Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Interview with Erik Hoel, author of The Revelations

Please welcome Erik Hoel to The Qwillery as part of the 2021 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Revelations is published on April 6, 2021 by The Overlook Press.

Please join The Qwillery in wishing Erik a very Happy Book Birthday!

TQWelcome to The Qwillery. What is the first fiction piece you remember writing?

Erik:  A novella called Homecoming was probably the first good piece that I wrote, back in high school. It was filled with thinly veiled friends and acquaintances and quickly made the rounds, much to my chagrin.

TQAre you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?

Erik:  Hybrid. Individual scenes come out at least somewhat resembling their final form, but the ordering of scenes and the shifting around of things within scenes is constant. For every two steps forward in writing, I take one step back to edit everything else once again.

TQWhat is the most challenging thing for you about writing?

Erik:  Writing is easy, breaking into the publishing industry is hard. Especially if you don’t have an MFA. And I say that as someone who had a number of both fiction and nonfiction awards going in.

TQWhat has influenced / influences your writing?

Erik:  All sorts of writers, like Bruno Schulz, Karen Russell, Dow Mossman, or Richard Powers. Far too many to name. A lot of classic authors as well. I read Moby-Dick five times during the writing of The Revelations, along with all Melville’s other works. What attracted me was how much nonfiction Melville put in his fiction: entire chapters just devoted to describing whaling, which is indeed a fascinating, almost metaphysical, enterprise. I was trying to do the same thing, but with how science works rather than how whaling works. And of course, the richness of Melville’s language. Obviously by modern standards Melville’s pacing is insanely slow, but some things he does are just pure magic that contemporary authors can only hope to partially replicate.

TQDescribe The Revelations using only 5 words.

Erik:  Brains investigating brains investigating brains.

TQTell us something about The Revelations that is not found in the book description.

Erik:  What’s not discussed is that this is very much a novel about New York City. The city is described in mind-like terms, as if the city has its own consciousness, which is evinced in its psychogeography. The subway system, as well the city’s homeless denizens, act as the city’s unconsciousness and show up at important plot points.

TQWhat inspired you to write The Revelations?

Erik:  This is a novel about science, but not futuristic technologies or theories like traditional science fiction. It’s about the process of science, about scientists as humans. Pretty much everything that is described: the brains in vats, monkeys with holes in their heads, animal research, how science itself progresses, are all based on real things, things I’ve witnessed. So it’s inspired from my own experience. Very originally it was simply an idea I had when I was young, an idea of wanting to write a novel about science. But back then it was pretty formless, and it took years for the actual mechanics of the book to assert itself.

TQWhat sort of research did you do for The Revelations?

Erik:  The book is all about the search for a scientific theory of consciousness. As I said, I’d had the idea for a novel that took place in the world of science since before college. Eventually I realized the most interesting aspects of science are when things are unknown, when there’s still work to be done. So I received my PhD in neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, helping develop aspects of the leading scientific theory of consciousness, Integrated Information Theory. I went on to become a professor at Tufts University. Certainly in the back of my mind during my scientific career I was always researching the novel, so this is something based on more than ten years of research. And it is research of the most in-depth kind one could imagine, since I was living it.

TQPlease tell us about the cover for The Revelations.

Erik:  The team at Overlook Press and Abrams Books did an incredible job. It’s a gorgeous look that captures the chromatic nature of the novel itself. This is a novel that contains almost every genre within it: romance, murder mystery, science fiction. But at the same time, it constantly shifts and frustrates the more traditional aspects of those plots. The cover even kind of looks like the helix of DNA, but again, not quite.

TQIn The Revelations who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?

Erik:  All major characters I found easy to write. The hardest to write for me are always the minor characters. There are a significant number of characters in The Revelations, as it centers around a program at NYU with eight young scientists, and that’s not counting the professors and students and staff, and of course other New Yorkers. Having a person not be a caricature while only appearing for just a moment or having a few minor lines is always difficult, since their bandwidth to express themselves is so low.

TQDoes The Revelations touch on any social issues?

