First I have to offer a big thank-you to Jenn Brissett for coming and talking with us about her book! We discussed Elysium, which will be coming out very soon from Aqueduct Press.
Since the book features a very layered and complex reality, I started by asking about her process of discovery in learning about it. She explained how it grew in complexity as it went on, and she had to be very careful about keeping it under control! She starts writing beginning with the character, and the story, and then she builds out and creates the world based on that. She says it's much like the way that cities are built, organically.
She began with difficulties in a relationship between characters, and then swapped genders, and then as she went it became a memorial to New York. Thematically, it began to explore aspects of the experience of 9/11. A lot of what really excited her was being able to dig in and explore broadly, to see how far the story could be pushed in various directions.
In the book, she creates an amazing sense of constant flux and change that gives readers a sense that the ultimate reality behind the story is not what readers are seeing in any single piece of the story, but of a much deeper significance. She uses as a unifying theme the history of the Roman emperor Hadrian and his relationship with his lover Antinous. This image of deep loss to the point of insanity functions as an anchor for the story, and the story revisits that loss over and over in different forms, which she refers to as a "spiral narrative." The idea of revisiting loss over and over connects deeply to the feeling of New York after 9/11. People disappeared for various reasons, but loss was everywhere; it connected with Jenn's own experiences of running her bookstore and having clients disappear without any knowledge of what had happened to them. It also connected with the fact that memorials of the event cause people to relive the loss and trauma every year. Brissett explained that the 9/11 connection flowered out of the book naturally. She describes New York as a "city of renewal." It has renewed itself many times.
Brissett explained that the way the theme of 9/11 blossomed naturally out of the book, as an aspect of it but not the primary focus, was one of the true strengths of science fiction as a genre, that "there are so many aspects of life that you can explore." Authors end up finding things subconsciously that they have layered into the scenarios they have created. It's important to be able to explore real issues in a non-real way. I said that science fiction and fantasy are like playgrounds where we can play with dangerous stuff without hurting people as badly. It's a unique way to address difficult issues that people need to process. The book itself is an examination of love and loss in a larger context than just this single event.
Brissett is very detailed and specific about sensations and emotional connections in her writing, and it's one of the strengths of the book that keeps readers tied into the story in spite of all the flux. She talked about the switches of genders and character relationships etc. She described each piece as ending when the person gets to the part where the mourning process begins. It switches "just when you're getting a chance to absorb the blow," creating a rhythm within the story.
She uses index cards to do her planning. This was a book where she had planned gender swaps from the beginning, but it changed as the writing continued. The index cards helped her to look for options among the ideas and images she'd come up with, and find the most natural place to go next inside the story. Playing with the parts felt like playing with the puzzle. She described enjoying particularly when the two characters both became children.
She described her next book as being based on the story of Demeter and Persephone. Elysium uses all kinds of relationships - male lovers, female lovers, father and daughter, father and son, brothers, etc. She is saving mother and daughter for the next book!
There is an interesting pattern of repetition within the book as well, recurring images that draw connections across the different iterations of the loss scenario. Brissett said she enjoyed rewriting song lyrics for the book. She did get personal permission to use a poem by Saul Williams as a tribute to the world of hip-hop "before it was hip-hop."
Brissett describes her book as a struggle, a deliberate sort of controlled chaos. She wanted the feeling of chaos, but also a feeling of control. I noticed that there were a lot of things people didn't understand, and had no hope of understanding - an interesting contrast with stories that rely on the idea of solutions to problems. We like to have a feeling of control but we generally don't know on a certain level, and we just have to deal with it. She described finding someone to love as the most important thing to do in life.
I asked whether there was particular recurring imagery that she wanted to share her thoughts on. There are elk, owls, etc. and many images of wings. She described wanting to show nature invading a computerized space. She's fascinated with the idea of how quickly cities would degrade without people maintaining them, and also the idea of animals that appear in an urban space like New York. She used many images of wings to explore the idea of flight as well as having a different perspective on the city from above.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this story was not just the gender-swapping, but the way that each scene changed the social structures and rules of the societies around the main characters. Brissett described doing research on the Vestal Virgins in order to create one of the worlds she uses in the scenes within the book. She deliberately wanted to switch power structures over what one sex can do, and one sexuality can do.
There is a very interesting reversal in Elysium of the normal pattern in which readers keep track of what changes between one scene and the next. Because so much changes between scenes, on a large scale the reader ends up tracking the patterns of stability in the book - the patterns of what does not change.
I wish Jenn Brissett all the best with her book launch! Go pick up Elysium by Jenn Brissett when it comes out this year from Aqueduct Press.