Debut Author Snapshot: Zachary Thomas Dodson

Posted by Goodreads on October 5, 2015

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With hand-drawn illustrations, meticulously detailed maps, a novel-within-a-novel, and even a sealed envelope the reader must not open until the final moment, Zachary Thomas Dodson's debut novel is a feast for the imagination. The elaborate adventures contained within Bats of the Republic: An Illuminated Novel unfold in two timelines: In 1843, amateur naturalist Zadock Thomas must prove his mettle to his prospective father-in-law by journeying 1,000 miles to deliver a top-secret letter to a general in the Republic of Texas. In 2143, after the United States has divided into seven contained city-states surrounded by wasteland, each ruled by its own bloodline of senators, Zadock's descendant Zeke Thomas inherits a crucial letter from his senator grandfather as he learns to navigate the political machinations and conspiracies of the dystopian world.

The cofounder of Chicago small press featherproof, Dodson is a book designer now based in Helsinki. He chats about his inspiration and gives us a sneak peek inside his illuminated novel.

Goodreads: Would you be able to resist opening a letter marked "DO NOT OPEN"? What percentage of your readers do you predict will be able to wait until the end of the book?

Zachary Thomas Dodson: I don't know! I like to think I could resist. I also like to think the mystery that the book creates is so compelling that readers will be ripping the letter open with their teeth. But it's hard to say. I wonder what percentage of readers takes a peek at the final page of a book? I think this speaks to that impulse. I'm really pleased that there is a physical, sealed envelope included in the book. There are a number of surprises there, so I hope it's worth the wait!

GR: Tell us about your inspiration for the story. Did you begin with Zadock or Zeke, or did they emerge together?

ZTD: The story started with the bats. Near where I grew up in Texas, there's a bat cave, and we would travel there sometimes to watch the bats emerge at sunset. I began to think about what it would be like to stumble upon something like that for the first time. So I needed a character exploring the Old West with a special interest in bats. That's where Zadock comes from. Zeke followed shortly. Watching Zadock explore got me thinking about how different his world was and if I would've felt the same way in 1843.

They say we haven't changed much, evolutionwise, in 10,000 years. The population is too large and diverse for real evolution to take place, and the selecting factors are randomized by culture, war, modern medicine, etc. We're healthier but otherwise the same. Or are we? Does the culture and time that we grow up in dictate our thoughts and feelings? Or was the version of my DNA walking around hundreds of years ago essentially me with a different backdrop? So that's how I set the experiment up: what life would be like for two men who were in many ways identical but separated by 300 years.

GR: Are you as fascinated by bats as Zadock is?

ZTD: Maybe more so! "Research" for a fictional work essentially means just reading a lot about whatever you're most interested in. So I read a ton about bats. I realized I was going too far when I got this huge textbook called Bat Ecology and started reading about which netting techniques were best for catching bats for population studies. Much of this "research" was useless for the book, because Zadock encounters bats in 1843, without any way of finding out some of the most amazing things about them: how echolocation or the flight mechanics work, for example. There are so many species and so many amazing facts about bats that we know now. For example:

  • The Wrinkle Face Bat has a large flap of skin that it uses to cover its face when it sleeps.
  • A single bat can eat more than 600 bugs in one hour, which is like a person eating 20 pizzas a night.
  • Compared with its body, the Tube-Lipped Nectar Bat has the longest tongue of any mammal. It is 150 percent the length of its body and retracts into its rib cage.

They are really these benign creatures, and most of the myths about them—flying into your hair, high rabies risk, etc.—are myths. There are just three blood-drinking species (fascinating in their own right) out of more than 100, and the ways in which they have evolved are diverse and beautiful. Recent studies have found bat songs to be as complex, if not more so, than whale songs. They include information like location, personal description, and romantic overtures. Love songs! I could go on, but I think the answer to your question is clear. I did get to draw many bats for the book, which was fun. The end papers are a chart of all the species in Texas.

GR: Since you are a book designer by trade, this must have been a labor of love. How did you go about developing the world, including the two timelines, and crafting all of the visual components?

