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Interview: Carrie Vaughn

BANNERLESS by Carrie Vaughn

Available July 11 from John Joseph Adams Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Carrie Vaughn is best known for her New York Times bestselling series of novels about a werewolf named Kitty. Her most recent novels include a near-Earth space opera, Martians Abroad, from Tor Books, and a post-apocalyptic murder mystery, Bannerless, from John Joseph Adams Books. She’s written several other contemporary fantasy novels, as well as eighty-plus short stories. She’s a contributor to the Wild Cards series edited by George R. R. Martin and a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop. An Air Force brat, she survived her nomadic childhood and put down roots in Boulder, Colorado. Visit her at carrievaughn.com.

Tell us how you got the idea of setting a murder mystery and a coming-of-age story in a post-apocalyptic backdrop for Bannerless.

The idea evolved slowly. I’ve been working on a series of stories set in this world for a number of years. I introduce the idea of strict rules and enforcement of such rules, so inevitably I wanted to know more about the people who do that enforcing. So Enid came along in the short story also called “Bannerless.” She jumped off the page for me; she was so vivid. I wanted to write more about her. I’ve been interested in writing more mysteries, and the setup seemed perfect: a classic detective character in this post-apocalyptic setting, with a chance to explore the setting through her eyes. The possibilities really opened up.

The cataclysmic storms caused by climate change wipe out nearly all the technologies of contemporary society, save for a few. How did you decide that medical technology and solar energy would survive in the Coast Road, the world of your protagonist Enid?

From the start I wanted to work with the idea that a cataclysm like this wouldn’t automatically wipe out all technology. That the first generation of survivors would work really hard to save the technologies they considered most important: i.e. medicine and some kind of electricity. I also posit a setup where the core of the Coast Road world was founded by the staff of a medical clinic, so they had access to such medical technology from the start.

You frequently refer to the remains of demolished cities of the past in terms of bones. The remains serve sometimes as the foundation for new communities. Where does this recurring image come from?

One model for a civilization growing up after the fall of a previous civilization is in early medieval Britain. The Romans left ruins everywhere. Later cultures built their walls on Roman walls, used the blocks from Roman buildings, named their towns using corrupted versions of Roman town names. You can’t escape Rome—but it’s in bits and pieces. Roman culture didn’t survive in Britain intact. Bones seemed like a good image for something where the shape remains, but not the entire structure.

You explored Enid’s world in your Hugo-nominated short story “Amaryllis,” which, contrary to most post-apocalyptic stories, has a positive ending. What made you want to explore the dark side of this world at novel length in Bannerless?

It’s a multifaceted culture with both good and bad to it, and Enid is in a unique position to see both. I went into the story assuming that a culture built up like this one is, with a huge amount of scrutiny to go along with the community building, is going to have some unintended consequences, such as the bullying of outsiders.

Enid investigates the mysterious death of Sero, an outsider in the town of Pasadan. As an investigator, she’s also an outsider. Are you drawing from your experience as a military brat to inform her story?

I’m probably not the best person to answer that: the influences of my growing up in the military are usually more visible to other people than they are to myself. I will say that when you grow up moving around all the time, you get to be pretty observant, and get used to making instant analyses of new places you end up in, just as a matter of survival and trying to fit in. That may be one of my favorite things about Enid—the way she’s constantly observing and sizing up every situation she encounters.

Her investigative partner Tomas tells her that the most important thing about being an investigator is being kind. Why is that? As feared members of society, investigators have a lot of responsibility and stigma to bear.

Yes, they necessarily place themselves as outsiders. But I also feel like they need a huge amount of empathy. Their job isn’t really to punish people; it’s to keep the whole society functional. Enid’s very concerned with process—not just what happens, but how it happens, how people get from point A to point B. She wants to understand.

The responsibility of population control still falls entirely on women. They have birth control implants surgically inserted in their arm until they and the other members of their homes prove themselves worthy of raising children. Proving their worth earns them the banner, or license, to procreate. Do you think we have the potential to establish an egalitarian society where the responsibility of population control would be shared evenly between men and women?

I’d like to think so, but honestly I’m not sure. Women shoulder so much of the burden of having children, especially physically with what childbearing does to their bodies. The incentive for women to be able to control their reproduction is so much greater than it is for men: I’m not sure the burden will ever be truly equal, no matter how much we might wish for it to be so.

Despite the restrictions on childbirth, the society Enid lives in seems very sex positive. Any Puritanical attitude toward pre-marital sex is virtually absent, and young adult Enid is able to fully enjoy the physical aspect of her relationship with teenage Dak without having to worry about judgment from others. Did you always intend this to be a trade-off?

Absolutely. So much of the stigma around sex is also tied up in reproduction, having children, who cares for the children, etc. There’s a reason the sexual revolution coincided with the wide acceptance of birth control: birth control puts “sex” and “having children” in two different categories, so we can finally talk about one without worrying about the other. I think a culture that takes birth control entirely for granted does so because it acknowledges that people are going to have sex whether there’s a stigma or not. Might as well have fun.

