This story first appeared in The End is Now, volume 2 of The Apocalypse Triptych, edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey. How did this story come about?
I was intrigued by the entire idea for the Triptych, since I am naturally drawn to apocalyptic fiction as a writer. I chose a plague in my first story because a pandemic is one of my true-life concerns, given how small the world has become and how often our population has been ravaged by disease historically. It’s not far-fetched. I wanted to follow the character from my previous story, Nayima, after she fled for safety. It was difficult to pinpoint “the moment the world ends” with a plague, so this story is about the end of the world for my character.
And I almost forgot: I was severely blocked about where Nayima was and what she might be doing as the deadline approached, so I challenged myself to begin my story with a writing prompt I gave my students at a speculative fiction writing workshop at Voices of Our Nations (VONA): I randomly drew the words “trees” and “deep fryer.” That prompt kickstarted the story.
People living forever, or at least outliving most of the population, appear in a number of your works: Is mortality as a theme just a coincidence or indicative of a larger fascination for the topic?
I am very focused on mortality in my fiction. My first novel, The Between, was about a man who escaped death and had to face the consequences as death chased him. My African Immortals series that began with My Soul to Keep is about people who never age or die. I have been very aware of death since I was a child, and living with that awareness has been an important part of my life and growth. My mother’s struggle with cancer and her death in 2012 only reinforced this. Much of my fiction is my conversation with myself about having the courage to face loss and death—and hopefully then create more joy as I continue the blessing of life. Denial is also a recurring theme in my fiction, since most of us confront the notion of mortality with denial.
What do you do to flesh out your characters before/while writing them?
As with many writers, my characters tend to be different versions of me. I exaggerate my own strengths and weaknesses and modify my characters according to their circumstances—but always, I think, with a version of myself lurking in them. Nayima as a fanciful schoolgirl is one version of me. I might have been very much like her in my early twenties. If a character is more difficult to access, i.e. the older male scientist Lucas Shepard in my novel The Living Blood, I supplement Me with research and character-building techniques such as a resumé. But I do truly believe we are all made of the same human stuff, and accessing characters comes easily to me.
Why China as the origin of the flu?
As I researched “Herd Immunity,” China emerged as a possible forcing ground for a plague—with a combination of population density and the level of state control over information that could potentially keep a plague quiet even as it became harder to control.
Twizzlers: strawberry or cherry?
All artificial cherry flavors were ruined for me by sore throat lozenges when I was a kid. It’s strawberry all the way!
Did any accounts of real-life choices like those made at the Rescue Center feed into your depiction?
The Rescue Center was mostly a product of my imagination, but it carries tinges of Jim Jones and Jonestown, since that was a hugely impactful story when I was young. I can still see the bodies sprawled on the cover of Newsweek. But my idea with the Rescue Center was to create a community with enough organization and, frankly, love to have taken a clear-eyed choice in how they would face the plague. In my previous story, “Removal Order,” Nayima’s community was forced to scatter and everything was destroyed in their wake—another death metaphor. This community took a very different approach, although obviously it won’t seem comforting to some readers. My favorite sign at the Rescue Center is “Smile—Take Off Your Mask.”
Why does the rescue center sign ask people to take their shoes off?
The truth is, we will never know. But the shoes are another glimpse of a horrifying image I first saw as a teenager—the shoes collected off murdered Jews at Nazi concentration camps. At the Rescue Center, the shoes were discarded willingly, perhaps left toward a charitable cause in an unknown future. In any case, many of us have visited homes where we must remove our shoes before entering, which to me is another image of both order and familiarity.
That was a hard ending to read—was it the one you always had in mind?
Unfortunately, yes. Nayima was trapped by my interpretation of the anthology’s theme—the end of the world. It’s not that she is literally the last person left on Earth (and I do expect her to find community one day), but it is the moment in which she sheds her last illusions. As much as she has clung to her own wit and memories of popular culture and notions of rebuilding, she is now truly alone. To a degree, our existence is defined by the mirrors of ourselves we see in others. Who are we when there is no one else to reflect us?
Whose post-apocalyptic stories do you most admire?
I loved Stephen King’s The Stand, which I read while I was sick with a cold as a teenager, and I thought I had every symptom of Captain Trips. (I also had the pleasure of playing keyboard on the stage with Stephen King, Dave Barry, Amy Tan, Mitch Albom, and late the Kathi Goldmark with the Rock Bottom Remainders.)
I also love the work of Octavia E. Butler, particularly Parable of the Sower and its transcendent Earthseed verses (“The only lasting truth is Change”), which I often teach my writing students. Junot Díaz’s short story “Monstro,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker, is actually a novel excerpt, and I can’t wait to read the rest. Post-apocalytpic fiction is such a great way to delve into meaty questions of individual strength, the impact of loss, human nature, community, and how to claim order from chaos.
Any news or projects you want to share with us?
I will be publishing my first short fiction collection, Ghost Summer, in the summer of 2015, and I’m very excited about that. I am also working on a novel set at a Florida reformatory in the 1930s.
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