We recently had a chance to sit down (figuratively) with Hugo-Award winning author Will McIntosh, who’s just released his first novel, Soft Apocalypse with Nightshade Books earlier this year. Our review is still forthcoming, but we get a chance to talk with him about the end of the world, writing and teaching as a Science Fiction author.
SF Signal: First off, we have to congratulate you on your first novel. Where did Soft Apocalypse come from?
Will McIntosh: Thanks! It started out as a snippet of an idea in my idea file: A guy looking for love during the apocalypse. I thought it might be an interesting twist on the apocalypse story.
SF Signal: Soft Apocalypse was based off of a short story by the same title. Was this intended early on, or did you find that there more to that story afterwards?
Will McIntosh: At first it was just a short story, then I came up with another apocalyptic short story I wanted to write: A directionless guy suffering through the apocalypse decides to become a Batman-like crime fighting superhero. I decided to set it in the same world as Soft Apocalypse, and it became “Street Hero”, which was also published in Interzone. I wrote another story set in that world–“Dada Jihad”, from the perspective of a tough young woman named Ange. About a year later I decided it was time to try writing my first novel, and it occurred to me that these three stories might form the core of a novel. The lazy side of me liked the idea that I’d have about 30% of the novel written before I began, but the lazy part of me didn’t realize I’d pretty much have to rewrite that entire 30% before I finished.
SF Signal: Soft Apocalypse takes the idea that there isn’t some major catastrophe that destroys society: it’s a long, slow death, one that’s become very relevant if you watch the news. Why go for this approach?
Will McIntosh: I wanted to go for what seemed to me the most realistic approach. I can’t say I ever made a conscious choice; based on what I’ve read and seen of the dangers facing the world, it seemed like the obvious direction to me.
SF Signal: Is the book based on any particular current events?
Will McIntosh: It’s strongly influenced by James Howard Kunstler’s nonfiction book The Long Emergency, which begins by stating that we would reach peak oil production by the end of the decade, and went on to outline how this would affect the world in subsequent decades (it isn’t a pretty picture). Many oil experts ridiculed his suggestion, arguing that we were still decades away from peak oil production. We reached peak oil production in 2009. Beyond Kunstler’s book, just the overall apathy we seem to bring to the global warming crisis as climate scientists shout warnings at us.
SF Signal: How do the events in the global markets since 2008 figure into this, do you think?
Will McIntosh: To me, the events in the global markets underscore that the people in charge–the political leaders, the economic titans, etc.–pretend that they’ve got a handle on things, but are actually flying by the collective seats of their pants. I’m guessing the global economic crisis is somewhat independent of the core dangers I include in Soft Apocalypse (peak oil, global warming, resource depletion, overpopulation) but I’m not sure I understand the economic crisis well enough to do more than guess.
SF Signal: Apocalyptic fiction is ripe for political commentary, along with dystopian fiction. Curiously, your book seems to encompass both extremes, with the destruction of civil society at the beginning and the hints of reconstruction throughout: where do you think the role of authority falls in your book?
Will McIntosh: I didn’t want to overplay the role of authority in the book, because I wanted the focus to stay on “regular” people, who may experience the consequences of decisions that are made, but play no role in those decisions. At the same time, leaders, government, the military have to play some role to keep the plot realistic. I tried to show authority as unprepared for what was happening, as attempting to maintain some sort of order, but being unsuccessful. I didn’t want to paint authority as the Bad Guys, but I thought it fair to depict authority as fractured, confused, and not particularly responsive to the needs of the average person.
SF Signal: We watch Jasper grow up through the novel, and a couple of lines in the beginning really stuck with me: the characters don’t really have a survivalist instinct right off – they go through a steep learning curve: how close to reality do you think it is?
Will McIntosh: I know I would go through a steep learning curve. I don’t know anything about canning fruit, or ammo, or finding food in the wild. I would miss civilization terribly. I hate camping. Beyond the physical adaptation a collapse would demand, it would be hard to adapt psychologically. People adapt to improvements in their lives very quickly, but it’s very difficult to adapt to setbacks – there’s a body of research in psychology about this.
SF Signal: it’s not just about the physical actions you can take to survive, is it?
Will McIntosh: It’s not. We often underplay the psychological toll of catastrophe, but look at the vast number of combat soldiers who return home ravaged by post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s very difficult to undergo severe trauma without paying a huge psychological cost. In some ways I think I downplayed just how psychologically damaged most of the people in Soft Apocalypse would probably be by the end.
SF Signal: interestingly, we see the main characters resist what appears to be an inevitable change in favor of their familiar – if hard – is this a predictable action? What does that say about the people who adapt and accept change early on?
