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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Gregory Maguire on After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia

Gregory Maguire is the author of Wicked, a novel for adults, which inspired the Broadway musical of the same name. He has written seven other novels for adults and several dozen works for young adults and children. He lives in New England and in France with his husband and their three children.

SF Signal had the opportunity to talk with several authors involved in the new anthology, After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, and featuring stories asking: If the melt-down, flood, plague, the third World War, new Ice Age, Rapture, alien invasion, clamp-down, meteor, or something else entirely hit today, what would tomorrow look like? Some of the biggest names in YA and adult literature answer that very question in this short story anthology, each story exploring the lives of teen protagonists raised in catastrophe’s wake—whether set in the days after the change, or decades far in the future.

CHARLES TAN: Hi Gregory! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. For you, how would you define Dyslit or what are its essential characteristics?

What’s the appeal of Dyslit for you? Why is it important, especially for YA readers?

GREGORY MAGUIRE: First, and not to be funny, I never really came across the term “dyslit” before. I lived in London, which is rife with DYI stores, which it took me a while to realize meant “Do It Yourself.” So DYSlit looks like literature about how to sever some of your own arteries without professional assistance.

That said…

Utopias are always hard to imagine. Famously, heaven is more boring than hell (and Purgatory, thank you Signore Dante, more fun than both). Peace is harder to paint than war. Conflict is more engaging than resolution. So, as a writer, I find the invitation to consider dystopias an instant turn-on, narratively speaking. Furthermore, our own world is so radically dysfunctional on nearly every front that fictional dystopias, which respond to authorial management, are nothing shy of a relief, relatively speaking.

I remember reading 1984 on a bus returning from my first visit to see the ocean, at Cape Cod. It was the summer between eighth and ninth grades. (So sixteen years before we reached 1984 itself.) When the Thought Police catch Winston and Julia in the middle of the book, a chill went through me that has never left me. I expect it to accompany me to the grave. I am not a pessimist, but I am not insane either. So dystopias, both reading them and writing about them, are a way to keep my own spirits up.

I have written about dystopias three times. My Oz (in Wicked) is a dictatorship ruled by the despotic Wizard. The colony of tooth fairies in What-The-Dickens is a highly stratified society in which Dr. Ill is a kind of Kim Jong Il and the orphan tooth fairy, What-the-Dickens, an idiot savant. But in I Feel Like The Morning Star, I come closest to the material of After: an underground colony constructed with the best of intentions, to harbor some segment of the human population after a nuclear holocaust, which for its own survival turns repressive.

When I got to the end of I Feel Like The Morning Star, writing a scene in which the teenagers escape with some toddlers and emerge from underground after five years, and find a living tree under stars, and link hands and sing “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush,” in a kind of ecstatic trance, I was weeping myself. I am not proud of this; a writer should not weep at his or her own work. But I had felt trapped and oppressed by the world in the story, and it was such relief to escape!

The editors of After have explained beautifully why adolescence is a kind of state-of-dystopia from which, with luck and grace, most of us emerge. The fit is keen as a patent—leather glove.

CT: How did you decide to narrate your story using the epistolary format?

GM: No one who ever read Russell Hoban’s masterpiece, Riddley Walker, can ever forget it, nor quite escape from its influence. I decided to narrate my story with some decomposed language to mimic the decomposition of society, to which I wanted to allude lightly instead of describe in force. That kind of writing can be tiring to read, though, and letters are by their nature short, usually. So the inclination to use language to imply the decay of the world we know dictated that a brief form be employed, and the epistolary form made sense.

CT: What were the challenges in writing “Hw th’Irth Wint Wrong by Hapless Joey @ homeskool.guv”? (Aside from the intentional typos :P)

GM: I frankly applaud much of scientific study and advance, but when the super-collider went up and running in some mountain on the border of France and Switzerland. From 2008 to 2010 it was put into operation, repaired after damage, and began to record certain sub-atomic collisions that had never been observed by scientists before. My gullible, ignorant, and morbid Irish imagination began to worry that some hitherto unorganized particle would be released and begin to “eat” or annihilate the substance of the earth, if not actually the universe. I calmed down these hysterical imaginings which can best be described from a phrase I’m lifting from a google article: “the nanotechnological equivalent of a nuclear chain-reaction—–an uncontrollable, exponential, self-replicating proliferation of ‘nanodevices’ chewing up the atmosphere, poisoning the oceans, etc.” (The Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy”, issue No. 60, July-August 2002, by Sean Howard).

I wanted to do two things with “Hapless Joey”—to write a scenario in which, however nasty a nano-tech meltdown might be, it would not destroy everything: and that therefore resolution and repair might be possible, even if I couldn’t imagine how. My conceit was that if a bolt of nothing went on the loose, it might try to eat everything within the gravitational pull of the earth, but it couldn’t eat its own habitat: nothing cannot exist unless there is something against which to measure it. This set me the stage in which half the earth has been plunged into mysterious lostness and darkness, and the other half, crippled, is carrying on nonetheless in a terrified, totalitarian, and reduced state.

The trick was to convey all this in very few words. As Virginia Woolf said, “only suggest.” Whether the reader fully comprehends the thinking (sloppy philosophy, faux science) behind my organization of this dystopia is less important than that they can see and feel the crippled world. That is what happens to us, in our lives as children and as adults. Less than full knowledge, and a need to be heroes regardless. “Hapless” means unlucky, wretched. But it doesn’t mean damned, and it doesn’t mean predestined. Out of wretchedness, occasionally, rescue can be imagined. Perhaps wretchedness is the most fruitful growing condition for a concept and a strategy of rescue.


Charles Tan is the editor of Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology, the Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler, and Best of Philippine Speculative Fiction 2009. His fiction has appeared in publications such as The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories, Philippine Speculative Fiction and the anthology The Dragon and the Stars (ed. by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi).

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