Talking Sex & Mythology with Zachary Jernigan (author of Shower of Stones)

After I posted my review of No Return last month, Zachary Jernigan and I got to chatting a bit about my review, other comments, and where his story fits into the fantasy genre. It all began with a legitimate question from him regarding my review, and we bonded from there.

With Shower of Stones hitting shelves early next month, he agreed to stop by the ruins and share some of our conversation.

Q: Thanks for taking the time to stop by today, Zachary. For those who haven't yet had a chance to give No Return (or any of your short fiction) a read, please tell us a little about yourself and what we can expect.

Hey! It's my pleasure to be here. Not to seem like a kiss-ass, but these are awesome questions. As an aspiring writer way back when, I always dreamed of someone paying close enough attention to what I wrote to come up with some real probing insights, which is what you've done.

To answer your question, I'm a 35-year-old writer who lives in beautiful Northern Arizona. I was Mormon growing up (family converted when I was a very little kid), but I haven't been a member of the church since the age of 19. This informs a lot of what I write about. I used to say that I read science fiction because I lost religion, and I still think that's kind of true given the influence of Mormonism's weird, sci-fi theology.

As to what I write? Oy. That's a hard question to answer. I tend to be obsessed with a number of ideas. Immortality, certainly. The responsibilities of having power. Impairment is another one -- often as a wage of making bad decisions (a result, probably, of Mormon Guilt, which is very similar to Catholic Guilt).

But mostly, and not to sound too superficial, my main preoccupation is cool people doing cool stuff in cool places. I love science fiction and fantasy that deals in larger-than-life characters kicking butt on massively speculative frontiers. Of course, I want my work to be written well, too. Whether or not I am writing well -- that's up to the reader, obviously.

Q: It's interesting that you mention your Mormon upbringing, because one of the first things that struck me about No Return was the mythology behind it, with Adrash - the last god standing – floating among the stars, idly contemplating the destruction of the world below. How much did your own history, esepcialy as a man with a BA in religious studies, influence that angle?

Oh, a lot. My history with religion -- from growing up Mormon, to leaving Mormonism, to studying religion, to my ongoing development as a humanist -- informs everything I do. Having studied religion formally and informally, I have a pretty big storehouse of material to draw upon -- and draw upon it I do. Religion is the most fascinating (often frustratingly so) facets of human existence.

Of course, this is not to say I'm an expert or that my fiction is even internally consistent. I think it's very tough to map how human beings react to spiritual urges, and all fiction does is reflect the author's biases toward certain interpretations. I'm fairly antireligious (but not angry about it any longer; how could I be, when many of the people I admire most are religious?), and so a lot of what I'm doing in my fiction is offering critiques of religion -- hopefully in a subtle enough way that it doesn't seem like I'm trying to proselytize.

Q: Rather than being a traditional epic or heroic fantasy, you’ve incorporated a lot of science fiction elements into the story, including magical variations on astronauts and superheroes. Did you deliberately set out to bleed across genres, or was it merely how the story developed?

It was definitely deliberate, from day one. My initial idea for No Return was, "space opera without the technology," and though that changed a bit over time and became more planet-bound, the seed of the idea still holds true. I love work that isn't science fiction or fantasy, but both.

Since the turn of the millennium, the term New Weird has been more or less in vogue, but along with that we've also begun resurrecting an older term that I far prefer: science-fantasy. While I like New Weird's emphasis on literary craft, those contemporary authors were never a huge influence. Most of them I'd never read until after I'd finished No Return.

My most direct inspirations are the authors Samuel Delany and Roger Zelazny -- just as I'd bet folks like M. John Harrison or Gene Wolfe or Michael Moorcock are huge influences for someone like China Mieville. (Not that I'm comparing myself to Mieville; it's just that we have some similar preoccupations.)

When you've fallen in love with fiction that daringly refuses to be confined, taking themes and imagery from two wildly speculative genres... it's tough not to try and copy that effect.

Q: There’s also a bit of a steampunk/Frankenstein influence with Berun, the mechanical man of spheres. Where did his inspiration come from, and how do you see him fitting into the larger world?

