Blythe is the debut novel by John Kramer. Because it has received considerable praise and interest from readers across the philosophical spectrum, but especially among libertarians, Liberty’s entertainment editor, Jo Ann Skousen, interviewed Kramer about story’s themes and popularity. Set in a nondescript village in an undisclosed time period, it begins with the strange disappearance and reappearance of several local residents wracked by a strange disease and marked by a strange branding. When the story’s title character, Blythe, is led into an underworld kingdom that proves to be the source of the disease, she must find a way to survive while her love interest, Aaron, must find a way to rescue her.
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JAS: Blythe is set in a timeless and nameless world that is familiar in its human relationships and topography, yet unfamiliar in its lack of technology and its Dantean underworld located just outside the city. It could take place in the past, or in a postapocalyptic future. What were you trying to accomplish with your setting and character conflicts?
JK: It was a challenge to write Blythe in a way that was timeless; as you correctly point out, the story could be taking place today or it could have taken place 600 years ago or it could take place in the future. The only temporal reference is to Dante. But for that, Blythe is truly a timeless tale and that was important to me because its themes are timeless: good vs. evil, self-determination vs. captivity and oppression, and the ideas and ideals of faith, freedom, and forgiveness. Readers are used to being told stories with concrete facts — with recognizable places, set in a specific time and with detailed descriptions of the characters. Blythe is purposefully light on all of that, and once the readers figure out that they have the control to create this world and these characters in their own minds, it is empowering for them. I remember watching a video of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” for the first time, back in the 1980s. I was so disappointed by the casting of John the bartender and other characters. They were nothing like the characters my mind had conjured. Outside of what I considered characteristically essential observations, many of the details in Blythe will be created by the reader.
Blythe's themes are timeless: good vs. evil, self-determination vs. captivity and oppression, and the ideas and ideals of faith, freedom, and forgiveness.
JAS: Your title character, Blythe, is an artist who uses her own blood in her work. Art has a specific healing and protective power in the story. You’re a painter as well. Is Blythe the character with whom you most identify?
JK: I admire Blythe and her growth throughout this story. Even in her true-to-life frailties, she manages to hold herself to a high standard. But there are other characters I identify much more closely with, most specifically Augustus. Throughout this story, Augustus never speaks; he acts. And he always acts in a way that helps his good friend Aaron. That’s my kind of person. He was modeled on Joseph, the stepfather of Jesus, who in the entire Bible never speaks a word. He just does the right thing to look out for those he loves even when it seems like a fool’s errand. And Joseph’s actions, like those of Augustus, are essential to the story’s outcome.
JAS: For me, the best part of the book is the thought-provoking aphorisms containing libertarian ideas — sentences such as “Every manmade disaster begins when one man thinks for another. However benevolent they begin, the ultimate outcome is tyranny” and “Take liberties you shouldn’t and you’ll find your liberties are taken from you.” It reminds me of reading Emerson’s journals, which he relied on frequently as a source for his essays. What is the source of the quotable passages in your book, and how did you use them in creating the story? Did you collect them first and build the story around them, or did they rise of their own volition out of the story-writing process? Which are your personal favorites?
The need to act to stop injustice has been a driving force in my life from as early as the age of three
JK: Emerson has a special place in my life. I lost my father when I was two, and my Uncle Joe, who was a surrogate father, urged me time and again to read Emerson’s essay on “Compensation.” When I finally had the maturity to read it, it hit home, both in the sweep of its message and in its unique and memorable turns of phrase. I’ve since read all Emerson’s essays four times or more and I hope to never stop reading them over the course of my life. Both Emerson and Benjamin Franklin inspired me to create unique, true, carefully crafted, and memorable turns of phrase throughout Blythe. Nearly all of the quotes and all of the poems are my own creations. The quote that most closely reflects my aspirations and actions is the one I used as Blythe’s one-line prologue: “One of mankind’s greatest sins is inaction in the face of injustice.” The need to act to stop injustice has been a driving force in my life from as early as the age of three. I’m grateful to have worked over the past 25 years at an organization that allows me to turn that insight into action on behalf of individuals whose rights are being violated by the government. I can’t think of a better way to earn an honest living.
