Brian D'Amato e-interviewed by Hilary Williamson (March, 2009)
Brian D'Amato received a BA from Yale and an MA from the City University of New York. He has shown his sculptures and installations at galleries and museums in the US and abroad including the Whitney Museum, the Wexner Center for Contemporary Art, and the New Museum of Contemporary Art. In 1992 he co-organized a show at the Jack Tilton Gallery in New York that was the first gallery show exploring the then-new medium of virtual reality.
He has written for magazines including Harper's Bazaar, Index, Vogue, Flash Art, and most frequently Artforum, and has taught art and art history at CUNY, the Ohio State University, and Yale. His 1992 novel, Beauty, which Dean Koontz called "The best first novel I have read in a decade," was a bestseller in the US and abroad and was translated into several popular languages. He can usually be found either in New York, Michigan, or Chicago, often with his Labrador Retriever, Woofy.
His outstanding new book, In the Courts of the Sun, first in The Sacrifice Game trilogy, moves back and forth in time from the year 664 in Central America and Mexico to the year 2012, when modern Mayan Jed DeLanda attempts to use the ancient sacrifice game to avert the world catastrophe anticipated by his people for December 21, 2012.
Q: You have a Renaissance set of talents - artist, sculptor, author, teacher. How do you balance them in work priorities?
A: Not very well, I think. I'm always doing something other than what I should be doing at the time. But I do tend to keep coming at the same motifs or ideas, through the angles of different media. If you look at my website at briandamato.com you can see that a lot of the paintings I was doing when I was just out of art school focused on images that are in In the Courts of the Sun - the pyramid and the Lodestone Cross and whatever. And the first piece I did, called The Sacrifice Game - which is now the title of the trilogy - was actually a video game, or since we showed it in museums, maybe we should call it an art video game. And one of the good things about the period we're living in is that people are totally open to someone's working in all different media. It's not like when Salvador Dali wrote his novel and almost everybody pooh-poohed it.
Q: What came first in developing your story for The Sacrifice Game, an interest in the Mayan culture or the notion of the December 21, 2012 prediction?
A: When I was seven or eight, I used to do drawings in Magic Marker where I'd try to imitate the style of Mayan or Aztec art. So I was interested in them a long time before I heard about their calendars.
Q: Did you travel much in Central America before, or while, researching the series? Do you feel any special connection to the Mayan people?
A: I've spent a fair amount of time at the archaeological sites. Yaxilan and Uxmal, especially, made a bit impression on me. Another thing I'd do when I was in Central America was go to Maya church services, because I think that even despite the Catholic overlay, you can sometimes get a flavor of what a large ritual might have been like in the old days. One thing about the Maya I met that impressed me was how calm most of them seemed. To me that felt like a locational thing - that is, they were very sure they were in the in the right place.
Q: The book's discussion of CIA involvement in Guatemala - and U.S. support for a government responsible for the massacre or disappearance of 'about two hundred thousand Maya' from 1958 to 1985 - is very disturbing. Were you aware of the extent of the ethnic cleansing before researching the book or did it shock you as much as it will most of your readers?
A: When I was in college in the eighties my Mayanist teacher Mary Miller told us about a trip she'd just taken to Piedras Negras - which is on the Usumacinta River but pretty hard to get to except by boat - to map out some of the royal tombs. The government had soldiers following them because they were afraid the archaeologists might find one of the mass graves. That was the first time I'd heard about it. Lately, Tina Rosenberg - who's also written about my Dad's international law cases - has been writing a lot about Guatemala for the New York Times, and Francisco Goldman's articles and book on the subject are awfully good ... but of course the whole thing is so disturbing I can't bear to think about it for more than a few minutes at a time.
Q: Your website mentions that 'A percentage of the author's after-tax profits on this project help support environmental, educational, and archaeological projects in the Maya area'. Do you plan to have any personal involvement in how the funds are used?
A: Well, the organizations on the list really have the best idea of how to spend whatever comes in. The biggest amount so far went to try to put in a museum near the University of Illinois dig at Lake Petin Itza, and I do plan to go down there this year. I generally feel that anything that gets people interested in X is probably good for X, the way Jurassic Park vastly increased the funding for dinosaur research.
