One Question Interview: Matthew J. Trafford

03Mar11

Matthew J. Trafford has published fiction widely in magazines and anthologies, including I.V. Lounge Nights, and Darwin’s Bastards: Astounding Tales from Tomorrow. He won the Far Horizons award for Short Fiction, received an honourable mention at the National Magazine Awards, and has twice been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Prize. His first collection of stories is The Divinity Gene.

Your title story in the collection — The Divinity Gene — has Christ cloned, and it struck me that are enough ideas for at least a few more stories.  It also seemed to be about old world versus new world values, and that’s reflected in your own changing styles for different sections of the story.  Is that fair to say, and what inspired the story?

In the story, Maciej’s father is born in 1882, and the “Poplopedia” post is last updated in 2029, meaning on some level the story spans 147 years. The amount of technological change experienced in the last century is far greater than in any other single century previous. So I think technological change is as much a part of what’s reflected in the different voices and styles of the story’s three sections as values are, but of course value systems deeply impact how we create and use technology. The more religious characters in the story do tend to be from the old world, while the new world characters are more secular and focused on technology, pleasure, and profit. But I wasn’t trying to imply one was better than the other, and the styles also have to do with what information the reader needs and how best to get it across. For example, talking about the fate of thousands of Jesus clones (Jesi) required an omniscient voice and a quick, informative, style – an encyclopedia entry seemed perfect for that, and an online one made sense given the fact that section of the story is set slightly in the future. Jordan’s section had to be first person so we could understand his internal workings, his motivations and his guilt. The third section tells the story of why Maciej would want to do such a thing as clone Jesus — but since we already know the horrible results of what happens, the tone of this section – which also deals his with childhood and schooling — is the most innocent and almost nostalgic (though ultimately misguided).

“The Divinity Gene” may contain many disparate ideas and styles, but the core inspiration for it was truly the Eucharistic miracles discussed in the middle section. I was thinking about these rare miracles, in which, supposedly, the bread and wine at a Catholic mass literally and physically change to flesh and blood, and which have been verified to some extent by science. I was struck how if you take spirituality and faith out of the equation, these events would still present intriguing human mysteries — if there’s no God miraculously changing these substances, then there must be a human conspiracy of extreme proportion underway, to covertly get real human blood and real human heart tissue into these churches. I started thinking about whose heart had been sliced to perpetuate this hoax, how it could have been done — and then, swung back again to the possibility of these miracles being real, the tissue actually being that of the historical Christ. I’m not sure what I believe about these miracles at the end of the day, but that idea of having Jesus’s flesh, his very DNA, is what led me to wonder what might happen if we tried to clone Jesus Christ. Subsequent to the story’s publication, I’ve found out that there are several other works of fiction that examine the possibility of cloning Christ –but usually the genetic source material is taken from the Shroud of Turin — mine is the only story I know of that deals with Eucharistic miracles.

Another inspiration for the story was a conversation I remembered from my Catholic high school in which one of my fellow students asked our religion teacher why God didn’t just perform miracles all the time, in order to make contemporary people believe in Him. My teacher answered that witnessing miracles did not necessarily lead to faith — to prove this, he cited all the doubters in the Bible, people who knew and lived with Jesus and saw miracles firsthand but still did not believe. This idea was new to me, and stayed with me, and eventually expressed itself in the story — both in Jordan Shaw’s assertion that seeing the host bleed (a Eucharistic miracle) was nothing so out of the ordinary that it warranted a conversion of conscience, heart, or religious faith, and also in Maciej’s misguided motivation for cloning Christ in the first place, wanting contemporary people to be able to witness Christ’s miracles and thereby come to faith. The words of my teacher in high school — that seeing isn’t believing, that faith is a decision, that witnessing miracles today would not automatically make believers of us all — is what led me to think about how we might desecrate and exploit a contemporary Jesus — especially if He came to us through cloning and commercially controlled science.

The third inspiration — I can’t seem to get away from threes with this story, a number which has its own religious associations — came from pop culture rather than religion: the film American Beauty, which I love. There’s a scene in that movie in which a teenage boy steals a key from his father in order to open a locked hutch and show his neighbour-girlfriend one of his father’s most prized possessions: a set of original official dinnerware from the Nazi Party, in mint condition. This moment haunted me. When I was working on the middle section of the story, trying to figure out how to get Jesus’s DNA from inside a church into the hands of geneticist Dr. Maciej Wawrzyniec, I knew that I wanted a wealthy photographer of holy artifacts to steal them. But another devout religious character wouldn’t really add anything to the story, and just didn’t feel right. Then I remembered the Nazi plate in American Beauty, and that’s when Jordan Shaw and his “Cabinet of Human Atrocities” was born — a person who is fascinated with human evil, and who collects and reveres unholy relics. It seemed to work, and Jordan has become one of the most memorable and living characters in both the story and the entire book.

I hope this answers your question.

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