Will McIntosh: We don’t like change, and we especially don’t like change for the worse. Typically what we try to do is assimilate change – keep things the same as much as possible, while allowing minimal space for the changes. That’s what I tried to depict early in the novel. The characters cling to what is familiar, even if it became a bit absurd to do so. Guns, ammo, gold would be more valuable after society collapsed, but I don’t think people would lose all interest in iPods, lipstick, and Elmo.
SF Signal: Do you think that we as a society would survive such an event or collapse? Or, do you think that the belief of a collapse will ultimately lead us to one?
Will McIntosh: If I had to guess, I’d say we as a species would certainly survive after a massive die-back, but I’m not sure our society as we know it would survive. I think that sort of collapse would result in new social structures, new norms, new values.
I once came across a fascinating paper in a psychology journal. It began by arguing (much as Kunstler does in The Long Emergency) that a collapse is almost inevitable. The question the paper posed was, what will emerge after the collapse? It didn’t have any easy answers, but hoped the result would be a more compassionate human race, while fearing the opposite.
SF Signal: Jasper’s also starting off the novel looking for a girlfriend. With everything falling down around him, why the extreme focus on relationships?
Will McIntosh: Part of that was probably where I was when I started writing. I was single, and had gone through a series of relationships in the previous few years, so I was in a mindset to explore that issue. But beyond that I thought it would make an interesting contrast. Everything is going to shit, but that doesn’t mean we stop being human. People still want to love and be loved, would still care about their appearance. There would still be an everyday side to life. Many apocalyptic novels focus squarely on the big events; I thought it might be interesting to show average people trying to go about their lives, with the big events more in the backdrop.
SF Signal: Your first novel comes after winning the Hugo Award for best Short Story in 2010 (“Bridesicle”), and a number of other stories in various print publications. What was the transition between writing short and long fiction like?
Will McIntosh: There was definitely a lot to learn. I attended a novel writing workshop, Walter John Williams’ Taos Toolbox to help ease the transition. I was so used to keeping everything tight and brief, not having to worry about an overarching story arc. Because of that learning curve I ended up rewriting quite a bit from the first draft of Soft Apocalypse to the final draft, with the help of a lot of excellent critiquers.
SF Signal: Do you have any plans to write another novel, or more short fiction?
Will McIntosh: I’m never going to stop! I can’t imagine my life without writing. My second novel, Deadland, is due to come out next spring, again from Night Shade Books. I’ve begun work on my third, which is very loosely based on the first short story I ever wrote (“Faller” – it eventually saw print in Challenging Destiny). I’m also working on a screenplay with Ted Kosmatka — a sci fi thriller. I tend to take breathers from novels when I get stuck, and work on short stories. I’ve got a short story coming out in Lightspeed soon. I’ve got another that’s a companion piece to Soft Apocalypse coming out in Daily Science Fiction, which backs up and tells more of the story of what happened to Phoebe, one of the characters in the novel.
SF Signal: if I can indulge in a spoiler, is the ending of Soft Apocalypse a happy or tragic one?
Will McIntosh: It’s hagic, or maybe trappy. The ending in my first draft was more unequivocally upbeat, but I decided that wasn’t right. There has to be a cost; they have to make some compromise with the apocalypse. Things could have turned out much worse for them at the end, but they don’t get to live happily ever after on their own terms.
SF Signal: do you see this novel as a cautionary one, or are we already over the rails and sailing through the air? What’s at the bottom?
Will McIntosh: I should start by saying that everything might turn out fine. Maybe science and government will come through and solve our looming problems. No one knows for sure what’s going to happen, because it’s all so complicated, so many variables interacting. That being said, I think the brilliant women and men who comprise our world scientific community are reaching a consensus that we’re in for some rocky times. If that’s the case, I think it’s fair to guess that it’s all a matter of degree, and everything we do to ease the problems facing us will soften the potentially rocky times ahead. I certainly don’t believe a total collapse is inevitable, or even likely. But I think it’s possible, and to me that’s terrifying enough.
SF Signal: Your website notes that you’re a faculty member at Georgia Southern University. How does your background help with your stories?
Will McIntosh: A lot of psychology leaks into my stories. It’s not intentional, really, but I think we all draw on what we know. I’m beyond clueless when it comes to the hard sciences, so I tend to explore issues in the social sciences when I’m not writing in the realm of fantasy.
SF Signal: Are any of your students fans, or do they even know that you’re a science fiction author?
Will McIntosh: Most of them have no idea I write science fiction. There have been a couple of articles about my writing in the school paper, and something on the University website when I won the Hugo, but it doesn’t come up in class. This semester two students asked me to sign copies of Soft Apocalypse, but that’s in a class of 300.