Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Nonfiction

Interview: Katie M. Flynn

Katie M. Flynn is a writer, editor, and educator based in San Francisco. Her short fiction has appeared in Colorado Review, Indiana Review, The Masters Review, Ninth Letter, Tin House, Witness Magazine, and many other publications. Katie has been awarded the Colorado Review’s Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction, a fellowship from the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, and the Steinbeck Fellowship in Creative Writing. She holds an MFA from the University of San Francisco and an MA in Geography from UCLA. The Companions is her first novel. Follow her on Twitter @other_katie or visit her website katiemflynn.com.

Congratulations on your debut novel! How does it feel to have The Companions out on bookshelves and virtual shelves?

Thank you! I am experiencing waves of anxiety and excitement. It’s a vulnerable position to be in, having your work out there for public critique for the first time on such a scale. But I’m raising two girls, ages seven and eleven, to whom I dedicated the book, and we are celebrating each stage of the process together. It’s important to me that they see not just the success but to know that I’ve been working toward this for many years now.

In The Companions, California is under quarantine because of a highly contagious virus. Meanwhile, the consciousness of the dead can be uploaded to artificial bodies and kept in service of the living as companions. Wealthy companions can remain with their families, but those who aren’t well off are rented out as intellectual property by Metis Corporation, the company that owns them. Sixteen-year-old Lilac, who’s leased out to a family living in quarantine, discovers she can defy her security programming and runs away to look for the woman who killed her. How did the premise come together for you?

In 2009, I wrote a couple stories about viral outbreaks—I was pretty taken by the notion of a prolonged quarantine and the associated loss of basic human rights. Also that year, I started a story about a scientist working out of his garage who thinks he may have discovered a way to upload his soul, but the story kind of fell apart, as I was unable to decide whether he had in fact succeeded.

It wasn’t until 2013 that I brought the two tropes—quarantine and mind upload—together in a story that would become the first chapter of The Companions, about a teenage girl who is murdered and brought back decades later as a product, a companion living in a quarantined San Francisco where she must entertain a child by telling and retelling the story of her last day alive, until she escapes.

I read The Companions during the coronavirus outbreak, and the parallels of the quarantine scenarios in your novel were uncanny. What’s it like to see it come out after news about the epidemic blew up?

It is concerning to see that the number of reported cases of coronavirus has surged to 75,000 as of the time of this interview, and will no doubt continue to surge for some time. Already, this outbreak has far exceeded the impact of SARS and MERS combined. In our globalized world, these kinds of outbreaks are becoming increasingly difficult to contain, and thus we are seeing more stringent measures being taken in Wuhan, where the city and surrounding areas with some fifty-six million people remain in lockdown, a quarantine of unprecedented scale.

These parallels to my novel, which opens in a San Francisco tower where its inhabitants have been quarantined for more than two years, are unsettling, and unsurprising. What interests me most about outbreaks are the peaks of near hysteria and valleys of near ambivalence that we tend to vacillate between in the weeks and months following these kinds of events. In the book, you see some characters fixated on the news, on knowing, while others avoid it at all costs.

Lilac is the central character, and we get to see the arc of her narrative and the contagion-ravaged world built around the companionship program through her and seven other characters. Which came first for you: the setting or Lilac and the other characters?

While I was playing around with the ideas of quarantine and mind upload years earlier, it wasn’t until 2013 when I discovered Lilac’s voice that I was able to envision the world, to build out its rules. I love voice—it is often my entry point to writing—and I knew that if I were to write about a future technology, the focus would stay squarely on the characters and their experiences as opposed to the tech itself.

The technology that developed companions has redefined or, in Silicon Valley-speak, disrupted death. Companions fall in this liminal intersection of revenant/AI/ghost in hardware, which is why I think some human characters are frightened by or hostile toward them. It can be unnerving when that gray area isn’t easily defined and categorized. And Lilac defying her programming makes matters more complicated.

As a writer, I do love a border region or a liminal intersection. People are often troubled by the way borders create confluence. We like our borders clean and precise, but rarely is that the case. And those who cross borders are often met with fear and hostility. While we see flare-ups of that hostility in The Companions, what I was most interested in highlighting were the connections humans and companions form despite their differences.

When Lilac realizes she can defy her security programming, she sets out to find her murderer, who is by now an old woman living in an eldercare facility in the forests of northern California. As the intellectual property of Metis Corporation, this act is a breach of contract and would result in termination should Lilac be caught. But it is also the most natural act in the world for Lilac, who was sixteen when she was uploaded, to set out on her own. In effect, to follow her own desires is to transgress, but to ignore those desires is to give up living altogether. It is a terrible position I’ve put her in! Much of the tension in the book is derived from this choice to transgress, to live.

