Thursday 14 September 2023

Author Profile and Interview with Peco Gaskovski

Author Profile and Interview with Peco Gaskovski

Peco Gaskovski is Canadian author who is a father, clinician, and the author of the recent release Exogenesis, published by Ignatius Press—a novel that captures everything he writes about, and which has been described as “Blade Runner meets The Benedict Option”.  If you search for him online, you will have a hard time finding him. His substack (which I only found during this interview process.) has a number of articles available at the free tier. I classified his novel as a Catholic book, he stated:

“I was chatting a bit about a separate issue with Thomas Jacobi, who noted I should mention it to you. My religious background (i.e., the one I was born in) is Macedonian Orthodox. That being said, I have a particular respect for Catholicism and see myself in friendly fellowship with Catholics. Nevertheless, I cannot be called a “Catholic author” as I’m technically not in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. On the other hand, insofar as my novel was edited by Catholics, and approved by a Catholic publisher, it might still be reasonable to call the novel “Catholic fiction” (at least from my own point of view). So, you may wish to bear this in mind when reaching out to others for publicity purposes to avoid misunderstanding.”

He writes because he must. Here in his own words, Peco.

1. When did you know you wanted to be a writer? How are you nurturing that dream?

I’ve been writing since I was a young boy, mostly fiction. One of the first short stories I wrote was about a whale named Herman who’s searching for his home. As a young teen I penned a two-hundred-page fantasy novel in a spiral-ring notebook. For me, writing is not so much a dream as a necessity. I think many writers feel this way. Words and imagination are like oxygen, and we need to breathe them regularly to feel alive. 

2. Who were some of the biggest supporters of your writing?

My wife has been my main support through the years. There’s really been no one else. When I was growing up, my parents loved me as best they could, but never once asked me about my writing. They came from an obscure Balkan village where novels didn’t exist; the only real art was folksong and icon painting. 

So I’m profoundly grateful to my wife, who has lifted me up countless times when I’ve felt discouraged with my writing. I’ve also come to appreciate something that author Michael O’Brien wrote in his open letter to artists and writers: For married people, their first vocation is always the sacrament of marriage, while the call to art is a subsidiary vocation. Without this perspective, my writing might have overwhelmed my life in an unhealthy way.  

3. What authors influenced your writing style and format?

I’ve learned from a wide range of writers. For instance, on the one extreme there are authors like John Banville, who’s a dazzling stylist, and on the other extreme there are people like Brandon Sanderson, whose prose is like cold oatmeal, yet can still tell an immensely powerful story. 

Almost every novel that I read shapes my writing a bit. The real challenge has been in developing my own voice, rather than mimicking others. A lot of this has meant developing a sort of double-attention, in which one part of the mind focuses on the emotional undercurrents of a story—most of which is unpredictable—while another part focuses on assembling words and sentences and paragraphs that can ride those undercurrents. It’s a complex process. I’ve discovered the undercurrents matter more than the words, as they give life to the words.

4. You have two previous books that are now listed as unavailable. Do you have plans to republish them? With Ignatius?

Both books were self-published. The one is a literary drama, the other epic fantasy. I unpublished them as they were self-edited, without the quality of Exogenesis, which went through a rigorous final process with trained editors, and which I poured much more effort into. I might republish those other books one day—particularly the fantasy novel, which was supposed to be part of a series. We’ll see. 

5. What does your writing process look like? Take us through the steps from idea to publishing?

The manuscript drafts start out very rough, with many false starts and dead ends. I abandoned Exogenesis twice—gave up on it completely for a few weeks each time—before going back and pushing onward. With time, characters begin to sharpen, and so does the dialogue, mood, plot, style. It really is like sculpting, taking out the big chunks first, until in the end you’re using a dental scraper. It’s also like running a marathon. More than once I’ve written over fifty drafts of a book, although I’ve gotten more efficient over time. Exogenesis took around twenty drafts.

Once a manuscript is finished, the publishing process is a whole other undertaking. I wrote Exogenesis over the course of ten months and gave it to my wife for her birthday. I doubted anybody would publish it, partly as the spiritual themes were from a Christian worldview, and partly as there was no graphic sex or excessive violence which might otherwise have been selling points. I did send a query email to Rod Dreher’s agent—the agent for The Benedict Option—since my own book was a bit like Blade Runner meets The Benedict Option. That agent didn’t even reply. I sent two other query emails and gave up. My wife insisted we should keep trying, so she took over and started submitting it everywhere. There were more rejections, more non-replies. It was a true joy when, one summer morning, I got the acceptance email from Ignatius. 

