Interview: James Van Pelt, author of “A Flock of Birds”

James Van Pelt teaches high school and college English in western Colorado. His fiction has made numerous appearances in most of the major science fiction and fantasy magazines. He has been a finalist for a Nebula Award, the Colorado Blue Spruce Young Adult Book Award, and been reprinted in many year’s best collections. His first novel, Summer of the Apocalypse, was released in 2006. His third collection of stories, The Radio Magician and Other Stories, received the Colorado Book Award in 2010. His latest collection, Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette Escadrille, was released in October of 2012.

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

I wrote “A Flock of Birds” about six months after 9/11. It’s my reaction to the overwhelming shock and grief that I think all of us who lived through that time suffered. I remember walking into a social studies teacher’s classroom during his planning period a month after the event. Some of the news outlets were still covering it twenty-four hours a day, and he had his classroom television tuned to one of those stations. He looked haunted and haggard. He said, “I can’t stop watching.”

I felt that way too, so I took my thinking about loss and grief, and it turned into someone trying to cope with a world-wide terrorist event. “A Flock of Birds” is about coping with extinction, and it’s also about hope.

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

Sometimes I start a story because I have a character, sometimes because a line of dialogue is stuck in my head, or sometimes because an image feels interesting to me. I wrote this one out of a mood, which did present a challenge. The challenge was to not let the mood overwhelm me. After 9/11, I felt adrift. 9/11 was the culmination of three life-altering, depressive events for me: the Columbine shooting, the Challenger explosion, and then the terrorist attack. I felt that a little part of me was always grieving, and that’s the mood that the story came from. While writing the story, I realized that my biggest hurdle was to get the character to a different place than he started. That also meant that I had to see my way out of grief, which I think I did.

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

I had done some research on birds for another piece I’d written before, so I had notes to look at, but for this piece I needed to know a lot more about Colorado birds and bird watchers. I filled up my kitchen table with books for a week or so.

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?

Post-apocalyptic fiction feels like a literary demonstration of the myth of the phoenix. I like the idea that in the destruction of the old, something new can be born. This is really cool if you are one of the survivors, of course. The fact we ignore when we write the post-apocalyptic survivors’ stories is that so many did not make it to the other side. For me, thinking about the price to create the new world colors the story’s tone. There’s a lot of graves underneath the foundation of a post-apocalyptic story which I think more people are aware of since 9/11.

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

I like post-apocalyptic settings in general, so many such works are in my top all-time lists. My most influential would be George Stewart’s Earth Abides, but I bet everyone would list that. Another kick-butt story would be, of course, Stephen King’s The Stand.

The most depressing example of the genre, for me, was Mordecai Roshwald’s Level 7. Everyone dies, like in Neville Shute’s On the Beach, but what really depressed me is that his main character realizes the music that they are listening to in the shelter isn’t infinite. It’s just a long tape that keeps playing over and over.

I really liked David Brin’s The Postman too, but if you hold me to choose just one post-apocalyptic title, I’ll go with Fritz Leiber’s “A Pail of Air”. I’ve never read anything that seemed as desperate, sad, and doomed as that story, and then he manages to give the characters hope in the end. Great work.