the Little Red Reviewer

Interview with Jerry Gordon, author of Breaking the World

Posted on: April 19, 2018

Let me set the scene a little for you:   This past January, at ConFusion, Jerry says he has a novel coming out soon. And of course I say “oh?”

 

He tells me what the book is about.   He tells me the significance of the pre-order announcement and the significance of the book being released on April 19th (hey, that’s today!).  After that conversation, I couldn’t get the idea of this book out of my head. I couldn’t stop thinking about the research that must have gone into this book, what possessed him to write on this particular subject, how he went about writing a cult leader,  the power of faith and religion, and how law enforcement officers attacking civilians is nothing new.

 

I’ve been waiting for the book ever since.

 

Breaking The World is a fast paced alternate history thriller that takes place in Waco, Texas, in the summer of 1993.   Ringing any bells?  Does this photo look familiar?

(I swiped this photo from Jerry’s website)

 

Breaking the World asks the question “What if David Koresh was right, and the world really was ending?”

 

Jerry was kind enough to let me ask him all sorts of questions, most of which are a variation of “wait,  what?  but, how? and dude, why??”.   Because I really did want to know why would someone write a novel about the Branch Davidians.  Is it easier to research something like this now,  because more than 20 years have passed?  Did Jerry’s Google Search history get him on any no-fly lists?   I had a bazillion questions.  Like I said, Jerry is very kind.

 

Just joining us?  Click here to read my review of Breaking the Worldclick here to order the book directly from the publisher.  Click here to visit Jerry’s website.

 

Let’s get to the interview!  I promise, no (ok, only a few teeny) spoilers ahead! Not to mention insider info about the significance of names, social media to the rescue, the process of writing a non-believer who is stuck in a religious cult, how people have been reacting to this book, and that even when history is written by the victors, a darker truth is often hiding right beneath the surface.

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Little Red Reviewer: I was fourteen years old when “Waco” happened. Newsmedia was very different in 1993, and all I remember is seeing Koresh’s photo on TV, and lots of footage of burning buildings in the Texas sun. (CNN existed, we didn’t have cable TV) I may have been too young to understand, but more likely I just wasn’t paying attention and was too busy being a teenager to care. Fast forward 25 years, and we have multiple 24 hour news stations, tons of social media, and the ability to instantly put live videos online. If the Branch Davidian stand off happened in an age of smartphones and social media, would things have gone down differently? How might both sides use social media to their advantage? In any stand-off situation, do you think social media is a help, or a hindrance?


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JG: One thing that’s important to understand about Waco is that law enforcement moved the press a mile and a half away from the actual standoff. This created a situation where the news media was dependent on FBI press conferences for all of their information. Officials portrayed the church as a military-style compound, branded the Christian congregation a cult, and labeled their pastor a madman with a messiah complex. The press allowed themselves to be put in a position where they couldn’t question the government’s actions or their version of events.
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During the standoff, the congregation used a camcorder to tape members talking about their lives and faith and the decisions that brought them to the church. The FBI chose not to release the tapes to the news media because they “humanized” the Branch Davidians. Behind the scenes, officials worried the recordings might lead the American people to question the use of tanks and against a civilian church. Strangely enough, you can now watch these suppressed videos on YouTube.
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I’d like to think modern technology would have led to a different outcome at Waco. There were grave mistakes on all sides of the standoff, but the cover up was only possible because the FBI had a stranglehold on information. Cell phones and social media make it much more difficult to contain people and ideas. I knew they were tear gassing protestors at Standing Rock within hours, and I live halfway across the country. Lead poisoning in Flint, the Arab Spring, Charlottesville — there’s a seismic power shift happening when it comes to reporting events and protesting injustice.
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LRR: Breaking the World is told through the eyes of Cyrus, a teenager who came to Waco with his mom. Cyrus didn’t have any choice in the matter, and once his mom married David, he was stuck there. How did you develop Cyrus’s character? How did you get into the mind of a scared teenager?
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JG: Cyrus actually started out as a true believer. I wrote about fifty pages in that direction before abandoning the idea. It drained the story of conflict and too heavily favored one point of view. I really wanted to take readers inside the standoff while questioning both sides, and I needed a much more independent, neutral point of view to do that. So the true believer became an atheist dragged to the church by his born-again mother–someone in conflict with everyone in the story. I was much more comfortable writing from an outcast’s perspective, and I felt strongly it would be a much better entry point for readers.
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I pulled from some of my own experiences for the character. My parents divorced when I was young. We moved enough that I felt dragged around by forces beyond my control. I relied heavily on books and movies to fill the gaps in my limited experience. I wanted to create a character that was intelligent and resourceful and still trying to figure the world out in a very real way. The novel is an extended metaphor for growing up.
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LRR: As I was falling down the Branch Davidian wikipedia rabbit hole, I came across that “Koresh” and “Cyrus” are different pronunciations of name of the ancient king Cyrus the Great of Persia. Tell us about your decision to name your protagonist Cyrus.
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JG: Vernon Howell changed his name to David Koresh after a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the 1980s, where he claimed to receive a vision from God. The name change had a deep spiritual significance for him. Koresh is the Bible’s name for Cyrus the Great, the Persian king that freed the Jews from Babylon. And he took the name David to honor King David’s mission from God.
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In the novel, David sees Cyrus not just as a step-son, but as a kind of spiritual successor (albeit an unwilling one). In David’s mind, Cyrus will continue his work. Naming the main character Cyrus is a deliberate choice that speaks to events beyond this novel. So there’s a limit to what I can say about it now. The overlap in meaning is not by chance.
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LRR: I can only imagine the hours upon hours of research you did for this book. How long did the research take? Did you come across any unusual or unexpected resources? What was the most interesting and most surprising thing you learned? At what point did you decide “ok, I’ve learned as much about this as I’m realistically going to”?
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JG: I spent about six full-time months researching the book. It didn’t happen all at once. I wrote a short story that included David Koresh as a kind of religious boogeyman. The research I did for that opened my eyes and led to a couple months of research for a novella that quickly escalated into a novel. I’ve read everything from congressional hearing notes to an oral history transcribed from David Koresh’s mother.
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One of the most surprising things I learned (that didn’t make it into the book) is that David Koresh called the ATF weeks before the raid and offered to let their agents inspect his guns and permits. He knew the ATF had rented out the farmhouse across the road from his church, just as he knew they were watching him. He tried to head off any chance of an armed confrontation. The ATF, in the middle of training a strike force for the raid, hung up the phone on him. I didn’t include it in the novel because, quite frankly, it sounds too outrageous to believe.

