December 03, 2015
I first heard Emily Mitchell read over a year ago at a reading series I host in Baltimore. I have a bit of a crush on female writers who explore literary oddity with sci-fi strains (although I have had a hard time defining exactly what that means—I’m thinking a mix of Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, Ursula Le Guin, and Shirley Jackson), and I was excited to host an author from just a few miles down the road, teaching at University of Maryland, who was exploring similar themes in her work.
She read a story from a forthcoming collection of short stories about a newly divorced mother who takes her daughter to a store to pick out a Companion, a robotic pet designed to help children cope with challenges and build confidence and empathy. Only the divorcee is surprised that, of all the animals her daughter could get, she chooses a spider.
I had to wait a year, until W.W. Norton released Viral (2015), Emily’s debut short story collection, to read the conclusion of “A Girl and Her Spider,” and found a collection both strikingly modern yet old-fashioned. Although many of Mitchell’s stories invoke the promise—and problems—of modern technology (a story about smile-recognition technologies that determine whether customer service reps are being friendly enough) and modern society (a “cult” of teens worldwide who light themselves on fire and jump to their deaths), the collection is not exactly dire. In fact, a pulse of humanity and warmth runs through its even most anxious strains. Mitchell is also the author of the novel, The Last Summer of the World, a historical novel about art photographer Edward Steichen.
JEN MICHALSKI: It seems in Viral, a recurring theme is our ability to connect with each other. Of course, a lot has been said that our virtual culture has made it more difficult to connect with each other, even as paradoxically it is easier than ever to be in touch with anyone, anywhere. Which led me thinking: do you think the role of authors has changed, our approach? Have we changed the way we write stories, or communicate them, in order to connect with readers?
EMILY MITCHELL: Hmm…I have not but I wonder if overall among writers there have been some changes. I have been reminded recently, reading and re-reading some fictions from the 1960s and 1970s, writers like Ishmael Reed, Donald Barthelme, and how much they were willing to ask of their readers, how much less conventionally realist many of those works were but it is difficult to know what to ascribe the conservatism of our moment to. On the other hand, I think there are all kinds of interesting experiments being made with multi-media storytelling, like Eli Horowitz’ novel The Silent History. So perhaps the ways we write stories are changing or at least expanding.
JM: I was prepared to be as depressed after reading this collection as I do after binge-watching the British television series “Black Mirror,” but I didn’t. There were a lot of surprising instances in which technology doesn’t hamper human connection, but rather enhances it. In “Lucille’s House,” a record player allows Louis Armstrong’s widow to reconnect with his music, and therefore with him, and in “My Daughter and Her Spider,” the robotic spider, or Companion, that the narrator’s daughter acquires in the wake of divorce has surprising effects on the daughter (and, ironically, the mother as well). And, in almost all the stories, the characters lament their inability to connect with people, with places, with new technologies, but the fact that they are struggling with this disconnection, rather than being completely immune and zombified to it, speaks to me of the great desire of humans to be, well, human: to love, to feel, to connect. Did you feel a similar hope as the stories took form in you, or did they come from a feeling of detachment, of cynicism?
EM: I’m so glad that the ambiguous possibilities of technology in these stories came through to you – that was very much what I was hoping for the collection as a whole. It is so easy and tempting to freak out about the dehumanizing possibilities of the latest technology and to forget that all new technology has engendered similar reactions (this week, I just read a short introduction Edith Wharton wrote for her ghost stories where she calls radio and cinema “enemies of the imagination”). At the same time technology does change us, does affect how we live, what we find important, how we are influenced. New inventions present new political dangers, produce new addictions and pathologies, and maybe one task for fiction is to examine these.
As far as where the stories came from for me, it really varied. Each one felt urgent when the idea for it arrived and some came from bad feelings or difficult times; overall I guess I think the outlook for the future is pretty bleak right now. But finally my view is that there are in life moments of connection, generosity, insight, healing, and joy and that they are no less real because we can’t always sustain them. Maybe if we recognize (in the face of the many dumb messages our culture sends us to the contrary) that they are rare and precious, we’ll cherish them as they deserve.
