religious freedom.  Major news organizations are openly Islamophobic.  In a world where Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, believers and non-believers of every stripe are tied together over scarce resources like food, water, and oil, linked by a global economy, how we choose to view and interact with those who are different from us is possibly a matter of the long term survival of modern civilization.  My novel directly deals with these issues.  I can’t think of anything more timely.

Some people don’t like to read stories related to 9/11, or call them exploitative.  Haven’t we read enough terrorist-related novels?

Some people didn’t like art created about Vietnam, either.  That’s fine, and I understand that.  Some types of books I don’t read.  But I won’t make any excuses for my creations.

The trauma of witnessing the attacks of 9/11 shook something loose in my mind. Over the years a solid personality took shape in my thoughts.  It was an angry voice, filled with a terrible vengeance.  As if to counter this dangerous force, another voice answered like its antiparticle.  They were related in most aspects, yet the personality in one critical parameter going the other direction: a negative to a positive.  Total energy, or morality, conserved.  These two voices are key characters in the novel.

So, I had two responses to the attack on my city, the home of my family, my place of work. At the same time, America as a whole had two responses to these attacks.  One response was dominated by anger and fear.  The other by justice, measured judgment, and tolerance.  I guess my mind in its own way was fighting the same battle about who we would choose to be and what kind of nation we would leave to our children.

After seven years of this simmering passion play in my head, I decided in 2008 to write the damn thing down. I could no longer ignore it. So, if something is being exploited, it’s me as much as anything else.

There is always one good thing when a writer gives birth to his madness: the haunting ends, and the characters fade into the mists of the printed page.  The creature no longer has the same kind of life within you. It’s a form of exorcism.

And, personally, I am glad for that.

An axe-age, shield-age, shields cloven, wind-age, wolf-age, ere the world falls. Prophecy of the seeress. It’s a quote from the Poetic Edda embedded in a trailer for the book. What role does mythology play in the novel and can you tell us more about Ragnarök ?

Ragnarök is an Old Norse conjunction, composed of two words, one meaning ‘destiny’ or ‘fate’, and the other, ‘the ruling powers’ or ‘gods.’ Ragnarök is therefore ‘the fate of the gods.’  In the Norse myths, it is an ultimate Armageddon, where the divine powers do not triumph, but are destroyed in their efforts to defeat the forces of evil.  But by their actions, a new universe is created from the chaos of destruction.  A new creation. Cosmic reboot.

Imagine now that a new terrorist organization took this idea of Ragnarök as a mission statement.  In their view, there is a battle between good and evil going on that is beyond epic, and in the end, much of what we know, perhaps all, might be destroyed.  But they believe whole-heartedly that this is the only way to give birth to a better world. Their commitment is one step even beyond the suicide bomber – there are no virgins, no pearly gates of any kind waiting for them.  Only probable annihilation.  Their commitment is devoid of recompense.  It is ultimate. Pure. Terrible.

How did your work with the Department of Homeland security defending America from biological attacks inform your books? What were you doing and do we benefit from your proximity to this group in the novel for verisimilitude?

One part of my science involved studying weaponized microorganisms.  A lot of people don’t realize that both the United States and the former Soviet Union have produced several effective biological weapons out of historically devastating human scourges, including smallpox, plague, and, the one people tend to recognize, anthrax.  In my lab, I use a biophysical technique that lets us take ‘molecular pictures’ of the toxins these bacteria produce, snapshots down to individual atoms.  I worked with several groups to visualize these toxins to find the Achilles’ heel of these proteins.  Proteins are the key players in biology: DNA is mostly static.  Proteins are essentially nanomachines that do most of the work in humans and bacteria.  Getting their ‘blueprints’ helps us design the perfect wrench to throw into the mechanism and break it.  We have several drugs in development at the university and in biotech with our collaborators.

However, my ‘science hat’ is very different than my ‘author hat.’ Science thinking and writing requires a very different sort of mindset than is required to produce engaging fiction.  My rewrites of THE RAGNARÖK CONSPIRACY were mostly about purging a more academic style from my text – an easy trap to fall into when you’ve been writing science papers and grants for twenty years!  So, there isn’t much CSI or CIA in my day job.  More NIH, less DHS.  But there are a lot of incredible journeys visualizing the ‘aliens’ that infect our bodies!

How did a biomedical scientist start spinning wild, international conspiracies?

I wasn’t born working in a lab!  Until graduate school, I used to write creatively quite a bit, but the demands of career and family put that into cryogenic freeze for a time.  As I mentioned before, the events of 9/11 pressed the ‘thaw’ button: I felt compelled to tell this story. But in what form? An abstract poem?  An experimental psychological impressionistic work? No, the story seemed to want to be something both serious and escapist, as if the dangerous reality at its core could only be let out of the cage if it were done in a slightly fantastical manner. I was always a fan of the global thriller genre. It seemed a good, and perhaps enjoyable match.  So, THE RAGNARÖK CONSPIRACY was born as an international thriller in the spirit of my boyhood favorites, Ludlum and Clancy.

Allan Leverone, author of THE LONELY MILE says that THE RAGNARÖK CONSPIRACY turns the traditional terrorist thriller on its head. What do you think Allan meant, and what do you mean?

Allan, more than anyone who has described the novel, cut to the core with an insight into what this novel was about.  And believe me, a lot of people just did not get it at first.  I had agents for three years telling me that America was tired of ‘terrorist thrillers’.  I would try patiently to explain that my story was an inversion of the clichéd narrative these agents and editors had soured on.  But they literally couldn’t see that, they were so boxed in by the standard narrative. Many never gave it a serious look.  One agent even so badly misunderstood the novel that she flamed me, called my heroes racists, and said no one would ever want to read such an offensive book!  The irony of that comment and what my story is about approached epic proportions.

