Interview with Regina Glei, author of “Dome Child”

Regina Glei is author of “Dome Child”, runner-up of the Science Fiction category at the 2012 New York Book Festival.

1) You are a German author who writes in English and lives in Japan. First, why are you living in Japan? And how has that culture, which has a long tradition of taking things to the limit, affected your writing?

I studied English literature in Munich and while doing so, I asked myself what kind of job I could get with that. The answer was – none? So I looked for something else and two factors made me chose Japanese:

My fascination with “odd” languages and the fact that my great-aunt lived in Taiwan for 25 years. From her influence I have always been interested in Eastern Asia. She spoke fluent Chinese and I thought it’s boring if I do the same, so I tried Japanese and attended a few language courses. Before long, I switched my major to Japanese Studies.

After two years, I received a scholarship for the Kyushu University in Fukuoka and during my one year there I fell in love with the country. I returned to Germany to graduate and worked there for a bit, but in 2000 I got the opportunity for a job in Tokyo, took it and haven’t left since.

Living far from home for so long has completely changed my life and perspective. I’ve become a “Terran”, I don’t consider myself to be German anymore. When I return to Germany to visit, I feel like an alien, but in Japan I will, of course, also forever be an alien.

When you live in a foreign culture for so long, you absorb and inherit many things, but other things will remain closed to you. That insight alone is something precious to me. I’m always striving for the “best of both worlds”.

I’m not so sure whether the Japanese take things to the limit, I’d rather like to call it: they love to immerse themselves into a topic. When someone has a hobby here he/she “does it right” = you take your hobbies, and in general everything you do, very seriously and try to get the most out of it and make the most out of it. That fits very much to my character, which is geeky by nature. I don’t waste precious time on doing anything half-heartedly, I’m of the “all or nothing” type that you find here very often. So, living in Japan has, I suppose, made it easier or more natural for me to be a writer, meaning, to fully immerse myself into this path. I don’t know if I would have stayed so firmly on course, had I remained in Germany.

2) Is Jove derived from anyone you know in real life?

Not that I know of! Of course the people around me influence my character building, but I don’t model my characters after them. That is also because my characters write themselves. I think of them as existing in parallel worlds and they use me as a medium to write their stories. This is the greatest part of writing for me: when the characters take over and tell their own story.

Sometimes I have to correct them a bit and push them into the right direction, but oftentimes they tell me what to do, not the other way round.

A great example for that is Shavendra, rather than Jove. While writing the book, I had no idea who Merjen’s contact in the power plant was supposed to be. There was this woman who met Lake in the Wastelands to give her the unalmatium, but I had no clue who that woman was or how I should integrate her into the story. Only after I had written that scene, some 50 pages on or so, it hit me like lightning that the woman is Shavendra himself. I then went back and changed her description a bit and everything fit and fell into place.

That’s the magic of writing for me. As for Jove, he also wrote himself. He lives in an extreme world and needs to counterbalance it with his normality. He is special, without being special. After all he is the first human being to see the Dome of Souls and to receive a revelation, but on the other hand Vana likes him because he is uncomplicated and “just a man”. He’s the almost mad centerpiece of calm in a world gone completely mad.

3) Religion isn’t cast in a favorable light in this work. You also were born of a German culture that takes a dim view of cults. What’s your personal outlook on religion? And is Mukol modeled after anything in particular?

I was born a Roman Catholic (which is the “base” for the Good Faith) but left the church when I was 20 years old. I’m an agnostic, not an atheist, and actually that is a central theme of Dome Child. Jove realizes that the world is built on trust, not truth. There is nothing we/he can know for certain, he can only make a leap of faith and believe in the Dome of Souls.

I am a skeptic and very skeptical of any form of radicalism. I cannot understand why we can’t accept each other and all live together in peace.

Here my Japanese influence is very strong, I believe. The Japanese get born in the Shintoistic way. They marry in a pseudo-Christian way in hotel chapels, wearing white dresses if they chose to. Before or after that, they might marry the Shintoistic way as well. Finally, they die as Buddhists. All that is no problem and goes hand in hand. The Japanese are very tolerant when it comes to religion and I highly appreciate and admire that.

Although “Dome Child” is set in China, the idea for the different churches comes from Kobe, Japan. There, within not even a hundred meters of each other, are a Shinto Shrine, a Christian Church and a Mosque. They peacefully stand next to each other and the believers of either group let each other be.

When I left Germany for Japan a neighbor of mine, whom I had hardly spoken to so far, asked me in a friendly way, where are you moving? Happy and with glowing cheeks I told him, I’m moving to Japan. Then he suddenly and completely unexpectedly freaked and shouted at me that my soul is lost and that “my Buddha” will not save me…

Interesting. I feel sorry for the man, that his world view is so small. So much for Germans having dim views on cults.

My outlook or wish for religion is tolerance, that everyone, no matter of which religion learns to accept and tolerate other religions.

Mukol is not modeled (at least not consciously) after anything in particular. It’s a doomsday sect born out of sheer frustration with the current state of the human mind and condition. It’s an escapist idea gone viral in the world of “Dome Child”, with its members hoping for salvation from human misery in a world beyond. That idea is not new, of course, and I think it is a very “human” idea to look for relief, absolution, revenge, justice, whatever it may be in a
religion.

