How did this story come about? What else would you like readers to know about “How We Burn”?
I’ve had for a good while a deep anger about environmental issues. The animal population has dwindled to half in just fifty years, while humans are multiplying. I’ve witnessed green spaces decimated and paved over for suburban expansion, cheap houses, and strip malls. We’re told not to eat fish often any more because of mercury, micro-plastics, other pollution. Air quality is leaving a yellow haze like dirty dishwater over some cities. Water is contaminated with lead and any number of chemical and agricultural runoffs. Some of the most beautiful beaches are covered in plastic trash. Even tourism to appreciate the remaining natural wonders can devastate an environment with carelessness. Cities and coastlines are drowning while sea-levels rise. I could go on. (Not to mention inequality driven by social policies and structural racism.)
I’m not the only one who’s angry. It’s hard, if you’re aware of what’s happening, to feel good about humanity’s place in the world. With so much tragedy, so much ruin, why are we still chugging forward into the future? There’s not really a coherent argument for humans as a fundamental good, not without relying on magic or magical thinking.
So I wanted to write a story driven by that anger, that sense that the people who have come before us have ruined everything, that reveals what we’ve lost. But I also wanted to see a generation that tried to fix some things. People resist so many arguments to fix things because of the short term. We’d rather poison ourselves, kill what sustains us, if short term it gets us something good. Population growth boosts economies even while it pushes communities to pave over green spaces, pushes agriculture to keep up with increasing demands, forces people to live on less and less space with more and more traffic. So if a generation tried to fix it, even though long term this would be a great thing, that would mean down the road there’s a generation suffering for the sins of the father, so to speak.
And that’s interesting to me, that sticking point, that contradiction. What would it mean to be aware of everything humanity has done wrong, be angry about about what our forefathers had done at our expense, but feel crushed by the burden of what needs to be done to fix it at the same time? What would it mean to be a teenager rebelling against everything, both humanity’s crimes against the planet and the reparations needed for the penance for crimes they didn’t even have the chance to commit? And rebelling against the parent’s generation, who are aware, who know the cost, who have internalized the fear of a ruined world, who are trying to save what’s left?
That’s where the story came from, that rub between the generations, between that anger and that burden.
I don’t think there’s a good answer to that feeling. We are proceeding into a catastrophe, blindly and willingly, at the moment. Anything we do to avert it will be painful for someone.
And that’s why I didn’t want to give Quioa an easy epiphany, an easy answer to her character arc. She has every right to feel angry, to want what previous generations had. And yet, it’s not until she feels her own loss that she’ll begin to understand how much more there is to lose, how to save what’s left. And with that comes fear. Is that a heroic character arc? No. The heroic character arc has the hero defeating an evil force with bravery and abandon, through action, through rebellion. At the end, while they emerge changed, they have hope.
Instead, Quioa’s character arc is one of responsibility. She has to be the opposite of a hero, act without abandon or rebellion. The best thing she could do for her world is (literally) stay in her lane, act carefully, take responsibility. What she has to conquer is within all of us: the hunger to get more from the world, the hunger to selfishly take it, to confuse virtue with the freedom to harm everything around us. And yet, fear is not a pleasant emotion, is not hope, and her anger remains justified. This is why I gave her an ambiguous ending. That moment she feels fear for the first time, that she understands what she’s lost, that she understands responsibility . . . it’s bitter. It’s necessary. Does she crash? Does she pull up in time? Neither of those are happy endings, easy endings. And neither are as important as the crystallized moment in the hologram. It also has to do with my own fears and uncertainties about where we’re going. Will we realize what’s happening to our planet in time? Who can say. We need that moment in the hologram.
There were so many worldbuilding and character-illuminating gems layered throughout the story, it’s like story-as-masterclass. You don’t use, or use sparingly, a lot of commonly deployed character/worldbuilding details like physical looks, cultural markers, instead relying almost exclusively on individual personality traits to build out each character and their world: was this deliberate?
I like to build character through the internal self and only mention in passing, when it’s relevant to the plot and themes, physical appearance. Too often, people are contrary to their appearances, and the temptation to make the physical primary can mean simplifying the way that people may present themselves and making their physicality central to the plot. There are absolutely stories for which physical characterization is important and stories that include themes revealed on the physical level, like beauty, race, dysmorphia. To a certain extent, those themes are driven by the character’s own obsessions.
For these particular characters, I didn’t think their obsession would be about their appearances. What does it mean that Josh is black, that Sequioa has long dark hair that hangs over her shoulder like a curtain, that Quioa is part Latina, to characters who are railing against what it means to be alive? To them, it’s more important that they are healthy, that they are alive, that they are lonely and desperate and angry. Plus, they’ve known each other all their lives. To a certain extent, with friends that close, you start being invisible to one another, except when something changes. You’re so used to each other, and physical appearances matter less than the habits and memories you’ve built over the years. So you’d only mention appearances in passing, when there’s reason to pay attention.
When Quioa sees a Procreator for the first time, appearances matter very much because of how different the Procreator is from her friends, how shocking it is to see someone who looks malnourished, under-protected. In a longer version of this, perhaps novel-length, that continues after Quioa’s whole world has changed, things will start to look very different to her and come into focus in a different way, and I think she’s going to start questioning appearances that maybe she’s been taking for granted.
