“Mulberry Boys” explores what might happen if people could be transformed into a cash crop. How did you come up with the idea to apply plant physiology to human beings?
It’s more insect physiology than plant; the mulberry boys are made into a kind of silkworm. Except that the silk isn’t from their cocoons, it’s produced in their digestive tract when they’re fed a diet of mulberry leaves. It’s highly scientific, of course. I can’t really remember what sparked this story off, besides, years ago, having kept silkworms and being impressed by the flightless wobbling feebleness of the moths when they hatched. But stories often start that way for me, by my transferring weird behaviour or processes in the animal world to humans. A single David Attenborough documentary contains several collections’ worth of ideas.
As a society, we struggle to break exploitative cycles like this all the time. Was the theme of this story aimed at a specific part of how we do business?
No, it was all about the silk production process, about how people would organise themselves around this madman’s enterprise. I don’t tend to think very consciously in terms of theme when I’m writing; I’m usually getting the characters to move interestingly through the setting in pursuit of the climactic moment, and any moral point comes through without my hammering it. I suppose it could be said to be about the vulnerability of unworldly communities to commercially minded shysters. Or about different shades of greed.
Could one murdered silk trader really end the injustice going on in George’s village?
Possibly. Phillips is a lone operator, and very secretive. And as our narrator establishes, he doesn’t have a succession plan. Certainly the boy believes that he’s bringing an end to the practice, which is what matters. He doesn’t believe that anyone else will come in from the outside world to carry it on, and he thinks his own people will be too timid to go down to the township and traffic in silk.
Did you ever come back to this universe to take a look at life outside the village?
No, it was a pretty closed system, that story. Although with these questions you’re asking, I’m beginning to wonder what the rest of their world looked like, I have to say.
What can we expect from you in the future?
I’m in the process of clearing the decks of contracted stories. I think I need to take a deep breath and write a few stories that are not on demand and not to deadline. I’ve had a few years of taking on a lot of short-story commitments, and I need to just write a few stories that arise naturally, that insist on being written for their own sake. I have no idea what they will be.