Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Interview: Tade Thompson

Tade Thompson is the author of the science fiction novel Rosewater, a 2017 John W. Campbell Award finalist and on the Locus 2016 Recommended Reading List, and The Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award-winning novel Making Wolf. His novella The Murders of Molly Southbourne has been optioned for screen adaptation. He also writes short stories, notably “The Apologists,” which was nominated for a British Science Fiction Association award. Born in London to Yoruba parents, he lives and works on the south coast of England, where he battles addictions to books, jazz, and art.

I was floored and so impressed to see the daring places you’ve taken the body horror genre in The Murders of Molly Southbourne. Tell us about what sparked the idea for the novella.

Thanks for your kind words. The Murders of Molly Southbourne came from the confluence of several ideas on which I had been ruminating for quite some time.

Just after the Cold War, there were one or two veterans of the African proxy-war wandering about West Africa. These were not combatants, or at least they did not portray themselves as such, but if you bought them liquor, they would tell you hair-raising stories of insurgency and counter-insurgency from both sides of the Iron Curtain. They had fragments and rumours of experiments that were interesting, impossible, but believed by the tellers. These had been in my head for years.

I found your protagonist, Molly, endearing and tragic. She grows up socially isolated because of her peculiar condition—creating identical copies of herself whenever she bleeds. And the copies, called mollys, always try to kill her. What about her character compelled you to write her story?

Molly herself blazed into my consciousness fully-formed while I was writing something else. Usually, I can jot such conceits down and continue the work at hand, but the character was insistent. The story poured out of me and the first draft was done with no breaks at all, by which I mean I would sit down to write and force myself to stop for sleep or to be on time for work. It was close to Csikszentmihalyi’s flow state. All I can tell you is the character forced her way onto the page with little regard for me.

Molly has a particular list of literary touchstones that includes Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors and Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Recessional.” What personal significance do they have for her?

It would be difficult to discuss why Kipling and why Shakespeare without spoilers. Those familiar with “Recessional” will see similarities in the themes and a foreshadowing of Molly’s fate, but I am a big believer in the reader’s interpretation. I say, “Kill the author dead and let the readers take what they will from the work while they dance on the Barthesian grave.”

The frame-story structure of The Murders of Molly Southbourne is very similar to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In fact, I’d go as far to say that your novella is a close cousin (several generations removed) to her novel. Frankenstein is also referenced as the favorite book of Molly’s main love interest, her physiology and anatomy professor James Down.

I’ll have to restrain myself here. Frankenstein is quite possibly my favourite book. The similarities and overt mentioning of the book are deliberate. My close friends know I’m a Frankenstein and Mary Shelley nerd, and that I can be mined for trivia (like how the Monster was a vegetarian, for example). I have a Frankenstein-related work coming out in 2018, which I can’t talk about yet. I have four different copies of the book, including one illustrated by the great American artist and writer, Lynd Ward, as well as two different annotated versions. I’m an 1818 edition snob, a Polidori Truther . . . just don’t get me started, because it will take all week.

You begin the novella with an epigraph by Theophilus Roshodan that lays out the premise. His name doesn’t come up in any Internet searches or in any philosophy encyclopedias. Did you make him up? If so, who is he based on?

Theophilus Roshodan does not exist, and has never existed in consensus reality. He is a recurring minor character in some of my unpublished work. He’s often an irritating know-it-all author stand-in, and as such, he never survives the first draft.

In the Bible (Luke 1:3), the book of Luke is written by a doctor who never met Jesus. This particular gospel is a letter to someone called “most excellent Theophilus.” I am not a Bible scholar, but I imagined a student of philosophy, maybe a monk, writing about life. Roshodan leans towards Seneca for inspiration, but also Sartre.

The epigraph was the last thing I wrote. It was to act as a coda to the entire novella, so I reverse-engineered it to cover one of the intended major themes. Sorry if I sent you on a wild Google-chase!

You have a background in medicine and psychiatry. How much of it came into use when you were doing research and drafting the story?

All of it. I bring everything I know to whatever I write, and I believe the same of other writers. A person’s complete life experience forms the basis of authorial voice, in my opinion. To hold back any part makes a narrative feel contrived.

Molly’s psychological reaction to her condition, and her ambition to be an anatomy demonstrator—all mined from my experience.

