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Interview: Alaya Dawn Johnson

Alaya Dawn Johnson is the author of The Spirit Binder series and the Zephyr Hollis series. Her latest novel, The Summer Prince, is set in Brazil, 400 years in the future, in a pyramid city where young men vie for the honor of being elected king for a year, after which they are ritualistically sacrificed. She attended Columbia University and lives in New York City. Visit her online at www.alayadawnjohnson.com.

This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.

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Your new book is called The Summer Prince. What’s that about?

It is a novel that takes place in what is now Brazil, on the coast of the state that is now Bahia, but 400 years in the future, in the aftermath of a global apocalypse. And it’s in a matriarchal society that’s a utopian experiment, run by women of color, and women have power, but every five years they elect a king, and it’s a Summer King, and he rules and is the ultimate rock star, sex god, political figurehead for a year. And then, at the end of the year, he is ritually killed. It’s basically a year in the life of the Summer King. It’s told from the point of view of a girl, June, who is a young artist in that society, and they end up collaborating on spectacular, public, political art projects together.

And it takes place in Brazil, as you said, and you said that some of your sister Lauren’s tales helped inspire it.

Yes.

What kind of crazy tales of Brazil did she have?

Oh, she has so many. She studied abroad in the north of Brazil, in the state of Pará, her junior year of college. My sister and my cousin and I ended up going her senior year of college, to help my sister study for her research for her senior year thesis there. When my sister, my cousin, and I went, we went to the south of Brazil, to Sāo Paulo and to Rio. So part of it was my experiences with the two of them in Rio and Sāo Paulo, but also my sister’s stories, because just, for example, part of her trip was involved in going on a riverboat down the Amazon, and she would describe how, in order to wash her hair, she had to jump in the river, climb up, soap up her hair, jump in the river again, climb back up, put the conditioner on her hair, jump in the river again: this is how they bathed. She went hiking in the woods, in the rainforest, and didn’t wear closed shoes, which was a big mistake because she actually has this incredible photograph of this monstrous centipede, or millipede, that somehow found its way into her Teva and bit her foot. And it swelled up like crazy and then she was okay, but my gosh, how terrifying. The kind of first spark of my novel that came from her experience was when, as part of her study abroad research, she would take bags of food and go into villages and say, “In exchange for groceries for a week, will someone let me string up my hammock and talk to you?” And apparently this is something that researchers, anthropologists in Brazil will do a lot. So she went to this little town called Palmares Dos, which was named after Palmares, the famous Quilombo escaped-slave town. And it was of African-diasporic people living in this town, and they named it after this famous Quilombo, and I remember she told me about that. So then, years later, when I was thinking about the city, I wanted it to be with African-diasporic people, and I wanted it to evoke the history of that. I realized that I could call it an homage to that small town my sister stayed in, Palmares Tres.

In the book it says that the culture of Palmares Tres comes from the legend of Palmares you just mentioned, Catholicism, and Candomblé, if I’m saying that right?

Yeah.

Could you talk about what Candomblé is and how it played a role in the story?

Candomblé is the traditional African religion that slaves practiced and African descendants in Brazil practiced. Candomblé in the book is related to Candomblé now, but it’s not the same thing at all. But I wanted to have it so that the people of that society had a connection with their past, had a connection with the Amanja and Ushala, and the gods of their people.

Yeah, the people in Palmares Tres, they worship the Orisas, you said.

Yes.

Actually, there are a lot of words that I think most readers will find unfamiliar in the book: You have “walkas” and the “verde” and all this stuff. Which of those did you make up and which of them came from real places?

