What was the inspiration behind telling “Francisca Montoya’s Almanac of Things That Can Kill You” through the form of an almanac?
My friend Pancha loves to read about plagues, natural disasters, and historical events like the Donner Party—basically, anything about extreme survival situations. We always joke that she’d be the best person to have on hand in a global-scale disaster, because she knows all the ways people can die. But she also has severe fibromyalgia. I wanted to write about a character like that surviving in a post-apocalyptic world through knowledge and common sense rather than physical strength. And obviously the most valuable thing such a character could contribute to the world would be a reference guide to all the things that can kill you.
When I was writing the story, I interviewed Pancha about the dangers that would most concern her in such a situation. I did my own medical research too, but I used a lot of her ideas because they were so perfect for the character. “Don’t get poo in your mouth” is a direct Pancha quote.
We get a lot of Francisca’s story and information about the world in which she lives through the anecdotes found in the explanations of things that can kill you. What was your plan for dividing between Francisca’s story and Francisca’s explanations of what can kill you?
I wanted to reveal the situation in Francisca’s world gradually, through the entries, but I also wanted to keep the focus on the character and leave a lot of details up to the imagination. I’d recently read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and I liked that the social collapse in that novel is deftly sketched in but never overwhelms the central story, which is focused on a small group of characters. Readers who are really into worldbuilding may not be into it, but I wanted this story to be primarily about the narrative voice.
There’s a large world going on behind the scenes of this story, and we get small details about Francisca’s past life, and maybe even a few happy times that she has had in this desolate world. What were the most important details for you to get across in this story? Why have Francisca focus mainly on the bad and things that can kill you rather than reflect on a few extra joyful moments from her life?
It’s partly that she lives in a very grim world, and partly that she’s a natural pessimist. Or maybe just a pragmatist. Even in a functioning society, she’d probably spend a lot of time thinking about things that can kill you.
I don’t usually write fiction this dark. I never thought I’d write a post-apocalyptic story, as it’s one of the science fiction genres I find least interesting, but the image of a woman knitting (with acrylic wool) on the front porch of a trading post in a ruined California appealed to me.
What can we expect next from you?
I’m always drawing comics. My strip Skin Horse (skin-horse.com), which I do with cowriter Jeffrey Wells, updates daily, and every week I adapt an X-Files episode into comic form in Monster of the Week (shaenon.com/monsteroftheweek). I don’t know what my next prose publication will be, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed for at least one of the stories I have out in the ether right now.
Spread the word!