When did you first get the idea for The Book Journey through the States?
A few years ago, before ISIS was in the news so much, a friend of mine mentioned that dystopian YA Books were almost uniformly serious. There was plenty of whimsy in fantasies and sci-fi, for instance, but not in dystopian, post-apocalyptic books. So, I decided to take this on as a challenge, to write a humorous dystopian novel. I thought about what would be the most humorously dystopian thing to happen to the U.S., and it came to me that it would involve conversion to Islam, not because of anything intrinsic about Islam, but because how Americans would have to come about doing it, given how they feel about it now. Being bisexual, I also figured it would be ironic if people’s religious objection to bisexuality not only brings down the nation but also leads to its conversion to Islam.
The book didn’t turn out as rip-roaringly funny or whimsical as I had hoped, but there are a lot of bits in it that I personally find really funny, such as the fact that the dystopian America, basically, is the Reagan era, and the small bit about being a closeted straight person.
You draw a lot on historical references and gear them towards what you believe the future will look like. How much research did you do to prepare the time and setting?
A lot of it is actually what I remember about living in the Reagan era: things like the attitude toward homosexuality and bisexuality, what people thought about AIDS, treatment of women, and supply-side economics, as well as the good bits, such as how kind and helpful people could be toward strangers, and how relaxed we all were about food. A lot of the places that the main characters visit, I have traveled through myself, or have heard about from people who had lived there. I just needed to check my impressions and recollections against Wikipedia and other sources.
By inventing American Islam, one thing I avoided was researching deeply about today’s Islamic beliefs and practices. I would say I know more about Islam than most non-Muslims in the U.S., but I didn’t think I could avoid falling into some convenient stereotypes or archetypes, or coming across as making fun of Islam, as opposed to making fun of Americans. It was more convenient to conclude that, if Americans were to convert to anything, we would do it our own way.
The subject of gender identity is raised through the journey. How does that impact on the characters lives?
I’m glad you brought this up, because I’ve thought about this a lot. There are more and more novels with trans main characters being published, and transness usually plays a key role in the stories. Sometimes it’s the challenges, and sometimes it’s the triumphs, but really it’s about the transness. Same with bisexuality; there are many gay/lesbian novels now where sexuality itself is not that big a deal, but bisexual novels still mainly portray bisexual travails. I wanted to write something a bit different, where transness and bisexuality are not the main things that impact the characters personally. They can’t not impact the characters, but they are not the most impactful things in their lives. I’m hoping that this will be true in real life in the future, obviously.
Which authors do you admire?
Ursula Le Guin by far. She is an endless fount of new ideas about different ways of life, different ways of speech, different biologies, etc., etc., and expands these ideas into immersive worlds of “what ifs” that are also compelling, heartening, and devastating at the same time. She is also a great public intellectual, and every time I hear her speak it’s clear that she is a thoughtful person of conscience, and that her fictions are a product of this thoughtfulness. (Another person about whom I feel that way is Stephen King, although I have not read any of his books, I have to admit.)
Douglas Adams is definitely next on the list. He completely did not take himself seriously, and he had this way of making things up as he went but somehow tying them all together at the end. He also taught me how to reflect on the nature of good and evil, while not taking the whole world, or even the whole universe, too seriously.
There are many others who have influenced me, but these are the authors whom I admire the most as human beings.
Tell us about a few books on your "To read" list?
I’m about to start rereading John Steinbeck’s books. I’ve been reflecting on the nature of evil, for my next project, and no one writes about depravity like he does. Strangely enough, I’ve been reading the Bible on and off, especially the bits I skipped when I was growing up. It’s a very different book now that I am reading it as a nonbeliever, and I’ve been finding myself moved by the poetry of the text.
What are some of the challenges up and coming writers face?
The world of publishing is in such a state of flux that it’s hard to know what to believe any more. I have solicited advice about everything from how to find a publisher to how to self-publish, speaking to everyone from newly successful authors to people who’ve been in the publishing world for a long time, and I have gotten so much contradictory advice. I have no confidence at all that I know what to do, and I keep tripping over one taboo after another mistake. In some ways, this could be a good thing, in that there are many paths to success, all of which are accessible to all of us, and it may be that each one of us has to find the way that works for us. But, sometimes, it feels like there are too many proverbial wrong trees to bark up.
The journey which the characters take through the future United States is very different. How do you imagine the USA will change in the next 300 years?
All empires eventually decline, and the U.S., as much as I love the place, is probably approaching its expiration date. We used to complain about the genteelness of U.S. politics, and now it has become so base and toxic that it’s hard to believe that things are going to be well. In Newland and the Islamic States, I am proposing two possibilities, one of progress and one of regression, and it can really go either way, depending on how we Americans manage the challenges of our time.
At the same time, I have a pretty flat view of history, that things just kind of chug along, with some things rising and some things falling, and most things working out from time to time and some important things being destroyed from time to time. For me, the important question is not how the U.S. will change, but how humanity as a whole will change, and I believe things will stay about the same, with slow, minor improvements over time. When the U.S. falls, like when the Roman Empire fell, there will be a time of regression, and then something better will come along. It won’t be that much better than what we have now, but people of the future will probably look back at us and marvel at how barbaric we are, while committing atrocities that we would now find unimaginable. The more things change…
Have you got any upcoming book releases soon?
There is the Cori Rubio series, of which all six books have already been written, but only the first two are out. I am delaying the release of the remaining four books while I focus on marketing. They will be coming out within the next year or so.
Thanks very much for your time.
Thank you! It was nice to be able to reflect on these topics.
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