6. Unlike many authors today you appear to have no social media presence. Is that intentional to separate your writing from your career?

My only social media presence is Pilgrims in the Machine on Substack, where I write essays on what it means to be human in a world of accelerating technologies. But I write only occasionally. I’ve pretty much avoided all other social media, as I find it mostly distracting and emotionally unhealthy. 

7. Discussing Exogenesis with another bibliophile, they thought it sounded like a reimaging of Brave New World. Was that intentional? 

Actually, I hadn’t yet read Brave New World when I wrote Exogenesis. The idea for artificial wombs came to me after I saw a news story about scientists today working on this technology. The idea of selecting embryos based on their genetic profiles is also unique to my novel—this sort of knowledge wasn’t available when Brave New World was written but is rapidly advancing today.

So, the main commonality of the two novels—technological control over birthing—is coincidental. But I don’t think that coincidence is unusual. Artists from different times and places sometimes tap into the same sources of inspiration. A pastor friend of mine met an artist who “discovered” surrealism in the 1980s in Communist Poland. The artist had been painting surreal works in secret, and didn’t realize they were surreal because he had never heard of Salvadore Dali and the surrealist movement until my friend smuggled an art book to him from the West. 

8. Whether it was intentional or not, what are your thoughts on the comparison?

Apart from a few similarities, I think the novels are enormously different, especially in terms of spirituality. Faith in God turns out to be ultimately pathetic in Brave New World, whereas in Exogenesis this faith is a source of true hope and ends up altering the course of civilization. 

9. One of your characters is classified as a sociopath, and that it was missed at several points, in the story, even with DNA and profile scans. What would a medico-legal assessment look like to confirm such a diagnosis?

I see you’re tapping into my clinical side! There’s too little space here for a complete answer, but some of the basic steps would involve a review of medical documentation, clinical interview and observation, interviews with people who know the individual, and psychological testing. An old mentor of mine once told the story of a sociopath who was accused of murder, but vehemently denied it. In the middle of the interview about the murder, the interviewer departed from the subject and instead asked, “Hey, did you see the Yankees game last night?” And the sociopath said, “Oh yeah, it was great!” Which is a strange thing to say if you’re innocent. If you’re innocent you might be more likely to say, “Huh? You’re accusing me of murder, and now you’re asking me about the ball game?” But sociopaths can be emotionally shallow and impulsive, and the interviewer’s question revealed these qualities in the individual. 

Some other common things that you might see in a sociopath are deceitfulness, a lack of guilt and empathy, and a disregard for norms and laws. That’s by no means a full list, but it gives you an idea, and certainly not every sociopath presents in the same way. High functioning sociopaths, like the one in Exogenesis, know how to blend in with ordinary people. Some can be quite charming, which makes them even more dangerous. I once found out that someone close to me was a sociopath—someone I had deeply admired—and the discovery came as a frightening shock. 

10. What books are currently in progress for you? Writing, researching, planning or even just ideas that you would like to work on?

I’m always working on fiction, but I tend not to talk about ongoing projects, as the inspiration is fragile—just as anything in the early stages of life tends to be fragile. Non-fiction is a bit easier to talk about, as the process is more systematic and rational, and therefore more stable. So I can tell you that I’m currently early in the stages of a non-fiction book, partly based on my Substack essays, focusing on staying human in a technological world. My wife is collaborating with me on this (she has her own Substack called School of the Unconformed), so the emphasis will be very much on things like home, education, family, and faith.  

11. What books or movies would you recommend for fans of Exogenesis?

I’d suggest Michael O’Brien’s Voyage to Alpha Centauri, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and P.D. James’ The Children of Men. Like Exogenesis, all of these are science fiction and/or dystopia, yet realistic. I would note that the latter two titles have some disturbing content, both in book and (especially) film versions, so they definitely aren’t for everyone. 

12. One of the greatest strengths in your book is the characters, they are so solid and believable. The characters you create, are they reflections of people you know, composites of different people you know or entirely your creations?

All of the above. Writers are foragers of the imagination, and they’ll take things wherever they can get them. 