Dak is a wandering minstrel-like character who woos Enid with his guitar playing and earns his keep with his music. What do his songs sound like to you? Did you have any musician in mind when you came up with him?

I mostly had the whole troubadour tradition in mind. One thing humanity will always have, will always preserve, is music. The kind of songs I imagine him playing are the ones that have always been played when you have a guy with a guitar around a campfire: folk songs, cowboy music, traditional songs, and so on.

You split Enid’s story into two alternating arcs: her investigation of the murder at Pasadan and her coming-of-age as a young woman. What made you want to alternate between the two timelines rather than tell her story chronologically?

I wanted to show how she became the person she is. I wanted to show someone whose attitudes and decisions clearly grew out of her experiences, and I thought alternating the timeline was an interesting way to do that, as well as explore a lot of the Coast Road world, which I couldn’t do with just the one storyline. I was influenced by LeGuin’s novel The Dispossessed, which also alternates between the main character’s current life and his younger years.

A storm marks three important phases in Enid’s life: the first time we meet her as a young adult; the end of her coming-of-age arc; and the end of her investigation of Sero’s death. The storms reinforce the continual aftermath of climate change and signal moments of intense change for Enid. By the end of her investigation, what do you think is the biggest change for her?

I’m hoping that there’s a sense that all the turning points build on each other. Earlier in her life the epic storms demonstrate to Enid how her society functions, how people really do need to help each other and how some kind of leadership is often needed to facilitate that. The second storm teaches her survival, and gives her confidence. Nothing seems quite as difficult after that. By the last storm, when Enid has lost her mentor and yet been able to solve the crime on her own, I think that gives her the confidence she needs moving forward. Her arc is cumulative.

During Enid’s investigation, this line comes up several times: “A town ought to be able to fix its own problems.” This remark from the citizens of Pasadan not only shows their deep displeasure of being investigated, but also goes against the social engineering of their world. In a post-scarcity scenario, the towns of Coast Road need to help each other out, as you just said. Their lives depend on trade with one another, and in the worst-case scenarios, on such impersonal arbiters as the investigators. It seems as though we would have a difficult time letting go of our individualist and industrial-age mentality even after an apocalypse.

Well, this is a political debate the US has had with itself from the beginning. Federal versus local rule, the libertarian ideal of individuals working cooperatively against the reality that there always seems to be that one person screwing it up for everyone else, hence the need for some kind of governance. I think there are plenty of Coast Road towns that do manage to work out problems themselves without needing to call in investigators. But I’d argue the very existence of investigators is part of their incentive for doing so. No one wants investigators in their town, so it behooves them all to do their best themselves.

Bannerless addresses the fall-out of climate change. And in our current political arena, climate change is a hotly debated issue and downright disregarded by the current administration. You said on your blog that your fandoms, one of which is Guardians of the Galaxy, are getting you through these times. What are some other fandoms you turn to?

Star Wars, absolutely, which I’ve loved since I was small. The entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, really. These are great characters I like spending time with, and larger-than-life conflicts that seem resolvable. I’m also finding my way back to Star Trek, because I find these stories about crews working together and caring about each other to be really comforting.

Did you find writing Bannerless helpful in processing what’s taking place in today’s current events?

I’m not sure helpful is the right word. There’s a weird sense of watching the actual world go down an even worse road than the one I propose, and that’s not at all a helpful state of mind. (If you want to know how climate change, epic storms, and epidemics can destroy the country, defund the CDC, NIH, EPA, and emergency response agencies and let’s find out!) But I have a hope that readers will engage with these issues and see how they apply to the actual world through reading Bannerless.

On the flipside of our political climate, you won this year’s Colorado Humanities & Center for the Book Award in genre fiction for Amaryllis and Other Stories. Congratulations! Tell us about the award and what it means to you.

Thanks! It’s a great feeling, getting recognition for my small press, oddball short story collection. I’m proud to be identified as a Coloradoan, and this definitely puts me on the map as a Colorado writer, which is neat.

On your blog, you also wrote about reaching your ten-year mark as a full-time writer this year. Having written Bannerless, what does this milestone mean to you?

It means a little more confidence, I think. Despite some shake-ups, I’m still in the game, and that’s a huge comfort. Even when the writing isn’t going as well as I’d like, or the business throws me a curveball, I know I can get through it, because I have before. Bannerless is my twenty-first published novel. I can’t claim to be a newbie anymore!

As you embark on your tenth year of full-time writing, can you tell us about the latest projects you’re working on now?

I’m currently working on the sequel to Bannerless. I haven’t settled on a title yet, but I hope to soon. I also have a bumper crop of short stories coming up, including a prequel to Bannerless, which should appear on Tor.com in the next year or so. I’m also involved with George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series and writing for that. I always have a few projects cooking, and that’s the way I like it.

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Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.