Interview: Christopher Barzak, author of “A Beginner’s Guide to Survival Before, During, and After the Apocalypse”

Christopher Barzak is the author of the Crawford Fantasy Award-winning novel, One for Sorrow, which has been made into the recently released Sundance feature film Jamie Marks is Dead. His second novel, The Love We Share Without Knowing, was a finalist for the Nebula and Tiptree Awards. He is also the author of two collections: Birds and Birthdays, a collection of surrealist fantasy stories, and Before and Afterlives, a collection of supernatural fantasies, which won the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Collection. He grew up in rural Ohio, has lived in a southern California beach town and in the capital of Michigan, and has taught English outside of Tokyo, Japan, where he lived for two years. His next novel, Wonders of the Invisible World, will be published by Knopf in September 2015. Currently he teaches fiction writing in the Northeast Ohio MFA program at Youngstown State University.

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

It’s a very short story told in the second person point of view, almost in an instruction manual-like voice, about a person who lives through a period of great social change that leads to an apocalyptic scenario that forces him or her to become someone different in order to survive.

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

To be honest, I was inspired by the plethora of dystopian and apocalyptic novels, television shows, and films that have come out in the past decade. Never before have I seen American culture so enthralled with narratives about the end of the world. I read and watched a lot of these books and shows alongside everyone else, even though apocalypse stories aren’t generally the type of thing I write. And at a certain point, I was re-reading a collection of short stories, Self-Help, by the literary fiction author, Lorrie Moore, in which a lot of the stories are told in a voice similar to that of self-help books and instruction manuals. I was inspired to take a lot of the tropes of dystopian and pre- and post-apocalypse literature and put them in the blender of a voice and style like that. At first I thought it would be sort of funny and ironic, but before I was even finished with the second paragraph I had surprised myself and the story turned out to be a jagged little pill after all.

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

It was and it wasn’t. I think because I was so saturated with apocalypse narratives, and because I was using the tropes and conventions of that type of story within the framework of the self-help style voice, it all came to me more easily than most of my stories do. When I write a story of this type, that explores conventions and styles, it can sometimes seem like they write themselves. Because, really, they sort of have been written. It’s a collection of tropes and themes, really, that I’ve arranged in a narrative frame. In some ways, the story might work more like a poem, structurally speaking.

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

The most personal part of this story for me was when I began to describe the “you” narrator. Some people think that the “you” of a second person point of view story is supposed to be the reader, but that’s not necessarily true. The “you” of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, for instance, is a young New Yorker who works as a fact checker at a magazine. When I read that, the “you” is definitely not me. So when I began giving specific details and characteristics to the “you” of “A Beginner’s Guide to Survival Before, During, and After the Apocalypse”, it became very real to me, as some of those characteristics were close to home. The “you” of this story was a kind of outsider in his or her society before things began to fall apart, due to being queer, and one of the details that I place in the story when their society begins to take on dystopic characteristics is how the queer population is stigmatized heavily, among other minority groups as well. With those two things in place, the “you” of the story had a beating heart for me, and I think that’s why the story could no longer be ironic and funny as I had originally planned.

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

Mostly the research of consuming vast amounts of apocalypse literature and films (and video games) as described above. That’s the best kind of research ever!

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

I think the world has been going through enormous shifts in power and social structures over the past decade or so. Bigger and faster changes, some good and some bad, than we’ve seen in a couple of generations. And because of that, there’s been a general feeling of unease and uncertainty about our place in the world. Our environment is a wreck, and we don’t seem really committed to changing its course (at least the powers that be–industry and the politicians they own–aren’t interested). Our social discourse is atrocious (just scan Twitter about events like Ferguson to note how horrible some people can be in the face of a tragedy). And our political/economic system is nakedly controlled by and for the few, rather than the many. I think all of that as well as other issues have made people want to look toward a world where impending disaster has become actual disaster. Sure, it’s thrilling, but it’s also a way for people who are maybe a little afraid of it happening to think through various scenarios in advance.

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

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Jose Saramago’s Blindness, and John Crowley’s Engine Summer immediately come to mind. I like the very thorough speculation that Atwood brings to environmental disaster, and I love Saramago’s unflinching gaze at how terrible humans become to one another in the face of chaos, and with John Crowley’s beautiful novel of life after the apocalypse, when humanity is rebuilding itself, and its implication that even that world being rebuilt will one day also disappear. I just love the voice and the humanity and the elegy for civilization that it carries.