What was the inspiration for “Quiet Town”?
In 1986, when I was seven years old, a volcano called Mt. Augustine erupted. It was nearly two hundred miles away from Anchorage, Alaska, where I lived, but we wore protective masks when we went outside, and ash fell like snow for a little while. Volcanoes were pretty exciting stuff to a kid like me. I remember seeing a documentary, or maybe just a TV news story, about the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980, when I was too young to know it had happened. I looked forward to seeing the mountain explode, and I was really surprised when they told the story of Harry Truman, the veteran who refused to leave the mountain, and who died when it blew. I suppose since then I’ve always been curious about people who stay when others go, who dig their heels in while the rest grab their things and run. “Quiet Town” is the first time I’ve explored the idea in fiction, I think.
The space in a short story is so compressed — can you talk about the choices you had to make in terms of what to leave in, what to leave out?
In the case of “Quiet Town,” I left almost everything out. The story takes place over just a few minutes one afternoon, though it tiptoes lightly into the past via some brief flashbacks. There are plenty of stories in the world about cataclysmic climate change; I wanted instead to capture a single moment — that painful, dreadful moment when someone realizes that they’ve been very, very wrong, and that it’s going to cost them immeasurably. Anything that wouldn’t serve that moment was left out of the story.
How does “Quiet Town” reflect larger themes present in your work?
I suppose I tend to think of myself as a quiet writer, meaning that when given the opportunity to write about something big — like destructive climate change, for example — I’ll usually look inward for the emotional struts that get knocked over by such life-changing events. With so many bombastic, epic destruction stories in our lives — the “disaster porn” of modern cinema a prime example — I often find myself most moved by the portrayal of believable, honest people who are unfortunately living in the shadow of such towering events. This has been a recurring theme for many of my short stories and novels.
Whose science fiction do you reread?
I go back to the novels I love over and over again, and there are many, but two in particular are well-worn: Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Sagan’s Contact. I’ve read them both often enough that I’ll just pick them up and open them at random. I always find something new in them, and even if I don’t, the atmosphere of both books recharges me. I strive to write characters as curious as Sagan’s Eleanor Arroway; I often attempt to recreate the hushed tones of “Rocket Summer” in my work. These are beautiful books that I deeply treasure.
Any news you want to share?
Marvelous news, really — my novel Eleanor, which I self-published in the summer of 2014 after spending fourteen years writing, has been acquired by Crown Publishing. I’m very excited about this, as it means the book has an opportunity to reach readers who might otherwise never have discovered it. The book is likely to be published by Crown in January of 2016; I’m furiously revising a final draft of the novel now.
Spread the word!