Cadwell Turnbull is a graduate from North Carolina State University’s Creative Writing MFA in Fiction and English MA in Linguistics. He attended Clarion West 2016. Turnbull’s short fiction has appeared in The Verge, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and Asimov’s Science Fiction. His short story “Loneliness is in Your Blood” was selected for The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2018. His novelette “Other Worlds and This One” was also selected as notable story for the anthology. The Lesson is his debut novel.
Congratulations on your debut novel! What’s it like having your first book out there in the world?
Well, it isn’t out there yet, but I imagine it will be a surreal experience. Right now, responses to the novel have been trickling in and they’ve been mostly positive. That has been very validating as a writer. I tend to look at my work and see all the things wrong and how far I still have to go at developing my craft, but the responses so far have forced me to take more pride in where I am instead of just pushing the bar up even further. I mean, that’ll happen inevitably, but it feels good to bask in the moment.
I also feel very vulnerable. This is a novel rooted in place and so much of it is personal. I know all writers must feel this way, but it truly is an extension of myself and it feels like I’m putting it out there to be poked and prodded. On one hand, that’s terrifying, but on the other hand, it feels like a deep and valuable connection I’m sharing with anyone that reads the book. I think that connection is worth the anxiety that comes with it.
In The Lesson, super-advanced aliens called the Ynaa have landed in St. Thomas. For the most part, they’re benevolent, but their violent and deadly outbursts against the Virgin Islanders have strained their relationship. And when a young boy dies at the hand of an Ynaa, well, things really go south for the three families at the center of the conflict. How did the premise come together for you?
There are so many smaller answers to this question. Writing feels like alchemy—a bunch of elements coming together, transformed by each addition—and so much of it is blind searching. It is hard to retrace steps.
I can say that the germ of the idea came from a dream I had. The dream was about aliens that had integrated into our society. They looked exactly like us but responded to threats with extreme brutality. Of course, there are tons of parallels to this in our world, but I didn’t think about that at the time. I just thought it was cool. The critique of power and commentary on colonialism came much later; the original dream wasn’t set in the Virgin Islands at all.
The first story I wrote pulled together some of these themes, but not all of them. In graduate school, I wrote what eventually became Derrick’s chapter “Let Them Talk.” It was different then, but had the cultural context and the beginnings of the colonialism parallel. I liked the world, so I wrote more stories in it. It was my MFA advisors who told me that it was a novel (something I resisted for a while). It became increasingly difficult to ignore that there was a bigger story there; it just kept coming to me.
The chapter about Lee, Derrick’s sister, was also an important chapter in the story. From her chapter, I started thinking about her classmate, Tony, and his family, and that opened another room. It was all like that, rooms opening up, me going inside them, looking around, finding something interesting there. Each room revealed something about the characters but also something about the larger ideas I was trying to understand (that I’m still grasping at, to be honest).
Your short story “A Third of the Stars of Heaven,” which came out in Lightspeed in 2017 (lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/third-stars-heaven), appears as a chapter in the novel. Did the idea for the novel come first, making this story an exploration of the world you were building? Or did the short story come first and you decided to expand it into the novel?
That story came pretty late, but it was one that stood alone the best. I’d still not finished the novel but had dreams of doing so. By then, I knew it was part of something larger, but like I said before, that wasn’t always true. I approach a lot of work this way, breaking off pieces of something I suspect might be larger, but I’m not completely sure what that larger thing will look like.
The main characters in the short story are named Henrietta and Octavia. Are they nods to Henrietta Lacks and Octavia Butler?
Yes, absolutely. I learned about Henrietta Lacks while listening to an episode of Radiolab. The podcast told the story of an African American woman who died in 1951 of cervical cancer. They found out after her death that her tumor cells could reproduce and survive outside the body. Her cells went on to contribute to many major discoveries in modern medicine, but her identity had been obscured until very recently. It is a heartbreaking story, unsettling and complex. When doing research for the novel, I bought the book the podcast was based on: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy was a recommendation from my MFA professor and veteran speculative writer, John Kessel. He saw some parallels to her work in my novel and told me I should read the series right away. I learned that there were a lot of thematic and story parallels between that series and my novel. At first, I thought those similarities meant I had to go in another direction with the novel, but Kessel encouraged me to lean into the connections, honor them, and so I did. It became important to me to recognize that The Lesson was in the same tradition as Butler’s novels.
