Demimonde: interview with Justin Achilli

Demimonde is an urban fantasy novel by Justin Achilli, a game designer best known for his contributions to the Vampire roleplaying games by White Wolf. I read some time ago the Clan Novel Saga, a series of intertwined stories by a collective of authors using the setting of Vampire: The Masquerade. I did like Justin Achilli's style in the parts about the Giovanni and I decided to give his latter, completely unrelated novel a try. After reading Demimonde, I wished to better understand what the author had had in mind and he was gracious enough to reply to the questions below. For better and more recent information about the novel, please direct yourself to Justin's blog.
Beware: spoilers.

We don’t learn what the demimonde factions are about until quite late in the story, and many elements are left in the dark (e.g. of a possible interpretation, is it about reincarnation of archetypal figures?). I guess you did it to build a sense of mystery and prevent readers from getting comfortable, blasé and dismissive (oh, that is some Arthurian myth cult). I understand this is a story, not a sourcebook, but did you consciously draw a line between what you wanted to include (e.g. the religion) and what you wanted to leave out in the dark (who are these people)?

J.A.: I specifically wanted to leave some groups in the dark because in horror and fantasy, it's an effective way to achieve horror and wonder by not explaining everything and letting the reader's mind fill in the blanks or create his own details. For a long time, it's been difficult to get a sense of true horror from the World of Darkness because we have so many sourcebooks that give so many answers, it's easy for a play to say, "Oh, I know what that is," like you mention. As well, I think readers feel a sense of ownership over a world when they invest it with their own imagination, as opposed to having the author dictate everything to them.

About the religion. The two factions are quite evocative of the Circle of the Crone and Lancea Sanctum covenants in Vampire: The Requiem, a book you co-authored. Do you think that religious practices are the most successful tools leaders can use to rally and factionalize people in this day and age? Or that the focus on religious frontlines is perhaps a by-product of the sheer longevity of the unvisible feuds, in the same way the Catholic Church is one of the oldest institutions in the world?

While I will certainly acknowledge the excesses of organized religion, I'm not so cynical as to see religion as purely a tool of manipulation. That's really what the book is about: Brandon's struggle with faith and his ultimate failure to be able to make the leap and trust something that he hopes is larger than himself. Vampire trades in those themes as well, and it uses religious institutions in a similar way. No matter what their names or individual dogmas, every organization in the World of Darkness, spiritual or secular, has its earnest adherents and its manipulators. Narcisse represented the worst of those manipulators and Wyckham represented the best of the faithful, and even though Brandon ultimately defeats Narcisse as a person, he fails to overcome her venality spiritually.

The narrator accumulates flaws of character: misogynist, racist, irresponsible. Even though he does not explicitly look to hurt other human beings, his excesses ultimately make at least one true innocent victim. Plus, some parallels could be drawn between the demimonde in the novel and nightlife in our world. Did you want to write a moral tale about the life of a binge drinker/partygoer?

Without getting maudlin, this was a book about things I've done and failures I've had and mistakes I've made more than once, yes. It's not necessarily about the evils of booze and partying specifically, it's about how small and myopic a life can be without the presence of something that offers a greater purpose. It doesn't have to be God or morality that fills that role, but I think everyone has a great existential question at some point, and answering that question with, "Fuck it, let's get loaded" isn't a real answer and invariably results in the abandonment of the self.

Please be the “hipster douche” (*) and tell us what music to listen to while reading the novel.

You know, for a long time, I had kept the playlist in my iTunes, but I think the time for that has gone. Music is a pretty transient thing in terms of this book, and if the story happened now, none of the songs would be the same as they were when I wrote it six years ago. I remember reading an interview with Bret Easton Ellis in which someone asked him why he made so many popular culture and brand name references in his work and wouldn't they end up making the book feel dated. His response was that that was the intent, that there was something beautiful about the book becoming progressively more obsolete as time went by, that it really lent the whole thing a sense of a moment in time. There are a few songs and bands in there called out specifically, but as much as I love music, I didn't want the book to be about music. By contrast to Bret Easton Ellis' comments, I read China Mieville's King Rat a while back and I couldn't ever get into the book itself because it felt like an evangelical pamphlet for drum & bass. Kind of like I want readers to fill in their own factions for the demimonde, I want readers to plug in a lot of their own music, too, so that every reading is different.

(*) quote from the book
Read also this older interview with Justin.

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