School of the Ages



Posted by Matt Posner on July 21, 2013 at 3:55 PM

Q. Why is this book called Simon Myth? Why did you change from the previous title?


A. The title has two meanings. One is that Simon interacts with characters from mythology. The other is that he becomes lost in time and untraceable -- as if he no longer exists.


My working title for this book was Simon Geeta, intended to reflect the title Bhagavad Geeta (The song, Geeta, of Bhagavan, God) since that Geeta is the philosophical and spiritual heart of the message of this book.  It would then be the Song of Simon, a poetic way to mean that it was an intimate story about him, about his spiritual journey in particular. Two issues interfered, however. First of all, my wife Julie pointed out that Geeta or Gita is a common girl's name and so it sounded odd. Also, I became more concerned that some readers might feel I was equating Simon with Krishna, who is the central figure in the Bhagavad Geeta, when actually my intent in the book is to have Simon, being lost, be helped and guided by Krishna, as well as Arjuna, the other important figure in the great text that inspired me.


Q. Why did you choose to use Indian mythology for this story?

A. My plan to do so was already in place when I was writing The Ghost in the Crystal, when I established that Simon's uncle Rajiv had been a changeling in the crib. I didn't know then what I was going to use, other than that he would come back in a later book as a rakshasa, which occurs in this book.


One I had established that Rajiv is actually Viratasur -- a term that means, roughly "big strong demon" -- I had to establish that Simon is not a match for him. Essentially, it’s the plot point of the hero being broken down so that he can rebuild himself from the low point to stronger than he was before.

The rebuilding takes place by removing Simon from his usual environment and finding a new set of mentors for him. A few years ago, I fell in love with Mahabharata, and so when I was thinking about how to use Indian mythology for my hero, using the Pandava brothers, Kunti, and Krishna, who are wonderful characters independent of their strong religious meaning – was an obvious choice.

I have been growing my understanding of Indian mythology over the last few years -- both the characters and stories, and also the deeper meaning, as best I can do from my Western posture. I watched the entire TV serial dramatization of Mahabharata from the 1980s and read an English translation of selected portions to get a feel for how the characters might be represented, and what you have is the result.


I went through many other options for further adventures using other mythological and historical figures. You can read yourself and see what is included.

Q. Isn’t it disrespectful to treat religious figures as characters?

A. In my heart I feel respect. It’s not as if I show these characters getting schooled by or losing fights to my own characters. They are all clearly identified as great and wise, and have personality traits inspired by how they have been depicted elsewhere. It is always risky to assign modern-day feelings and emotional makeup to mythological characters, and while I have done so, I have done it in a very limited way. The goal is to infuse into my hero some of the strength and heroism they represent.


Q. Why is Ana Vorkina not in this book till the end when she was so cool in Book III?


A. Ana is one end of a traditional conflict in Western civilization between the Apollonian (intelligent, wise) and the Dionysian (wildly passionate). Book 3 was about the Dionysian, so it featured Ana. This book goes to the Apollonian end, so its female lead is Goldberry, who gets her own lengthy sequence. To tell the truth, if I could write the series again, I might use Goldberry's point of view instead of Simon's. Loving her that much. Yep.


Q. Why are Robbie and Avery cut out of the climax?


A. I'm rotating the supporting cast members to make sure everyone gets a turn. Mermelstein is in this climax; he was left out of book 3's action. Robbie and Avery are far too strong as characters and as magicians to be part of the sequence I intended.


Q. Why did you choose the term Mumbai as opposed to Bombay?


A. The name Bombay is still used by people who remember that name from before it was changed, but Simon is younger and would find Mumbai the more common term. I also prefer the name Mumbai myself because I like the sound.


Q. What is the point of that stuff in San Francisco if those characters don't come back at the end of the book?


A. Vulnavia and her crew are the antagonists of book V. Simon and his friends have yet to face off against another batch of magic students just as good as they are – so this is what they will do in the final volume of this series.


Q. Why do you have gay characters in this book (Nestor Nudelman, Simon's second cousin Dylan and his boyfriend Michael)? What kind of message are you sending?


A. I'm sending the message that being gay is just one of many attributes of a person and that being gay should have nothing to do with how many friends you have or how much your family accepts you.


Q. If the characters in the time-travel sequence are mythological, how could Simon meet them during time travel?


A. Many Hindus believe that the Mahabharata is historical. Regardless of whether one believes this, there is an alternate explanation. The clue to explain this is something that happens when Simon is in the time-stream. Something unusual happens there. Read more closely.