Well, to some extent I made all of them up. Like the “verde,” just means green. I just used it because of the physical way the bottom tier of the pyramid, which is what “verde” is referring to, the bottom tier where the poorest people live, is green because they have these giant algae vats. So I was just trying to come up with slang that felt real but is really specific to the fictional place I was making up. The same thing with “walkas.” “Walkas” is an interesting one though because its basis isn’t Portuguese, it’s Japanese, because part of the other thing I was attempting to do with this was to create a culture where you could see different immigrant strains. Because Brazil right now has one of the largest populations of diasporic Japanese people in the world, I think it might actually be the largest population. That was what my sister was studying in Sāo Paulo when she was there, because both of us speak Japanese and she, obviously, speaks Portuguese. I was really fascinated by how much the Japanese-Brazilians pulled on both of those cultures, and how many Japanese people there were in Brazil, which had never really occurred to me. In this book I had it so that, because the cities of Sāo Paulo and Rio had kind of been destroyed in this long-ago apocalypse, a lot of the immigration moved to this part of Eastern Brazil. Basically, the terms like “walka,” terms like “kiri,” are from Japanese, and so it’s all kind of integrated, and it feels to the young characters sort of like the same thing, but they come from different places.

I noticed there’s an audio book of this. Did they get all those names right? Did they consult with you at all? How did that work?

I was consulted a lot on the audio book, which is great. I think almost always audio books, especially if there’s a lot of words that the actors might not know, they’ll send a giant word list to the writer. So they sent to me this, like, ten-page document of all the words in the book. I was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ So I just tried to really sound them out phonetically to help out, but they also made a point of hiring actors who are familiar with Brazilian-Portuguese and so could speak that more easily than somebody with no familiarity at all.

You said that Palmares Tres is this pyramid city, and I saw you give a presentation of this book at a bookstore called Books of Wonder. You mentioned that there’s a real plan for these pyramid cities, and they just need to invent a couple more building materials, and they’ll be good to go. Could you talk about that?

Basically, of course, my ideas come from all these different places, and so part of the random chunk that met the other chunk of the social politics of the society was me watching a documentary on the Discovery Channel a while back. It was all about extreme building materials. It’s one of those Discovery Channel shows, but this one was really fascinating to me because it was talking about vertical cities, and it was in the context of ecological cities, cities that can be sustainable. And this Japanese design company or architecture firm had come up with a plan for a giant pyramid city, miles in diameter, that is constructed of a bunch of mini-pyramids, and each of the tubes that connect them are transport tubes, and skyscrapers would hang from the joints, and just every single thing about this sounded amazingly cool. And it was also self-sustaining. In the case of the design by the Japanese firm, it was self-sustaining because it was supposed to be in Tokyo Bay and the waves coming through the bottom of the pyramid would provide power for the city, which is a really interesting idea, but not one that I ended up going with. The funny thing about it was that this whole city looked amazing, but they said, “We can’t actually build it because we need a certain kind of nanotechnology that is sure to be invented soon, but we don’t actually have it. So until then we aren’t going to have wonderful pyramid cities.” I thought it was a short leap for me to imagine that, somehow, someone had come up with this wonderful pyramid nanotechnology, and so the women, the original founding mothers of Palmares Tres, could have built their city with it.

A pyramidal structure really nicely reflects the social stratification as well.

Yes.

In the book, the lower levels we said is “the verde,” where the workers grow these giant algae tanks. How does the city run, what does the algae do, and how does that all work?

The idea was that the algae basically breaks down chemicals to produce pure hydrogen gas to power fuel cells. The thing about fuel cells, which I found interesting, is if you get hydrogen, they’re an incredibly efficient and clean way of getting energy. The trouble is that, even though hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, it’s almost always bound with other stuff, so getting pure hydrogen gas is really difficult, and right now the current processes we have for getting it make it more wasteful than just using fossil fuels. I had this leap that right now there’s microbes that break down all sorts of chemicals, and they have different waste products, and I think there’s some people doing some research on this. But I really did just make this leap, because it’s science fiction and I can—that someone had engineered some special microbes that would break down water or something else and release hydrogen as their byproduct of whatever their other process is. And you could market this as hydrogen, but the trouble is they they’re still stinking algae. They smell really, really bad, so you put them at the bottom of the pyramid, where they catch all the light, they look really beautiful, but they smell, and so because of that, and also because you can’t help it if you’re building a pyramid city, it seems almost natural to have the tier system work to mirror the social stratification. The poorest people live on the bottom of the pyramid where everything smells. So that is mirrored throughout the society.

At the top of the pyramid you have what are called the Antes, the sort of matriarchal ruling class. What was it about the matriarchy that interested you and made you want to write about it?

