Seanan McGuire (a/k/a Mira Grant) is the author of the October Daye series, the InCryptid series, and the Newsflesh trilogy (consisting of Feed, Deadline, and Blackout). Her short fiction has appeared in Apex, Fantasy Magazine, Lightspeed, and in many anthologies, such as Home Improvement: Undead Edition, Other Worlds Than These, and The Living Dead 2. She is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a five-time Hugo Award nominee, including four Hugo nominations this year.
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.
You write fiction as both Seanan McGuire and as Mira Grant. Why do you use the two different names?
So do you remember how back in the early ’90s Disney created Touchstone Pictures so that they could release R-rated movies? Basically there was a point where Disney wanted to diversify. They wanted to start doing more things without worrying that mothers were going to say, “Oh, honey, look. Disney’s got a new film out, it’s called Reservoir Dogs. Let’s take the kids!” So they created Touchstone, which was a wholly owned subsidiary. It was completely open; everyone knew that Touchstone was Disney. It was the same executive producers, it was a lot of the same writers, the same directors, and yet having that different name on the cover of the movie changed the expectations people had going in.
There’s never been any illusion that Mira wasn’t me. When I was first writing Feed—which was the first book I published as Mira—I talked about it very openly on my blog, on Twitter, that I was writing this book, and it wasn’t until after it was sold that I said “Mira Grant” wrote this book. And the reason there was really purely marketing based. It was so that my urban fantasy fans would see okay, this is a Mira Grant book. Clearly there is a difference. And it works in reverse too. People who would never have considered a zombie political thriller by an urban fantasy writer were willing to pick up Feed and take a look at it.
I frequently joke—though it is not as joking it might be—that I am actually a rogue Disney princess that decided I liked profanity and porn, and so ran away from the studio. And that is what you get out of a Seanan book. I do a lot of urban fantasy, which is modern-day cities, but you’ve got magic, you’ve got fairies running around, or crypto-zoological creatures running around, and I’m pulling very heavily on my background as a Folklore major and having done some animation work and all of that, and I’m pulling from the modern fairy tale narrative. With Mira Grant, I’m doing a lot of political and medical science fiction, and that’s more drawing on the fact that I’d really talk to you about tapeworms while we’re trying to eat raw fish.
You’re on the Hugo ballot four times this year. Could you tell us a bit about your Hugo-nominated works?
I’m on the Hugo ballot four times, and it’s the first time a girl has ever done that, ever! I’m on the ballot twice as myself and twice as Mira. As Mira, I’ve been nominated for Deadline, which is the second book in the Newsflesh trilogy. The first book, Feed, was on the ballot last year. And I’m also up as Mira for “Countdown,” which is a novella set in that same universe. When I was getting ready for the release of Deadline, when it was coming out soon, I decided that the appropriate way to get people excited about the book would be to write a novella in 30 pieces, and publish a piece on my blog every day for a month . . . during a convention, a week and a half long trip to New York, and a doll traders expo. And I managed to do it without missing a single day.
And when it was all done my editor at Orbit was like, “Hey, that thing you did, you want to sell it to us?” So I said, “Sure,” and they bought it, and they put it in the Orbit short fiction program. It’s going to be coming out in physical form from Subterranean Press later this year. So I think that that actually counts as “monetizing my blog.” I’m very proud of that. As Seanan, I’m actually not up in any fiction categories. I am nominated for best fancast as part of the crew that does the SF Squeecast. The other nomination under my own name is actually, for me, the most exciting. I’m up for a filk CD, which is called Wicked Girls. It is the first time a solo filk CD has ever made the ballot in any category. Filk has been huge in science fiction fandom for more than 30 years, and this is the first time that we’ve been able to get it representation on the Hugo ballot.
Could you explain what filk is for people who don’t know?
Filk is the folk music of the science fiction and fantasy community—you get parodies, you get traditional music that’s had the words slightly modified, and you’ll also get just original works that have been written about science fiction and fantasy works, or with science fiction and fantasy themes. Some of it is silly sing-alongs, some of it is really big, dramatic, heartbreaking stuff. I love the filk community. It’s the single most welcoming part of fandom that I’ve ever encountered, and filk saved my life a lot of times when I was a teenager. It was always somewhere I could go, and I think that’s the strength of the filk community, that no matter whether you sing, you play, you just want to listen, as long as you want to be there, they want you to be there.
Your latest Mira Grant book is called Blackout, which is the third book in the Newsflesh trilogy. Could you give us some background on that setting?
The basic concept behind the Newsflesh trilogy is that in 2014 the Zombie Apocalypse happened, and it took us about three years, but around 2017, 2018, we actually managed to win. A lot of people died, a lot of land was permanently ceded, but we came out on top. So 20 years pass, and you have an entire generation of people that’s grown up in a world where zombies just are. They’re not something special. They’re not something exciting. They just are. People go on. People do what they do.
