Recently I sat down with J.G. Sandom to discuss his latest, The God Machine.
J.G., can you tell us a little about yourself beyond the short bio submitted? In particular I would love to hear about your experiences and/or travels while researching in preparation for this phenomenal novel.
While I was born in this country, I grew up primarily in Europe -- in England, Italy and France. My mother was Danish, and my family was transferred to England when I was only 9 months; my father ran Amex in Europe. So, when I had to begin researching Gospel Truths and then The God Machine, I was already familiar with many of the landmarks featured in the novels -- from the soaring Gothic cathedrals of Chartres and Amiens, key locations in Gospel Truths, to the Hell-Fire Caves of West Wycombe in England, and the Passy section of Paris, where Ben Franklin lived while he served as American Ambassador to France, which are central settings in The God Machine.
I read over 30 books while researching Gospel Truths, on subjects ranging from mathematics and topology, to medieval architecture and Freemasonry, to early Christian theology. I spent several months in Paris, Chartres and Amiens. I asked for and received special access to the cathedrals. I pored over the labyrinths that are carved into their floors. I studied ancient texts. Gospel Truths came out in 1991, more than a decade before Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code blew the lid off the genre.
The same is true for The God Machine. I had to read dozens of biographies of Benjamin Franklin, since he is a featured character in this novel, plus works on inventors Da Vinci, Alan Turing, George Boole, Nichola Tesla and Thomas Edison. I also had to read books on such arcane subjects as microchip design, Masonic rituals, and the construction and layout of Washington D.C.
Readers of theo-thrillers like to learn something new and interesting when they read books like The God Machine, something that challenges their existing assumptions, defies expectations. And they enjoy following smart, even nerdy characters who are thrown -- often against their will -- into action. But all the research and history has to be channeled into an interesting narrative. In the end, it's an exciting story that fuels a great thriller.
What life experiences inspired you to go down the theo-thriller path?
I first got interested in writing theo-thrillers due to my cousin, Paul Marcinkus. The character of Archbishop Grabowski in Gospel Truths is based loosely on Marcinkus. He'd come over for my mother's dinner parties when I was a boy in Italy, which were famous in Rome, overflowing with film producers and fashion designers, business tycoons and media barons -- Felliniesque affairs. Marcinkus was a regular at these affairs. We introduced him to everyone as our Cousin Paul. They knew him as the Mayor of the Vatican City and head of the IOR or Vatican Bank.
Marcinkus was a very practical man, once quoted as saying, "You can't run the Church on Hail Marys." And I always wondered when I watched him at our dinner table --- just as Koster does in the novel, as he sits across from Grabowski --- how did this man of God, of faith, who had worked in the slums of Central America as a young priest just out of seminary, become a man of numbers, of provable verities, God's banker? This was the central question that intrigued me, the journey from Gospel Truth to Gospel Truths.
In The God Machine, I explore the connection between divine inspiration and technological genius. Protagonist Joseph Koster and high-tech Indian mogul Savita Sajan enter into a quest for Ben Franklin's copy of a lost Gnostic Gospel of Judas which, it turns out, also features a kind of schematic design for an electrical device - a machine designed to open a doorway directly to God, hence the title. The novel is an exploration of the relationship between science and religion, proof and faith, and how our culture has turned technology into a kind of 21st century deity. Here's how the publisher describes it:
The Church insisted it didn't exist.
They said it was just a Masonic legend.
A two thousand year old secret.
The coded journal of Benjamin Franklin. A hidden map. A legendary gospel. These are the first pieces to an ancient puzzle so powerful it could destroy the very foundation of Christianity.Once before, Joseph Koster unearthed one of the Church's most deeply buried secrets...and it almost cost him his life. But some treasures are too hard to resist. And as Koster puts the pieces of Franklin's puzzle together, he discovers something even more startling...and infinitely more deadly.
Now, along with beautiful Indian high-tech mogul Savita Sajan, Koster must race to decode Franklin's journal before it falls into the hands of those who would do anything, kill anyone to suppress it. But in a world of secret societies, ancient conspiracies and Masonic puzzles, locating the prize is one thing...staying alive, another.
For as Koster and Sajan are about the learn, the same key that unlocks the doorway to Heaven...could open the portals of Hell.
Caroline Thompson (author of Edward Scissorhands) said, "Move over, Dan Brown..." when reviewing your novel. What a compelling compliment! For most authors the most difficult struggle when writing a novel is capturing on the page how the story "feels" deep inside. Those sensations and emotions you perhaps can't quite define but you instinctively understand are the true essence of the story. As you were creating this novel and its characters was there a pivotal moment when you sensed that you had truly captured that essence...that "feeling?"
Yes, I have been very fortunate with reviews. Booklist called Gospel Truths, "a splendid, tautly woven thriller...(and) an intelligent mystery of tremendous spiritual and literary depth." Library Journal said, "A masterful first novel, based on a true incident, which spins a complicated web of corruption, greed and deception." And Mostly Murder characterized it, "A fascinating mystery ... captivating and engrossing."
The God Machine has also generated a lot of positive critical attention. In particular, Historical Novels Review said, "History galore, violence, and intrigue fill the pages of this tightly plotted, twisting and turning adventure story . . . Those who love numbers, physics, and a truly unpredictable, suspenseful mystery will relish the facts and ponderings replete in this well-written, mysterious spin-off of The Da Vinci Code. The God Machine is a very impressive historical thriller!"
Finding the true essence of a story is less about the search for something external, and more about letting yourself be discovered. For me, there is a time in the development of every book when one of my characters refuses to follow the outline I've painstakingly developed. I tell them, "Hey, you have to go over here and do this." And they say, "No way. I'm not doing that." While that may be a problem, on some level, it also bodes well for the book. It means that the characters have progressed enough to think for themselves. I never win those arguments. In some ways, I'm just the instrument that the novel and the characters use to liberate themselves. Like searching for gemstones, I mine words.
But, ultimately, success is most resolutely drawn in the responses of readers. When people say that they couldn't put the book down. When they confess to you conspiratorially that they were up late, or all night, just to finish it. When they ask you what's going to happen next to the characters. The true essence of a story is found in the connection that it has with its readers.
What's coming next?
I'm working on a number of projects at the moment.
One is a sequel to The God Machine, which will feature many of the same characters -- like Koster and Sajan, Nigel Lyman and Nick Robinson. I'll also be going back to the Countess de Rochambaud from Gospel Truths, when she was much younger during WWII and knew Nick Robinson's father. As with my other theo-thrillers, this sequel will feature another lost religious text, and another machine designed -- at least in part -- by Ben Franklin.
I'm also working on a new thriller that's closer to another one of my books, The Wave. It features an NSA cryptanalyst forensic examiner (i.e. code-breaker) who comes across what appears to be the cyber penetration of DOD systems by terrorists, but which turns out to be something far bigger and more sinister. The novel again explores our relationship to technology, especially social media, and the way we represent ourselves online. It deals with issues of privacy and freedom. But, in the end, it's a breakneck chase, a rapid-fire techno-thriller where the fate of the world as we know it hangs in the balance.
Finally, I'm co-authoring a non-fiction title about . . . well, a subject about which it's always satisfying to end an interview . . . sex!
Interview by Debra Webb
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