THE END IS NOW Author Interview: Sarah Langan

This interview was conducted by Sandra Odell.

“Black Monday” starts with a light, familial tone despite the impending doom, even to the point of invoking humor.  This is a very effective opening, drawing the reader into the moment and the harsh reality that follows.  How would you have managed the same conversation if you were in Nicole’s shoes?

Nicole thinks her work might save herself and her family. She has to believe that, or she’d be bouncing off the walls. She makes jokes for the same reason—to feel in control.

Me, I’d probably act similarly. I remember that after the towers fell on 9/11 and I was trapped in my nearby office, it all felt pretty dreamlike. I cracked a few tourist jokes. I should add that I was the only turkey doing this.

But it’s hard to say—these days I have a family and they’re mostly what I think about. If I was divided from them during a crisis, that would be very hard to endure.

Your use of sensory images really brings the story into focus.  How conscious were you of your presentation of the environment and its effects upon the story?

I’m pretty obsessed with how things smell, so that often makes it into my fiction. Which is weird, because I have practically zero sense of smell. I’ve been stuffed-up since 1987.

Otherwise, I don’t ever visualize my work. It’s all pretty cerebral. I’m in my characters’ heads, looking out through their flawed, crazy eyes.

You make good use of the near-future cybernetics, merging the ideas with the plot so that it doesn’t overwhelm the story.  What sort of research did you do to prepare for this story?  Did you turn to any recent developments in the field of limb replacement sensory integration?

Thanks! The editors will tell you I deleted a lot of extraneous nonsense at the last minute. It’s hard not to over-explain, especially since I’m so captivated by the material.

My interest in harder science fiction has been recent—about five years. I’ve done all kinds of research, from reading the old-school classics to the newer guys like Gibson and Stephenson.

For a while I thought singularity was a great concept, and I read stuff like “The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology” by Ray Kurzweil. I’d planned to make that a big plot point for the very secret YA series I’ve been working on, which “Black Monday” sets the stage for. But the concept of Singularity started to bother me. It’s fantastical in a bad way. People who fantasize about living in machines don’t want to forge evolution; they want to escape death. Those are pretty oppositional drives. One is optimistic, the other’s fueled by fear and bound to fail.

Then I got turned on to “What Technology Wants,” by Kevin Kelly, which is one of my favorite books of all time. It’s smart and realistic. It proved to me that my reluctance toward innovation is masochism. It’s going to happen, and I can either be a part of it, or go extinct. Another book that illustrates this same view from a different perspective is “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain,” by David Eagleman. He proves we’re pretty much a collection of instincts, and often have no control over our own personalities. But once you acknowledge that, you can work within it. I’m all about focused evolution. For example, there’s some evidence that the same apes that developed tools went on to develop opposable thumbs—our brains made our reality.

Much of your work could be classified as horror—Audrey’s Door won the 2009 Superior Achievement For A Novel—and “Black Monday” has a number of elements that could classify it as horror as much as science fiction.  How aware were you of the constraints of any given label or category when writing this story?

I have no idea what genre I’m writing in most of the time. The horror community has embraced me, so I’ve embraced them back. You could argue that horror is any genre—it invokes an emotion: dread (a concept first articulated by Douglas E. Winter). Science fiction canvases specific subjects: technology, space, futuristic visions, alternate realities. So, maybe I write both.

What I’ve noticed is that critics don’t seem to like it when I write horrific science fiction. Maybe it’s just too dark for them, or maybe I’m not following the rules the way they’re used to. Or maybe they just don’t like their chocolate and peanut butter mixed together.

The roller  coaster ending doesn’t even really stop with the final word.  When reading short fiction, what makes a good ending to you?

I like an end that’s appropriate to the story. It’s doesn’t have to be sad or happy, but it has to feel right, and like a true resolution and not something the author pasted together. Endings are like stuffing ten pounds of crap into a five pound sack. It’s possible—a tricky miracle. The second the threads break, everybody knows, and it smells!

I get endings right maybe fifty percent of the time.