The Newsflesh trilogy actually follows a pair of bloggers—primarily—Shaun and Georgia Mason. They’re what’s considered “orphans of the rising,” which means that their biological families all died when the zombies rose, and they were adopted together and became professional bloggers, because it’s the blog community that, when the dead actually started walking, was willing to stand up and say, “The dead are walking. We have a problem here.” Rather than just going, “Oh, it’s the flu. Oh, it’s something. We don’t know what it is, but we’ll deal with it.”
Feed follows the political campaign of Senator Peter Ryman as he is running to be the Republican candidate for President of the United States, and Shaun and Georgia and their friend Buffy have been selected to be his campaign bloggers, to basically follow him through this process. Deadline picks up where that left off, and it’s dealing with the aftermath of the political campaign, and Blackout is sort of bringing those two things together. So Feed is a political thriller with zombies, Deadline is a medical thriller with zombies, and Blackout is a conspiracy thriller with zombies.
So the zombie virus in your books is described in great detail. How’d you go about inventing that?
In order to come up with the Kellis-Amberlee virus, I read enough books on viruses to qualify for some kind of horrible extra credit program, audited a bunch of courses at UC Berkeley and at the California Academy of Sciences, and then started phoning the CDC persistently and asking them horrible questions. Now, back to filk, I wrote a song several years ago called “The Black Death,” which is a schoolhouse rock type song about the epidemiological, anthropological origins of the Black Death, and why I do not believe that it can have been Bubonic Plague, because I subscribe to the hemorrhagic fever theory of the Black Death. It’s a really bizarre little song, but it’s managed to get me some fascinating connections in the epidemiological world.
The first time I called the CDC, I said that I wanted to talk to someone about possibly designing a zombie virus. “I’m a writer, blah-blah-blah.” And the lady who answered the phone was like, “Uh . . .” I said, “My name’s Seanan McGuire. Can I leave a number? Can I do this?” And she went, “Wait. Are you ‘The Black Death’ girl?” “Yeah.” She says, “Sing for me!” So I sang “The Black Death” for the receptionist at the CDC, at which point she actually helped me find people to talk to. So every time I came up with a new iteration of Kellis-Amberlee, I would call back and say, “If I did this, this, this, this, this and this, could I raise the dead?” And every single time they would say, “No.” And I’d say, “OK,” hang up, and go back to working. After about the 17th time, I called and said, “If I did this, this, this, this, this, this and this, could I raise the dead?” And got, “Don’t . . . don’t do that.” At that point, I knew I had a viable virus.
The final iteration, Kellis-Amberlee, is actually a chimera virus resulting from the union of a genetically engineered strain of Marburg, which is a filovirus—it’s related to Ebola—meeting up with a genetically engineered coronavirus, which is one of the common cold viruses. The Marburg was designed to cure cancer, basically. It’s something that you’re supposed to get in your body and just keep there, and anytime that you develop cancerous cells, the Marburg will wake up, begin reproducing, and eat them. Then the coronavirus portion, which is the “Kellis” portion, was designed as a cure for the common cold, and it’s supposed to be a pernicious infection. Basically, it’s a shifting-antigen base. It gets into your body and it never, ever leaves, because your immune system winds up treating the Kellis infection as a part of the immune system, and doesn’t fight it off. The Kellis infection is self-replicating, and that shifting antigen means that it’s continually finding new food sources. It’s supposed to prevent other infections from getting into your body, because it’s taking up all the available space. Well, when those two viruses met, they had babies, and what you got was a shifting-antigen flu that does not leave the body under any circumstances but is capable of turning into something that converts human tissue into more of the virus. And that’s how we got Kellis-Amberlee, which makes zombies.
You’ve said that the modern lack of respect for basic health and quarantine procedures makes you want to scream.
No one respects quarantine anymore! Nobody comprehends quarantine, and absolutely nobody comprehends the fact that sometimes your “rights” and “liberties” do not have any place in this conversation. We have totally drug-resistant tuberculosis! And what do people with totally drug-resistant tuberculosis do? Do they lock themselves in their houses for the rest of their lives? Do they eat a bullet? No! They get on airplanes. And then they get pissed off when the CDC yells at them. Quarantine exists so that we can continue as a species to exist. And yes, it sucks if I say to you, “Dude, really sorry, had to shoot your wife. Had the totally drug-resistant tuberculosis, yo.” But you know what sucks more? Killing an elementary school because you went outside with your totally drug-resistant tuberculosis.
The Crazies, a fantastic movie, was built entirely on the precept that you should break quarantine, like, that’s just what you should do. I think I may have been the only person in that theater that was rooting for the government. I liked our heroes. They were nice people. It’s not their fault. But at the end of the day, when you’re in the contamination zone, sometimes it doesn’t matter if it’s your fault.
