Paolo Bacigalupi, multiple award-winning author of The Windup Girl and Ship Breaker, has joined us at Tor.com to talk about his newest novel, The Drowned Cities – which I’ve previously reviewed, here.
Brit: I’d like to begin with the origin of The Drowned Cities. You’ve spoken before about the false start on a direct sequel to Ship Breaker that came first, but could you tell us more about the process of getting to this particular story?
Paolo: I was interested in political failure here in the U.S. The way we’re failing to work together to solve even our smallest problems, let alone the complex ones. We seem to have a fascination with deepening our political schisms for the sake of short-term partisan gains. Connected to that, I was interested in how our political punditry are rewarded monetarily to also deepen those hatreds. People like Rush Limbaugh are paid a lot of money to dump bile on his political opponents and to encourage his followers to do the same. For Rush, it’s a $38million/year business. That’s a powerful financial incentive to keep deepening our political dysfunction. At some point, you have to ask the classic science fiction question “If this goes on, what will the world look like?” For me, that looks like a civil war in a nation that long ago forgot how to plan or solve complex problems like global warming, or peak oil, or financial ruin, that are sweeping down on us.
Brit: Was there any psychological pressure involved for you — having been nominated for the National Book Award and the Andre Norton, then having won the Printz, for Ship Breaker — when you were working on The Drowned Cities, or is that the sort of thing you just try not to think about while writing?
Paolo: I wrote Ship Breaker and The Windup Girl simultaneously, actually. So really, The Drowned Cities was my first book after all of that success. And of course that will screw with your head. Awards, wonderful book sales, fabulous reviews and wildly supportive readers all intrude, as does the vitriol of the people who hate your work. It all ends up inside your head. You have to find ways to set that aside. For me, it took about a year of doing things wrong, before I figured out how to trust my stories and characters and my own passions again, and not worry about what other people would think, positive or negative.
Brit: Speaking of other books, The Drowned Cities is your third novel overall and your second young adult novel — are there any notable differences for you, between writing adult fiction and YA fiction? If there are any, what are the challenges and benefits offered by writing with either audience in mind?
Paolo: I focus a little more on pacing when I write books in the young adult category, and of course there’s the great American fear of anything sexual — so that’s somewhat backed off in YA. But otherwise, there isn’t a whole lot of difference. The Drowned Cities is probably the most emotionally intense book I’ve written. It’s harder edged and contains less solace than my adult novel The Windup Girl, just because the source material I worked with is so brutal. As soon as you put child soldiers on the page, your story is no longer an adventure; it becomes something much more frightening.
Brit: One of the things I loved most about this novel is that the story is driven by, and in many ways revolves around, a young woman who has a great deal of agency and power. It’s not so much that she simply kicks ass, but that she has a deep, internal strength and complex set of motivations. Would you like to talk about writing Mahlia, or about how you see her character?
Paolo: I wanted to write a strong female character who I could respect. She’s bad-ass, but not in the sense of being the strongest combatant in the room, even though she’s physically tough. She’s a learner, she’s a thinker, and she’s unyielding. She doesn’t let people define or control her. She faces enormous prejudice, abuse and trauma, and still continues. The Drowned Cities is a place where people are continually being torn apart, but Mahlia doesn’t break. She forges her own path through the horrors, and is continually trying to balance her survival against her ethics, but at root, she’s the one making her choices and accepting the consequences.
Brit: The Drowned Cities has many allegorical connections to contemporary politics and conflicts — I’m curious, did you do much research into things like child soldiers and civil wars? How did your research and observations play into the writing of the novel?
Paolo: You start with source material, and then you also set it aside. I read accounts of child soldiers from academic research on the topic, oral histories, things like that. People continually accuse me of writing stories that are too dark, but frankly, The Drowned Cities is sweetness and light in comparison to the source material. One of the biggest struggles was to try to tell a story that felt at least a little true, without having it descend into the complete horror that non-fictional accounts reveal. Finding a balance between an honest reflection of the source material, and the tropes of fiction that expect characters to have power and agency over their fate was difficult, because the logic of the story and source material really implied that Mahlia and Mouse should have died within the first 50 pages. In that sense, fiction is a lie. Fiction is optimistic — or unrealistic — enough to demand that there should be a meaningful narrative. But there really isn’t one in many cases, and a civil war in a society that’s debased itself enough to start recruiting its children throws that into stark relief.
Brit: Related to that, another of my favorite bits is the way the narrative invests a great deal of humanity and sympathy into the soldier-boys, who most of the characters — including Mahlia, for the majority of the book — see as purely monstrous. What were your considerations, in writing the scenes with Ocho and his company?