I’ve always wanted to write, and I love science fiction for the possibilities it explores. I love the idea of trying to construct a society that is better than ours, or just different, or that explores and gets at problems with our own society. I also felt that, honestly, I’d read a whole lot of science fictional matriarchies that are really evil, or its women get control, and it’s not as if there aren’t social problems in this world. The whole book is about June discovering the ugly underbelly of her supposedly perfect city. But, despite all that, I think that Palmares Tres is probably a better place to live than modern America. I wanted it to have a matriarchy that, while reflecting actual reality and not just being some utopia, wasn’t also a horrible place to live, that reflected certain understandings of the world that other societies might not have come across. Part of that was me deliberately wanting to have a society that was less hung-up about sex and sexuality, and I felt—now maybe I’m wrong, obviously you can argue with me about this—but I felt that a matriarchal society would have much less interest than a patriarchy in enforcing social and gender norms in the same way.

Let’s talk about that, because at the center of the story is a love triangle, like in a lot of YA books, but in this case it’s a female best friend and a male best friend who both fall in love with the same boy, essentially, the new Summer King. Could you just talk about the dynamics of that kind of relationship?

The other thing that I like a lot are love triangles, which is weird because, honestly, most of the love triangles that I read these days make me crazy. It turns out that they make me crazy because, for some reason, I am very fascinated by the dynamic of three people having a very intense relationship with each other. I think part of the reason why I don’t like a lot of love triangles is that you only see, usually, two guys and then there’s a girl and, the guys, if they have any relationship with each other at all, just hate each other. And the girl is like, “Oh, should I have one or should I have the other?” To me that’s a boring way of doing it. It seems to me that if you’re really going to have a genuine connection with two people, those other two people would also have an interesting relationship with each other, and that jealousy, while a real and important emotion, isn’t the only one. It seems to me that I wish that it would be subordinated a little bit more, just to explore the other things that could happen between three people in that kind of situation.

In the case of my book it’s a little different because, of course, Enki, the Summer King, isn’t going to live more than a year. It’s the refrain throughout the book, everyone knows that the Summer Kings screw like mayflies, he’s not even pretending to be monogamous or choosing between one or the other, this is not, in his idea, a relationship, and it’s not June or Gil’s idea of a relationship. His promiscuity turns that on its head because it makes it even more difficult for them to be jealous of each other, despite the fact that that also exists anyway. So I guess the real reason that I liked it is because it could get so complicated, and hopefully complicated in a way that feels more real to people. I think I got to make it so that the gender identity of each of those characters mattered less than all of the other stuff between them. I thought that was interesting and maybe an important thing to do, especially in young adult literature.

What sort of response have you gotten to that from readers and parents and stuff like that?

What’s weird is that I have not, really. Maybe the parents haven’t found me yet or something. Sometimes when I describe this book to people, they say, “Wow, this is sort of interesting,” and they look sort of amused. But I never had anybody really challenge me. I had a bunch of teenage boys, actually, who told me how much they love this book, which—color me surprised. I have never been more pleased with a demographic that I had not expected to capture. I remember I said it talking at a school recently, and this teenaged boy was asking me, “When did you get the idea for Gil, to make him gay and to love Enki?” That was an interesting question, because when he asked me that, I realized that right until the moment of starting to write this book, I had vaguely intended for June’s best friend to be a girl. And then, as I was typing it, just sort of turned Gil into Gil, and that launched the whole book for me. But it was very strange because it made me realize that I had not been really planning what ended up being a really central element of the book until the moment of writing it.

Why did you expect that boys maybe wouldn’t be into it as much, and what do you think the boys you’ve talked to see in it that you weren’t expecting?

