What was the spark for “Solder and Seam”?
I wrote this as a birthday present for China Miéville, and as it was a gift, I put bunch of his favorite things into the story—revolution, cephalopods, etc. If we’re talking sparks, this story is kind of in conversation with China’s brain. His brain lights mine up daily. Some of the best things I’ve ever written have come from discussions we’ve had. He challenges me to work in forms I hadn’t thought of working in, and to use things I’d thought were too difficult to use. It’s a huge gift to have a collaborator like him. It’s so easy to relax into writing only about things you already know, rather than going foraging for new scraps of material, experimental styles and new takes. Aside from that, I’ve noticed that I’m revising American mythology in everything I write lately, and this is no exception. This is an American apocalypse story, but one with a big switch at the center, in terms of whose apocalypse we’re talking about. The story about building a boat in a field is something that recurs, not just in America, of course, but the idea of a corn or wheat field with a wooden whale in the middle of it pleased me. Though I’m not religious, I consider the Bible to be part of the wealth of stories in the world, and I grabbed from some things, in the way I grab from all folklore and myth. Our protagonist isn’t Noah, but he’s a version on that theme. Everything from the Bible to Cormac McCarthy to the Russian Revolution to—obviously—extraterrestrials slunk its way into this. Not unusual for that to be the case in my writing, but this one really felt like a braiding of several kinds of narrative into one. It ended up being a kind of Biblical folktale about toxic colonization and gluttonous hierarchy.
Oh! And I read an article a couple years ago about an FBI most wanted mob criminal from Boston who fled to Idaho and pretended to be a farmer for twenty years. He happened to have hidden in the tiny, tiny town I came from, so I was definitely thinking about that guy too. Everyone quoted in the article who was from Marsing was like, “Well, he wasn’t a good farmer, but he did have a really interesting collection of guns.” They’d just taken him at his word. Why not an alien fleeing a failed revolution on his home planet and posing as human in farm country? Seems plausible to me.
You said it was written in a fever state—did you see a difference in the final story, whether in voice, theme, or other aspect? Were you more reluctant to edit it, since I am guessing you couldn’t recreate that state at will?
The final story is, by and large, what I wrote that first night. It had clarifications and a few structural shifts, but the fever state served me well. Once that’s on the page, I can go back in and get the voice back pretty easily, actually, so this wasn’t a problem edit-wise. I actually loved going back into the story to edit, because it was fun to revisit the voice, which in this case is quite stylistically plainspoken in the Earth segments, more rococo in the off-Earth sections. It’s a pleasure for me, generally, to go back to something I wrote in a swift flow and see if I can then make it make sense without busting its rhythm. It’s almost like singing a song you haven’t sung in a while. You still have the melody.
You refer to the protagonist as a man at the start of the story, but in the end, he is revealed as alien. The ending had me going back to the beginning of the story to understand why I had considered him human from the start. What are your thoughts on this approach? Was it misdirection? Was it an unreliable narrator? Third person not-omniscient? Because he was in disguise as human?
Well, it was very much on purpose, and I did some things to make a reader feel that way, so I guess my thoughts are that I like stories in which we don’t understand everything about someone just because of the category we might put that someone in. I figure aliens don’t refer to themselves as aliens. The context of that word is all about the human POV. In the context of this man’s life, he’s a man, on Earth, with a history that is neither thing. Obviously, yeah, I wanted the reader to see him as human until we learn he’s not. It’s part of the structure of the story, the surprise that the POV we’re in, which we understand to be a probably white middle-aged human man building a boat, is actually a much more experienced and diverse narrator speaking of himself honestly but measuredly. I’m interested always in perceptions of who the aliens and monsters actually are. I write literal aliens and literal monsters, but in this story, the aliens are the humans.
You have such a fascinating background, and as I reread this story, I found myself thinking, “Oh, that came from her maritime experience; that’s from her theater work.” But what of growing up on a survivalist dog-sled ranch in Idaho? Where has that played into your work?
Ha! I forget that people know things about my history from all these other interviews! I guess it looks a little wild and wooly, from outside my skull. To me, my personal history is this great heap of possible scraps to draw on, and I happen to have a personal history that’s been a bit all over the map. My experience is all over everything I write. Anytime I write about being in the country, it’s directly from my childhood. Anytime I write about animals, dogs, cats, also directly from my childhood. Tigers, even—big ferocious farm cats! Cornfields and wheat fields, silos, big expanse of country around—all that’s directly from Idaho. I haven’t written much about the sled dog thing, but this is also a bit about survivalists, because the people left on Earth in this story? That’s what they are. They’re waiting for the end, in whatever fashion, and much of the population has fled to the skies. That said, I’m working on something right now, a fantastical memoir piece, kind of, which has a lot about my childhood in it. It’s fantastical because it felt that way, growing up in it. There was no clear version of what was magic and what was nature. It was all one for me growing up. Maybe it still is.
Did you ever consider a different ending?
Nope, the ending of the story was always there. This is, at its heart, a story about starting over, and I needed there to be a remaining world in which that could happen. Also, I totally like submarines. I like the notion of diving into the future, in the same way, elsewhere in the story, spaceships go up to create a future elsewhere. This is also a political story about the badness of colonization. So . . . who knows what’s underneath? The squid and the whale dive, but are they going to an uninhabited place? We don’t know. Is it a happy ending? Again, we don’t know. But the two people from elsewhere are traveling together into another foreign place.
Whose writing has really moved you in the past year?
I’m currently madly in love with the Scottish writer Ali Smith. I started with Artful, went to How to be Both and The Accidental, and now I’m reading Hotel World. She has a blistering capacity with multiple POVs, and a tremendously encompassing perspective—you’re as likely to find the inner considerations of a bird flying by and a piece of trash blowing in the wind as you are one of the characters—who may in fact at that moment be either of those things. Her books are full of roaming ghosts (literal ghosts), and manage to also aggressively take on all kinds of theory, while never feeling as though they’ve tilted into non-story. There’s a section in The Accidental, for example, from the POV of a character who is a lit professor. His inner monologue becomes increasingly labored sonnets. I fucking love it when a prose writer suddenly shifts forms. I like dialogue rendered in play format, song lyrics filled with the character’s considerations, anything like that. It’s a pleasure to see stylistic virtuosity when it comes to form. That’s the writing that really fills me up. Non-naturalistic writers generally make me happy—I think the only way to successfully depict nature is to dip into the surreal. Every brain is full of scatter. I love it when I see it on the page. We are not reliable narrators, as humans. I’m interested in the concept of a trustworthy narrative, because I don’t think that’s a real thing, so I quite like it when a plainspoken, seemingly trustworthy character is revealed to be telling a story that is untrue. It’s good reading.
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