Excerpts from the interviews:
“While I was composing The Last Witchfinder and sending the early drafts to my editor at Harcourt (the house that ultimately did not publish the book, but that's another story), he told me he'd heard rumors of other writers who were planning to use Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin as fictionalized characters. These turned out to be Neal Stephenson with his Baroque Cycle and J. Gregory Keyes with his Age of Unreason books. My guess is that there has been something in the air for the last several years that makes science fiction writers want to write fiction about science, to excavate the roots of the scientific worldview.
“There's a crisis in the West (as we've all noticed), a crisis of confidence in reason and secularism and what I regard as the foundational assumptions of this republic. First of all, we have the Christian Right arguing, 'No, the foundation story is not true, and in fact the Founding Fathers were Christians in the exact same way that I am a Christian, that all we evangelicals are Christians!' Our whole culture is convulsed over the issue of human origins, the bad news that Charles Darwin brought back from the Galapagos Islands -- everybody's trying to vomit Darwin’s insight back out, we’re hoping to find the emetic that will do it.
“And then we have this whole problem of theocracy. I can't speak for Neal Stephenson or J. Gregory Keyes, but I suspect that we're all suspicious of the theocratic impulse, not only as it manifests itself within Islam but also the way it suffuses the Christian Right (which goes back to Ronald Reagan and isn't something George Bush convened). It makes me very nervous, the way we’re walking open eyes into theocracy.
“Finally, there's this phenomenon of certain postmodern academics -- the sort of people who got caught out by the Alan Sokal hoax -- critiquing the scientific worldview. Their announced ambition is to radically relativize science, to make a case that science is not privileged, and that the degree to which science gets things right is simply a kind of ideological consensus, almost a conspiracy among those who subscribe to that worldview. Of course someone of my secular-humanist, atheist, pro-science persuasion is appalled by all this. In several of the postmodern "science studies" articles, you find very explicit pleas on behalf of Darwin-hating religionists, who the postmoderns regard as an oppressed minority. Academics and anti-science evangelicals -- those are mighty strange bedfellows, in my view.”
“The Last Witchfinder is a novel that 'grew in the telling,' as Tolkien said of The Lord of the Rings. What I initially had in mind was merely to dramatize [Edward] Harrison's notion of the 'witch universe' yielding to the 'scientific universe.' The whole business of the war of the worldviews got my satiric bone singing right away. But then I thought, 'The novel as a form is finding itself, getting up to speed in the 18th century -- Fielding's great works, Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Defoe's Moll Flanders -- so I'm going to try and work within that tradition. Let's make it an extravaganza, an epic.' Most of the reviews appreciated that aspect of The Last Witchfinder, the sprawling and rollicking adventure, though some of the English critics took exception to the novel’s design. They saw it just as a mere polemic, so why the heck was it so long?
“Though the basic architecture of the novel was in place during the Clinton years, the current Bush administration arrived in the middle of my composition process, so the book has inadvertently acquired an extra level of relevance. I was talking earlier about the problem of theocracy. You really get the sense that the Bushies would be perfectly happy to see a low-level, feel-good, smiley-face theocracy descend upon this republic. The Bushies know that the Christian argument is correct in an absolute sense, so why should anybody have a problem with it? For me, the great irony of our time is that even as Bush is denouncing Darwin, condemning stem-cell research as blasphemy, and encouraging what he calls 'faith-based initiatives,' his administration is hoping against hope that something resembling a rational, secular, post-Enlightenment republic will emerge in Iraq. It's a towering irony.”
“For all of my railing against religion and my enthusiasm for a kind of Darwinian materialism, I've long said that, as sovereign individuals, we're not scientific objects at all: if you consider our species one psyche at a time, science has nothing interesting or coherent to say; science is only interested in aggregates, in the degree to which one thing is like another. Or at least that's the sort of neat dichotomy I was able to make for decades -- that distinction between science and the existential human self, locked up in the bone of the skull. This view allows the positive side of religion -- and of course humanism and the arts -- to flourish: these subjective ways of accessing and discussing who we are. But of course as we investigate the brain at fairly deep levels, as we indulge in unraveling the genetic code and then imagine tweaking it, improving on God's or nature's mistakes, my neat distinction collapses.”
“Now, in the case of The Last Witchfinder, I have had to argue on occasion that no, I’m not being an SF writer this time around, this isn't alternate history. I think that's what some people expected, an alternate history, and a couple of reviews did call it that, but I really wouldn't cast it that way. Both in the US and the UK, the book was packaged as straight historical fiction. My publicist didn't say I should deny my science fiction roots, but he did present it to one critic after another as a mainstream novel. 'You say you’ve never heard of James Morrow? Good, because if you’d decided to investigate his past before reading The Last Witchfinder, you wouldn't have liked what you found. He's associated with this debased form of literature.' The sales are a little better than what I'm used to in hardcover, and I've been dealt a straight flush in mainstream reviews.
“The reviews I've gotten in the science fiction universe were some of the longest and most thoughtful critiques, closer to something you might find in The New York Review of Books. I would like to show those reviews to mainstream critics and academic literary scholars and say, 'Look at the kind of discourse that's going on around this book in a community that you think cares only about Buffy.' ”
“I don't want to write more historical novels. The Last Witchfinder took a lot out of me, and it says all I have to say about the birth of science. I love working with science fiction tropes. I guess that preference is always going to limit my readership, but why should I not do what I do well, for the sake of maybe having a larger audience? The book I'm working on now, Prometheus Wept, includes quite a bit about genetic engineering, so I guess I’m back in the genre.”