THE END IS NIGH Author Interview: Robin Wasserman

Tell us a bit about your story.  What’s it about?

It’s the story of an end-of-the-world preacher who, purely by coincidence, accurately predicts the end of the world. But it’s also about a man connecting with a lost son and whatever may remain of his soul, about a boy modeling himself after failure and finding triumph, about the lies we tell ourselves to navigate the world and whether they can ever be more courageous than the truth, and about the will to survive—and whether surviving is always worth the cost. It’s also, just maybe, the origin story of a supervillain or a saint, but you’ll have to wait until the next installment to decide which.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

This is one of those stories that started as a one line joke, a silly what if: What if you correctly predicted the apocalypse…and what if you were as surprised by it as everyone else? What if you were more surprised, because only you had the advantage of knowing that you were a fraud? From there, it grew to be—at least I hope—a deeper meditation on what it would mean to weave a story for others that you can’t believe in yourself. I write a lot about religion, especially religious fundamentalism and roots of belief, because it’s so full of questions I can’t stop asking myself and can’t answer: How do you know what you believe? How can you make yourself believe? How much belief is enough? What happens to faith in the face of proof, and does the former rely on the absence of the latter? For me, this became the story of a somewhat tragic figure, a Moses banned from the promised land—someone who can come up with a lie to make anyone feel better, except himself.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

Funny you should ask, because the answer is a resounding YES. The story popped into my head as a one line premise and a voice. I wrote down the first two sentences, exactly as you see them in the final version, and then…nothing. For a long time. Not because I didn’t know where the story should go or who the character would be—I knew that would develop as soon as I let myself dive into it—but because I was intimidated by the voice. It was so distinctive, so idiomatic and so very far removed from mine or anything in my own experience that I was very wary of taking it on for an entire story. I didn’t want the character to become a caricature; I didn’t want to write a 5,000 word joke. It took me a long time to work up the nerve, and then even longer to revise and refine until I made it work. At least, I hope I did.

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

As with most stories, I only come to understand what I’m really trying to say—the story beneath the story—when I’m almost done. I almost never go into things recognizing the personal connection from the start, and this story is no different. It dovetails with a lot of my obsessions (millennial preachers, apocalypse cults, doomsday preppers, origin stories), but on the surface it’s got pretty much nothing to do with my actual life. But the more I dug into the story, the more I realized it was a story about storytelling, about the necessities of narrative and the ways it can shape reality. Which obviously speaks to me as a writer, but also as a person, as I’ve spent a lot of time this year wondering about the ways we define ourselves through narrative, the stories we tell about who we are, deep down, and how much of that is malleable, dependent on how we string the facts together. How much of apparent reality is simply our favorite lie?

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

“Have to” suggests that it was an obligation, when in fact it was a joy. As I’ve mentioned I love apocalypse cults and all manner of preparation for the end of days, and so it was a delight to have an excuse to dive into all of that for official professional purposes. The best thing to come out of this story is my discovery of the TV show Doomsday Preppers. Also known as the greatest TV show concept of all time. If you haven’t seen it, you should probably stop reading now so you can go watch a few episodes. A reality show about real people preparing for the end of the world, it has confirmed my suspicion that when the zombies arise, I’ll be among the first casualties. At least now I’ll understand why.

What is the appeal—either as a writer or a reader—of stories that take place BEFORE an apocalypse?

I’ll admit to suffering a bit of post-apocalyptic dystopia fatigue, so for me it was a lot of fun to play around with a setting much closer to our own time. As a reader, a lot of the pleasure derives from the ticking clock and the knowledge—or, more to the point, the characters’ knowledge—that time is running out. What would you do if the world was about to end? The question is so rich with possibility, because in a time with no consequences, you could do anything. Would you set aside morality? Pursue your own pleasure, revenge yourself on your enemies, bury yourself in denial, camp out at the Playboy mansion? The temptation is the same for the writer, I think—there’s nothing like placing your characters in extreme circumstances to find out who they really are. I suppose I’m not surprised there aren’t more stories and novels like this, since I doubt there’s that much call for literature sans happy ending, but I can never get enough of it.

What are some of your favorite examples of pre-apocalyptic fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

I think my favorite pre-apocalyptic-related moment in all of fiction is the scene in Heathers where all the Heathers take a lunchtime poll: You inherit five million dollars the same day aliens land on the earth and say they’re going to blow it up in two days. What do you do?

Every answer we hear bares the character’s soul—or at least the high school clique version of it—In a single line. Like every other moment in the movie, it’s genius. (I would argue that, given the movie’s intended original ending in which the whole school gets blown up, Heathers is actually a full-on pre-apocalyptic movie, but I might need more space than I have here to make my case.)

My slightly less unorthodox, more officially pre-apocalyptic favorite is the story “Inconstant Moon,” by Larry Niven. It’s a lovely little love story about a man who figures out that the night’s fantastically bright and beautiful moon means that the sun has gone supernova, and in the morning everything will be incinerated. He spends what he thinks is his last night on earth falling in love with a woman he thinks has no idea what’s going on. I first read this as a teenager and was enchanted by the wild beauty of their last night together and the final note of hope—though I suspect my favorite part, as a smarter-than-thou 13 year old, was the fact that in the end the supposedly dim bulb girl proves to be significantly sharper than her boyfriend, and saves the day.