Jesse Bullington's debut novel from Orbit, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, depicts two rough and tumble medieval, graverobbing brothers who go on a crusade to Gyptland, a promised land paved in gold. On their crusade they battle witches, monsters, and disgruntled neighbors. The Brothers Grossbart has been an internet phenomenon since early 2008. First given a shout out by Jeff VanderMeer on his Ecstatic Days blog, The Brothers Grossbart has been receiving rave reviews and has made Amazon's Best Books of 2009 for Fantasy and Science Fiction. Not bad for a novel whose U.S. release is today, November 16. The Brothers Grossbart is steeped in medieval history and scholarship, filled with plague, folklore, and terrifying beasts. I had a chance to catch up with Mr. Bullington at World Fantasy in San Jose, where we talked authenticity, theology, and the glory of monsters.
S.J. Chambers: The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart is framed as an actual manuscript—a recovered history. When you began writing it, were you imagining your narrator, and this story, as an authentic/inauthentic piece of lost scholarship, or did that evolve as you wrote?
Jesse Bullington: I definitely in earlier drafts played with that more, but in the end it wasn't a divide that worked as well. The framing device you are talking about, specifically the prologue, came about after the novel was drafted. Before that, I had thought of it in similar terms and I think the narrator does reflect that. Probably from my mild, minor academic background, I wanted a bibliography. I love bibliographies. It always frustrates me when a book with extensive research lacks a bibliography. But yeah, in terms of the narrator, it was something there throughout because I really love history and historical non-fiction.
SJC: There is a lot of theology discussed in Grossbarts. The brothers are not necessarily Christian, but are devotees of Mary. That's a very heretical belief for their time, and even ours depending on who you ask. But the brothers' beliefs set up their value system and is a nice commentary on religion's role. How did you come to take this spin?
JB: Certainly, in my household growing up, we didn't attend any kind of church. The Supreme Leader wouldn't allow us go out of the compound much, but we did have a lot of friends of various different faiths. It wasn't like my parents were atheist, on the contrary, but they just didn't believe in forcing their views on anyone, especially their children. I'd spend the night at a friend's house, go to Catholic church with them. In every case it was always fascinating to me. When you look at an era of the High Middle Ages, the Late Middle Ages, early Reformation, it is mind boggling how many nuances—that because we are such a varied species that for every personality there is a possible interpretation and a possible belief. My characters in this, in researching I knew what I wanted their faith to be, because it seemed an impossible interpretation for someone to have. We tend to think of the Middle Ages as being this time where every single person in Europe was devoutly Christian, or at least had some kind of faith even if it was "heresy." But I mean, if you look at a lot of the primary sources, there actually were atheists in the middle ages, maybe not a lot of them before bad things happened, but even your average peasant would talk to a priest, and it would persist as a primary source. I can't think of them off the top of my head. I've definitely read a few accounts of farmers talking amongst each other whether there was a God. It wasn't quite as universal as we sometimes think. Heresy and divergences, especially the first last few hundred years leading up to the Reformation are really interesting, so with my characters it was really a case of knowing what twist I wanted them to have on Christianity. So researching it, I was surprised I didn't find an individual heresy that was more closely aligned with theirs. But just because I wasn't able to find it doesn't mean it isn't out there.
Religion isn't necessarily scary, per se, but as positive an influence as religion can be, I think there is the possibility of that darker undercurrent, where again to me, someone outside of that tradition, having that absolute certainty is a little scary in terms of what a character could be capable of if they were absolutely convinced that no matter what they did they would be absolutely absolved—especially in an era where you are already having to fight so much harder than you would in the modern age just to exist.
SJC: This leads into my next question with good versus evil. We have the religious discussion with Christianity that tries to draw the line, but then again, like you were saying, there are the absolutions, which give people who are inclined to do evil such as murder, pillaging, free rein to still carry the banner of good. It muddies the division. We see this in the Crusades and even in the polemics of Bush's War on Terror.
