Novelist Paolo Bacigalupi brings The Drowned Cities to Tattered Cover and Boulder Bookstore
After racking up awards -- Nebula and Hugo honors for Best Novel -- for his debut novel The Windup Girl in 2009, Paulo Bacigalupi followed up with Ship Breaker, set in an equally dismal, dystopian future, and won another round of awards, including a National Book Award nomination and a Printz Award for Best Young Adult Novel. His latest -- The Drowned Cities, billed as a "companion" to Ship Breaker -- hits bookstore shelves today, and the Paonia-based writer will be reading from the book tonight at the Tattered Cover Highlands Ranch and tomorrow night at the Boulder Bookstore. We caught up with Bacigalupi for a far-ranging chat on the new book and what winds him up.
Westword: What was the inspiration to go back into the world you created for Ship Breaker, and what did you get out of going back to it?
My original intention when I wrote Ship Breaker was to write a series of books with Nailer as the main character, going through a series of adventures, and I actually did try to write a direct sequel to Ship Breaker. It didn't work for me; it was actually a fairly terrible book. And what I realized was that, for me at least, Nailer's journey was essentially a completed journey by the end of Ship Breaker, and he'd sort of done the things I needed him to do as a character. I found myself trying to force a sequel to occur for a sequel's sake, so I threw it all away and started really thinking about what it was that was important to me to be writing about. There was a single line from the original draft of that book that still resonated with me: Nailer and his compatriots had been sailing past this wrecked place of perpetual war called the Drowned Cities, and Nailer asks, 'How did the Drowned Cities get this way?" The captain of the ship says something like, "A nation as strong as this one doesn't just fall apart. It has to be deliberately destroyed.... The demagogues just whipped up the people and the people bit on their own tails, and they chewed and they chewed until there was nothing left but the snapping of teeth."
I'd been watching a lot of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, stuff like that, you know, paid performers who are making their money essentially by spewing hatred onto other Americans. So I was looking at that, and thinking about how deep our political schisms have become. I started really thinking a lot about where does a country go when we stop being able to speak to each other, when a nation stops being able to solve problems because its ideological differences become so deep that it just becomes dysfunctional. I'd also been watching things like the protests up at the Wisconsin capitol when the governor up there was doing the union-busting and everything was going to hell.
Today's science-fiction writers don't have to look very far to find perfectly dystopian models as inspiration.
Right? You saw this moment where there was no conversation, no compromise, there was only "We're going to ram one thing through" and the other side saying, "No, we're going to fight you with everything we have, tooth and nail" and that's where you start to see where democracy can fail. Democracy depends on the idea that different opinions come to the table in some sort of genuine way, and that no longer occurs in the United States, really. So when I put on my science-fictional hat and start thinking, "Where does this lead us, what does this road look like and how far can this go on?" you sort of end up in a place like the Drowned Cities, in my mind. That was the starting point for building this story. The Drowned Cities are completely dysfunctional, and you see all these weird political schisms where nobody even knows why they're fighting each other, but by God, we're going to kill 'em.
How different is the finished book from the book you had in mind when you began writing it?
Very. Once you have all your characters on the page, you end up telling different stories than you intended to tell, and this book became much more of an exploration of war and violence than I set out to write. But the questions I wanted to address going in are all in there: When is dialogue worthwhile? When is force worthwhile? Those were interesting questions for me.
Do you feel like the success of Ship Breaker and The Windup Girl has been liberating for you as a writer, freeing you up to do want you want to do, or do you feel pressure from that success?
Initially I felt a lot of pressure, and I think that's what made the original sequel-driven version of this book so very, very bad. The only way I can describe it is when somebody keeps telling you, "This book is amazing," you sort of have this pleasing instinct to say "Oh, let me make you happy again, let me do that trick again." The problem with that is very much like the problem you have as a new writer when you set out to emulate your favorite writers: If I sit down and try to write like William Gibson or Cormac McCarthy, it's going to be this weird, sad pale shadow of these other people's writing. And you almost end up with the same sort of thing when you try to ape yourself: Here I was trying to be the writer and the person I was when I wrote Ship Breaker and I can't do that because I'm not the same writer and the same person anymore. Realizing that I was, in this sad sort of way, trying to copycat a previous version of my own writing, there was this shock moment where I realized, "This is not going to work, no matter what. No wonder it's terrible! You should stop trying to do this."