Erik:  I’ll mention an issue relatively underexamined in literature, which is the plight of the graduate student and the difficulties of academia. Perhaps this seems specific or niche, but almost 15% of Americans now get a graduate degree. The sciences, and academia in general, are filled with complex and extremely hierarchical relationships. If you get on the wrong side of someone higher up in the hierarchy than you, like a professor when you’re a PhD student, they can make your life hell. Graduate programs can be great, but they also put a person in a position of powerlessness. This plays a big part in the novel.

TQWhich question about The Revelations do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!

Erik:  There’s a bunch of hidden references that I’m interested if readers get. Certainly, they don’t have to in order to enjoy the book! But it can be an extra little jolt of fun for a reader when they do get one. Every classic philosophical thought experiment shows up at some point, hidden in characters’ backstories. Some are more obvious ones: e.g., there is a character Carmen who faces a “mind-body problem.” Her character’s backstory is moving from the world of appearances to the world behind appearances when she starts to study consciousness and becomes a scientist. Others are more subtle, like references to Kierkegaard’s philosophy and life.

TQGive us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from The Revelations.

Erik:  Some of the most fun parts to write were excerpts of Kierk’s journal. Most of the book is traditional in its third-person narration, but on occasion the reader gets a glimpse into what he’s writing. The journal contains his frenetic musings about a scientific theory of consciousness, which is always something like:

“Yes, the history of the world has been, and ever will be, written in consciousness, and they are the only words that matter! Imagine then what that final theory will entail, what it will give us: a sensorium syntax as pristine as mathematics, a dialect of pure consciousness. Imagine what type of alien utterances it will allow, for to write in such a language, to speak in such a language… No poet has ever come close. Words blow away as empty signs next to the white-hot heat of it! There is something it is like to be!”

TQWhat's next?

Erik:  I have several ideas for future novels that I’ve been playing with. One is a mystery set at Burning Man, the other is a novel about my childhood that contains a lot of magical realism. But I don’t write books unless they feel necessary. The one thing I can’t stand is art that appears needless, like it’s a career exercise for the author and there’s nothing at stake. It’s just another book they’ve put out. In order for me to write I need everything to be at stake. And other people’s time is valuable, so if someone gives me a few hours I want to give them an experience that’s actually, you know, novel.

TQThank you for joining us at The Qwillery.

Erik:  Thanks for having me here, it’s been fun!

The Revelations
The Overlook Press, April 6, 2021
Hardcover and eBook, 368 pages
An edgy and ambitious debut about neuroscience, death, and the search for the theory of human consciousness, by a powerful new voice in contemporary literary fiction

Monday, Kierk wakes up. Once a rising star in neuroscience, Kierk Suren is now homeless, broken by his all-consuming quest to find a scientific theory of consciousness. But when he’s offered a spot in a prestigious postdoctoral program, he decides to rejoin society and vows not to self-destruct again. Instead of focusing on his work, however, Kierk becomes obsessed with another project—investigating the sudden and suspicious death of a colleague. As his search for truth brings him closer to Carmen Green, another postdoc, their list of suspects grows, along with the sense that something sinister may be happening all around them.

The Revelations, not unlike its main character, is ambitious and abrasive, challenging and disarming. Bursting with ideas, ranging from Greek mythology to the dark realities of animal testing, to some of the biggest unanswered questions facing scientists today, The Revelations is written in muscular, hypnotic prose, and its cyclically dreamlike structure pushes the boundaries of literary fiction. Erik Hoel has crafted a stunning debut of rare power—an intense look at cutting-edge science, consciousness, and human connection.
Amazon : Barnes and Noble : Bookshop : Books-A-Million : IndieBound
Google Play : iBooks : Kobo

About Erik

Erik Hoel received his PhD in neuroscience from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a research assistant professor at Tufts University and was previously a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University in the NeuroTechnology Center and a visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Hoel is a 2018 Forbes “30 Under 30” for his neuroscientific research on consciousness and a Center for Fiction NYC Emerging Writer Fellow. The Revelations is his debut novel. He lives on Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

Website  Twitter @erikphoel


Post a Comment