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Thomas Mullen

Q&A with the Author: The Revisionists

Q. Your previous two novels incorporated actual historic events. Why such a big change on this one?

It was sort of an accident that my first two novels were historical—I've written a lot of contemporary fiction, but those were the first two ideas that really clicked. It was important that I demonstrate I could do other things, and there was so much of our modern world that I've been dying to write about.

I do think this book has some strong links to my past work—it doesn't take place in a historical period, no, but it concerns the very nature of history itself. Also, my second novel, The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, combined highbrow literary subjects with genre elements: in that case it was noir and magical realism, and with The Revisionists it's espionage and sci-fi. Readers will find that many of the ethical dilemmas that the characters face are similar to what I explored in The Last Town on Earth, albeit with some major differences (and not just in time period or setting).

Q. Could you explain why Zed is back in present day Washington?

Zed is an agent from the Department of Historical Integrity. He comes from the future, a time following years of wars and conflicts, when people finally figured things out and established a "perfect society." Or so he believes. It's his job to ensure that "historical agitators" don't come to the past and change things. Zed is in the Disasters Division, charged with ensuring that horrible events like the Holocaust or 9/11 aren't altered by well-meaning agitators. Preventing all those deaths may seem like a good thing, but it would alter the timeline and therefore destroy the perfect future. So Zed has the rather thankless task of making sure that calamities occur, and it's wearing on him. He is in present-day DC because a horrible event is scheduled to happen soon, and he needs to make sure that it does.

Through Zed I could explore a dilemma that America has faced since 9/11—is it justifiable to use immoral means for moral ends? And what toll does this exact on the men and women charged to do so? Is it naive to think that you can protect a threatened nation without moving, as Cheney famously said, to "the dark side?" Or does staring into that abyss mean that the abyss will stare into you? The character of Leo also grapples with this; he's a young man who was recently forced out of the CIA, and he wonders whether his old job made him cross a line that has fundamentally changed him.

Q. There is some pretty cool technology in the future. Can you tell us about some of the gadgets and implants Zed has access to?

To make Zed a plausible representative of the future, I figured his brain should have internal links to databases and other information, almost like having an iPhone and Google and GPS in his brain. (We're almost there already, aren't we?) His ready access to vast information is a key part of who he is and how he interprets our present day. And he has a "GeneScan" that allows him to track down people whose genetic make-up does not belong to the time period he's in.

To me, though, more interesting than his future technology is his future race. If people from different races continue to intermix the way we are now, it follows that eventually races will be eliminated. Time in 2000 did a cover story about this, using a computer to morph many faces into one, "the face of the future." I ran with this idea; to Zed, the people of our time look either amazingly white or incredibly black; in contrast, people from our time look at Zed and wonder about his background, thinking that he's "interestingly multiracial," which leads to some complications for him. It also gives him unique insight into how race and ethnicity affect us today, not only in the U.S. but abroad, where so many conflicts and wars seem rooted in one group hating another based on what he calls "blood feuds."

Q. Despite its sci-fi, time traveler underpinnings, the contemporary elements in the book have a "ripped-from-the-headlines" feeling about them. What are some of the real-life storylines that inspired you?

My wife and I lived in DC from 2002-2008. Neither of us worked for the government or knew many people who did, so I wanted to go beyond the cliches and capture what it's like to really live in that odd city—it's not all lobbyists and bureaucrats. It's a culturally vibrant place, but with some stark racial issues as well; the legacy of the '68 riots still runs deep, and I wanted that to a part of the book, if in the background. At the same time, due to 9/11 and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the constant debates about privacy and security and counterterrorism made it feel like your everyday life was affected by larger political forces.

While I lived in DC, the local NPR station ran a story about how some foreign diplomats bring to DC their own nannies or maids (who are often illegal immigrants in the diplomat's own countries), then treat them as slaves while here: they take their passport so they can't travel freely, they lock them in the house, they beat them and tell them that they have no legal recourse here. The diplomats are protected by immunity, but mainly they get away with it because no one even knows about the poor slave they have hidden in their nice Washington home. I was fascinated by this story; I thought there was immense drama here, and it posed a lot of questions about freedom and authoritarianism, which I'd already been thinking about for the book. This is where I came up with the character of Sari, a young Indonesian woman toiling for a mysterious Korean diplomat. When she's sent on an errand to the grocery store—one of the only times she's allowed to leave the house—she meets Leo, the former CIA agent who worked in Indonesia and speaks her language.

