The Big Idea: Katie M. Flynn

Author Katie M. Flynn took a journey to bring you her new novel The Companions, a journey where so much of it was simply experiencing the town she called home, and how it has changed over time.

KATIE M. FLYNN:

First the fear: In grad school at UCLA, my advisor was a German ornithologist with a dry sense of humor who loved to throw me off balance with facts I couldn’t always tell were true.

Example: We’re having lunch in the quad, lovely day, cute but slightly aggressive squirrels are daring closer, closer to us and our vegan feast courtesy of the $3 on-campus Hare Krishna buffet. “Aww,” I say because up close they remind me of the gerbils I kept as pets when young. “You know,” my advisor says, “these squirrels could be carriers of the bubonic plague.”

His amused smile, sort of self-satisfied and mischievous—I never knew whether he was messing with me. In retrospect, I know he was always messing with me while simultaneously telling me the truth, a rare talent.

I went home and consulted the Internet like a true academic, and sure enough, I read that the plague had become endemic in squirrels of the American West. Flare-ups of old infectious illnesses occur from time to time, new ones too: H5N1, Ebola, SARS, MERS, COVID-19. Our catalogue of deadly outbreaks is ever growing, and once they’re loose in the world, they don’t ever really go away.

Then, the stories: I can trace the origins of The Companions back to a file on my computer created in 2009 and ominously titled, “Airborne illness.” I had by then developed an unhealthy fascination with outbreaks. I wrote a couple stories about characters living in quarantine conditions, one about a girl who was a super spreader, an asymptomatic carrier of an infectious illness, a “Typhoid Mary 2.0.” The original, Mary Mallon, died in 1938 on North Brother Island, New York, where she was confined for nearly thirty years. I was taken by this isolation, by the idea of a prolonged quarantine, the loss of basic rights, an authoritarian control of a body deemed dangerous in the name of public safety.

That same year, I started drafting another story about a scientist working out of his garage who may or may not have figured out how to upload his soul. But I couldn’t decide whether he had in fact succeeded, so the story turned into a very Waiting for Godot kind of thing, and I grew weary and abandoned the project.

Followed by the failures: From 2009 to 2013 I wrote two novels, both of which fell apart by the time I got to the ending. These failures made me skittish of novel writing, but they also taught me about the pacing and plotting and structure of a longer work. They taught me to be careful.

And the breakthroughs: Meanwhile, the two tropes I was playing with in those 2009 stories—outbreak-induced quarantine and mind upload—seeded. I thought about them enough over the next many years that the networks in my brain finally made the connection, synapses fired, and in 2013 I started a new story in which a teenage girl is murdered and brought back decades later as a product, a companion to a bored, homeschooled child living in a quarantined San Francisco.

I love short stories in their own right, of course, and most stories are done when I’ve finished them. But some live on, I can’t shake them, and then I start to think longer, bigger, wider; I go underground.

And finding out you’re not done: Living in San Francisco since 2002, I have witnessed the latest tech boom firsthand. It’s been hard on the city I call home, on my friends and neighbors. Lots of people have moved—some of the best people, our teachers and artists—and I’m left feeling alone at times, always having to adapt to a new reality, with new actors coming in and out of my life, and cynical—the city isn’t getting better because of tech; in many ways it’s gotten so much worse. While there are more billionaires per capita than in any other city in the world, homelessness in San Francisco is surging. When I think about my city, it’s a little like a superimposed image—one picture of the city I love situated atop another, the city I live in.

In The Companions, the towers, where the wealthiest live—and are confined under quarantine—became my entry point for exploring these themes of class, technology, and isolation.

And in the case of Lilac, I knew I wanted to capture this feeling I had of superimposition. One dimension is her journey to find her murderer and to figure out what happened to her best friend—these characters still out there in the world, albeit elderly. Another dimension is Lilac’s journey as a product, from release to recall, and the people she touches along the way. Another dimension still is Lilac’s trajectory from that of a privileged teenager in Laguna Beach to a type of violent outlaw. In tracing these threads I had fun crossing genre lines, hoping to create a literary mystery-science fiction-thriller-bildungsroman set against a backdrop of a world changed and changing by climate change.

What happens to places lost to rising seas? Who is there to remember them, and for how long? I’m forever fascinated by the plasticity of the human brain, by our ability to tell and retell ourselves stories, to rewrite our memories, our histories. Somewhere in the center of all of this is the question: what does it mean to live forever in a world that is dying?

To counter the darkness of this question I stayed focused on the connections between characters—human and companion—despite differences. As I write presently, dear friends are entertaining my kids so I can finish this piece, and it’s in these connections both imagined and real that I have found—dare I say it—something akin to hope.

