In addition to being an effective horror story with a post-apocalyptic feel, The New World has an undercurrent of social and historical commentary, particularly as it relates to colonialism and the work done by religious missionaries. Did you set out wanting to write on that subject through the speculative fiction lens, or did those undertones creep into the story later?
The idea I started with was ‘bugs from another world.’ It takes me a ridiculously long time to write a short story, and during that time I read God’s Jury, Cullen Murphy’s beautiful and terrifying history of the Inquisition. It got me thinking about the religious component of the clash of cultures. The moral certainty that drove the ferocity of the subjugation of the Americas came out of the Church. Or at least it gave a moral framework to support that desire for conquest. Like it says in Romans, “If God be for us, who can be against us?”
What is your writing process like typically? Or do you have a different process for every story?
My process is all over the place. I write most productively when something comes out of the ether and hits my brain the right way. So, when I’m not working my day job I’m trying to expose myself to as much of the things that might do that; good books, poetry, art, strange music and good conversation. Having writer pals who understand helps!
What is your favorite piece of insect-related fiction?
Oh, there’s so much great stuff to choose from it’s hard to pick one thing. I remember reading “Leiningen Versus the Ants” in junior high school and being captivated by the fact that there really were such things as army ants, and my favorite story by Stephen King is “The Mist,” with its giant, mutated dragonflies and spiders. And I could go on about bug movies for days.
As we mature, our relationship with the creepy-crawly elements of the world changes, as does our emotional (and sometimes physical) response. Can you tell us one early or notable experience you’ve had with bugs that helped shape how you view them?
When I was a kid my friends and I spent all our time wandering the woods and fields around our neighborhood in suburban Maryland. I remember once coming on a spider suspended between two trees. It was probably a black and yellow garden spider – they typically get to be a couple of inches across, but I remember it as being this huge, bulbous thing as big as my hand. After that, my imagination had them lurking everywhere. I don’t think I’ve ever really gotten used to big bugs.
What are you working on now/what do you have upcoming that you want people to know about?
My next novel from St. Martin’s is coming in April. It’s called The Poor Boy’s Game, and it’s a crime novel, though it’s really about family, as are all my novels. The plot centers on a woman, an ex-federal marshal, who has to protect someone from her own father, a vicious thug and career criminal.
One of the perennial points of contention in the world revolves around education -- who should get educated (and to what degree), what should be taught, who should be excluded. Meanwhile, children in their classrooms ask, “Why do I need to know this?” Tell us one obscure thing you learned in school that you think is important, and why.
Oh, all the best, most interesting stuff is obscure to somebody. I was fascinated by the labor movement when I was young and remember reading about things like the Boston Police Strike and the Battle of Blair Mountain. Learning that companies would drop bombs on American workers to avoid paying living wages to folk who mined coal was pretty central to my understanding of the way things work.
We all have our favorite authors, some of whom everyone has heard of, and some of whom are relatively obscure. Who is one of the more obscure writers you love? What do you love about their work? Tell us which story or novel of theirs we should drop everything to read right now.
I don’t know if he would be considered obscure, but I love, love Tom Drury’s work. He wrote one of my favorite novels, The End of Vandalism, centering on a group of wonderful and seemingly very ordinary characters in a small midwestern town and his latest, Pacific, picks up the same characters years later. He’s one of those amazing writers who turn the smallest exchange into something both entertaining and revelatory about human frailty.