Author T.C. McCarthy, whose debut novel Germline recently found itself with a coveted starred review from Publishers Weekly, is the first to admit that his book isn’t a happy romp through the daisies: With its war setting and grim plot points, there’s a lot of dark ground to cover. But as McCarthy explains in this Big Idea, “dark” doesn’t necessarily always lead to “doom.”
I know what you’re thinking: “who the $%!@ is T.C. McCarthy?” This is a reasonable question, especially when one considers that Orbit Books released my debut novel, Germline, on August 1st and people are now considering whether or not to buy it. Another good question is “how the $%*@ does someone come up with this story and why are Germline’s characters so… well… messed up?”
The two questions are related. Germline and its sequels are my first books and in writing them I had to decide just how much of “me” and my experience went into their creation. It wasn’t an easy choice. The decision took a lot of thought because in my forty years I (a) ran across the typical science fiction heroes a total of zero times, (b) encountered unreliable people more times than I can remember and (c) wanted the series to have realistic characters; you know, ones that we can point to and say I know a girl just like that. Or a guy. So in the end, a lot of me went into the story and its characters – as did much of my experience – and I bet if readers knew a bit more about who T.C. McCarthy is, there’s a chance they would understand why certain characters are the way they are.
Here goes nothing…
Marine Corps Base Hawaii, 1977: I’m seven years old. The barber asks what kind of haircut I want and I tell him — not too much off the front and sides, just a trim because it looks better long. He nods and looks at my dad, an ex-Marine Captain who says “give him a good Marine haircut,” and the guy puts down his scissors, grabs the electric clippers, and rams them into the back of my head to shave all the hair off in stripes so the floor is soon covered. I leave crying because of what the kids will do when they see my ears.
Catholic School, California 1977: It’s after school and nobody’s home. I get on my Huffy and bike into Tiburon because there’s fifty cents in my pocket and fifty cents is enough for two Charleston Chews and there’s no food in the fridge. The cops have just discovered a body, washed up on the shore. A woman is dead and they’re pretty sure it’s murder because before the killer dumped her in San Francisco Bay, he washed her in a bath of acid so it ate away her skin. I pedal fast on the bike path, scared that if I don’t get into town fast the killer will get me too, and people are roller skating and laughing all around me, making me feel like screaming “don’t you know how dangerous this place is? Are you all idiots?” My parents are divorced and three years later we move from Marin County to Virginia – into the middle of nowhere.
Clubhouse Apartments, 1983: My brother is a drug addict. I’m doing homework in my room, trying to ignore the screaming and German cockroaches because Leesburg’s Clubhouse Apartments are almost in the slums, the only place a single mom can afford and the kind of building where you sprint up the stairs and get inside as quickly as you can. I’m on scholarship to a private school. Other kids talk about the problems they’re having with horses and fox hunting but they’re nice and nobody gives me heat for not really belonging, because there are others there like me; it’s a good gig, one that gives me an out. A new kid invites me to go with him to visit his brother at a boarding school and I do, just for kicks. No parents. The guys are watching Conan the Barbarian and get to do whatever they want, and the adults pretty much leave them alone which gives me a new set of goals: get perfect grades and leave home after the eighth grade.
St. Andrew’s School, Delaware, 1988: Mission accomplished. I’ve managed to finish boarding school on half financial aid, half scholarship, and am now about to go to college with no way to pay for it. Asthma precludes any chance of joining the Marine Corps but that’s OK; all I want to do is party.
University of Virginia, 1989: I’m drunk. Somehow I’ve managed to squeak through the first year with C’s, but all my classes suck because really I want to be a writer and have yet to declare a major; the program at UVA just rejected my application package because they don’t “do” science fiction. Besides, there’s no more money. I drop out for a year.
University of Virginia, 1993: Success. I’ve finally graduated from university after returning to school with a plan to work my way through — part time in the library, part time on a concrete construction crew, stealing food because my paychecks only cover tuition and rent. I don’t know it but the next ten years will go smoothly. By then I’ve developed a life-formula that works: look out only for yourself and don’t hope. It was stupid to have wanted to become a writer and the University of Georgia pays me to get a PhD in Geology, which I do, even though I soon realize that academia isn’t for me and that if I spend another second in a lab it’ll kill me.
Washington DC, 2000: I am in the world now, and parts of it disturb me; within a year we’ll be at war.
California, 2004: Something goes wrong with the birth of our twin boys; their mother is in intensive care and the boys are barely alive. She recovers and for the next two months we visit the neonatal intensive care unit where I struggle with the fact that there’s nothing to do when the doctor tells us one of the twins is about to die — no way to change history or to help. It turns out that the doctor has misdiagnosed my son. We eventually bring them both home, healthy, after which my mother calls to let me know that my brother is dead and the cause doesn’t shock me because we suspected it could go down this way: heroin overdose.
South Carolina, 2008: The boys are insane — in a good way. Both are happy and give their mother and sister hell, and are so smart that I decide it must have come from her side of the family because it couldn’t have come from mine. I, however, have been better. My formula lies in pieces because you can’t look out for only yourself when you have kids and now I have to start over because I’m beginning to suspect that life is better with other people around, maybe even people you can’t stand, and since I can’t get rid of a lingering feeling that the world is still dangerous I need another out. Maybe it wasn’t so stupid to have wanted to write books. The computer feels funny; I don’t belong there either. But before I know it, Oscar Wendell, Stan Resnick, and Catherine are born — so is the world of Subterrene.
Some say Germline is dark, and I agree, but if there’s one thing experience teaches me it’s this: dark doesn’t mean there isn’t hope.