Paolo: More than anything, I wanted all the children to have humanity. Children don’t just jump up and decide to be killers. Adults recruit them and whip them on. Whatever horrors child soldiers commit, there’s always an adult standing behind them. I wanted Ocho and Dog Company to both be horrific, and to be human. I recently read a quote by a Jesuit priest that said in essence, “We’re always so much more than the worst things we’ve done.” I was looking for a little of that as I was writing.
Brit: From a larger thematic standpoint, one of the things that I think comes out clearly in The Drowned Cities is the complexity of war and what drives war, in multifarious ways. There seems to be a resistance to easy answers about warfare. Was this one of your concerns, and how do you feel you handled it?
Paolo: Well, I guess that’s for readers to decide. But as for myself, I’m really interested in how conflicts arise, and how they reach points of no return. I’m no pacifist. Sometimes, force is necessary. But war is a choice. One side has to be eager for it, or feel that it’s the only option. I’m interested in that. And then once a conflict is started, I’m interested in how war perpetuates itself, or else surrenders to peace.
These days, I’m interested in how easily we in the U.S. choose to war. War is destructive. Losers and winners all pay huge prices, but we seem to enter into conflicts without much hesitation, regardless. Maybe that’s partly because we’ve got a huge professional standing army, instead of a citizen army — really nearly a mercenary army, given that we’re paying cash to our soldiers to fight and kill on our behalf. But at any rate, it seems that having this sort of professionalized military inclines us to fight and war, both because we don’t have to risk ourselves personally to go to war, but can pay someone else, and maybe also because once you have a sleek tool like our modern military, you can’t resist using it. If all you’ve got is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail.
Brit: Also, you’ve spoken elsewhere about the fact that you aren’t writing dystopias, so much as you’re writing “accidental futures” — can you talk a little about that distinction, and what you’re doing with the world-building in The Drowned Cities?
Paolo: I really think of dystopias as being structured societies that everyone agrees are “perfect” — except for those few sad protagonists who highlight how hellish it actually is. I don’t do that kind of work, typically. I write about futures where human beings are selfish, short-sighted, and stupid, and thereby create worlds that everyone can agree are hell — but that no one can fix anymore. The good things in our world are fragile. I try to highlight how easy it is for us to make cynical decisions that will have catastrophic consequences.
Brit: I also don’t want to discount the real presence of connection and empathy in a story that takes place amongst immense brutality and institutionalized cruelty. The scenes with Tool and Mahlia developing a relationship are pivotal and powerful; Mahlia’s mission to rescue Mouse against fearsome odds is also driven by love and serious human connection. Was this something that you were explicitly concerned with? What was the most emotional and/or evocative part of the book for you to write?
Paolo: I’m really interested in people who exercise their humanity when it’s least advantageous to do so. I wanted some of that in the story. I don’t think I can talk about the most powerful parts of the story without going into spoilers. I will say that The Drowned Cities continues to affect me when I read it over, and I’m surprised at that. Most of my stories don’t continue to affect me after I’ve finished with the final drafts. This one still has power, though.
Brit: Is there anything you’d like to say about The Drowned Cities that I haven’t asked – any last minute, behind-the-scenes insights into your process? Ideas you’d like the reader to take away when they close the book?
Paolo: The book has to stand on its own. Either I did it right, or I didn’t.
Brit: And now, the classic ending question: what’s next for you?
Paolo: I’ve got three major projects in the works.
First, I’m working on a middle grade novel for 4-6th graders, called Zombie Baseball Beatdown. It’s a story about kids on a little league team who have to fight off the zombie apocalypse. In this world, zombies can’t really be killed, you can only cripple them, so a baseball bat is really handy for smashing zombie knees and elbows. But of course, since I’m writing the book, it turns out that the zombie apocalypse is coming from tainted meat coming out of the local meatpacking plant. Even when I write zombie books, it’s about politics.
After that, I’ve got two other books. My next adult SF novel is called The Water Knife. It centers on a water war between Phoenix and Las Vegas over dwindling Colorado River water. Water knives are agents for Las Vegas who go around blowing up water treatment plants and trying to locate senior water rights and buy them out before anyone else can get to them. They’re sort of the 007’s of water warfare in the future. And finally, I’ve got a young adult novel called The Doubt Factory, which will be a present day political thriller/crime caper story. Mostly that one’s about our modern PR industries, and especially the firms that specialize in product defense and crisis communications. Right now, I’ve really got more work than I can really reasonably get done, but I’m excited about the projects.
Brit: Those sound great — looking forward to reading them. Thanks for talking with us!
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic and occasional editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. Also, comics. She can be found on Twitter or her website.