Almost anyone who has had one drink too many has experienced the sensations you describe in the opening of “Hypnopompic Circumstance” (without the alien, I suspect). You make a point of going into detail without becoming too graphic. How important is it to you to create a strong opening in a story? Are there any pitfalls you have to consciously work to avoid?
This question had me going back through my books to review how they opened, which led to a couple of observations: I have to have the first sentence down in my head before I can start writing a story (even if that’s all I know about the story); and that sentence is the only one guaranteed to last as-is through all the subsequent drafts.
I like starting in the middle and then backing up. In “Hypnopompic Circumstance” that middle was “Thomas’s first encounter with the alien was terrifying.” It works for the reader because now there are a lot of questions in need of answers (who is the alien, why is Thomas the only one encountering it, how many encounters have there been, etc.) which keeps them interested. Possibly as important, by starting with this kind of sentence, I’m interested in writing more. I usually don’t know the answers to the questions I pose in precisely this manner until I start writing, so it’s a great way to jumpstart finding my way to the ending.
The premise and voice were both engaging and carried me to the end. Tell us something of what inspired Thom’s unexpected romp.
I think the first time I read about hypnopompic and hypnagogic hallucinations was about thirty years ago, in an issue of Skeptical Inquirer, and I’ve wanted to use them ever since. In the same way that, for instance, the history of tuberculosis can explain the mythology of vampirism, these hallucinations can explain a whole host of extraterrestrial or supernatural events, and I think that’s really cool.
The story has almost a Philip K. Dick-esque sense of reality and what could be mental illness. Is Thom struggling with a psychiatric condition or is Gerald real? How does Thom’s time and treatment in the hospital intersect with his view of reality? What do you think happened at the end of the story? Was Thom slipping further into his illness or was Gerald a real alien taking him into the unknown?
I deliberately left this question unanswered in the text, and the reason (one reason) is that I actually don’t know. This is the other side of the “hallucination” coin: Yes, hallucination is a perfectly valid explanation that satisfies Occam’s razor, but it’s not Thomas’s reality, and that’s what matters in the story. For Thomas, Gerald is real; for the other characters in the story, Thomas is unwell. Thomas leaves with Gerald at the end, but I couldn’t tell you what the hospital orderlies find in his room in the morning.
You explore both fantasy and science fiction and have an intricate sense of worldbuilding. What would you say is the hardest part of crafting a new world for readers to explore?
The only purely new world I’ve created is in the Tandemstar books, where I’m building an entire planet. And that has been hard. I’ve decided I want to care about the political landscape of different countries, and what their religions are like, and their economies and everything, so what I’ve been trying to do was build out a story that crosses continents (so I can worldbuild on each continent) and that spans multiple books. I think the first series will end up being five books in total, only two of which are completed right now.
The worldbuilding in my fantasy books has been much easier by comparison. The Immortal books are arguably alternative history books, because the “fantasy” characters all exist in this world . . . we just don’t know about them. (I essentially took a bunch of creatures that would exist in a story with magic and took out the magic.) My biggest challenge there has been figuring out how to fit in my immortal narrator—Adam—with our actual historical record, plausibly. That’s been a lot of fun, because Adam is a cool guy to hang out with, despite his obvious drinking problem.
What’s next for Gene Doucette? What can eager readers look forward to in 2021?
The Apocalypse Seven will be available at the end of May! It’s my second book with the publisher (which is John Joseph Adams Books, and also Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and also Mariner Books) and I’m very excited about it.
I’m also planning to have the third Tandemstar book—The Ocean in the Sky—out by the end of 2021, possibly as soon as late July. I’m working on it now, so “by the end of 2021” should be a slam-dunk, except that a film project has jumped the line recently that’s been taking up a lot of my bandwidth. I can’t talk about that particular project right now, but I’m excited about that too.
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