Interview: Rachel Swirsky, author of “How the World Became Quiet: A Posthuman Creation Myth”

Rachel Swirsky holds an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her short fiction has appeared in venues including Tor.com and Clarkesworld Magazine, and been nominated for the Hugo, the Locus Award, and the World Fantasy Award, and won the Nebula Award twice. Her second collection, How the World Became Quiet: Myths of the Past, Present, and Future, came out from Subterranean Press in 2013. The titular story, reprinted in this anthology, was inspired by a dream—not a good one, or a bad one, but a surreal one. Narrative and many details were added, but female mosquito warriors were there from the start.

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

“How the World Became Quiet” is a creation myth told in the post-human era. It describes the many apocalyptic disasters that befell humans and their descendents.

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

At the time I wrote the story, I was into the idea of stacking apocalypses. A lot of post-apocalyptic fiction presents a setting which can rebuild itself, thus potentially leading to another apocalypse. I liked the idea of apocalypses as beginnings and ends. Also, I thought it poked a bit of gentle and affectionate fun at what can be a serious genre.

I wrote about that theme a few times, and my unconscious must have continued mulling it over, because one night it delivered a dream that was very much like the story I wrote. I did of course finesse the details from dream into story, and it’s been long enough now that I can’t exactly tell you what was consciously versus subconsciously generated. However, the mosquito women warriors were definitely in the dream.

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

I think the process of drafting it in the first place was pretty easy because it was in some sense transcribing. I had to change a lot of details and how things fit together in order to make it a story instead of a dream, but most of those changes felt intuitive.

It was hard to revise this one, though, because I wasn’t sure what to do with it. It was different from what I’d published before, and not really the sort of thing I was sure anyone would like. When I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t be able to sell it. To my surprise, it appeared in one Year’s Best anthology and has been reprinted several times. It even inspired a musical composition.

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

Well, it started as a dream. So that’s pretty personal.

Other than that, not especially. It reflected things I was interested in at the time, and a lot of the images struck me as funny, so I put fingers to keyboard.

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

I didn’t do much for this story. I probably looked up some articles on and pictures of insects. Purely looking at it from the perspective of “Did this story give me an excuse to do lots of entertaining poking around libraries and the internet?”, this story was not a success.

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?

People have spilled a lot of ink on this, I think. I imagine that the cultural motivations behind generating apocalyptic fiction are several and multi-faceted.

When I was on a panel about this topic once, someone asserted that people watching apocalypse narratives always imagine themselves as the survivors. This interests me because I totally don’t. I am the zombie chow. Seriously, I will go sacrifice myself to the zombies to save you because there’s no way I’m going to run away fast enough. That might influence my interest in apocalypses as large-scale stories, told in distant narratives about large events.

I think an important factor in the psychology of the apocalypse is the ability to imaginatively wipe the slate clean. The author determines how much, if any, of the past remains. Darker aspects of apocalypses show our fears of loss; more hopeful aspects, the ways in which we wonder whether we could do better by restarting society from scratch.

Also, there’s cool imagery to use.

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

Many of Octavia Butler’s stories and novel dealt with apocalypses. In Clay’s Ark, there is the apocalypse that comes from space; in Mind of My Mind, there is the apocalypse that comes from human hubris; in Parable of the Sower, there is an environmental apocalypse; in her collection Bloodchild, apocalypses alter human physiology via disease. My favorite work of Butler’s, the trilogy that’s collected in a single volume as Lilith’s Brood, is the story of the small group of humans who’ve survived the extinction of humanity by becoming entwined with the rescuing aliens.

I would call Octavia Butler’s work apocalyptic for metaphorical reasons as well. It’s often devastating. Sometimes the novels break you down in that way really good art can do, and then when you stitch yourself up again, you’re not quite the same–apocalypse followed by renewal.

Her work asks again and again, what are the consequences of being human? How does our physiology limit us? How does it inspire us? Humans being what we are, if we break ourselves down and start again, can we be better next time? What if we change the starting conditions–can we be better then? Or then?

More likely, just different.