April 11, 2009
Interview with Ray Melnik,
Author of “The Room” and “To Your Own Self Be True.”
Today, Tyler R. Tichelaar of Superior Book Productions is interviewing Ray Melnik, the author of “The Room” and the newly published novel “To Your Own Self Be True.”
Just before college, Ray won first place in the National Pen Women Competition for his fictional short story, “Distinction,” as well as winning second place in the New York Best of City—The Written Word. While attending college, Ray Melnik's course on existential literature opened a whole new world for him with the study of writers such as Sartre and Camus. After leaving college, he pursued a musical career as a singer and lyricist. In the early 1980s, he was the lead singer for One Hand Clap and then Fine Malibus, with Steve Stevens, current guitarist and songwriter for Billy Idol. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ray was engineer and co-owner of MANNIK Productions, a recording studio in the Snug Harbor Cultural Center, Staten Island, New York. In addition to lyrics, Ray, wrote a monthly column about pro audio for a music trade magazine, “American Liverpool.” Later moving into the field of technology as a network engineer and then architect, he wrote for the technology panel of a regional newspaper, “Times Herald Record,” and was the primary writer of articles based on home technology for the website New Technology Home. Ray is currently a Senior Network Architect for a prominent law firm in Rockefeller Center, Manhattan, New York. His insatiable interest in science and unbending commitment to reason makes his first novel, “The Room,” a story of a life grounded in both. His second novel, “To Your Own Self Be True,” follows with the same intention.
Tyler: Welcome, Ray. I’m very excited to interview you today. To begin, I’d like to make it clear to readers that your second novel, “To Your Own Self Be True” is a sequel to “The Room” but can also be read by itself. That said, let’s talk about “The Room” first. Will you tell us about the main character, Harry Ladd, and what his situation is when the novel begins?
Ray: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about my stories. Harry is a man with profound thoughts and an unbending commitment to reason. He has views about the nature of the cosmos that are contrary to most. When introduced, he is going through an extremely tough time. His divorce had just become final, his mother is dying and he is struggling to maintain a close relationship with his two young daughters, Kaela and Lainey. At first he is going through this painful time alone since his brother had written his mother and him off long ago. But soon begins his relationship with a young woman, Lacie, he had known for some time. They fall in love when Lacie comforts and supports him, knowing all that he’s going through.
Tyler: Will you tell us about Harry’s brother, Malcolm, and why he is estranged from his mother?
Ray: Malcolm is two years younger than Harry, and they were abused by their father growing up. His angry nature frightened Malcolm the most, and Harry was only able to shield him from so much. Their mother was a victim as well, but only Harry fully understood that. Malcolm blamed her for not protecting them, and later blamed Harry for supporting their mother, so he drifted away and disowned them.
Tyler: Ray, Harry’s life is not all problems at this point. He has a love interest, Lacie. What made you decide to include her in the novel?
Ray: Because love is the one true universal gift in someone’s life. Whether it is the love for one’s children or the person you choose to share your life with. It was Carl Sagan who said, “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.” It’s also the source of our greatest pain, because it adds the suffering of the people we love, to our own.
Tyler: We don’t want to give away the ending to “The Room” although I thought it stunning and the perfect ending to the book. But the phenomenal event that happens at the end is based in string theory. Will you define string theory for us and explain why or how you used it in the novel?
Ray: String theory is the first candidate for the theory of everything. It is the merging of quantum mechanics and general relativity—the very thing Einstein tried desperately to discover. Basically it contends that everything in the universe is composed of tiny vibrating strings of energy that exist in six additional spatial dimensions to our three spatial dimensions and time. Some contend that it borders on pseudo-science, but the math works and the theory is supported by some of the most brilliant minds on the planet from the most prestigious universities. Popular pseudo-sciences are held up by wishful thinking, post office boxes and blogs. The theory is used in “The Room” as Harry’s only clue to an extraordinary event that happens to him, but I went no further. The answer is revealed in “To Your Own Self Be True.”
Tyler: In “To Your Own Self Be True” you referred to M-theory and stated that several string theories were incorporated into it. Will you explain M-theory to us also? Did you learn more about science and these theories in the time between writing the novels?
