Candice M Hughes has authored a wide variety of creative and nonfiction works. More recently she has expanded her creative works to include fiction. Death on a Thin Horse is her debut thriller. She is also biotech consultant and professional medical writer. She holds a PhD in Anatomy and Neurobiology and an MBA in general business management with a focus on strategy and innovation. She met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about global economics and religious fundamentalism.
To what extent do Darwinism and Christianity feature in your novel Death On A Thin Horse?
Christianity features extensively in the novel. One of the main antagonists, Senator Cutter, is a follower of Martin Luther (the German monk). Senator Cutter has modified Luther’s teachings to create his own version of Christianity, developing an almost cult-like radically conservative Christian religion, which he leads in his persona, The Prophet. Senator Cutter is fascinated by and collects objects that belonged to Luther as well as by those associated with Luther, including the Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer. In the novel, I extrapolate a close relationship between Luther and Durer based on their similar conceptual interests in religion and philosophy. While I conducted extensive research on both figures to write the novel, there is no firm historical evidence that they were friends nor that Durer accepted the new religion founded by Luther (Protestantism).
Darwinism does not play an explicit role in the novel, although you could say that since all living creatures are evolving, the characters are part of the sequence of evolution in the novel. The novel takes place in the future (2040) and, based on some of the characters and the political state of affairs, you might say that humanity had not evolved for the best between now and then.
Do you think cults predominate our history and reveal our motives?
I believe that cults are formed due to an extreme need to belong to a group. As humans, we are creatures that need and want to be part of a group. We are social beings. The strength of that need varies for individuals. Some people feel a stronger need than others to live in a pack as it were. Cults are attractive to people who have this extreme need to feel comforted by being surrounded by like-minded people and led by a charismatic leader.
So I would say the motive behind cults is for one person to fulfill their need to control others while the others in the group have a need to be guided as well as feel part of something greater than themselves. There is some of the same motivation in other aspects of culture, but when taken to an extreme level where all control is given up by the adherents and all power given to the leader, then you have a cult. Of course the cult leader may move the process along by using brain washing or other psychological control techniques that are outside of social norms.
Who are your literary influences?
My reading encompasses a fairly wide range of genres and forms. I feel this is one of the benefits of having attended a liberal arts college. I read everything from Virginia Woolf to Shakespeare. I like exploring more esoteric novelists like Djuna Barnes and Kate Chopin. But, a large part of my reading are thrillers, suspense, crime fiction, mysteries and fantasy/paranormal. I particularly admire Stephen King, Agatha Christie, PD James and Terry Pratchett. Ian Rankin, Lee Child and JK Rowling are other authors whose books I’ve read extensively. Authors like these who have written novel after novel that have enchanted readers can reveal critical aspects of craft in their works. Each of them is quite different and so there are different aspects that I look for in each. Common threads though are engaging characters and the ability to spin a tale that keeps readers turning the pages. I enjoy fast paced novels that have strong, intriguing plots. At the same time, weak characters are distracting so you need believable, interesting characters as well.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am currently working on my third novel, tentatively titled “The Code”. I say tentatively as I’m not entirely convinced this is the right title, but so far that is what I’m using. I am rewriting the final scenes and having a lot of fun with that. I love the pounding fury of a good thriller ending. This one won’t disappoint with the entire United States descending into an apocalyptic plague with one fifteen year-old boy, David Sohn, standing between collapse of the nation and survival. David is a gifted computer hacker with autism spectrum disorder. It has been challenging understanding how he sees the world and communicates, but that is what attracted me to write the novel in the first place. I was also interested in exploring cross-over novels that would appeal to older teens as well as adults.
If you are wondering what happened to novel two, that is completed and is currently being slated for publication. I am hoping that Dead Evil will be published in the spring, but that will depend on the outcome of other events, including what publisher it ends up with. Dead Evil is a paranormal thriller that reexamines the founding of America. We all know the story of the pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock, but what if there was more to the story than we’ve been told? What if witches were among the puritanical pilgrims and the entire history of America has been shaped by witches and daemons operating in a secret society? This is what Dr. Hope Howland, who is descended from the Mayflower patricians of America, uncovers as she digs into her family’s hidden lives, which include satanic rituals and murder. To save the world and herself from demonic possession, she must fight her own flesh and blood after learning that they are Dead Evil.
Other than these novels, I have a number of projects percolating in the background. I am never at a loss for something to write about. The more difficult challenge is finding time to work on them.
What do you make of the E Book revolution?
I foresee e-books continuing to be the predominant form for reading. E-books already outsell paper. They have the advantage of being cheaper and faster to produce with virtually no storage costs (just server space). Although, I believe many people will continue to buy paper books for some time so the two will co-exist for the short to medium term. I hear again and again people say they like the smell and feel of paper books. Over the years though, people will become used to digital and fewer people will grow up loving paper. Hard cover will likely entirely die out in the shorter term since people are cost conscious and there is little difference in reading enjoyment between paperbacks and hardbacks.
From the author’s point of view, digital grants them unprecedented freedom to create new books plus market and sell them directly to readers for higher profit. Right now we are in the early stages of this revolution. Large numbers of existing and new authors are trying out the system and exploring how to best utilize it. This gives readers access to an enormous variety of books. We are just getting to the point where readers see the downside of the unlimited freedom, which is uneven quality and overwhelming choice. Authors are picking up on this and working hard to create a new system where their books can be professionally prepared when they are self-published. Some authors may decide it is too much cost and effort, especially where the profit is small. I expect we will see some new authors quitting and the number of new book releases will go down until an equilibrium point is reached.
To what extent do you think global economics are controlled by the pharmaceutical companies?
