Interview: Ramsey Shehadeh, author of “Jimmy’s Roadside Cafe”

Ramsey Shehadeh splits his time between writing software and writing stories. His fiction has appeared in Weird Tales, Strange Horizons, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Shimmer, Podcastle, and The Drabblecast, as well as in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s Steampunk Reloaded anthology.

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

I think it’s mostly about finding a way to be a decent human being when everything’s collapsing around you. The world ended twice for Jimmy: once when the plague hit, and then again when he lost his family. How do you come back from that? And who are you when you do?

Jimmy’s answer to those questions revolved around kindness and optimism, the only things he chose to extract from the wreckage of his old life. It seems simplistic, but simplicity in the face of chaos is absurdly difficult.

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

Kind of boring, I’m afraid. I used to spend a lot of time driving up and down I-95. The median gets quite wide in places, and there’s a particularly broad, wooded section just north of Baltimore. I always wondered what it would be like to live in there, between two rivers of traffic.

Not sure how it became an apocalypse story. I think I must have been in an apocalyptic frame of mind at the time.

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

It was kind of a slog at first, but it became easier as I got to know Jimmy a bit better. And once I understood how he’d come to be who he was, there was suddenly a person inhabiting the stick figure I’d been harrying through the plot. After that, the story just flowed naturally through him.

My favorite stories tend to grow out of my favorite characters. Jimmy was a gift.

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

Maybe, though I couldn’t really say how. Introspection isn’t my strong suit.

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

Almost none, thank goodness. Research isn’t my strong suit either. Part of the reason I love this racket is I get to make stuff up.

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?

It’s tempting to say that it’s just a sign of the times — but, really, we’re no strangers to apocalyptic visions of the end of the world. You could make a good case that Revelations is still the weirdest apocalypse narrative out there.

But it does feel like there’s a lot more of this sort of fiction out there now. Maybe it’s the species whispering a warning to itself: we don’t need angry gods to end it all anymore. It can’t be an accident that the antecedents of a lot of our fictional apocalypses — malevolent AI’s, rogue viruses, nuclear calamity, environmental collapse — are man-made.

Or it could be part of the long hangover that followed the techno-utopianism of the early 20th century. Technology has made life better in lots of ways, but there’s a dark side to everything it’s given us: the industrial age ushered in a new age of proletarian misery, the transportation revolution continues to foul the atmosphere, the internet is sowing the seeds of the perfect surveillance state. It’s the worst kind of depressing.

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

Probably my favorite apocalypse novel is The Road. I’m a huge fan of Cormac McCarthy’s work, but the spare, latter-day McCarthy is just perfectly suited to this story. You’re unlikely to find a bleaker novel anywhere, but what makes it great is the sole glimmer of hope he gives us in the relationship between the narrator and his son. That’s what I’m going to remember about it.

The Shadow of the Torturer: it really feels like something that slipped into our world from a different dimension, endlessly baffling and wonderful. The intricacy of Wolfe’s imagination is kind of astonishing.

The first Matrix movie: the humans-as-batteries plot is pretty silly, and all the leather and profundity probably isn’t going to age well, and you could argue that the real apocalypse is the sequels — but, man, it’s just so cool. I doubt I’ll ever be as captivated by the first ten minutes of a movie again, or as surprised and delighted as I was when Neo woke up in his goo pod.

Does Never Let Me Go count as post-apocalyptic? Sort of? Let’s just say it does. Ishiguro surpassed himself here. It’s an amazing book, beautiful and exquisitely sad. Everyone should read it.