Ray: When five versions of string theory were produced, it was an embarrassment of riches. How can you have five theories of everything? In 1995, Edward Witten used M theory to explain the previously observed dualities. He added one more spatial dimension, and the five versions of string theory became five ways of looking at the same thing. What makes this area of physics so extraordinary is that if this is proven to be true, it reveals the possibility of infinite alternate universes with histories different than our own. Long before writing “The Room,” I was interested in these theories and quantum physics in general. After reading Brian Greene’s book “The Elegant Universe” and Leonard Susskind’s book “The Cosmic Landscape,” I was convinced this was the best direction to look in to discover the true nature of the cosmos. I take extreme liberties in my novels with these theories, but when I was finishing “The Room,” I had a brief email conversation with Leonard Susskind who is widely regarded as one of the fathers of string theory, and in one email I apologized for stretching string theory so far to fit my novel. He wrote back, “Strings are meant to be stretched.”
Tyler: That’s great, Ray. A scientist with a sense of humor. In reading, “To Your Own Self Be True,” I was a bit concerned about it changing the meaning at the end of “The Room.” Maybe you can clarify something for me. The extraordinary event that happens to Harry at the end of “The Room” appears to be the result of Harry’s mother’s ability, through wishing really hard, to change events from the past—does the explanation in “To Your Own Self Be True” make that belief untrue, or would a change have happened anyway if Harry’s mother was not wishing for what she was—did her guilt and wish for a different past influence what happened, or was it just coincidental?
Ray: Let me first say that this answer would mean more to someone who has finished both novels. But if not; they may want to skip this answer for now because it will be a bit revealing.
The details are not discussed until “To Your Own Self Be True”, but in 2006, when Harry witnesses the brief encounters such as the clean window, they are the hit and miss trials by Kyle at SciLab, from the days leading up to Harry’s extraordinary experience. When his mother’s illness causes her to become delusional, one of those brief effects touched her, making her believe she was living in that time twenty-four years earlier. Stasis, in “The Room” linked to an alternate reality, skewed into the past for Harry and in the present for Kyle when he finally finds the correct settings that next morning. The convergence occurs only because Harry and his mother are inside the field. It alters Harry, not because of a wish, but because his mother’s counterpart had taken a different path. Most of his life remains intact, but that one change rippled through his life. In “To Your Own Self Be True,” Kyle and Kaela never expect Stasis could do anything but connect to an alternate reality. But that changes when Adam explains how they can intercept that same tunnel to 1982 and lock Kaela’s father from 2006, in place. It would be her father from her own reality and her own past. Stasis performs as expected by linking to the alternate reality in 1982, but provides the conduit back to her own reality in 2006. The complexity was necessary to bring it all together.
Tyler: In the second novel, the main character is Kaela, the daughter of Harry Ladd. Will you tell us about Kaela at the time of the novel’s opening?
Ray: Kaela is a beautiful young woman inside and out. She inherited her love of science and reason from her father and pursued what her father only dreamed of—a career in the sciences. But she buries herself in work and struggles socially because she lets her views isolate her. When the story begins, like her father in “The Room,” she’s going through a painful time in her life and it’s giving her nightmares. I won’t go further because too much is revealed at the very beginning.
Tyler: “To Your Own Self Be True” is set in the year 2021, making it a futuristic novel, yet the setting is not so far distant to be unfamiliar to readers—what made you choose this year in particular and what decisions did you make about what the world would be like in that year, and why?
Ray: I needed to have Kaela old enough to be given her position, while continuing her studies, yet young enough still to be discovering what’s inside her. The benefit was that it isn’t that far into the future and the technologies are possible. Some are already in prototype. For a few years I was the primary technical writer for the website, New Technology Home, so I benefited from the research. Take for instance, Kaela’s Universal Personal Assistant she names Adam. There is a prototype system in the works now, that is far more primitive, of course, but it’s only 2009. Voice command systems are already widely available and are improving all the time. Look back ten years and think about how far technology has come in that short period of time. But it doesn’t come with a bang. It creeps its way into our lives.
Tyler: Ray, you have used the term “existential” to define your writing—you prefer that term over science fiction I understand. Why “existential”?
Ray: Existential principles are the foundation for my protagonist’s lives—in “The Room,” through Harry and in my second through Kaela. Since the novels, for the most part, take place in the minds of my main characters rather than third person, I’m able to express those views. They both believe that when we’re born we are given only existence. Everything we do from there, what we learn and what we encounter, gives us value or not. I do use fictional science in my stories, but mainly focus on the feelings and views of the characters. I really enjoy the early existential writers such as Sartre and Camus, but I don’t share their depressing view of life. I believe in the same human limits, but without the angst.