Naming those characters Henrietta and Octavia served two purposes: It honored the two black women that contributed such a significant part of the spirit of the novel, but it also foreshadowed important plot points in the book. If you get the references, you know where the story is heading.
Aha! I definitely got the Butler vibes and see why your novel is compared to her work. The Lesson has also been compared to Ursula K. Le Guin’s work. How has their work (or which of their works) inspired your novel?
Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy (or Lilith’s Brood), as I’ve said, is a direct inspiration. Butler’s work is just brilliant, and those books have become some of my favorite works of science fiction. I’ve since read many short stories from her and they are some of the best pieces of fiction I’ve ever read.
Everything Le Guin has written has inspired me, in direct and indirect ways. My anthropological approach comes from Le Guin. I like looking at how events or revelations affect culture. I’m more Earth-bound in my own work, but the same impulse is there. Another thing that comes from Le Guin is the empathy I try to apply to all my characters. This is something I learned from reading her work. Every Le Guin novel or story I’ve read is filled with complex characters that she explores with tender care. My favorite novel from her, The Dispossessed, has a protagonist that is deeply flawed, but also beautifully rendered and sympathetic. He feels like a full human. I wanted, with this book, to create characters that felt fully human, no matter their decisions, no matter their background. Whether or not I succeeded is one thing, but that striving comes directly from reading Le Guin.
I just want to add something here, too: These authors are very well known among speculative writers. But for me, where I was from, reading them was like entering a whole new universe. These authors weren’t presented to me growing up in the Virgin Islands, so finding their work felt like true discovery, life-changing, reality-forming. I’m grateful I found them when I did. It feels like luck to me.
What are some of your favorite first-contact stories and why? (They can be novels, short stories, TV series, comics, films, etc.)
“The Matter of Seggri” by Ursula Le Guin. It is about an isolated planet that’s not ours. The inhabitants meet representatives from a federation of worlds for the first time. The story takes place over centuries, exploring how the society of that planet changes. Some of that change may have happened anyway, but it is interesting to see how an alien presence may have influenced some of that change. I’m speaking vaguely about it because I really don’t want to spoil it. That story is a thing of beauty that everyone should read.
Annihilation (novel and film) also comes to mind. The strangeness of meeting something alien is captured so well in both the novel and the adaptation, though they are very different.
Stargate SG-1 is filled with first contacts, and I love them all. I also love the show’s spin-offs (and the original movie that kicked it all off). Stargate was more formative to me as a teenage kid than either Star Trek or Star Wars. I have critiques of the militarism of Stargate, but I still love that show and will watch reruns of my favorite episodes whenever I can.
Liu Cixin’s The Remembrance of Earth’s Past Trilogy has to be on this list. It is an immensely ambitious work and it pulls off so much of what it sets out to do. Plus, the concept of the dark forest is impossible to forget and not be disturbed by. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ll just have to read the series. I can’t spoil that for anyone.
Oh, and District 9! And Attack the Block! I’m missing things, I’m sure, but I’ll stop there.
Reading The Lesson, I realized this may be the first time I’ve read a first-contact story that takes place in the Caribbean. Tell us why you wanted to set the novel in St. Thomas.
I had to. So often, the assumption is that aliens would be interested in the US mainland or some other supposed center of the world. I wanted a story with aliens that arrived in the place that was the center of my world for so long. I justified it in a number of ways, but the desire came first.
Dominant-culture first-contact stories aren’t really interested in drawing parallels to our own history of oppression. We don’t see a liberation of people of color from the vestiges of colonialism after the aliens are defeated. When we beat back the aliens in those stories, the lesson is that we are all in this together; we’re supposed to focus on our common humanity. But no time is spent exploring exactly what that means for the people that have been subjugated by human empire.
I imagine when the natives of what would become the US Virgin Islands first saw Spanish ships on the horizon, they would feel a similar sense of dread as when the Ynaa arrive in the novel. Similarly, the peoples of the west African coast have a lot more to say about first contact than the dominant cultures we typically get these stories from. The Caribbean is built on colonialism, so that history immediately comes to bear when aliens show up. Being the playground of empire for so long, an invasion in the Caribbean prepares a different discussion—not of human triumph, but of cycles of violence and extraction and the collective toll it takes on people that are used to picking up the pieces of themselves afterward.
