About the Book
A Q&A with Rich Shapero

Q: The value system in The Slide That Buried Rightful is all-important, but as I was reading, I was warring with myself, trying to sort out what was “rightful” and what wasn’t.

RS: The sorriest thing about the human condition, I think, is the desire for simple answers. And nowhere is that desire more lamentable than in the moral sphere—the determination of right and wrong, just or unjust. We want things to be so much simpler than they are.

Q: The question that Garris faces is one that we all have to answer, sooner or later.

RS: I think so. There’s no way to ignore it.

Q: There are conventional expectations that the story introduces, then foils—most notably, the resolution of the conflict between Garris and Tom Astley.

RS: The hero forces a comeuppance on the villain: that’s a story cliché that people never get tired of because it’s so satisfying. It’s the outcome we privately desire for many of our own conflicts. But it’s a lie. Life doesn’t work that way, and the underlying implication—that forced comeuppance should be our chief moral goal—is misguided and injurious, I think.

Q: We all believe we’re on the “right” side.

RS: All of us. Always. The surest way to write an unbelievable character is to make that character a self-conscious villain, someone who does wrong with intention. It’s ridiculous when politicians, journalists or partisans accuse their adversaries of willful evil, but it’s common. That’s how we are. Villainization dehumanizes the adversary and makes hatred and violence possible. It’s viscerally satisfying, and that’s why we do it.

Q: Garris’ deeper insight seems to come through his understanding of the wisdom of his daughter. I sense a love of youth, and of the truth of Yvetta’s belief in “Real Selves.”

RS: My heart is with Yvetta and John. The older I get, the more I realize how out of phase I am—and have always been—with the cynicism of a cold-blooded world. I’m with Garris in that regard. A world that can’t see past partisan hatred, that can’t find its way out of war, isn’t a world I can embrace. It’s the same world that finds artistic value in the depiction of brutality for its own sake. “It’s a brutal world, and cruelty is an adrenalin rush, so let’s wallow in it.” Only a belief in higher powers and the inherent rightness of the human heart can lead us out of that hell.

Q: The presence of Astley, the primitive conditions in the Arctic, and the life of the Eskimos put us in a world in which familiar ideas about right and wrong seem artificial.

RS: It’s worth remembering that if you sent someone like Astley to a clinical psychologist, he would probably be typed as a psychopath. And we now know that these folks are born, not made. The old ideas about right and wrong weren’t designed with people like that in mind. If Astley has no feeling for others, if his conscience is defective, is he guilty or innocent when he commits atrocities? And who decides? The Insanity Defense really threw down the gauntlet. “Innocent by reason of insanity.” How did we come to have people like Astley in our gene pool? What kind of justice can we expect in a world like that? In Rightful, the Deputy is irrelevant. When it comes to right actions, how relevant are the police and the courts in a modern metropolitan area?

Q: Your depiction of the Eskimos is sympathetic, but conditional.

RS: The popular view of native cultures in our era is simplistic. As recompense for having stolen their lands, decimated them with disease and destroyed their lifestyle, we’ve made them saintly. We count that as rightful behavior, but it’s far from the truth. Native cultures struggled, and still struggle, with many of the same things that we do, especially in their response to adversity.

Q: The friction between the Inupiaq people—Ned especially—and the whites is dramatic.

RS: Some ethnic groups passed through a Neolithic era, and some did not. Portions of the human species experienced a gradual transition from a hunter-gatherer existence to a settled agrarian lifestyle. The Eskimos were hunter-gatherers, and were abruptly thrust into a very different reality. And because of disease and cultural pressures from colonizing whites, that shift was, to a great degree, involuntary.

Q: Teeth are an important part of the story’s image system.

RS: Teeth are important for creatures who have them. They have a lot to do with survival, but they also reveal how we view our relationship with the world. They’re a critical part of our psyche. Teeth show up with surprising frequency in dreams. The statistics on this are impressive. Using teeth, losing teeth, having teeth crack or rot or fall out. Or being victimized by the teeth of someone or something else. We’re born with the instinct to suck. Our instincts about teeth may be even more deeply rooted. Sucking is for mammals. Our wiring for teeth goes back to amphibian and reptilian ancestors. Teeth mean mastery and control. Or the opposite, if our teeth don’t work, if foreign teeth find us.

Q: Garris’ experience as an American soldier in Russia was a chapter of history I was unaware of.

RS: It was strangely similar to what happened in Korea and Vietnam, but on a smaller scale. From Woodrow Wilson’s perspective, it was geopolitics. Russia under the czar was an American ally against the Kaiser, but when the Russian Revolution occurred, the Bolsheviks wanted nothing to do with the Great War. So Wilson sent American soldiers to fight them. The soldiers ended up burning down villages and killing peasants, which made no sense to anyone except Wilson.