JAS: Blythe has been described as a story that defies genre. It focuses more on its themes of love, faith, forgiveness, and redemption than on traditional story tropes. Your protagonist, Blythe, is strong, willful, talented, and independent. Her love interest, Aaron, is also strong, loyal, and likeable. Through a series of choices — some hers, some Aaron’s — Blythe ends up inside a dark and despotic place where she and a growing number of villagers are imprisoned, perhaps forever. Blythe doesn’t seem to belong there by the rules of traditional forgiveness and redemption tales — unlike Edmund, for example, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, she hasn’t deliberately chosen an evil path, hasn’t harmed anyone, and in fact she does whatever is possible to avoid harming others. In terms of your story trope, why is Blythe confined to this prison, and why does she need forgiveness and redemption? Why isn’t Aaron held equally responsible for his actions leading to her capture? You mention betrayal in the story; who has betrayed whom?
JK: I concluded a poem many years ago with the lines, “We are bound to make mistakes, but it’s what we do from there that can bring us back to God, and the life He wants to share.” We all make mistakes. We all sometimes take the wrong path even though we know better. Like Blythe, we can even have the self-awareness to point this out to ourselves as we are doing it, but we sometimes still continue to move in exactly the wrong direction, often at the urging of people we know we should not trust. That is what Blythe experiences. And following someone in such a way never leads to a good or happy place or experience. We should trust our instincts. Once Blythe is drawn into that other world, she not only has to figure out how to survive but how to preserve the better angels of her nature. When she enters, she is a broken person inside, but this new and threatening place acts as a crucible of sorts, purifying her, and — even as it works to destroy her — helping to make her good and whole. We are all individually responsible for what we do, and Blythe is not immune to that fact. So Blythe escalates Aaron’s betrayal, and, in that twist, she is betrayed by her rival, who herself is betrayed to an even greater extent. The lesson here is that when we ratchet up what we know is wrong, it only makes our lives and our worlds a worse place to be in. By recognizing and living up to the power of forgiveness, we can improve not only our own lives, but the world around us.
We all make mistakes. We all sometimes take the wrong path even though we know better.
JAS: You subtly suggest that evil is contagious, or at least that it loves company, when those who want to leave their imprisonment and return temporarily to the outside world must bring someone back with them or else suffer an agonizing, torturous death. Eventually whole communities succumb to the underworld. Is this a metaphor for social and political philosophies that seem to spread like a virus from person to person? Or is it a demonstration of the destructive power of peer pressure? Or am I reading something into this that wasn’t intentional?
JK: So many forces in this world are contagious: evil inspires more evil, but courage, love, and forgiveness can and should also be contagious; it merely requires an individual to stop, even in the midst of harm, and say, “No. I won’t continue or expand this harmful cycle. I am going to be the one to change this trend.” I grew up in a home with a lot of joy, but there was also a lot of hair-trigger violence. I knew it was wrong even as I was seeing it happen, and I vowed to myself that it would not happen in a home I would make my own someday. Each member of my family would feel safe in our home. My nephew, who stayed with us for a summer, described our home as “relentlessly positive.” I like that humorous description. It is what I’ve worked to build. We are free to pursue destructive paths, but all we’re left with when we’re done is destruction. On the other hand, one can decide to be a positive force. Others are looking for those examples, especially in our world today. And when one person stands and defends the defenseless, others are inspired to join, or do their own positive variation on the theme. Misery loves company, but so does joy. What you read was certainly a purposeful choice on my part with this story.
JAS: Is it significant that most of the early victims who succumb to the plague you describe are young men? Your description of the mysterious pustules that cover their bodies, the phlegmy cough, the wasting away, and the incurable nature of the disease reminded me immediately of the 1980s, when young men began wasting away and dying from an inexplicable and incurable form of pneumonia that eventually became diagnosed as the final symptom of AIDS. Eventually the connection between the kingdom and AIDS becomes explicit in your story. What is your point with this part of the story, and how does it fit with the underlying theme of choice and accountability, love, faith, forgiveness, and redemption? Did you mean to imply that sex outside of marriage is inherently evil and needs to be punished? Do you agree with the 1980s statement made by several orthodox Christian leaders that AIDS was a punishment from God? Why is HIV at the center of this Dantean world?
When one person stands and defends the defenseless, others are inspired to join, or do their own positive variation on the theme.