13. Which of your characters from Exogenesis is your favourite and why? Which was the hardest to write and why?

My favorite is Arek Han, who often talks about what’s wrong with technological society—which means he gets the best speeches in the novel. The most difficult character was Patrik Whitsun, who is a lovestruck teenager, a faithful Benedite (Christian), and highly intelligent, which makes for a complicated mix of elements. It was a challenge to get the balance just right. 

14. Your current release and one previous title were or are available in electronic formats but with that comes bootleg distribution. What are your impressions of eBooks and the distribution of them through torrents and other illegal means?

I think it’s unfortunate. With my self-published books, I noticed the bootlegging began almost immediately. It’s the price we’re paying for a digital world where everything can be duplicated with a few button clicks. 

And in fact, the other day my wife discovered an online seller who’s already offering Exogenesis in a leatherbound edition, without permission. The impact of these kinds of practices is obviously negative for both authors and publishers. 

15. Some authors monitor torrent sites and contact them to remove their content. Do you do so, or have someone do it for you?

For the time being, no, as it’s a Sisyphean task, and I would rather devote my energies elsewhere. But I might have to start giving some attention to it. 

16. What were some of your favorite authors in your teen years who helped shape you?

J.R.R. Tolkien made me forever a fan of fantasy. At the same time, he set the bar so high that I still haven’t found another series that was as satisfying as The Lord of the Rings. 

17. What are some of your favorite books and authors now?

I’m not sure I have any current favorites. I read widely, both for enjoyment and to explore how other writers do what they do. Some favorite classics include The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. In terms of more recent books, I enjoyed Dune by Frank Herbert, Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft, and Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. 

18. I once had a university professor state that the true goal of a university education should be to teach one to learn how to think. What would you state should be the goal of higher education and why?

If we want to know “how to think”, then we must be free to think, yet my impression is that the diversity of thought in many campus settings has been shrinking in recent decades. For instance, in The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt point out that liberal professors tend to greatly outnumber conservative professors, and this difference has been widening over time, which means “how” people think is shaped by underlying political sensibilities that lean mostly in one direction. 

I believe the real goal of higher education ought to be understanding and cultivating what it means to be human. I think that is the goal of life, actually. We can’t properly learn “how to think”, if our thinking is unmoored from that wider context or anchored to political ideology. 

19. If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have 10 books to read again and again, what books would you want with you?

1. The Bible
2. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
3. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
4. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
5. The Odyssey by Homer
6. The Call of the Wild by Jack London
7. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
8. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
9. Dune by Frank Herbert
10. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

20. This series of author profiles and interviews originally began as a project for Imprint, The University of Waterloo Student Paper. What advice would you give to young aspiring authors and artists?

If you’re a writer, you’ll know it, because doing your craft will always feel like home—and being away from it too long will make you miserable. So make time daily for your writing; small regular sessions are better than occasional big ones. Get feedback from other writers, especially critical feedback on your weaknesses. Don’t rely on artificial intelligence apps to improve your writing. Keep your phone out of reach and on silent. Close all the apps and browsers on your devices. Write first drafts with ink and paper if you can. Write a lot, read a lot, and—if you are a person of faith—pray ceaselessly for guidance in all you do. Find out what inspires you in your writing and ride that wave. Beware the inner critic, who will fill you with doubt. In the very final stages, edit things to absolute perfection. Then be at peace with whatever comes of it. Don’t expect to make a living off it. If you do, that’s great. But do it because you love it and need it. 

As can be seen by the answers Peco is a man of deep thoughts, and personal faith. His novel Exogenesis, is a fascinating read. And the articles I have looked at are excellent. I can highly recommend Exogenesis, and hope that either his other two novels will be back in print, or other offerings from his pen will be available. 

In regards to his comments on Catholic Fiction, I have three categories, Catholic authors who writes stories that are not necessarily Catholic (Chuck Palahniuk), Catholic authors who write Catholic stories (Declan Finn, J.F. Powers, …), and authors who are not Catholic but who have written a Catholic Story (The Shape of Things to Come). As such I consider Exogenesis a Catholic story and an excellent one at that.

Thank you Peco for taking time from your day job, family, and writing to answer 20 Questions for readers here at Book Reviews and More.

Books by Peco Gaskovski:
The Affair Box

Chronicles of Remembrance Series:

Books edited by Peco Gaskovski:
Staggering Along With God

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