You’ve explored the theme of the body as a site of conflict before in your novel Rosewater with an alien race that invades humans at the cellular level. What made you want to explore the violent aspects of body horror in this novella?

When it comes to bodies, there is violence done every day. I did not think of body horror as a sub-genre when writing it, but I think the body is a source of great anxiety to each of us. So you shave (legs, armpits, or chin), taking a blade to yourself; perhaps you exercise, causing yourself pain; perhaps you fast or diet, denying yourself; perhaps your job means you have to stay awake. If you think about it, life itself consists of low-levels of body horror all the time. To write fiction, we just exaggerate some of what happens naturally. While Rosewater is about what I called a gentle cellular apocalypse, The Murders of Molly Southbourne is about what we do to ourselves for survival. I did not necessarily explore the violence we do to other bodies, physical, like the death inflicted on black bodies on the US streets, or psychological, with something like catcalling a passing woman’s body or feeling entitled to the body as a trophy in a lot of fantastical fiction. Ultimately, Molly’s violence is a metaphor that I must leave readers to work out. Or not. I hope the book can survive scrutiny on many levels.

A creeping sense of inevitability takes hold of all aspects of Molly’s life. In order to survive, she has to kill the mollys before they kill her. This taints her existence, her relationships, and her outlook. What are your thoughts on horror as a genre to explore existential dread?

It’s possible that some readers of horror (among whom I count myself) enjoy it because it makes real life not so bad. That’s not my original thought. It’s a bad paraphrase of an essay in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre. For me, existence means sacrifice. What had to die today for me to live? A cow, some vegetables, a chicken. Am I comfortable with this? So far, yes. Maybe a day will come when I’m not, and I’ll become a vegetarian. There is no Being without cost, and reconciling this can be a source of primal dread. Annihilation or nothingness/non-being can be a consequence. The best horror taps into this. A simple horror conceit: a monster running after a young person, the monster representing all our predators and the young person representing our potential. There are finite outcomes: monster kills young person, young person kills monster, young person evades monster, monster starves to death, et cetera. Horror can examine the physical and emotional survival of the self and the (sometimes) terrible cost of maintaining that integrity of body and soul. Horror is not the only genre to do this, but I think it has the best potential for it.

At one point, Molly says to herself, “Why have I survived? This cycle will repeat itself.” Classic horror stories, such as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” are based on the idea of the repeating cycle of terror. Molly sure goes through it every time she has to kill a molly. Is this an idea that terrifies you, and if so, why?

First, I love Jackson’s work generally and “The Lottery” specifically.

Now, there is a certain futility to our survival mechanism as a species. Each of us is going to die, no matter how many crystals we put in our bowl, or how many reps we can do in the gym, or how much money we give to crying orphans on TV. Personally, not a lot terrifies me anymore, because I have had to confront my own mortality a few times in my short life. I recognize that a lot of people have not. So here’s the thing: If you throw a body to the predator, it will take time eating and digesting that, while you go away free. Until next time, of course, because there is no end to predators or prey, or their eternal dance. Horror helps the reader throw a metaphorical body, that of the actors in film or characters in prose. “They are dead, therefore, I am alive and safe for now.”

Have I answered the question? I feel like I rambled.

Let’s talk genre for a bit. You’ve mentioned in a previous interview (bit.ly/2x1cKzo) that you’ve had challenges getting your stories published because they don’t always fit in the conventional parameters of genre. The Murders of Molly Southbourne toggles several: horror, coming-of-age, science fiction. Were you worried at all about genre-bending in this one?

No, because I’ve stopped worrying about such things. Genre subdivisions were invented so books could be found and catalogued, not to shackle the writer. If what I write works as a narrative, good. If it doesn’t, then perhaps it won’t find a market, and nobody will hear. Darwinian fiction survival works just fine for me, and I understand that it’s not personal. I don’t set out to create genre mash-ups. I read a lot of different books in different fields, and this tends to affect my writing. By convention, Rosewater is science fiction, but there are some segments that are unmistakably horror (like the temple made of meat). But the same applies to The Thing, Alien, or even Predator. They are not one thing, and they endure.

The Murders of Molly Southbourne was a lot more science fictional in the first few drafts. My editor at Tor.com, Carl Engle-Laird, helped me see where the soul of the story lay, so I stripped off a lot of the science and explanations. I started to think of the book as a dark fairy tale, but with science and no fairies.

