Shya Scanlon interview, Part Two
Once upon a time, there was a journal called Monkeybicycle. There is, of course, still a journal called Monkeybicycle, but there used to be one, too. And way back when, one of the guys editing that journal was a guy named Shya Scanlon of Seattle, Washington. And one day I sent a story to Monkeybicycle. And then I waited a while. A while. But, hey. He took it. When the story appeared, it was an issue of Monkeybicycle that flipped over and became and issue of Hobart—a journal I was unfamiliar with at the time. I am now their interviews editor. Small world.
Shya Scanlon’s latest work is a novel called Forecast, which he initially serialized online, each of the 42 chapters on a different blog or journal. Forecast now has a print publisher, Flatmancrooked, and should be available mid-November. I know a bit of the early history of the book, having been a friend of Shya’s throughout the writing of the book and beyond, so I asked him a little about it and his other prose work.
All this speculation about the future kind of dovetails pretty well into the book, I think. Because the book is about the future. Or takes place in the future. That is to say, it is science fiction or speculative fiction or whatever one wants to call it. And though the book is about weather on some level, the title refers to the very concept of speculating on the future, as well. And speculations about one’s motivations. And speculations about who is telling a story, and who, in the end, that person will turn out to be, when the text has been completed (or, you know, read). But, I seem to recall that the book was, while you were writing it, always called Forecast, wasn’t it? To what extent did the idea of a book that involves weather, wherein the very first line mentions weather (“The weather outside was frightful.”) lead to you simply discovering other layers of meaning in the word?
The working title for the book was actually In The Time of Useful Consciousness. What do you think?! The title was from a radio program called TUC Radio broadcast in early morning on KUOW, I believe (I could look this up right now, but I’m not going to). I’d hear it because I worked nights at a section 8 housing project, and by the time I drove home I was always in that emotional, slap-happy state of exhaustion where everything seems to be infused with meaning. The host would talk about things like global warming, civil responsibility, and how we can be mindful people, and I’d often end up sobbing a bit before getting home. Though maybe I was just depressed. Anyway, the term is an aeronautical one used by the military, and is used to describe the time a pilot has before blacking out after his cockpit loses air pressure (gets hit). But the notion of “useful consciousness” was, given Emotional Transfer, compelling, and I thought the title gave it a kind of epic feel.
You’re probably remembering the title of the short story the book was built on. That was called “Forecast.” And I returned to that title. So maybe it was part of it all along. Anyway, the book, like basically everything I write, was born of my anxieties. There was a while during which I was terrified of flying because of erratic weather. Days before flying I’d be checking weather reports for both the departure and destination cities. And unfortunately, this morphed into an anxiety about weather in general. Storms would make me nervous. Even high winds. It was also begun around the time the Department of Homeland Security was established, and there was all this speculation about how this would effect privacy—a very interesting concept, especially when seen as a right. Then there’s the issue of women as property. This is kind of a perennial interest of mine, probably because my mother is an ardent 2nd wave feminist. It hasn’t been an issue many (actually, any) readers have brought up, but one of the big subjects of the book, for me, is how everyone wants something from Zara/Helen, and not once does she really get to choose her own path. This attitude may have been augmented by the “male gaze” stuff from Berger’s Ways of Seeing, which I read, and loved, maybe fifteen years ago.
Nonetheless, the idea of forecasting was always meant to be refracted throughout the book in ways different than what a weatherman does. I was listening to an interview with Rick Moody recently—the Silverblatt interview, I think—and he said something I agree with, for the most part. I’ll paraphrase. The pith was how writing about the future is important not merely as a means of prediction, but as a way of creating a familiar-yet-unfamiliar context in which to examine the world around oneself. Forecasting, seen in this way, is really an act of projection. We project forward, and the forms we project become exaggerated, gaining shape and ultimate form so that we may recognize them for what they are, the way you hold something out at arms length to when it’s too big to see up close. This is how I feel about Forecast. I was amplifying trends and associations and fears I felt and saw around me, and out of that amplification grew some characters, and out of those characters grew some situations, and out of those situations grew a story.