I think part of it is just my own—it’s just a silly prejudice I had, which, clearly, I shouldn’t have had—it’s that, a lot of times, a lot of adult readers and writers and educators will really bemoan the lack of books for boys now. Boys aren’t reading because all of these women write YA, and their main characters are all girls, and so boys aren’t really as into that, and they just need books for them, and what about the boys, and we’re losing the boys. This is a common refrain. I felt intellectually like that was a silly refrain because, for heaven’s sake, girls read books starring boys all the time. So why can’t boys read books starring girls? I don’t think that it’s healthy for anyone to encourage these hypothetical male readers in thinking that it’s okay to just shun reading about half the population on Earth. But, I realized that, when I was talking to these teen boys, that actually a lot of them don’t have that assumption. What I was thinking was that, because this book is so much about a girl and it’s so much about the relationships between her and the two guys that are an important aspect of things—though not in the regular way, it’s not like she’s choosing between Gil and Enki, but they’re still really important to the book—I had this silly idea that, “Well that means that boys aren’t going to be as interested and, really, I’m just going to have female readers.” Which was fine with me, but it made me really excited to realize that a lot of times the stuff keeping young male readers from reading books might not be their own preferences, it might be this sort of cultural weight on them by adults who have much more rigid ideas of what they should be reading. I feel great about that, and I feel like, maybe, the answer for how to get boys to read is to stop trying to single them out so much and worrying so much about their precious masculinity if they read girl books.

You just said on Twitter recently that you got a fan letter that made you cry. Could you talk about that?

I’ve been getting these amazing fan letters. Not like a deluge or anything, but some really special things from people who have read my books, and this one in particular was from a young writer, she’s a young black woman and she’s just basically said that her idol, L.A. Banks, Leslie Banks, the famous vampire fantasy novelist who died last year, was her idol, and she never got to tell her how much she loved her. And she was despairing of finding other black female writers who appealed to her and really spoke to her, and wrote books that were fantastical but also were well written and smart and had black characters in them. And then she found me, and I made her feel rejuvenated and like she can actually write again. Nothing can make a writer feel better than to hear from people who had felt the kind of despair against which I was doing something, like writing The Summer Prince. I’m fully aware of how little young adult, and fiction in general, that’s fantastical features characters of color. To have been inspired by that and to want to write her own fiction was to me just so amazing and something that is pretty much all I could ask for. Especially because I was feeling sort of all tossed around. Writing is a difficult business, lots of ups and downs, and it just came at a really good time.

You said in this book, or in the afterword, that you went through a difficult period of time while writing this book. I don’t know if that’s something you don’t want to talk about, but I was just curious. What was going on?

I broke up with my boyfriend of seven years, so it was just hard. It was just a really hard time. I was moving around a whole bunch of different places, and I didn’t sleep in the same bed for longer than a month for months. It shook me up creatively, and I ended up with The Summer Prince, which is sort of strange, because a lot of times I felt like for writing I need to have stability and calm and quiet. But there was no stability at all, and that was where this book came out of.

And I guess that was right in the middle of the process, right? Because you said you started this in Vancouver, and then finished it in New York and—

Right. What happened was, I broke up with him, and then I was thinking of this book and I was like, “I’ve got to ditch everything, I can’t deal with my life, I’m going to get on a train.” So I got on a train, it was a very silly idea, but I had some free Amtrak points, so I could get a free train ride across the country, so I did that. In coach for three days. It was really great, but I don’t know if I’d do it again. I discovered that it turns out you really do need to take a shower every once in a while. But the most amazing people ride on trains. And they love talking. Just the stories I heard from people and the people I sat next to and people’s life stories, these funny and tragic stories, just amazing stuff, all across the country, and I was writing this story. It was a really magical experience, and it really did just come because I had to get out. And that was when it started. I came back, obviously because I had this silly notion that, “I’ll just get it all out, I’ll just speed-write a whole novel in three weeks, and then I’ll go back to the book that I’m supposed to be writing.” But, of course, it took me a year to write this book, so…

You also mention in the afterword that this went through many drafts and a lot of different people helped you. Could you talk about how the shape of the book changed through those revisions?

