Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Q&A with Josh Weiss




Josh Weiss is the author of the new novel Sunset Empire, a sequel to his novel Beat the Devils. Both books feature his detective protagonist Morris Baker, who lives in an alternate version of 1950s America. Weiss lives in Philadelphia.


Q: Did you know before you wrote your first Morris Baker novel that you'd be writing a second one?


A: A second book was part of the deal from the very start (all of the brokerage credit goes to my amazing agent, Scott Miller of Trident Media Group). With that said, I wasn’t sure if my sophomore novel would be another adventure with Morris or something completely different.


I originally saw Beat the Devils as a bit of a one-off because some of my favorite alternate history novels — Fatherland, Wake Up and Dream, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union — are all standalone stories. But the more I talked it over with Scott and the publisher, the more I began to get excited about the prospect of revisiting this world.


Like most good ideas, the general plot line for Sunset Empire came to me in the shower about a month prior to the pandemic lockdown. Interestingly, I wrote the epilogue right away — it was that clear in my mind. The rest of the sequel followed a little over a year later.


Q: How do you think Morris has changed — or remained the same — from the first book to the second?


A: It’s a good question. I definitely wanted there to be some growth between books, but it soon became clear that if Baker was able to completely process all of his deep-cut trauma, he’d lose all the qualities that made him such a compelling character. 


By the end of Beat the Devils, he’s reached a state of self-acceptance, realizing that there is a way to move forward in life without all the guilt and rage that’s been swirling inside him since he was liberated from a concentration camp in 1945.


When we get to the events of Sunset Empire, which take place a year and a half after the first book, Baker has relapsed. Now doubly haunted by his experiences during the Holocaust and the loss of Sophia, he’s once again drinking too much and isolating himself from those around him. This leads to major friction with his girlfriend, Shira, and the congregants of his synagogue.


The story of how he thwarted an evil Nazi cabal in the first book has been spread far and wide by journalist turned revolutionary Edward R. Murrow. Baker has gained this almost mythological status as a Jewish champion among his contemporaries, but doesn’t quite know how to live up to it. With this sequel, I wanted to explore themes of identity and probe the dilemma of who Baker thinks he should be versus the person he really is.

Q: What inspired the plot of Sunset Empire?


A: Without giving too much away, Sunset Empire offered me a chance to dip my toes into the waters of horror (you’ll know when my adoration for Stephen King and John Carpenter is showing) as well as the politically-charged, paranoia-tinged spy thrillers of the Cold War that inspired me to create the MBU (Morris Baker Universe) in the first place. The Manchurian Candidate, Goldfinger, The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men, and Marathon Man come to mind.


I also found myself wanting to reflect the COVID-19 pandemic — and the xenophobic vitriol that sprung from it — given the fact that this book was written in the middle of the global health crisis.


Q: What did you see as the right balance between history and alternative history as you wrote these books?


A: For me, it’s all about having some semblance of a historical backbone without getting too caught up in the minutiae. After all, this is a work of fiction taking place in a reality vastly different from our own. Poetic license, baby!


Nevertheless, I like to be accurate to the period in terms of its technology and culture (think film and music) to give the reader a certain baseline of what really did exist before presenting them with an absolutely wild deviation from the timeline.


And even then, those out-there deviations often contain small nuggets of truth. In this parallel universe, for example, the United States has moved away from fossil fuels in favor of the more sustainable energy provided by nuclear fission.


Why? Because President McCarthy saw an opportunity to become filthy stinkin’ rich if he used the power of his office to monopolize the industry. As such, the Ford Nucleon (an actual late ‘50s concept for a nuclear-powered vehicle) became a reality, even though a car that runs on atomic fuel is still a pipe dream today. I really loved the dissonance of such an awful administration doing something environmentally noble for all the wrong reasons.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m currently in the process of pitching my third novel. Whether it will be another chapter in the Morris Baker saga or something different remains to be seen.


I have a premise in mind for a trilogy topper if that’s what the people want (I recently had a fun idea about how to tie it back into the events of the first book), but would be equally delighted to explore any of the concepts laid out in my 50-page document of book ideas that continues to grow with each passing year. Whatever does come next, though, I’m fairly certain it’ll be another period piece of some kind.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: If you want to see more of my writing, check out my pop culture bylines at SYFY WIRE and Forbes Entertainment!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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