So my dad just read Feed, and his reaction was that he could believe that a virus could reanimate the dead, but he had a harder time believing that anyone could make a living as a blogger. What do you think about that?
There are already people that are essentially making a living as bloggers, that are already beginning to make a living in the New Media. It’s not a great living. I mean, none of the people that are presented in Feed are getting really wealthy off of what they do unless it’s off of merchandising and counter hits. But keep in mind that in the Feed world, “blogger” now contains a lot of different subcategories. Buffy, who is one of the main characters in that first book, is essentially a romance writer who sells her work through their blog. Georgia is a political and factual reporter. She syndicates her articles, she sells advertising. She makes very little money, whereas her brother, who is an I-will-do-stupid-shit-if-you-would-just-give-me-more-page-hits-and-buy-more-T-shirts blogger, makes about everything the two of them bring home together. So we actually did work on the economy of my blogosphere fairly intensively. It probably does not hold up to the Internet as it is now, because when I was first writing Feed and setting up this world, Facebook was pretty small and there was no Twitter. But I think you could make it work if you had to.
As someone with a popular blog yourself, do you have any advice how to go about creating a popular blog in the real world?
I see a lot of authors—like, a lot of authors—who’ve been told, “You need to create a blog, you need to have an Internet presence, you need to do this thing,” who just set out and they create a blog, and all it is is “Buy my book!” over and over again, all the time. And I’m not talking about the two weeks leading up to your book’s release. That is really the time at which “Buy my book, buy my book, buy my book” is kind of a reasonable statement. I’m talking about 100 percent of the time, and there is nothing of that person in that blog. Now, I don’t think that anyone is 100 percent honest all the time on the internet. There is an element of self-censorship, but there’s also an element of you have to be a person. You have to talk about who you are, and be who you are, or you risk becoming nothing more than a persona. And I think the internet is pretty clever, in terms of knowing when you are being a persona rather than being a person.
Do you have any general advice for dealing with hostile comments online?
In March of this past year, the physical edition of my book Discount Armageddon was released almost a month early. People started receiving the book, and it was fine—well, it wasn’t fine, I was very upset—but things happen, it’s not your fault. Except that the ebook was not released at the same time, and someone somewhere told some message board that I was being a horrible greedy cunt and withholding the ebook to try to force people to buy the physical edition, and the amount of hate mail I received in a 24-hour period exceeded the previous 18 months. I was called a “greedy cunt.” I was called a “stupid whore.” Pretty much any variation of “cunt,” “whore,” or “bitch” that you can come up with was applied to me directly.
I had several offers to “rape the stupid out of me.” I had one particular master of the rape threat threaten to rape my best friend in front of me repeatedly, so that I would understand his position—somehow raping my best friend is equal to you not getting an ebook when you want it, when when you want it is prior to the release date. And I looked at the fact that I was crying so hard I was shaking, and I said, “You know what? That’s why I have a personal assistant.” And I gave the password to that email box to my PA, and told her not to let me see anything. And that was the only way I could get through that process. And in case you’re going, “Well I don’t have a PA,” everyone for this purpose can have a PA fairly easily. You go to your friend, you go to your brother, you go to someone you trust, you be prepared to change the password on that email box when you’re done, and you say, “Hey, John, this is the situation, these are the emails I’m getting. Can you please monitor these emails for me for the next week?”
So your short story “Everglades” appeared in John’s anthology The Living Dead 2. What was that story is about?
Something that frustrates me a lot in zombie fiction is that everyone is instantly a hero. You almost never see anybody who looks at this situation and looks at this world and says, “Peace out, yo. I’m done.” And I really wanted to follow that character for a little while. I wanted to show what happens when someone realizes that the world has just undergone a sea change, and they’re not ready to evolve with it. So “Everglades” was kind of my evolution piece. It was this character standing at the beginning of the zombie apocalypse, wondering if there’s a cure, wondering if there’s a salvation. What they know is that a lot of people are dead, and that even if the cure comes tomorrow, they’ll be rebuilding for 15-20 years. That this has been a huge, huge disaster.
Apparently the Defense Department and the CDC both have actual zombie response plans. What do you think of their plans?
So you have to understand that the zombie defense plans in question, they’re actually quite good plans, but if you really read them, they’re quite good plans explaining how we could shoot several thousand unarmed civilians if necessary. And that is a lot of the motivation for having them. Creating a “zombie defense plan” is an acceptable way of saying, “Okay, if we need to clear 3,000 people out of the area in front of the White House, what’s our plan of attack there, guys? How are we going to do it?”