Well called. I hadn't thought too much about the Frankenstein angle, but of course that's true -- along with a bunch of other, slightly more contemporary comparisons, from Asimov to Star Trek: TNG's Data.

It's a good question you ask. I haven't really consider how he fits into the world. I suppose he's there because I wanted something alien to everything else, a creature more or less a man internally but fundamentally not a man. This allows him to view his companions with equal measures objectivity and naivete.

Q: One thing you and I have talked a little bit about is the sexual aspect of the novel. I loved the oddity of those elements, and thought they really served to accentuate the story, but I know reaction has been mixed. Was it a deliberate choice to ‘sex’ up the narrative, or did it just flow naturally from the story?

Both. To be frank, I'm tired of how many readers are scared of sex -- in and out of the genre, but especially so within the genre. It seems like a very purtitanical, adolescent take on a thing we all think about. I mean, I don't care that much about the occasional mature person saying, "I don't want to read about sex," but when so, so many grown adults do it it starts to feel a little ridiculous.

Sex is a constant. If more of the diehard genre fans read outside the genre, they'd realize how much sex infuses not only modern literature but all eras of bygone literature because of the overwhelming human urge to explore sexuality. To repress that urge, to act as if it's gratuitous simply because of its descriptiveness (especially when such readers will not describe a two page description of a sword being forged as gratuitous), is ludicrous.

That may sound harsh, but I'm beyond the point of offending people when it comes to literature. (I find people in the genre community to be unusually sensitive to "insults" to their taste. Me, I couldn't care less if someone doesn't share my convictions about what I read.)

Given that last sentence, you can imagine that I did write some of the sex I did as a provocation. At the same time, I view it as natural to the narrative. It felt like a story that needed those scenes -- more necessary for the tone than necessary for the plot, arguably, but then again, what's necessary and what's not? That's all fairly subjective.

All that being said, Shower of Stones is not nearly as sexual a book as No Return. For whatever reason, I didn't feel the need to write about it so much, second time round.

Q: Given that you found some early success with stories in the Wired Hard and Up for Grabs anthologies, that sexual element shouldn’t be a huge surprise, but even in those instances it was fantastical and unorthodox. Is it the challenge of finding new ways to imagine the erotic that inspired you, or is it more a logical integration with your love for science fiction and fantasy?

It's the latter, definitely. I mean, science fiction and fantasy provide so many new ways to think about reality, so why should it be different for sex? It hasn't been a huge challenge, but then again I don't write very fast! It could be that, were I quicker at it (and not a day goes by that I don't wish I wrote quicker), I'd soon run out of ideas.

Q: Without getting into spoilers, No Return ends with a pretty significant change for both the characters and the world. Are they are similar surprises in store for readers with Shower of Stones?

I hope so, yeah. It's funny to be asked that, because, in general, I read what I wrote and it all seems pretty awkward, pretty unplanned and... obvious, I guess. Then someone else will read it and see the merit I don't (or hate it; that happens, too). I think, conservatively, that there are things that will surprise readers. I certainly couldn't have predicted some of the decisions I'd make while writing it.

One of the things I wanted to do in Shower of Stones is evoke that sense that the next moment can't be predicted -- and yet, in retrospect, that it seemed like a good decision (or awful decision, as the case may be) to have made. I want readers to have that feeling of satisfaction that is not based on anticipating perfectly what comes next. I feel like that's the best way to attempt to write a story about earth-shattering events. Keep people on their toes.

Q: There seems to be something of a role reversal in Shower of Stones, with Churls taking on a heroic protagonist role. Were you looking to shake things up, or were there long-term character arcs that you’ve been building towards all along?

Wow, you're really making me think. In all honesty, when it came to the final pages of the novel, something happened that surprised me. I made a decision I'd planned on, then decided against, and finally embraced. Readers will just have to wait and see who the final hero is, I guess.

Aw, that's a crappy answer. Apologies. I can shed some light on the question while not giving a spoiler.

