One of the themes I revisit in most of my books is the issue of what I really believe. For many of us, that's the internal journey of a lifetime!
Today I talk to physicist and Christian, Randy Ingermanson, about his City of God series and how he reconciles faith and science in his books.
Randy Ingermanson is a physicist and geek suspense novelist. His books include the Oxygen series, the City of God series and Double Vision, as well as books for writers.
- What is geek suspense anyway? How Randy loves books by Michael Crichton, and how his writing always includes geeky, smart people who have adventures. How he became a physicist and then started writing
- How modern physics is a story about how the Universe got here. I talk about how I did Theology at Oxford and my boyfriend was a physicist so I combined religion and science. We discuss the line between religion and science.
- Randy was raised in a religious home as a 7th Day Adventist. This has impacted his writing, and he continues to try and explore what he believes in his books through the eyes of his characters. How physics is very good at understanding HOW the Universe works, but not WHY the Universe works. We started with hydrogen and we ended up with people.
- About Randy's City of God series. A rogue physicist travels back in time to kill the Apostle Paul. The book has a Messianic Jew, Rivka, who ends up with a Jewish theoretical physicist and accidentally walks through a portal to 1st century Jerusalem. Now they must stop the assassination of Paul.
- On the culture shock of using Jerusalem as a backdrop to the story. A short history of 1st century Jerusalem and what was to come in that century, including the destruction of the Temple and the emergence of Rabbinic Judaism, as well as Christianity moving out of Israel to Rome.
- How Randy visited Jerusalem in 1991 as part of his research and how Jerusalem is one of my favorite cities that keeps appearing in my books. How we were both influenced by The Source by James Michener.
- How we have to write out of our own experience and passions – for us, it's religion and the supernatural! Plus, Randy brings in an element of romance – he's far more romantic than me! We both write powerful female characters.
- On Randy's research for the Oxygen series which features a journey to Mars.
You can find Randy at Ingermanson.com and you can get his first book in the City of God series, Transgression, for free on Amazon here.
Transcription of interview with Randy Ingermanson
Joanna: Hi everyone, I'm thriller author J.F. Penn and today I'm here with Randy Ingermanson. Hi, Randy.
Randy: Hey, Joanna.
Joanna: Thanks for coming on the show. So just a little introduction, Randy is a physicist and geek-suspense novelist, his books include the Oxygen Series, The City of God series, and Double Vision, as well as books for writers.
So Randy, tell us a bit more about you and you're writing background, and what is a geek suspense novelist anyway?
Randy: Geek suspense is what I write. I like suspense, I've always loved suspense. I always liked Ken Follett, Michael Crichton, Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, those kinds of people. But my fiction, for whatever reason, always includes really geeky people. Physicists, mathematicians, engineers, historians, archaeologists, people who have PhDs and for them that's just normal. They don't consider themselves smarter than anyone else. They just think that they're normal and they just live their lives that way, but they have all these weird adventures and do things that are exciting and fun. So that's what I mean when I talk about geek suspense, the sort of life I would have if I had a life, you know?
Joanna: But tell us a bit more about your background as a physicist and what you've done.
Randy: Right, well you know, sometimes at writing conferences writers will ask me, “What is a nice physicist like you doing here with a bunch of starry-eyed storytellers? What are you doing here? How did you get here? And my way of thinking is, well, how is it that a guy who naturally just loves stories and I've been reading all my life. I've always loved fiction, ever since I was four years old. How is it that I became a steely-eyed physicist? That's the question that should be answered, and I don't know the answer to that really. Who knows why you do what you do? I always liked reading, okay. I always liked adventure stories, suspense, that sort of thing. I really ate up Sherlock Holmes when I was kid, just that whole series. But when I got to high school, I think the English department wasn't as strong as the math and science department, and I just really got interested in physics, in, you know how the world works, because it explains something and if you think about it, modern physics is a story.
It's a different kind of story than a novel, but it's a story about how the universe got here. It's a very intelligible story, the universe is 13.8 billion years old. It started in this gigantic flash and it somehow by hook or by crook, we went from light to atoms, you know hydrogen and helium to carbon and then to life and then to us. And that's a pretty amazing story, and physics, chemistry, biology is all about how did that happen? You know, in some sense, it's a very strange story. It's not a very plausible story, but it's a true story, okay? And so I really enjoyed learning about that.
