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Interview: Andy Stewart on “Wormwood is Also a Star”

When asked about his novella “Wormwood is Also a Star,” Andy Stewart responded with this short essay.

When the Fukushima nuclear plant was close to meltdown after the tsunami in Japan a few years back, I found myself randomly reflecting on my 5th grade year of elementary school, thumbing through the old National Geographics crammed together on Mrs. Pearson’s shelf. I obsessed over the one headlining the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. I was too young when it actually happened to properly remember, but had a basic understanding of the event when I stumbled across the volume. It was already many years old, and I couldn’t tell if the coloring of the cover and the pages inside was made drab from age, or if everything in that city was just that gray and desaturated.

Those images of the city, of the Ferris wheel popping up above the trees in the distance, of the clean-up crew in their olive green hazard suits, of the skinny children, must have imbedded themselves in my memory.

Jump to early 2011, and I start thinking, at first, that I should write speculatively about a nuclear meltdown, something with a sci-fi twist pertaining to children, but then I think, why not go back and dig into all the fear and power I felt when looking at those photos in 5th grade?

I officially began to piece the novella that became “Wormwood is Also a Star” together after my stint in the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop at the close of summer 2011. I left Clarion energized to focus on fiction that pertained to relationships, particularly difficult relationships (I owe that bit of direction to Kij Johnson’s guidance in particular). And, for whatever reason, I found myself thinking about stuff that really scared the shit out of me.

The aforementioned tragedy of the whole Chernobyl incident was a start, but the novella also deals heavily with the idea of deception, of never ‘truly’ being capable of knowing someone else.  Mitka, the main character, is cheating on her husband with a man (a teenager, really) far younger than her. I’ve never been in a situation where I loved two people at once, but that’s where Mitka is at when the novella opens. It’s a tricky situation that promised to unfold in interesting ways.

I’d never written a ‘revisionist” or “alternative” history piece before, so the research took some time, and was instrumental in the way the characters, the love triangle, and the politics of 1992 Ukraine came together. The last piece of the puzzle was actually figuring out what ‘happens’ in the story, finding the actual story to tell. I think I had just re-watched Clue when the idea of making it a “murder-mystery dinner” sort of plot came to me. If you look closely, I think you’ll see the trappings.

I’d always heard for years that in some dialects, the name “Chernobyl” translates to “Wormwood.” I looked into it more, and it seems to be at least relatively true, the word translating to a specific black-stalked plant that people associate with the botanical known in the West as Wormwood. Even if it isn’t true, it’s a fascinating connection, associating the star wormwood from Revelations and the meltdown. I don’t mean to be reductive here, or even religious, but I will be a little fatalistic—what a dearth of symbol and portent. There’s an old, twisted up, bitter fate running strong through this tale, so it somehow feels appropriate that I wrote both the very first and the very last sections of the novella before knowing how the characters and the various mysteries would complicate things. The ending was as clear to me as the beginning–there really couldn’t be a happy-go-lucky ending to the story. I honestly believe the characters were telling me that from the get-go.

“Wormwood is Also a Star” appears in the May/June 2013 issue of F&SF.

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