Short Bio: Duane Poncy and Patricia J McLean live and write in Portland, Oregon. Their latest novel, Ghosts of Saint-Pierre, was published in October 2022. Duane is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation
1. If you had to describe yourself in three words, what would they be?
Curious, compassionate, tenacious.
2. Skyrmion: Book One of the Sweetland Quartet is your latest novel. Could you provide us with an overview of the book and its themes?
Overwhelmed by climate change, economic and social disaster, America is on the verge of collapse. By the millions, people are escaping into the virtual reality of New Life, including protagonist Joe Larivee’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Jessie. Except Jessie and many others believe there is a portal to a new world, Sweetland, where a new society is being built. Meanwhile virtual private eye, Claire Deluna, has uncovered some unsettling truths about New Life and Sweetland. Why are the bodies of young people world-wide being found in warehouses, donning virtual reality glasses? Do you have to be willing to die on Earth to be reborn on Sweetland?
The main themes of Skyrmion are the nature of hope, false hope and escapism. Do we choose to find hope in escape or in resistance? What if Sweetland is a real opportunity to build a more ideal society? And what is the personal cost? I explore the concepts of solidarity and utopian idealism which, I believe, are necessary counterpoints to building the future.
3. You co-authored Ghosts of Saint-Pierre with your wife, Patricia J McLean. Can you tell us about the collaborative writing process and how you both bring your individual strengths to the project?
Patricia and I have a very compatible writing style and aesthetic, which I think is key to our successful collaboration. One of my strengths is plot, setting up the framework for the story. Patricia is strong on detail, fleshing out the characters, the environment and so forth. We devote a lot of time to talking through the details. Ghosts of Saint-Pierre is our second joint effort, so we have established a smooth working relationship when it comes to collaborating. For our first cooperative venture, Bartlett House, the two of us switched off between drafting and rewriting in equal measure, a process we loved. Because Patricia had full-time employment and limited time to spend on the book, Ghosts of Saint-Pierre was different. She wrote what she could, but I hammered out much of the first draft, which is very loosely based on the life of my grandfather. I think it was more difficult this way, but successful in the end.
4. The protagonist, Joe Larivee, is torn between following his daughter and lover to Sweetland or staying behind to fight for the less fortunate. How does Joe’s character evolve throughout the story, and what internal conflicts does he grapple with?
Joe’s two big internal conflicts are overcoming his growing cynicism, and coming to terms with the past arrest and disappearance of his radical parents, whom he believes he betrayed. Over the course of the novel, he also struggles with the potential loss of his daughter, whose youthful idealism highlights his cynical view of the world and his own impotency in the face of reactionary changes around him. In the end he regains a sense of hope, if not in his personal life, then in his ability to help those to whom he has dedicated his life.
5. Claire Deluna, the virtual private eye, is entangled in a web of mystery and danger surrounding Sweetland and New Life, Inc. Can you provide some insights into Claire’s role in the story and how her investigation intertwines with the larger narrative?
Claire Deluna is the avatar of Bridge Whitedeer, a young woman who neglects her real life in favor of her rewarding virtual career. Claire is working for New LIfe, auditing new corporate acquisitions when Joe, concerned about his daughter, hires her to help him find out the nature of Sweetland. Claire/Bridge becomes Joe’s love interest. When she discovers that young people are dying in the real world in the name of Sweetland, it sets Joe on a race to rescue his daughter.
6. Virtual reality plays a significant role in the novel, particularly through the concept of New Life. How does the exploration of virtual reality tie into the broader themes of the book, such as escapism, identity, and the impact of technology on society?
Virtual Reality offers an “opiate for the masses” who are in desperate circumstances, starving, hopeless. But in virtual reality, do we simply reproduce the mundanity of our lives? Or do we use it to transcend? Why do we recreate the familiar, when given the tools to reimagine the world? This echoes a main theme of the Sweetland Quartet as a whole. What is the nature of reality, and how do we overcome our entrenched assumptions about it?
7. Jessie Larivee, a fourteen-year-old character, is determined to emigrate to Sweetland. What challenges does she face in convincing her father to join her, and how does their relationship evolve as they navigate the decision to leave Earth?