The interesting thing is that the major plot points were basically in place from the beginning. The stuff that changed was more the connective tissue between them, making stuff make sense. A lot of times, and this is true of pretty much every revision I’ve ever done of any book, I like being subtle, but I like being subtle so much that I practically don’t put it on the page, and so I always have to have readers tell me, “This makes no sense at all.” And I’ll be like, “But how could you not get all of that from this one sentence in chapter three?” Obviously you might need more than one sentence to connect two halves of your book. So, for example, in this book, the political system is sort of complex, and the first draft I wrote, I didn’t explain a thing. Not a single word of explanation of this political system. I figured you could piece it together, but I realized in hindsight that you can only piece it together if you were reading it like you were an anthropologist or an archeologist, going line by line through my work and writing down all of the dates I provided, and then working out the clues on a scratch sheet. That was the only method you could have used to figure out the system because I didn’t explain anything at all. I realized that I had a problem, which almost all science fiction and fantasy eventually runs up against, which is that someone in a society isn’t going to explain their society the same way that someone outside of it is going to explain it. But unfortunately you have to find some method of explaining it to people who are outside of your society because your society is fictional, and so the people outside of it are all of your readers. And some writers just throw you in and do not care, and that’s what I’d like to do, but the trouble is that that really makes it almost impossible to read, especially when, in this case, the political system is not incidental, it’s really central to the plot. So a lot of my drafts are me wrangling with my pre-readers going, “Okay, now does it makes sense, now does it make sense?” Then finally I made it make sense, and then my editor bought it, and his first comment on the draft was, “Boy, you over explain everything.” I was like, “Are you joking?” I had done so much, I mean, it was hilarious, but he was right, I had gone so crazy trying to figure out how to explain everything to everybody that he, who was more on my side of the scale of not wanting things explained to him, just said, “Cut out this scene, cut out this paragraph, and then it will be okay.” I went from one extreme to the other and then kind of back to the middle again. I know that there are people who read it now and are still a little baffled by the political system, but I figure it’s almost impossible to write a book that everyone will understand and grasp in the same way, so at some point you just have to make compromises.

The political system is basically that the Summer Kings are chosen every five years, I think.

Right.

And then they pick the next queen, and then they have to kill themselves.

Or they’re killed.

Or they’re sacrificed. They cooperate in their own sacrifice, right?

Right. Yeah.

What was it about that idea that made you want to base a novel around it?

The Summer King idea was probably the moment where I really perked up and went, “Yes. This is definitely what I want to write.” There’s all sorts of weird things that went into it. The book that I was supposed to be writing was a sequel to my Moonshine, which was a 1920s historical vampire novel, completely different from this book in practically every way. But there’s a weird connection between them, which is that I was thinking about vampires, and specifically I was thinking about what makes vampires a romantic trope, like what people like about, not just vampires in general, but sort of supernaturally long-lived creatures in general. I think that shows up in probably fifty to sixty percent of paranormal romances.

What exactly makes that attractive? For some reason I decided to invert it. Could you create a romantic trope, could you create someone whose power was not in their incredible longevity but in the brief intense spark of their life? How would that work differently? That leap for some reason was the leap that made me start thinking about Summer Kings, which is not something that I invented. It’s a tradition, a kind of social thing that will happen in a lot of different societies around the world. There’s Celtic Oak Kings; in Aztec Mexico there was the annual sacrifice of the Avatar of Tezcatlipoca; it was exactly the same concept. He would live for a year, he would walk around the city with attendants, and people would want him to bless them, and he was the most beautiful of all of the captured slaves that had been brought in from neighboring polities, and for that one year the God Avatar was actually a god, but a god that you could actually touch and feel. At the end of that year he went willingly to his own sacrifice. All of those ideas and the fact that it has popped up so often in different societies arguably is a trope that even has resonance in modern American society, if you look at the kind of ways that people will really almost fetishize and worship characters or people like James Dean, people who have lived brightly and died young.

I kind of took all of that and realized that it would be very interesting for a matriarchal society to also see the power of that idea and to harness it, because you can’t, of course, exclude half of the population from your political system. Even the most patriarchal societies couldn’t manage that, and the most matriarchal society isn’t going to be able to manage it either. And so what they came up with instead is a way for them [the men] to have, arguably, the most power in their system, but it’s a limited and different power from the ones that the women have. But it makes Enki a very strange character, because, of course, you have to imagine, who is the sort of person who is going to choose that life, who had had all of this before him but is going to choose to die young for the sake of just being awesome for a year, or, in the case of Enki, for making a political statement for a year?

