Your story “Cancer” was written in the theme of the anthology that you co-edited, Machine of Death, in which all of the stories center on a machine that can tell a person how they will die. Where did the idea for the Machine of Death come from, and is the theme of knowing the manner of your own death one that you’ve explored before?
The idea for the “Machine of Death” actually came from a Dinosaur Comic installment I wrote back in 2005! My co-editors, Matt Bennardo and David Malki, really liked the idea and we solicited stories for an anthology. A few years later the first Machine of Death book came out, became Amazon.com’s #1 bestselling book that day, and we started working on the sequel, This Is How You Die.
The theme of knowing your own death isn’t one I’d explored before (excepting my story for the first Machine of Death book, where it was used as a way to send information back in time) (spoiler alert) but I find it fascinating. Knowing how but not when, and knowing that “how” could easily only make sense after you’ve died (yay, ironic interpretations of words): that’s awesome. What’s most interesting about the book is, unexpectedly, how the stories aren’t mostly morbid and sad. “Cancer” is (hopefully) a funny story, and there’re lots more that approach it in the same way. It was interesting to see how the idea of the Machine was explored by different authors: We’ve even got a choose-your-own-adventure style story in the new book. It’s way more fun than it is depressing! Honest.
This was a deeply moving story. Cancer has touched nearly everyone in some way. Can you tell us what the inspiration was behind the story?
Aw, thank you! My mother-in-law Jayne passed from cancer a few months before I started writing the story, and shortly after I’d finished it, my wife Jenn was herself diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Cancer, man. Luckily Jenn’s treatment has proceeded well and we’re in a good place. When it came to writing the story, it did (selfishly) help that I already had intimate knowledge of what it was like inside a hospital, what it was like in the cancer ward, things like that. Sure, there’re moments of sorrow there and times when things are rough, but it’s not that way all the time. If you’re lucky, a lot of it is just hanging out with your loved ones. You play cards. You tell jokes. You gossip about your friends. You can’t be 100% sad 100% of the time.
But the real inspiration for the story was Henrietta Lacks: Her story is so incredible (in both senses of the word) and the world of difference between what her cells have accomplished and the callous way she was treated by the medical professional around her is a huge contrast. The idea of immortal cell lines (and Helen’s name) come from her story.
I couldn’t help but love your characters, Helen and Tina. Their interaction was so sweet and genuine. Helen’s character in particular really spoke to me, as someone more comfortable with gallows humor than grief. Your “day job” is in humor writing, as the creator of Dinosaur Comics. Do humor and tragedy usually coincide for you? What’s the relationship there—is it strictly “if we don’t laugh, we’ll cry,” or is there something more to it?
Thanks! Obviously there’s a connection between humour and tragedy (that old “comedy = tragedy + time” equation) but I think there’s more to it than that. Helen reacts to bad news the same way I do: by cracking a joke. Jokes relieve stress and put people at ease, and I can tell you from hard-earned experience that this is great if you’re surrounded by people who react in the same way. It’s . . . not so great if you’re not.
Helen was actually inspired a lot by my friend Joey Comeau (like me, he writes a comic, his is called A Softer World). Joey is hilarious, and when Jenn and I got married he gave me a card that read, “Congratulations on this, the occasion of your first marriage.” It was great. If it was from anyone else it’d be awful, but coming from Joey it was amazing. For writing Helen, I just tried to think of what Joey would do. For writing Tina, that was all me. This is a writing cheat, and it only works if you have awesome friends.
I don’t actually think making a joking around bad news is a “if we don’t laugh we’ll cry” thing: I think it’s more of a “this is insane, can we all acknowledge how this is insane?” sort of thing! Helen’s not cracking wise to prevent herself from crying, she’s cracking wise because things are absurd and she’s thought of the perfect way to express it. Some funny people will tell jokes at times when others won’t, but I’m pretty sure most of them are thinking them. Helen’s just more willing than most to say what she’s thinking.
And it’s a powerful thing too: not letting something terrible change who you are, but staying strong in the face of that. I think that’s great, and I think it’s part of what not completely losing your mind to grief around bad news is.
When I first read your story, I was expecting to ask all kinds of questions about the HeLa line, but your end note was so fantastic I’m not sure what else to ask. Is there anything else that you think we should know about Henrietta Lack, or HeLa?
Honestly, her story is amazing and there’re (now) several good books written about it. If this story got you at all interested in her, I’d recommend checking some of them out.
The most recent twist in the story was earlier this year, when scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory sequenced the HeLa cell genome and put it online—in effect, publishing Henrietta’s DNA publicly—without talking to anyone in her family first. And this DNA would let you conclude things like “here are some genetic diseases that members of her family members are more likely to suffer from.” This time people got outraged a lot sooner and the paper was revised so the full details of the genome aren’t public anymore. But the intersection between science and privacy, ethics and personality morality—it’s a complicated one. I expect we’ll see more cases like this in the future.
You seem to be making art everywhere I turn right now. In addition to writing Dinosaur Comics, editing Machine of Death, and writing short stories, you’re now also the writer for the Adventure Time comic. What can your fans look forward to next?
Hey, thanks! It has been a busy time. Besides Dinosaur Comics, This Is How You Die, and Adventure Time, I’ve written To Be or Not To Be: That Is The Adventure, which is a choose-your-own-path version of Hamlet. We did a Kickstarter for the book and it ended up being the most-funded publishing project in Kickstarter history! You can check that out at www.hamletbook.com. I’m really excited for this book: You can play as Hamlet, Ophelia, or Hamlet’s Dad—but if you choose him you die on the first page and then play as a ghost investigating your own murder. It’ll be fun!