In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly called Revelation “an enthralling thriller” and Booklist declared the book “a sledgehammer of a novel … a powerful story … an intense experience for those who can take it.”
The launch of Revelation comes on the heels of Wilson’s third book, The Comfort of Black, which garnered several awards including the 2016 Colorado Book Award in the thriller category.
A full review follows this e-mail exchange with Wilson about his writing and the dark idea that sparked Revelation.
Denver-area readers should note that Carter Wilson has a launch event scheduled at The Tattered Cover on Friday, Jan. 13 (7 p.m. at the Colfax store).
Question: Where in the heck did you get the idea for Revelation? What was the point of inspiration?
Carter Wilson: Oh, I was musing about how difficult it would be to start a modern-day religion, and how only a group of college kids would have the hubris to try. But really it all started with the opening scene—Harden in a cell, alone with a body and a typewriter. I thought of those images and asked myself, what does that mean? The story grew from trying to answer that question.
Question: Wyland University—based on anything from real life? Where did you go to college and did you encounter any characters like Coyote?
Carter Wilson: There are definitely some similarities in the college aspect. I went to school at Cornell University in upstate New York, in the same time Revelation is set (late-eighties). And, like the book, I had three roommates my senior year, but no one was Coyote. I did draw on some aspects of Coyote’s intellect from one of my roommates, but not his evil.
Question: Do you have something you’d like to get off your chest about cults and the power of myth-making? What is the difference between a cult and “a church of people who believe in themselves more than anything else”? Is it a human need to “turn to something greater for guidance”? Can you get “people” to believe in something new?
Carter Wilson: I definitely have strong opinions about organized belief systems, whether you call them religions or cults. I do think there is a human need to believe in something larger than ourselves, and there’s a true sense of community in seeking out like-minded individuals searching for the same answers. But it doesn’t take much to turn one person’s desperation into another person’s power. There’s nothing new to believe in, but there are tried and true appeals to people hopes and fears that can turn any kind of leader into a demagogue. Looking back on this book, there are a lot of parallels between Coyote’s rise and Trump. Both men are wealthy, bored, egomaniacs who feast on the loyalty and devotion of others. Both also scare the shit out of me.
Question: For Harden, how did you go about developing his character? He seems to capture that perfect college-age vulnerability and yet also is forced to make some very tough choices (to say the least) as the story progresses. Did you know to what extent you were going to punish him when you started Revelation?
Carter Wilson: The core of much of what I write is subjecting a “normal” person to an extraordinarily bad set of circumstances, and then see how they deal with it. I wanted Harden to have to survive by his wits, not his physical strength. But I also wanted him to draw from his own past as a victim of abuse to get to the point where he overcomes what he perceives as weakness and turn it into his own power. This is a profound metamorphosis for someone his age, but I liked the fact he had to make that change, because his only other option was death.
I don’t think I did know how much abuse Harden was going to receive in this book when I set out, but I wanted to keep testing his limits to force him to look at things differently. I wanted to push him to the point of horror where he entered almost a meditative state, a place where his mind could open to new possibilities.
Carter Wilson: I am the quintessential pantser. In fact, just knowing I wanted to write about a group of college kids trying to start a religion on campus was more of an outline than I usually have. I had that general idea, and then I wrote the opening scene with no idea who anyone was, and developed the story as I went along. I never have an idea about the ending ahead of time, and often not long before I’m to the point of actually writing. Not knowing is what makes the whole process of writing fun for me. It also makes for lots of revisions.
Question: How do go about approaching the violence? How do you know when enough is enough?
Carter Wilson: That’s a tough thing to judge, because every reader has their own limits. I certainly can think of books where the violence was too much for me (I have a surprisingly low personal limit for violence in other author’s books). Sometimes it’s based on feedback from my agent or by members in my critique group.
That being said, violence is one of the most powerful tools I have in my books. My stories are about everyday people, and everyday people experience little to no personal violence throughout the course of their lives. So when extreme violence does occur, it’s a profound and life-altering moment. That’s the impact I’m going for. I’m not so interested in writing violence for the sake of it, but rather forcing the reader to truly feel how would I feel if this happened to me?
