Author interview: The multi-layered immersions of Gregory Ness

I’m starting the new month with an author interview and although I have reviewed both Antioch (full length novel) and Alexandria (a novella continuation of the same series) recently, Gregory Ness has continued to bounce around sublime observations and interestingly untested points on Goodreads and I always get the feeling that he’s not one to avoid a fascinating conversation if there are receptive brains in the room to rattle. is Gregory’s website and there you can find links to the books in which he blends historical fiction with the modern and future world through description, cameos and dreamscapes.

I have to say that if you are planning to get accidentally sealed in an ancient Egyptian tomb for a few days this summer, you could sling fruit for three months from the steps of the Cairo Museum without hitting a single raconteur who could fill the time with classical conversation as well as this author.

Why do respectable and level-headed people from the Silicon Valley world of technological, engineering and communications business, like yourself, become futurologist dreamers poking the weak spots in reality and testing the boundaries of fiction?

Gregory Ness: I’m not sure there are that many level-headed people in Silicon Valley, at least when it comes to the tech startup scene. We’re all a bit crazy under the hood. The Valley is a kind of breeding ground for people who want to take a few pokes at reality or even peel back a few layers to get to something no one has considered.
I’m surprised more techies haven’t made the leap. I know a few who would be brilliant. For me personally it was about getting a good sleep. I was being woken by disturbing dreams that finally dissipated when I started writing.

I think I agree with the techie comment. There should be a public programme to round up brilliant minds and force them to write sci-fi fantasy – and there’ll be no more pizza until they do!

What are your favourite artworks and objects from the ancient world of Egypt, Greece or Rome and what message can we learn from them?

Gregory Ness: Since 2005 I’ve been fascinated with the Pantheon, obelisks and images of very old temples. For me they symbolize what can be lost and that there was probably a time when people had convinced themselves that their legacies and institutions would be permanent.

Well, that’s true. Whether it lasts five minutes or eighty years, buildings and consumer items are now effectively rented for a limited duration. Like the cultures and religions far behind us, permanency has also become a myth and we don’t have to wait for entropy to wear things down because our designers inflict calculated obsolescence upon us. “Let’s build something that lasts!” – “I can’t tell if you’re mad but you’re clearly not an economist. If it doesn’t break, how would you sell them another one?”

How do you manage the boundary between historical record, science fiction and fantasy?

Gregory Ness: I like to respect the historical record because it is a kind of consensus as to what likely happened. I’ll deviate when I feel like history is too much a victim of the victor. For example, Cleopatra’s suicide at the end of the Ptolemy era. I like fiction to be authentic and grounded. Surreal. I want to feel as if I’m so deep in a scene that I can smell Caesar’s cologne or the scent of the dead on bonfires drifting through the air.
I’m not looking for an escape but rather a kind of deep, layered immersion. I want to be there in as true a reality as possible. Not because I want to live in the past. Hell no. I want to know just how barbaric and depraved it was, beyond the veil of Hollywood and the normal fiction conventions. “Et tu, Brute?” was never enough for me. And I think there is a lesson: we don’t want to go back. We want our institutions. We don’t want them to run our lives but we do want them there to put out our fires, etc.

That reminds me of something Joyce Grenfell is supposed to have said: “Anarchy is all very well young man, but who will be responsible for the drains?”

When I ask people what their influences and inspirations have been, they’ve mentioned everything from the classics to a throwaway moment, from polar explorers to The Muppet Show. Where do you see yourself on that scale and which unique people or great ideas might be responsible for getting you there?

Gregory Ness: I have a long list. I’ve sprinkled a few like Easter eggs throughout Antioch and Alexandria. The first books to really stir me were Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. They set me on my journey.

I’d love to see something I can’t explain, something to make me question whether everything I’ve ever learned about reality is wrong. Sadly, practical explanations have always served and despite an open mind, no supernatural occurrences have ever happened to me. Have you ever witnessed anything inexplicable or had one of those moments where you’ve had to question whether our dimension and the physical laws of the Universe are all that there is?

Gregory Ness: Yes. I’m certain it will happen when you least expect it, perhaps after you’ve given up thinking about it. I wasn’t looking. I was in my forties. If it had happened sooner I’m not sure how I would have handled it.

Intriguing…  particularly as a major theme in the book is close to the sort of experience subjects have reported from past life hypnotic regression. If any readers have tried this, please get in touch and tell me what happened.

What is ‘dark energy’ and should we dabble before we understand? 

Gregory Ness: It’s a massive force proven to exist but only through indirect effects, not direct observation. And I’m certain there is a theoretical physicist somewhere who will disagree with me. By its nature it is an unknown, so could be described as anything larger beyond our ability to reason.

Thank you for your time Gregory Ness and I hope the readers out there who have not yet read Antioch to start the series will check out some of the reviews of your multi-layered opus through time and plunge in.