BILL LAVENDER: What does the book have and have not to do with New Orleans?
MOIRA CRONE: When I first started writing the book in the 1990’s, I set it in New Orleans because I live here, and because it began with a dream that was set here—a strange dream of a young man sitting in a nightclub on Magazine Street, talking to a woman who looked young, but a little voice told me she was actually over two hundred years old. I woke up and started writing. Who was this fellow? Where did he come from? What was this world he lived in? What was his childhood? What future was this? I had read the geological maps, and I knew that with sea level rise, in a hundred years, New Orleans was supposed to be flooded, islands—at least that was the projection at that time. I wrote and published a good portion of this book before Katrina. Those scenes of the flooded city were written before I saw them on the TV screen—spooky, and true.
A book like this with a number of different themes—such as the questions around extreme longevity, or the consequences of having a huge gap between rich and poor, or the need to sacrifice for love—could have been set anywhere, but I chose to set it here, where I dreamed it, because I think New Orleans holds the burden and the treasure of the American soul—it carries something deep, takes the place of the underworld in the nation’s mind. But the underworld is two places: the place where souls go, and the place where souls come from. Rebirth, as well as death.
In people’s minds, when they think of America, New Orleans holds both the best and the worst images—and at the same time. It is out of step, in another time, a different realm. Darker, and brighter.
So, when the rest of the nation has become a single-focused nightmare where the rich live forever with mindless intensity, New Orleans “drops out.” It’s not going there.
And my character, Malcolm, sees the world from that point of view.
Our city, in the novel, is at the edge of an Empire that insists there is only one kind of happiness, and the material is the only reality. My New Orleans characters don’t follow the rules either, don’t buy the usual soap—they make their own lives, believe their own myths.
As I was writing, I discovered that Malcolm, who was trained from earliest childhood to claim that material immortality for himself, might side with the outside, with the fringe. New Orleans became a place where he could choose, or see the way to choose. This is set in New Orleans, but it is about soul; it’s about everywhere. Just like Katrina was about the whole country, not just one place.
I won’t give away what he decides.
BILL LAVENDER: What does the book have and have not to do with science fiction? Writers like Ursula LeGuin, William Gibson and Margaret Atwood have already been responsible for moving science fiction into the literary mainstream. Where does TNY fit in that literary milieu?
MOIRA CRONE: While I was writing this book I had a correspondence with the science fiction master Ursula K. Le Guin about how to classify it. She said that, given its theme, it should be called science fiction. She also said that many prominent writers in this country refuse to call their works science fiction (opting instead for the compromise, “speculative fiction”), when science fiction is exactly what they are. It is a prejudice, and, she said, “You live in the South, you know prejudices die hard.” Le Guin’s work is as beautiful and as mind bending as anything being written. Left Hand of Darkness reorders the entire idea of human gender at the same time that it renders a gorgeous, plausible, complex and profoundly subtle world. I think this book had a great impact on how people saw or see gender—a great social impact, rare for any kind of bookyet it is usually not included in lists of great literary works, at least in America; it’s classified as a genre book.
In other countries, this great divide does not exist. Writers are free to move back and forth. Commonwealth writers of the first order, such as Margaret Atwood in Canada and P.D. James and Kazuo Ishiguru in England, write science fiction, and it is accepted as literary. They don’t bother about the label. All three of these writers have written sci fi novels that became films and remarkable myths for our time. The fact that they “cross over” is of no consequence to anyone—in that universe, at least.
Meanwhile, quintessentially American writer Cormac McCarthy’s The Road has the themes and landscape you see in works by science fiction writers. But American reviewers insist that it is literary and not a genre work. But of course it is sci fi. Every element in it can be found in classic dystopian “road” novels like Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. Poe wrote both horror and science fiction; Borges wrote some marvelous fantasies and time-travel science fiction stories; and they are literary masters. Who labels a writer as science fiction and why? People who want to market a certain genre, and, readers, also, who want work to adhere to certain boundaries, for the work to lack surprises? Perhaps. Although I actually believe that science fiction and fantasy audiences are some of the most eager and open readers possible, and the most interested in fiction and the inventive imagination. Science fiction readers see that realism is a form, and a form that limits the imagination to certain realms. They like things to go farther. They are interested in world-building—the essence of fiction—and they look for a high order of creativity. They are willing to go into the unconscious, into myth, magic. So I hope all these boundaries are breaking down, and I am happy to have written a book that, I hope, will be part of that collapse.
BILL LAVENDER: Fredrick Jameson has noted that science fiction, sometimes known as “speculative fiction” because it is typically set in the future, is always really about the present. He goes on to point out how William Gibson’s Neuromancer series clearly explicated modes of consciousness that were already becoming de facto in the 1980s. So, to what degree is TNY a cautionary tale (in the way that Biguenet mentioned) for an impending future, and to what degree is it a tale of the present? There is, to be sure, a kind of class warfare going on in the story that would seem to parallel concerns being raised in the country today. Are the Heirs the 1%?
MOIRA CRONE: When I first started writing The Not Yet, I didn’t know that the issue of the great gap between the rich and poor in this country would become a political hot button, but I was aware that something was amiss. I read an article that the two states with the greatest gap—this is back in the 1990’s—were New York State, and Louisiana. New York, significantly, I think, is now first on that list; it has surpassed Louisiana in its backwardness (if you agree that this gap represents a society going backwards).
You also asked about the idea of being predictive. It’s a little spooky that I wrote the first hundred pages before Katrina—and published a good portion of it, including scenes of the Sea of Pontchartrain, the boat ride down the Napoleon Canal—and then, the flood happened.
In fact, when I was in exile because of the flood, I was walking around with the first hundred pages of the book—I was on a grant that semester to finish it—and the first line was, “In my twenty first year, I was called back to the ruins of New Orleans.” Things I had imagined had come to pass. I was called back to the ruins of New Orleans.
In fact, the uncanniness of that, and the experience of living through those first months put me off. I didn’t think I could finish the novel; it seemed jinxed. But I loved working on it, so I did complete it eventually.
The America in the novel is a stagnant society which only exists to keep the Heirs alive and basking in their privilege and their endless lives. Nobody else has a shot, unless they are in the business of amusing the super wealthy, or by some fluke. I hope the novel stirs some consideration of what that has to do with the facts on the ground. When we have certain Dickensian solutions being offered for social ills by our politicians, such as child labor, or taking children away from mothers because their mothers are poor, or people being denied the “right” to procreate—
But I have to say that this novel, for the most part, came from dreams and images that I don’t entirely understand, that I wanted to describe because I wanted to explore them. In a certain way, it is the most autobiographical work I have ever written—how this is true is hard to explain, certainly, a whole other topic, but it is. I hope I have created a somewhat coherent world, but it is for the reader to decide or consider what it has and doesn’t have to do with the place we actually live in. The real question Malcolm faces is, given the soul-endangering situation he is in, what chance does he have? Everybody faces that question at some point in life, regardless of the politics.
Bill Lavender is the managing editor for the University of New Orleans Press.
Moira Crone is the author of The Not Yet.