But at a certain point in my life I realized you know what? This is all very interesting, but there aren't any characters in this story we're telling. We have vector spaces and, you know, quantum states and all that sort of thing, and lots of differential equations, but where are all the people? And I started reading Tom Clancy, and Robert Ludlum, Ken Follett, and I realized, “Man, I really want to write a novel someday.” So that's kind of how I got into fiction writing as a physicist. By that time, I was working on my PhD in physics and enjoying it and doing well. And so I had this geeky background, and it just seemed very natural for me to write about the kind of people that I know, who are very human people. We tend to think of all these wiz bang geniuses as sort of almost robots, but they're not, they're people. If you stab them, they bleed, as Shakespeare might've said.
Joanna: Yeah, it's funny, because I was at Oxford and I did theology, but my boyfriend was a physicist and so I hung out with and I lived with a physicist as well, a female physicist. And it's so funny, we used to have this religion-science debate every year. Dawkins was always there obviously, and it's interesting because your books, and we'll come back to transgression in The City of God in a minute, but your books incorporate both physics and religion in Oxygen I noticed that one of the characters is a Christian.
So how do you walk this line between religion and science?
Randy: Yeah, it's a pretty thin line. That's . . . I guess I should go back and talk about where I come from, because, you know, physicists aren't just born, they're made, they come out of backgrounds. And my background is I was raised in a very religious home, or at least one half of it, my dad was not particularly religious at all, but was my mother was very religious and so I was raised . . . You know you can't choose what religion you're going to be raised in and I would the one I was raised in, it's a very conservative, weird, Christian denomination or sect or called it's been called all sorts of things. But I was raised in a Seventh Day Adventist home and they believe that the universe is 6,000 years old and lots of things that just aren't true.
They're very conservative, I wouldn't say that they believe in the inherency of the bible, but they're conservative. They take the bible very literally and as I got older I went to a Seventh Day Adventist high school and then on to a Seventh Day Adventist college, I realized there's a serious disconnect here between what I've been taught and what I'm learning now. Even from very religious professors it was clear they didn't believe the universe was 6,000 years old, but they couldn't say that.
So a big part of my life has just been figuring out, “Well, what is it that I really do believe? I have a lot of options here. I can believe in sort of the far right. I can believe all the stuff I was taught as a kid. Or on the far left, I can believe all this. I can go fully atheist and just say, “Okay, God doesn't exist. It's all equations and it's all matter and energy.” Or I can try to find some balance in the middle and none of those are obviously the right decision, but also none of those are obviously the wrong decision. I know people who have stayed very, very religious and believe in the holy young earth thing, and I know people who've gone atheistic. But my own choice has been to sort of try to find that middle ground just to find out how does the universe really work? Physics is very good at understanding how the universe works, but it's not at all designed to understand why the universe works.
So one analogy that I've made here is imagine you're in a helicopter watching this Ferrari driving down the road. It's going from Los Angeles to New York. It goes through Death Valley to Las Vegas and it takes the freeways and when it gets to Utah it's a long straight way and stuff and it goes over the mountains and you can say, “Okay, I have a complete, natural, mechanical understanding of that car. I understand how the gasoline and the oxygen combine in the engine. I understand the pistons, I understand everything. I understand exactly how that car works, but I don't really have a clear understanding of why it's following this winding path from L.A. to New York.” And it's natural to think that there's a driver who interacts with the car and yet who is not the car, and so there's a completely natural explanation of the car, but there's also some sort of intent behind it.
And there are some people who like to talk about intelligent design. I'm uncomfortable with where the intelligent design people have gone, but there's a great British physicist/mathematician Freeman Dyson, who likes to say, “It almost looks like the universe knew we were coming.” We started with hydrogen and we wound up with people, and how did that happen? If you look at the equations for the universe and how it has evolved over time, over 13 billion years, there's a lot of cliffs that could've gone off that we would have had a completely sterile, boring universe. But we don't and so there's a fair number of scientists who have taken more or less the same road I have, which is to say, “Yes, science tells us a lot about how the universe works, but it does seem that there's some sort of an intent behind it that maybe we don't fully understand, but there's something there.” And that's what religion is about, that's what philosophy is about, is the why of the universe, not the how of the universe.
And I wouldn't say that I've found the answers. We haven't solved super string theory on the physics side. I don't know if we ever will. No one has proved God exists or has really understood his mind and if they think they have, they're delusional and yet it seems there's something there, okay? So that's what religion is about and so in my fiction, I try to just be realistic about that bit. People are not just born physicists, so when I have fictitious scientists, they're going to have a background. And if it's as twisted and screwed up as mine is, they're going to be very twisted and screwed up people, just like me, okay? So I'm well-designed to write about these kinds of people, because I'm twisted and screwed up in a lot of ways, okay?
