“The Lives of Riley” is a short, vicious gut punch of a story. What inspired this exploration of identity?
“Riley” has been stewing for a long time. As far back as ten years ago, when I was writing the first book of my Astropolis series, I had a character who (it was implied) routinely cloned himself and conducted vast, onanistic orgies. This side of his personal life wasn’t really explored, which seemed a waste of a good concept to me.
My Twinmaker universe presented the perfect opportunity to come back to it. In a near future dominated by matter transmitters, surely someone would copy themselves purely for the purpose of sex . . . and more.
The thing I really hoped for with this story was to convey the emotional life of a person who might engage in a loving relationship with multiple versions of themselves, the efforts they might go to in order to preserve that relationship, and the personal cost of it all going horribly wrong. Which seemed likely to me. Relationships are fragile enough even between two very similar people; turning the color further up implied that there probably wasn’t going to be a happy ending.
The slow reveal of information through the story kept me reading until the very end, and a satisfying end at that. Every scene leads to the reader’s realization that, yes, the duplicates are Riley, which is why the traitor breaks away to turn the others in. Did you know how the story would end when you started writing? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I’m really glad you liked the conclusion. It’s fun to let short stories change course without reining them in, and I’ve stumbled on some interesting territory that way, but in general, I’m a plotter. “Riley” was mapped out in advance, more or less. I wasn’t sure exactly how many Riley viewpoints there’d be, but I knew the key flaw that would unite them and I knew how that flaw would tear their relationship apart. The story twists around that flaw in a way that makes it hard for me to decide if it’s an unhappy ending or not. It certainly is for the Rileys left behind, but it may not be for the Riley that escapes—and how can you or I tell them apart? That’s the squicky heart of this story, not all the sex stuff. The past version of me who ate all the chocolate has robbed the present me of a treat (not to mention necessitated my going on a diet) but they’re both still me, by most definitions of “me.” Same with Riley. Isn’t the escapee entitled to pursue his own individual vision, even if it means sacrificing the ones who don’t see that vision? Or has he committed a bizarre kind of suicide? Language struggles with these concepts, which only makes them more fun to explore.
Writing is an exploration of ideas and concepts that often make people uncomfortable. Here you touch on identity, privacy, government surveillance, and the meaning of self. How conscious are you of the layers of inference and meaning in your stories? Do you set out to say X or allow yourself to explore the meaning of X, Y, Z?
Oh, there was so much I wanted to say with this story. So much I despaired of ever getting it down, even covertly. (There’s a bit of a stab at heteronormativity as well.) I despaired because stories don’t start with ideas and concepts, they start with characters, and until I had Riley and his plan to take over the world and his flaw and the terrible threat to his entire being, all I had was some notes in a file about how, gee, it would be cool to write a story about using matter transmitters to have sex with yourself, wouldn’t it? Which might be good for (some) dinner conversations, but isn’t ever going to move anyone to think any differently. I think good SF can and should at least attempt to do that, through the right kind of story. Once I had the vehicle for presenting those ideas, it all fell into place quite neatly, thank goodness.
You are a prolific writer of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. Tell us about your writing routine, the nuts and bolts that keep Sean Williams’ words flowing.
I write what I love. That’s what it boils down to. I write what moves me on an emotional level and what excites me intellectually, and when I’m moved and excited by a project, it’s not so hard to get to work every day. That’s my ideal routine. Some days are tougher than others, of course, particularly the ones where I’m not actually writing. The great secret of being a full-time writer is that you don’t do anywhere near as much writing as you expect. No one told me about that when I was starting out—not that it would have changed how I moved forward. The only thing slowing me down these days is chronic pain, but I’m finding ways to feed that creatively back into my work, so even though I’m slower now, working in short sprints rather than long hauls, I hope that what I’m writing is better, on craft and personal levels.
Wait, that doesn’t really answer your question. Sorry. Chocolate. It all boils down to chocolate.
What’s next for Sean Williams? What can readers look forward to in coming months?
The aforementioned chronic pain has necessitated a bit of a slowdown in my output, so this year sees no new novel, my first “bye” year since 1999. There will be the odd short story, though, including another Twinmaker story in Jonathan Strahan’s Drowned Worlds anthology. I return next year with the beginning of a new middle grade fantasy series co-written with Garth Nix and a YA novel about social anxiety, based in part on my own experiences with panic attacks, called In My Mind.
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