One of your main characters, Derrick, says that the Ynaa “arrived” to St. Thomas rather than saying they “invaded” like the other Virgin Islanders do. But since you include portions of the island’s history in the novel, it seems like the arrival of any life form is actually an occupation.
Derrick has been taught by popular media to see aliens as either openly aggressive or comfortably benevolent. He interprets the Ynaa presence through this lens and doesn’t really learn that this is a mistake until later in the novel.
The Ynaa presence doesn’t look like invasion. They don’t plant a flag and they have no intention of taking over. But their cultural disposition, along with their presence, creates conflict. They don’t watch their feet, which is typical of beings with superiority complexes. They have not teased out any of the implications of their mere presence in the Virgin Islands.
Derrick is young, so he doesn’t quite figure out the problem here, either. He spends most of the novel confused by the incongruity between the Ynaa’s stated intentions and the actual outcomes of their presence.
Entering any new space with a power imbalance in your favor is an act of invasion, and staying there even when your presence creates conflict is occupation. It is worse when you’re not even trying to reckon with that reality. This is true of the Ynaa. Derrick is caught up in an intent versus reality debate in his own mind. He says they arrive, but if you read his actions throughout the novel, it is clear that on some level he knows that is a self-justification for wanting to be near the Ynaa. He wants their presence there to have metaphysical meaning. He is constantly disappointed that they don’t meet that expectation.
There’s the through-line of the alien occupation being compared to the history of colonialism on St. Thomas. Would you also say that the hurricanes, especially Hurricane Irma, would count as an occupation on par with the Ynaa’s?
This is a wonderful observation and comparison. The Ynaa do, in fact, act like a hurricane. They arrive, cause devastation, and then leave. The results are similar, too. The Virgin Islands are left picking up the pieces. I had not considered that parallel while writing, but I think it is something that exists in the consciousness of anyone from the Caribbean used to living through hurricane seasons.
In your Nightmare Magazine essay “A Conspiracy of Monsters” (bit.ly/2L4hXye), you write about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and how the writing in both shows overlooks the connection between the presence of monsters in the human world and power. Did you have this in mind—monstrosity coupled with power—while writing about the Ynaa in St. Thomas?
Yes. The Ynaa have convinced themselves that monstrosity is a protective measure. Worse is that it has been proven so effective so far in their existence. Ruthlessness has also rewarded our own superpowers. But this behavior also perpetuates conflict. I don’t know if the Ynaa will ever learn that. So far, they’ve remained on top, so they’ll justify their ideology for as long as it will work. I don’t know if we’ll learn either.
You also wrote in that essay that the presence of something monstrous in St. Thomas would be overlooked by the media—mostly media from the US mainland—because of the island’s population of 50,000 mostly Black Americans. Do you think this would be the case if first contact were to happen there?
Yes, or downplayed, especially if it benefits the powers that be. I am sure the United States would be trying to figure out how defeat an alien threat, but they wouldn’t act on it for as long as the violence stays contained in the US Virgin Islands.
I just recently went back home and saw that the local junior high school I went to has been closed down. The junior high is currently sharing facilities with the local high school I graduated from. They built modular units on the high school’s sports field to house the influx of students, which of course upset the high school students since that’s where many of their extracurriculars take place. The Virgin Islands is still recovering from Hurricanes Irma and Maria, but throughout the process, I haven’t heard any news beyond what I gather from local newspapers. While Hurricane Irma was bombarding St. Thomas, all the news I got from the mainland was about the upcoming landfall in Florida. It was like we weren’t even American citizens.
The Ynaa themselves would be very interesting to the rest of the world. But us? I’m afraid we’d be a footnote in our own story.
Let’s talk about the main Ynaa character, Mera. She’s an ambassador conducting research on St. Thomas. She’s set up as an outsider not only among the humans but also among her fellow Ynaa, because she’s been among humans for hundreds of Earth years during what appears to be most of St. Thomas’s history. How did you come up with her character and why did you feel it was important to make her a double outsider?
Mera came out of the dream I mentioned. She was my very first real character. Everyone else came later. Of course, she changed along the way as the circumstances of the novel became clearer.
