Thursday, August 25, 2022

Q&A with Michael Simms




Michael Simms is the author of the new novel Bicycles of the Gods: A Divine Comedy. Also a poet, editor, teacher, and publisher, his other books include the poetry collection Nightjar.


Q: What inspired you to write Bicycles of the Gods, and how did you create your characters Xavi and Jesse?


A: I woke one morning with an image of two boys riding their bicycles up a hill that looks down on a large city. One boy, Xavi, dismounts and strikes a match, but the other boy, Jesse, stops him from setting fire to the dry brush. Right away I knew that these two boys were Shiva and Jesus, and this was the beginning of a story about the apocalypse.


Ancient stories of these two gods have always imbued them with human characteristics. The temptations of Christ make sense only if he experienced them as a man, and portraying Jesus as a 12-year-old Latino in Los Angeles (The City of Angels) shows us how he would react to being an adolescent in America today.


Like any 12-year-old, he has daddy issues, extreme in his case, since his father actually had him die on the cross in his last human life. He’s embarrassed by his mother’s sexuality. He’s devoted to his best friend. He’s baffled and outraged by the flaws of our society, such as racism and classism. Like any adolescent, he has a fragile idealism which is constantly being shattered by the greed, cruelty and dishonesty of adults.


Xavi (Shiva), on the other hand is coming into his sexuality, but with the powers of a god he is able to perform sexual deeds far beyond what is normal for a human. A lot of the humor of the novel arises from the tension between who these two characters appear to be and who they actually are.


Q: The writer Peter Makuck said of you and the book that “in Bicycles of the Gods he has invented a new genre—apocalyptic satire.” What do you think of that description?


A: It’s an accurate description. It hasn’t dawned on most people yet that we are living at the beginning of an apocalypse. Cities are flooding. Forests are burning. Whole towns are going up in flames. Millions of refugees are fleeing war and the destruction of the environment. Fascism and other extreme movements are taking over whole countries.


The cataclysmic events are getting worse with no end in sight.  You don’t have to interpret the events from a religious point of view to see that widespread destruction of society is accelerating and the end of our civilization is imminent.


Satire has always been a way to relate unpleasant truth. Often people laugh when they suddenly make a connection they hadn’t seen before. Reading the old stories from the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita retold in contemporary terms is a way of making these great truths relevant again.


Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: Once I started telling the story I knew that the reader would be in suspense, wanting to know whether the world actually ends, as Xavi wants, or whether Jesse would find a way to save it. I wasn’t sure how this tension would be resolved until I was almost finished with the first draft. I wanted to let the story tell itself, rather than force a pre-determined resolution.


The deities of the story, besides Jesse and Xavi, include Mikey, the Archangel Michael who, like Jesse and Xavi, also occupies a 12-year-old boy’s body; Maria and Jose, Jesse’s mother and stepfather who live in an abandoned mission in the Sonoran desert; and The Big Guy (God) and his brother Luke (Lucifer) who continue to enact their eternal competition to rule the world.


But the emotional center of the book is the story of the mortal characters. Stephan Józef, a homeless ex-vet who lives in a cave beside the freeway, writes poems that no one reads except the angels in heaven who put them to celestial music. Jesse takes Stefan under his wing and assures him of the importance of his work.


Christina O’Malley is a social worker who falls in love with the young poet and he with her, but they’re aware of the difficulty of their making a life together. And Stefan’s dog Dharma, brave, loyal and loving, proves to the humans that it is possible to live a life of faith and service.


Also, there is Reverend Sheffield, a Black preacher who leads the migrants across the Otay bridge to freedom; Father Jack, a Catholic priest and friend of Stefan’s; Marta, a veteran who lost a hand in Iraq and is intent on killing the man who beat her mother to death; and Birdie, a day care worker who is known to be the most compassionate person in the world and who may or may not be an agent for God.


There are also cameos by dozens of celebrities, including Albert Einstein, John Wayne, Abelard and Heloise, Walt Whitman, and Cleopatra.


The climax of the novel is a huge battle that takes place both on the mortal plane and on the celestial.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: Both the bicycles that the boys ride, the Merida 96, and the motorcycles the Sisters of the Piston ride, the Harley Fat Boys, are actual models that one can order online -- although they’re very expensive. I thought it would be funny to have American ingenuity invent vehicles that even the gods covet.


I’ve been surprised by the many readers who say they love The Sisters of the Piston, a motorcycle gang known as Nuns with Guns, an order of badass elderly nuns trained as special-op warriors -- feminist vigilantes who ride Harleys and save women and children from oppression and violence.


Anyone who is Catholic has known nuns who are fierce as hell. When I was active years ago in the sanctuary movement on the Texas border, it was nuns who organized and led us. I’ve been active in grassroots progressive politics for over 40 years, and I’ve never known more committed activists than the nuns who smuggled refugees across the border and gave them shelter.


The Sisters of the Piston are a composite of the nuns I knew and the historical Knights of the Templar, as well as the Sōhei, the Buddhist warrior monks of feudal Japan.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a novel titled The Hummingbird War, a sequel to Bicycles of the Gods. Also, I just finished a new collection of poems, Strange Meadowlark, which a publisher is considering. I also have a fantasy series titled The Talon Trilogy under contract with Madville, which will start appearing soon.


In addition to my writing, I also publish a daily gazette,, a public sphere for poetry, politics and nature. Vox Populi publishes two posts a day, typically a poem and a political article or a short film. We have 11,000 email subscribers and thousands more visit the website every day.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’m kind of a strange bird. I’m on the autism spectrum, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and I didn’t speak until I was 5 years old. I grew up in the Texas working class culture – guns, God, and football – but broke away from it as a teenager. I’m devoted to my wife Eva, a psychologist, as well as to my two grown children, Nicholas and Lea.


I’m active in progressive politics, especially environmental issues, and I’ve repeatedly addressed the Allegheny County Council on issues of the detrimental effects that fracking is causing in Western Pennsylvania. In 2011, the Pennsylvania Legislature awarded me a Certificate of Recognition for my contributions to art and literature in the Commonwealth. I’m a prolific writer, but I have trouble conversing with people. My friends are patient with me.


Theater training when I was in high school helped me overcome my shyness, and now I enjoy performing my work in public. On Thursday, Sept. 1 at 7pm, my friend the rap performer Christian Nowlin will be helping me launch Bicycles of the Gods at The White Whale Bookstore in Pittsburgh, in person and on zoom.


I’ll be in Nashville for the Southern Festival of Books October 13-16. And in the spring, I have a California tour planned. I’m very pleased by the reception the novel is receiving. After all, who wouldn’t love a story about badass vigilante nuns and the end of the world, right?


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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