Joanna: We work out what we believe through our books, and I see that in your books as I also do the same thing in my books.
Randy: I've seen that in yours and read some of your interviews on your site and it's clear that's what you're doing too, is just trying to figure it out.
Joanna: Probably we never will, but it's a good journey to go on. But, I recently read your Transgression, the first one in the City of God series, which is brilliant. Tell us a bit about that series so people will get it.
Then also, Jerusalem being one of my favorite places on earth, tell me about your feelings around Jerusalem.
Randy: Right, yeah, so I can sum up the story-line for the City of God series in one sentence. A rogue physicist travels back in time to kill the Apostle Paul. So he's sort of the villain of the story, and the story is not really about him. He's just the guy who creates the scenario for story. The story is about two people, one of them named Rivka, she's a messianic Jewish archaeology student, she's from San Diego, where I lived for a long time, she's at UC Berkeley and she's very unhappy with God. And so she goes off to do a dig in Israel for the summer and just sort of escape from her life and she meets a guy there named Ari Kazan, who's a theoretical physicist who really . . .
Ari has had a bad experience with religious people, his step-father was one of the Haredi, he's an ultra-orthodox Jewish person, who made Ari's life miserable and Ari does not like religious people, but he also doesn't like Christians. Ari just wants to be himself, and he's a theoretical physicist, he wants to unlock the mysteries of the universe, but the two of them get mixed up with this guy who wants to go back and kill the Apostle Paul and by hook and by crook they wind up in ancient Jerusalem and there they are. So the two of them . . . you know when you write a historical novel, you have this problem that you have this massive culture shock, which you're trying to communicate to your readers. But it's kind of tedious to do these lengthy explanations, but when you have two people, each of whom knows part of the puzzle and they don't get along very well, they can have nice arguments and fights about things and explain the culture to each other, or explain facts, and so you have conflict, which is essential for fiction and you have the ability to explain what's going on.
So by using these two characters, I can give my reader the sense of profound culture shock that you would have if you traveled back in time to first century Jerusalem. So I've taken them back to the year 57, which is shortly before the Jewish revolt. It was a tough time to be living in Jerusalem. Thirteen years later the temple was going to be burned. Everyone was going to be either enslaved, or raped, or murdered, or something. It was just a bad time, and I wanted to put my readers into that experience and show them what it was like to live there, because the whole Jewish revolt and the burning of the temple that's all tied up with two of the great world religions.
Obviously, Christianity had been born just a few decades earlier. Rabbinic Judaism was born about a decade later as a direct result of the destruction of the temple. Jews needed to have some form of religious expression and they no longer had the temple, so they . . . some of the great Jewish rabbis lived at that point and they created an entirely, well a somewhat different religion than they had had before. As a result of that, the last 20 centuries have been, you know, have happened. Christianity, obviously and Rabbinic Judaism have been huge factors in the development of the Western world, and modern science, in fact. We probably wouldn't have modern science without the benefit of many great Jewish scientists and Christian scientists. Science came out of the western world and the dominant intellectual forces there were Christianity and Judaism. So to me, it's just a very important time.
Joanna: So your research for your book, have you been to Jerusalem? Is it somewhere that's important to you?
Randy: I went to Jerusalem in 1991 and it's a very interesting city, a great place to be, but I skipped some of the touristy thing, so I never did actually make to the Crucifixion site, so the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. But I spent an entire day at the, you know, the model that used to be at the Holy Land Hotel there which is a nice replica of Jerusalem in the year 66 AD. I just spent the whole day taking pictures of it. I had read a lot of books on archaeology, so I was very well prepared, but I just took as many pictures as I could and imagined my stories developing in those streets. I still have scrapbooks full of pictures of what I took and when I need to re-live a scene I will look and see what was it like.
Joanna: Jerusalem comes up in most of my books. So it's really great to read it in yours, and one my influences is James Michener's The Source. I wondered if you'd read that book?
Randy: Oh yeah, that was one of the very first books I read back in the early 1980s when I was just starting to think about writing fiction. My initial idea was, “Oh, I want to be the Tom Clancy of ancient Jerusalem, wouldn't that be cool?”
Joanna: That's a good line, yeah.
Randy: Just think of how many people would want read that, there's probably dozens of people!