You’ve taught writing across genres (screenwriting, fiction, and science fiction and fantasy writing). What’s one piece of advice you often give them?
I start off every class by talking about my definition of what makes a story (“meaningful change—be it in the reader, a character, or a world—driven by a series of linked events”). From there, we talk about subjective drama versus objective drama.
Objective drama is something that could happen to anyone and it would be dramatic. Death and maiming would be sad no matter who it happened to. Births, marriages, graduations, etc. would be happy occasions no matter who they happened to.
Most of my students reach for the most objectively dramatic things. However, because these situations could happen to anyone, and many of them do happen to most of us—we all are born, we all die, we all likely get broken up with at some point—these don’t on their own actually create much emotion in an audience.
Subjective drama, on the other hand, depends on the subject—that is, the character. Subjective drama is only dramatic because it happens to that particular character with that particular history.
For example, a teacher takes a desk out of a classroom. Boring, right? Not objectively dramatic. But I’ll give you more information: There was a student in that teacher’s class. This is the last class of his college career, and he’s been struggling to pass. He’s pretty much given up. Over Thanksgiving break, his father—who doesn’t know his kid might fail this class—tells him he’s proud of him that he’s going to graduate college like his father never did. So, the student returns from Thanksgiving break, determined this time to pass and make his father proud. But there’s an accident on the way to the final, and he arrives late. Just before he arrives, the teacher, figuring that thirty minutes into the final no one else is coming, gives the only empty desk to another teacher who is missing a desk for her finals. The student arrives just in time to see the teacher place the desk in another classroom. He stands at the door, sees there’s no place for him. Suddenly his worst fears are confirmed. There’s no place for him here. He walks away, dejected, knowing he’s failed and let down his father.
Suddenly, a teacher taking an empty desk out of the classroom is pretty dramatic. That’s subjective drama.
Sometimes as fun exercises, I hand out index cards with some pretty every day occurrences on them: spaghetti is served on a plate, a car is parked, someone plants a tree in front of their window, a crossing guard asks a driver to slow down. Students can use any genre they want, but they have to build a backstory to the event that would make it subjectively dramatic. Some of the stuff they come up with is really heart-wrenching.
The best stories always use subjective drama, even if there’s objective drama mixed in there. Even if someone dies, what makes it powerful is not the fact that someone died, but that it happened under those specific circumstances, what it meant to the surviving characters, how they got to that point. That’s what I tried to do with the death in this story. It’s important because of Quioa’s part causing it, because her friends believed in what they did, and because the death means that everything they believe in is shattered.
For my students, I tell them they can’t use objective drama in the class. No death, no maiming, no rape. If they’re going to get drama, they have to rely on the subjective. This hand-tied-behind-their-back constraint means that they are working hard to get at character, and they absolutely have to or there’s no drama at all. Once they leave the class, I tell them they may include plot points that are objectively dramatic again, but they need to convert them into subjective drama.
Whose writing do you find surprising/inspiring?
There is so much gorgeous fiction that I find inspiring. Just with what I’ve read in the last month in fantasy: Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, Indra Das’s The Devourers, and Susan Palwick’s A Necessary Beggar. The first two are doing such gorgeous things with language, submerging the reader in a fever dream of magic, myth, and incantatory rhythms. A Stranger in Olondria is a secondary world fantasy like I’ve never read before, the worldbuilding so complex, emotional, dictated by memory. I’ve never read anything that has felt so real, so truly lived, rather than authorially created. The Devourers mixes the myth of the werewolf with that of the djinn and other shapeshifter myths, and manages to throw away every trope and expectation associated with them to create this beautifully heart-wrenching tale about what it means to have a self, a human self, and have that contain multitudes. The last, A Necessary Beggar, is a portal fantasy, but from a secondary world into ours instead of the usual vice versa, and says some pretty important things about kindness and love while touching on real world problems like immigration, capitalism, and the American Dream. All three use magic to say important things about the world, about what it means to be human, eschewing the typical hero’s journey into something so much more complex and real, so beautifully rendered. If I could do in my next books what they have done, I would be super happy.
When will your short story collection, The Rock Eaters, be available? Where can we read the title story about children who eat rocks to keep themselves from taking flight? What other projects are on the horizon for you? (I was delighted to see you are working on a craft book on the writing and story techniques of unreal genres. How close to completion/release is this? I need it.)
Thank you for asking! I’m working on a novel, The Furious Branches, set during a 1965 civil war in the Dominican Republic. In it, a girl who can see all possible worlds must enlist a soldier who can trade places with his shadow, the strongest man in the world, and a woman who can bring people back to life to save her mother from her many deaths as a guerrilla fighter in the war.
I’m also working on a craft book called The Art of the Unreal, about the techniques of unreal fiction across the genre spectrum, and what they have in common with realist fiction. This is a couple of years away, as I keep interrupting it to work on the novel and more short stories.
My forthcoming short story collection, The Rock Eaters, will be out from Penguin Press in February 2021. It includes stories from across the genre spectrum. Virtual reality, aliens, narcotraficante agents who get superpowers, prodigals who can fly, ghosts, and disappearing relatives are just a few conceits of the stories. You can read the title story reprinted and on podcast in Lightspeed here: lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/the-rock-eaters.
Spread the word!