Another big issue is government surveillance of domestic activists and everyday Americans. This was supposed to be banned in the Seventies after evidence came to light about the FBI's programs against anti-war and civil rights activists, but after 9/11 it seemed to be having a resurgence: stories of NYPD provocateurs starting fights at the 2004 Republican convention so they could arrest protestors, stories of undercover cops or FBI agents joining anti-Iraq War groups to keep tabs on Americans who were simply exercising their freedom to voice their opinions. Leo's new job as an intelligence contractor finds him tailing activists, and questioning whether this work is worthwhile.

Another big issue is the increasing use of private contractors by the military and by the intelligence industry. Our tax dollars pay for their work, but they haven't sworn an allegiance to our country the way a government agent has. What happens when the good of the nation conflicts with their own bottom line? What happens when you have so many different companies and agencies sending their spies into the same venues? How do we balance security with due process and privacy?

One day just before the Iraq War, a large anti-war rally was held in DC. I lived on 16th Street at the time, more than a mile from the White House, not even on the rally route. Yet when I woke up that morning, a long phalanx of police officers in full riot gear lined my street. Regardless of your political opinion about the Iraq War, it was simply scary to see this. Heavily armed cops everywhere, all because some people who disagreed with the President happened to be hosting a rally that day.

This tension and sense of siege (remember that there were predictions that suicide bombers would blow up subways or buses as revenge for invading Iraq) was something I wanted to capture in the book. There seemed to be paranoia on both sides: the right was paranoid that there were terrorists on every corner, and we had to do whatever it took to stop them; the left was paranoid that a Republican President was ignoring the Constitution and destroying the rights of innocent Americans. I had a lot of paranoia to play with.

Q. Spying and whistle-blowing are pervasive themes in The Revisionists. What are you trying to say about loyalty?

Even before WikiLeaks took this to the next level, some of the biggest national security stories of the last few years (the NSA's use of warrantless wiretapping and the CIA's use of rendition and "black sites" for prisoners) were broken because they were leaked. The First Amendment booster in me applauds this; the only way for citizens to know about government or corporate misdeeds is for ethical people in the government or in business to let the media know about them. Yet both the Bush Administration and now the Obama Administration have gone after leakers as well as journalists, arguing that such disclosure imperils national security and should be prosecuted under sedition statutes. (This is an eerily similar legal argument—and involves the very same laws—to the one that jailed thousands of anti-war activists during World War I, a key element in my first novel, The Last Town on Earth.)

In this Internet age, where so much information can easily be downloaded and spread across the globe, there are new questions about who owns information, how to control it, and what information people should or should not have access to. As a writer, obviously, the value of words and information is something I hold dear.

Because readers responded to the ethical dilemmas in my first novel, I wanted to revisit some of them, but from a very different perspective and in our very messy, present day. Is it right to leak materials showing that your client, a war contractor, delayed its shipment of military vests in order to save on the cost of oil? Was it a good thing, or dangerous, for intelligence insiders to let the rest of us know about those CIA black sites or NSA snoopers? What would it be like to be the person who leaked such info? We follow these stories through the characters of Tasha, a DC lawyer opposed to the wars, and Leo, a former CIA agent now working for an "entrepreneurial intelligence contractor" and trying to find the source of a controversial online story.

Q. Zed subscribes to the "Great Man" theory, that is, that certain key people have undue influence on events, and as long as their paths are not disrupted, the future will unfold as it had before. Do you agree with this view?

Fiction writers like to obsess over the little people, of course, and all the tiny details that make us who we are. So I like to believe that every person can make history and can change the world. Still, I wanted to compare and contrast that theory with The Great Man theory. Do the little people really matter in the big scheme of things? In today's world, we often feel like we're tiny cogs in a vast machine, that we have no say. So which is true? Is it paranoid to say that we're tiny and are pushed around by larger forces? Or is it naive to suggest the opposite, that we're capable of anything? Which is the real delusion?

Q. Utopias, and whether they can be achieved, were a theme in your first novel, The Last Town on Earth , and they come up again in The Revisionists .

It's a fun concept to imagine and play around with. And because the book takes place in DC and involves government operatives and political activists, all of whom are concretely trying to improve the world, that added an element. On the one hand, the idea of a real utopia (which Zed claims to come from) sounds unbelievable, science-fictional. On the other hand, anyone involved in politics or philanthropic work (and maybe even anyone at all) is working toward creating a better future. We always talk about leaving a better world to our children, and America's founding documents claim that our nation is seeking "a more perfect union." We are the bold experiment, getting closer to perfection with time. Do we really believe this? Do we really believe it's possible? If so, does that mean that somewhere deep in our hearts we believe that perfection is possible? And what does it mean that the 20th Century saw so many totalitarian nations that claimed to be perfect but delivered the exact opposite of what they promised?

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