Metis Corporation also disrupts the very concept of what it means to live. The consciousness of the dead can be converted to collections of data stored on drives. This source of life extension is an interesting juxtaposition with the virus that’s killing off human populations, especially after we find out the cause of the virus. The technology and those who have access to it imply that there’s a hierarchy of lives worth preserving—the wealthy and a servile product underclass.

Growing up in the consumer era, I have developed a sensitivity to how much of the self is vulnerable to needs manufactured by the cooperation of companies and the ad agencies that represent them. I grew up watching TV, consuming ads and developing yearnings based on those ads, shaping myself around them.

I thought I was so smart when I decided as a young adult never to pay for cable—I’d escape the onslaught of ads and be free to form my own desires. But the Internet had arrived by then. Now those potential needs are seemingly endless—one can get lost in ads delivered by algorithms on social media feeds. Personally, I find the ads on Instagram the most compelling. At some point, I must have clicked on an ad for a beauty treatment, because now it’s all anti-aging products that, in truth, tug out of me all sorts of yearnings I never knew I had. I find myself hovering over creepy glowing LED masks and special waters guaranteed to clear the complexion. I pay particular attention when a beautiful celebrity spokesperson throws their weight behind a product—obviously they know something I don’t.

The best of these products are so expensive that only the wealthiest among us can afford them, or those of us who are willing to go into debt. When building out the world of The Companions, I imagined that, should the technology of mind upload be discovered by a corporation, it would, of course, be turned into a product. A corporation would not care who was uploaded, or at what cost, or whom they served; all that would matter would be whether they had the credit to pay for the transaction. And as in the case of a smartphone or laptop, there are tiered price points: companions with varying processing speeds, the cheapest of which are made of plastic, the most expensive so realistic they can pass for human.

The novel presents the experience of becoming a companion from multiple points of view. In the case of Lilac, she is one of “the originals,” an organ donor uploaded as part of a university research project, on a screen for decades before she is finally given a body. Then, there are the Hollywood-types who use companionship as a way to preserve themselves and extend their careers; a wealthy mother dying of cancer whose daughter is pressuring her to upload; a parent bringing back a child who committed suicide; a woman who uses her life’s savings to upload despite her family’s protests at the cost, who agrees to become the companion to a stranger.

Sometimes, what I yearn for is not manufactured—I miss the way time moved before smartphones and social media. I miss paper maps and getting lost, being unreachable. I miss feeling alone when I’m alone. Internet technology, with its endless wormholes, is a nagging presence, offering a type of instant, global connectivity I never wanted but accept into my life all the same. Some of the novel’s characters struggle with the decision to become a companion; others run toward it without much thought; others still have no choice.

Jakob, the movie star character, finds out during a trip to Siberia that he’s a companion and that there are duplicates of him in different parts of the globe. I started thinking of some other professions that would pounce on the companionship program to extend someone’s lifetime for as long as possible. Musicians, writers, models, politicians (if we venture into despotic territory), and some athletes (athletes of high-impact sports probably wouldn’t fare well, as they would need continual repairs and upgrading). What other professions do you think would take advantage of it?

Oh, I definitely think politicians would take advantage of the technology. One of my favorite novels is Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, in which the dictator, El general, reigns for 200 years and has a body double.

In addition to the professions you mentioned, I could see the tech being used to do anything risky that requires complex problem-solving skills. The technology, with its capacity to duplicate people, would make the uploaded expendable and excellent for rescue response. If cheap enough, I have no doubt law enforcement and the military would use it on the front lines.

Would you consider the companionship program to be a gateway to immortality? Being intellectual property of a corporation is a harrowing prospect, but the companions can outlive humans. Lilac lives more than one lifetime.

The companionship program presents the prospect of immortality, but it comes at a tremendous cost. Companions, as the intellectual property of Metis Corporation, are not yet recognized as legal subjects; I have no doubt that if the technology were around long enough, it would push up against the legal concept of personhood, which is astonishingly flexible, as we’ve seen in the cases of corporations and fetuses. Since products are unleashed on the public before we fully understand their impacts, we’re always muddling our way through, figuring it out as we go, reacting and establishing policies too late, and in the case of the novel, before people can work this stuff out, some of the companions go off on their own—they act out.

At a certain point in the novel, after the quarantine is lifted, the originals of the companions are recalled. In fact, it’s illegal for them to be walking around at all. How did you arrive at this conclusion?