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The Companions: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s 

Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

Super Tuesday Thoughts

Original photos by Gage Skidmore, used under Creative Commons.

Because I don’t want to let the moment pass without noting it, some thoughts on Super Tuesday.

1. Clearly now it’s a two-man race, between the 78-year-old man with a heart problem and the 77-year-old man with some clear memory issues. This is, I will say, not optimal from my point of view. I will be voting for whoever becomes the Democratic nominee, to be clear. But neither of these two men fills me with great enthusiasm, and at this point I very much want to see who they choose for their vice president, because I have a strong suspicion whoever it is will be finishing out the term.

2. I think some people are surprised that Biden was this strong on Super Tuesday, and commensurately that Sanders was (relatively) underwhelming given his supporters’ enthusiasm, but I’m not. As we saw in 2016, Sanders is strongest in states with caucuses and in the northeast, and the early contests were mostly caucuses and in the northeast. He’s less strong in actual primaries. He’s stronger this year, certainly — let’s not pretend his likely (as of this writing, undeclared) win in California doesn’t mean anything — but this seems to be a structural issue for Sanders support. Likewise Biden has always been a safe vote and a known quantity, and that’s reassuring to a lot of Democratic voters, particularly the ones who are older, of which there are many.

3. My own prediction — and recall that my political crystal ball is more than intermittently cloudy — is that Biden and Sanders are going to go at it for a while but that Biden will inexorably pull away as we move along through the year, which will no doubt enrage no small number of Sanders supporters. #NotAllSanderSupporters, but it’s clear at least a vocal percentage of them don’t plan to support anyone but Sanders, should he not get the Democratic nomination, and, well. Fuck those dudes (and to flip it around, the same to any Biden supporters who might do the same if he doesn’t make it through, but you don’t exactly hear much about BidenBros slipping into people’s Twitter mentions to harass them).

4. Of the Democratic candidates, my preferred candidate is Elizabeth Warren, but even though she says she’s still in it, I think Super Tuesday effectively put a nail in her campaign’s coffin. She hasn’t managed better than a third place finish in any primary contest, and that includes in Massachusetts, her home commonwealth. If you can’t win at home, where can you win, is the question here. Barring Biden and Sanders having an actuarial moment and keeling over on the campaign trail, I don’t see her doing any better moving forward. We can list all the reasons why the smartest and best-prepared candidate the Democrats have isn’t their front runner, but at the end of the day so far she’s an also-ran, and it doesn’t seem likely that’s going to change. It’s disappointing.

5. Meanwhile, Mike Bloomberg has spent, what? A half a billion dollars on his campaign? And he got American Samoa out of it? To put this in perspective, the entire annual gross domestic product of American Samoa is $658 million. Don’t feel too bad for Bloomberg; given his personal wealth, him spending $500 million is like the average American spending about $465; or, in more concrete terms, he spent an equivalent amount of his wealth on his presidential campaign as the average American might spend on a Chromebook. He’ll be fine. But maybe he should stop trying to buy a thing he’s not going to get. If he really wants to spend his money to defeat Trump — which, you know, I personally find a questionable proposition given their personal history — there are better ways to do it (likewise, if he’s spending his money to defeat Sanders).

(Update, 11am: Bloomberg is out. It’ll take him a couple of months at most for his wealth to generate the amount that he spent on his campaign. Again, he’ll be fine.)

6. It does seem to me that every four years a lot of people forget that the Democrats, far more than the Republicans, are a coalition party. The current GOP is an irrational authoritarian cult of personality, which means that anyone who doesn’t want to hang with that has to deal with the Democrats, whose party spectrum now ranges from Democratic Socialists all the way over to lightly refurbished Reaganites. Biden and Sanders pretty much exemplify either end of this coalition spectrum, and neither of them is exactly what you would call a perfect candidate even before you get to the age issue. This sucks, and also, at the moment it’s what we have to work with, because the alternative is grim.

I don’t have any problem with Biden and Sanders duking it out all the way through the last primary and even possibly to the Democratic convention itself; that’s what primaries and conventions are for. I do think when the dust settles and there is a candidate, that everyone needs to get with the program, because the alternative is four more years of an irrational authoritarian cult of personality, and all the damage that brings to our country, both now and long after. The danger is real, and in the reality of the effectively two-party system that we have (Sanders, who is not a Democrat, is running to be the Democratic candidate for a reason, you know) anyone who won’t vote for the Democratic candidate because he isn’t their own preferred candidate is casting a vote for the irrational authoritarian. Don’t be that person, folks.