Above and Below :: Rebecca Cantrell on ’The World Beneath’
EDGE readers may recall, with more than a trace of fondness, Rebecca Cantrell’s award-winning series of World War II-era mysteries, set largely in Nazi Germany and featuring a tough, resourceful journalist named Hannah Vogel. Though not Jewish herself, Hannah sees what the National Socialist Party does to her Jewish friends; she also sees how the gay community suffers under the reign of Hitler and the madmen who serve as his associates. Moreover, Hannah cares for an adopted son -- the son, possibly, of her brother, a gay man murdered in the first volume of the series.
But Cantrell has other stories to tell, and other dark realms to explore. Together with another New York Times bestselling novelist, James Rollins, Cantrell has authored several installments in "The Order of the Sanguines" series, which explores the hidden nexus where the ancient Catholic faith and a secret history of vampires (two factions of vampires, actually) intersect. On her own, Cantrell has also written a "cell phone novel," the critically-acclaimed "iDrakula."
Cantrell has also ventured into deep, dark places -- most literally -- for her new novel, "The World Beneath," which plunges the reader into New York’s vast subway system, where (in Cantrell’s version of present-day New York City) an eccentric millionaire arranged a century ago to have an otherwise perfectly normal Victorian house constructed well below ground, nested in the rock and located just off the tunnels of the subway.
This unusual house is a godsend for protagonist Joe Tesla, a direct descendant of electrical genius Nikola Tesla and a success in his own right. The billionaire founder of a software company, Joe Tesla has the financial resources he needs when a strange illness strikes, leaving him at the mercy of crippling agoraphobia -- the fear of open spaces. Retreating to the subterranean house with a psychiatric service dog named Edison to keep him company, Tesla keeps tabs on the outside world via his laptop, and he’s not above the occasional bit of spectacle-inducing white-hat hacking.
But when the outside world intrudes on Joe’s underground world in the form of rival operatives seeking a long-concealed train car and the secrets it contains, Tesla is drawn into a taut and dangerous struggle that will have lethal consequences for many... including Joe himself, unless he uses every bit of his formidable intellect to outwit his opponents.
EDGE had the chance to chat with Cantrell, who, while writing her Hannah Vogel novels, resided in Hawaii -- but who has since relocated with her family to Berlin.
EDGE: What took you away from Hannah Vogel and the world of the WWII era and brought you to modern-day New York City and "The World Beneath," where billionaire software genius Joe Tesla finds himself living in a Victorian house located underground -- and just off the New York City subway system?
Rebecca Cantrell: Ironically, it was Hannah Vogel’s city, Berlin, that started me writing about someone else. My family and I moved here about a year and a half ago, and one day as I was going down the stairs to the subway platform I was hit by that wall of air that comes up from underground. I thought, "subway tunnels breathe." I knew that was the first line of a book, so I typed it into my phone and rode around until I discovered who would say that. Eventually Joe Tesla emerged.
EDGE: It’s fascinating that you’ve chosen your hero as a direct descendent of the legendary genius Nikola Tesla. What was the thinking behind this?
Rebecca Cantrell: I knew that Joe Tesla was brilliant, geeky, and had a few psychological issues. I figured he would fit right in with his eccentric great-uncle.
EDGE: Will Joe’s lineage come into play as the new series progresses? That is to say, will Nikola Tesla, in some manner, become part of the stories you’d like to tell?
Rebecca Cantrell: I think he will. I’m toying with the idea of using him in the next book. Joe Tesla’s father is dying and sends him a box of papers and devices that used to belong to Nikola Tesla himself and have been passed down the family since his death (in New York). Joe will be looking through that box when...
EDGE: Speaking of Nikola Tesla, he’s gaining a higher profile in recent years. He’s appeared as a character in at least one major motion picture, "The Prestige," where he was portrayed by none other than David Bowie; he gets a shout-out in Jim Jarmusch’s new film "Only Lovers Left Alive"; there’s a new car company named for him. Tesla seems to be claiming the mantle of genius for his work with electricity that history nearly failed to grant him. Do you have a sense as to why he’s suddenly becoming part of the Zeitgeist?
Rebecca Cantrell: I think a lot of work has been done to rehabilitate his reputation and to give him credit for his inventions. He thought in big terms -- ways to power the world for free, floating death rays. But he wasn’t a science fiction writer; he was an actual scientist who built amazing devices, made and lost fortunes, and inspired other scientists through his speeches and writings. He didn’t just talk about crazy things -- he made them real. How could that not be fascinating?
EDGE: Joe Tesla is an unusual protagonist not only because he lives underground -- the result of an inexplicable and sudden case of agoraphobia -- but also because of his extremely close bond of reliance and affection for his psychiatric service animal, Edison. (And naming the service dog Edison was also a stroke of genius!) Given that Hannah Vogel has her adoptive son to look after (and to help her out more and more as he grows up), and Joe has Edison, it seems that you have a real fondness for creating certain complex dynamics for your central characters?
Rebecca Cantrell: I try not to let their lives be too settled and simple, and I don’t want them to be alone. Hannah Vogel has to re-examine her own life when she acquires a son, and it makes her a better person. Joe, too, has someone who relies on him, someone who trusts him, and someone who takes care of him no matter what -- Edison. That bond keeps him sane and connected to the world during those moments where it looks like he might slip out of it.
EDGE: As fascinating and strange as Joe Tesla’s circumstances are, you posit something even more extraordinary: The existence of a typical Victorian home, ensconced in bedrock deep underground, the legacy of an eccentric and wealthy man a century or so earlier. How did you come to conceive of such a bold element for your new story?
Rebecca Cantrell: The more I researched the New York subway tunnels, the more things I found down there-FDR’s presidential train car, the Nazis’ number one sabotage target in World War II, unused tunnels, steam tunnels, mole people. Then when I discovered the existence of the Campbell Apartments in Grand Central Terminal itself, I thought there just might be something similar a hundred feet below. The door in the center of Grand Central’s iconic clock is real, too, so why shouldn’t it lead to exactly the kind of Victorian-era, steampunkish house that is the perfect place for a descendant of Nikola Tesla to hang his hat?
EDGE: It’s clear that more adventures await Joe Tesla and Edison; will you be focusing on that for a while, or do you plan to return to Hannah Vogel next?
Rebecca Cantrell: I’m working on Joe Tesla’s next adventure, "The Danger Below," right now at the same time as I’m working on the third book in the Order of the Sanguines series with James Rollins (tentatively titled "Blood Infernal").
Once I finish those stories, I think another adventure with Hannah Vogel is in order. She will be part of the American’s Operation Paperclip, parachuting into Berlin just days before it will fall to the Russians to find the scientist Andreas Huber (from A Game of Lies) and bring him back to the United States so that the Russians don’t get him instead.
"The World Beneath," Nov. 25, 2013.