Will McIntosh is the author of the critically acclaimed 2011 novel Soft Apocalypse, and the recently released Hitchers, both from Night Shade Books. Hitchers imagines an Atlanta, Georgia shortly after a crippling terrorist attack, when the dead come back to inhabit the living. (You can read our review here.) Will recently had a change to talk with us about his latest novel:
SF Signal: Hi Will, thanks again for talking with us. When we last spoke, we talked about your first book, Soft Apocalypse. How has the response been for that?
Will McIntosh: It’s been very encouraging. The first printing sold out, it was on Locus magazine’s recommended reading list, there is both a French and German edition coming out, and most importantly, I’ve heard from a lot of readers who enjoyed it.
SF Signal: Your latest, Hitchers, is a very different story, but there’s some definite parallels: how did you come to write this one?
Will McIntosh: I wanted to write something a bit less dark. (You know your first novel is dark when writing about an anthrax attack and a half million people possessed by the dead qualifies as “less dark”.) When I finished Soft Apocalypse, I had a couple of ideas for a second novel, but Hitchers was the one that kept tugging at me. It really began with the idea of a guy who takes control of his late grandfather’s classic comic strip against the wishes of said Grandpa. I’m very interested in comic strips and comic art, so that was the start.
SF Signal: Like Soft Apocalypse, Hitchers takes place in Georgia: In your first book, you send it into a depression, fill it with gangs, then blow it up and cover it in fast growing bamboo, and in your latest, you’ve spread anthrax all over it. What exactly do you have against the state?
Will McIntosh: I’m going to stop picking on Georgia and begin working over Virginia now. I’ve lived in Georgia for the past 20+ years, and set those two novels in the state because I was able to visualize the setting more easily than if I set them in, say, Ontario. But I’m moving to Virginia this summer (my wife is taking an academic position at William and Mary, and I’m leaving academia to write full time) so I’ll have an entire new state to devastate.
SF Signal: The title “Hitchers” comes out of the spirits who latch onto the living, and they’re mentioned in your Hugo award-winning story, “Bridesicle”. Is there a connection between the stories?
Will McIntosh: No, it’s actually an unfortunate coincidence. Hitchers was originally titled Deadland, but the wise folks at Night Shade thought readers might assume the book was a zombie novel with a title like Deadland. So we brainstormed a new title, and everyone liked Hitchers. I went back in and edited the book so the dead were referred to as “hitchers”. I’m currently working on a novel-length treatment of “Bridesicle”, and I’ll need to come up with a different word to keep things from getting too confusing.
SF Signal: Soft Apocalypse is solidly in the science fiction category, but Hitchers is a bit harder to pin down: I’m not sure if you’d call it horror or fantasy. What do you see as the boundaries between science fiction and fantasy?
Will McIntosh: The boundary between SF and fantasy feels fairly solid to me (fairly solid – I think the categories are convenient but shouldn’t be limiting). Science fiction involves things that could conceivably happen, given the laws of reality as they exist. Fantasy involves things that aren’t possible, given the generally agreed-upon laws of reality. The boundaries between horror and fantasy? I think those boundaries are more fluid. As I was writing Hitchers, I thought of it as urban fantasy, but quite a few people see it as horror, or supernatural fiction, and I think that’s fair enough. I see it as urban fantasy because it’s not all that scary, or at least for the most part it’s not intended to be scary. But again, it depends on your definition. Honestly, when I began working on Hitchers I never thought, “My first novel was SF, and this one is fantasy (or horror). Should I stick with one genre?” I love both SF and fantasy, and I guess I took it on faith that a lot of spec fic readers feel the same.
SF Signal: Something interesting that I found about Hitchers was how solidly in the present it is; I see references to Lakshmi Singh of NPR, Bill Watterson, and Planet of the Apes. Do you worry at all about the book being dated quickly?
Will McIntosh: I’m not convinced that puts readers off. I kind of like it when I pick up a novel from, say, the 1980s and it has definite markings from the time, as long as the entire story doesn’t rely on that time period so greatly that I feel like a lot of things are going over my head. Books that don’t anchor themselves in time feel colder to me somehow–less grounded.
SF Signal: Cartoons play a great role in the novel, and I really enjoyed seeing the actual Toy Store strips, and how they were worked into the story. How did that come about?
Will McIntosh: When I made Finn Darby a cartoonist and started writing scenes where he’s working on Toy Shop strips, it felt as if the reader would be missing out if he/she couldn’t see the actual strips. I wasn’t sure if a publisher would go along with getting an artist to execute the strips and then embed them in the text, so I was prepared to simply include the dialogue along with descriptions of the action, but Night Shade was totally on board with getting an artist to do the actual strips. I was thrilled with the work – the strips look exactly as I pictured them, and look good enough to appear in the comic section of a newspaper between Garfield and Doonesbury. I think that’s important for the book – Finn needs to be a talented cartoonist.
SF Signal: By day, you’re a psychology professor, and we see some more talk of this in Hitchers. Early on, as the public comes to grip with the loss of 600,000 people in Atlanta, there’s a lot of discussion about PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). What would likely happen in an event like that?
Will McIntosh: Ha, I’m a psychology professor by day for another…nine weeks. Then I’m a full-time writer. It’s strange to write that after 20+ years of teaching. Finn points out that 600,000 deaths in one place over a brief period of time would be the worst loss of life in the history of humanity, so we don’t have any direct comparisons to go by. But what happens during terrible catastrophes or military attacks is that a certain percentage of the survivors suffer trauma that is devastating and long lasting. Others show very little in the way of lasting psychological damage, so you have a lot of variation. From an overall societal perspective, an event like that typically makes a country more insular and risk-averse.
SF Signal: Hitchers looks at the idea that the dead have unresolved issues. How does this line up with how people think and act?
Will McIntosh: People crave closure. When something important stays unresolved, it bothers us. We keep thinking about it; often we can’t stop thinking about it even when we want to, and it can make us a little crazy. I think everyone has experienced this and I thought it would be interesting to carry it right over into death. If you did something stupid, say you lost the love of your life by saying something stupid, what happens if even when you’re dead, it still eats at you?
SF Signal: What do you have coming up in the near future?
Will McIntosh: I’m working on my third novel right now, based on my short story “Bridesicle”. I’m about halfway done, and I’m pretty excited about how it’s turning out. If all the stars align correctly, there might also be a Bridesicle film, produced by Film4 Productions. They made Slumdog Millionaire, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and many other wonderful films. That would be about the most awesome thing I could imagine.