At first, she must overcome her father’s cynicism, and as he becomes more aware of the true nature of his daughter’s plans to escape, the effort to convince him of the reality becomes futile. Joe is ruled by his fear for Jessie’s life, but Jessie has chosen autonomy, and eventually she breaks away. The relationship moves from one that is beginning to crack, the way parent-teen relationships do, to one where the father is desperate to save his child and she is desperate to survive on her own terms.
8. The presence of bodies turning up, predominantly young and poor individuals, raises questions about the Temple of New Life and its connection to Sweetland. Can you give us a glimpse into the mysteries and secrets surrounding these events without giving away too much?
In the minds of those left behind, crossing to Sweetland is no different than death. This leads to questions about the nature of reality. Is Sweetland real, or is it a scam? Are people uploading their consciousness, and to where? Another virtual reality, or a new world?
The Temple of New Life, with its Gnostic trappings and rapid growth, has all of the markers of a cult. The disaffected youth who are involved see it more like an intriguing role-playing game with tests and feats designed to screen out unsuitable emigrants to Sweetland.
9. Portland, Oregon, is known for its vibrant literary community. How has living in Portland influenced your writing and connected you with other writers and readers?
Portland is our long-time home and are very rooted here. Our literary support networks are here and in other parts of the Pacific Northwest. We hosted a monthly poetry reading for a few years that helped us develop connections with writers in the area.
10. Elohi Gadugi, the nonprofit literary organization and publishing imprint you founded in 2003, has played a significant role in the literary community. Could you tell us more about the mission and goals of Elohi Gadugi, and how it has evolved over the years?
We founded Elohi Gadugi and The Habit of Rainy Nights Press specifically to publish Raising Our Voices, an Anthology of Oregon Poets Against the War, so its mission in the beginning was very political. In addition to speaking out against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we wanted to be a voice for marginalized people, so that became a key part of our mission. We established the online Elohi Gadugi Journal in 2011 and published until 2016, when we folded it all up to concentrate on our own writing. The magazine’s tagline was “Narratives for New World.” In addition, we organized monthly Readings at Milepost 5 which opened up a place for local voices. We feel we were very successful in our mission, but after my lifetime of activism, I felt it was time to focus on my own dreams for a while.
11. Have there been any memorable experiences or standout moments from your involvement with Elohi Gadugi and The Habit of Rainy Nights Press that you’d like to share with us?
One of the highlights for me was when Ursula K Le Guin, my literary hero, agreed to write the forward for Raising Our Voices. We also published the marvelous Like The Sun in Storm by Ralph Salisbury, a fellow Cherokee author and poet, whom I counted as a friend when he was still alive. We have been touched by so many wonderful writers, among whom are Shelley Davidow, and Brittney Corrigan whom we had the honor of publishing. Eye of the Moon was Davidow’s first novel and Navigation was Corrigan’s first collection of poetry.
13. Can you share some insights into your research process for “Ghosts of Saint-Pierre”? How did you balance historical accuracy with the fictional elements of the story?
We did a ton of research for this book, including spending time on the island of Martinique and in the city of Saint-Pierre. We traveled to other settings, such as Quebec, Ontario, Arizona and Rhode Island. Historical accuracy was essential to us. We had a good idea of what we wanted to achieve, based on my genealogical research into my grandfather, and some intriguing questions about his life, but we knew very little about that actual life. So we wanted to place our fictional version of that life in an accurate setting as much as possible. We read many books about this period, including other fiction set in Saint-Pierre, Martinique, and other parts of the French Caribbean. With the new interest in colonialism in academia, there have been a lot of translated works published in the past few years. We also did the same for the other settings in the book, including travel and time-specific research.
14. As a writer, how did you approach portraying the ghosts in the novel? What role do they play in advancing the narrative and addressing the protagonist’s personal and collective histories?
