The Big Idea: T.C. McCarthy

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.


Germline: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

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39 Comments on “The Big Idea: T.C. McCarthy”

  1. Wow. I’m kind of stunned by the honesty and detail of T.C.’s account, but I guess we all have our milestone moments in the real world. Though I’m still hoping to run into Corwin of Amber on some country road sometime. I’ll be picking this up. Thanks John and thanks T.C.

  2. Three readers guaranteed at least Mr. McCarthy. Survivors write interesting fiction filled with truth.

  3. Cool. I just took that out of the library yesterday. I’ll let you all know what I think after I read it. :-)

    Currently reading “Robopocalypse.” Kinds of interesting and would make a good screenplay, if Hollywood doesn’t eff it up.

  4. I had a chance to read an ARC of Germline for a review (Adventures in SciFi Publishing). A very good book but I thought it awfully dark (not necessarily a knock). After reading through T.C.’s stuff here, a whole lot makes sense. I’m going to have to sit down and read through it again. I think I’ll enjoy it even more.

  5. You sold me. Just clicked through to B&N and bought it. Looking forward to reading it over the weekend!

  6. Downloading my sample from Amazon as we speak. Living in the DC area and coming from UVa, there’s enough in common to at least understand the language.

  7. Thanks, John for letting me post to the Big Idea. If anyone is at WorldCon and wants to chat (or yell at me) about Germline (or this post) I’ll be at the Orbit Panel on Friday at 5pm.

  8. Thant may be the most compelling argument for reading any piece of fiction I have ever read – thank you.

  9. This sounds interesting, and I’ll pick it up, for sure. That said…

    Dang, that’s some incredibly hot cover art. No symbolism there at all, nuh uh, no sirree. ;) That’s pretty much guaranteeing you some sales from a certain demographic, lol.

  10. “…if there’s one thing experience teaches me it’s this: dark doesn’t mean there isn’t hope.”

    I won’t pretend it’s on a level with Mr. McCarthy’s, but my childhood wasn’t exactly a model of puppies and rainbows, either. I grew up thinking everything bad was somehow my fault. Along the way, however, I grew to realize “that which does not kill us, makes us stronger”.

    Today I’m happily married, with loving inlaws and three beautiful cats. I’m glad Mr. McCarthy’s child survived his brush with death, and I hope he has many long, happy years with his wife and children. Best of luck to you, sir!

  11. frankly @9: Thant may be the most compelling argument for reading any piece of fiction I have ever read – thank you.

    Agreed. I’d read a blurb on Germline and my initial response was, “Meh.” I then saw what the Big Idea subject was and I thought, “Oh, that book. Meh.” Then I decided to read the piece, anyway.

    I just pulled the sample for my Nook. And so far I’m on a 3 for 4 on books downloaded as samples based on The Big Idea to purchased. But I’ve still got 2 other samples pending, so, y’know, that ratio could drop…

  12. There’s no Hell painful enough for a doctor who misdiagnoses a newborn like that. (Went through it myself).

  13. I also read this as an ARC (BullSpec), and, damn. It’s gritty, and there’s an extra handful of grit thrown in for good measure. It feels real, plausible, and the politics behind it (the land war in Asia) feel real, and the mega-creepy religion the Gs are fed feels plausible (which is scary), and I am seriously looking forward to the next one.

    We get to watch as Wendell loses friends and pieces of himself, and how he tries to put those pieces back together when it’s over (and whether it works). The first half-dozen chapters I could only read one at a time, because it was Heavy, but after that, I plowed through it.

    I’ve recommended it to so many people, just because. And I should *really* buy a copy, even though I have an ARC…

  14. Interesting, I’ll have to pay my (wife’s) library late fees and check this out, if for no other reason than we went through many of the same things when our twin daughters were in the NICU for most of the summer of ’08 (they’re fine now) .

  15. T. C., I applaud you for your success and I hope this is the start of a great career for you. I appreciate your willingness to share so much of your life and am happy for you being able to make your writing work. I’m 38 and am currently trying to head down that path myself, so it is nice to know that it is possible to get a late jump on things!

    I am very selective of the books I read that are dark, so I’ll ahve to find out more about the story and why it is dark before I can commit to reading it. Still, all the best!

  16. Dark is often the best method to convey a story’s material and probe tough questions. I admire T.C. for tackling his past through his debut book. It’s now on my TBR list.

  17. Almost didn’t read this after scanning the first paragraph; glad I changed my mind. Thanks for sharing; I mean that sincerely. Will definitely look up your book.

  18. Dark can be very good. Think of chocolate. Next trip to Uncle Hugo’s.

    Germline, TC McCarthy.

  19. I’ll have to pick it up.

    I love Dark stuff, which is probably why I’m drawn to Matthew Stover’s works. However, if any book out there is darker than Blade of Tyshalle, you probably need therapy after reading it.

  20. The first Big Idea I’ve ever read that turned an unknown author into a ‘must-read’.

  21. This was the most riveting Big Idea I’ve read; Germline has now been downloaded onto my Blackberry as my First Ever ebook purchase!

  22. Thanks to all of you, and, again, to John for giving me a shot at this. It also looks like I now have to buy Lev’s books since I haven’t read either yet!

  23. So, T.C., back when you boarded by Silver Lake, were you there for the making of the movie as your time frame brackets that period?


  24. I bought this book completely on spec. I’m almost done with it and it is the best book I’ve read this year. In fact it may be one of the best ever. Yup, it is dark but is also very realistic in it’s politics and the ideas that are put forth. I’m looking forward to the upcoming books because Germline will be hard to forget.

  25. Your bio alone makes me want to read the book, I think I’ll be pleasantly surprised. Kids do make a man reorganize his whole worldview.

  26. JJB: OMG. You went there too? I left the year before they made the movie. #$%@!!!!!!!

    Mike: Wow; thanks so much.

    Rob: Yes, they do. The older I get, the less I’m sure of.

  27. Sun AM: Read posting on Whatever
    Sun AM:Go to local independant bookstore. Buy book
    Sun PM; Read book. Enjoy
    Sun PM: Donate book to library (47th this year)

  28. Nope, T.C., I’ve resided in Newark for the last 28 years and spent summers here since 1971. I’m about a dozen years older than you.

    Although I’ve driven down Noxontown Road past St. Andrew’s many times, the last time I was inside was in 1997 when I drove my son and our cousin to take the Johns Hopkins Talented Youth qualifying exam.

    However, as a local, the name immediately struck that association.


  29. TC, you’re a year younger than I am and decided “maybe it wasn’t so stupid to want to write books” two years before I reached the same conclusion. I’m glad to see someone else who can see 40 (and not much else) clearly get out of his own way and go on to get published.

  30. Just finished this book (well, Audiobook since I drive so much), and was really impressed. It was dark, so dark that I got depressed.

    As a veteran of Iraq, I could really empathize with Scout. Though, I’m not nearly as messed up.

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