In Brian D’Amato’s cult classic, IN THE COURTS OF THE SUN, a team of scientists sent math prodigy and Mayan descendant Jed DeLanda back in time to the year AD 664 to learn the “Sacrifice Game,” a divination ritual that the ancient Maya used to predict the apocalypse on December 21, 2012. But after arriving in the body of a willing human sacrifice instead of a Mayan king, Jed’s experiences led him to the fateful decision that rather than avert the apocalypse, he must ensure instead that the world ends.
Using his knowledge of the divination game, Jed sets in motion a series of events that will bring about the destruction of humanity, ending the world’s pain and suffering once and for all. But before the plan can be completed, the organization that sent him into the past discovers his intention and devotes every resource to stop him.
Taking readers back to the dizzying action of ancient times, THE SACRIFICE GAME is a breathtaking odyssey in which Jed must survive bloody wars, ruthless leaders, shifting alliances, and unspeakable betrayal to learn about the Game, before his time in both the ancient Mayan empire and the present day runs out.
Is it imperative that a reader know IN THE COURTS OF THE SUN before reading THE SACRIFICE GAME?
It wouldn’t hurt to read IN THE COURTS OF THE SUN before reading THE SACRIFICE GAME, but I and, almost more than I, my editors, worked pretty hard to make it clear enough for picking up the second book first to be a viable entertainment option. Personally, sometimes I like to pick up books or movies in the middle to give myself a little extra mental work. And so far almost all readers are saying the second book is better than the first one, at least in characterological and dramatic terms, so maybe some people might like to read the second one first. For that matter, some people might like to read the whole series backwards. There’s a Martin Gardiner story whose narrator is a book critic, and to make ends meet he has to review about ten novels a day. And after a couple years of this he gets so bored and worn out that he starts reading the books backwards. And, as he says, most of them are pretty predictable, but there are a few that are surprising, and one, he says, that was so tricky he didn’t have even the slightest guess of how it would start until the very beginning. There was also that movie, MEMENTO, that was done this way. And anyway I think the SACRIFICE GAME trilogy is a bit like that. If anyone tries it, please let me know.
Do you plan on doing more books with Jed DeLanda?
Jed’s going to take us at least most of the way through Book Three – which (and this recent decision is a BIG THRILL exclusive!) is tentatively titled TO THE JAGUARS OF IX – and then that’ll be it for him. But there are similarities between Jed and Jamie, from BEAUTY, and I think other first-person voices I come up with are likely to share them. Or let me put it this way: Whatever my worst characteristics are as a person, those are probably going to be primary traits of my less-than-(at least morally)-reliable narrators.
In the world of wouldn’t it be nice: Who would play the leads in the movie of THE SACRIFICE GAME and who would direct?
Hollywood always seems odd to me. Like a lot of authors, my stuff seems to keep getting optioned and written up into treatments and then not made. It’s like they’re scattering wads of money out of the windows of Century City and not getting anything for it. But my agent at ICM, Ron Bernstein, does seem happy with Book II, so we’ll see. As for directors – well, Michael Mann did a great job directing and producing THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, which is a similar project in some ways, and not just because it’s about Native Americans. I was listening to the book the other day – the Audible version is narrated by the great voice of Robertson Dean, who also did Audible’s IN THE COURTS OF THE SUN – and I was amazed again at the richness of the period detail. You want a sense that there’s a whole civilization going on around there, and not just the main characters in their foregrounded story. The music in that film was terrific too, which is rare. One thing I’ve been toying around with, even though I’m not a dab hand at music, is a theme in five-four count, which I posit as a characteristic of Ixian music. In THE COURTS, I mention how there are only two pieces of music people know that are in 5/4: The Brubeck “Take Five,” of course, by Paul Desmond, and then the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE theme by Lalo Schifrin. It would be good to come up with a third.
THE SACRIFICE GAME trilogy presents a bit of a casting problem, because the narrator speaks out of more than one body, but in a film you want to be able to follow one actor all the way through. There are films that have dealt with that in different ways – in SECONDS, for instance, they simply use a different actor first and then use Rock Hudson in most of the movie, and in DARK PASSAGE they don’t show Bogart’s face until after he’s had his cosmetic-surgery makeover. These days a good solution might be easier, though, because you can use motion capture, like in Avatar, to change one actor’s face as radically as you want. So Jed and Chacal and so on could be played by one person, and you could get just enough continuity between the different versions for audiences to care about what happens to them.
Early in IN THE COURTS OF THE SUN I mention that people say Jed looks a bit like an Indian Keanu Reeves. But in general I think a project like this could be, and maybe should be, cast mainly with unknowns.
What’s next for you?
Right now I’m working on an animated video that’s very closely related to the novel BEAUTY, which is being republished in March by Little, Brown, in their Mulholland Classics line. It’s something I’ve been thinking about since I started working on BEAUTY – that is, for more than twenty years – but it’s only lately that I’ve had the computing power available to do it the exact way I want. There’ll be at least two versions, a ten-plus-hour-long versions for putting up in a gallery on a big vertical monitor, and then a two-minute version to watch online.
Tell me a bit more about your artwork if you could, and while we’re on the subject do your writing and your artwork correlate often? Or are they two basically unrelated fields for you?
It does feel like one is two different people when one switches media. But once I get over that feeling, which is only a feeling, the visual work and the text work I do are entirely correlated. There are the illustrations in the books, for one thing – so far about eight illustrations in each Maya novel (not counting the maps and so on) and another new set for the new edition of BEAUTY– and then there are stand-alone visual pieces which still, almost always for me, have something to do with the same themes I work on in the novels. For instance in the author photos on the SACRIFICE GAME series jackets (which, like the BEAUTY portrait, were done by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who’s also a character in BEAUTY) you can see a bit of a pyramidal model of one of the versions of the sacrifice game – that is, the game itself, not the books. There are several models and paintings related to this kicking around the workshop, an sometime I’ll put at least a few of them in a gallery. But I have to clean them up so they’re presentable, and that may take some time. Watch this space.