Our approach was more in the manner of magical realism than what many would think of as a ghost story. Our ghosts were actual people involved in Paul’s life, except Sylbaris, who represents Paul’s relationship to Martinique and its colonial legacy. Paul’s other ghosts are spirits born more of grief and loss, and the novel includes a complete children’s story about his first daughter, who died in the eruption of Mt. Pelée. In The Adventures of Yvonne, he invents her life for his living daughter, Theresa.
We can only try to imagine the impact of loss on this scale and how Paul would have struggled to come to terms with it. With very few exceptions, everyone he knew, including his entire family, died in the eruption of Mount Pelée. The ghosts illustrate this coming to terms with both the loss of his world and his inheritance of privilege and debt as a white man of Martinique.
15. The poisonous legacies of slavery and colonialism are explored in the book. How do you navigate these sensitive and complex subjects, and what conversations or discussions do you hope the novel will spark?
One of facts which spurred this novel was my grandfather’s relationship to Stèphanie, a young mixed race woman who bore two of his children. Many whites in Saint-Pierre, especially males, had long-term relationships with mixed race partners. Many eventually married. But what I found unusual was the fact that my grandfather registered the births himself and claimed parentage. That, to me, spoke of a certain kind of relationship, and a certain kind of man.
Our most important apprehension was how white authors can address these issues without being condescending or appropriating. It is a very fraught sort of time to be writing stories like this about a culture to which you don’t belong. So we wanted to be as sensitive as possible. We could find very little work about this period of colonial oppression in the French Antilles written from the perspective of the privileged class. We have explored our own relationships to our individual family histories, some of which include the enslavement of others. We find that there is no reconciling ourselves to this past, but we must acknowledge it. We used this understanding in exploring these themes in the novel.
We would love to hear questions about the interactions between Sylbaris and Paul and those between Paul and his grandfather — especially, the interactions between the ghost of Sylbaris and Paul. Of course, we would like people to reflect on what it means to be a privileged individual in the face of history, and what is owed to address the injustices of the past and present.
16. What advice would you give to a writer working on their first book? What are common traps for new authors?
Do your research, get second and third opinions, and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.
Everyone has their own approach to writing a story. Though it may be tempting to write a stream of consciousness, it is important to know where the story is going.
Self-doubt and over-confidence can both plague new authors – actually any author regardless of their experience. It is important to know why you are writing and what you need to do to improve your skill.
We’ve heard a number of want-to-be authors say they don’t read novels. If you want to write well, read well and often. Don’t limit yourself to one genre or bestsellers. Explore novels in translation.
Hone your observation skills. Eavesdrop on the conversations of strangers. Examine your own motivations, triggers, beliefs, personal histories. What makes you, you? The more you understand yourself, the better you can shape your characters.
17. Do you have other writers in the family and friends?
We have many friends who are writers, including poets and fiction writers. Many of them came to us through our publishing and organized readings. To our knowledge, there are no other writers in the family who write for publication.
18. Would you like to share something about your upcoming work?
Patricia has joined me in working on the next book of The Sweetland Quartet, titled Degrees of Freedom, which picks up several years after Skyrmion. Taking place entirely on Sweetland, it follows Jessie and her half-sister, Molly, and features Bridge, Jolene, Matt Dillon, and others from the first book. And it introduces aliens, making it a first-contact novel. In addition, it strengthens the Native-American element, which will be expanded even further in the final two books.
Although I’m not particularly involved in identity politics, as a Cherokee author I have a deep affinity for this piece of my ancestral heritage. Another book I am currently working on is a police procedural about a policewoman who is a former Cherokee Nation Marshall and her anarchist hacker sidekick.
Discover “Skyrmion: Book One of the Sweetland Quartet,” an immersive cyberpunk dystopian thriller that will leave you on the edge of your seat. Join Joe Larivee, a tireless social worker, as he navigates a world on the brink of collapse, where hope lies in a newly discovered Earth-like planet called Sweetland. Follow his determined daughter, Jessie, on her quest for a better future. Uncover dark secrets and thrilling mysteries in a virtual reality-driven society. This captivating novel explores themes of hope, identity, and the cost of escape. Get your copy now on Amazon and get ready for an adrenaline-pumping adventure.