I'd always considered Vedas, Churls, and Berun to be equally the heroes, honestly. When my editor called Vedas the hero, I understood -- because, hell, he is the most obvious hero. But on another level, I recoiled a bit from defining him that way. Churls kicks a lot of ass. So does Berun, and he's arguably the most likable (and certainly the most loyal) person among them.

Churls does play a large part in Shower of Stones, but hers is no more central a narrative than anyone else's.

Q: It we can turn our attentions from the pen to the page for a moment, I know you’ve listed Samuel R. Delany, James Tiptree Jr., and Joanna Russ among your influences. What kind of lessons or inspirations have you taken away from their work?

Is "I'll never be as good as them" a lesson? If so, then that's the first lesson. In my eyes, I'm not half the writer each of them were (or are, in the case of Delany). As for Tiptree -- I'm not a quarter the writer she was. It's okay to aspire, of course -- and maybe that's the lesson to take away from this.

Other lessons include:

From Delany, I learned to embrace narrative and stylistic risks. Now and then, you just gotta go for broke and write it the way that feels right even if it's not perfect, or it's ugly, or it's going to polarize people about what you've done. I'm less afraid of people not liking my work than I was before because of him. Even now, I'll read his work and wonder, "Do I even think this is good?" That question is fascinating to me, and it causes me to examine his work even closer.

From Russ, I learned that it's okay to be angry. Another thing I'm tired of in genre circles is the lack of clear and incisive anger. There are things to be angry about in this world, things that should not be shoved under the rug or talked about in polite terms, and it's okay to let those things influence your writing.

From Tiptree, I learned that concision is better than writing on and on. That's not to say I don't fall into going on and on (I do), but the kind of pompous, overblown language that many writers utilize -- or, similarly, the kind of simply overindulgent 1000-pages-to-get-to-the-point narratives that weigh down bookstore shelves -- is just not for me. I neither like it nor respect it. Like Tiptree, I'd rather cut to the bone and leave long before overstaying my welcome.

Q: From a contemporary perspective, are there are author you go to for entertainment, or simply to recharge your own creative batteries?

Oh, so many! I think Brent Hayward is brilliant, dense and psychedelic and just plain mind-boggling. Guy Haley, too, is often incredibly imaginative, especially in Champion of Mars. I just started reading Nina Allan, and she's got an incredibly deft brain, capable of awesome turns of phrases and stellar worldbuilding. Kameron Hurley continues to do amazing things, as does Alan Campbell.

There are other authors who make me feel like I don't know if they're good or not, but who I must trust are simply because people whose opinions I trust regard them so highly. I read Paul Jessup for the first time a few months back and found his work (Open Your Eyes) inspiring, but almost entirely because I couldn't imagine making the choices he did in writing it. That made me reevaluate why I make the decisions I do.

Q: Before we let you go, what can we look forward to from you next? Is there a third Jeroun tale to be told, are you or perhaps looking at something completely different to follow?

There might be more from Jeroun, but for now the tale's finished. I have a short story collection coming out in early spring of next year (title TBA) that features a few tales that loosely link -- or at least thematically link -- to Jeroun.

Following that? I have a few things I'm working on, and we'll see which one becomes something real!

We'll look forward to it. Thanks again for the chat, and for stopping by.

Thanks so much for interviewing me, Bob!


About the Author

Zachary Jernigan works as a journalist in Arizona, a state famous for lovely weather and horrifying political decisions. He listens to music and reads a lot, occasionally venturing outside for a bike ride with his wife and son.

His first book, No Return, is a science-fantasy novel filled with sex, violence, religion, and muscular people in weird skintight costumes living on a world where god exists and is very upset. A hardcover edition came out from Night Shade Books in 2013, followed by a paperback edition the following year.

The sequel and conclusion to No Return, Shower of Stones, is forthcoming in July of 2015, in hardcover, also from Night Shade Books.

His short fiction, which runs the gamut of sf and fantasy, has appeared in a variety of places, including Asimov's Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, Escape Pod, as well as various anthologies. He has been nominated for the Pushcart a couple times and shortlisted once for the Spectrum Award.

