Christopher Buckley is known for his satires of American politics, including Little Green Men, Boomsday, and Supreme Courtship. His 1994 novel Thank You For Smoking, about an amoral PR man who works to downplay the dangers of cigarettes, was adapted into a 2005 film starring Aaron Eckhart. But in Buckley’s new book The Relic Master, he turns his attention from current events to history.

“The reason I went back 500 years and crossed the Atlantic and settled in the Holy Roman Empire was I kind of needed a break from political satire,” Buckley says in Episode 190 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I don’t know how you do political satire today.”

He says that in the age of Donald Trump, it’s impossible to dream up anything more exaggerated than reality, whereas Renaissance Europe offered a fresh new playground to explore. And while The Relic Master does involve a change of scenery, the biting humor from Buckley’s previous books remains the same. Not everyone is happy about that.

“I’ve had some very angry letters from the monks at Portsmouth Abbey, where I spent four years at boarding school, who are furious with me about the book,” he says.

The Relic Master, about a madcap scheme by Albrecht Dürer to forge the Shroud of Turin, certainly paints the Catholic church in an unflattering light. The story is set in the 16th century, when Pope Leo X, a member of the de Medici crime family, spent the church into bankruptcy in order to indulge his sinful pleasures, conduct that enraged Martin Luther and led directly to the Protestant Reformation. Buckley insists that his book is not about axe-grinding, but rather about exploring colorful characters who live in interesting times.

“The book is not an anti-religious book,” he says. “Every fact that I adduce in the book about the church at the time is historically based.”

His new book does make clear that, however nasty and absurd contemporary politics may seem, the past was no improvement.

“You can go back and read things that were said about Abraham Lincoln,” he says. “Newspaper columnists called him a baboon. So that wasn’t exactly a kinder and gentler time.”

Listen to our complete interview with Christopher Buckley in Episode 190 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Christopher Buckley on Little Green Men:

“I am not a believer myself in UFOs, but it fascinates me that many Americans are. … The second epigraph [in the book] was from a story in USA Today. It was a quote from a guy named Webster Hubble, and some of your diligent older listeners may remember him as the number two attorney general in the first Clinton—Bill Clinton—administration. And the quote goes something like this, he said, ‘When Bill Clinton became president, he pulled me into his office and he said to me, “Web”—or maybe he called him Hubb—”there’s two things I want you to find out for me. One, who killed Kennedy? And are UFOs real?”‘ And I thought, wow, you know, this is the president of the United States.”

Christopher Buckley on Frederick the Wise:

“Here’s this guy Frederick of Saxony, the guy with this collection of 19,000 relics. This was an educated, smart, and good man who just had a passion for collecting relics. Now, among his relics were a nail from the Crucifixion and the lance of Longinus—that’s the tip of the lance that the Roman soldier lanced Jesus’ side with at the end of the Crucifixion to finish him off. He had a mummified body of one of the Holy Innocents—these were the 2,000 babies that Herod ordered slaughtered after he heard that a savior had been born. So let’s ask ourselves, did someone called ‘Frederick the Wise’ actually believe these things were real? … I have a hard time believing he thought every one of his relics was actually real.”

Christopher Buckley on Albrecht Dürer:

“He may have invented the selfie. Until he started doing self-portraits—he did his first one when he was 13—artists didn’t do self-portraits. They were painting the Crucifixion or the Sermon on the Mount or whatever, they weren’t looking in the mirror and painting themselves. … Dürer not only painted a lot of self-portraits, but he also would, if he was doing a painting of something that had nothing to do with him, he would insert himself in it somewhere. It was sort of like Where’s Waldo? … So Dismas’ nickname for him is ‘Nars,’ from Narcissus, the character in Greek mythology who was always staring at his reflection in a puddle of water.”

Christopher Buckley on book tours:

“After five or six books I got a little bored, and so I started making up [my author bio], and I wrote one that said, ‘He has been an adviser to every US president since William Howard Taft.’ Because why not? So it’s day eight of a 10 day book tour, and I’m in Boston walking into an AM drive-time call radio show. … [The host] is hunched over, he’s got the book in front of him, and he’s speed-reading the ‘About the Author’ paragraph. … And he looks up at me and stares and says, ‘You were an adviser to William Howard Taft?’ And it was day eight, and I was a bit punchy, so I say, ‘Yeah, I was.’ So he frowned and said, ‘So we could talk about that, on the show?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, yeah we could talk about that.’ So we did, and I haven’t been invited back on his show, but it was worth it.”


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