WRITERS TELL ALL
MT: The book feels like a book about a woman whose life—or iives, made up or real, but here seeming made up, at least at first—is breaking down. Wall shattering, the timelines coming apart, and I usually hate books like this, but even as I settled down into this book and reading it, I fell in love with the novel pretty immediately. What do you think about the type of book I already mentioned, how it’s been used in the past and today—which essentially, I suppose, boils down to a woman being crazy, gaslighting her perhaps, all depending on the book you examine—and why did you use this idea (or, this was the idea for me) to draw the reader in?
SN: Well, I guess I feel like Kate isn't crazy. I mean, in the book her version of reality is correct and she is never confused about that; she just tries to go along with the idea that she's insane in an attempt to appease other people. I guess for me it's a Cassandra narrative, where she's just seeing the world for what it is, and (like all people who see the world for what it is) being treated as if she's the problem. Of course we also get Ben's point of view, and we can see why everyone thinks she's crazy. But I think the book doesn't really have a crazy. Different people just have different experiences, all of which are real.
MT: You’re great at introducing the reader to the science fiction genre. I’ve always viewed science fiction as a pretty intense genre—yes, I love A Canticile for Leibowitz as much as I love more literary, sometimes noir plays on the genre like Station Eleven—but why do you think the genre is so hard for people to get a hold on, and what books do you think are best as introduction? Why do you think The Heavens works so well as a book to introduce people to a genre with often incredibly unique worlds?
SN: As far as why people don't get into science fiction, I guess I don't know because I never had that problem. I suspect a lot of people just find it difficult to take a completely imaginary world seriously, even though obviously all fictional worlds are imaginary. Generally I think LeGuin's books are the most effective cross-over books for people who don't already like SF. I've also had some success with M. John Harrison's Light (though I try to recommend Harrison in every interview, so you may take that with a pinch of salt. But read his books.)
I think The Heavens isn't strictly speaking science fiction, though it's definitely getting close to being "real" science fiction. My trajectory as a writer has been to write books that are more and more science fictiony. I'm working my way up to literal spaceship.
MT: There are so many things I want to ask you, but I have to remind myself to avoid spoilers, and to avoid ruining the book for new readers. The novel’s modern day (“modern day”) timeline is set in a specific number of years leading up to an essential and tragic time in American history. Can you tell me your favorite books which function around a specific time or incident in history, why they are important, and in a loose, general sense, why you chose to do this yourself?
SN: I just needed 9/11 (I care not for spoilers) so that people would be able to locate themselves in history and realize that we were finally in a completely recognizable contemporary world. And then of course it becomes a symbol for how the world is getting dramatically worse. I think all Americans who lived through 9/11 can identify with that feeling of the walls closing in, of mistakes being made that were irrevocable and obvious and yet somehow felt unavoidable.
Books that function around a specific time or incident … in a way this would be most books? I mean, I love historical fiction (I'll mention Dorothy Dunnett and the inevitable Hilary Mantel). It's tricky to use historical events, of course, because they tend to feel bigger than the story you're telling. Unless they are the story. If they're not the story, then it can be a bit like having a horse on stage during a love scene.
MT: There’s this issue in the book—again, trying to avoid spoilers—perhaps the best way is to say one might try to fix things only to constantly change things, make things worse for what one wants, and never be able to achieve the life or future one wants. There’s an extreme tragedy in this, and I feel like we see this here today. On one hand, we have people actively working to make change and this often blowing up in their faces—so many politicians, activists, etc. Perhaps their past actions (Clinton with her views on gay marriage, seen in the past, supposedly affecting her polls with queer people) or current indiscretions ruining things, and then we have people who sort of passively let change, change they don’t want, change they don’t like, all of this happen while they sit behind computer screens and sign petitions on Facebook. Where do you think Kate would fit in today’s world, and why do you think her need to make change, but also things blowing up in her face are so important to the book, but also to the reader too? Gosh, that was a long set-up and question.
SN: I'm just going to say what I want to say here, which is that a lot of the time people think that they're being virtuous if they Do Something. It's like, "I actually Did Something, I am the hero here." Generally what they did is the thing they found most emotionally satisfying. We see this with politicians (notably those who start wars) and in ourselves. We also admire people who Do Something, even if we know the thing they are doing is counter-productive and stupid, and we tend to admire them more if the thing they did is flashy, feels heroic somehow, got a lot of attention, involves them being sexy and tough—absolutely regardless of whether it was harmful or beneficial. This is a real problem.
We really can't know all the consequences of our actions. But we have a responsibility to think about the likely consequences and to try to make choices that have good consequences—even if it doesn't feel good or particularly make us look good.
MT: As I mentioned, you and I both work inside two genres—separate genres, but two very popular and I like to think important genres (and yes, I know literary is a genre too, but for now I will focus on science fiction and crime). While Attica Locke has said that all books are crime novels (she mentions Beloved as her favorite crime novel, for example), we also have to note how people limit crime and science fiction. I understand genre in itself is a way of limiting how we fit a novel in a certain place, why do you think certain critics and readers frown upon or steer clear of “genre fiction” and what do you think the danger is in only reading purely literary fiction all of the time?
SN: Obviously some people are insecure about their intelligence or class status or education level, and that plays into the phenomenon of avoiding genres or looking down on them. But generally it's just a personality thing. I have trouble with many crime novels because I don't care who did the crime and I don't really believe in punishment, so the whole ending feels kind of gratuitous and annoying to me. My tendency is to think, "Leave the poor criminal alone, you weirdos." You know, to me the detective (where there's a detective) is just being nosy. But I recognize that this is a personal quirk, and I am the one who is wrong. And of course there are plenty of crime novels I like and admire despite this quirk, but if I didn't read hundreds of books a year, I probably wouldn't have gotten that far.
I think it's fine to just read literary fiction, just as it's fine to just read crime fiction. There are some limitations to any genre, but I don't think there's anything wrong with loving whatever you love. And there are always books within a genre that break through all the limitations, so I feel like ultimately you're fine.
MT: Assuming this book was read by individuals all across America, what would you want the main takeaway from the novel be—in addition to being just an extraordinarily entertaining and interesting novel?
SN: The main takeaway in my opinion is that your life is history, and what you do affects the future. We have this trope of going back in time to change history (to kill Hitler or whatever) but we are already back in time, with the opportunity to change history. What we do matters, and if an apocalypse is coming, the mistakes we make now are the apocalypse.
MT: Sandra, I won’t keep you with many more questions, but do you have a work-in-progress or book you’ve already finished? I know we (your readers, your fans, your mega-psycho-fans) are all waiting for more from you. Eagerly awaiting more writing!
SN: I'm working on another novel now, which starts from the premise that all the men in the world disappear, and the women are left to sort it out on their own. But the book really follows the women who can't give up looking for the men—or particularly for their husbands, sons, fathers, etc.
MT: Sandra, thank you so much again for agreeing to be interviewed for Writers Tell All. This was magical—the book, the books that I later read of yours and also other books I revisited after being inspired by The Heavens—and I loved the experience so wholly. Feel free to leave us with any words, thoughts, input on the novel or writing or your writing or anything else, and thank you so much again because reading your work and interviewing you has been such an enormously delightful experience. Thank you again.