His first proper short story collection — title TBA — is forthcoming in the early spring of 2016 from Ragnarok Publications.


About the Book

Shower of Stones (Jeroun #2)
by Zachary Jernigan

At the moment of his greatest victory, before a crowd of thousands, the warrior Vedas Tezul renounced his faith, calling for revolt against the god Adrash, imploring mankind to unite in this struggle.

Good intentions count for nothing. In the three months since his sacrilegious pronouncement, the world has not changed for the better. In fact, it is now on the verge of dying. The Needle hangs broken in orbit above Jeroun, each of its massive iron spheres poised to fall and blanket the planet's surface in dust. Long-held truces between Adrashi and Anadrashi break apart as panic spreads.

With no allegiance to either side, the disgraced soldier Churls walks into the divided city of Danoor with a simple plan: murder the monster named Fesuy Amendja, and retrieve from captivity the only two individuals that still matter to her—Vedas Tezul, and the constructed man Berun. The simple plan goes awry, as simple plans do, and in the process Churls and her companions are introduced to one of the world’s deepest secrets: A madman, insisting he is the link to an ancient world, offering the most tempting lie of all... Hope.

Concluding the visceral, inventive narrative begun in No Return, Shower of Stones pits men against gods and swords against civilization-destroying magic in the fascinatingly harsh world of Jeroun.

Hardcover, 288 pages
Expected publication: July 7th 2015 by Night Shade Books


  1. I think we all wish we wrote faster.
    I don't write about sex because if I did, I'd get distracted and want to go do it. (Hey, just being honest here!) But Zachary is right that it's a strong drive in all of us.

    1. "I don't write about sex because if I did, I'd get distracted and want to go do it. (Hey, just being honest here!)"

      I can understand that! In theory, at least. I don't really respond that way to writing about sex -- it's more just a challenge, like tackling a tough action scene; a few people have assumed I write about sex for prurient reasons, and, though it's a fair assumption, it isn't true -- but I can see, obviously, why many people would avoid writing (or reading) about sex if they felt that way.

  2. I've not read No Return yet, but have definitely heard some of the complaints about sex in it. I thought this was a great interview, and loved that it addressed that.

    1. Complaints! WHERE?

      (Joking. But I am interested, really. What have you heard? I love hearing even the negative things.)

      And thank you, Lisa! I'm glad I didn't offend or anything. Sometimes, I can get a little feisty.

  3. That's a great discussion. Sex is usually not something I have a problem with in fiction, it's always fascinating to me how different authors treat it. I admit this is making me want to check out No Return more.

    ~Mogsy @ BiblioSanctum

    1. Thanks, Mogsy! The funny thing is, I feel a bit bad about the finality with which I talked about sex in fiction. I can understand -- and respect -- people who don't like such scenes. I mean, I don't like all kinds of scenes. It's just the kneejerk "it's excessive and unnecessary" kind of reaction that bothers me.

  4. All of these books from Zachary seem imaginative and we love the covers too! And I'm disgusted by people who would be shocked by sex but not by violence.... Like it's OK for a character to be beheaded, chopped into pieces or mutilated but God forbid you see their kagina or nilly willie.....

    1. Aw, thanks, Dezmond! That means a lot.

      I think you make a very good point about violence and sex. I write about both, yet I'd like to think I do it for a purpose beyond just entertainment, as I think writing about themes that could arouse negative reactions should be handled with thoughtfulness and compassion. I'd hate to think of the kind of person whose reaction to depictions of violence, especially, is one of simply, "Whoa! That's cool! He ripped his jaw off!"

      Frankly, I'm far more comfortable with a person who loves reading about sex than someone who loves reading about dismemberment. The fact that I've had more than a few people complain about the sex in my first book and NOT ONE complain about the violence... well it's shocking to me. (Caveat: there is a scene that has both sex and violence -- which was very, very difficult to write and I doubt I'll ever attempt again -- and I have had people object to it.)


Post a Comment