Intuitively, I knew from the beginning that companionship wouldn’t last. But realizing that the end would come in the form of a recall was probably the most exciting discovery in the whole writing process.

As the book progresses, it becomes clear that Lilac is not the only companion who can defy commands, breach her contract, and go off on her own. Some of these rogue companions merely want to live quietly out of sight while others are driven by revenge, to retaliate against the living. When drafting this part of the novel, companions acting on their revenge impulses, I could see what had to happen next.

Once the news media gets hold of these incidences of companion violence, fear takes over, public trust is challenged, and Metis, a behemoth offering hundreds of products worldwide, merely recalls companions as it would any problematic product. Arriving at this point helped me to sharpen one of the key arcs of the novel—that of a product from release to recall.

One of the human characters, Rolly, says that Metis Corporation figured out how to upload the dead and lease it back to the living. It’s an insidious way of making the wealthy buy back their undead relatives and making everyone else rent the undead. Since the bulk of the novel takes place in Northern California, I was wondering if Rolly’s statement was commentary on Silicon Valley’s mercenary business model or on the pursuit of innovation at the expense of losing sight of humanity.

I’ve lived in San Francisco since 2002, which means I can remember a time when I could rent a two-bedroom apartment in Noe Valley for $1,450. Now, an equivalent apartment goes for $3,500-9,000/month. The latest tech boom has transformed San Francisco. While we have more billionaires per capita here than in any other city in the world, we are also in the midst of a homelessness crisis. From 2017-2019, the homeless count rose from 641 to 1,773, and this does not include people who are “doubled-up” in the homes of family or friends, or families living in Single Room Occupancy (SRO) units. The benefits of technology are never distributed equally, and in The Companions I wanted to focus my attention on the people who would be left behind. The towers of downtown San Francisco, where the wealthiest live—and are confined under quarantine—became my entry point for exploring themes of class, technology, and isolation.

The Companions is described as Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven meets Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Did you have any specific pieces of fiction or works from other media in mind that were influential for the novel?

The novel’s youngest narrator, Gabe, is reading two books in the sections they narrate: Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, both of which featured prominently in my own childhood. Both characters are hiding and questing simultaneously, one attempting stealth as he journeys through a fantasy world, another journeying on fantasies in a real world that is confining and dangerous. As a child, I read these books over and over, studied and learned them, lived them out in my own imagination. Even as an adult, I feel constantly caught between fantasy and the real—my children too, with their imaginary worlds bleeding out into their understanding of living.

Who are some fave authors who got you interested in writing overall?

Growing up, I read a lot of speculative fiction—Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood, Shirley Jackson, Franz Kafka—that got me most excited about the prospect of writing. When I was studying geography, I was drawn to the narrative science writing of Rachel Carson and David Quammen, which could be quite beautiful and evocative. While studying for my MFA and finding my own voice, it was dark, funny, female writers like Joy Williams and Flannery O’Connor who most interested me.

You were fiction editor at Split Lip Magazine. Have you found that your experience as an editor shaped the way you wrote your novel? Or do you find that writing and editing have a symbiotic relationship?

I wrote the novel before I worked at Split Lip Magazine, but I can say with certainty that my editorial work has shaped the writer I am now. Serving as an editor made me think about audience in a way I never had before. And I absolutely loved working with writers on the collaborative process of editing a piece for publication. This has, in turn, made me a better reader of my own work and recipient of criticism.

Journal work also gave me a community; I’m forever grateful to Kaitlyn Andrews-Rice, who was our dynamo editor in chief at the time, and my fellow staff members at SLM for showing me that writing is best done in communion with others.

What future writing projects do you have coming up that you can tell us about?

I have a collection of linked short stories coming out next year, in which my characters face a whole host of dangers, such as environmental disaster and failed marriage, an accelerated evolution and a trio of teen witches, the ire of a paranoid dictator and their own vanity. Unfortunately for my characters, I like them to live on shifting ground, in that border region between the real and the unreal, the beautiful and the grotesque, the funny and the tragic.

I’m also at about the halfway point in a new novel project about a pair of sisters who fall in love with male conjoined twins in a Southern Idaho town being overtaken by sovereign citizens. On the outside, this may sound like a big departure from The Companions, but I can see that I’m still working out my fascinations with the body and identity, connection and place.

Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know about The Companions?

I suppose it’s worth noting that The Companions is born from the deep discomfort in my body and my being that I experienced as a younger person. It’s a story about not fitting in, about feeling like no amount of change could make you what people want you to be. I am grateful to the writers who told me misfit stories when I was growing up, and for the forgiveness and self-acceptance that come with aging.

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.