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Interview With a Philosopher: Secrets That Rule the World

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Imagine a secret society of powerful people who might control world events and even mess with your life, a group brought together and set apart by a philosopher's explosive discoveries.

Murder, intrigue, conspiracy, sex, music, art, and deep philosophical ideas fill Kevin Guilfoile's exciting new book, The Thousand. It's a fast-paced thriller about perception, ambition, friendship, family, and the real powers that could rule our world, behind the scenes and beneath all the headlines.

Kevin's previous work includes a very funny look at the George W. Bush years, My First Presidentiary, and an amazing first novel, Cast of Shadows, a super thriller published, like the new one, by Alfred A. Knopf. It's a real treat to interview an old and very accomplished student of mine today.

Tom: Kevin, your new book put my life on hold! I had to read it day and night. It's the first novel that, as soon as I read the last page, I wanted to start on page one all over again, and I did. No wonder the New York Times and everyone else is praising it so highly! What inspired this book?

Kevin: I wanted to write a thriller, set in modern times, that was in part about the intersection of science and art and math and religion and music and philosophy--things that are considered mostly separate disciplines today, but were at one time all considered part of the same fabric. I think 2,500 years ago thinkers were preoccupied with studying our humanity, and from their perspective these were all parts of a whole. To a large degree we now take our humanity for granted. This book was an attempt to explore that idea a little bit. And hopefully have some fun doing it. I like to mash up genres, and this one has a bit of the legal thriller, a bit of the medical thriller, a bit of the police procedural, a bit of the conspiracy novel, and a bit of the historical novel.

Tom: How did you decide to feature, in a sense, a profound and important philosopher almost nobody knows about, the ancient thinker, Pythagoras?

Kevin: Ha! A leading question! I had just started working on the book and I was very happy with the characters. There was Solomon Gold, a celebrated classical composer and conductor who is tried for murder and who is subsequently murdered himself; his daughter, Canada, a troubled young woman with profound mental gifts; and Gold's attorney Reggie Vallentine, who is keeping a dark secret. But there was something missing.

You happened to be in Chicago and we met for dinner and I was describing the parts of my novel I was having trouble with. As I recall, you said, "Go home and read everything you can about Pythagoras." (Have dinner with a philosopher and you're sure to get homework. As an aside, I told that story at a signing recently and someone came up afterward and said, "Was that Tom Morris by any chance? He was my favorite professor at Notre Dame!")

Tom: Wow, that's very gratifying all these years later. I remember that dinner with you well, some time ago, but had actually forgotten about telling you to read up on Pythagoras until you reminded me when the book was published! I'm sure it was the wine.

Kevin: The wine may have affected your memory, but not your advice. You later told me to read the Kitty Ferguson book, which is terrific. Once I realized how fascinating Pythagoras was--he was a scientist, a musician, a philosopher, a theologian, a mystic, a musician, and a cult leader--the menace in the book really took shape. I imagined that the descendants of his original followers were still holding on to just a few of Pythagoras's secret teachings, and that they were also still at war with each other, just as they were at the time of Pythagoras's death. And when you consider that the real Pythagoreans are said to have murdered one of their own for revealing to people outside the cult the existence of irrational numbers, it's not nearly as preposterous as it first sounds.

Tom: When people think of a philosophical novel, I suspect they imagine a fairly abstract tome, but your new book is the opposite. It's so lively and plot driven. Within a few pages, I really cared about the characters and missed them terribly when I finished the book.

Kevin: I have always wanted to write novels that work first as entertainment, and can be read only for the vicarious thrill of it. But I also would like them to operate on another level, so if the reader chooses (and only if the reader chooses) she can dig down a little bit and find something else there. Obviously books don't have to announce themselves as obtuse or important for a reader to take meaning from them, but to pull it off--to engage the reader at that level--you have to start with character.

Tom: Canada Gold, as a teen, has a neurostimulator implanted in her head that gives her a moderate version of perceptual and cognitive superpowers. She's almost like Peter Parker with his spider bite. In fact, she refers to her device as her "spider." How important to the overall project was your reflection on human nature and enhanced human powers?

Kevin: Canada believes the device in her head made her who she is. She thinks that if it were turned off or removed she would become someone else (a someone else she doesn't like). So science played a direct role in shaping her humanity, but what she feels missing from her self is art. She is envious of people like her father and Burning Patrick, the outsider artist she is hired to spy on. For all of Canada's heightened powers of observation, she spends most of the novel oblivious to the danger around her. She's so focused on trying to find a part of her she thinks is missing.