Do you sympathize with, or do you personally feel any of that, the allure of that, “Live crazy and then die,” or are you more of a June kind of person where you’re like, “No, what, are you crazy?’”

For me, I am totally like June. I’m also like June in the sense that I feel the magnetizing pull of that, too. You wonder how they can live so fiercely and not be unafraid of death exactly, but it matters less than everything else that they care about. To me it’s just something that I’m endlessly drawn to; I’m drawn to it in characters in books; I’m drawn to it in real life. I’m so interested in that mindset and the kind of passion and purity of passion behind that. June was definitely speaking for me in a lot of her interactions with Enki, that’s for sure.

June is an artist, and art plays a really big role in the book. She does these graffiti-type public performance art pieces. Do you have any experience with public art or do you know people who have? Where did you draw that material from?

I can’t say I’ve ever participated in public art, mostly because I’m not an artist. Visual art is something that I admire but I find extremely difficult. I’ve gone to some big public art festivals in New York, for sure, but mostly I was thinking about it because I love the idea of art and I also love the idea of expanding the definition as far as you can possibly take it. It was in that spirit that I wanted June to always be pushing the envelope with Enki. I ended up exploring, just because I was thinking about a lot of people who do that right now, and so, there’s the whole concept of flash mobs. There’s a list, The Gemini and Scorpio List, which is a great thing, with every weekend, the sort of artsy, fun, burlesque and all sorts of other art things that you can do in New York every weekend. A lot of them are, “Come and participate on the annual No Pants Subway Ride.” Which is exactly what it sounds like. You all get on a train, you pretend you don’t know each other, and then, at a certain time, you casually divest yourself of your pants and just sit down, and everybody’s staring at you, and you’re like, “What are you talking about?”

I love the idea of this sort of art, the idea that the art is interactive performance, art is flash mob, art is just something really odd. And then there’s other things. People who go to silent dances where they all have different music and your earbuds, and you’re just dancing together but it looks, on the outside, like some really freaky thing. There’s so much more of that now, I think, because of the internet, it makes it easier to coordinate this stuff. That was a big inspiration for what June wants to do and what June does end up doing. But public art, installation art, if you live in a city, it exists everywhere. So part of it was just me looking around and seeing how much street art there was and how much performance art there was. How many people are busking, how many people are painting things, how many people are drawing things for you as you pass by, and trying to turn all of that around and create some kind of political thing that June and Enki could do for the course of the novel.

You mention dancing, and dancing is a big part of this book, too. You mentioned that one of the inspirations was your father’s love of bossa nova music. Could you talk about the way that music influenced the book?

I think that music was my first introduction to Brazil, and it remains one of the big inspirations in my life in general. My dad started listening to bossa nova, and then I branched out and started listening to all sorts of stuff. MPB, Entropicalia, more modern Brazilian rock music, Brazilian psychedelia, like Os Mutantes, and a lot of different, strange—I mean, the richness of Brazilian music is just really overwhelming to me, and just wonderful, and was exciting for me to try to portray in the book. It’s impossible for me to get at the richness, especially because I had a difficulty of working at a four-hundred-year remove, where it seemed like either I was going to have to talk too much about music or I was going to have to do it with a light touch that unfortunately might not convey all of the richness of modern Brazilian music. But I still wanted it to be a really integral part of their lives and dancing as well. Dancing and music is a hugely integral part of my life, and I feel like it’s one of the things that links African-disaporic cultures. This is no less true for African-American culture than it is for Afro-Brazilian culture, and I did want to bring that out in the book. So it wasn’t so much the dances in particular that they’re doing, but the fact that it’s always there, and the fact that you relate things to music and the bands you’ve seen and all of that was—I wanted it to run through their lives, because June isn’t a musician, she’s an artist, but it’s still just as much part of her life as it is for anybody.

It’s funny you mention this problem of having something set really far in the future, but the people are still obsessed with our pop culture. You see that in Futurama, right? Where it’s like a thousand years in the future, and everyone still knows all of our talk shows and stuff like that. But if people are curious about some of this music, do you have some suggestions for a couple songs or a couple artists they should check out?