Q: There are varied theories about the reasons for the collapse of Mayan civilization (even before Europeans arrived) - do you have a favorite?
A: Actually, the civilization didn't really collapse until the Spanish arrived. And even as late as 1600, there were still unconquered Maya towns with kings reading rituals out of glyphic books and the whole thing. The central areas of the big Southern cities were abandoned after about AD 900 AD, but it might not have been that different from, say, Detroit. If you go to Detroit today there's a central zone with all these big abandoned ruins, but then there are still people living all around it, in smaller houses that wouldn't show up so well archaeologically.
That said, there is some evidence that the "capital" of the Maya world rotated between different cities for a fixed period, and when the period was over, parts of the last capital city would get destroyed intentionally. And this idea is a big feature of In the Courts of the Sun.
Q: The cliffhanger that opens the story - with the hero about to be tossed from the top of a Mayan pyramid - reminded me of Saturday morning matinees in my childhood, which always started and ended with cliffhangers. Did you ever enjoy this sort of film?
A: Oh, sure. Of course, I was too young to experience the old Saturday matinee Republic serials and whatever, but I loved it when the first Raiders of the Lost Arc movie redid those situations in a bigger way. And that movie also showed you could get a lot of people interested in archaeology.
Q: Speaking of movies, Jed's adventures in the past move at a similar pace and with the same degree of action and violence as Mel Gibson's 2006 movie Apocalypto. Were you at all influenced by it?
A: I was a little upset when I heard that the Melster was going to do it, because I'd already been working on the book for ten years and I tended to feel like the subject was my personal province, although of course it wasn't. I was happy when I saw the movie, though - it was good and did well, so it got more people interested in the Maya, and yet it actually didn't preempt anything I had in the book. There were one or two scenes that I worried were a little close, but my editors said they weren't and that I should leave them in. My feeling was that he made the Maya look too scruffy, like biker gangs. And anyway it was a wilderness-chase movie, kind of a remake of The Naked Prey. In my book I try to focus on the Maya's cosmopolitan cultural life, on the aristocratic end of the spectrum, and on their inner life, especially their cosmological vision.
Q: You send your hero back in time in a unique fashion - why did you decide to deviate from the classic H.G. Wells Time Machine approach?
A: Time travel isn't possible, as they say in the book. On the other hand, some energy does seem to go back in time. And according to some researchers, it's still not quite clear why we remember the past and not the future - you could almost see it as more of a psychological issue than a physics issue. At any rate, the workaround in In the Courts of the Sun is both the most plausible method I could come up with and, more importantly, it brings the journey into the psychological realm. And the idea of having different personalities inhabiting your brain also parallels the Mesoamerican idea of having multiple souls.
Q: I liked Jed's comments that one cannot ever properly visualize what the past was like - but of course then you had to try to imagine it as part of the story. How did you proceed?
A: I've always been disappointed with how Maya cities are shown in reconstructions, in textbooks or movies or whatever. They always make the buildings look too much like the way they do now, all brown and shabby and uninhabited. But if you look at the way they paint buildings in Mexico and Guatemala, or if you look at Maya traditional outfits today, especially the men's outfits, they're all tremendously colorful. Also, if you look at the most similar traditional temples today that are still being kept up, in places like Madras or Bangkok or Singapore, they're always being repainted with bright colors, and a lot of them have shells and mirrors and big glass beads and all sorts of things stuck all over them. It's a total visual overload. So that's how I've always imagined the Maya world.
As far as everything else that goes to make up the past - well, I try to think about it just before I doze off, so that I'll dream about it.
Q: I found Taro's doomsday curves all too convincing for my comfort level. Do you know of researchers actually working on a science of catastrophe theory?
Q: Where do you plan to be on December 21, 2012? And do you expect to have completed The Sacrifice Game trilogy before that date?
A: The story will be finished, willy or nilly, maybe closer to nilly. And I'll be in my bunker. It's in an undisclosed location.Find out more about Brian D'Amato and his Sacrifice Game trilogy, read excerpts from his novels and look over his Visual Work at BrianDAmato.com.
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