INTERVIEW: Joseph Paul Haines, Author of “Ten With a Flag”

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

“Ten With a Flag” is about a young mother-to-be caught in between the wishes of a meritocratic government and those of her husband, both of which are struggling to control the fate of her unborn child.  The government believes the child is a prodigy destined to enrich society while her husband believes the child a danger to both he and his wife.

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

I’d love to tell you that this story was an act of anger or inspired by some great tragedy, but truth be told, I wrote this from the title.  I woke up one morning, grabbed a cup of coffee and centered the words, “Ten With a Flag,” on a blank manuscript page.  I stared at the page for a while, trying to determine just what the hell I was doing, then closed the file and moved on to other projects. The story sat like that in my computer for a couple of weeks.  As with all things in life, Nature abhors a vacuum.  I knew the story was sitting there, waiting for me to figure out what it was and what shape it would take.  I remembered an overheard conversation between a young couple–both of whom were communicating concerns about a medical appointment without once bothering to answer the other’s questions–and I started writing.  The story unfolded over the next couple of days.  As with most of my stories, I had no clue how it would turn out until I finished typing.

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

Determining where the story would start was challenging.  Once I heard the characters speaking to each other, the story wrote itself.

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

I loathe apathy.  People have a tendency to ignore the suffering of others when their lifestyle is not in jeopardy.  We give power to others, praying that their good intentions will lead them down a path of righteous works, but once we imbue someone with the authority to take action we tend to forget them so long as we’re not personally discomforted.  Every dystopian vision, no matter how dark, has a flip side; those who allow the condition of society to exist because they are well fed.  It’s only when the eye of the state gazes upon you and decides that you are the anomalous agitant that you fight back.  Having been a police officer, I have witnessed how good intentions can quickly turn malevolent when viewed through the eyes of a victim.  While I firmly believe that to live well is the best revenge, I’m also acutely aware that to ensure that others live well is tyranny.

What is the appeal of dystopian fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers love it so much?

We read dystopian fiction as a panacea for our fears, which strikes me as both healthy and perverse at the same time.  We comfort ourselves that such an oppressive place could never exist, while our fears are the very genesis of all such governments.  Sometimes the fears are irrational, such as the fear of foreigners or the proverbial, “others,” and sometimes they make perfect sense: “I don’t want to go hungry, but I can’t find a job.”  We fear and distrust government when our lives are good, but when fortune turns we look to the government to help us to our feet.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Distrust of something more powerful than you is a survival mechanism and expecting help when needed is appropriate.  But again, that paving crew working on the road to hell can be a bitch.  We empower others in the hopes that they’ll resolve the issues that frighten us.  Dystopia at its heart is cautionary, but the caution itself shouldn’t be reserved to what others may do to you, but also to what you may end up doing to yourself.

As to why I write it?  I write dystopian fiction to find the balance between my hopes and fears.  You can’t have one without the other, but you should never have too much of either.

What are some of your favorite examples of dystopian fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

Orwell, obviously.  Particularly Room 101.  No doublespeak could ever be as difficult to live with as a face full of rat.   Harlan Ellison’s, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Tick-Tock Man,” is another favorite of mine.  You know the protagonist of the story has no chance in hell of winning, but you can’t help but be uplifted by his stubborn refusal to be a willing participant in the insanity.  To me, that sums up all great dystopian visions: Stubborn refusal in the face of insurmountable odds.  We might not win, but we’ll be damned if we lose.