Interview: Pat Cadigan

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

“Nothing Personal” is a police procedural; the central character, Ruby Tsung, is an experienced homicide detective whose instincts seem to go into overdrive when some of her cases take an unusual turn. But it’s not really her instincts, exactly, but a reaction to people who aren’t where they’re supposed to be.

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

Mike Resnick asked me to write for an anthology he was editing about alien crimes, called, oddly enough, Alien Crimes (Science Fiction Book Club, 2007). I decided to interpret the idea of “alien” in a different way–i.e., as an incursion from an alternative timeline, which would be alien to our own.

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

Well, Mike asked for a novella, something that is always challenging for me to write and I believe “Nothing Personal” actually stops 500 words short of being an official novella. But the challenge wasn’t finding enough story–it was keeping it from becoming a whole novel. As soon as I started thinking about the idea of some people, like Ruby, being physically ‘allergic’ to incursions from alternative timelines, I actually wanted to go all the way with it. But I knew if I did, I wouldn’t be able to excerpt a novella out of it for Mike.

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

Well…I may be guilty of providing the legendary Too Much Information here but not long before I wrote this story, I was having some problems with anxiety. Not anxiety attacks but a steady state of dread without let-up, and for no real reason. After I had the problem treated, I still remembered the feeling vividly; I thought of it as a variety of chronic pain, only emotional rather than physical. Except, of course, it was physical in that it could be physically treated, with medication. I decided that after going through the ordeal, I ought to profit by it in some way.

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

I had to research current police procedures and study up on the many-worlds theory.

What is the appeal of parallel worlds stories and/or portal fantasies? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about them? Why do you think readers/viewers love it so much?

Parallel worlds stories are sort of wish-fulfilment fantasies–you get to have your cake and see what happened when you ate it. Who doesn’t like to wonder what would have happened if they’d chosen a different path. Not to mention those near-misses–we’ve all had the experience of narrowly missing a disaster–if you’d arrived at that intersection two minutes earlier, you’d have been struck by the driver who ran the red light. Or the not-misses: plenty of us have also suffered the consequences of being in the wrong place at the wrong moment–either ourselves, personally, or our loved ones. Or maybe we were in the right place at the right time. Or almost in the right place at the right time–ask the lady who lives upstairs from Cinderella and wears the same size shoe.

As you can see, alternative timeline ideas proliferate as much as alternative timelines themselves.

What are some of your favorite examples of parallel worlds or portal fantasies (in any media), and what makes them your favorites?

My latest favourite is Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley. Paul is a scientist so I always know when I read something of his that it will have solid science behind it and I’ll learn something in the most entertaining way possible. There’s also a novel called Glimpses by Lewis Shiner, which deals with all those dead rock stars you wish hadn’t died, and what would happen if you could save them. The whole time I was reading the book, I was arguing with it. I love when that happens.

I also have to confess a sneaking fondness for the movie Sliding Doors, with Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hannah. An alternative timeline chick flick! And it’s set in London! As you can see, the-road-not-taken stories have something for everyone.