JB: Certainly. The Crusades is an era that is really fascinating to me. For all the ambitions I had, there were underlying things I wanted to have. I really wanted it to be around the Black Plague, because I really love Sumerian Plague lore and I thought I could find some parallels there. I also wanted to have the crusading element, even though it was a few hundred years after the real big push. But fortunately for me, and my brothers, there were 300 or 400 years where it was tough to not find a crusade. Their crusade actually ends up overlapping with a historical one. So the shades of grey that go into something like the crusading mindset are really fascinating to me. The Fourth Crusade went to Constantinople, and [the crusaders] were going to keep going, but when they got there it was a question of "Why go any further? These guys are a little darker than us, they've got a lot of loot, they're kind of Christian, but screw it" and the city was sacked. They were welcomed in and they just pillaged the hell out of the whole city. There is a great primary source of a monk with them, who rather than condemn all this made sure to get an armed escort to go into the churches and loot as many relics as he could and nip off with them. These were, in a lot of cases, good intentioned crusades, but in a lot of cases, as with any kind of push to do something again in the name of "good," in this case reclaiming the Holy Land, "reclaim" obviously being a very subjective term, you do see this mixture of good intentions being superseded by human emotions and just a failure to understand your fellow man when you literally can't understand your fellow man because you are speaking different languages about different religions, even if they come from a similar tradition. I think "shades of grey" is how history should be approached, rather than these absolutes, and I think fiction is the same way.
SJC: In addition to historical and theological commentary, this book is filled with a unique bestiary. When I picture the monsters and beasts in this book, I see a delightful and terrifying combo of Bosch and Ren and Stimpy. What were your influences in making these creatures?
JB: I absolutely love monsters. After all that talk of everything else, I neglected to mention I also wanted to write a book with a lot of monsters. Not just human monsters. I wanted to deal with the question of what is more horrific: a person who is capable of anything, or something that is literally monstrous and out of the bowels of our collective imagination? Rather than just sticking to medieval bestiaries, I tried to incorporate the parallel between different mythologies of similar creatures. Without trying to give anything away, there was one particular creature that was very popular in European folklore but has a really interesting parallel in Japan folklore. To me fusing the two, and adding the aesthetic of the bestiary, was really important. And then there is the case of where do these ideas come from. In terms of where do we get the idea of monster, more often than not it is to explain something and to understand, whether it is that dragons are old dinosaur bones that medieval peasants dug up and couldn't explain in any other way, which definitely sounds very credible to me. Or something like disease and plague; even at the time there was no consensus at what was happening—it was end of days, God's wrath, Satan triumphant, swamp gas—I called back something more primitive, which were some Sumerian ideas about it. Finally, a lot of it really comes from a lifetime of loving monsters in every form. I think a lot of what I write, not just this novel, deals with this fascination, because it really is interesting both questioning where did these things come from, questioning why did we invent them, and also just the fun from the theoretical "what if" scenario of these things.
SJC: Well, this is a year of firsts for you. First book, first World Fantasy. How are you finding the con and the reception of the Grossbarts?
JB: Well it is interesting, because I've been to a couple conventions before, simply as a fan. WF strikes me as an odd, I mean that in the best way possible, hybrid of convention with a conference, which in some ways can be disconcerting. So far, I'm having a wonderful time. I've met a lot of people who are incredibly friendly, nice, and outgoing. I've also met people I've known online for awhile, so it is neat to put faces to handles and names. Making new friends is important, no matter how old you are. It's always good to meet new people and broaden your horizons. I did my first reading here last night, which was the first reading I've done anywhere. Again, it was just a really neat experience to feel really welcomed. I'm very indebted to everyone who came out, and I'm looking forward to next year, and the year after that
SJC: What other projects do you have going?
JB: I don't want to say too much, because it is still a work in progress, but the title is Enterprise of Death. It is going to be very different than Grossbarts, but in a good way. The main character is named Awa, and she will be a character that will be, I don't want to say opposite of the Grossbarts, but I would much rather be in her company than the Grossbarts. She is a very kind, intelligent person who finds herself in a terrible situation made all the more terrible by the inclusion of the supernatural and horrific. The Brothers Grossbart is set in 1364-1365, and this new project is set about 150 years later. As I move forward, I see there being less of the medieval difficulties—basically the world is getting smaller and there are less monsters and less places for monsters to hide. But it is also the age of the Inquisition, which is something I wanted to address and write about. Not unlike the Black Death, it has always fascinated me—and the way, again, how people are capable of doing these things. So her story, will be different than Grossbarts in content. It will be less humorous. There will be humor in there, but in some ways, the subject matter is more serious, and that is just the way her story ended up going.