Interview: Jake Kerr, author of “Biographical Fragments of the Life of Julian Prince”

Interview by Earnie Sotirokos

Jake Kerr’s first published story, “The Old Equations,” was nominated for the Nebula Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America and was shortlisted for the Theodore Sturgeon and StorySouth Million Writers awards. His stories have subsequently been published in magazines across the world, broadcast in multiple podcasts, and been published in multiple anthologies and year’s best collections. His young adult novel, Tommy Black and the Coat of Invincibility, will be released in early 2015. The third and final volume in the series will be released later in the year. A graduate of Kenyon College, Kerr studied fiction under Ursula K. Le Guin and Peruvian playwright Alonso Alegría. Prior to writing fiction, he spent fifteen years as a music industry journalist. He lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife and three daughters.

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 are a lot of reasons, and they are all different for each person. Some will like the violence and excitement of destroying zombies. Some will like the resourcefulness of scientists saving the planet. Some will like humanity overcoming the impossible. All of those things illustrate the core appeal: The apocalyptic genre is as big as fiction itself. It is a canvas without limit. For me, the allure is distinctly personal. The idea of examining one’s own feelings while reading about certain impending death provides at least a small glimpse into our own bravery while facing mortality. This goes for all of the other apocalyptic scenarios as well. How would we handle helplessness? How would we feel when forced to make a horrible decision affecting life and death? Is simply surviving enough, or is it its own curse? The themes and the plots are endlessly compelling.

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

My absolute favorite is Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. It is such a rich and powerful illustration of the father-son bond combined with the indomitable spirit of humanity to move forward and survive in spite of the darkest circumstances. It is such a personal book and one full of love, yet the setting and circumstances are so devoid of both those things. The Road reminds me a lot of Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful. While set in a concentration camp, it has all of the facets of an apocalyptic piece. And, really, for a Jew in Nazi Germany, it truly was an apocalypse. Benigni’s film also examines the triumph of humanity over unfathomable darkness, one of the core themes of the entire genre.

“Biographical Fragments of the Life of Julian Prince” features a Wikipedia article from the future. What made you want to tell the story this way?

I recently read a soon-to-be-published short story that as part of its structure included an indirect way of telling its story—a eulogy. I thought the way that the story was revealed from a distance was very powerful and actually drew me closer to the subject. A few things entered my mind. Could I use this same technique to tell an entire story about an individual? Without writing any traditional narrative and only illustrating and describing him from a distance, could I get close enough to a person that readers would care about him and, in fact, perhaps care about him more than otherwise? Similarly, could I use a background that we would normally consider a centerpiece of a story—a global catastrophe—and not even focus on it all while also making its horrible nature clear in the reader’s mind?

In short, I wanted to tell a personal story and an epic story without directly telling either one. We would see them both from a distance, in relief.

One of the things that I think is powerful about this is that it requires the reader to fill in so many blanks, that the experience requires more reader collaboration. The reader is given no guidance as to what Prince looks like or was like as a friend, or a significant other, or any number of other things. All he or she has is this distant view requiring them to bring to bear their own imagination. This is one of the things that I think can be very powerful about a story told this way. The reader can make the story even more personal because he or she is required to take part. This goes for the catastrophe, as well. We see glimpses of its aftermath, but there is very little detail of what actually happened. The horror can either be provided by the reader, or just passed over. Again, the collaboration of the reader is critical.

I liked that a lot.

You stitched together several kinds of sources to put this entry together. I enjoyed seeing Prince’s wit come out in the talk show transcript. Was there a specific source that stood out to you?

Of the entire piece, it is a single line quoted in one of the Wikipedia entries that sticks in my mind: when Prince is quoted about his return to North America and says, “It was like performing an autopsy on your own parent.” It’s a simile that in one line really captures the personality of Prince and the world he lives in.

Do you think an author could start a literary movement and then completely contradict it in today’s increasingly polarized social climate?

There are plenty of examples of this at the individual level—Bruce Springsteen’s bitter anti-war song “Born In The USA” used as a pro-USA political anthem being just one example—that I don’t think it is unrealistic to think that in the uncertain atmosphere of a global catastrophe there will be a whole art movement that becomes popular despite the underlying intent of the artist. One of the reasons for this is that governments and corporations like to co-opt art for their own interests. So to my mind it is not surprising that, post-catastrophe, the governments and relatively untouched populaces of the world are looking to calm the rest and support optimism, while there is this shock and depression from those that barely survived. That stark chasm of differing interest and experience is where Julian Prince’s life really begins.

Why is it important to explore telling stories in unconventional ways?

The importance is telling the story the best way, not the unconventional way. So it is important not to limit ourselves as writers and readers to the standard narrative form. Because while that works for a lot of stories, it doesn’t work for all of them.

What can we expect from you in the future?

My first novel, an action adventure novel for kids, was released last year–Tommy Black and the Staff of Light. I’m working on the next few books in that series, and then I’ll be working on a science fiction novel. That should fill my 2015!