4) Why did you choose science fiction has your genre? Were you inspired by any of the female science fiction writers who preceded you?

I love speculative fiction because of the enormous freedom it gives you. In fantasy and science fiction there are no limits, you can invent whole new worlds and universes and that is great fun. It amazes me and delights me like nothing else that you can create your own reality and universes and make them come alive in the mind of readers. For me that is the ultimate form or the sheer essence of fiction and I have no desire to write anything that is not “fantastic” in some way.

Due to the need of categorization in book stores as well as online stores, you need to put a “label” = a genre onto your book. I actually don’t consider “Dome Child” to be science fiction, it’s rather science fantasy, or a dystopian fantasy story that happens to be set in an unspecified future on earth.

I write “pure” fantasy as well and consider myself to be a speculative fiction writer. I wish there were a speculative fiction section in book stores.

Luckily the “idea” that science fiction is written by men for men has become more and more obsolete. I suppose it still lingers in some heads, but I think the general SF writing and reading community has grown out of such prejudice.

I personally don’t care for one second whether the author of a book I pick up is male or female, I either like the story or I don’t and that has absolutely nothing to do with who has written it. I admire the pioneer women in science fiction like James Tiptree, Jr. (Alison B. Sheldon) and appreciate their efforts to chisel out a path for women in the genre, but for me the story is most important and not who has written it.

5) What sort of emotions did you go through writing the book? The setting is depressing and while there’s a hero at its core, he’s definitely not the classic stereotypical hero.

The oppressive heat in “Dome Child” comes from my own experience. Germany has a
moderate climate, but Japan and China do not differ from tropical countries during their summer. The heat in combination with the high humidity is something that does not exist in Europe.

The city of Shangbei (the name is a combination of Shanghai and Beijing, by the way) is an extrapolation of the megalopolis it is already today.

I have never lived in Shanghai but visited several times. The big temples of the Good Faith, Mukol and Kama are on the Puxi side of the Huangpu river, which is the old Shanghai. The city stretches endlessly and in the future of Dome Child that has remained the same, only that the buildings are a bit bigger and higher and that today there are no real slums.

I consider myself to be neither a pessimist nor an optimist, but rather a realist, though that might seem to be a contradiction to writing speculative fiction. I think the earth cannot escape climate change and over-population anymore, the world of “Dome Child” is a result of that.

When I write, I am excited and I shiver and laugh and cry together with my characters. That’s part of the great appeal of writing. I thoroughly enjoy the writing process and suffer and enjoy together with my creations.

Jove is indeed (I hope) not a stereotypical hero. I’ll throw a lot of adjectives around now: to me he is naïve, pure, innocent and honest and much more tolerant than he thinks he is. That makes him, I hope, a sympathetic character. But he has his flaws of course as well, he can’t resist the temptation of Vana for example. He can’t love everybody either and hates Boris’ guts. He’s a bit of an aimless drifter and an opportunist at first, who finds himself and takes on responsibility thanks to the Dome of Souls but also thanks to Lake, Vana and Shavendra.

All in all I tried to make him into a “normal” guy that people can relate to but who does have the spark for greatness in him and that is why the Dome of Souls chose him as its executive arm.

6) What’s next for you? Will “Dome Child” spawn a sequel?

Actually, “Dome Child” is the last (first) story in a quite monstrous body of work that I am calling my one and a half million words of crap.

It all started with a trilogy called “Jeronimo”. Then I wrote a prequel to that which is set in the time of Lei Lao (which follows the time of Bihindi, in which “Dome Child” is set). Next I wrote a sequel trilogy to “Jeronimo” and another sequel trilogy. After writing those twelve books, I finally realized that I needed workshopping, editing, critiquing = improvement of my craft, etc.

“Dome Child” is the first result of that (novel 13) and it was a sort of revelation to me to let that world, which centers around Dome of Souls revelations, end with its beginning. After writing “Dome Child” and finishing my “Jeronimo” saga with its beginning, my mind opened up to new ideas and I have since written another 5 novels, which are all independent from the “Dome Child” world, as well as independent from each other, and which all are or could be the
first installments of separate series.

I am of the prolific sort and quite a writing machine.

I published another novel in August this year, which is a contemporary fantasy about an alchemist and his Richard Wagner loving mother, entitled “She Should Have Called Him Siegfried”, meaning, something completely different from the “Dome Child” world.

The other four novels are in the submission pipelines now. If one of them got picked up that would be the series that I would pursue next.

In the meantime a small press has picked up a stand-alone contemporary fantasy novella of mine, which is scheduled for publication in December 2012. Its working title is “Lord of Water”.

So, a lot is happening for me at the moment and after 13 books in the “Dome Child” world I am looking elsewhere.

I’m telling myself that in case I run out of ideas, I can always go back to the “Dome Child” world and rewrite those 12 unpublished books or at least some of them. But at the moment there is no end to new ideas in sight, luckily. I’m very grateful for “Dome Child” though, since it allowed me to finish this big story and at the same time it opened up my mind for new horizons.