The Day – Longtime NFA teacher James Rourke has a new novel
James Rourke has spent the past 27 years teaching at Norwich Free Academy, but he has also had a calling that he is passionate about. He has written and published several books in recent years, a new one of which has just been released.
It’s a dystopian novel called “Stone Souls”. In it, the common states of America are free from poverty or crime, and any cancer has become benign and survivable. Society celebrates intellectual achievement and artistry.
But, as the book ominously warns, the only cost is your soul.
Two people, Raymond and Karen Butler, recently became citizens of the Common States of America, which is overseen by Homeland Security Secretary Kurt “Stone” Adams. He “defends the nation he loves with revolutionary intensity”.
“Stone Souls” grew out of a planned trilogy that Rourke was working on ten years ago. One of the characters from the third book captured Rourke’s imagination – so much so that he took the character out of this tale and created a whole world around him, which became “Stone Souls”.
That character is Kurt Adams, and Rourke says, “Even in this rather toned down version of him that was in the original trilogy, he was on some level like my Joker. He was this dark character who maybe had a way of sucking you in and (you) saying, ‘Wow, that’s a really good point the Joker just made. (But) I shouldn’t agree with him – he’s the maniac. … He has a bit of that vibe going for him. So I got curious: how could I really create a character like that, this appealing sociopath, if you will?
“Stone Souls” takes place in a new country that has separated from the United States.
“Their basic premise (of the Common States of America) is that the United States is wrong, and it has been wrong from the very beginning in that the Declaration of Independence – we hold these truths to be self-evident, all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, that is all wrong. If you build a country on something that is not part of reality, then your country is going to have a hard time. (The common states theory of America) is why the United States has struggled, because we are living a false reality. The reality is that you earn your respect, you earn your place. You were born Homo sapiens, but humanity earns itself,” he said.
“So they took this very intense meritocratic view of things. Stone Adams is the champion of this proposition, and in doing so he punishes people and weeds out those who don’t live up to their commitment to earning their humanity, if you will. This is his motivation.
Rourke, who teaches history, psychology and philosophy at the NFA, used some of his knowledge of history to write the book. When fleshing out the character of Adams, he was inspired by a pamphlet distributed in Russia in the early 1870s. It was called The Revolutionary’s Catechism. He conceived of Adams as a revolutionary in the Russian tradition. Part of the Catechism is that revolution should be the most important thing in a person’s life, and anything done to promote revolution is considered moral.
“So for a guy like Kurt Adams, he jails people without due process, executes people without any type of trial because he has that authority. If it helps the revolution, it’s all moral acts. I pretty much base it on my understanding of this groundbreaking document. So in that regard, he lives in a state that used to be in the United States of America, but his mindset is not American,” Rourke says.
Rourke will talk about “Stone Souls” on June 3 at Bank Square Books in Mystic.
Taken with Tolkien
Rourke, who grew up in Lisbon, wrote as a child, especially during his third and fourth years, when his teachers really encouraged students to be creative and write stories.
But then other interests took precedence.
“But apparently that desire to write, that desire to tell stories was ingrained in me and started to seep in my early thirties, and I’ve been writing ever since,” Rourke says.
Due to his work as a teacher, he does not write every day, but he thinks about writing every day, that is, he takes notes or adds outlines. Eventually he finds the time to take notes, thoughts and plans, access a computer and produce a few chapters.
Speaking of his favorite authors, Rourke recalls with a laugh: “I tried to write a fantasy novel more than ten years ago, and it very quickly occurred to me that, oh my God, everything I do , it’s ripping off ‘Lord of the Rings’!”
His love for JRR Tolkien ended up being an obstacle in this case.
Rourke says there is often something invigorating about writing. You think you’re tired when you sit down to write, but once you’re done, you feel enriched, he says.
“I don’t need a big publishing deal. That moment (of feeling enriched) alone is a positive moment in my life,” he says.
His other books
Three of Rourke’s books — “From My Class to Yours,” “The Eternal Struggle: Two Worlds, One War,” and “The Comic Book Program” — were traditionally published, while “Out of the Basement” and “ Stone Souls” were self-published.
He produced both non-fiction and fiction. “The Comic Book Curriculum” focuses on using comics to enhance learning and life. “From my class to yours” offers reflections on teaching.
Rourke’s works of fiction, on the other hand, tend to boast fantastical elements and spiritual themes. In “The Eternal Struggle”, two dead people must fight to save Limbo and the Earth from Satan; they do this against (and with the help of) various historical figures. “Out of the Basement” centers on a college professor who decides, through a push from friends and the potential for a new romance, that he must deal with childhood abuse that left a lasting impact on him.
When asked what drives him to write, even though he has a busy job as a teacher, Rourke said, “I feel like that’s the million dollar question, and I I don’t have a complete answer. I cannot tell you undeniably what makes me want to share a story, to write a story. I know this: that I was inspired by other people’s writing, I was intrigued by it, it amused me, it enriched my life, all of these things, whether it’s a film as a story or a book as a story. That’s what stories do for me.
“Sometimes I feel on some level, I’d love to do this for someone else. I have people I’ve never met who have enriched my life with a story they’ve told, and I actually feel grateful, that this person took the time. Who knows, maybe I can produce something that makes someone I’ve never met and don’t feel the same way. will ever meet.
Teaching, too, is part storytelling, especially for someone teaching something in the humanities. The best way to get students interested in history or a philosophical idea is to make it more of a story than just a collection of facts, he says.