What was it that drew you to write a story about Hemingway investigating a miracle? When writing “Ernesto,” were there any surprises in the process?
The most surprising thing about the story was the presence of Hemingway himself. I originally wanted to build a scientific mystery around William Coley’s theory that a bacterial infection, such as erysipelas, could cure certain types of cancer, and I ended up combining it with an unrelated idea about the investigation of a miracle involving a religious relic. I decided that St. John of the Cross, who had died of erysipelas and whose tomb was located in Spain, would make for a promising subject, and it also occurred to me to write it as a period piece, ideally set during wartime, which would allow me to conceal the solution for as long as possible. This led naturally to the Spanish Civil War, and at that point, I really had no choice but to include Hemingway. In other words, Hemingway might seem like one of the first elements that went into this story, but in fact, he was one of the last.
The story has some existential elements, and there’s a real and dismaying veracity that, in some sense, it didn’t seem to matter whether the events at the shrine were miracles or scientific marvels. Where do you go when you want to replenish yourself in terms of new ideas or themes to explore in your work?
The intersection between the scientific and the unexplained is a theme to which I’ve frequently returned, mostly because it’s a wonderful idea engine, especially if you’re trying to write mysteries. Part of this is due to my longtime love for The X-Files, and many of my stories can be described as puzzles in which Scully’s worldview, rather than Mulder’s, is ultimately proven right. But it’s a tradition that goes back at least as far as the work of Eric Frank Russell, whose Sinister Barrier—one of my favorite science fiction novels ever—is the best example I know of a writer using the paranormal as a springboard for a logically rigorous suspense story. Exploring the places where the supernatural shades into the rational is a consistently useful strategy for generating stories, which is one of the reasons why I’ve gone back to that well so often.
You’ve worked in a variety of formats, from blog posts to novels. How conscious are you of selecting the appropriate length of a work? Have there been cases where you thought a work was a novel, but it ended up being a short story, or something similar?
I generally have a pretty good idea before I begin of how long the story will be. Most of the science fiction I’ve published has been in the novelette form, in part because I’m drawn to the suspense mode, and it can take ten thousand words or more to give that kind of plot the setup and payoff it deserves. (On some level, I’m always trying to rewrite “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, which I still think is the best science fiction story of all time.) “Ernesto” was actually a deliberate departure: it was an attempt to write something relatively short, almost a vignette, and to sustain the reader’s interest with the development of a single idea, rather than with a lot of action. And I’m happy with the result, although I also haven’t been tempted to try it again.
What’s next for you, Alec Nevala-Lee?
I’m currently at work on a big nonfiction book titled Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, which is scheduled to be published by Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, sometime in 2018. (Along with so much else, it will be the first full-length biography of Campbell, the legendary and controversial editor of Astounding.) The story of Campbell, his circle, and their impact on the genre is incredibly timely, and I’ll be talking about it this year at the Nebula Conference in Chicago and the World Science Fiction Convention and Campbell Conference in Kansas City. I’ve also written a radio play, Retention, that will premiere this summer as an episode of an online science fiction series distributed by the Howl podcast network. And I still blog on a daily basis at nevalalee.com.
Spread the word!Tweet