When the story started out, I knew something had to go wrong, because it’s a story of course, but I did not expect a cautionary tale about the importance of gut bacteria and network security! Very cool. How did this story come together for you? Did it give you any surprises along the way?
Initially, the story was very short—actually a flash piece. But I loved the premise and kept feeling like I had more to say. So in part, the very fact that it became so long was a surprise. Jade also surprised me. Initially I thought of her as a side character, a minor player without much personality. But the more I wrote, the more I liked her and wanted to see what she could do with this world, given that she wasn’t the one who created it but was trapped there just as Ash was. And finally, there were some points in the plot where I felt like I was being challenged alongside the characters. When Jade figures out how to use the aggregator to solve her long-term food problem, for instance, that was not something I had planned ahead. I too was shaking my head and asking myself, “Why didn’t I think of that sooner?”
I don’t know if TV producers read these spotlights, but if there are any out there, I would like to suggest that this would make a great TV episode of something, like Black Mirror. Especially since you have so many great visuals. I really liked the crows. How did you go about designing the world and picking the elements you have? Is there any favorite bit you want to make sure readers noticed?
Well, thanks, I certainly wouldn’t object! It’s funny that you noted the crows, because they were actually the last element I added to the story. As I said, part of what interests me here is the way Jade becomes more powerful and more at home in this world as the story goes on. But as I was finishing the story, I realized I wanted some physical manifestation of that, and the crows were the physical presence I chose. As carrion eaters, they’re often associated with death, and the story is also about the necessity of death and decay. But beyond that, Jade’s relationship with the crows allowed me to visualize the ways in which she was becoming integrated into the life of this strange planet. At first she’s repelled by them, but by the end she’s literally wearing their feathers and having them sit on her body or fly around her. When I was preparing to do the last draft of the story I wrote a note at the top that said “ADD CROWS,” and as I did they became one of my favorite parts. So there they are.
The entire story also started with another image (years back—I’m a slow writer!): the opening image of the trees that were constantly dropping their leaves in the perpetual autumn of this planet, creating huge piles of dead leaves that never disappear. It’s an image that I find both beautiful and chilling, and that is the tone I hoped to set for the story.
This felt like a suitable pandemic tale, with the two of them totally isolated, though who knows what state of lockdown/former lockdown readers may be in when the issue comes out. How have you been holding up with everything 2020 has been offering?
Yes! As I said, I’ve been working on this story for a few years, off and on, but once it became clear that the pandemic was going to be a long-term thing, I thought, “I really have to finish this one now.” Not only because the characters are so isolated, but because COVID and lockdown have made me think so much about how we interact with microbes, how much mental space we spend on the destructive ones and how little we usually think about the ones that help us and make our lives possible.
The pandemic has been tough in a lot of ways, of course. I miss my siblings, my nephew, my extended family. I miss writing in coffee shops, as trivial as that sounds. And like everyone, I really miss my friends, and even just interacting with strangers. But there have been some silver linings. I’ve been spending time outdoors almost every day, even in the colder weather, and it has forced me to slow down a bit and really enjoy the ways the natural world changes with the seasons. And I’ve been extremely fortunate to have a National Endowment for the Arts grant this year, which has allowed me to continue writing. I’m helping to homeschool my kids, which was not part of my plan for this year before COVID arrived, and if I had to do my usual full-time teaching on top of that I’m sure I would not have time to write. So I’m grateful for the work I’m being allowed to do.
What have you been working on lately? Any new or forthcoming work that readers can look for?
I’m currently working on a novel set in a gender-segregated world. It has a pandemic section that I wrote long before the current pandemic, so that has been a little strange to live through (and I joke with my friends that I could have saved a lot of time on research by just waiting until 2020). A short story based on material from the book will be published in the MIT Technology Review this month.
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