The Pop Quiz at the End of the Universe

The Pop Quiz at the End of the Universe: Jess Row

Welcome back to The Pop Quiz at the End of the Universe, a recurring series here on Tor.com featuring some of our favorite science fiction and fantasy authors, artists, and others!

Today we’re joined by Jess Row, author of the story collections The Train to Lo Wu and Nobody Ever Gets Lost. Named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists in 2007, he has won two Pushcart Prizes and a PEN/O. Henry Prize, and has appeared in The Best American Short Stories three times. He lives in New York and teaches at the College of New Jersey. Jess’ debut novel, Your Face in Mine, is available now from Riverhead.

Join us to find out why Jess chooses a lightsaber in his fight to the death!

What is your favorite short story?

“Babylon Revisited,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I love it because it does that greatest of short story hat tricks—it sums up an entire era (in this case Paris in the Twenties) in a handful of scenes and a few lines. It also has the greatest last line I think I’ve ever read: “He was absolutely sure Helen wouldn’t have wanted him to be so alone.

Describe your favorite place to write.

I love writing on a porch outside in the summer. As long as it’s in the shade and there aren’t too many mosquitoes. There’s nothing more relaxing, especially if you’ve been working inside at a desk for months on end.

Strangest thing you’ve learned while researching a book?

Your Face in Mine Jess RowI learned a lot of strange things doing research in plastic surgery for Your Face in Mine, but perhaps the strangest is that plastic surgeons who do gender reassignment surgery don’t actually go through any special training or residency—they literally learn on the job, from working with more experienced surgeons. There is no standardized program or procedure for recreating human genitals—it’s all based on the technique of the individual surgeon. Which explains why some surgeons are in such high demand—there’s literally no other way to reproduce their results. This gave me the idea for how one doctor (in Your Face in Mine, Dr. Silpasuvan) could effectively corner the market in racial reassignment surgery, being the only one who knows how to create these particular alterations.

If you could choose your own personal theme song to play every time you enter a room, what would you pick?

This may sound very strange, but I would pick the old jazz standard “The Way You Look Tonight,” played by Cannonball Adderley on the album Sophisticated Swing. It’s just physically impossible to be unhappy listening to “The Way You Look Tonight.”

Another option would be the Fugazi song “Waiting Room,” or even just the bass line in the first few bars (anyone who knows this song would instantly recognize it). There probably isn’t another song that means more to me than “Waiting Room.”

Do you have a favorite unknown author?

Gina Berriault.

John Berger.

Henry Dumas.

James Alan MacPherson.

Xi Xi.

Lars Gustaffsson.

I could go on and on, but those writers are always at the top of my list.

Battle to the death, which weapon do you choose: A) Phaser, B) Lightsaber, or C) Wand?

Since I would surely be the one dying, I choose a lightsaber, because there’s no better way to die than to die as a Jedi master, the way Obi-Wan Kenobi dies in A New Hope—holding your lightsaber upright and disappearing, while your clothes crumple to the ground.

Strangest thing you’ve learned while researching a book?

I learned a lot of strange things doing research in plastic surgery for Your Face in Mine, but perhaps the strangest is that plastic surgeons who do gender reassignment surgery don’t actually go through any special training or residency—they literally learn on the job, from working with more experienced surgeons. There is no standardized program or procedure for recreating human genitals—it’s all based on the technique of the individual surgeon. Which explains why some surgeons are in such high demand—there’s literally no other way to reproduce their results. This gave me the idea for how one doctor (in Your Face in Mine, Dr. Silpasuvan) could effectively corner the market in racial reassignment surgery, being the only one who knows how to create these particular alterations.

If you had to choose one band or artist to provide the official soundtrack to your new book, who would it be?

I think the Roots would do a great job with Your Face in Mine. Or the Robert Glasper Experiment. I would ideally like to have a cast of musicians of all kinds, like Dave Chappelle used in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party—high school marching bands, reggae bands, post-punk bands. Ian MacKaye, Bob Mould, Common, Q-Tip and Talib Kweli.

What’s your favorite sandwich?

I can’t pick just one: the #1 at Hoagie Haven in Princeton, New Jersey; the pastrami at Liebman’s Kosher Delicatessen in Riverdale, NY; or a shwarma and baba ghanoush pita from Mamoun’s Falafel, on Macdougal Street in Greenwich Village.

What literary or film science fiction technology do you wish existed in our world right now?

Since Your Face in Mine is about racial reassignment surgery—a complete surgical transformation of the body so that, for example, a white person like me could appear to be Chinese—I would have to say that that’s the technology that most fascinates me at the moment, though I wouldn’t say I wish it existed.

Choose your preferred fictional vacation spot: Narnia or Middle Earth (or some other fictional realm)…

I might choose Prydain (from Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain) or Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea, but my first choice would be the French country estate in Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes.

Name your three favorite fictional villains of all time.

Voldemort is a very obvious choice, but I’ve just finished reading the Harry Potter series to my daughter, so he’s very much on my mind. And he is a fascinating villain.

Humbert Humbert, from Lolita, though the book makes it hard for us to call him a villain—there’s probably no richer representation in any novel of the consciousness of a man who does inarguably evil things.

Dickens’ novels are full of great villains, but if I had to pick just one, it would Uriah Heep, in David Copperfield. Just for the name alone

List three things you’d like our readers to know about you and your work.

Just two things:

I’m very interested to know whether readers experience my book as “science fiction” or as something closer to their own lived reality. It seems to me that—depending on the reader—it could be either one. That’s a pretty unusual situation for a book to be in, thus I’m particularly curious about your thoughts.

I’m also very curious about the basic question that Your Face in Mine asks of its characters: if you could change your racial appearance, what (or who) would you like to become? And, if the technology were available, would you choose to use it?

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