The song that she uses for her big art installation at the end of the section “Summer” is Chico Buarque’sRoda Viva,” which is R-O-D-A V-I-V-A. I just love, love, love this song. It’s a—I think you’d call it MPB—and it’s this really beautiful song about the wheel of life, but “roda viva” also means “hustle bustle,” sort of, and so it’s a bit of a double entendre, so it’s a really great metaphor for the book and in the song, too. So that is one song that I would recommend; just listen to Chico Buarque, he’s so wonderful. João Gilberto was a huge influence; I just love João Gilberto so much, I couldn’t help myself. I felt like I could get away with some of this because I was saying it’s classical music. He’s such a giant of Brazilian music, and so is Chico Buarque. They actually mention a couple of American songs, there’s a really oblique reference to a Sondheim song in there, just because I wanted to show that it’s because of the way that this part of Brazil has become a kind of cultural mecca after a lot of other parts of the Western Hemisphere have been decimated. So a lot of that musical influence ended up coming down there.

You mention that this is, in a way, a post-apocalyptic novel, that there’s been this massive disaster involving nuclear bombs falling and something called the Y Virus, which, for a time, wiped out most men on the planet, which is what precipitated this rearrangement of the social structure. Is that actually possible, a Y Virus? Should I be worried?

I think so. I have to say that this is one of those ones where I was like, “La-la-la, get away from my hands,” because it’s in the background of the story. There are certainly diseases that affect men and don’t affect women because of the XY, XX. But I’m not sure if it’s possible for a communicable virus to only affect men. I figure that anything is possible with enough weird evolution, so . . .

I really like how on the back of this book you have a blurb from Justine Larbalestier, and she says, “This coruscating, molten vision of a futuristic Brazil is storytelling at its most compulsively readable.” Obviously the story is both coruscating and molten, but I was wondering is it more molten that coruscating, or would you say it’s more coruscating than molten?

It’s definitely more molten. I’d say all that hot implied sex there, you know you don’t want that coruscating you.

All right, great! So let’s talk about some of the other stuff you’ve been up to. I was reading your Twitter feed, and I saw an awful lot of mentions of Veronica Mars.

Oh god.

I think you said—did I read this right?—that one of your favorite pieces that you’ve ever written was a piece of Veronica Mars fanfic.

Yes. Yes, you have found me out. I had a job briefly after college, and, probably, like, “Oh, this is for the birds,” and it was very hard for me because I started writing my first novels in high school and college. There was a lot of work to do, but there was also a lot of downtime, and I found that segmenting my day into brief intense chunks and then downtime was much easier to write in than a nine-to-five job, to the point where I really spent two years, and I wrote sort of three-quarters of one book, and that was it. Usually my output is much more than that, and I found that a lot of my creative energies ended up getting diverted into fan fiction for Veronica Mars, which I had discovered right around that time, thanks to a coworker who hooked me on it, and I was so in love with that show. I just thought the writing was amazing, and the characters and the interaction between the characters were just so spot-on. The dialogue made me just, I wanted to write dialogue that good. In fact, half the reason I wrote fanfic was just to figure out how that dialogue got so good. It was really fun. I don’t regret it at all. There was a time I realized that I definitely needed to stop, because otherwise I was not going to write my own fiction.

So do you think that will ever be public, or do you think if there are any Veronica Mars producers who are listening to this maybe they’ll be interested in it?

Yeah, Rob Thomas, hey! Um, no. I, listen, it is technically possible to find it, I never took it down. I am not going to tell you how to find it, but if you try hard enough and you’re good at Google, I promise you, you can find my fanfic in all of its sad glory.

You mentioned Moonshine, right? What are some of your other books that are out, that people should check out?

