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Interview: Rachel Pollack on “Johnny Rev”

– Tell us a bit about “Johnny Rev.”

​”Johnny Rev” is the third Jack Shade story.  I find this amazing, since, it feels to me as if I’ve already done a whole series of them.  ​

​Each one is filled with lore and offhand references to the world of the “Travelers” (urban shamans, though very much their own tradition, not borrowed from any cultural history), so that for me it seems an existent universe.​  The series has two very disparate sources, the first being Vladimir Nabokov’s amazing novel Pale Fire, which begins with a 999 line poem written by a poet named John Shade.  In Nabokov’s book, Shade is murdered just after he finished his poem, which in part refers to his daughter’s interest in the occult.  The second source was a 60’s TV show called Have Gun, Will Travel, a noir Western.  Out of this came the idea of a sort of sorcerer for hire. Part of Jack’s backstory is that he once foolishly imposed a “Guest” on himself, an obligation that requires him to take on any client who has his business card.  He has always feared where this might lead, focusing mostly on jobs he might find immoral, but now he faces something worse.  His new client is his own duplicate, or “dupe,” that Jack created years ago and thought he’d gotten rid of.  In the world of the Travelers, if you dupe yourself, and then make sure to get rid of it, no harm can come.  But if you leave any trace it can reassemble itself and become a “revenant,” hence “Johnny Rev.” The Rev appears to Jack in a dream and presents Jack’s card.  The assignment is to get rid of the man who stands in the way of the dupe emerging into the world as a full person.  Of course, that man is Jack himself.


– What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

​To some extent, it was the title, a play on Johnny Reb, the term Union soldiers used for the Confederate enemy.  A feature of the Jack Shade stories is a whole series of nicknames that Jack has, such as Jack Sad, Scarface Johnny​, etc.  In the first story there is a brief scene with a dupe, and when I thought of the name Johnny Rev, I began to think of a revenant.  Meanwhile, the second story had introduced the idea of “dream hunters,” people who find things in other people’s dreams.  So this led me to think of Jack’s revenant coming to him in a dream, and what a problem that could pose for him.​


– Was “Johnny Rev” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

​It wasn’t personal to me except as a chance to explore some magical themes.  This story has the most lore in it, the most Traveler history, though focused on the idea of dupes.  We learn, for example, of “the strangest book in the Hidden Library, The Book of Duplicates: A Natural History of Replication,” and some of its wonders.​

​We also learn what happens when you have sex with the daughter of a “dispossessed” Sun god (dispossessed means that the tribe who worshiped him died out).​  I also got to include a scene I’d been wanting to do for some time, with the ghost of Elvis Presley appearing to someone in need (in this case, Jack). In the story, Elvis belongs to the Dead Quartet, a group of spirits who come to people in their greatest struggle.  The current line-up includes Joan of Arc (who took over from the Virgin Mary), Elvis, Nelson Mandela, and Princess Di (who took over from Eleanor Roosevelt).  I’d wanted to write about the Dead Quartet since the early 90’s, when I was writing a surreal comic book called Doom Patrol.  I did not get to do it then, and am happy to have had the chance to write the scene with Elvis and Jack.


– Can you talk at all about the themes of identity and transformation, and what “Johnny Rev” might have to say about them?

​The story is not so much about transformation as finding and holding onto your true self.  Jack has to ward off the imitation version, and he does this by discovering who he truly is.  I think many of us–maybe most of us–create a kind of duplicate version of our genuine selves, one that will match society’s, or family’s, expectations of us.  Then we convince ourselves that the dupe is real.  To really overcome the Rev, Jack has to find the part of him that is most true, and not let go of it.  I explored some of these themes way back when I wrote Doom Patrol.  I inherited “Robotman,” a character who was a human brain in a steel body, and invented the world’s first transsexual lesbian superhero.  In one issue Robotman discovers that someone has stolen some of his software and is making bootleg copies–dupes, in other words.  When he finds the factory and goes to smash it, the owner says to him, “What makes you better or different than any of these?”  Kate, the transwoman, helps him to look inside of him and find the part that is most true, that cannot be faked or copied.  Again, this is what Jack has to do in order to survive his final confrontation with the Dupe.


– What are you working on now?

​I’ve actually been struggling with illness for some time, but as I get better I’m hoping to return to a new Jack Shade story. Meanwhile, my novel, The Child Eater, which was published last year in Britain (and made The Guardian’s list of notable SF/F books of the year), comes out July 7 in the States.​


– Anything else you’d like to add?

​Writers often have their own favorite scene or moment in a story.  Mine is when Jack says “She asked her mother.”  People will have to read the story to find out just what that means.​

“Johnny Rev” appears in the July/August 2015 issue of F&SF, which you can order here:


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