The super power stuff relates to a major theme of the book: As humans we are blessed with the curiosity and desire to pursue the ultimate Truth of the universe, but because of human limitations we are also cursed with the inability to comprehend it. You edited a terrific book about philosophy and super heroes, and I think our fascination with them is an acknowledgment that our bodies and minds are inadequate to complete what seems to be the primary function of the human machine: To discover who we are and why we are here.

Tom: That's very well said. Your book causes us to reflect on so many dualities in life: insight and illusion, appearance and reality, vice and virtue, internal free will and external influence, order and chaos, Chicago and Vegas - and each of these dualities provokes philosophical reflection.

Kevin: Fiction is necessarily about conflict because true insight results only from a good fight. The lawyer, Reggie Vallentine, wrestles with the contradictions between the man he sincerely believes himself to be and the man described by his own actions. Canada believes she has two selves (one pre-spider and one post spider) fighting for dominance inside her mind. Every member of The Thousand has a public and a private self, and the organization, of course, is split into two. One of the cultists must choose which side he is on, but choosing the side he believes is morally right might force him to invest in a faith he doesn't believe in.

Tom: Since I was a grad student, I've dreamed of writing a novel about a philosopher who discovered something so important that other people would be willing to scheme and kill because of it. I'm glad you got the jump on me. And you gave this a great twist. The ultra powerful discoveries were made by a thinker eons ago, and a secret society has kept them alive but strictly hidden across all the generations since, claiming to be protecting the world from this explosive knowledge, but all along using it for their own worldly power.

Kevin: The Thousand has been abusing its power, and also wrestling with the consequences of possessing it, for centuries. Every time they employ their knowledge, whether it's for good or for personal gain, they risk exposing it to the world, which they all believe will bring about the end of civilization. When everyone knows what they know, mankind will inevitably destroy itself.

Tom: In a book called Making Sense of It All, I once presented what I called "The Double Power Principle": The more power something has for good, the more it correspondingly has for ill - it's up to us how we use it. Your book hints at this principle. On the one hand, the discoveries of Pythagoras could lead us into a profound sense of unity that we need in the world today, what your characters call harmonia, and on the other hand, they could be used for manipulation and murder on a massive scale.

Kevin: Every member of The Thousand believes he has a secret so powerful it could destroy mankind. When everyone knows how to destroy the world, their logic goes, someone will certainly do it. So they will murder innocent people--crash passenger planes even--in order to keep it. But they also believe they are tantalizingly close to solving a profound mystery that obsessed and eluded Pythagoras himself. Pursuing it, therefore, is an all-in bet.

Tom: One subtle theme in the novel seems to revolve around this question: What's stronger, blood or gold - family, or fortune - and, on a somewhat related level, friendship, or self-interest.

Kevin: The characters in this book have familiar motives--Love, greed, sex, power, and especially, self-preservation. There is a grand conspiracy at work here, and that's for fun, but the thing that moves the plot is really old-fashioned survival instinct.

Tom: Members of The Thousand seem to live by the principle: "Idealism means never having to say you're sorry." People certain that they're on the side of good can do almost anything without guilt or apology, it seems.

Kevin: I like the fact that the people who want to kill Canada might be not as evil as some of the people who want to save her. Our natural inclination as a reader is to protect Canada, the heroine of our story, at all costs. But if you remove our affection for her from the equation, and try to look at the many players in the book objectively, you might end up with some interesting moral quandaries as you try to sort out the good guys and bad guys.

Tom: Your novel lives and breathes both Chicago and Vegas, its two major settings. You live in Chicago and know it well. How many trips to Vegas could you justify as "research"? I could almost smell the cigar smoke and feel myself walking through the casino, with Canada at the Blackjack table.

Kevin: Sadly, I didn't have to do any research on Vegas at all for this book. I know that city too well. I would have loved to have been able to write off some blackjack losses on my taxes.

Tom: I loved how the story ended. You seem to be either making a statement about karma, or about the sorry state of human nature, that often seems to substitute revenge for justice.

Kevin: The end of Cast of Shadows made a similar point, so at least I'm being consistent. I like books that end on the very last page. The last sentence, if possible. I'm not a fan of the anti-climax, or exposition after the fact. This book ends with something potentially explosive about to happen. It's not a ploy to set up a sequel, but an attempt to leave something with the reader at the end of the journey. It's like saying, "Okay this story is over now. What do you think happens next?"

Tom: Thanks for keeping me so absorbed with this book, I didn't want to work or eat. As a contemporary novelist, you're one in a thousand, or should it be, The Thousand?

Kevin: Thanks, Tom. I am honored all these years later to still be your student. Fortunately, I no longer have to trudge through the snow at 7:45 AM to make class.

Tom: Amen to that. Ideas are important, but there are limits.