Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Amy Lignor is talking with J. Rutledge, author of Truth and The Serpent
FQ: When it comes to a writer’s debut, it is a BIG deal! What made you take on such an enormous subject for your very first novel?
RUTLEDGE: To be honest, I didn’t want to write a story that dealt with religion. Religion is not one of my favorite topics, however it was the only story at the time that had potential to move forward.
The original idea came about during a brief conversation, when the other person said to me, “all snakes are evil because of the Serpent in the Garden of Eden.” I said...“All snakes? rattlesnakes, pythons, boa constrictors...they’re just evil?” Now, I know the garden of Eden story and I was pretty sure it didn’t say that. The person I was speaking to was very religious, and there was no way to argue rationally against that, so I left it alone. Unfortunately, it was stuck in my head. So, when I got home, I reread the garden of Eden story just to make sure, and I confirmed that nowhere in the text does it ever say Evil, Satan, or Devil.
A Law & Order scene popped in my head, where the Serpent was on trial and the prosecution was trying to prove motive and intent. That’s when it struck me to rewrite it from the Serpent’s point of view, to see if it would make more sense. What if you somehow encountered this legendary dark figure, and it speaks intelligently and tells you its version of the events. The same events would happen but now the perspective has been changed. It sounded interesting to me, and it was something I had never heard before with this subject. The original story was only a page and a half, and after 2 years of writing it was at 800 pages, another year of editing cut it down to just under 500 pages.
FQ: Considering the subject, and the fact that people can forget when a tale is “fiction,” were you ever a bit wary that some people might wish to debate you on some of the things your main character states?
RUTLEDGE: You don’t take on a subject like religion or politics and expect everyone to agree with you. Truth and the Serpent is meant as a discussion piece. There really is no 100% right answer with this subject. And as such, I think the best you can hope for is to add something new to the conversation.
As a writer, it was a personal challenge to see if I could FIND SOMETHING DIFFERENT, without it becoming an attack on the subject. How many times have we heard these stories and every time it’s the same old thing. If you even mention religion, Jew, Muslim, Bible, people completely lose their minds.
Once I decided to write it, I wanted it to be for someone like myself. But how do you write a story that deals with religion, for a person who isn’t interested in debating religion? That’s when I decided that the balance of the story would be true versus untrue, instead of good versus evil or right versus wrong. As Good and Evil are subjective and change depending on the point of view. However, there are things in these stories that are universally true and relatable to everyone.
That’s when I realized that the Serpent character was the perfect vehicle to have this discussion. Truth and the Serpent at its core is a talking animal story. It’s an absurdity set in the ‘WHAT IF UNIVERSE.’ Therefore, it’s not an attack, it’s a conversation free from judgment, or fear of reprisal. The Serpent character can ask these questions and pose alternative theories without the reader feeling threatened. Because the reader has no connection to the Serpent character. The same could not have been done with say Noah or Joseph, because our minds just won’t allow it.
FQ: If you had to choose, what would be the one thing you would like readers to take away from this novel?
RUTLEDGE: Most of all, if after reading this book it spurs people to think something different, ask a new question, or go back and ‘READ IT FOR YOURSELF,’ then as a writer, I did my job! The themes of Truth and The Serpent are personal responsibility, and the seeking of truths over myth and lore. I worked very hard to find truths in these stories that unit; and not get caught up in the legends and fables that have come to control, enslave, and divide. As much as people debate the existence of God, or argue Jew versus Muslim against Christian, nothing ever seems to change or improve. So, with this story I had a chance to question and critique as much as I wanted to. I understand that many readers will be apprehensive due to the subject, however if you don’t ask any new questions, you’re not going to get any different answers.
Truth and The Serpent is not about debunking the Bible or explaining existence through science and math. Truth and the Serpent is a fiction that examines the shared stories of humanity through the eyes of the infamous Serpent.
FQ: It is always a thrill to see a new author come to the market. It’s a difficult journey to sit in front of that computer on a daily basis and create a book. Is there a positive piece of advice you would give to a new author in regards to this choice of career? On the other side of that coin, is there a piece of advice you would give them on what to stay away from or beware of when choosing writing as a career?
RUTLEDGE: Be honest to yourself! You need know why you are writing. For me writing is a passion, it’s the process of conceptualizing then challenging my own ideas while being creative to tell a story.
Writing is a blessing and a curse. It is a solitary, isolating, stressful, personal, and grueling endeavor. You literally have to close out the outside world in favor of one you have inside of your head. And then if after torturing yourself and putting your ideas out there for critique, you still want to do it all over again, then you too are a writer.