We discover that the world Molly lives in is beset by widespread infertility. It would appear that drawing parallels with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and P. D. James’s Children of Men is in order, but I noticed that your novella is being released during a year of decreases in male fertility. Were you drawing from previous reports of infertility while writing this?

The fertility decline in some Western countries has been known in clinical circles for quite a while before it came into public consciousness. I was drawing from my knowledge of this, but not the recent reports. I have not read the P.D. James book, and I didn’t really like the movie for various reasons. I adore The Handmaid’s Tale book, but I haven’t seen the most recent adaptation, although I’ve heard good things.

The recent reports on the male fertility crisis—I’m thinking of the ones that made the news in The Guardian and BBC News—focused only on Western countries and neglected to look into Africa, Asia, and South American countries. An obvious bias is at play here in the research. What’s your take on the issue?

As a black man, I find the whole thing problematic. On the one hand, “Oh, Malthusian Nightmare! Overpopulation is killing the Earth (not inequality or corporate greed)! Minorities are breeding us out!” Then, “Oh, noes! Fertility crisis! Humanity is doomed!” It is difficult not to interpret the situation as, “We’re not having enough babies of the right colour.” There are, of course, other perspectives, like irresponsible journalism or bad science.

The Murders of Molly Southbourne has already been optioned by Cathy Schulman’s Welle Entertainment. That’s amazing! Is this the first work of yours to be optioned?

Yes, I’m pleased and excited, as is the entire Tor.com team. It is the first of my works to be optioned, although not the first to stimulate interest. It’s also the first of the Tor.com novellas to be optioned. Brendan Deneen brokered the deal, and we like to joke that the process nearly gave each of us a coronary.

What can you tell us about it?

I can’t say much, except that I’ve spoken to Cathy Schulman a few times and I’m really impressed by her and her team, including Adam Stone from Phenomenon. I’m not just saying that. I’ve already learned a lot about visual storytelling from the conference calls. I feel the book is in good hands with Welle Entertainment.

There’s also news that your novella is the first in a series. Can you tell us anything about what’s coming up next?

I interrupted writing the second novella The Survival of Molly Southbourne to do this interview. I can tell you there are four novellas in my outline folder, so we’ll have to see if I can impress editors enough to get them published. I don’t think I can say any more at this stage, but watch this space.

This probably won’t be a trilogy, will it? I read in Nick Wood’s interview of you (shortstorydayafrica.org/news/idont-like-linearity-i-find-it-boring-an-interview-with-tade-thompson) that you don’t like trilogies. What about them don’t you like?

Ahh, trilogies.

’Tis true, I don’t like them as a staple of Speculative Fiction publishing. A part of me resents reading a book bound between covers that does not complete the story. The origins of that resentment are no longer relevant: Books are plentiful and generally cheap now.

It was not always thus, and I had to manage my book addiction with meager resources. I often had to buy the third book only. Nobody else read science fiction/fantasy in my house, and choices had to be made. My sister Maria had these pulpy romance novels that she preferred, each self-contained. If my dad took us to a bookshop to buy one book each, I would try to make a case that three SFF books were equal to one in terms of completeness. It did not fly. Ten-year-old me is like, Why the hell can SFF writers not finish their stories in one book? Animal Money by Michael Cisco or Imajica by Clive Barker would be a trilogy or quadrology in other hands.

On the other hand, this trained me to keep multiple, incomplete story threads in my head for years sometimes, which is useful to me as a writer.

I’m happy to concede that my trilogy-hate is not objective, is based on childhood experiences, and is unfair, but I still ask, Why not a big-ass book with different parts? I love my omnibus edition of The Southern Reach by Jeff VanderMeer. The Grass King’s Concubine by Kari Sperring isn’t a trilogy and it’s excellent. I also enjoy anti-trilogies like Miéville’s Bas-Lag books.

And, of course, one day I’ll have to eat my words and write Hoist: Book One in the My Own Petard Trilogy.

Are there other projects you’re working on that you can tell us about?

Apart from the Molly novellas, I’m in the process of writing Rosewater: City State, a novel set in the Rosewater universe, and Shorty, a stand-alone novel about demons, necromancers, and obscure Christian cults.

There’s always something!

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Christian A. Coleman

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.