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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.

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