Author photo by Kim Bricker.
One of our favorite new fantasy series of 2018 (and many years before that, to be honest), is Josiah Bancroft’s The Books of Babel, a deeply original adventure-cum-exploration of the titular fictional edifice. And one of the defining features of the series shows up on the first page of Senlin Ascends, before the story proper even begins: an epigraph drawn from the fictional Everyman’s Guide to the Tower of Babel. Throughout the three books of the series to date, Bancroft has used epigraphs pulled from a raft of nonexistent books to enrich the world he’s building—to grand, often humorous effect.
To celebrate the release of The Hod King, he joins us today to talk about the merits of epigraphs—why he loves them, and why it is ok if you don’t.
Do you ever skim the elven hymns? Do your eyes cross when your encounter italicized druidic diary entries that seem to exist only to stall the pace of an otherwise rollicking fantasy adventure? If so, you’re not alone! The truth is, writers know that, on average, readers want the cheesy pizza pie of plot and dialogue, not the dry crust of textual marginalia. Prophetic poems, scribal ephemera, and epigraphic adages all invite readers to scowl, skip ahead, or close the book. We know.
Then why do so many fantasy authors do it?
Partly, I think it’s because the siren song of ancillary texts is too strong for most fantasy writers to resist. Yes, yes, we get that you don’t really want to read a stanza of dwarven free verse or plod through a rogue’s internal monologue communicated via footnote. We just can’t help ourselves! We love the sprawling worlds inside our heads so much that we decide to include the sort of minutia that very few people enjoy. And even so, we indulge in fantastical glossaries, demonic brochures, and wizardly theses, all in the pursuit of originality and verisimilitude. I’m quite sure it is only a matter of time until a fantasy author adapts a gym membership contract to their speculative universe.
Of course, there’s a little more to this creative quirk than a lack of self-control. Writers are by nature (and sometimes profession) steeped in many forms of the written word, much of which resides outside the speculative genre. My own creative history includes comic books, poetry, experimental prose, classic adventure novels, the modernist literary canon, antiquity, cult films, absurdist texts, and popsicle-stick puns. We are products of our influences, and so it is natural that we writers conceive of our imaginary worlds through the same lens that we understand and experience reality. We build the new with olden stone!
And, all facetiousness aside, most writers have reasons for penning these inconvenient, unlikable, and tangential texts. They might not be universally compelling reasons, but we don’t set out to torment our readers with doggerel and asides. But sometimes, inspiration arrives in unlikely forms.
Originally, Senlin Ascends was meant to be a collection of prose poems and lyrical fragments fashioned in the vein of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. The fragments would explore the Tower of Babel of another universe from the perspective of a travel guide writer. The book was going to be experimental, brief, and undoubtedly dreadful. It didn’t take me long to recognize two essential truths. One: I am not Calvino. Two: What I really wanted to write was an adventure novel, and that would require pesky things like characters, plot, and a coherent world.
But I still liked the idea of writing a fantastical guidebook. And I thought it could be useful narratively, acting as a lens into the world of the Tower. I imagined a multiple-volume guide book called The Everyman’s Guide to the Tower of Babel, which was a sort of homage to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Rather than wedging large chunks from the guide into the narrative, I landed on the idea of including short epigraphs at the start of each chapter. And thus, the epigraphs were born. Quickly, I realized the potential of the idea, and expanded the sources of the epigraphs to include instructive manuals, diaries, newspapers, letters, and poems, all authored in the world of the Tower. This imaginary collection of sources would ultimately give the series its name— the Books of Babel.
I knew early on that I didn’t want the epigraphs to be ornamental or tonal. I wanted them to do some real narrative work; I wanted them to be entertaining and worth reading. The epigraphs are written in a variety of styles and voices to suit their subject and genre, but they all share a few things in common. They either reflect upon the revelations of the last chapter, or they set the scene for the next. They often provide context to the history, institutions, and citizenry of the Tower. Whatever the purpose of the epigraph, the message is usually indirect, metaphorical, or ironic.
In fact, one of the defining qualities of the epigraphs is that they often supply bad information, or well-meaning but lethal advice. Sometimes the epigraphs represent a repulsive philosophy, or they make a fallacious argument that sounds good on the surface, but upon reflection is actually banal or dangerous. The epigraphs (and the books they represent) have to be read critically to be of any use.
The importance of critical reflection is, to my mind, one of the central themes of the series. Thomas Senlin—the “hero” of the story—falls victim to his inability to read both texts and people successfully. He is duped by guides, charmed by charlatans, and undermined by venerable institutions again and again. Gradually, he learns to distrust appearance and his first impressions, to examine his impulses, to interrogate his biases and assumptions. The infuriating truth he eventually discovers is that good advice and valuable insight sometimes comes from flawed and unlikely sources. And conversely, sometimes good books give poor counsel. It’s not enough just to read with incredulity or faith. We must be rigorous in our analysis.
But this makes the epigraphs sound more serious than they generally are. Many of them are silly or obviously foolish. In the second book, Arm of the Sphinx, several of the epigraphs come from a work called The Unlikable Alphabet, which is an Edward Gorey-styled moral and manners guide for children. In The Hod King, some of my favorite epigraphs come from a source entitled, 101 Reasons to Attend My Party. I didn’t want the epigraphs to feel instructive or, god help me, significant.
A few readers have asked if the epigraphs represent finished works. The answer is quite definitely, No. While I have composed far more than I’ve used, I have not written a travel guide to the Tower. At least, not yet. But even in their incomplete state, these imaginary books have served as invaluable aids in building the world of the Tower. So far, I’ve resisted the urge to plunge down the rabbit hole of completism. If I ever do, I’m quite sure I’ll never escape.
But as enamored as I am with my epigraphs, they are by no means required reading to enjoy the story. I’ve heard from some readers that they skip epigraphs as a matter of course, finding them either tedious or disruptive. And who am I to judge? As a young reader, I skimmed most descriptive and expository paragraphs, preferring to glean the story from the dialogue. Admittedly, the habit worked well enough for the Hardy Boys’ The Secret of the Island Treasure but less well for Treasure Island.
Author photo by Kim Bricker.