Tyler: In reading “The Room” I remember thinking your existentialism was hopeful. Why do you think you are different from Sartre and Camus in your viewpoint—were they reacting too heavily against a belief in God and order to the universe, and perhaps some of their despair was based in wishing for direction even though they admitted there was none, and now more than sixty years after they wrote their major works, the world is more accepting of the flaws in religious viewpoints, so you have room to take existentialism in a more positive direction?
Ray: It wasn’t until taking a course on existential literature that I realized there were others who questioned the way I did. There are a variety of existential views, but Sartre and Camus were generally closest to what I felt. But existential views don’t require feeling despair and angst over the belief that life is absurd and without any meaning beyond what we make of it. For me, it brings a deep appreciation for the great moments we do have. Life to me is an amazing accidental adventure with no guarantees. Everyone suffers through hard times, but I drive. I can’t be definitively certain about why some existentialists feel such despair, but I’m quite sure it’s not a wish to have guided order to the cosmos. I know that for me, wishful thinking would be the last thing I would ever be accused of.
Tyler: In the novel, your characters definitely have some opinions about what is wrong with the world, society, and certain beliefs. Writers are often accused of, or at least assumed to hold the same beliefs as their characters—to what extent is this true for you?
Ray: Since both Harry and Kaela view the world through the lens of reason, they become frustrated and disappointed with the absurdities they witness around them. Harry feels that too many decisions, having a profound affect on our lives, are rooted in dogma rather than reason and do a disservice to us all. While Harry is more outwardly resigned to it all, Kaela’s few quirks feed off of it.
I do hold those same beliefs. I have the same existential views with the same respect for science and reason. My whole purpose for writing is to provide an alternate way of looking at things and hopefully add a different perspective for the reader.
Tyler: Ray, after people finish reading your novels, what is your greatest wish for the reaction or understanding they will have?
Ray: First, my hope is that they see my novels as existential stories written on a canvass of fictional science and not just as science fiction. Even though I take great liberties with the extraordinary events, I do my best to reference real science where possible, and I base my projections for the future on sound research. But above all, I want people to realize that there is another way to look at life, and that there’s nothing wrong with questioning some of their deep-rooted beliefs. I hope I convey the thought that even though we may not be able to change what life throws at us, we have control over what we do about it. As Kaela says, “Life is neither malicious nor kind. It simply doesn’t care.” We choose our own path.
Tyler: Do you find that your readers do have that response, or what kinds of responses have you received from your novels to date?
Ray: Nothing thrills me more than when I’m told that my story made them question. Many people will not agree with the way my lead characters view our existence, but what they do begin to understand is that kindness, generosity, compassion and empathy are not exclusive attributes of the faithful. People who are unwilling even to hear another side will not like my novels and shouldn’t buy them. On a side note, one thing I really got a kick out of was when a few people told me what they thought was going to happen or what they wished would.
Tyler: Ray, are these two novels the only ones that will feature members of the Ladd family, or will there be more sequels or spin-offs, or do you have plans to write more books with different subjects or characters?
Ray: I don’t intend to continue this story, but I never intended to continue “The Room.” While I was promoting, “The Room,” I wrote several short stories and I really missed the characters. I realized that two of the stories fit a continuance, in a way, and they became the basis for two of the chapters in “To Your Own Self Be True.” I’ll be promoting for a short time so I plan to write more short stories to test ideas for the next novel. I’m not sure of the environment I’ll end up using, but it will always be from an existential point of view.
Tyler: Thank you for the opportunity to interview you today, Ray. Before we go, will you tell readers about your website and what additional information they may find there about your novels?
Ray: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about my novels. I created “Emergent Novels” at www.emergentnovels.com for people to see the cover art, read the excerpt and synopsis, and watch multimedia introductions or listen to podcasts. I embedded a hidden image in the front cover of each novel. The one on the cover of “To Your Own Self Be True” is a bit more obvious, while on the cover of “The Room,” it’s much harder to spot. But if they give up trying to find them, there’s a magnified view of each on the Emergent Novels website.
Tyler: Thank you again, Ray, for joining me today. I found both of your novels very thought-provoking, and I look forward to talking to you again in the future.
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