Yes, so there’s Moonshine, the 1920s urban fantasy vampire novel. They’re not sexy vampires, I always have to tell people. They’re sort of sad; they’re people with a blood problem, is essentially how I would describe them. It’s sort of like social justice in the ’20s, but it’s much more tongue-in-cheek and light-hearted, and it’s adult fiction. And then the other books that I have are The Spirit Binders trilogy, except there’s only two of them—that’s Racing the Dark and The Burning City—and I think they are more thematically close to what I’m doing in The Summer Prince. They’re high fantasy, completely secondary world, in an island culture that’s vaguely Polynesian, with some hints of Japan because I started writing it when I was studying abroad in Japan. They’re playing with ideas that humans can manipulate the environment, except using magic instead of technology to do it, and there are a lot of questions of love and the nature of love. In the second book, there is a love triangle that has some affinities with the love triangle in The Summer Prince. It’s interesting because I started Racing the Dark a decade ago and I don’t know if, a decade from now, I’m going to look at The Summer Prince and go, “Oh, I can’t even read it!” But I do feel like that now. There are people who love those books, and I can see things that I did in them that I think are cool, but hopefully as a writer you’re going to always improve and get better. I do think that, because of that, there is sadly a point at which you just want to rewrite everything that you read or everything that you read that you did before, so that is sadly the point I’m at now with Racing the Dark.

How about short stories? Actually, if people like podcasts, which I assume they do if they’re listening to this one, you had a story come out within the past few years on PodCastle called “Their Changing Bodies.”

Mm-hmm.

And people say that there are no new ideas out there, but I’m pretty sure that this is a vampire story unlike any you’ve ever read.

Oh man, that story! My writer’s group, when I gave this to them, you should have seen their expressions! Oh my gosh. I don’t know, should I give away the twist?

The thing about it was that I wanted to write a funny story, and I wanted to write about vampires. I don’t know what it is about vampires. You’ve heard me talk about them a lot in this podcast, and I don’t know why. Because if you had asked me five years ago, do I even like vampires, I would have told you I don’t. But there’s something about it that keeps pinging interest buttons. I was just thinking about male-female relations, and, again, that cool thing where the vampires almost always tend to be guys. Like, what does that mean? And blood, what does that mean, and all that stuff combined to make—the funny thing was that the first draft did not have that thing with the period blood, and the, and I was—

The ookie cookie, you might say?

The first draft had the ookie cookie, but it didn’t have the period blood.

Yeah, okay.

I was thinking to myself, “There’s something wrong with the story,” and I had just started dating this guy, who I’m dating now, we’re still together. I’d just started dating him, and I was lying around trying to figure out what was wrong with this story, and suddenly I pop up and I go to him and I say, “Listen, I figured it out! It just can’t be the ookie cookie, it also has to be period blood!” And he stared at me—you know that blank expression, the one that presages all my best ideas. So the first person I sent that to sort of backed away very slowly. The second person I sent it to stared at me a lot, but they said, “Okay, I guess I’ll publish it.”

How about other short stories? You had a story in that Zombies vs. Unicorns anthology, right?

Yeah.

Welcome to Bordertown, you had a story in there.

My three YA stories are the Welcome to Bordertown short story, and Zombies Vs. Unicorns, and the ookie—the “Their Changing Bodies”—two of which are really strange.

What’s the other really strange one?

Well, the zombie one is. My friends either call it “The Mac and Cheese Story” or “The Gay Zombie Love Story.” It’s me playing with raunchiness and deliberately gross language in service of what I hope is a higher goal. But it has definitely made a lot of readers go, “Whaa!” It’s also, probably more than anything except maybe The Summer Prince, gotten more emails and more people who are just excited about it. Which is cool for a short story. I never expect to get that kind of reaction from people, but that’s really fun.

What are you working on now? Or what do you have coming up in the future?

Well, I just finished this monstrous novella that who knows what I’m going to do with it, because no one was soliciting this novella. I just decided to drop two months and write it. I have a YA novel that I finished a draft of, and I’m about to dig into the revision, so I’m very excited about it, and it’s actually, again, a totally different thing from The Summer Prince. It’s modern times in Washington, D.C., in the D.C. private school scene, which is more autobiographical than anything I’ve ever done. Which is not to say that this book is, at all, autobiographical, but I did grow up in D.C. and did attend that strange social scene of the D.C. private schools. It’s about class dynamics and the kind of differences between culturally black D.C. and white political D.C. and the ways that those intersect in this hothouse atmosphere of the prep school, except there’s a global flu pandemic happening. It’s sort of Love in the Time of Cholera.

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.