Q. Why are you not publishing a School of the Ages novel in 2014?


A. It's NOT creative burnout. I could start STA V tomorrow because I have plenty of ideas and have written some sequences. My issue rather is a desire to diversify my output. School of the Ages books sell every month, but the series is not reaching as large an audience as I want. If I want to accomplish my goal of reaching many readers, I have to write something else. As they say, you can't keep doing the same thing and expect the result to change. I will write some books for adults; young adults aren't finding my books, and I love adult drama anyway.


Q. Why isn't this book being published in India?


A. My publisher Vitasta originally committed to the entire series including unwritten books, but as book 3 was being prepared, they said they couldn't commit to any further because the sales aren't good enough for them. When they are happy with sales and I am happy with royalties, anything can happen. But I suspect that the Indian mythology components will be a strong negative in India, where, so they tell me, kids are tired of that material. When I prepare a paperback of my own, it will be available in India under my own imprint.


Q. Are there really double-nosed dogs?


A. Yes, but probably not as many as the Ravitzes are importing. There are rumors that it is a rare ancient breed, like an Inca kind of thing, but this has not been confirmed. You can find photographs, though.



 Q. Why is the Rambal such a small presence in this book? He barely appears.


A. Any of these books needs wise characters to serve as mentors. The Rambal did this job in book 2 and at the end of book 3. In Simon Myth, the role is performed by Simon's grandmother and especially by figures from mythology.


Q. Why did you give a minor character like Corby Crow such a prominent role in the story?


A. School of the Ages is an enclave of mostly regimented and obedient people. A rebel/outsider character provides a necessary contrast. Also, Corby has some fans among my readers/reviewers, and now that I've written this bit with him, I've become one also.


 Q. Did you accurately depict the behavior of Russian witches, or did you make it up?


A. Surprisingly, there is no culture of witchcraft in Russia for me to research, so I made up everything.

Q. Why did you focus on the Sikh soldiers?

A. I became aware of a stereotype in India treating Punjabis as bumpkins or fools (Santa and Banta) and wanted to show something different. Sikhs are peaceful in their daily lives – and I have known and been around many of them in New York City, including numerous students and also my own doctor, and can vouch for their gentleness and good nature – but men named Singh also have a proud record of military service, and when they serve, they are both tough and dedicated.  This knowledge is what inspired me.


Q. What are some surprising things you left out of this book?

A. There are several things.

In early stages of planning, Balaram was going to be with Simon in ancient India. That didn't fit thematically, so I gave Balaram a different subplot to showcase him.

Also, I originally introduced a character named Bushrod who was a Wiccan with Amish parents. He had a nice sequence summoning a hawk spirit to attack Aaron of the Four, but the old problem "character creep" (i.e. more and more supporting characters creeping into the story demanding space) was affecting me, so with all the new characters in this book, I had to cut some of them, and Bushrod got the axe.

In the Mahabharata, the Pandava brothers meet some rakshasas in the forest. Bhima fights a big demon called Hidimba, kills him, and marries his sister Hidimbi, having a child named Ghatotkacha. I originally wrote a portion of this as observed by Simon, but I took it out unfinished because there are already many other rakshasas in the book. Bhima is not around for a chapter or two, so if you like, you can assume he is with Hidimbi then.

There was intended to be another mythological sequence, in which Simon met other characters from folklore. I drafted a little of it, but because of my impatience to finish the book, I cut it out to write some other time.

If you see some of my older notebooks, you will find Simon winding up with a different romantic relationship than the one which ends the last chapter. While drafting the earlier chapters (the ones named tremors, shocks, aftershocks) I found the drama so intense that I changed course.


Q. Is Simon going to stay with the girl he is with at the end of the book?

A. Yes. Book V will explore that relationship rather than challenging it.


Q. What is that weird thing at the end about Roger Spencer and Yentl Yeti? Who is Shaira al-Ahmad? Is that really a sample from book V?

A. Yes, it is from Book V. I think you will like Professor Shaira, and that's all I'm saying about it.


Q. What should we expect from School of the Ages V?


The book will be called The Wonderful Carol and is about a quest for a magic song that can give peace to disturbed ghosts. It will feature more world travel, lots of adventure and monsters, and generous helpings of Persian and Arabic mythology. I promise you that Vulnavia will prove to be Simon's most memorable enemy, and that you will see the returns of characters you will not be expecting.

Q. What are you writing now?

I hope to produce three books by the end of Summer 2014. First, How to Write Dialogue, a technical manual for other writers. Then another Teen Guide book along with Jess C. Scott. Then, a novel for adults which I am already working on. I'm not ready to start talking about it yet, because it's best to keep WIPs a little bit private till they have neared completion, but I have begun writing and I am happy so far.

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