Michelle Belanger’s writing style is fast-paced, and brisk, yet filled with amazing details and nuance. The pace, world, and characters draw you in to an alternate Cleveland. The novel is written in first-person narrative, which is generally something I dislike, but it didn’t take long for me to be drawn into Zack’s head, and actually enjoying the narrative style, especially with Zack’s habit of having a very geeky internal, and external, monologue. The world is both dark and serious, but also lightened by Zack’s inappropriately geeky sense of humour, and the fact that most century old angels don’t get pop-culture references.
In addition to being a fun and compelling urban fantasy, the Shadowside series is Belanger’s well-researched attempt to flesh out the mythology of the Watcher Angels. The world of the Shadowside takes the myth of the Sons of God, and creates a world where the various tribes of angels settled among humans, but over time they have nearly destroyed each other. These figures are placed in the modern world, with the threat of a new war on the horizon.
If you like angels, or urban fiction, then Harsh Gods, the second book in the Shadowside Trilogy will probably be up your alley and worth your time.
Kalagni: You’re an occult author, you’ve written scores on various topics in magick, so why this switch to writing fiction?
Michelle Belanger: Initially it was because I had gotten really tired of writing over and over again pretty much the same stuff. There are only so many books that I can write and teach people how to make an energy ball and teach them grounding, centring, shielding. Unfortunately the vast majority of occult books and occult publishers, although advanced readers always call for 401 work, they really don’t let you get away with just going straight to the 401 work. Also, frankly, if you talk about advanced magical techniques, you sound batshit crazy. It’s all fairly personal, a lot of the techniques are intensely subjective, at least our experience of it, and when you have really managed to get to that level of stuff it sounds like fiction.
With that in mind I watched the good that two writer friends of mine had managed to accomplish by incorporating real techniques and concepts into their fiction. Their fiction is not pretending to be anything but fiction, but at the same time Jim Butcher‘s description of the meaning of a pentacle is probably one of the most lucid I have found, even though it’s in the Dresden Files. Laurell K. Hamilton talks about the real-world impact of empathetic links and the sort of emotional spillage that happens in sort of multiple-partnered systems when many of them are psychic and sensitive, and in putting it in the course of the story and making it a part of the story not only does she make it very relevant to readers but even someone who doesn’t have a background in the occult groks it by the time they are done with those books.
So, I saw the value of myth, story-making, as a teaching tool, and on a broader scope it’s tempting to want to poo-poo any kind of occult or real magical material that ends up in fiction and yet we know that parables, we know that myths are how we encode so much information over time. I figured I’d put my Joseph Campbell background where my mouth was and try some myth-making of my own.
You have done other works regarding the angels, the Watcher Angel mythos you’re drawing on. You’ve done the Watcher Angels Tarot with Jackie Williams, you did a CD, Blood of Angels, so there is a stream you’ve been developing of trying to flesh out this myth it seems.
I hit the point in the research that I had to admit that you just can’t go any further beyond story and conjecture. There is not enough material that has survived, the translations of Enoch are sparse, the bits that survive in the Dead Sea Scrolls are in fragments, I mean they are seriously fragmented. The Dream Vision of Amram is the one that comes to mind, where you have the tiny little reference to the Sons of Light and Sons of Darkness, and Michael and Belial. Bits and pieces are layered over with three great religions’ worth of doctrines, dogma, and interpretation and arguing.
I kind of had to throw my hands up in the air as a researcher and go “I will never know for sure.” If I’m trying to figure out if these beings existed as real people were they a different culture that is being viewed through a different lens? Are they honestly otherworldly beings? And at that point you have the folks who say they’re aliens and the folks who say they’re spiritual beings. There is no way to know for sure, and it still grips me enough that I wasn’t done exploring it, so the logical conclusion was to explore it in myth.
For the people who aren’t necessarily as familiar with some of the Watcher Angel mythos and the way it appears in The Book of Enoch and the other surviving fragments, how much of your novel would you say is directly drawn from myth and magick, and how much do you think is your own work and where is that line in some cases?
The line gets fuzzy, but there is a lot more hard research in there than I think most people would realize. Like, Anakim is not a word most people recognize right off the bat, and wouldn’t associate with the Watcher Angels, but there is the reference where the Sons of Anak, Goliath is connected to that, and there is the, and I’m not going to quote chapter and verse, but the line is “and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.” That’s when the Children of Israel are sent to basically do reconnaissance and they run across the Anakim. Well, the Anakim are one of the tribes that are descended from the giants, and the giants are the get, the children of the Watcher Angels. Gibburim, Nephilim, and then there is that one weird word that you’ll encounter in certain versions of The Book of Enoch that I consistently forget because it doesn’t end in “-im,” so I’m pretty certain it’s somebody’s fuckup along the way. Rephaim also, which in Judaism becomes the Shades, or the Blessed Dead, or the Ancestral Dead depending on which Midrash you’re reading. ((See Michelle Belanger’s article, “Dreamers, shapers, singers, and makers: Magick and the art of storytelling,” for more on this theme.))