The global pharmaceutical market was $880 billion in 2011 (according to Reuters). This compares to the global market of $70 trillion (IMF). So while pharmaceutical sales revenue is a notable portion of the global market, I wouldn’t say that the pharmaceutical market controls the global market. In comparison, the global oil market is over $1 trillion (EIA). So it is an even higher proportion of the global market than pharmaceuticals. Healthcare is certainly costly and many countries struggle to lower these costs, including the US, where I live. Pharmaceuticals are a good portion of healthcare costs, but not the only cost. I believe countries and individuals need to find a balance they are comfortable with in terms of healthcare spending. Money shouldn’t be wasted on items that will have a low chance of providing measureable benefit. On the other hand, unattainable or overly costly healthcare has negative outcomes in terms of lost life and productivity. Just pressing pharmaceutical companies to lower costs isn’t the only answer since innovation is costly and without innovation no advances in medical care will be made. I believe a better focus is on preventative medicine to decrease the chance of people becoming sick in the first place as opposed to what we have now, which tends to be crisis management.
Tell us about your poetry.
Poetry was the first creative writing form I gravitated to. I adore Robert Frost’s work and also admire Emily Dickinson, Amy Lowell, and Sylvia Plath. I founded the first literary journal at my high school then moved on to become Poetry Editor of my college literary magazine. Throughout this time, I was writing quite a bit. For me, poems are a way to make sense of and sort through strong experiences in my life. At the same time, the themes tend to be universal because when you get down to it, although situations feel intensely personal, there are few situations that others haven’t gone through in some fashion. What I enjoy about poems is that they don’t demand a lot time from the reader, you can convey deep thoughts and emotions in a sound bite sized package. It has been tremendously satisfying to be able to connect with others through the poems I’ve published, live readings I’ve done plus gain recognition through winning the Ida F. Snell poetry competition.
But, about 7 years ago, I started to feel that I wanted to connect with a broader audience and be able to create works with larger storylines. I had been dabbling with short stories all along and was already a professional medical writer. So I joined up with writing groups such as the Romance Writers of America and the International Thriller Writers group through which I could learn more about novel writing. Both of these groups offer fantastic conferences that cover the gamut of craft knowledge. I was also able to connect with individual writers who were generous enough to share time with me individually or in small groups.
Currently, I am not writing very much poetry and am mainly focusing on my novels and other work although I still enjoy poetry. Who knows- maybe one day I will go through another phase and start writing more intensely again.
Do you think there has been a rise in religious fundamentalism post-Darwin?
I am not an expert on the history of religion and can only offer my own ad hoc thoughts. In my opinion, the strength and inflexibility of people’s religious beliefs has always waxed and waned over history. It seems to me that circumstances that cause anxiety and fear are more likely to lead people to focus on religion. Science can be anxiety provoking for some people. Fundamentally, science is the investigation of the unknown. Even the process by which science is investigated is troublesome for some because scientists have to approach the topics they investigate with scepticism. They have to probe again and again and in the end, the result is the best solution they can determine using the tools they have. Scientists always leave open a door that in the future, someone with better tools and better knowledge, may come to a different conclusion. Scientific facts are built upon centuries of findings by prior scientists. They start with what is agreed upon and explore and expand knowledge from that point. For some people, knowledge or facts that might shift slightly in the future are distressing beyond bearing. They require absolute certainty. Faith can provide absolute certainty. These are to me, the extreme ends of science and religion. However, in practice, I find that there does not have to be conflict between the two if you are willing have some flexibility and bear some uncertainty.
So to answer the question more specifically, I don’t believe there has been an increase in fundamentalism since Darwin explained evolution. I think there has always been some degree of it. Certainly Darwin’s scientific explanation conflicted with certain religious concepts and became a source of continuing conflict for some. It is also true that the news in recent years is often full of fundamentalist flare-ups globally that trigger social unrest. At its best, humanity has room and flexibility for many faiths as well as the courage to push scientific boundaries.
For more insight, I recommend the Life of Pi, which does a good job of exploring multiple religions and showing how one person can reconcile what seem to be conflicting beliefs.
What advice would you give to yourself as a younger woman?
One thing I would have told myself is to reach out to other people more. I have always been independent and a go-it-alone kind of person. So I would have advised myself to take other people up more often on offers to help and to build a strong network. This is applicable to any area that you work in, not just writing. Although because writing is by nature solitary, I think it takes a little extra work to build up a network. On the plus side, I have found many people to be generous with their time and willing to help if you just reach out and ask.
What troubles you most about the world today?
There are a couple of trends that I find disturbing. One is that our political leaders (in many countries, not just the United States) are increasingly unwilling to tackle unpalatable but necessary problems. Sweeping problems under the carpet and hoping the next guy/gal will take care of them is just not going to work. Nor will the idea of focusing on extreme stances on issues that are irrelevant to the problems at hand in attempts to win political favour. My frustration comes out in my novels and this is probably the reason why my current novel, Death on a Thin Horse, focuses strongly on political manoeuvrings by the main characters. The novel I am currently working has a related underlying theme.
Another troubling trend is what I call tribalism. Even though we can now move around the world faster than ever before and zap messages around the globe in seconds, we seem to be increasingly looking inward toward smaller scale social groups of like-minded people. On the one hand, this is expected, even a genetic imperative, since we are fundamentally social creatures. There are many positive aspects to social groups and people who belong to them are healthier. But, if we start to isolate ourselves from other groups, become rigid in our thinking, focus on short-term group advantage and take up an “us versus them” stance, then we are entering a downward spiral where we risk losing all that is best about humanity. If we are against ourselves, how can we survive?
We are forgetting the wisdom of our ancestors who said, “United we stand, divided we fall”. Or perhaps the Biblical version is clearer, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Our politicians likewise are ignoring this thousands-of-years old advice.
Thank you Candice for an informative and perceptive interview.
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