Do you find that internal back-and-forth paralyzing?
You have to be genuine about what you're trying to work on. I had to let go of a lot of that urge to make people happy or to do exactly what, in my perceptions, people would expect me to be writing next, or even what I expected myself to be writing, and get back to the things that I think made The Windup Girl and Ship Breaker strong, which was that I was writing from a place where I thought, "This is important to me, I'm fascinated by this idea, I'm fascinated by these characters," and then simply trusting that if I'm interested in these things and I'm working to the best of my abilities, then hopefully the rest of the world will also find those things interesting. But ultimately it's got to be about you as a writer doing your genuine work and not focusing on all those voices around you or inside you, both the positive and the negative ones, which can each be so distracting in their own ways.
How different is it now, knowing that you do have an audience and working with that in mind, from when you were writing The Windup Girl and there was a very real chance it would languish in obscurity?
When I was writing The Windup Girl and Ship Breaker, I was writing those simultaneously, so I was an unpublished writer, not really having that full sense that these books would go out in the world, that they would be successful, that there would be an audience and that there would be fans of those stories. You can kind of delude yourself into thinking that you're just writing all alone and nobody's really going to see this, you know, all your stupid mistakes aren't going to be exposed. This time around, knowing that the book is going to go out, knowing that this is absolutely intended to become a novel that people will read all over, it's a little bit scary. You're still thinking of yourself as some guy making up stories out here in the middle of nowhere, and yet other people are now taking these stories so very seriously. I had this very clear thought enter my head: "Oh, dear, how did this become real?" So I think you do develop a certain wariness and a certain worry that maybe you didn't have the first time around because you could fool yourself into thinking these books weren't going to be published. And now, knowing that, you're writing something and you think, "Oh, this is probably going to trigger some hate mail." You have that feeling all the time, somewhere in your head, where you know there are going to be responses to whatever you decide to write. You try to note those and set them aside and keep going. I try to keep coming back to this central idea that I think this is valid, I think these are interesting stories. And I just have to trust that my ideal reader is out there somewhere.
Your books are marketed as Young Adult books, but they're very heavy in content, with a lot of dark material. Who do you have in mind as an ideal reader?
It's really changed. When I first started writing, I remember there was an ideal intended reader in my mind: Myself as a young boy, wanting to read an adventure story that had cool ideas and was thrilling and dangerous and had a certain amount of ass-kicking involved in it. My conception of my ideal reader has expanded quite a lot as I've matured: Ultimately when I think of my ideal reader, it's someone who's not sitting down with the intention of automatically arguing with the book, somebody who's going to give me enough slack to tell my story. They're going to give me enough rope to hang myself, but if I do hang myself, it's going to be me hanging myself and not them looking to pick the book apart from the beginning and planning on it just being a terrible read. I think I can woo a reader who enters with an open mind. For the rest...that's their baggage, and what can you do?
What do you make of this particular Hunger Games moment, where darker, dystopian YA fantasy is in the spotlight and selling very well, with darker, heavier material. Do you feel like the YA audience had been underestimated in the past?
