In the beginning, with the aspect of disembodied voices, what was the incentive to write from Jennifer’s perspective and not Roger’s?
If I can pinpoint any “beginning” for this story, it would be the disembodied voices. It was an idea that came to me years ago, when I was first living alone in an apartment and would sometimes hear my neighbors through the walls. I think at one point I actually heard something that sounded like a dropped casserole dish. But at the time, I figured it would be a ghost story, so clearly there was a dramatic mutation that took place that turned it into a romance instead.
But at every stage, I imagined a protagonist much like myself at the time when I started living alone—a young, single professional in a temporary living space with not many close attachments. I lived alone because I could afford it and because I wasn’t bothered by being alone. But when that happens, “home” becomes a place you go to after work to eat and sleep and watch TV. For the most part, all the interesting things in your life happen elsewhere for the simple fact that there’s rarely anybody else at home with you. Which I suppose is why Jennifer could so easily get over the initial shock of having somebody else in her apartment—she just never had much of a life there to disrupt.
Roger, on the other hand, has a dual nature. There’s one half of him that is like Jennifer. But the other half is living a slightly different life as a restaurant employee who hopes to become a chef. That part of him is probably living on a smaller income, probably sharing housing, working odd hours and living out of sync with the rest of society. He’s just generally forfeiting some comfort today in the hopes of being able to do what he loves tomorrow. So Roger’s story, I suppose, would be about those two halves confronting each other, and making some sense out of each other. Meanwhile, Jennifer’s story is simpler and more like my own.
In the creation of “Water Finds Its Level,” what came first: the relationship, the voices, or the Collision? Without the Collision, and the ability to see what Roger could have been, do you think that Jennifer would have met and fallen for her world’s version of Roger?
The voices came first, and then the explanation for the voices. As I said, I first thought they’d be ghosts of some sort. Then I realized they might just be from another world—then I figured I might as well collapse that world onto ours and see what happened. The relationship was a result of that.
Personally, I think the relationship was one of convenience, and I’m not sure it was ever built to last. As young people, we get thrown together with all kinds of people and make a lot of connections that may or may not be meaningful in the long-term—college roommates and classmates, co-workers, neighbors. But we’re also transient at that point in our lives, and all it takes is a move to a new apartment or a new job to sever a lot of the connections we thought were important.
Ultimately, Jennifer and Roger don’t do much to actively make their relationship work. It’s kind of thrust upon them by physics—they need to find a way to deal with the fact that they both occupy the same space. They can either be friends, or hang up sheets to hide each other from view. They obviously like each other and get along, but would they ever have gotten together if they hadn’t been put in that position? I doubt it—and I think that’s why it doesn’t last in the end.
The scientists explain the Collision with “water finds its level,” and then—even though she admits she doesn’t quite understand the phrase—Jennifer uses it. As the creator of this story, what do you think “water finds its level” means?
It means that humans eventually accept things the way they are and learn to live with them. There may be temporary interruptions where everything seems unsettled and confusing, but we always find some settled state in the end.
It doesn’t mean that the new state will necessarily be better or worse—the new level of the water could be so low that it leaves your well dry, or so high that [it] covers the roof of your house. It just means that after the uncertainty and flood is over, there will be a new reality and a new level, and we as humans will find a way to adapt to it.
I never used that phrase before this story, but it’s an idea that I’ve repeated to myself many times in moments of stress. It’s just a reminder to myself that I will inevitably find a way to cope, even if I don’t know exactly how I’ll do that at the moment.
How would you react if the merging in “Water Finds Its Level” came into fruition—would you prefer to share reality with a complete stranger, a duplicate, or a counterpoint to yourself?
This is another way that Jennifer is like me—I’d rather not meet another version of myself. I’m not even sure I can explain why. I think it’s because we only have one chance to go through life, and I’m very happy with where my life has led me. But seeing another version of my own life would just be a reminder that nobody can ever do it all—that we all have to leave big parts of our potential untouched. That would be a hard lesson to be faced with.
Machine of Death was a huge hit on Amazon. Its sequel, This Is How You Die, will be published soon. Is there anything you would like your readers to know regarding your upcoming projects?
This Is How You Die is being published by Grand Central Publishing, and will be launched at San Diego Comic-Con in July, and then will be available in all the usual places you buy books. I won’t be there, but my co-editor David Malki will be doing some fun stuff at Comic-Con. He goes overboard with everything. I’m not sure at this time whether Ryan North will be there too.
We were happy to partner with Grand Central Publishing, since it means the sequel will be able to be sold in bookstores. We tried to go that route ourselves with the first book, and barely made it out alive. (There’s still a warehouse full of thousands of copies of the book, so if anybody is interested please get in touch!) We decided not to repeat that experiment without the help of a publisher.
Meanwhile, Grand Central Publishing was obviously interested in how the first book got to be a success. We were able to convince them to let us release about 25% of the book for free—anybody can read those stories without paying a dime. Back in March, David did a Kickstarter for a Machine of Death storytelling card game that he created, and most of the free stories were released as part of that. They’ll be collected and posted in some convenient format, but for now you can find them at https://kck.st/X84Ryq.
And, of course, look for the other 75% of This Is How You Die (which is just as good!) in July.
[Editor’s Note: In July, Lightspeed will be publishing Ryan North’s story from This Is How You Die, “Cancer.”]
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