It’s, of course, common, familiar, and completely reasonable for a “first novel”—and even though this is inaccurate in some ways, can we agree to refer to this as your “first novel?”—to centrally locate the anxieties and predispositions of the author. (Heck, first book. A Jello Horse and Happy Rock are both built on a foundation and frame of my own anxieties and experiences. I may never get over Midwestern road trips and small towns.) Less common is for said first book to centrally locate a character who is not of the same gender as the author. Some male authors spend a lifetime not even trying to inhabit a female character. But you did. And the second book in your trilogy—a book you let me read a while back; it’s quite good—deals with abortion rights. Abortion effects both men and women, sure, but certainly women more than men. Does your interest in writing from the perspective of a woman (even if you do so from a close-third or masked first person perspective) or dealing with an issue that resonates with women have something to do with the 2nd wave Feminist who raised you? (Bit of a softball, I know. Please also take this opportunity to talk about the second book.)
Writing about women and from a woman’s perspective (the second book, Interference, is first person, and written in the present tense) comes quite naturally. Or rather, the impulse to do so came quite naturally. When I workshopped parts of Interference, readers told me they didn’t “buy” my narrator’s gender. However, after recently publishing the first chapter in TRNSFR Magazine, a woman contacted me through Facebook, assuming that, 1) that I was a woman, and 2) the work was memoir. The upshot being, I suppose, that my success in creating female characters is up for debate.
But whatever the outcome, yes, I’m interested in writing women, and I can only assume it has something to do with growing up in a household led by a strong woman. One of the only times I can remember my mother being unapologetically prescriptive about a matter of social ethics, occurred sometime in 5th grade, when we were having some kind of mock debate about abortion in class. I was supposed to represent an anti-abortion perspective, and having perhaps taken the argument to heart, I came home that day spouting about the rights of unborn infants. My mother, shocked, told me in no uncertain terms that it was a woman’s right to choose whether or not they gave birth. I don’t remember the specifics of the exchange, but I remember feeling like she’d instructed me to have a certain opinion. Which, as I’ve said, very very rare in my household. Anyway, I suppose it worked, because it’s the opinion I now have.
Abortion, as you’ve said, does indeed effect both men and women. It’s certainly effected me more than once, and it has significant consequences. Let’s table that conversation, however—I think for the purposes of this interview, it’s sufficient to say that abortion is an important, complex topic, one more than worthy of exploring in fiction.
In Interference, the narrator (as in Forecast, named Max (short this time for Maxine)) returns to her college town to cover a human-interest story. But in the book’s alternate present day, Roe v. Wade has been overturned, leaving abortion a state issue, and Indiana, where she returns, has pronounced it illegal. There is also a technology called Re-Mothering that figures into the plot, but that’s perhaps beside the point. The point is she gets wrapped up in a matter of small-town politics being orchestrated by larger interests.
This is perhaps the primary thing the three books of the trilogy have in common: each features some sort of surveillance (in Forecast, it’s quite literal, while in Interference, it’s the journalistic kind) that gets complicated by the protagonist becoming wrapped up in the lives of the people he/she is watching. It seems a pretty natural subject for fiction, really.
I think it only fair you tell us a little about the third book as well. And the publishing prospects for them. Have you, do you think, established a model for the books by serializing the first on the internet before it found a print publisher? Or was that really just the best way to call attention to the book and to set in motion the events that led to the deal with Flatmancrooked? Was there some hope that giving this one away, and spreading it out over 42 separate places with 42 (interconnected here and there, one assumes) readerships, would tip the odds of the other two finding a print publisher in your favor?
The third book, Uno Che, takes place in 2112, on the boarder between Arizona and Mexico, at a theme park where tourists come to watch recreations of illegal immigration. Then the owner, a Seminole Indian named Jack Lightning, decides to let people use his theme park as the cover for a group who wants to smuggle in Che Guevara’s clone.
I don’t know about the serialization thing. I can’t say it hasn’t crossed my mind to try it again. But I’m just not convinced it was successful enough, as anything other than a promotional stunt (which wasn’t my intention, going in). I do recall wondering whether the serialization of Forecast, at that time not placed with Flatmancrooked, could help my agent sell Uno Che, which she was going around with when I began. But ten houses declined to buy the book, and as this was right around when all the layoffs were happening and NYC was an echo chamber of closed or closing doors, we decided to put it on the shelf for the time being. Of course, I’d certainly like to see both of those books published. We’ll see. Maybe if Forecast does well….