Interview: Nancy Kress, author of “By Fools Like Me”

Nancy Kress is the author of thirty-four books, including twenty-seven novels, four collections of short stories, and three books on writing. Her work has won five Nebulas, two Hugos, a Sturgeon, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. She has also lost over a dozen of these awards. Nancy’s most recent work is Yesterday’s Kin, about a surprising genetic inheritance (Tachyon, 2014). In addition to writing, Kress often teaches at various venues around the country and abroad; in 2008 she was the Picador visiting lecturer at the University of Leipzig. Kress lives in Seattle with her husband, writer Jack Skillingstead, and Cosette, the world’s most spoiled toy poodle.

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

“By Fools Like Me” is about how perceptions of our world change over time. In our world, books are wonderful–even revered–objects. In a future teetering on human extinction because of a dearth of trees, books are a monstrosity. Both make sense for their respective environments. There are fewer universal truths than we think there are.

That’s the meta-level. On a story-telling level, it’s about an old woman and a child who find a bag of old books.

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

I can’t remember. I do know this–I like to write about old people. My last two award winners, “Fountain of Age” and ‘The Erdmann Nexus” both feature protagonists in their nineties. Old people have a richness of experience and memory that the young haven’t had time to accumulate. I liked writing about the old even before I was fast becoming one.

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

No, this was one of the easy stories to write. Once I had Anna’s voice, the rest came swiftly. For me, the voice is critical, especially in first person. If I get that, the rest falls into place.

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

I have always loved books, and always been a reader. As a child, I would read the back of a ketchup bottle if nothing else was available. It was a pleasure to put some of my favorite books – Alice in Wonderland, Jane Eyre—into this story.

Other than that, the story isn’t particularly personal. I am not a grandmother, not lame, not living in a dust-bowl climate at the edge of extinction.

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

None, really. It’s not one of my hard SF stories.

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?

There may be a few different reasons. (1) Schadenfreude – it’s nice to read about disasters we don’t have to actually live through. (2) Apocalypses give a lot of scope for conflict, which is the heart of fiction. (3) Fashion: right now apocalypses are ubiquitous, fueling a lot of influential fiction, especially YA. Five years from now, it might be something else. (4) The power of the cautionary tale, an honored tradition in SF. Warn us against disaster and maybe we’ll head it off. I can’t say this hopeful concept has produced many results …. but you never know, do you?