Dustin Thomason: LibraryThing Author Interview
Do you recall what first made you think about combining prions and Mayan prophecies for the plot of 12.21?
That was actually what brought the entire book together for me and is one of the key secrets of the book! The connection is deeply rooted in the culture of the ancient Maya, and closely connected to the original way that prions were discovered. But to really find out, you'll have to read on ...
Your book features a fictional Mayan codex, but there are a few of these that actually exist. Tell us about the codices and their importance in our understanding of Mayan civilization and culture.
Four ancient Maya books still exist of the thousands of screen-folded codices that probably once filled the royal libraries. You can find images of several of them online and see the wondrous work of the ancient scribes that served as the jumping off point for the codex in 12.21. The scribes were meticulous bookkeepers, and in these codices they kept close records of rituals and astronomical matters, all dated according to the all-important cyclical calendars responsible for the 2012 phenomenon. Amazing naked-eye astronomers, many Maya books were almanacs that tracked the movement of Mars and Venus, solstices and equinox, as well constellations eerily similar to our own zodiac. Over the last century, Mayanists have been able to use these four remaining books—named the Dresden, Madrid, Paris and Grolier codices—to bring the most advanced civilization in the pre-Columbian new world back to life.
What's fascinating about 12/21 is how people believe such varying things about what's going to happen. I've met people who believe an apocalypse that ends humanity as we know it is coming, people who believe it will bring a religious rapture, and Luddites who believe it'll cause the kind of technological implosion people expected on Y2K. The end of the Long Count cycle has taken on so many meanings to so many people over the last decades, and that's probably the stickiest part of the 2012 phenomenon: let people believe what they want, create their own projections and you'll get a lot of adherents and interest from all sides. Finally, at least for me, the disappearance of the ancient Maya five hundred years before Columbus lends a great mysteriousness to their prophesies, imbuing them with an even more mystical quality.
So, the big question: is the world going to end on December 21?
Modern ideas about the significance of the end of the Maya Long Count actually started with a desire by new-age spiritualists to imagine a new world, in which we questioned progress and technology and reconnected with nature and the people around us. That seems pretty reasonable to me. And those who believe the apocalypse is nigh can't be dismissed so easily either: from nuclear weapons to unknown microbes to economic collapse to global warming, we live in a very fragile time. When put that way, I'll say this: I sure hope the end of the Long Count cycle brings about some kind of change.
For readers who want to read more about the subjects covered in 12.21, what were some of the most useful sources you found during your research?
Michael D. Coe and Mark Van Stone's Reading the Maya Glyphs is a great guide to the mysterious Maya script, including detailed illustrations and photographs, pronunciation, and translation, making the ancient writing accessible to readers. I used it again and again when imagining the language of the ancient scribe, and the decoding process for the codex that happens in the novel. For more general Maya history, I used Sharer and Traxler's The Ancient Maya takes the reader through the entirety of the ancient era. Everything you ever wanted to know about the culture and history of the people is somewhere in that amazing volume.
There's no better resource for learning about Fatal Familial Insomnia and prions in general than D.T. Max's The Family that Couldn't Sleep. Max is a clear, engaging writer, and takes you on a journey through hundreds of years of prion science, the history of Mad Cow disease, and finally the disease that inspired my book: FFI. Max spent months with the families affected by this strange genetic disease, and uncovered more about the affliction than had ever been known. A must read.
When and where do you do most of your writing?
Mostly at my desk, in my home office in Venice, CA. I have a little window that looks out on the street, but thankfully not the ocean, five blocks away. If I could see the ocean, I'd never get anything done. Usually I work normal hours, try to clock in at nine and out by five. Occasionally I'll think of something at night and write it down, and usually when I come back to it in the morning I realize it was a terrible idea. Sometimes, during the days, the silence in my house gets to be too much so I pack up my laptop and head for a little place called Abbott's Habit on Abbott Kinney in Venice, where you’re practically overdressed if you're wearing shoes, and where the coffee is strong.
What were some of your favorite books growing up?
A Wrinkle in Time. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the book I read and reread as a kid—Daniel Pinkwater's Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy From Mars. Later, I sucked down every Stephen King book I could get my hands on, loving The Stand long before I understood it. Then there was high school and Michael Crichton and The Andromeda Strain, which made me realize becoming a doctor could be cool.
What's your library like today? What sorts of books would we find on your shelves?
A very eclectic mix. On the fiction side, you'd see Stephen King and Michael Crichton and Richard Russo, plus Dan Brown and Dickens and Philip Roth and Delillo and Lehane and Michael Cunningham, to name a few. Many shelves I'm looking at now are taken up by books about the ancient Maya, some of them out of print. In order to write in the voice of a ninth century scribe, I had to immerse myself in most everything that's been written about them. You'd also find dozens of medical textbooks, and a weird assortment of other things on random topics that most people would find absurd. As I glance higher, I see And the Band Played On sandwiched between The Professional Handbook of the Donkey and The White Album. Plus, for Christmas every year, my father used to give us The World Almanac, so there's almost two entire shelves taken up by those alone.
Which books have you read recently that you enjoyed?
Michael Olson's Strange Flesh recently enchanted me with its weird and wonderful mix of hacker noir and depraved hearts, and I just finished William Landay's Defending Jacob, which sucks you in with its compelling voice from page one and takes you on a ride of twists and turns as good as any since Presumed Innocent. I also just went to the Middle East for the first time, and while I was there I read Exodus, which seemed as fresh now as it must have to readers fifty years ago.
Can you tell us a bit about your next project?
All of my books have an international flavor to them, and one of the great things about being a writer is having the opportunity to explore new parts of the world each time. For the next book I'm headed farther south, past the reaches of the Maya jungles and into South America. The escalating intrigue around natural resources in those rapidly developing nations is the backdrop for my newest thriller.
—interview by Jeremy Dibbell
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