PW: You mentioned A Handbook of American Prayer over a decade ago, in previous interviews. Did it take that long to write?
Lucius Shepard: I originally intended it as a novella. I had it completed, and then I lost it. My computer crashed and data retrieval, at the time, wasn't as sophisticated as it is now. It was gone, and I was kinda' depressed. Actually, I think it paid off, because it turned out to be bigger and better. There's more depth.
Was the original conception the same?
It was pretty much the same idea, but less sophisticated. The main character, Wardlin, was more of a hillbilly. And it really didn't have a thematic core. The novella wasn't as strong.
What made you decide to bring in the theme of faith?
It grew out of the writing. As I wrote about Wardlin, I realized he was a more sophisticated person than I first realized. He'd have these complicated thoughts about what he was doing. He eventually begins to think of himself as a huckster, yet, at the same time—because he came up with "prayerstyle" in prison, where it seemed to work for him—he has a naïve faith. There's a dichotomy between what he feels and what he believes. Basically, the novel is about faith, or the lack thereof, and the cult of celebrity.
It's amazingly well plotted, yet you claim you didn't have a plan or an outline.
That's the way I write. It's like taking a rubbing of your brain at the moment. The plot seems to come with the characters. And those usually grow out of people I've met or pieces of my own personality. I had an idea for an ending and beginning, but the middle [of the novel] was confusion.
With religion seeping into nearly every part of life in America, and with the rise in popularity of hardcore fundamentalists, the book seems quite timely.
The interesting thing about Wardlin's character is that he is one of these guys and he isn't. On some level, many of these people don't buy into it. They're pretty cynical about it. Or maybe they can fold into themselves in times of desperation, like Jim Baker, and find their "faith" again in some kind of hysterical way. But I thought that Wardlin, because of the crucible of prison, actually had faith forced upon him. He had to have that as part of his character. He never can quite disbelieve it until the end, and even then he still believes it. He still has this kind of fear that his faith is right. It's a fear thing: he's afraid of what he's done.
Was it tough to write the bits of poetry?
No, I stepped into character for that. Once I got Wardlin's voice right, I knew what kind of poetry he'd write. Lines like "Your fish-netted flesh strapped with garters" were fun to do. I could've written more, but I decided I'd better get on with the story.
You've worked mainly with small presses during your career. Does promotion get slighted because of the budget?
No, not really. They push you out there and make you do some appearances. Thunder's Mouth is doing a great job. I'm going on a mini-tour up and down the West Coast and doing some meet-and-greets out East. I'm looking forward to it.