About the Book
A Q&A with Rich Shapero
Q: So Garris is like a disillusioned Vietnam vet.
RS: Yes. His allegiance to America is shaken by his military experience. His father and uncle were driven out of Canada because of their French heritage. I imagined Garris might have donned his uncle’s beret after coming back from Russia, as a sign of his estrangement.
Q: I enjoyed his carpenter’s-eye view of the world.
RS: My grandfather was a woodworker, and so was my uncle. I spent a lot of time with wood as a child. For me, writing from inside Garris was a treat.
Q: The result of the slide is grim.
RS: It is. The way people respond to accidental tragedy has fascinated me all my life. When I was a teenager, I read a Thornton Wilder novel about a bridge that fell in Latin America. After the disaster, a priest attempts to find out what it was about the people on the bridge that made God take their lives. Wilder made fun of the priest and his search, which I didn’t care for. But the premise for the story stuck with me.
But it took a long, long time to matriculate. I learned about the real meaning of morality and justice from my first wife, and as I was coming into that understanding, the story idea for Rightful emerged. That was in 1976 and 1977. I wrote most of the music back then. I worked on the text off and on for the next three decades, but I was mostly focused on other things.
The project came full center again in 2014 and 2015. We began to record the ballads. But we hit a snag when it came to “casting” Kiachuk. It took two years to find Hollie Fullbrook, so again Rightful was put off. In 2020, the coronavirus struck, and the world turned apocalyptic. That put me in the Rightful mood, so I waded back in.
Q: For Astley, the slide is a deus ex machina. But it’s a strange one.
RS: Generally a deus ex machina is used to bring a story to a desired closure. In this case, it prevents any of the expected closures from occurring—at least in the surface world. Beneath the slide, something else is going on.
Q: At the end, Garris faces the slide, the “source of blizzards.” Do you think we’ve lost sight of the threats we face as part of being alive?
RS: In the wealthy countries, our lives are coddled. The pandemic that struck in 2020 may have been, with all its cruelties, a needed correction. This is the life other creatures live. These are the conditions our forebears survived for millennia. There is only one gift that comes with opening your eyes and drawing your first breath. All the other gifts and principles, rights and rules, slices and privileges are things we’ve imagined.
Q: Do you think it’s important for us to carry the unavoidability of death with us? To keep it close?
RS: Critically important. If we don’t, we turn life into a web of trivia—entertainments, diversions, pointless lusts and thrills. And it’s in that moral vacuum that the fascination with brutality creeps in. That’s the tragedy of our Roman culture, in my opinion. The loss of meaning. The amnesia, the forgetfulness about the value in life, about what life can be.
Q: The peace Garris finds at the end seems like a discovery of something interior, but it’s also an acceptance, a resignation.
RS: Yes, it is. The modern desire to right all wrongs through social action is laudable, but misguided in many respects. There are things about the human condition we have to accept, like death and Tom Astley. I’ve been a student of the country blues all my life. There’s a great wisdom in that music. Like Biblical wisdom, it was born from slavery. Willie McTell, Blind Willie Johnson, Son House and the rest— The country blues is about acceptance. There is no more powerful expression of that outlook than the conflict between Willie McTell and John Lomax preserved for posterity in the Library of Congress recordings. Willie understood the universality of the blues. He was black and blind, but he was wise. Lomax was not. A wisdom like Willie’s is the foundation for human harmony, I think.
Q: As in your other novels, belief figures prominently—in this case, the belief that John and Yvetta hatch.
RS: Most of the “developed” world has lost belief, and I don’t think we can survive without it. The beliefs of our predecessors don’t work for us, because they’re incompatible with science and reason. But material wealth, sports, political conflict, entertainment, social networking—these things won’t sustain a civilization. They aren’t nourishing our souls and spirits. We will perish without belief. We are perishing now.
Q: In writing this story, you drew on personal experiences in the Arctic?
RS: Yes. I’ve wandered “The Teeth”—the Kigluaik Mountains, north of Nome—at all seasons. My wife and I ran dogs with Jerry Austin, who did the Iditarod eighteen times before he died. And I spent time in Eskimo villages with a friend who lived with the natives for many years, teaching school.
Q: One of the most arresting images of the novel is the “giant screw-thread” that is the aurora borealis, which you depict as having a will and purpose of its own, signaling to Garris “the dawn of some other world.” Did the northern lights inspire the idea for the novel?
RS: They certainly helped. The aurora and the darkness in winter can make the Arctic feel like another dimension. That, combined with the Inupiaq idea of the kazgi, gave me a way to externalize the concept of justice that Garris finds and embraces.