David Duchovny's New Book 'Truly Like Lightning' Started As An 'X-Files' Episode
David Duchovny is best known for portraying Fox Mulder, a believer in all things supernatural, in the long-running TV series “The X Files.”
But Duchovny also has a master’s in English literature. And in the last few years, he’s turned his talents to writing novels. The most recent one, “Truly Like Lightning,” came out last month.
Here & Now producer Emiko Tamagawa interviewed David Duchovny about his book for a virtual event held by the Massachusetts-based Brookline Booksmith. A Zoom crowd eagerly awaited Duchovny as event director Bryana Tribuna spoke for many of the fans in her introduction: “David Duchovny has been a constant in my life since ‘The X-Files’ first aired, and I was just a weird little kid obsessed with bigfoot, werewolves and aliens.”
When Tamagawa started reading Duchovny’s new book, she immediately leapt to the acknowledgments in search of where the book came from. Two things stood out to her: the writings of Harold Bloom, a professor Duchovny had when he attended graduate school at Yale University, and a connection to an episode the actor wrote for “The X-Files.”
After six years of starring in the hit science fiction series, Duchovny says he wrote and directed one episode per year. He took inspiration from the case of a man named Mark Hofmann, a forger of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“The thing about Mark Hofmann is when he was writing in the hand of Joseph Smith, he said they weren’t forgeries because he was channeling Joseph Smith,” Duchovny says. “And so that’s what I kind of used, you know, it intrigued me as an actor because we talk about becoming a character.”
In Duchovny’s “Hollywood A.D.,” episode 19 of “The X-Files” season 7, an old hippie named Micah Hoffman, played by Paul Lieber, forges ancient texts about Jesus Christ to fool a Catholic cardinal. But then Micah Hoffman has a conversion: “One day I was just not impersonating Jesus Christ, I had become him.”
Fast forward about two decades. Duchovny is working on “Truly Like Lightning,” which centers around Bronson Powers, a former Hollywood stuntman who is disillusioned by the business and finds solace in religion.
“There is something about the Mormon sense of ‘we are not belated, we are now, and now is when miracles are happening,’ ” Duchovny says, “that struck me as: If you had somebody like Powers, who feels it’s hard for him to have an authentic life, he would glom on to this religion.”
Like the texts in the “X-Files” episode, Powers’ brand of Mormonism is something he made up — and yes, it involves polygamy.
Powers and his two wives live on an isolated settlement near California’s Joshua Tree National Park. They homeschool their 10 children, raising them free from technology and what they view as the evils of society.
But then a real estate developer, who covets Powers’ land, bets him that his children would benefit by attending public school. Despite his misgivings, Power agrees to enroll three of his kids and let them live in a city along with one of the mothers.
The children get to experience everything from cellphones to pizza to Michael Jackson for the first time, Duchovny says. The book explores what happens when a 19th-century person enters a 21st-century world.
What follows will cause patriarch Powers to question the faith that has sustained him and served as “the ground beneath his feet,” Duchovny says.
“I envy people that have strong faith in many ways. I envy the idea of really believing that there’s a bedrock of, not just morality, but a spiritual truth,” he says.
That envy inspired him to write such a character — and he plans to take on the role of Powers in a TV adaptation of the book. Think along the lines of a “Big Love” meets “Saved By The Bell” with a Duchovny spin.
The first season of the show would cover the events of the book, he says. Then, Duchovny hopes people get invested in the world and the characters’ stories for a few more seasons.
But for those who still want to believe Duchovny will return as Fox Mulder, enthusiast of aliens and the supernatural, take heart. He won’t completely rule out a return to “The X-Files.”
“I love that show. I think that show is such a chameleon. It can exist, I think, in any time and can tell almost any story,” he says. “ ‘The X-Files’ of the future, I don’t really know what those stories are. I don’t know what it looks like so I wouldn’t say no ‘cause it might be fabulous.”
Meanwhile, for Duchovny, there’s “Truly Like Lightening” the novel … and the TV show? Stay tuned.
Book Excerpt: ‘Truly Like Lightning’
By David Duchovny
1. BRONSON WAS UNEASY this morning. He’d been awakened by a silent flash of lightning and found himself slipping out of the house almost without thought long before dawn, leaving Mary and Yaya in bed, and stepping into the cold desert alone. It felt like rain to him, and rain in this part of Joshua Tree was an event, a divine missive from a god stingy with his communiqués. Bronson’s God was the one announced by the angel Moroni, the deity from the Book of Mormon, all of it a joke to the big cities, the coastal elites of his country. Mormons were generally known for their freaky polygamous ways, but also, paradoxically, for their whiter-shade-of-pale, clean-cut lifestyle, which included abstinence from coffee, alcohol, tobacco, and premarital sex; as if lack of twenty-first-century hipness was any reason not to believe.