ZTD: That part was really fun. For many years I ran a small press in Chicago called featherproof (I still do the book design), and I found myself moving from the covers to the insides, trying to engage more and more with the story in a visual way. With my own books I can really get into visualizing different aspects of the story. There are things, plot points and feelings, that images can communicate much better than words (and vice versa, of course). But the design part was hardly labor and definitely love. That, for me, is the fun stuff. I got to do star charts, telegrams, letters, newspapers, and lots of maps, which I love for the density of narrative information they can include.

GR: Do you save letters and correspondence? Does it scare you or comfort you to think our culture is approaching a time in which everything is documented and saved?

ZTD: I do save letters. Before the Internet was ubiquitous, my friends and I would write letters fairly often. I wrote many love letters to my wife when we were getting to know each other. Handwriting is just so expressive. As to the larger culture, I think it's interesting, but I'm not sure that I'm afraid or comforted by the direction things are headed. It is different. I'm really glad that my teenage years weren't documented on something like Facebook, for example. But maybe the data flood means that less is discoverable anyway. I think there's this fallacy that digital documentation is more permanent. But it requires updating devices and operating systems constantly. I have writing on floppy disks that I have no idea how to get. And those letters I've saved I'm much more likely to go back and read than to dig through my inbox from 2002. It somehow feels more likely that my grandchildren would read them as well.

In the book the future society is obsessed with documenting and duplicating everything. There was a worldwide collapse, and much of humankind's inheritance was lost. The Library of Alexandria on a global scale. I was interested in how people would feel about written information and knowledge if it were suddenly scarce again.

GR: Reading this book is an immersive experience, and you send readers on a treasure hunt, asking them to actively piece together the story. Are there any authors who have crafted similarly immersive works who have inspired you? Books you recommend?

ZTD: I'm glad it felt immersive to you! The books I like most do that really well, often without visuals or treasure hunts. Even in still moments, they somehow encase you inside another mind and, like you say, ask you to piece together a story. I like writers who don't connect all the dots for you. David Mitchell does this beautifully in Cloud Atlas, a "sextet" of seemingly unrelated stories that span many eras. He does it across all his books, even: The same characters reappear, sometimes in different form or very briefly, and there's quite a treasure hunt for anyone who reads all his work. Aeon Flux is an amazing animated series from the '90s that Peter Chung made for MTV. It has deceptively deep storytelling and world-building, much of it done visually. It's incredibly detailed, yet the viewer still has to infer some of the most important narrative moments. Meek's Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt's western, is immersive to the point of entrapment, both of the characters and the viewer. You're desperate to find a way out and sifting through the subtlest of clues. The atmospheres she creates in her films are incredible.

Stills from Aeon Flux and Meek's Cutoff.
GR: What's next for you as a writer?

ZTD: Right now I'm "researching" moon bases and Finnish mythology (specifically the Kalevala, which is incredible). Of course, this means I'm just reading whatever I please, so we'll see if anything comes of it.

Comments Showing 1-9 of 9 (9 new)

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message 1: by Annie (new)

Annie I want this book! It reminds me of the Nick Bantock wonderful books. I can hardly wait to get my hands on it, and I promise I won't open the envelope until the proper time - yup.

message 2: by Balle (new)

Balle Millner (Blogger, Freelance Writer, Aspiring Autho This book looks great.

message 3: by Robert (new)

Robert Lamphear I will be reading this one very soon. I hope my daughter sees this one.

message 4: by Zefi (new)

Zefi This looks wonderful !

message 5: by Robin (new)

Robin Archer Wow, what a terrific looking piece of work.

message 6: by Janet (new)

Janet Love bats, we have many caves in Tennessee and are trying our best to keep them protected. I would love to read your book, it sounds amazing.

message 7: by Diane (new)

Diane Art AND reading...two of my favorite things. Can't wait to see this book!

message 8: by Robin (new)

Robin Archer I wish I had the time to put a book together like this! I am envious.... I do all my writing while travelling every day, but drawing does not work well on a busy moving train!

message 9: by Karen (new)

Karen Annie wrote: "I want this book! It reminds me of the Nick Bantock wonderful books. I can hardly wait to get my hands on it, and I promise I won't open the envelope until the proper time - yup."

Immediately thought of Nick Bantock's endeavors into book creation as well, and plan to add ZT Doson's to my list of must reads!

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