Opening the story as a conversation kind of takes the place of a third person limited narrator in many ways. What are the advantages and challenges of this technique, and how did you deal with them?
I wanted this story to take place over a great deal of time—the evolution of a whole neighborhood, and, of course, of a being, as well. I was looking for a way to do this economically, in a way that would give the story a strong voice. I also needed to be able to reveal and conceal certain facts from the reader: Giving the story this form let me do that. I’ve used the conversation/interview format elsewhere, and I love the way it helps conceal the essential unreliability of a narrator and allows for some very fun manipulations of time. I felt it was right for this story.
Among many things in this story, there’s poignant reflection on death and the various things it can mean to an individual, which feels very real in moments—was this the intention from the beginning? How did the story start for you: What was the inspiration and how did it develop?
I’ve lived outside of the United States for almost half of my life. Starting in 2003, in fact, I’ve only been back in the United States for about three years. The rest of the time has been overseas: in Turkmenistan, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and then in Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan working in development assistance. I joined the Foreign Service in 2010, and since then have done tours in Vietnam, Kyrgyzstan again, Azerbaijan—and now Kosovo, where I’ll be before this hits print, event though at this moment I am in Arlington, Virginia finishing up training.
When I’m back in the U.S., I’ve consistently lived in the same neighborhood—Rosslyn, which is in Arlington County, just outside of D.C. It’s where the Foreign Service generally houses us during training. And every time I come back, which is usually at two- or three-year intervals, something else has disappeared. This last time, they ripped down a beautiful little 1950s fire station—the actual Fire Station 10 of the title. It was a shock: It was such a classic building, I was sure they would preserve it, but nothing is sacred around here. I love architecture—in fact, I’ve often said I would be an architect if I hadn’t settled on writing. The demolition made me furious, actually—and that was what inspired this story.
Besides having emotionally resonant moments, there’s also a lot of attention to lines and words/word choice, to sounds, language, imagery matching the mood of a moment or a paragraph. I’m guessing a lot of this is your background in poetry? Can you talk a bit about the power of these elements in fiction, or about the way you use them?
I will draft and re-draft a story until I am satisfied with every word. I often start a new day of writing by editing the story from the beginning. By the time I finish a first draft, it is often, technically, a thirtieth or fortieth draft.
This slows me down, but it ensures I am happy with what I’ve built, in the end. Maybe this is the architect in me. I do it for myself, and I also do it out of respect for the reader. I want to build a world for them to live in. This is something I’ve talked about elsewhere, in an interview for Asimov’s, but it bears repeating: I started writing because I wanted to create worlds to live in for myself and for my friends, growing up in a boring little nowhere town. That’s always remained my aim—to create worlds for my friends, and I view readers as my friends and confidants. I want to transport them.
Writing poetry at the professional level has taught me a great deal about how to do this. I read a good deal of poetry as well. It’s like going back to the well—poetry hits a part of the creative brain that nothing else can quite touch.
I feel like this piece is tackling a lot (although it all works together!): the notion of artificial sentience; ideas around self/other and philosophies on how to interact with “the other”; ideas on individuals “helping” but really on their own sort of crusade; notions around government and rights; the habit humans have of centering everything on themselves, including existence; all while dappling the setting with SFnal futuristic sparkles. I mean . . . frankly, at the hands of most writers, it would be a mess. But it really comes together well. How do you keep all these ideas and aspects sharp, important, and . . . make them work together?
You know, maybe the reason it all works (I hope it does work) is that I viewed it all as a single whole, rather than disparate parts. For me, this is a story about respect for life in all and any of its forms—about preservation and mercy and mutual understanding across difference, all of which form, for me, a single coherent whole. I hope that is what comes across.
A lot of the story, especially in the late second and third conversations, reminds me somehow of aging/older folks. There’s this feeling of displacement, perhaps even of abandonment, of late-stage transition. But also of continuation regardless of these circumstances (which speaks enormously to sense of character, in my opinion). Is this intentional? Can you speak a bit about this?
I think what I wanted to communicate is a sense of resolve—the resolve to find ways forward through the difficulties the world presents: ways forward that affirm our connection to one another, and affirm a common “humanity”—one not limited to the human. Maybe this is something I’ve come to see as central to life.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about this story?
I wrote a short poem, “Last Home,” years ago, about the demolitions in Rosslyn, and I think it makes a good companion piece to this one, so here it is:
A dingy clapboard house,
Sunburned lawn and scattered brick.
One Monday passes, and even
Shattered wood and split concrete are gone.
Nothing was special about this house,
Having never had a chance
To accrue a history
Beyond the lost toys seeded in the grass.
It is better this way. Where there was once
Wallpaper scabs and personal weeds,
We erect a shield of mirrored glass.
Even pride is stripped clean
From this new muteness
The poem “Last Home” is based on this passage, verse 150, from The Dhammapada:
Of bones the city is made.
Plastered with flesh and blood,
Where decay and death are deposited
And pride and hypocrisy.
Science fiction, sometimes, is about literalizing metaphors. In the Dhammapada, the “city” is the human body. But I thought: What if the city, here used as metaphor, were, in fact, the city?
Looking at your website raynayler.net, you have a lot of short fiction, both out and coming out. Are there themes you often deal with, or styles you often use in your stories? Is this piece similar or different to the rest of your body of work?
I think there is a general sensibility that has run through my work since I started writing, way back in elementary school. I wouldn’t exactly call it a theme, and I’m not even sure I would want to name it, but it is there throughout.
There is probably a core style as well, though I feel I write “story first,” in the sense that I will alter style to fit a theme or story. I’m often more interested in “voice” than “style” per se.
Are you working on a book or do you prefer shorter form?
I’m always several stories ahead of what is being published now, I’ll say that. I don’t only write in the short form, though—I also published a novel, American Graveyards, years ago, when I was writing in the noir/hardboiled genres. As to current projects: I never talk about them. I’m too superstitious.
For readers who loved this story and have become Nayler fans, what should they read next?
Good question! I think people who liked this one, and are interested in questions of consciousness, would enjoy “The Ocean Between the Leaves,” “Winter Timeshare,” or “A Threnody for Hazan”—but I’m not partial to any one of my stories. There are a lot of them, across genres, up at my website. That would be a great place to start.
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