The novel The Camellia Resistance by A.R. Williams starts off in a comforting place, a warm bed, as the narrator watches her lover dress. But the world outside is far from a comfort — a future landscape, painted in apocalyptic tones and colors. It's become a familiar world in the past decade or so, thanks to writers like Suzanne Collins, Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Justin Cronin and big- and small-screen entertainments like The Walking Dead and Elysium.
But Williams' story -- which is part of a trilogy -- manages to find its own niche in this crowded genre, drawing on aspects of today's politico-socio climate to project a plausible future -- a world in which intimacy and love are threatened at the national, and viral, levels ... where latex, body condoms, and SaniCheck have become the norm. Government muscle is flexed to a suffocating degree, ranging from government agents to the little tattoo that marks infected people, and Williams shows its full effect with compelling style.
She's also a thoughtful interviewee, and I asked her a few questions about her novel -- presented in this post -- and about what she learned about the craft of writing as she finished this novel (coming soon in Part II of the interview).
I’d recommend that you print out this post, pour yourself the beverage of your choice, and sit back and listen to what Williams has to say about her novel and her experiences: It just might provide unexpected insights for you as you push ahead with your own project. Enjoy, my friends.
The book opens with an intimate description of Willow’s lovemaking with Zacharias Vendelin—her beloved “Ven.” She savors their time together because such intimacy isn’t allowed in their society, isn’t that right? Why not?
Willow is pretty isolated. She's bought into the protocols and assumptions of her culture, but she's lonely. There's a fundamental conflict between her early childhood experiences of affection with her biological mother and the life she's living now. She remembers being connected to another person, but it isn't really a part of her adult experience until she meets Ven. Her isolation makes her vulnerable, so when Ven shows up and touches her, her choices reflect her own ignored needs, not any well-placed trust in this virtual stranger.
Isolation's the norm, isn't it?
Intimacy is tightly controlled in the world she lives in. It's recognized as a necessary evil for the procreation of the species, but messy things happen with intimacy, and hers is a society that doesn't have much tolerance for messiness. This is a world where there's been a massive pandemic that's wiped out most of the population. What's left is a reactionary government built around the premise that if you can just control everything tightly enough - the biggest focus is on health and cleanliness - then you can prevent bad things from happening.
How did you come up with the idea for this novel, considering that there are so many end-of-the-world narratives out there already?
The novel evolved considerably from inception to publication. I started writing it for National Novel Writing Month in November 2009 -- kind of before the whole dystopian thing was a thing.
It must have been daunting to come up with an idea that's "new."
The plan was never to write something "new": In the initial stages, I just wanted to get 50,000 words by the end of November. As it grew in size and scope, I realized there were things I definitely wanted to talk about and the dystopian future provided an uncluttered framework for the discussion.
It's all imaginary, if you're working in 2044 instead of 2006. If it is a literal world you're writing in, you've got to conform to the rules of the real world. Twisting the basic assumptions about the world, even just a little bit, gave me both the grounded nature of a recognizable environment and the freedom to question things that we take for granted.
That's an interesting position to occupy. It's so flexible.
I really just wanted to talk about what comes after the worst thing you can possibly imagine happens. I was raised in a super conservative Christian sub-culture where we were afraid of everything. The way I grew up, if you could just be good enough, if you just kept to the rules strictly enough, then everything would be okay. I didn't know I was writing about that experience at the time I was writing, but I found that I really wanted to talk about fear and where decisions made from fear lead, both for society and for the individual.
In the end, I don't think any of us get away from the things that scare us most. There's something liberating about getting to the other side of the worst possible outcome and coming to the realization that you're still there and you still have to figure out what's next.
The dystopian setting served as an allegory, not as a considered starting point for writing something new. I really wasn't thinking about what else was out there or the trends in contemporary commercial fiction. The end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it environment just provided enough distance that I could talk about this notion of fear and culture without being tied to an exacting account of reality.
What inspired the ideas of the two opposing groups, the Ministry and the Brethren (science vs. faith)? It seems like there are many public figures today with Ministry-like solutions to massive problems.
Given the way I was raised, I have a fundamental mistrust of anyone who wants to offer a single, simple answer. Usually presented like this: "if you just do what I tell you to do in the way that I tell you to do it, then everything is going to be okay." The reality is that things are only simple when the variables are constrained. When it comes to people (and what of our massive problems aren't people problems?), there's never going to be a single big answer. It's always going to be a multiplicity of small, often contradictory answers.
So the Ministry, as well-intentioned as it might be, is a metaphor for what happens when a single idea or answer is allowed to dominate to the exclusion of all others. Huge elements of what it means to be human get repressed, to everyone's detriment.
I see there being three groups in a kind of triangle: the Ministry and the Brethren being rather closer to each other than they are to the outliers; the loosely associated groups of misfits, a vaguely criminal element; and people that (in the American tradition) simply don't want to be told what to do. So the conflict is between control, either through science or faith, and the pragmatists who are more agnostic in their assumptions about what the right answers might be.
“Life before the Ministry” – Willow asks an old cabdriver to describe what life was like before the Ministry. What he describes, in a nutshell, sounds like U.S. society today, is that accurate?
Yes. There are a few people in 2044 who remember what it was like before the pandemic and they are rightly ambivalent. Not everything about how we live right now is beneficial. In fact, a lot is wrong with our inability to come to some sort of an agreement that some things just aren't good for us. The food industry is far more interested in keeping their shareholders happy than they are to the general health and well-being of the consumer. There is a lot that we've got going on, just health-wise, that is really not well-considered or beneficial to anyone.
Everything costs something.
That's a running theme in the book. It isn't that the trade-offs shouldn't be made, just that I think there is value in being aware of what those trade-offs are. We can have unfettered freedom of choice when it comes to our food consumption, but then the cost of that is skyrocketing medical costs and a massive problem with obesity.
We can give up some of those freedoms (like the NYC attempt to ban super-size sodas), but what do we lose with that choice? What do we gain? And does anyone really need 32 ounces of Coke in one shot?
Some of the issues that Willow faces could have taken place in a “regular, normal” world, but why did you want to set her plight in a futuristic situation instead?
A lot of what Willow faces happens to real people in the regular world all the time, but her experience is really only the catalyst into the bigger questions: Is fear a productive basis for making choices? Which is better - a messy life lived genuinely or a controlled life without authentic connections?
You don't have to live in an apocalyptic world to face those questions.
That's right. Sooner or later, we all come to an "end of my world" situation. For some of us it's a divorce; for others, it's a health crisis or a job loss or some other event that forces us to question who we are and how we've been functioning in the world. If I've done my job as a writer, this book will reach someone in the middle of that kind of a crisis and will hopefully give them an alternate perspective and a reason to have a little compassion for themselves.
Coming soon: What the writing process taught A.R. Williams.