FQ: How much research went into this particular creation? On the same note, are you a lover of history and research – is there a particular historical time period that attracts your attention that perhaps will be the foundation for a book one day?
RUTLEDGE: On average, I had about 100 pages of notes for each chapter. I researched everything meticulously. From the beginning I wanted this book to be different. So, in order to do that I couldn’t repeat the other theories and explanations that are out there. Meaning it couldn’t be about sun worship, it couldn’t be about astrology, it could be about the devil tricking everyone. If you’re saying, ‘The Bible doesn’t say that.’ Well you’re right...If all I was going to do was write the exact same thing, well that book already exists...it’s called The Bible!
I don’t have a particular favorite period of time, but I do enjoy history and research quite a bit. It was interesting taking on this subject, and reading and researching not for purposes of faith. Looking at it from a literary perspective you see how easy it is to distort the truth. It’s frightening, specifically with religion, how many people have not read, questioned, or researched for themselves, yet hold so strongly to a belief in ignorance. The bad thing is, when you educate and inform yourself, you become the bad guy. But oh well, such is the fate of intellectuals...
FQ: What is next up for you? Are you currently working on a second title?
RUTLEDGE: Yes, currently I am working on notes for Serpent book 2. I hope to start writing it sometime after the new year. The story will follow the Serpent and a human character who live during the time of Jesus. It is titled, but I am not releasing it yet.
FQ: As stated in the review, it’s almost like the Serpent is creating mysteries for the reader to solve. Is there a specific reason why you gave nicknames to the characters as opposed to using the ones that are well-known?
RUTLEDGE: Yes, it was mostly for consistency. In the beginning the Serpent identifies the guy as “Man of the Present.” The Serpent states that a person’s name does little to describe a person, hence...what’s in a name. Also, I knew that I would run into a problem later on in the story. There are multiple, John’s, Peter’s, Jesse’s, Matthew’s, and so on. I originally had it where the Man of the Present said, “Adam,” and the Serpent replied, ‘which Adam? I’ve known a lot of Adam’s… could you be more specific.’ The Man of the Present then had to describe Adam, as first man, Garden, Eve, and then there was a recognition.
Again, this story is about how the Serpent views humanity. And since the Serpent has existed since the beginning of time, it wouldn’t make sense for the Serpent to call someone by a name that has been used thousands of times, especially when there aren’t any last names. I looked up the names to see what they meant, for example Noah means Rest or comfort. Some of the others I had to get creative with, for example in ‘The Dagger.’ The woman who accuses Joseph of rape, her name is Zuleika, which means "fair; brilliant and lovely." Which in the book became ‘Love so Brilliant.’ So, the Serpent would identify these people by their actions, that’s why the Serpent describes them.
Additionally, these stories do not exist only in Christianity. For that matter this could be Jewish, Muslim, or Zoroastrian fiction. And within these other religions the names are spelled or pronounced differently. However, the deeds of these heroic figures remain the same and are easily identifiable to pretty much anybody. I wanted to focus on the shared information of these stories, and not take a Christian view opposed to a Jewish or Muslim understanding.
FQ: If there was one person you could sit down with and ask questions of, who would it be and why? Is there a specific question you would like them to answer?
RUTLEDGE: I do have a list of historical figures, that I would like to meet up with for coffee. In the Chapter, The Mirror, there is a scene, where the Serpent and Ruth (The Widow) sit down for coffee. She also performs ‘Coffee Ceremony’ for the Serpent, which is an Ethiopian custom.
As for a specific person, I’m a fan of Bruce Lee, as so many others are. I don’t know what question I would ask. I think just to sit and listen and learn, and share, with him, would be special.
FQ: Is there a way, in your mind, for Mankind to finally change the path of violence we continue to create for ourselves? Can books and learning help that to happen?
RUTLEDGE: Excellent question. While writing the book, I wanted it to be positive, uplifting, interesting, and thought provoking. I hope that is something that was evident throughout the book. I am only one person, and while writing this book I repeatedly had to step back out of my ego, my politics, my race, my gender, and my heterosexual orientation. Because the Serpent character is not bound by those things. But by doing that I was able to see guidance, and hope in these stories, where I didn’t see them before.
Cities, schools, government, medicine, and religion are supposed to be what makes us civilized, however what good does it do if nobody reads the damn books, or wants to learn anything new. I do believe there is hope for humanity, we can do better, and we can be better. Unfortunately, people are slow to remember and quick to forget. It’s difficult to move forward, if you keep tripping over the past!
To learn more about Truth and The Serpent please read the review.