In several Le Guin stories, there are characters, typically envoys from her federation of worlds, that make contact with the natives of an isolated world. Their goal is often to learn how best to incorporate them into the federation (called the Ekumen in some of Le Guin’s novels and stories). These are peaceful missions, and so only a couple representatives at a time are sent to these worlds. These missions are also dangerous, since sometimes the natives will respond with hostility for their own political or ideological reasons. But often something else happens, too; the representatives find themselves altered by the society they enter into and they become double outsiders, tied to this new world they’ve come to love, but also still connected to the world(s) and concerns they’ve left behind. Sometimes they will spend the rest of their lives on these new worlds.
Mera isn’t on a diplomatic mission. Her objective is research. But when her research bears fruit, she is thrust into that role. The Ynaa are not as considerate as the Ekumen, so she finds herself in the middle, unable to act too aggressively in defense of the humans, but also unable to connect to her own society. For most of the novel, she stays in that middle space, until she is jarred out of it by circumstances outside of her control.
I find that I am attracted to these kinds of characters because of my own lived experience. Growing up in the Virgin Islands but getting my college education in the States, I’ve spent the last decade jumping between very different cultural experiences and feel like that has placed me in a similar middle space. I often feel like a double outsider. My idea of what is familiar keeps shifting, and I find that I’m constantly trying to bring together these very different experiences. Like Mera, I learn and make choices, but it only shifts my outsideness; it doesn’t make it disappear.
Mera and the other Ynaa have these smart cells called reefs, which are really cool—and equally terrifying—as biotechnology. The Ynaa can command them to do what they want, and they’re transferrable between species. Where did the idea for reefs come from?
The reefs act like a contagion able to hack other systems on a microscopic level. Some of that may have been inspired by the Replicators in Stargate SG-1. They’re self-replicating machines that build themselves from technology they come in contact with.
Some of the idea was inspired by cancer and how it spreads throughout the body. Viruses were also an obvious inspiration. My biggest inspiration, however, were mollusks. Inside of the body, the reefs act like smart-cells with hacking capabilities, but outside of the body, they act more like smart-shells able to construct large-scale structures. I loved the idea of a multipurpose piece of technology that forms the building blocks of the entire Ynaa civilization. It’s simple, but the implications are far-reaching.
In one of the meta moments of the novel, Tony’s brother, Shawn, is initially stoked about the Ynaa and thinks there would be movies made about this historical moment. In fact, he thinks, “They would have to make a whole new genre.” Do you see The Lesson as a book that’s starting a new genre? And if so, what would it be?
I think The Lesson fits pretty snugly in the first contact tradition, but I’d be just as stoked as Shawn if I lived in the universe of the novel. For a little while anyway.
While we’re on the topic of genre, what’s your take on the tired literary fiction vs. speculative fiction argument? Is it even worth having anymore? One of the characters, Jackson, teaches post-invasion fiction at the University of the Virgin Islands, and there’s this part about how the literary community is struggling to keep up with the distinctions between conventional and speculative fiction because of the fiction that references the Ynaa invasion.
I’m sort of low-key praying something truly speculative happens in our world so that this debate can die. An invasion would do it, but I won’t wish that on us. I’m just saying some of these separations are already quite arbitrary (see: conversations around magical realism), but they could get even more arbitrary with the creation of sentient AI or the discovery of extraterrestrial life. What would we call novels on those subjects then?
We can’t end our conversation about The Lesson without mentioning that it’s been optioned by AMC. So cool that your first published novel is getting this kind of attention! What was your reaction when you found out?
Mostly disbelief. I’m still pretty much in that mode. I really hope it gets made, but I know that’s out of my hands, so I’ve been managing expectations. But it was wonderful to get that news. So much of this experience has been surreal. When I got that news, it was very hard to wrap my head around it. I’d been publishing short stories before this novel, and not many. I was not prepared at all.
What can you tell us about it?
So far, not much. It is in early development. I’ll likely know more later in the year? News trickles in very slowly.
In the meantime, what’s the next writing project or projects you can tell us about?
I’m working on another novel: No Gods, No Monsters. It is due to the publisher in the fall, so I’ve been hustling to get it done. I’ve pitched it as a modern retelling of the civil rights movement but with monsters. There are some standard variety pop-culture monsters in it—werewolves and vampires and magic-users—but there are also some monsters pulled in from Caribbean folklore, too. And gods, of course.
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