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’Sowing’ His Seed: Kemble Scott on His New Novel

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Aug 27, 2009

What if sex were the means by which health could be disseminated across the planet?

Indeed, what if gay sex were the key to eradicating HIV from those living with the virus, and thus curing AIDS?

What would that do to morality as it is currently promoted? What would it do to our understanding of sexuality itself?

And who would go to any lengths to stop the miracle cure from being propagated?

Those are the questions that propel Kemble Scott's new novel The Sower, a perfect blend of satire, fantasy, and international thriller that takes place in a world where a George Bush-like president has wrangled himself a third term in office and a televangelist with an army of believers has helped him do it.

From the industrially poisoned wastelands of Armenia to the streets of Paris, Scott plots a power-curve course for his provocatively named characters. There's the gay hero, Bill Soileau, and the scientist from the Institut Pasteur, Quif Melikian, who realizes that something extraordinary is afoot. Then there are the killers, church functionaries, researchers, and one globally famous pop music diva, all of whom want to use (or eradicate) the cure for reasons of their own.

The only problem: the cure is an artificial virus--and it's living inside of Bill Soileau.

Kemble Scott chatted with EDGE about his new novel, which shares a character (and an infamous scene) with his shocking and funny first novel, "SoMa."

EDGE: "The Sower" was chosen to be the first book published as a digital release by Scribd. Is the new hardcover release the result of how well it did with Scribd? Was part of the marketing strategy always meant to see a traditional paper release as well as a digital release?

Kemble Scott: There were no plans to put The Sower into print before it premiered on Scribd. The decision to release the very first edition as an electronic book received more media attention than anyone could have possibly predicted.

Immediately I was contacted about doing a printed version. I considered three different options, and eventually went with Numina Press. They have a wonderful publisher, and they came up with a way to get the book in hardcover and into stores in a matter of weeks. That was very important to me, since the novel is set in an alternative version of the present day.

If I had gone into print first, it typically takes more than a year for a book to reach readers. The Sower has a timely message, and I didn't want to wait that long.

EDGE: Based on the trends--electronic readers, more activity in the digital domain, less interest in paper media--how long might it be before all our books and news takes electronic form? Will paper books be relegated to boutique publishers, or perhaps even go extinct?

Kemble Scott: As the pioneer for doing a book this way, it's my observation that we're talking about two different readerships. The people who are buying and reading my book on Scribd are a new audience. They tend to be younger and eager to try new technologies. It's the iPhone generation. If they want to read books on their phones or laptops, then I'm more than happy to meet them there.

That doesn't mean paper books are going away. Ever since personal computers were invented, futurists have predicted that paper media is dead. And yet the use of paper has gone up substantially since computers became commonplace. There's a bond between human beings and paper that hasn't been disrupted by the digital age. Paper is still precious to us.

I wouldn't be surprised if the generation that discovers the joy of reading books in digital form simply develops a love for books in general, and goes on to embrace them in many different formats. The digital version might be for on the go, while a paperback is for reading in the tub, and a hardcover is given as a gift.

EDGE: "SoMa," your first novel, was a delirious concoction that blended sexual hijinks in San Francisco with some hard-edged social observation. You tackled subjects from barebacking "roulette" parties (where one unknown participant is HIV positive) to the still-fraught subject of bisexuality (some gays like to deny there is any such thing, saying that bi guys are gays without enough courage to embrace their true identity). Was that blend of comedy and sometimes shocking sex scene reportage a tough balance to maintain?

Kemble Scott: "SoMa" was written so the feelings of the readers would be provoked at levels similar to what was happening to the characters in the novel. The early chapters were written with a gentler hand. As the stakes go up for the characters, the writing of the scenes becomes more explicit and outrageous.

"Sex becomes a means for creating life. Sex creates life? What a crazy idea!"

I came up with a scale of one to ten to assess the provocation level of each scene (which could be humor, sex, outrage, or horror) and plotted the entire book on a chart. In the end, it looked like the EKG of someone having a heart attack.

EDGE: "The Sower," is just as daring as "SoMa," in that is imagines a medical advance that can only confer its amazing curative powers through unprotected sex, thus making promiscuity a huge health boon--if only the world can let go of its fear of sexuality. Is sexuality as a healthy part of human life a message we are ready to embrace, or even think about?