I know in some of your talks and books and conversations about using the symbol set that makes sense to you. If you have to picture your energy work as something reminiscent to Star Trek or Star Wars, and it became in my head this kind of weird feedback where people will draw on fiction because it gives them a good symbol set, but here you have fiction drawing on our real world and its fiction. It’s this weird meta-permission that this is an okay way to perceive your magick.
That is definitely part of it, it becomes a feedback loop for us. We find a mythic system that we resonate with really strongly, we use that as the symbol set to channel our magick in that our magick starts to take that shape, starts to take that flavour.
At this point when many people shield, how profoundly has our exposure to watching visual representations on the big screen influence the way we naturally start to picture that? That goes back to the Faust legend. When I was doing research for the Dictionary of Demons on grimoires and summoning magick, and some aspects that we now take for granted with ritual magick, particularly as it is related to summoning, was almost certainly influenced by the portrayals of Faust summoning demons on the stage. There is this reflexive nature which when I was younger I would have had great derision for but as I’ve gotten older I realize power is power and whatever lets you direct that power… fucking use it.
There has been a lot of additional research outside of the mythos that you have done for the books, what do you think is the weirdest detail that you found yourself googling just to make sure it was accurate?
There are so many. If I wasn’t on a watch list before, I’m on a watch list now.
I have had to educate myself on so many issues with explosives firearms and curious and creative ways of killing people. In book one, I had to do a little bit of research to figure out how long, reasonably, it would take someone to joint a desiccated human body. It’s usually some tiny little thing, and suddenly down a rabbit hole of, how does that thing actually work?
I also spent a lot of time trying to figure out how much time it would take to bleed out from a nicked femoral artery.
Definitely on a watch list now.
Oh god, yeah.
You have Halley being severely autistic, you have a fairly multicultural police force and supporting cast of characters, you mentioned the hint about Remiel not being straight, you have Sal being trans. It seems like you’ve put a lot of effort to make the cast of your book very diverse and inclusive in that way, is there anything you want to say about why you did that?
On one hand, it is popular now to play diversity bingo with books and writing, and when it’s really obvious that a writer is playing diversity bingo it irks me to no end. That said, when I set out to write the Shadowside I set it in Cleveland. There are a number of reasons why I picked the city, not merely its proximity to Lake Erie, but also because it’s also a city with a fascinating history that most people never learn anything about. But it’s a very diverse city, it’s a city that has a large African-American population, and then populations of so many other cultures, we are a coast city on the lake, we are a melting pot. The Rockefeller Gardens, the cultural gardens that play a part in the first book are a testament to that. If you google them and look them up, there are pretty much gardens for any ethnic group.
That being said, I took a hard look at what are the actual statistics, the demographics of Cleveland and my rule with myself was this: If in creating a character my default is random white guy, I stop and ask why? What about this is important to this person’s character?
I have an aggressively diverse police force, and that is, on a certain level, a not so subtle magical working on my part. I’m trying to represent our police force as better than it is, as an ideal I would like it to strive for.
First I ask the question, does it have to be a random white guy and, second, what am I saying with these characters? There was a decision with another character who had started off as a minority, and I err on the side of not really describing skin colour with him, his last name is inspired by a black inventor, a Cleveland-based black inventor, but because of some of the complicated things that happened to that character I didn’t want him to be another token minority that bad shit happens to.
Thank you, I like that view, that process. You’ve obviously thought a lot about this, and built a big world. You write compulsively. Do you really think this will stop with the main trilogy, do you think there might be more to it, or spin-offs?
It already hasn’t stopped with the trilogy. While waiting for the go-ahead between editing book one and two, and I got impatient and wrote a novella series. The first novella is Mortal Sins.
The main books always have a huge crisis and it can make it difficult to see the characters, and I wanted to tell a story where you got to see a little more about Zack and Lil on an average day. Or as average as they can have in this world, and that’s where the novella series came in.
Currently there is the trilogy that is contracted; we have also contracted a novella series that will fit between those books. Mortal Sins comes out in October 2016, it will be electronic, and it will be free. We’re just going to give it away as a fun little story, it’s 20,000 words. It’s Zack and Lil and a family of Italian witches that Zack sort of faceplants into the middle of… like you do.
It will be a challenge not to write ridiculous amounts of stuff in this world, and that’s just thinking of the planned arc. The slow unfolding of the conspiracy and how deep the rabbit hole goes and what Zack’s old persona’s involvement was in all of that stuff, and who the bad guy really is, if there is a bad guy at all.