So, what did Allan mean?  Major Spoiler Alert: That this story is not about Islamic terrorists, but about Western terrorists.  It is about an American bin Laden, a man with the hatred and the resources to wage a bin Laden like global war against Muslims – against the Islamic faith itself.  Instead of a cabal of evil, bearded Middle Easterners, we have a conspiracy of evil, clean shaven Nordic-Americans.  Instead of Arabic monotheism, we have Norse Armageddon.  Instead of a heroic American CIA agent, we have a heroic American Muslim CIA agent.

This would all play well in certain circles as a liberal’s wet dream, but the reality is that it was born out of very real conflicts in my own mind.  When New York was hit, part of me wanted to strike back.  Part of me was angry at George Bush for invading Iraq – which had done nothing in 9/11 – and losing sight of bin Laden.  Part of me wondered why there wasn’t a rich and crazy American to do what bin Laden did.  I was shocked by those emotions.  I knew they were destructive and wrong.  But they were real.  So, I created this character, and in fiction I gave him free reign to do things even the most die hard Islamophobe likely never had dared imagine.

And I gave him a formidable adversary, our protagonist, John Savas, who had to be the better angel of our nature.

Jack King, author of WIKIJUSTICE thinks your protagonist, John Savas, ‘is a believable character’. Can you tell us more about Savas? What goes into a believable character?

‘Believable’ is very much in the eye of the beholder, and one person’s believable character is often a forced or unrealistic cutout to another.  But this phenomenon is likely related to our common inability to understand the humanity of those different from us, something I think underlies so much conflict. So, of course, John Savas is believable to me.  He represented part of the emotional conflict within myself, so, he’s as real as I am in that sense.

For a character in a novel to be ‘believable’, I think an author has to achieve two important things.  First, the writer has to imagine a character that could very well exist, with motivations and a history that a reader, or at least some readers, can relate to from their own life experiences.  Secondly, the author has to effectively convey that character through the medium of the written word.  I’m happy many have found that to be the case with Agent Savas!

So, you’re a flute maker … *pregnant pause* … is John? Any other hobbies you want to tell us about? How does one define Erec Stebbins?

John is definitely not a flute maker, or very musical in any sense. He was a burned out NYPD detective for many years, transformed by the death of his son, given a mission at the FBI.  He’s not very artistic, he’s not generally conflicted, he’s hard-nosed.  We would disagree over a lot of things!

So, one thing I should make very clear: Erec Stebbins is definitely not John Savas, even if I was trying to bring to life an aspect of myself in the character.  Once incarnate, he took on a life of his own.

You know, something weird about story-tellers: every day is the birth and life of words and feelings of personalities that have no existence outside the writer’s head.  When experienced writers advised me to ‘let the story tell itself’, I think this is something close to what they meant.  The characters that drive stories are independent agents in our minds.  When we try to control them, it usually weakens their power, and it’s something some of us are always struggling with – the temptation to over-engineer the story.  The best writers, I think, have learned how to nurture these voices, even while trying to remain their master.  John Savas is a voice in my head that speaks of his own accord.

Psychologists and neuroscientists might explain this as part of the ‘mosaic’ nature of the human brain. We know now that the brain is not so much a single unit of consciousness and personality, but is more like a complicated interaction of multiple ‘personality units’ that integrate to form the ‘self’ that we and others perceive.  Maybe some sort of ‘rogue units’ in the minds of story-tellers take on a life of their own.  Maybe authors are divided from the insane only by their ability to manage and domesticate these personalities.  Yet the experience is often one of being haunted.  That’s how it was with THE RAGNARÖK CONSPIRACY.

And I wouldn’t want to try to define anyone, least of all myself.  Talk about a recursive, infinite loop!  The mosaic nature of the mind also makes such definitions suspect to me.  I think we are just waking up to the realization that we actually understand very little about ourselves, the nature of consciousness, and what sentience is.  This is good!  Only when we learn that we are beginners can we truly begin to be learners.

Meanwhile, I’m all for less defining, less pigeon-holing, and more being and doing!

So, after your debut book, what’s next?

Fame, fortune, and fabulousness, what else?

If that somehow doesn’t come immediately to pass, I will continue doing science, marvelling that I’m a creature younglins actually call ‘Dad’, and, of course, publish the next novels! I have a bunch of ideas. I’m very excited about the next book, another global/political thriller. The experience of writing THE RAGNARÖK CONSPIRACY, especially getting critiques and re-writing it – have put me in a stronger position as a writer.  I believe that I’ve brought this to the new book. I’m convinced it’s even more exciting, more involving, and possibly even more controversial! I like engaging on thorny topics and posing disruptive hypotheticals to get to the core of contemporary issues.  I’m enjoying the ride so far!

Any final words? Book-themed if possible!

Maybe those of the ancient war-masters: “Choose your enemy wisely, for him do you become.”

Thanks, Erec! Good talking to you and good luck with the launch of your debut novel!

Erec Stebbins (New York, NY) is associate professor and head of the Laboratory of Structural Microbiology at the Rockefeller University in New York. THE RAGNARÖK CONSPIRACY is his debut novel. For more about the book and Erec Stebbins, visit his website or follow him on Twitter @erecstebbins.

Michael F. Stewart
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