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

Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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. bfilmfan – Clearwater, Florida – Windows Infrastructure Architect consulting with Fortune 100 firms for over 20 years. Interested in low budget cinema, landscape photography and Fortean topics.
    Jerry A Taylor

    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. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. “…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!

  9. T. C. You sold me. Loading it on mt Nook as soon as I get to a WiFi.

  10. 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…

  11. 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…

  12. 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) .

  13. D. Paul Angel – I am in my 40’s (the new "20" they say!), am originally from California, and now live in Portland, OR, but would eventually like to "retire" to Hawaii. I am, most definitely, a “Nerd’s Nerd.” I can recite huge tracts of Monty Python, can force Star Wars quotes into nearly any conversation, find serenity amongst fireflies, enjoy hitchhiking to the beach with my towel in hand (remember the Hawaii bit), have found precious little to dislike about Tolkien, and find any argument favoring Picard over Kirk to be both fascinating and most illogical. My foundation in Science Fiction began with Asimov, but Heinlein’s wit brought it to the front of my conscious. Although I am still recovering from the amount of time spent wheeling through Jordan and Sanderson’s epic, I have found long series, such as Scalzi’s, no longer make me feel like an old man (The new 20, right!?). I've always had a love of comics, particularly the far side of Bloom County where Calvin lived, often casting pearls before swine whilst doing the foxtrot over the hedge. Even though I already have 2 puppy-dogs I love, Zack and Satia, I can’t help but think how awesome having a magical creature would be; even if I do worry that caring for it would leave me feeling hagrid. I am more comfortable tweeting than facebooking, and I'm not athletic enough to be a tumblr. I'm also an airplane nerd and a licensed, albeit non-current, pilot. I've travelled enough to know I want to travel more, I've read, cover to cover, The Bible, Koran, Book of Mormon, Science and Health, and a smattering of Eastern philosophies, and I was one of the early board members of Cerimon House. I can bake bread from scratch, grill, and cook; and I've failed, miserably, in learning at least 4 different programming languages. I write, commit photography, and am learning the ins and out of drawing and illustration. I have long straddled that shady realm between the wholly physical and utterly imaginative, and I'm working towards taking up residence in the latter. I'm an expert in all forms of philosophocating, but find it is best done with open eyes, compassion, and humor; preferably with pleasant company, snacks, and an ample supply of delicious beverages. I have also been known to make the occasional pun.
    D. Paul Angel

    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!

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. changterhune – Before you hear lies from Chang Terhune himself, we thought we’d tell you the truth: without us, his old action figures, he’d be nowhere. He loved science fiction from way back and began reading it at an early age, but it was through us that he acted it all out. That’s what led to the writing. He watched a lot of science fiction shows like Star Trek, U.F.O, and movies, too. But we were always there to do his bidding. And it’s like they say: you always forget about the little people on your way up. Oh, the 70’s and early 80’s with him were good times! He’d use these blocks and make all the crazy buildings for us to be in his stories. I gotta say the kid’s imagination was pretty damn fertile. Oh, he had friends, but they just weren’t into it like him. He was like the Lance Armstrong of action figures. And of science fiction. At first, when he began writing in the eighth grade, we didn’t mind. He still made time for us. And we knew that when he was holding us in his sweaty little hands and he got that far off look in his eye, he’d come back to burying us in the back yard or - god forbid! – blowing us up with firecrackers. But it was worth it for a part in one of those stories. We loved him for it. He kept us around even when we were minus a leg or two - or even a head. In that mind of his, he found a use for all of us. Then he discovered girls. October, 1986. It was like the end of the world. One day we’re standing in the middle of this building block creation he’d pretended was some marble city on a planet near Alpha Centauri and the next we were stuck in a box in the closet. Not even a “See ya later!” Nope, it was into the closet, then we heard some high-pitched girly-giggles then silence. We didn’t see him for years. We got word about him once in a while. Heard he took up writing, but it was crap like “The Breakfast Club” only with better music. We couldn’t believe it. Not Charlie. What happened to those aliens with heads he’d sculpted out of wax? Spaceships? Those complex plots? All gone. For what? You guessed it: Girls. Emotions. “Serious fiction.” I tell you, it was like hearing Elvis had left the building. During our two decade exile in the closet, we heard other things about him. He went to college. He wrote a lot, but not much he really liked. We knew it even then. It was like he didn’t dare write science fiction. Some of us had lost hope and just lay there. Others kept vigil, hoping for a day we didn’t dare speak about. Then we heard he’d stopped writing in 1996. Did he come to reclaim us? No. He took up music for ten years or so. He took up yoga. Once in a while, he’d visit us in the closet. But it was half-hearted. His mind was elsewhere. Then one day, he really did come back for us. One second we’re in the dark and the next thing we know we’re in a car headed for Massachusetts. Suddenly we got a whole shelf to ourselves out in broad daylight! Then he bought a bunch of others form some planet called Ebay. He’d just sit and stare at us with that old look. But why were we suddenly back in the picture? He had a wife now, who didn’t mind that he played with us. So what had happened? Turns out he’d never forgotten about those stories. He’d been thinking about all of us and the stories he’d made up and then remembered he’d been a writer once. From the shelf we could see him typing away. Before long he’s got a whole novel together! Then he’s working on another one. Word is there are two more in the planning stages! Some short stories, too! It’s good to see him using his imagination again. Its good to know he never abandoned us. He returned to his true love of science fiction. We hear the stories are pretty good. Someday we’ll get one of the cats to score us a copy of the manuscript. Man, it’s good to be out of the damn closet! --- I'm smarter than you I'm harder than you I'm better than you I'm just raw I'm hotter than you More popular than you More clever than you And goshdarn it, people like me I'm smarter than you I'm harder than you I'm better than you I'm just raw I'm hotter than you More popular than you More clever than you And goshdarn it, people like me
    Chang, who isn't going out like that!

    This has to be one of my favorite BIG IDEA’s ever! Sold me on the book!

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

  19. 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!

  20. 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?


  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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)

  25. 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.


  26. DL Ramsey – Technical editor, wannabe writer, and crusader against the overuse of Papyrus, Copperplate Gothic, and - of course - Comic Sans.
    DL Ramsey

    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.

  27. 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.

  28. I was a classmate of T.C.s – he’s the real deal. I understand him a lot better now too after reading Germline.

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