Wow. I've got a bunch of different thoughts on this. YA has a wide range: It's much like If we talk about science fiction or fantasy: In science fiction, you can end up with some very dark stories, and you can have very humorous stories. In fantasy you can have Terry Pratchett and you can have George R.R. Martin: There's that range available. I think similarly in YA you see that wide range. Certainly in YA right now, there's an appetite for some very disturbing, dark books, but there's still room for something like Carl Hiaasen's Hoot at the same time. I think there's a wider range than we suspect sometimes, and that can get missed in the media obsession with all the dark stuff that's coming out, especially around The Hunger Games. But in terms of why there's an appetite for this, it's hard to say. In some ways, I wonder whether the thrill of reading some of these books -- particularly these really ripped-up future books, these terrible dystopias -- is that young readers have an appetite for the exploration of the 'what ifs,' the dangers that are out there, and that they want some straight talk about the hazards of the future. In YA literature specifically, and especially in these sort of dystopian, broken worlds, I'm also really aware of how genuinely empowered the young adult characters are in these books. They tend to be the ones who are the change-makers, the ones who are upsetting and rewriting the system. There's a dominant state, and they're going to be the change-makers of that state. I think that's a powerful mythology that young people can live into, the idea that they actually can have control over the things that dominate them. I can't help but think that's got a powerful, mythic resonance for young people: that idea that the police state or dictatorship in this horrible future version of the world is subject to their will and is actually changeable according to their will, very much in contrast, perhaps, to your day-to-day life in high school, where everyone else is subjecting you to their will. It's just a speculation, but that myth of the person who can make a difference, boy, we've always loved that myth, all through history. It's a great myth, and it's a strong trope in YA literature. And the darker it is, great, as long there's a kid who can change it. That's one of the things I'm curious about when I'm writing, where the kids tend not to have a lot of influence over the big picture, but hopefully can have some influence over their own personal lives.
To the extent that people do embrace and relate to these characters now, what did you take away from the characters in The Drowned Cities, and how have you embraced them yourself as you've shepherded them through the story?
As I've put them though the meat grinder, you mean? For me, the important thing about these characters is that these kids are trying to survive in a world where the adults don't have their interests at heart. If there's any purpose to the story in my mind, it's the importance of recognizing that, and for me, there are a lot of metaphorical levels to that because I feel like, in the broader context of our present world, we as adults really aren't acting as if our kids matter. If we really cared about our future, we probably would have taxed carbon by now. For me, that's ended up being sort of a power line in YA literature: The adults are not necessarily your friends. It's such a powerful metaphor for our present world. In The Drowned Cities, the adults are so cynically manipulative of children and using them in this frontline war as the disposable bodies, and for me the power of the story is really about these kids finding agency and finding ways to thread through and keep on their own track despite all the attempts of controlling outsiders. This book turned out to be a lot more intense than I expected it to be. It was intended to be an adventure story, and as the elements came together, it came a lot closer to horror. A lot of that was the logic of the bleak, intense, relentless source material I was working with: If you're going to be honest about the source material of child soldiering and what kind of world you'd have, what kind of ethical practices you'd have once you've devolved to the point where you're using children as soldiers, than you end up in a much more intense and relentless world than any of us can really imagine. It became sort of a constant battle for me to keep any line of hope threading through the book because of the intensity of the material. In some ways, the book really took its own turn: You have that moment where you realize, "I'm really not in control of this book."When I think about these characters I think, "Thank God I didn't kill them all," because there where moments when I was writing where that felt like a very real possibility: "Are there going to be any survivors at all?" Because I'm really not seeing how they get out. That was sort of a surprise: I ended up with a much darker and more intense book than I'd set out to write.
What do you look forward to and/or dread about this moment where, after all your work, the book is finally hitting shelves and you're getting in front of fans with the book at events like the Tattered Cover and Boulder Bookstore readings?
I actually really like that moment. I'm always nervous beforehand because I think of myself as somebody who hides in a dark room and types all the time. But I really like that moment when I step into it, and a lot of it has to do with the passion that your readers bring to your books. They're experiencing the story, they're having all these reactions to it, and they're excited about reading your stuff. They feel like you're writing something that's relevant or true to them, or important for them. You feel that instant and deep connection with these people who you would have otherwise never met in your life, and yet you get to have this bonding moment over these stories. That's actually pretty cool. I never could have imagined that before when I was just starting out writing, but that chance to be able to share a story and then see it resonate with readers and have that energy come back to you is really, really fulfilling.
For more on Bacigalupi and the worlds he destroys and creates, see Alan Prendergast's 2010 Westword cover story Sci-fi phenom Paolo Bacigalupi has seen the future -- and it's scary as hell.
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