Just . . . wow. How did you even do that? What just happened?
I typed a number of letters in sequence, thus creating meaning.
That was an incredible reading experience for so many reasons. Please don’t tell me you just banged that out. Tell me what an arduous process it was, how it took so long to write, how you burned through so many drafts and almost quit? Tell me about how you had been aching to write this for months and finally built up the courage to do so? Where did it come from? And is this deeply personal for you, or more of an argument that was kicking to be set free?
The actual writing process was pretty quick. I used a lot of little bits and pieces from various unfinished projects, a paragraph here, a turn of phrase there, so that made it easier. I think it took maybe a day or two to hammer it out, and then another day of editing after I got some notes from a friend. I’d been thinking about the conceit of the story, the metanarrative of character archetypes and plot devices moving through different genres, since I was sixteen. I think it was the first idea I ever had for a novel that wasn’t just a rip-off of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And I think I first got the idea of connecting the conceit to the political themes two or three years ago. So I spent years writing it, but only a couple days typing it.
Emotionally, the story came from a place of fear and powerlessness, fear that something like this might happen to me or a loved one and powerlessness in the face of this huge problem. Aesthetically, I was driven by an interest in using metafiction to explore how we conceptualize race. I’ve always loved metafiction and postmodernism, particularly stuff from the ’70s. A lot of it’s just sort of fun, but I think that good metafiction is a way of examining the ways that stories influence our lives. For instance, the Apollo Kidd section is in part a riff on this Gilbert Sorrentino story, “The Moon In Its Flight,” which is about love stories, but also about how mid-century America defined itself and thus the lives of Americans, this subtle dehumanization as people are forced to be characters in a romantic but ultimately destructive national narrative. So the thing about police shootings of black people is that it’s always the same story, over and over again. Similar details, similar outcomes, just again and again. And it struck me that these people were living their lives before they got defined by this story, the police shooting story, and these lives were all unique and different stories, but this one story was always the same, a singular story that invaded other stories like an infection. And then I got kind of weird and comic booky with it, ’cause that’s like my jam.
While this piece, at face value, tackles some serious issues, in one of its many layers, there’s also the author’s “inner dialogue” (or perhaps more properly, the author’s dialogue with the reader), where the author says, “I just wanted to tell a cool story.” In that thread, the author struggles with taking on the issues at hand. Do you believe that writers have a responsibility to deal with relevant issues; do you feel that taking a position of some kind is inevitable? Or do you think that sometimes a story is just “a cool story”—nothing more, and that there’s nothing wrong with writing something that is “just a cool story”?
I think all fiction is political, in that all fiction argues for a vision of what the world is and how it works and what is good and what is bad. I think that’s basically the essence of politics, competing definitions of the Good and the nature of the human experience. You can write a story with the aim of creating only sensation and aesthetic pleasure in the reader, but even doing that, you must make implicit statements about the world, even if only through omission and counterfactual. I think some writers and readers appreciate fiction largely for its escapist qualities, so they prefer fiction that is essentially frictionless, that doesn’t make them think about real world issues, but it’s not that this kind of fiction doesn’t have politics, it’s just that the politics are not different from the intended audience’s. Like, a lot of the SF fiction that has gotten a rep for being “political” in the last few years isn’t exactly searing excoriations of heteropatriarchal capitalism and neoliberal hegemony, right? A lot of them are just “cool stories,” but for an intended audience that is not exclusively cishet white dudes.
At the same time, I generally avoid overt political arguments in my work. I don’t like didacticism, and “issue” stories often feel like they’re preaching to the converted. I don’t find it very interesting to write about things are not uncomfortable or difficult in some way. Plus, there’s a pointlessness to it. It’s the easiest thing in the world to reject the politics of a piece of fiction. It’s made up, pretend, pointless. Why bother trying to convince people of the truth with something you are explicitly admitting is a lie? Then again, I’m a fairly political person, and in the face of this huge injustice, I felt like I should do or say something, and fiction is the thing I am good at. So part of what the story is about for me is struggling with the uselessness of fiction in the face of reality. I doubt anyone is going to read this story and actually change their opinion very much on police shootings. But there is something beautiful in the struggle, even if it is doomed to fail. I think I stole that from Ta-Nehisi Coates.
In putting a piece like this out there, you run risks: of people not getting it; of people getting upset. Does this make it harder to write?
I did have some worries, to be honest. I was less concerned about people getting mad at the actual message and more concerned that people might be offended that I’m taking some very serious subjects too lightly. Jokes are a big part of how I deal with the world, but I know other people have different sensitivities. There are certainly days where I’ve been too raw for ironic, meta jokey-jokes about people getting shot. I guess I just try to be sensitive and press on, listen to people if they express concerns, and do better next time. Cowardice is the absolute worst trait an artist can have.
What were the most challenging things about writing this piece from a technical standpoint, and how did you deal with them?
Probably getting all the voices in each section. I wanted them to evoke different styles without being pastiche. I think voice has always been my greatest strength as a writer, but doing ten different voices in one story is a little much. A lot of the distinctions are pretty fine and probably not significant to people who are not me. Like, the Apollo Allen section is kind of me making fun of how I wrote right after college, florid and kind of sloppy, while the Apollo Right section is very close to my natural style now, but I feel like they probably sound about the same to other people. The Apollonia section was the most difficult to write because it’s supposed to be a sort of Dan Brown-esque thriller and I don’t read thrillers, whereas the others were easy since I love superheroes and toku and junk like that.
It was also kind of hard figuring out how long the sections should be. I could imagine a version of this story that was half as long or even shorter. The story is basically structured as a repetition of the same gag eight times. It could’ve been done much more as setup, punchline, setup, punchline. But I liked it being the sort of grind of these long, detailed sections. You know what’s gonna happen, but the stories keep going. They set up characters and situations and plots, and then the same thing happens. I wanted it to really feel like these stories existed in their own context, like they were really being interrupted, especially in the first few.
As I mentioned, I think there are a lot of layers and facets here. What are the subtler bits that you want to make sure readers don’t miss? And what do you hope readers take away from this piece overall?
From a political point of view, I hope people get that this story isn’t just saying that cops are bad or whatever, but is arguing for a more comprehensive indictment of how our society functions and how it defines black people as citizens and as human beings. To put it real simple, the bad guy is not the cop, the bad guy is racism, racism that goes far beyond the actions of individuals or particular institutions.
There’s also some stuff about constructions of masculinity in there, as viewed through the lens of boy’s adventure fiction versus men’s adventure fiction, but it’s kind of whatever.
The most important intertext is Flash Gordon (1980).
Lastly, I hope people get all my funny, funny jokes and references. Here’s one for you. The Morrison referenced in the last interlude is first a reference to comics writer Grant Morrison, specifically to his concept of the fiction suit, which allows you to enter fictional universes. It’s also a reference to something in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, but I’m not going to explain that. Hilarious, right? (I am a nerd.)
What are you working on now that we can look forward to?
I’m submitting stories to places. I should probably write a novel soon. Maybe something about robots? I’m pretty into robots right now, specifically robots that can cry or are future space gods. That sounds like a joke, but it is not a joke.
Thank you so much for “The Venus Effect.” As far as I’m concerned, it’s a true work of art.
Thank you very much. Art is my favorite thing.
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