THE END IS NOW Author Interview: Elizabeth Bear

This interview was conducted by Gwen Whiting.

Why do you think apocalyptic fiction appeals to readers?  Do you think that it has become more or less relevant to audiences today?

Apocalypse has its fashions, of course. I think it can actually serve to be comforting to readers. I mean, obviously there’s the element of warning—“If this goes on something bad might happen.”

But it also reminds us that things can be worse.

There are a lot of little details packed into your world, particularly where you discuss the problems that the world is facing.  How did you come up with the details of this apocalypse? Was there any specific incident or recent series of events that led you to the creation of this story?  

I actually fret a fair amount about major pandemics. One of my great-grandfathers nearly died in the Spanish influenza pandemic, and there are family legends about it. And my own partner and I live about 1200 miles apart, so if anything happened to the general infrastructure, it would be a serious relationship problem for me.

You reference the “anti-vaxxer” movement in “You’ve Never Seen Everything.”  How do you think that will affect society in the future?  Is this something that you see as a short-lived movement or do you believe that these kinds of questions will linger on?

It seems likely to me that anti-vaccination paranoia grows out a desire for control of the uncontrollable, and also from the innocence of three generations of Westerners who have not personally experienced the incredible pain and loss our grandparents did from polio, scarlet fever, measles, whooping cough… Western medicine has had a few incredible world-changing successes. Two of those were antibiotics and vaccines.

People often quote the statistic that the average person in the pre-modern world died in their thirties. What those people fail to take into account is that actually very few people, then as now, died in their thirties. The average is skewed by the fact that a large percentage died before age 8 from diseases that are now nearly forgotten as threats.

It may be the great irony of our time that with our societal misuse and misunderstanding of antibiotics and vaccines, we’re inviting a group of enemies we’d actually defeated back into a position of domination.

The heart of “You’ve Never Seen Everything” is the main character, Alyce, her struggle to return home and our anticipation of what she will find when she gets there.  When I read this piece, the last paragraphs were the ones that stayed with me, in part because it was a resolution I didn’t expect.  Did you ever consider a different ending than the one ultimately chosen?

I actually got stuck for a while because I didn’t have an ending! I knew that I wanted to write something different from the typical post-apocalyptic road movie narrative where the protagonist moves from random encounter to random encounter. And I knew that it needed emotional tension.

I also knew I didn’t want any of the standard endings—and I’m afraid to say too much about what those might be, because spoilers.

What was the most challenging aspect of this story for you to write?  Do you anticipate returning to any of these themes in the future?   

Oh, wow. The whole thing was kind of a wrestling match, honestly. So much of it is about personal demons and Alyce just deciding to keep going, even when it hurts and is hard. She has reasons to live, I think, and they’re complicated—so even when she’s walking across a third of a continent, it’s enough to keep her going.

I suspect I will be back to all this, though.

The funny thing is, I’ve made the same trip that Alyce did, though I was driving in the other direction. It was one of the most exhausting drives of my life!