The best way to rule a populace is from behind the scenes. Let people think they control their opinions and actions, and you can lead them anywhere.
So believes Professor Litvac, who dreams of engineering the “perfect consumer”, creating a populace living a life of mediocrity, anxiety, and malleable opinions. And in the turbulent political climate of 1970s Buenos Aires, he’s got plenty of opportunity to experiment. Any young adults who disappear are assumed to be the victims of ongoing political unrest.
Trapped in one of Litvac’s torture camps are Lucas and Vera Freund. Brilliant scientists, the Freunds hold the key to Litvac’s success, but they’re not talking. With the backing of a powerful Catholic sect, Litvac puts a plan in motion that will transcend generations. He’ll have what he wants–no matter the cost.
Who are you and how did you start writing?
I am a medical doctor and psychotherapist, born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
I started my career as a med student in Buenos Aires, and then moved to England to complete my studies. After acing the US Medical Licensing Exams (99th percentile in all of them), I interviewed for Psychiatry programs in the US and decided that the field was not for me—not here in the US. So I went back to school, after moving to California, and completed another degree to become a licensed psychotherapist in the States.
After a forced sabbatical (for health reasons), I began to write more intensely. ‘Against the Oaks of Bashan’ came after a year of soul searching.
How did you come up with the concept of your story?
People are living a fast-paced life nowadays, a life that does not let them stop to think what they truly want to do with their lives, to ponder over existential issues, to chose their own path rather than following what everybody else is doing.
It looks like the norm is to go for as much distraction as possible, blindly following collective opinions, with no time to think for our selves—until one day we just die.
How did you come up with the title?
It is an Old Testament allusion about the idea of God severely punishing all that is extraordinary and “lifted up”. The Oaks of Bashan, mentioned in the sermon in the first chapter of the book, were the most beautiful oaks of the ancient world of the Old Testament. The Christian church and all Abrahamic traditions routinely emphasize the need to be cautious of anything extraordinary and keep our heads low, promoting mediocrity and punishing independence, freedom of thought and those who are brave enough to stand up and shine, be their own person.
A mediocre herd that is suspicious of intelligence and anything extraordinary is a perfect malleable group, ready to absorb the values and ideas that the elites in power want them to profess and live by.
Please provide some insight into or a secret or two about your story.
Why is it that the door of a secret vault in a New Mexico scientific institute can only be opened by Frances Fons, a young Argentine scientist born 9 months after the vault was last opened?
If you reflect on this question while you read the novel, you’ll be ahead in understanding the clues that lead to the shocking and juicy end.
What was the most surprising part of writing this book?
My natural literary style drifted seamlessly toward a psychological thriller that has elements of science fiction. I always assumed that my first novel would be a heady soliloquy of memoirs and reflections—but, instead, I created an exciting, thrilling, rather dark story packed with action scenes and suspense. I surprised myself along the way.
What was the hardest part of writing your book, and how did you overcome it?
The editing process: chopping the manuscript from almost 80,000 words to the current 68,000. I just spent seven consecutive days, from morning to night, focused and slashing. It was sad to see some great literary elements and poetical excerpts go…but very necessary to keep the plot focused, smooth and moving along.
Given unlimited resources, what would be your ideal writing environment?
Exactly where I am right now: a north-facing studio with huge windows and direct views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, with only a typewriter and my painting materials around. I paint as a way of inspiration. The cover art in my book is my artwork.
When I am done with the first draft, I move to an office with a computer and do the rest. It’s a great balance.
Name one entity that you feel supported your writing, outside of family members.
Nobody. But then again, I did not look for help outside family and friends. My husband, an artist, has been an incredible source of support. And many friends have provided me with feedback and encouragement.
What is your advice to writers?
Base your stories and character development on what you know. And don’t get too distracted with what others are doing. This is your voice and your creation—don’t let anyone bully you into conforming to their norms. Protect your uniqueness.
If you met Stephen King on an elevator, how would pitch your book to him?
In all honesty, in that situation I would keep quiet and not approach him. I am not good at soliciting contacts because of my personality. I don’t like depending on favors to achieve my goals. I like my work to speak for itself. It’s a harder, lonelier, and sometimes gruesome path. But I’d rather walk it alone than grovel over any famous person that I meet in order to get something out of it.
Julia Starling is a medical doctor and psychotherapist. Born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, she spent five years in the UK finishing her clinical studies and then moved to California to complete her psychotherapy training. She currently lives in northern New Mexico with her husband Alex.