Monday, June 9, 2014

PUYB Virtual Book Club Chats with Eliot Baker, author of 'The Last Ancient'

Eliot Baker lives in Finland. He teaches communications at a local college and runs an editing and translating business, but would be content singing for his heavy metal band and writing novels full-time. He grew up near Seattle, got his B.A. in World Literature at Pitzer College, and got his M.S. in Science Journalism from Boston University. He was an award-winning journalist at the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror, and before that he wrote for the Harvard Health Letters. He spent four years pursuing a career in the sciences while at the Harvard Extension School, during which time he spun old people in NASA-designed rocket chairs and kept younger people awake for 86 hours at a time in a sleep deprivation study. He likes good books, all music, and bad movies, and believes music and literature snobs just need a hug.

His latest book is the supernatural thriller/historical mystery, The Last Ancient.

About the Book:

Around Nantucket Island, brutal crime scenes are peppered with ancient coins, found by the one man who can unlock their meaning. But what do the coins
have to do with the crimes? Or the sudden disease epidemic? Even the creature? And who--or what--left them?

The answer leads reporter Simon Stephenson on a journey through ancient mythology, numismatics, and the occult. Not to mention his own past, which turns out to be even darker than he'd realized; his murdered father was a feared arms dealer, after all. Along the way, Simon battles panic attacks and a host of nasty characters -- some natural, others less so -- while his heiress fiancee goes bridezilla, and a gorgeous rival TV reporter conceals her own intentions.

Thanks for joining us at the book club, Eliot!  Wow, supernatural thrillers.  What can you say influenced you to write that genre?

Eliot: As a science journalist, I find the real world really weird. Like, inexplicably so, even though it’s my job to explain it. Reality would make a lot more sense if mythical gods and practitioners of magic were actually running things behind the scenes. And it would be comforting if those same gods and alchemists had a good plan for after the dust settles from all the mean things we humans do to each other. I’ve been drawn to the fantastical my whole life, largely because my mother, Sharon Baker, was a science fiction author in 1980s. But I’m a disciple of science, and I’m heavily interested in the politics and economics of war, so I’m powerless against uniting the fantasy with reality in my fiction.

Your book, The Last Ancient, revolves around ancient coins, a sudden disease epidemic and..gulp…a creature?  Can you tell us more about that?

Eliot: I used to cover the deer hunting season on Nantucket. Before moving there, I didn’t even know Nantucket had deer. Turns out they have one of the densest deer populations in the country. And one of the highest rates of deer-born tick diseases, like Lyme. I watched the save-the-deer enthusiasts argue against the kill-em-before-they-infect-us enthusiasts, while I stumbled across some pretty grisly scenes of deer carcasses, sometimes illegally butchered and discarded along pristine walking paths and beaches. I also witnessed one of the birding wonders of the world, the daily migration of half a million long-tailed ducks out into Nantucket sound, a winged commute some biologists believe is driven by an unknown predator. Maybe sharks or monkfish. Maybe… something else? And maybe that something else is ancient and powerful? Maybe it’s trying to communicate a complex message to a mere mortal? And how have the gods always communicated to mortals? Through symbols, signs, and omens—such as meaningful ancient coins left at crime scenes. All these elements came together magically for me, and they gelled together better than I’d even hoped when I began writing The Last Ancient.

Can you tell us more about your main character, Simon Stephenson?

Eliot: Simon dropped out of Harvard Medical School to be a reporter for reasons mysterious even to himself. Basically, as many writers understand, he was just born to write. Anyhow, he was disowned by his father, the world’s most feared arms dealer, after Simon wrote a Pulitzer-nominated expose of his father’s business. His Nantucket home and his heiress finacee represent the final vestiges of his former luxurious life, which he doesn’t miss, but which haunts him nevertheless. All those kidnapping attempts as a child by his father’s enemies left Simon severely emotionally damaged. 

What are some of Simon’s strengths and what is one of his weaknesses?

Eliot: Simon owes part of his brilliance to his excellent memory, which is nearly photographic. He’s also developed a high code of ethics after growing up around unethical scoundrels. But he also battles anxiety and panic attacks. He’s self-destructive, prone to obsession and mistrustful of everyone; befitting of a good journalist and a poor fiance. And he has strengths he doesn’t know himself, powers he’s subconsciously always been terrified of, and for good reason.

Is there a romance for Simon along the way?

Eliot: Oh, yes indeed! This book could almost be read as a romance, were there not so much action and intrigue as well. Simon’s romantic choices drive the plot, as he searches his feelings about his impending marriage to Judy, his fiancĂ©, who is smart and strong and beautiful, but is also aloof and distant, as though she’s withholding something. Then there’s the gorgeous rival TV reporter, Cecilia Rodriguez, whose intentions are far less clear than her allure.

This book is also a historical mystery.  Was the book written around historical events?

Eliot: Historical events provide answers to riddles Simon must unravel to expose a diabolical conspiracy that spans the globe and the centuries. It’s a historical mystery more in the vein of Dave Berry or Dan Brown, although to be clear I’m not comparing myself to those two mega-stars. Simon’s father was a storied collector of ancient coins. He urged Simon since before he could read to memorize the myths, dates, and ancient kings behind the images on those coins.

They say all books of fiction have pivotal points where the reader just can’t put the book down.  What’s one of yours?

Eliot: When Simon stumbles onto a murder scene in which a severed head rests upon a bed of ancient coins. One coin—the most precious coin in the world-- is stuck in the dead man’s mouth. After he gets over the initial horror of it, Simon realizes the murder and the coins – and the images and dates of those coins-- are entwined. The book’s action explodes after that, although there’s quite a bit of tension and action leading up to that point.

What’s next for you, Eliot?

Eliot: I’m really excited about a YA horror/fantasy series I’m finishing up called The Golden Crow. It’s about as personal as a fantasy story can get without being semi-autobiographical. At its heart, it’s a meditation on overcoming grief and finding meaning as a teen after losing a loved one. When I was fourteen years old my mother died of cancer and, a month later, a golden crow took residence in our backyard. It stayed there for the duration of my high school years. True story. Dozens of witnesses. The darndest thing. I believe the albino-like pigment defect it had is called xanthrochroism, which is universally rare, and perhaps unprecedented in crows. Anyhow, The Golden Crow also just happens to involve demons and a New Demon World Order conspiracy launched from a high school in a south Seattle suburb (where I grew up). Five kids from all over the world have all experienced loss and are also all visited by demons; and a golden crow. But what’s the crow’s message? Yes, go ahead and sing it: What Does The Crow Say? I haven’t submitted it to anyone yet, but hopefully it will be available in mid-2015.

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