Joanna: I don't think we can help what we write. I keep trying not to write something with supernatural or religious kind of themes, and it just keeps happening.
Randy: Right, right.
Joanna: Does it keep happening to you as well?
Randy: Yes, I tried to write a conman story, and it turned out he's trying to rip off the wife of a Baptist minister, but he's not a real Baptist minister, he's a FBI agent and she's an actress and they're trying run a sting operation on him. The religion just keeps popping in, because it just kind of comes out of who you are. And so you have to at some point just realize, “I'm going to write out of my own experience and if no one wants to read that, well that's fine, but I still have to write it.” And as it turns out, people do want to read that kind of thing. There are a lot of twisted, strange people out there.
Joanna: The other thing that's interesting about your books it does seem that they have a element of romance. Let's say that. Is that deliberate?
Randy: Yes, absolutely, I try to mix in some history, some suspense, some archaeology, some philosophy, and some romance. Those are kind of the five basic elements that I try to put into my books. I remember one of my female friends from high school. I never really had a girlfriend in high school, but she was probably the closest thing to it, and she read one of my books and she goes, “You've learned a lot since high school.” I wasn't that knowledgeable about how women work, how women think back when I was in high school, but yeah, I've learned a little bit about how girls think and most of my friends are writers, most writers are women, therefore most of my friends are women, and I've learned how they think. And yeah, romance definitely adds something to just about any story. I think it's an important thing.
Joanna: I think you're more romantic than I am. I tend to be . . . I have my women killing off my men. That's generally what happens.
Randy: Well, yeah. I don't like killing off women. I'm pretty resistant to that.
Joanna: Well, there you go. Well, you have some really good strong female characters as well. I think Rivka is probably a stronger character than Ari in that book and maybe that's just me.
Randy: She's a little powerhouse, she's only about 5'2″, but man when she talks. In fact, I just read a review, like a two-star review a couple of days ago on that book, griping about the fact that I had a woman who was smarter and more intelligent than any guy. But I like smart women. I think they're interesting, they're fun. Maybe if you're not very sharp you would feel threatened by intelligent women, but as far as I'm concerned the smarter they are the better. I like them that way.
Joanna: Exactly, it'd be a boring book otherwise.
And then just last question, I'm reading the Oxygen series, so your research for these space things, the sci-fi side, is that something you've been into as a physicist or is this all research?
Randy: Well, sometimes people accuse me of being a rocket scientist, but I'm not really. I kind of lucked into that. One of my fans emailed me one day and says, “You know, I really enjoyed your last book. Do you need a proof-reader for your next book?” And I happened to notice that her email address was from Houston, and I said, “Actually, my publisher has proofreaders and all that, but I see you're from Houston, would you happen to know anyone who works at NASA because I'm writing a novel about the first human mission to Mars set in the year 2014?” This was 14 years ago. I never realized that we would live so long to actually be in the year my book was written, and she goes, “Well, you know, it just so happens I have a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering. I used to work at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and my husband still works there. He's one of the key engineers on one of these projects and there's this woman who goes to my church, she's a Sunday School teacher, and she happens to have the American record for most hours in space, Shannon Lucid.
If you guys wanted to come out to Houston for a weekend, I could give you a tour there, they're having a big open house and I could introduce you to all these engineers and then we could hang out with Shannon Lucid for an afternoon and you could learn how to think astronaut. And I'm going, “Okay, how did this happen? This totally doesn't make any sense. That someone out of the blue offers to proofread my book and she's a perfect source for the next book that I'm writing.” But my co-author, John and I, we thought about it for exactly 10 nano-seconds and we go, “Yeah, we're on board.” So we went out and just had this great four-day weekend touring NASA, looking at the museums, spending time with engineers. We got one of the key engineers at NASA to read the book for scientific accuracy and just let us know if there were any issues that he saw. Shannon Lucid also read the book. She couldn't give an endorsement because she was, at that time, still a NASA employee and there were restrictions on that. But anyway, we got what we needed by going there and talking to real people and that was a really fun experience.
Joanna: Wow, that's fantastic. That really gives it that sort of edge of reality, which it definitely has. So that's fantastic.
Randy: We had a fun time on that story.
Joanna: So where can people find you and your books online?
Randy: Well, finding me is easy, my last name is Ingermanson, and you find me at ingermanson.com. Of course all my books are available online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, all the usual suspects.
Joanna: Thanks so much for your time, Randy. That was great.
Randy: Thanks for having me, Joanna