I recently read Chaos Theories by Stephen Banks, which takes a thought-provoking look at cause and effect, fate, and free will. Stephen is here to answer my never ending questions. Before we get to that, let’s meet the man behind the words:
When Stephen Banks was in high school, his Career/Guidance counselor looked at his test scores and said “You could do anything.” Without any clear direction, Stephen tried a little of everything instead. He majored in Theater at Bennington College for a year, dropped out, married his high school sweetheart, and started a family while bouncing around between jobs – electrician, auto mechanic, shipyard mechanic and retail manager. Eventually he started selling PC’s, taught himself programming, and worked his way up to become the CTO of several small companies. Stephen now works as an independent consultant and novelist. In his spare time, Stephen acts, directs and writes for a number of community theaters and independent film companies. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and two cats.
Connect with Stephen:
Here’s a look at the book we’re discussing:
Jim Parish is a somewhat ordinary man, living an ordinary if lonely life, walking to a bus stop on his way to a perfectly ordinary job. A splash from a passing car driving through a puddle soaks his trousers, stopping him in his tracks. He hears a scream from above and looks up. Jim watches with his mouth open as two-year old Tali Williams topples from a window above. Before he can assess the situation he instinctively puts his arms out and, to his amazement, catches the child and pulls her safely to his chest.
Chaos Theories is the story of how that moment changes everything. As the beat of a butterfly’s wing stirs up a storm, Tali’s fall into his life brings with it a whirlwind. Jim finds himself swept up in lives of Tali, her mother, and the crazed serial killer traveling cross-country to find them. Add a pair of unusual FBI agents in hot pursuit, and this becomes a first class, fast-moving thriller.
But Chaos Theories is more than just a riveting ride. Interwoven with the action is a deeper exploration of how seemingly random cascading events affect us all. It is a study in the balance between free will and the cold, implacable nature of fate; an intelligent if sometimes disturbing look at how the universe works and where we fit in.
I read that you were inspired to write this book after the tragic death of your daughter. Would you mind sharing a bit about what happened and how it led to Chaos Theories?
There were actually two bits of chaos that led to this book. The first one stopped it, the second started it up again.
I had begun writing a very straightforward thriller about the hunt for a guy who had killed everyone in his office, a small tech firm in Boston. Chapter three of Chaos Theories started life as the prologue to that book. I was a few chapters into it, when Michael McDermott went on his shooting spree. The actual event was far too close to what I’d written, right down to the temporary receptionist. It shook me up a little, plus I knew if I ever finished the book it would look like I’d taken that right from the news accounts, so I put it aside.
In 2012, my twenty year old daughter Olivia was driving to a job interview and was killed when her car hit a ladder that was lying in the road. Almost thirteen years later, it took me fifteen minutes just to write that sentence. Confronting the effects of that accident on me, my wife, our other children and so many others is still beyond me, which is probably why Chaos Theories ends the way it does. The book isn’t about Olivia, it isn’t about us; I couldn’t write that if I wanted to, and if I did I wouldn’t want anyone to read it.
What I did need to confront, though, was the nature of the universe as I came to know it. That exploration is what Chaos Theories is all about. Doctor Manos (named for Manos, The Hands Of Fate) provides my intellectual journey, while Jim and Maya take the more emotional one. The original thriller became simply a backdrop which these journeys could occur. In the end, spoiler alert, the big anti-climactic revelation is that sometimes things just happen, and there’s nothing you can do about it. No fault, no closure, no way to change it.
That seems awfully bleak, but the very first chapter shows the flip side. I initially wrote Baby Bird as a short story, I think because I needed to have one of those things that happens save someone instead of destroying her. By the end of the book, it’s easy to forget that; in fact it’s always easier to forget the good than the terrible. Or to take it for granted.
Tali is not Olivia, and yet some of Olivia necessarily snuck into the character. Olivia’s electric clocks did run backwards, she could only wear a digital watch. The dolphins in the nursery pool at SeaWorld would swim up to her whenever we visited, causing other children to gather around for a closer look. You have probably noticed a streetlight go out while walking some evening, but it happened all the time if you were walking with her. She was a strange and wonderful child, and like everyone else in the world a totally unique and magical creation of chance.
Olivia sounds like an amazing young woman. My heartfelt condolences to you and your family.
This book contains a lot of mathematical and philosophical references. How much research did you need to do for the story?
I did some where I needed specific details. I was familiar with the whole butterfly effect but didn’t know about the decimal precision problem in the computer program, or how Lorenz arrived at the limitations on how far in advance predictions were valid.
But I didn’t do a lot of research specifically for the book. I’ve always been fascinated with the intersection of math and philosophy. If it’s possible to be a self-educated expert hobbyist on the impact of theoretical physics on spiritual life, I guess I’m one. Which, when you think about it, is just one more bit of chaos that brought this book into being.
And, of course, a lot of it I just made up or guessed.
Were you surprised by the behavior of any of your characters or the direction of your plot at any point while writing?
I wouldn’t say surprised, because I always knew the character of the characters, if that makes sense. Their reactions never break who they really are. But I didn’t always know what choices within that that they would make. For instance, I didn’t always know who Allen was about to encounter, and I wasn’t sure what happened to Spaz until the epilogue.
I like to think that I write the way that Bob Ross painted – I get the big picture in my head, put the main features on the canvas, then add the little details that might seem momentarily out-of-place but once they are defined fit in so naturally that they seem to have been part of the plan all along. The little side story about Elizabeth Barone came about that way – “maybe there’s a little heartbroken teenager in your world, right over here.” Unexpected, perhaps, but not surprising.
Describe your writing environment.
My home office is in the furthest corner of the house that I can manage. My desk is dominated by two computer monitors and otherwise covered in electronic clutter, scripts, and a couple of days collection of used coffee cups. There’s a poster of Einstein and one of Tom Baker as Doctor Who on one wall, one of Olivia’s paintings of ballerinas on another, posters of plays I’ve been in or directed on a third and pictures of my kids from when they were young on the mantel. I play a lot of rock and roll from my youth – Zappa, The Doors, Dylan, The Beatles – as I write; knowing all the lyrics lets me tune it out and the volume drowns out any distractions. My wife Barbara will sometimes realize that I’ve forgotten to eat and bring me something, and occasionally one of the cats will come in and demand some attention, but for the most part when I’m really engaged I don’t notice the environment at all. That’s when most of the work gets done.
Are you a planner or spontaneous?
A planner, who tries to let a little spontaneity slips in through the cracks.
What is your biggest pet peeve?
What is the last book you read?
Let me check my Kindle … I re-read stuff all the time, most recently Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. The last book I read for the first time was John Dies At The End, and I’m currently reading Stardust.
I hope you’ll take the time to connect with Stephen and explore his fictional world.
What are your thoughts on free will versus destiny?
Thanks for reading.