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Jennifer Pelland has twice been nominated for the Nebula Award for short fiction. Her first collection, Unwelcome Bodies, was released by Apex in 2008. Her debut novel, Machine, will be out in late December, 2011. She currently lives in Massachusetts where she wrangles cats and belly dances, though not at the same time.
Stephanie Jacob: Your debut novel “Machine” will be released by Apex Publications in December. The book tells us of Celia, a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s, who has her memories copied into a perfect machine replica of her own body while her biological body is kept in stasis. Will you tell us a little about Celia and her struggles? Did you find that you could identify with her in any way? I will say that in some ways I could and it scared the hell out of me.
Jennifer Pelland: Celia is one of my classic protagonists—quiet, introverted, and profoundly unconnected to other people. I’m pretty much the opposite, so I think I wrote her (and so many of my other protagonists) that way because it’s such an interesting viewpoint for me to try to understand. Celia is an only child whose mother has recently died, who never knew her father, and who only had one really good friend in life before meeting her wife—a friend whose job has her traveling the world at the time the novel begins. Celia is one of those people who are content to latch onto their partner’s social life rather than create one of her own, so when her marriage ends, her entire support system disappears from beneath her. So she’s going through a tremendous and highly-stigmatized life change without any support system whatsoever. I think what I identify with when looking through her eyes is that feeling of being alone. In my case, I’m not, but even with a good support system in place, a traumatic event can leave you feeling like an island of grief.
I also found it really interesting to imagine the extremes that someone might go through if there was no one around to help them, or to stop them. When I’m tossed into an emotionally difficult state, my brain is capable of spinning up some incredibly extreme ideas of what to do in response, but thankfully, I’ve got a pretty good internal editor telling me that they’re all terrible ideas. The thought of what it would be like to let go and give in to those temptations was part of what drove me through this story.
SJ: I kept trying to imagine myself in Celia’s place and questioned that even with the support of family and friends would I still feel forces pulling me to explore my machine side and could I resist the temptation of carving away little bits of my humanity. Do you think Celia, even if Rivka were by her side, would still feel some of these same things?
JP: I don’t think she would have. So much of her life was wrapped up in Rivka that so long as her wife was content, she would be as well. In a perverse way, the events of the book are healthy for Celia, because she’s finally forced to stand on her own feet and make her own decisions without being able to simply defer to someone else for a change. Mind you, she makes some terrible decisions, but at least they’re hers.
SJ: I found the character, “The Mechanic”, to be an enigma. His motives seem pure but complex. As the story progresses I feel I understand his motives but at the same time I wonder if there might be sort of a groupie mentality. What insight can you shed on this character?
JP: As background, the Mechanic is the person who enables his little group of bioandroids to illegally hack into their brains and bodies and start modifying them as they see fit. He helps these people take giant legal, mental, and physical risks, even as he’s unwilling to take a single risk with his still-flesh body. I think people like him are fairly common in extremist movements— they’re passionate for their cause, but terrified to actually join it. I see him as both a sympathetic and sad character.
SJ: In the book there is a great deal of protest against the procedure. Do you think it would still be as offensive to people if the mind was transferred into a biological copy of the body as opposed to a machine copy?
JP: I suspect it would be. Just look at the “slippery slope” arguments people make against same-sex marriage, like the one made by good old Rick “Man on Dog” Santorum (Google him). If people are that freaked out by the thought of two consenting adults getting married, I can only imagine how freaked out they’d be by someone moving their consciousness to a new body, be it a biological body, a mechanical body, or a box turtle’s body. What bothers me the most about these attitudes is not that people have strong personal or religious convictions about the sanctity of souls or bodies or what have you, but that they feel that they have the right to force those convictions onto people who don’t share them. I also think that the “haves leaving behind the have-nots” argument would also be brought up if the bodies were biological instead of mechanical. If the 1% had the means to keep downloading into fresh, young bodies, and the 99% were stranded with aging and mortality, that would certainly piss off a lot of people.
SJ: With all the advances in medical science it is not too far out of the realm of possibility that something similar to this could be available one day. What do you think some of the consequences would be?
JP: It’s probably not possible, according to friends of mine who study the brain professionally. But if it were, I think it would completely redefine personhood. If you can download your brain into one body, then why not two? Why not ten? Why not a million? Why stay confined to a human-shaped body? Why not share a body with multiple minds? And what about those who keep their human bodies? What rights will they have as more and more people go mechanical? Will they become second-class citizens, forced to breed to keep the biological species alive? I actually have a follow-up novel outlined that deals with a lot of this, set a few hundred years after the events of Machine. If Machine does well, I may even write the damned thing.
SJ: You don’t shy away from difficult subject matter. When writing such emotionally charged work I would imagine you become really invested in the characters and feel these emotions yourself. Do you need time to decompress and does your writing help put order to a chaotic world?
JP: Well, I wrote this initially back in 2004, so it’s tough to remember how I reacted to writing it back then. I think the toughest part for me was letting myself get too close to the character and starting to pull my punches so I wouldn’t hurt her. I suspect that might partly be why I tend to write characters who are so different from myself— so I can’t feel overly connected to them. The one time I tried writing a piece using myself and family as a template, I couldn’t finish it.
SJ: In our interview in April you mentioned that you had somewhat of a dry spell and had stopped writing at one point. So many authors experience that and never get back to a point where they can be confident in their work. How were you able to overcome the block?
JP: I haven’t fully overcome it yet. I’m nowhere near as prolific as I used to be, but I’m trying to make writing a habit again, and it’s slowly paying off. I don’t regret the break. I really needed it. Before I went on it, I’d only been writing out of guilt for about a year— like I was obliged to keep going because I’d spent so much time and effort on it previously. But eventually I came to realize that there was no point in doing it if I wasn’t enjoying it. I’ve never made enough from my writing to pay the bills, and I’m not writing under contract, so the only obligation I had was to myself. Once I realized that, I let go for a while. I thought about picking it up again last fall, but my dad’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent death shoved that idea off of a cliff. After a few months passed, I decided that maybe it was time to see if I could reawaken that aspect of my creativity (I never stopped dancing). I got a couple of anthology invites, used them to give me an excuse to try to write again, and was pleased to find that they did. Then with the upcoming release of Machine, I thought about trying to write another novel, so I made a commitment to put five hours a week into one throughout the fall. Most weeks, I come nowhere near that goal, but I’m 30K words into the manuscript, so I’m not going to beat myself up over it.
SJ:Do you have any new projects in the works that we can look forward to?
JP: Well, there’s that novel I just mentioned. It’s based on the story “Brushstrokes” in my collection Unwelcome Bodies. I’ve expanded it to include four point-of-view characters— one from each of the castes in the novel. I have no idea if the final product will be able to be cleaned up into anything readable, but only time will tell. I also sold one of those invitational stories to the anthology Demon Lovers: Succubi, which comes out shortly from Storybones. Beyond that, I have no plans, but I’m okay with that. I don’t want to scare myself off of writing by being too ambitious too soon.
SJ: Thanks for being such a great guest.
JP: Thanks for having me!