No clouds, but damn did it feel like rain. Bronson kept venturing, blind in the night, his cowboy boots cracking the sand and dirt, moving every bit as much away from as toward something. In his pocket, he played with his “peep stones”—two worthless, jade-colored gems that he used to cover his eyes when he wanted to pray deeply and look within and see the writing on the wall of the sky. The desert seemed on schedule to receive about only two thirds of the 28 inches of average annual rainfall. It could be climate change. It could be a sinful, wayward flock. Bronson was known to his family as a rainmaker, like the old hucksters who used to travel the drought-ridden Midwest claiming that magic. He could feel the barometric pressure announce itself in the bones that he’d broken. Maybe it was just a trick of timing. He didn’t know. He just knew he seemed to be able to make it rain.
Like the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, Bronson did not have a surplus of formal education, but he had read on his own through much of Western civilization, Eastern too, in translation. You would be forgiven if you assumed that this Mormon cowboy jumping on a horse in the middle of the Mojave Desert adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park was not as well acquainted with Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Lao-Tze, and Marcus Aurelius as any tenured professor at Pepperdine, the school he had dropped out of before the end of sophomore year (after a balky knee and chronically sore shoulder cut short his baseball career) in order to pursue his taste for speed, controlled chaos, and beautiful machines as a Hollywood stuntman.
It was a good thing to be moving. Bronson owned so much land, so much unforgiving dust, miles of nothing, immune to the human hand of the Anthropocene age. His father’s mother, Delilah Bronson Powers, had bequeathed this Eden of cactus and rattlesnakes to him. Throughout his childhood, Bronson’s father, Fred, would tell him stories of the legendary Powers family, real estate visionaries who had made Los Angeles the quintessential American city, rising, he would say, like a man-made mirage from the desert by the Pacific. Fred Powers bemoaned his lot as a thrice-married car salesman, amateur poker player, golf shark, and minor league Ponzi schemer. Barred from practicing his most lucrative trade at many a golf course, the man kept numerous disguises and wigs in the trunk of his Cadillac to sneak onto the greens and cadge a few bucks off the famous actors and rich doctors before the sweat compromised the gum arabic and his phony mustache drooped. He could’ve been an actor. He was that handsome. He was charming and good with accents. But he had no need for love or admiration, only for the powers the world had denied him, his very name itself; he only ever wanted to be feared by a world that paid him no mind.
Kicked out of the family for unspecified (or so he told his son) sins and forced to live in the squalor of West LA (“East of Bundy, south of Sunset!” he would shout, like a curse), his looks and his health faded quickly with two packs of Kent and one bottle of Smirnoff a day. When he sporadically visited his son—that is, when he remembered that every second Saturday was his—he read to him Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper over and over again, filling the impressionable boy with infinite entitlement but no clue as to how to claim it, as if certainty and ambition itself were the only life skills necessary. He would tell him, “You’re the pauper prince. You’re Hollywood royalty, related to the great swashbuckler, Tyrone Power.” Fabrications and fantasies. But to the young boy, his father was a charming, all-powerful, capricious apparition who appeared now and then to remind him of his true destiny, as in any Saturday matinee, a kind of anti–Jiminy Cricket—“and never let your conscience be your guide.” He was Hamlet’s father’s ghost still living. In reality, Bronson’s father taught him nothing but a restless, free-roaming resentment and a love for baseball and the hometown Dodgers.
Bronson could clearly remember that, in 1974, his ailing father took him down to Grauman’s Chinese on opening day to watch the movie Chinatown, the epic Polanski/Towne thriller of water, greed, and incest in 1930s Los Angeles. Fred filled Bronson’s head with the bullshit yarn that the Mulwray family in the film was an opaque nom de cinema for Powers (this was a lie, of course—Mulwray was a front-rhyming stand-in for Mulholland—true California royalty). Sitting through a matinee in that dark theater on Hollywood Boulevard, Bronson marveled at how his father must have modeled his brand of practiced insouciance on Jack Nicholson in his very own fabricated origin story. Or somehow Nicholson was imitating his father. Fred did claim to know the movie star because he’d won thousands off him on the links. He leaned over to his boy, arched a cocky eyebrow, and crowed, “Sonuvabitch, that’s my eyebrow! Jack’s doing me, ripping me off.”
At the climax of the film, when the unspeakable incest is finally revealed, Fred took his son’s hand in his and squeezed. It was the first time Bronson could ever remember his father holding his hand. Something heavy and unworded passed between them, like a dark blessing. Bronson glanced over to see Fred crying as the credits rolled, another first. When Fred passed away the next year, he bequeathed to his son no money or skills to speak of, but rather an awe and disgust at his ancestry, having planted the seeds in the next generation of anger over lost birthrights, unacknowledged genetic superiority, unimaginable wealth, and influence denied. Like psychic DNA, Fred replicated, forged, and minted a copy of the resentments a long life of scamming failures had made of his own soul upon the impressionable soul of his boy. Bronson grew up unconsciously carrying that paternal chip, with an unrequited sense of entitlement and unrecognized nobility.
Copyright © 2021 by David Duchovny
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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