But if you want some really good reading, pick up a copy of the 2011 Canadian Pandemic Preparedness Manual. One of the best things that’s ever happened to me on an airplane in my life is I was sitting on a plane next to this lady, and I was reading Parasite Rex, which is Carl Zimmer’s beautiful, beautiful book on parasitism in humans and other creatures. And the lady next to me commented that she had read that book, she liked it. I asked her her name, what did she do, and it turned out she was one of the people who’d worked on the Canadian Pandemic Preparedness Plan. So we spent the entire flight from California to Massachusetts happily talking about stacking dead bodies in hockey rinks, and how we would deal with certain outbreaks, and it wasn’t until we started to land that we realized we had just spent an entire airplane ride gleefully discussing these things.
Speaking of parasites, you’ve said that you’re one of the people who believe that a lack of hookworms explains peanut allergy. How does that work?
The “hygiene hypothesis” basically holds that the ongoing rise of allergies and autoimmune disorders is connected to the fact that we have reduced the contaminants in our environment at an unnaturally fast rate. So we spent millennia evolving immune systems to cope with parasitic infection, to cope with having things squirming around in and biting on us all the time, and then we took them away essentially overnight. So our immune systems are basically really, really bored five-year-old boys standing in rooms full of breakable things, and they have baseball bats.
There have been some really fascinating scientific studies done, several of which are fairly conclusive. My favorite is the Venezuelan study, where they were able to take two essentially genetically identical populations—one living in the city environment, one living outside the city environment—and test them for incidents of allergies and autoimmune disorders, and they were actually able to chart a pretty much one-to-one correlation between “lives outside the city, has a parasitic infection, has no allergies” and “lives inside the city, has no parasitic infection, has lots of allergies.” So there is some very strong scientific support for the hygiene hypothesis, and for the idea that controlled reintroduction of parasites to the human body is a way to deal with all of these conditions.
There have also been some folks who—because humans will always be smart this way—have been experimenting on themselves, and have been going out and getting themselves some hookworms, to find out if it would work, and for the most part they are in fact finding that it will work, and it will control their allergies, right up until they inevitably let their hookworm population get out of control and have an exciting new problem to contend with, which is, you know, hookworms, they’re not your friends. That’s actually the topic of the new Mira Grant duology I’m writing, which is called Forced Evolutions; it’s about the hygiene hypothesis, and genetically engineered parasites, and lots of other fun things that have made me the world’s best dinner conversationalist for the past year.
Are those coming out soon?
Yeah, actually at the beginning of our little pre-interview chat, I said I’d finished a book last night, and the book I finished was Parasite, the first of those two. They’ve been sold to Orbit, and I believe the plan is that Parasite will be out next year.
So you mentioned earlier that you and some of your writer friends have started up a podcast called SF Squeecast. How did that idea first come about, and what sorts of topics do you cover?
So, in Australia in 2010 they held the Worldcon, and because it was an Australian Worldcon, they were very generous with certain panel spaces, because it was a small convention in terms of Worldcons, so they had a lot of room to fill. And this led to Paul Cornell and me being given an entire slot just to talk about Fringe. Not to lead a discussion, not to involve other people in any meaningful way, just “Seanan and Paul are going to have a conversation about Fringe, and ya’ll can watch.” So we in fact had a conversation about Fringe, and a lot of people showed up to watch, and it was surprisingly a lot of fun.
And last year we were chatting on Twitter, talking about how much fun we’d had in Australia, and how great it was to sit down with someone who loved a thing that you loved. And so we’re talking on Twitter about how much fun this was, and how we wish we could do it again, and we’ll probably never convince another Worldcon to let us do that, but god that was great. And Lynn Thomas saw us having this conversation and went, “You know, we could do a podcast.” The next thing we know, Lynn’s giving us instructions on what microphones to buy, and Cat Valente and Elizabeth Bear—who are good friends of ours—have been roped into this, and we’re meeting once a month to talk about things. Basically what we cover is whatever we want to cover. So for each podcast, we will each come in with a topic, and that topic will be a thing that we want to be positive about this recording session, and then anyone else who has any experience with the topic will chime in and give their opinions on things.
Are there any recent or upcoming projects you’d like to mention?
Blackout just came out. I’ve got my first book with Subterranean, which I’m very excited about; they’re publishing a print edition of “Countdown.” I had a new novella come out on July 11th. It’s called “San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats.” It’s a Newsflesh universe novella, and was sort of my exercise in giving Orbit’s legal department fits. Because when you come in and say, “I want to set something at a comic convention, so two-thirds of the characters will be running around dressed as representatives of other peoples’ licensed properties. Is that okay?” they kind of make this little squeaking noise deep in their throats. And that was maybe mean of me, but it was so much fun. Then I have the sixth book—because I also write, not just Mira—in my ongoing urban fantasy series, the October Daye books, coming out this September. I have a Toby Daye book in September, and then an InCryptid book in March.