Interview: Matthew Johnson on “The Afflicted”
– Tell us a bit about “The Afflicted.”
“The Afflicted” is a story about where we draw the line in feeling compassion. Old people around the world have developed a disease somewhat similar to Alzheimer’s in that it gradually takes away their memory and self-control, but it also makes them aggressive and uncontrollable. Kate, the protagonist, is a former retirement-home nurse who now works in the camps that have been set up following the outbreak, caring for all of the people who are presumed to be infected but haven’t yet gone “end-stage,” as well as protecting them (and herself) from the ones that have. When she stumbles on someone who isn’t supposed to be there, she’s forced to question her assumptions about herself and the people she cares for.
– What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
I wrote “The Afflicted” at about the same time as my story “The Last Islander,” and the two were a study in contrasts: “The Last Islander” came from an offhand comment I made on a panel at a con back in 2010 and took a year and a half to write after that, whereas the first draft of “The Afflicted” was done about two months after I stopped in the middle of chopping garlic, took my notebook out of my pocket and wrote “Alzheimer zombies.” It sometimes takes me a while to find the dramatic situation in an idea, but in this case I had the setting, characters and basic plot all in place by the end of that evening.
– What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?
I mostly did research on the practical aspects of the story, about nursing in remote areas and in old-age homes. A lot of details in the story, from the “camp ice cream” to the behavior and ailments of some of the characters, come directly from true stories in those settings.
– The zombie genre has been well-tread by other authors, especially in the past ten years or so. What made you want to tackle this area of sci-fi, and how were you able to find new ground to cover as a writer?
I think what sets “The Afflicted” apart is that it’s meant as a criticism of the zombie genre. There’s no mystery to the basic appeal of zombie stories, but I think a lot of the time they’re a guilty pleasure, and not in a good way: we enjoy having characters that the protagonist can kill without guilt or compunction, so that we don’t have to feel any by extension. This can make a story as meaningless as a first-person shooter, but there’s a moral concern as well. In most stories, not only is it not wrong to kill a zombie, it’s wrong not to kill a zombie, and characters are admired and praised for their willingness to kill infected friends, lovers and family members before they “turn.” In “The Afflicted” I made the “latent” period a lot longer than it is in most stories to bring those moral questions — When do we stop feeling compassion for someone? When do we stop thinking of someone as human? — to the foreground.
– Some authors say their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, then in what way was “The Afflicted” personal to you?
It’s not based on direct experience, fortunately, though I do think that how we treat old people is one of the things future generations may view the way we see slavery and bear-baiting today. The ideas in the story, though, have a lot to do with my work doing media education, because a lot of the same questions get raised when we’re looking at media violence, cyberbullying, and media representations of crime, poverty, disasters and so on.
– What are you working on now?
My story “The Last Islander” is out right now in the September issue of Asimov’s and I have a collection of short stories, “Irregular Verbs,” coming out from ChiZine Press in early 2014. Right now I’m trying to get back into a writing routine after a brutal year at my day job, doing research for a novel tentatively titled “The City of Dreaming Spires” and trying to find a home for my second book, “Fire In Your Heart,” about a world where God is not only demonstrably real but periodically comes down to Earth to judge everyone for their sins. Interested parties can get semi-regular updates at my website, www.irregularverbs.ca.
“The Afflicted” appears in the July/August 2012 issue of F&SF.
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