Interview: Megan Arkenberg, author of “Final Exam”

Megan Arkenberg lives and writes in California. Her work has appeared in Lightspeed, Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Ellen Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year, and the inaugural issue of the horror magazine Aghast, among other places. She procrastinates by editing the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance.

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

“Final Exam” is about the end of a marriage, the end of the world, and the ways people try to make sense of those things. It’s also, as the title suggests, written in the format of a multiple-choice exam.

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

I remember drafting a lot of it in my car on the way to and from a summer Education course (mentally drafting—no pens involved. I don’t recommend actually drafting while driving!). I’m sure the fact that I was studying Education at the time had something to do with the format, although I don’t remember making a lot of conscious decisions about it. I wrote the first question first, pretty much exactly as it appears in the published story, and knew from that beginning that it was going to be a story about Lovecraftian monstrosities from the sea. The marriage conflict came later, as I considered all the different answers one might give to questions about the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it.

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

Out of everything I’ve written, “Final Exam” is probably the story that I most enjoyed writing. The intensely non-linear format was really freeing. I sometimes hear people talk about “stories that write themselves,” and I have no idea what that’s like—I feel like everything I’ve written hits at least one major, stress-inducing snag on the way to completion. But this story flowed along quite smoothly. The only snag came early on, when I debated whether to include an answer key—a section that now feels central to how the story functions.

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

When this story was first published, I received a lot of e-mails from readers either wondering or guessing at how autobiographical it is. On the level of detail, it definitely is—the main character’s job at a grocery store is based on the one I worked during college, and I seem to remember doing $70 worth of damage to a cutlery drawer at some point. So far, though, I’ve been fortunate enough not to experience the breakdown of a marriage or a monster apocalypse firsthand.

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

I didn’t take a lot of breaks for fact-checking with this story. One thing I did spend a ridiculous amount of time searching for is an illustrated edition of “The Little Mermaid” that would match some of the main character’s memories about her childhood copy. I didn’t find one that worked for what I wanted it to do in the story, though, so the illustrations described in “Final Exam” are completely fabricated.

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 there’s a strange kind of pastoral lurking under the surface of apocalypse and post-apocalyptic fiction. In an apocalyptic world, your characters’ goals are clear and simple—get food, get water, don’t get trampled by monsters or eaten by wolves. They don’t have taxes, dentist appointments, and bus routes to worry about, and there are days when running from zombies looks like an attractive alternative to a thankless to-do list. I think we’re also drawn to characters who’ve suffered catastrophic loss, and at the end of the world, everyone is attractively broken.

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

I feel like all of these stretch the definition of “apocalypse fiction” a bit, but here goes: Caitlin Kiernan’s Lovecraftian horror novelette “Houses Under the Sea,” in addition to being one of my favorite short stories of all time, also beautifully explores the experience of being left in the wake of an event that is incomprehensible and world-altering. I also feel like there’s something apocalyptic about early William Gibson, particularly the Sprawl novels after Neuromancer—which I guess presents a kind of techno-apocalypse. I tend not to like apocalyptic movies—too much collateral damage—but Perfect Sense (2011) presents a really unusual apocalypse, and I love the way it shows humans adapting to their constantly changing world.