How would you describe Technium to a new reader?
The action begins in 2165; far enough in the future to be different from the present, yet close enough to be recognizable. Our society's DNA is clearly visible, rearranged and recombined. The main characters are two half-brothers who share a deep bond despite profound differences and a headstrong adolescent girl. The story is equally event- and character-driven.
What was the inspiration behind Technium?
There were several. I’ll begin with the direct ones first.
In 2010, I read an article in Science Daily about the creation of "bipaternal" mice (mice with two genetic fathers and no mother) in the laboratory. But that wouldn’t cut women out of the picture entirely. As the lead scientist observed: "You need a uterus. People always forget this."
Actually, that had occurred to me straightaway. I said to myself, "Someone will write a book about this."
Around that time, I was reading Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, a fascinating thought experiment about what would happen to the world if humans vanished. It must have stayed in my consciousness, slumbering away…
Four years passed. No one had written that book. So I decided to.
The book I ended up writing wasn’t really sci-fi, and it doesn’t focus on the actual mechanism of artificial reproductive technology; it's about the effects of such technology on human societies after being severely stressed by devastating pandemics and other disasters.
It’s really about knowledge and power and our relationship to the past. In Technium, artificial reproductive technology is used to create a ruling class. In other words, it is a weapon of the powerful against the weak. Isn't knowledge always weaponized?
The overarching inspiration was my father. He rambled around the country during the Great Depression. My Dad was not much of a talker, but I got the gist. Little hints here and there. Various words and phrases stuck with me. He demonstrated the power of suggestion. That's what good writing does.
Which authors do you admire? How have they influenced your writing style?
I don't read a lot of fiction now. I read mostly history and biography.
But I read fiction intensively as a kid between the ages of seven and seventeen. My favorite authors were early- to mid-twentieth century Americans. Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, Marie Sandoz, Willa Cather are four who come to mind. They are all very American, very frontier, very pioneer. None of them “looked like me” as the current saying goes.
I didn’t read as an escape. I read to go to a destination, to a place that was, if not better than the world I lived in, clearer and more vivid. As much as anything else, they formed my adolescent mental landscape of America. They are all hyper-realistic writers, and they influenced me in that I try to create scenes with fidelity to detail, no matter how "unreal" the scene may be.
That said, from age eight to ten, I read Alice's Adventures In Wonderland every day. I had a little pocket version, which I took with me wherever I went. Somehow, Lewis Carroll had an effect on the spirit of the book. All of the characters go through transformations, not unlike Alice.
Lastly, two movies, The Seventh Seal, and The Wizard of Oz (my favorite movie of all time), were influences as well. They are both about terrifying, transformative journeys.
Can you tell us about the locations in your book?
The first volume begins as I imagine New York City would look after it has been abandoned for several generations. As Alan Weisman points out, whatever human beings build is under constant assault by nature and requires constant upkeep. Things couldn't revert to the way they were before human civilization, because New York City is such a densely built metropolis, but a new reality would prevail. I tried to convey that.
Later sections take place in the high desert country of the Southwest, where you don’t have to change anything to communicate an otherworldly atmosphere, you just have to describe it as it is.
A long middle section takes place in the Flint Hills of Kansas, the only stand of tallgrass prairie left in the United States. Ten thousand square miles out of one million.
What's your writing process?
I write by hand, and it evolved by accident. I began writing on a computer in October 2014. I found it hard going. I’d never written fiction before, apart from a few abortive attempts in my 30s. They never progressed beyond the first page.
My computer broke. I didn’t have the money to buy a new one, so I dropped it off at a local repair shop and, although I didn't want to, forged ahead by hand writing. My mind connected with my hand and opened up. Words poured out. It was a lucky break. Literally.
What do you think about writer’s rules?
They are a blight on creativity, and should be ignored.
What Do You Like About Writing? Dislike?
I get pleasure from being surprised, solving problems, and learning things. Part of the fun is when the characters surprise you. Mine got into scrapes and muddles, made mistakes, and took wrong turns. In the process, they plunged headlong into confronting the past, a forbidden subject in their world, and developed deep and complex relationships that they didn't know they were capable of. Some characters grew from minor to major, which may account for the length of the book. That’s awesome! So it's fair to say that I enjoy the fruits of writing.
But the process itself can be tortuous. I don’t get the immediate, tactile reward from writing that I do from drawing and painting. When I was younger I played the violin. Making beautiful sounds is a physical thrill.
Writing can be a struggle. You are struggling with yourself. A breakthrough occurs and suddenly you write cleanly and clearly exactly what you want to say. That’s awesome, but the process can be grueling.
Where next? What are you working on now?
Disraeli said that the best way to learn about a subject is to write a book about it. A bit of Technium takes place at Gettysburg, and as I wrote that, I thought it might be a nice idea to learn something about the place… which led to a month of reading intensively about the American Civil War.
I learned how much I didn’t know. I came across some of the most fascinating characters in U.S. history, among them, two Confederate sisters: Phoebe Levy Pember and Eugenia Phillips. Pember was a matron of a gigantic military hospital in Richmond, and Phillips was imprisoned as a spy!
But that's a long way off. At present, I can't call myself more than a casual Civil War buff, and this would take a lot of research. But it's on the horizon.