The question every writer hates: Where do you get your ideas? I mean, let’s be fair, the premise you’re dealing with is not exactly the sort you can pull out of a hat. Did you have to do a lot of research or is this a case of your personal interests and the story ideas coinciding?
So much research went into the SACRIFICE GAME books that for the final versions it felt like I was pulling it out in clumps, by the roots. One doesn’t want the books to sound like term papers. In general I look for whatever is (a) helpful in moving the plot forward, (b) surprising, and (c) “natural feeling” – that is, the reader should be caught off-guard, and if possible astonished, by something that nevertheless seems plausible, integral, and often almost tossed-off. One model of this that I keep coming back to is a pretty old one: Flaubert’s Salammbô. And another better-known model is anything by Kafka.
Ideas come from… well, I guess I’d say that ideas come from Post-It™ Notes. That is, it’s imperative to write down, or let’s rather say jot down, whatever the Muses toss into your head, right the hell away. A lot of people get good ideas, even pretty often, but aren’t in the habit of collecting and organizing them, so they just evaporate.
Tell me a little bit about BEAUTY if you could.
BEAUTY got started almost on a dare. In 1989 I was working for Leo Castelli and Larry Gagosian in a gallery they owned together in Soho. There wasn’t much to do there and one evening I told my mom, who as you know is a mystery novelist, that I’d heard enough crazy art-world dialogue to fill a book. She asked what kind of book and said it should be about making art and should be creepy. Mom said why not do something about cosmetic surgery, and I worked out the outline of the book over the next forty or fifty seconds. Then I kept it a secret until my mom’s agent sold it.
At the time BEAUTY came out, it seemed to me that the cosmetic-surgery issue, and the fascination with supermodeldom and a lot of other themes in the book, were at least at their peak. As it turned out, interest in those things grew and grew and seems to be still growing today. Looking through the book again feels very odd. It’s like it’s happening both about a thousand years ago, say around the time of the First Crusade, and also earlier today, like this morning.
Are you planning on doing any book signings where people can meet you on the near future?
There are going to be some signings in Chicago, New York, and other places, probably around March of 2013, but they’re not scheduled yet. The instant one gets scheduled I’ll put it up on briandamato.com and also on Facebook and Twitter and whatever. Otherwise readers should write to me at email@example.com – I get very behind sometimes, but I will eventually answer everything eventually, I swear to freaking God.
Inevitably everyone gets compared to other authors. Who were your biggest influences in the field?
THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (by Michael Crichton) was one of the first novels of that genre that I read when it first came out, when I was in second grade or so. Naturally it made a huge and indelible impression on me. Today I still like the idea that “science fiction” can occur in the present day, as it does in that book, and that it can contain multitudes of symbolic valences, like the way the Wildfire installation is almost a Vedic temple of purification. Lately I read a lot less, but I like Jeffrey Deaver and Joe Finder and of course my mother, Barbara D’Amato. She’s an example of how one can write, roughly, in the mystery and police-procedural genres and still be a great stylist. Similarly, Peter Straub is an instance of a very poetic spirit working roughly within the horror genre. Science-fiction and-fantasy is the most living genre, but a lot of it is much too opportunistic to last long. Still, I keep up with William Gibson, Cory Doctorow, Neal Stephenson, and Neal Gaiman.
How do you balance your time between art, teaching art and writing? Do you use a set schedule? How do you find time for anything vaguely like a personal life?
Balancing anything is not one of my skills. I go on multi-night typing or painting jags and then sleep even longer, and then do it again. In the old days I fueled this whatever style – I wouldn’t want to call it a “life” style – with various not-very-effectively-controlled substances, but lately I’m trying to stick to the regimen laboriously perfected by my brilliant psychopharmacologist.
Having something resembling a personal life is one of my goals for this year, along with night-diving on the Great Barrier Reef and finishing Gibbon’s DECLINE AND FALL.
You seem to stay on the move a bit. Are there reasons for that?
My New York apartment was in Tribeca and got damaged on 9/11. I keep planning to get another spot in New York and not getting to it what with all the polishing I keep doing on the Maya series. So I’m taking October partly off to find one. It’s actually been good living more isolatedly in Michigan but it can’t go on. Right now I’m answering these questions in my parents’ apartment in Chicago, looking at the same lake from the other side. In 2013 I need to go to Cologne to see my German publishers – like, for some reason, a lot of books and movies about native Americans, the series has done well in Germany—and I’ll spend some time in Paris, but really I’m not much of a globetrotter. I have a friend, Andrew Solomon, who’s been truly everywhere including Pitcairn’s Island, and I always feel like a slug talking to him. On the other hand, world travel is really a nineteenth-century-style achievement, and the interesting thing about this century is all the digital stuff that’s replacing it.
Any last comments for your readers?
That’s a nice question to be asked, if one can call it a question. My ideal result would be for readers who’ve only read the Maya books or who’ve only read BEAUTY to get check out – oops, that sounds like a library – to get interested in the other books as well. Similarly, if readers come and see the BEAUTY video or other artwork I put up, or otherwise get interested in the visual and interactive work I do, that’ll help me, as we say these days, diversify.
Brian D’Amato is the author of BEAUTY and IN THE COURTS OF THE SUN. He is also an artist whose work has been shown at galleries and museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the New Museum of Contemporary Art. He can usually be found in New York City, Chicago, or Michigan.
To learn more about Brian, please visit his website.