JK: You caught a commonality that has slipped by a lot of readers, certainly on the first time they read Blythe. In the early days of the AIDS crisis, its victims were largely limited to young gay men — social outcasts who operated outside of society’s mainstream. It wasn’t until AIDS crossed the gender line that suddenly the vast majority of people and especially the media started to take notice. Blythe follows this same turn of events. Complicit in this during the AIDS crisis, and in my novel, were those in authority who saw what was transpiring, but who said nothing publicly and did nothing officially because they didn’t agree with the life choices of those individuals. It was not, however, their place to pass such judgments, and they did so with disastrous effects across entire swaths of our world. In art, as in life, such errors in judgment must be paid for, which indeed is the case for one of the authority figures in this story who allows this plague to rise and take hold. For a time, it makes his life easier, but he pays very personally and in many different ways he could never have anticipated.
And just as AIDS doesn’t kill its victims, but weakens their resistance to other illnesses that take their lives, those in the kingdom who are going to die are sent away to die elsewhere, typically in what were once their homes.
To be clear, because some have asked me: I do not believe HIV is a punishment for sinful choices. (One ancillary character suggests that, but the more central and more persuasive character refutes that belief.) Ending up in the underground kingdom may happen as a consequence of the choices characters make or others make for them, but I do not see it as a punishment for the choice. To me there is a difference between a consequence and a punishment; the latter implies God’s judgment, and I don’t believe God would will that on His own creations; the other team would. As you once put it in an exchange with me, natural consequences are not divine punishments; God doesn’t make bad things happen, but He allows natural consequences to occur.
Just as AIDS doesn’t kill its victims, but weakens their resistance to other illnesses that take their lives, those in the kingdom who are going to die are sent away to die elsewhere.
JAS: The separate world of captivity you created for Blythe and the others is unusual in that the inhabitants are able to see and speak with their loved ones on the outside. I was reminded of Eurydice, alive and aware even after death, while Orpheus pleads with the gods to free her from the underworld. Blythe isn’t scary like a horror story and it doesn’t have the tension of a spy thriller or the panic I imagine of hell. In fact, this kingdom you create seems more like a leper colony than a prison. What was your intent in allowing this kind of ongoing communication between the villagers and those held captives in that kingdom?
JK: The structure of the kingdom and of this story is based on HIV/AIDS, and how it operates and how it spread throughout our society. So, in this sense, those who are infected with HIV are, by necessity, separated in many ways physically from those they love. They can be present and communicate with each other, but there is that separation, which provided some of the more poignant moments involving Blythe and Aaron — calling out and responding to each other across that vast separation that could only be crossed if Aaron forfeited his future — a line Blythe would never allow him to cross.
JAS: I noticed many traditional Christian morals and values within your story. Do you consider this book to be a Christian allegory?
There are many libertarian Christians out there who feel like they need to apologize for living in both camps. We need to stop apologizing.
JK: Blythe is a Christian libertarian work of literary fiction and yet it has been rewarding to hear from agnostic and atheistic readers who are inspired by Blythe for its focus on human freedom and self-determination.
One reader recently came up to me at a conference and said with a great deal of excitement: “This is the book I’ve been looking for! I’ve never understood why you couldn’t have both faith and reason. That’s what I’ve felt in my own heart — I can be led by both.”
I couldn’t have agreed with her more. There are many libertarian Christians out there who feel like they need to apologize for living in both camps. We — and I’m speaking as one of those people — need to stop apologizing. Both philosophies, when properly practiced, should reinforce the dignity of each person, when they act as free and responsible individuals.
We can and should be driven by reason. We should use the good sense that God gave us. Our reason should be nurtured and cultivated, and within our lives we must discern if what our faith leaders are saying and doing conforms with our personal knowledge of God and what he wants for us and our world.
And we should likewise nurture and cultivate our spiritual life. I’ve seen so many genuinely miraculous things in my life — here in the physical world — that cannot be explained by reason alone; they can only be explained with faith and trust in a Higher Being who loves us.
That combination of reason and faith — continually considered in such a way that it drives you to demonstrate love for those around you, hope for the future, and an ever improving and freer world — that should be the end result. This, I believe, is what God wants for us. As one character said, “Too much reason limits man to the physical world and blinds his imagination to the greater things that may be. But too much faith blinds him from curing the human suffering in this world. Men with too much faith accept suffering; they expect it and even seek it out.”