Kemble Scott: Many of us came of age in the time of AIDS. We grew up being told that sex is a potential death sentence. Not just a mortal sin, but actual physical death. So in the The Sower I flip that notion on its head. Sex becomes a means for creating life. Sex creates life? What a crazy idea!

EDGE:"The Sower" is an even more exotic blend than "SoMa" because it mixes sex and social satire with the thriller genre. Like the blend of elements you use in "SoMa," I wonder if that was a tough act to pull off.

Kemble Scott: There's an old saying, "If you want to hear a sermon, go to church." There are provocative messages in The Sower that I hope are sticky. But my job first as a storyteller is to be entertaining.

On one level, this is a page turning thriller. It's also goes beyond that genre, by having a bit of fun at the expense of books like "The Da Vinci Code." There are clues fairly early in the novel that this isn't a traditional cliffhanger. For example, the names of the characters. Most are double entendres for sex acts. And yet, there are moments in the book where I still get teary-eyed reading them. That mix is vital to holding someone's attention. I'm trying to make readers laugh, gasp, cry, and scream--to keep them engaged and entertained.

EDGE: Like all successful satire, "The Sower" is inherently political. But you couch some real surprises in the book in terms of who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Is this a nod to fairness, or is was it your intention to be as truthful as you could to a concept as provocative as the one that motivates the story?

Kemble Scott: The opening scene of "The Sower" involves an act by the main character that most would condemn as despicable. As the book goes along, you realize that the situation wasn't as black and white as you first concluded. And later, you might find yourself cheering on this character to commit that same heinous act again and again and again. Part of the fun, and the message, of this book is to play around with concepts of good and evil.

EDGE: Speaking of politics, "The Sower" ultimately presents politics as something that, like science, is neither good nor evil in itself, but can be used to any sort of end. Is that the view of politics that you take personally?

Kemble Scott: The book creates a conflict: people must choose between advancing their ideologies and human life. Politics and agendas versus whether a person lives another day. When put in those terms, who wouldn't choose a human life over promoting an ideology? And yet history is bathed in blood to the contrary. We just lived through eight years in America where warped "values" were allowed to dominate and take this country in the wrong direction. We're living with the consequences of those misplaced ideologies, all of which were packaged as "good" or "right." Now we know that they were not.

EDGE: I have to say I was impressed by the science behind "The Sower." The essential theory you cite in the book, of an organism engineered to target and destroy pathogens in a living person, is a real medical avenue of research that the Soviet Union had looked into, and that has garnered renewed interest now that antibiotic strains of some diseases are evolving. Could we look forward relatively soon to a cure for AIDS and other health issues, like cancer, through bacteriophage or virophage development? Or is it, like medical nanotechnology, something that might only work, if ever, decades from now?

Kemble Scott: Real scientific breakthroughs are the inspiration for what happens in the novel: the idea that a germ can kill another germ.

But the truth is that there's nothing that kills HIV. In fact, modern medicine has a tough time conquering any virus, even the common cold.

The medical breakthroughs in "The Sower" are science fiction, but this fantasy is a means for exploring an unfortunate fact. When it comes to HIV, there continues to be a tragic effort to apply moral attributes to a disease. Someone who's infected is morally condemned, as if somehow a virus sought out a sinner to teach him a lesson. Even in the gay community, which ought to know better, people who are not infected openly describe themselves as "clean," implying that those for are HIV-positive are "dirty."

A virus does not discriminate. It is not good or evil. It does not have a moral compass. We might not have the wisdom yet to cure HIV, but we have the smarts to stop thinking as if this is still the Dark Ages.

EDGE: Eventually, there will probably be a cure for AIDS. When that day comes, what is your prediction for how homophobes will adapt? Will the message continue to be that homosexuality is some sort of pathology that leads to the spread of disease? Will a cure for AIDS lead to calls for science to "cure" gays of their innate sexuality? Could a cure for AIDS lead to social consequences that are worse than the disease itself?

Kemble Scott: The vast majority of people infected with HIV worldwide are not gay. But you raise the big question: do some people view homosexuality as a disease that needs to be cured? There are those who believe that, and they are no different than others in history who have worked to cleanse societies of various minority groups. They need to look inside themselves and ask whether that's really the company they want to keep.

The notion of genocide is a recurring theme in "The Sower." One of the main characters is Armenian. You see a new type of holocaust, one that's actually happening in the world today.

And then you realize, these aren't questions of history or fantasy. It's occurring right now.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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