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LRR: In the novel, there is discussion of the seven seals, and that they are breaking, and different things will happen when each seal breaks. I have zero knowledge of seven seals. Enlighten me a little?

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JG: The Seven Seals of the Book of Revelation contain coded information, known only to God, which signal the End of Days and the Second Coming. Different denominations of Christianity view the Seals and the Book of Revelation in different ways. For Catholics, they are metaphorical texts, containing coded language meant to reference events in the historic time period they were written (when Christians were persecuted and had to hide their faith). On the other end of the spectrum, many evangelicals believe the Seals to be the word for word prophecy of God, heralding a literal series of events that will lead to Judgement Day.

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David Koresh’s vision in Jerusalem and his teachings at the Branch Davidian church both centered on the Seven Seals. Koresh memorized the New Testament at the age of fourteen and the Old Testament by eighteen. He used this encyclopedic grasp of scripture to synthesize references to the Seals throughout the Bible and “decode” God’s message for his followers.

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The novel primarily focuses on Koresh’s interpretation of the first four seals. His acceptance of his role as the 7th Messenger (Revelation) is the first Seal. God’s war against man for attacking his people (Zechariah, Revelation, and Ezekiel) is the Second Seal. It’s difficult to talk about his interpretation of the Third and Fourth Seals without spoiling the book.
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LRR: Did you seriously wake up one day and think to yourself “I’m gonna write a book about David Koresh”? It’s been 25 years, not too many people are still talking about this (or maybe they are, and I’m just not paying attention). What made you want to write a novel about the Branch Davidians? How long did it take you to get from lightning strike of an idea to finished novel?
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JG: I’m old enough to have watched the fifty-one-day standoff play out on CNN. My step-father worked for the FBI as a field agent, so I never questioned the official story. Years later, on a road trip, I listened to an NPR interview with the forensic anthropologist on the scene at Waco. Her findings challenged everything I knew about the standoff.
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Fast forward a few years, and I decided to write what I had learned into a post-apocalyptic story about one of the child survivors of Waco. The short focused on an adult haunted by memories of the standoff and its aftermath. The research I did for the short story led to even more questions, and before I knew it, I had fallen down the research rabbit hole.

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History is normally written by the victors, but with the benefit of enough time and perspective, the thin veneer of official truth is sometimes peeled back to reveal something darker. That’s definitely the case with Breaking the World. There are serious questions about the standoff that I wanted to confront while telling an exciting survival story. It took a solid two years to research, write, revise, and polish the novel now sitting on bookstore shelves.
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LRR: At ConFusion in January, you told me about Breaking the World, and my head just about exploded (in a good way!). Please accept my apologies if I freaked you out. When you tell people you have a novel coming out, and they ask what it’s about, and you tell them, what’s the typical reaction?

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JG: Never apologize for being excited. I loved talking to you about the book! How I pitch it generally depends on whether the person remembers the standoff or not. If they do, the tagline of the book generally makes a big impression:
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In 1993, David Koresh predicted the end of the world.
What if he was right?
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People’s eyes widen and you can see the impact of the question as all their preconceptions hit at once. I’ve seen people shudder at the thought. They always want to know more. On the other hand, if they’re too young to remember the event, I usually focus on the bones of the story:

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Breaking the World takes place during the fifty-one-day standoff between the FBI and the Branch Davidian Church. It focuses on three outcast teenagers, nonbelievers dragged to a Christian commune in Texas by their born-again parents. When a botched government raid on the church turns deadly, the teens must take charge of their own destiny in order to survive a clash between infamous cult leader David Koresh, an erratic FBI, and a growing pandemic that seems to confirm the worst of the church’s prophecies.
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For the uninitiated, the history is far less important than the survival story. Cognitive scientists believe storytelling evolved as a survival mechanism. Stories help us remember life and death information, and they allow us to simulate and prepare for dangerous situations. So you can see that part of people’s brain whirl to life. I’ve really enjoyed watching people react to the story and the reviews have been wonderful to read.

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LRR: What do you hope readers will get out of this book?

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JG: First and foremost, a fast-paced apocalyptic thriller that will leave them wanting more. I grew up on authors like Michael Crichton and love books that entertain as they inform. I really hope this novel will cause readers to question their perceptions of Waco, the wisdom of militarizing domestic law enforcement, and the blurry line between religion and cult. I hope it humanizes the standoff.
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LRR: Breaking the World is a stand alone novel with a firm conclusion. But, and I hope I’m not spoiling anything here, . . . you do leave things just a smidgen open for a sequel. Any plans to write more about the survivors?

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JG: I have a detailed outline for a second book that continues the story while casting the events of the first one in a new light. If there’s enough reader interest, I’d love to write that story.

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2 Responses to "Interview with Jerry Gordon, author of Breaking the World"

… And now I’m even more interested in reading this book. Great interview. 🙂

Liked by 1 person

it’s after the 19th, so now the book is out in the wild. read away!

Liked by 1 person

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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