INTERVIEW: Jennifer Pelland, author of “Personal Jesus”

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

“Personal Jesus” is a story about what could happen if a Fundamentalist United States found a way to use implantable technology to keep its citizens in line.

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

Jason Sizemore invited me to submit a story to the anthology Dark Futures: Tales of Dystopic SF that he was editing. It was early 2009, and the Tea Party movement was in the process of marrying the remnants of the Moral Majority. I looked at the America that they wanted to create, and it scared the crap out of me.

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

Not in the least. Someone once told me to “write what scares you.” Politically and personally, I was terrified, so the words just flowed.

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

I’m a bisexual woman who wants autonomy over my own body, and I’m an atheist who wants autonomy over my own beliefs. I have many friends who are pagan, trans, kinky, and other things that horrify the religious right. So I take it very personally when people say that me and my friends don’t deserve the same right to be ourselves as they do.

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

This one was completely research-free, as is probably evident.

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

I’m a pessimist at heart, and I find it tremendously therapeutic to create or watch/read tales of things gone horribly wrong. For starters, if I can imagine something that terrible, then I can prepare myself for a reality that’s likely not going to be that bad. But also, it’s a great antidote to all the perky positive crap out there that just makes me want to gag. Yes, it’s lovely to imagine a world with a happy ending lurking behind each bush, but we don’t live in that world. On a large scale, we live in a world where we’re too short-sighted to clean up our act before we poison our planet beyond repair. We live in a world where people kill each other over religion, ethnicity, resources, lines on a map. And on a small scale, we live in a world where good people get inoperable cancer, or discover that they’re carrying a fetus without a brain, or lose everything they own because a bank made a stupid error that they legally aren’t liable for. Plenty of people don’t get happy endings in life. Why should everyone get them in fiction?

What are some of your favorite examples of dystopian fiction (in any media), and what makes them your favorites?

I grew up on 1984, so that will always loom large in my mind as a classic. Also, being an adolescent in the 80s meant I was exposed to a lot of nuclear horror, like The Day After and Threads. I wouldn’t count either as entertainment, but they were both brutally necessary for the time, and I’m glad I watched them at an impressionable age. Growing up in the 80s also means that I love Terminator and Blade Runner more than is probably healthy. As for literature, no one does it better than Octavia Butler. I know most people would point to Parable of the Sower/Parable of the Talents when talking about dystopias, but I think a stronger case can be made for her Xenogenesis Trilogy (aka Lilith’s Brood). Each novel left me feeling more bleak and hopeless than the one before it. They’re absolutely incredible pieces of literature.