JM: The shades of science fiction are prevalent throughout Viral, but I was pleasantly surprised by a few of the historical stories that were included as well (which shouldn’t surprise me, given your debut novel was about Edward Steichen). You said in an interview with the radio station WAMU that you see “science fiction and historical fiction as mirror images of each other,” that as authors we try to figure out how “past, or potential future, reflects back on the present.” Are there certain historical and sci-fi authors you admire, or who have influenced your work?
EM: Yes, so many! Of historical fiction, I am drawn to writers whose work emphasizes its status as an aesthetic object rather than a document, in other words where it’s very clear from the start that what you are reading is imaginative writing rather than history. So of course I love Hilary Mantel, her Tudor novels but also her earlier novels like The Giant O’Brien about a man who flees from Ireland to London in the 18th Century to turn his massive size into a side show exhibit for money; Michael Ondaatje’s historical novels, especially In the Skin of a Lion, were important books for me; Marianne Wiggins’ John Dollar; and Mary Renault’s novels about classical antiquity.
In science fiction, I have a similar desire for artful prose but I’ll waive it if the idea at the heart of the story is too wonderful to ignore, so my list of favorites would be something like: Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, J. G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, Walter Tevis, Joe Haldeman, Neal Stephenson, China Mieville. I’m just getting into the work of Nnedi Okorafor. I love a lot of the excursions into science fiction by “literary” writers, something I think has always been more permissible in the rest of the Anglosphere than here in the US: The Handmaid’s Tale is still brilliantly chilling; as is 1984; and I think Never Let Me Go is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time in any genre.
JM: Like many writers, you wrote the stories in Viral over a period of many years, while you working on your follow-up novel. Do you think there’s a different mindset involved when you’re writing the long as opposed to short form? How do you know when you’ve got a “novel” idea as opposed to a “story” one?
EM: Usually I have a sense of the size of the story that is asking to be told as if it were a piece of music: something with a single, strong theme that can be expressed in one movement is a story; something more complex or with several movements is a novel. That of course suggests a far more elegant and less messy process than actually takes place. Until recently it is also fair to say that I’ve been much more patient with long-form fiction, much more willing to revise and revise. With stories I’m still learning to give them the time they need and the multiple revisions it sometimes requires to make them work.
JM: Speaking of technology, we’ve talked a lot one-on-one about the changing role of the author in the publishing industry, how much it’s changed even since your debut novel, The Last Summer of the World, came out in 2006. What do you tell your students about their role in the publishing paradigm? What are the biggest challenges facing authors, beyond getting an agent and getting a publishing deal?
EM: The fundamental problem for writers hasn’t changed I think; it is still how to sustain your work in a world that seems almost designed to make that difficult. I try to encourage my students to develop a deep connection to their imaginations first; and to worry about publishing second. I think we should remember when we look back several decades to a time when the economics of publishing seemed less precarious than they do now that only some people were ever invited to that party. Lots of us were not in the club, or were only latterly invited to join: women, writers of color, queer writers, so it wasn’t all perfect.
That said it does seem to have become more difficult to make any significant part of your living as a writer. I try to talk to my students and anyone else who’ll listen frankly about this; to make sure they understand that while it is certainly possible that they can be a serious writer and also have all the other nice things they want in their lives, they may also have to make sacrifices to pursue this path. So they should be sure writing is something that brings them a lot of delight. Mainly this has to do with time: how are you going to make sure that you have time for your writing? In America right now, that is not an easy question to answer.
JM: If you could write a story about traveling back in time, what would you do differently, as a writer? Or even as a person? (I know you almost became a lawyer before committing to being a writer!)
EM: Great question. Somedays nothing, somedays everything except my spouse. I’d take my own desire to write more seriously sooner. But even that I’m not sure about: your experience makes you the writer you are and perhaps I wasn’t ready to begin until I was ready to begin.