Let’s start at the beginning. What can you tell us about your inspiration for this story?
When I was a rookie firefighter with less than a year on the job, I heard a friend speak his last words over the radio. It took me years to write a story in which I could put characters in the position of grappling with the aftermath of a violent death like that. I had no interest in setting it in a firehouse, even a thoroughly fictionalized one. My own feelings about it were too precarious and unresolved. I went through quite a few failed drafts of stories about loss and sacrifice before I came back to one set in the milieu of fire/rescue. As excited as I am to see this piece appear in Lightspeed, it still fills me with anxiety. The story is very raw and personal for me.
While the transport device in the story is an element of science fiction, the underlying premise of a dying person’s last transmission haunting a radio channel has the air of magical realism. That echo is something that to the reader feels supernatural, but is so ingrained into the firefighters’ world that it is utterly mundane. How did you go about blending the science fiction and the supernatural in this story? Is there something about the milieu of the fire station that makes this kind of “haunting” more readily accepted than it might be by outsiders in the same story world?
I see the radios as tangible forms of memory. Moments of tragedy haunt us in the same way that the maydays in this story get stuck on the frequencies. The transport device demands that the characters deal with the fallout of a terrible event, either by letting the mayday fade or by rewriting the past at a great cost.
It makes perfect sense to me that the supernatural might become mundane within the world of fire/rescue. People who work in emergency medicine are exposed to aspects of life and death that usually remain in the margins of “normal” life, particularly for people with the insulation of wealth or social privilege. Every corner and street I visit around my station is a place where I’ve seen someone’s life come apart in ways that were unexpected and frightening for them. The whole landscape is haunted, if we only possessed the apparatus to perceive it.
Both Trish, in her very personal obsession with saving Hunger, and Stanhouse, who is haunted by the mayday calls of people he’s never met, are willing to sacrifice themselves—in whole or in part—to save others. Is there a difference in their drives, or are Trish’s personal goal and Stanhouse’s larger mission both manifestations of a similar internal character? How can we approach trying to understand if it’s something innate or something acquired that makes them willing to burn for others who might never know of their sacrifice?
It would be easy to say that both of them are dealing with survivor’s guilt, but I didn’t want to pathologize their decisions to go back and save other people at the expense of their own lives. Nor did I want to dress their actions up in the mythology of heroism. I think both of them have come to terms with self-sacrifice. They’ve done a certain amount of psychological work that brings them to the decisions they make.
The ideas of time travel and alternate timelines are ones that you’ve explored before. What is it about these themes in particular that keep drawing you back? Do you find that the stories you write about these kinds of second chances or different versions of reality tend to draw more closely on your personal experiences, or not?
When I’m writing about time travel, I’m usually thinking about memory. It’s incredibly weird that the universe creates these little snow-globe incursions of itself, then shakes them up and looks at them from time to time. I can’t get over the way we have to live with our memories but are unable to re-enter them. It’s like we have all the pieces for a time machine but can’t figure out how to assemble it.
Personal experiences play roles in some of the stories I’ve written, but I love time travel in general as a metaphor and literary device. It allows us to come to terms with experiences that have harmed us, or stay connected with people and animals we’ve cherished and lost. The rules of time travel vary according to the underlying purpose it serves for the characters. Traveling into the past doesn’t always offer the chance to change an outcome, as it does in this story. In “On the Day You Spend Forever With Your Dog”, it meant experiencing the same events over and over as an opportunity for understanding and acceptance. In every story, the rules are a little different, because I want to explore different ways we learn to deal with the past and imagine ourselves as the people we aspire to be.
Finally, what’s coming up next for you? In addition to your concrete plans, are there any new creative channels that you’re just starting to tune in to?
I’m probably not alone in saying that 2020 wasn’t my most productive year as a writer. Like many people in health care, I came home from work exhausted and demoralized. For months, I wanted nothing more than to smack things with a hammer, so I built a ramshackle chicken coop, a compost bin, and some garden fences. At the moment, I’m measuring my creativity in eggs and beet greens. I hope some words will follow.
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