Question: What are you reading? What writers do you respect? Or do you care to mention any overlooked writers you like but most of us don’t know?
Carter Wilson: I certainly don’t read as much as I’d like to, and my reading is usually limited to bedtime. That being said, I read every day, and I’m not limited to any one genre. On my nightstand right now I have So, Anyway…, which is John Cleese’s memoir (I was always a huge Python fan), and also Cyber World, a cyber-punk anthology published by Hex Publishers and edited by Josh Viola and Jason Heller.
I’ll read anything new by Stephen King and enjoy any book that’s just different. I always appreciate mainstream fiction that surprises me, like Gone Girl or Defending Jacob.
Question: The Comfort of Black won the Colorado Book Award this year. What did that mean to you?
Carter Wilson: Truly thrilling and a hell of a surprise. I’m very honored to be included with some of the great Colorado authors.
Question: What’s in the pipeline? What’s next?
Carter Wilson: I recently sold a book to Sourcebooks Landmark, which will be coming out in February 2018. Honestly, I think it’s the best story I’ve ever written, and I’m pleased to have an editor who is very excited to get it on the market. It’s loosely based on a story of two teen girls who stabbed another girl over an obsession with a graphic novel character. It takes a look at the victim fourteen years after the crime and examines who she is now and how she deals with the horrors of her past suddenly coming back into her life.
Carter Wilson’s website.
Opening line: “Harden opened his eyes to blackness just as something began crawling into his mouth.”
From there, in the brisk few pages that comprise the harrowing opening chapter of Carter Wilson’s Revelation, things get worse.
First, Harden hurts just about everywhere. He’s lying on the “cold hardness of scratchy earth.” He can only see the kind of darkness that comes “from the inside of a coffin buried deep in the ground.”
In this dark space, Harden Campbell uncovers a fair amount of harsh and horrific reality, including the dead body of his friend, Derek.
In his painful and confusing situation, Harden realizes that “Coyote” is involved in his predicament, but he can’t quite get his around all the details except he knows it’s all tangled up with what Coyote and one of his key sayings: The hard part isn’t believing in a god. The hard part is choosing the right one to follow.
And then Harden discovers a simple table with a typewriter. Someone has left a four-word message on the stack of a blank pages: Tell me a story.
We soon flip back nine months, to September 1989, when Harden Campbell meets Coyote thanks to an errant Frisbee that whacks Harden in the face and knocks out a tooth. We’re at bucolic Wyland University and what unfolds between a more innocent version of Harden, a well-off, BMW-driving Wiley “Coyote” Martin, and a young woman named Emma with “bright green eyes.”
The Harden-Coyote contrast is stark. Coyote is from privilege, Harden from a blue-collar family. Harden “accumulated just enough scholastic and philanthropic achievements” in high school “to make a ripple on Wyland’s application.” Coyote, on the other hand, buys hundred-dollar shirts and never irons them. “Coyote circled the periphery of society, around and around, trying to decide if he wanted in or out.”
And then Coyote comes up with an idea based on something Harden wrote about religion and soon we are off in an interesting exploration into belief systems, myth-making, the power of persuasion, and the power of storytelling in forming religious organizations. (As homework prep for Revelation, consider a twin-bill of the documentaries “Religulous” and “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.”)
Harden, from his cell, must write a story that is his ticket to freedom. The story he produces must recount one guy’s ability to build a religion around, well, nothing other than the power of story. So Revelation flips back and forth from the burgeoning relationship between Coyote and Harden to Harden’s efforts to extract himself from his trap.
Coyote’s erstwhile religion has a Seinfeld-like surrealism to it and some accompanying visual trickery (the myth-making), but there’s no laugh track here. Wilson ratchets the suspense with each brisk chapter and, as Coyote’s megalomania comes into full bloom, anyone who has been to college will recognize this out-size, self-important, cock-sure character who enjoys building a loyal flock of hangers-on or, in this case, would-be worshipers.
Revelation relies on a credible bad guy and Coyote is just that. He’s not a guy you want to cross, as Harden discovers in quite wicked fashion. But don’t worry. Harden will be fine. As long as he come up with the right words.