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Interview: Chris Willrich on “Grand Tour”

- Tell us a bit about “Grand Tour.”

It’s a slice-of-life story set on a future Earth that, while it may not be truly utopian, is peaceful and wealthy, such that it’s not at all crazy for a family to save up for an interstellar cruise. It’s also a future where it’s commonplace — albeit a bit controversial — for parents to choose genetic modifications for their children. Of course, as in any time period, negotiating young adulthood can be tricky, and “Grand Tour” is also about ways of claiming your independence, while staying connected to your roots.

- What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
 
Part of it was a strange feeling I’d gotten about time perception many years ago (see the question after next) but the immediate trigger came when I was trying to write a bunch of very short sketches about different planets and/or fantasy cities. I’d wanted to do something in the same vein as Italo Calvino’s _Invisible Cities_ or Benjamin Rosenbaum’s story cycle _Other Cities._ One idea that turned up was of a planet that every so often had a big going-away celebration for starfarers, only it would turn out that the people leaving, and the people saying goodbye, were not the ones you’d expect.

I tried refining that notion into something that looked publishable, but the story wanted to get longer than that initial sketch… Meanwhile I’d been playing around with the idea of a sequence about a very long-lived star-traveling character. At some point I realized “Grand Tour” could be that character’s opening story. The pieces seemed to fit.

- What kind of research, if any did you do for this story?

It was pretty light research. I looked at an atlas when considering I-Chen’s flight plan, and checked the distance to Barnard’s Star. And a former colleague of Chinese descent was gracious enough to lend me her name for my main character.
 
- Most authors say their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was “Grand Tour” personal?

In my twenties I first moved a long way from my home town. I’d gone to school a couple of hours away, but this was a much bigger step. It was an open-ended adventure — I got a job copy-editing at a newspaper — though always with the assumption I’d return to my own neck of the woods eventually.

I noticed this awkward difference in how my family and I perceived the passage of time. The cliche situation is that a young person experiences time as passing slowly and an older person sees time passing swiftly. But the opposite happened in this case. My family felt I was off on my adventure for an awfully long time, while I kept feeling as if I’d only just arrived. The disconnect reminded me of the relativistic time dilation that features in science fiction stories about star travel — at least the ones that don’t use faster-than-light travel as a way of getting around General Relativity.

Now, that wasn’t really a story idea, just a metaphor — but it stuck with me, waiting for a story to show up later. Over twenty years later, as it turned out!
 
- Is there anything in particular you would want a reader to take away from “Grand Tour?”

There is some stuff in there about human relationships, but the story verges on being preachy as it is, so I’ll let it do the talking. I will say I was glad to finally manage a non-violent science fiction story.
 
- What are you working on now?
 
I’m revising a novel about my sword-and-sorcery characters Persimmon Gaunt and Imago Bone, who owe their existence to F&SF (they last appeared here in “A Wizard of the Old School,” in the August 2007 issue.)

“Grand Tour” appears in the May/June 2012 issue of F&SF.

Interview: Andy Stewart on “Typhoid Jack”

- Tell us a bit about “Typhoid Jack.”
In a future where society has relinquished most control to cybernetic custodians known as “Farmers,” Jack Lowe, former Chief of Peace, pursues the not-quite-legal profession of a germ peddler. In this future, almost all sicknesses have been eradicated (except for the common cold, of course). But when Bernadette Maude, CEO of a major corporation under house arrest for mysterious reasons, employs Jack for the challenging task of infecting her, he must make further compromises to get the job done. Along with the technical difficulties required of this job, Jack must overcome a more personal obstacle: Seventeen, a Farmer with whom he has a tricky past.

 

- What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

I had a bad cold. I looked in the mirror and asked myself, “Who in the hell would want this?” And bingo, there you have it. A world where germs are a commodity, where people need to be sick sometimes in order to slow down. I was reading a good bit of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett at the time for another noir project, and everything sort of came together.

- What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?

I didn’t do as much research on this story as I usually do because I was less interested in the science and more interested in the character development and situation. That being said, I brushed up a bit on virulent disease and bacteria, especially regarding the speed in which germs replicate in the human body.

- This sci-fi story is your first sale to F&SF.  What have you written in the past, and what draws you to the science fiction genre?

I’ve always loved science fiction. I remember reading F&SF and Asimov’s as a young teen. I especially loved Bradbury (R.I.P., good sir), and later Le Guin and Delaney. Even in my undergraduate and graduate experiences, I gravitated toward sci-fi, surreal, and slipstream. My first publications, which appear in Big Bridge (an online literary journal), are in these styles.
 
“Typhoid Jack” is my first short story in print, and is obviously very sci-fi. I also have a slipsteam short story, “Synesthesia,” forthcoming in the west coast literary journal ZYZZYVA. I wrote “Synesthesia” in my last week at Clarion 2011, which was a key experience for my writing. I wrote “Typhoid Jack” before Clarion, but polished it up after.  

- What might you want someone reading “Typhoid Jack” to take away from the story?
It’s tough to look objectively at my work in this way, but I do know that “Typhoid Jack” deals primarily with the balance between self-interest and the good of the community. It’s a complex equilibrium, and pervasive in our own society. I mean, look at the dichotomy between Democratic and Republican ideals (or, how they are perceived by the talking heads on the 24 hour news networks). Self-preservation may be our strongest drive, but what about our fellow man? It’s all very tricky. But I like to write about tricky things, and sci-fi is a great genre for exploring them.

- What are you working on now?
Currently, I’m polishing up an alternative history sci-fi novella that focuses on events in and around Chernobyl in the early 90s. I’ve recently finished a speculative fiction novel tentatively titled All the Night a Song, represented by Jason Yarn with the Paradigm Agency. It’s getting shopped later in July, so wish me luck!

“Typhoid Jack” appears in the May/June 2012 issue.

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