A Germ of an Idea: An Interview with John Varley
In Slow Apocalypse by John Varley, sitcom writer Dave Marshall's life is disintegrating. His career has fallen apart. His finances are a mess. His wife isn't really speaking to him. It's all happening in a sort of painful slow motion.
Then Marshall stumbles upon a story that just may be his lucky break—a bacteria that eats crude oil, a vengeful scientist, and a world without petroleum products.
It's a story too outlandish to be true . . . until the government cover-ups, media black-outs, and internet conspiracy theories convince Marshall that what he has is not the plot to his next screenplay, but a sneak peek of the apocalypse. In other words, the story might not save his career, but it might save him and his family from something much worse.
A lot happens in the first fifty pages of Slow Apocalypse. There's great tension between the fast-moving plot and the slow-moving apocalypse. Varley locks on with a close third-person POV that sometimes feels like first-person. And always, there's the signature Varley story-telling.
Varley's newly-released novel is a bit more reminiscent of Mammoth, his standalone about a mad scientist (and circus owner), time-travel, and animals rights than, say, his Thunder and Lightening novels, which were written in the spirit of Robert A. Heinlein's juvenile adventures.
Slow Apocalypse is, perhaps, Varley's least science-fictional, but it is otherwise typical of his writing— set in the near future, character-driven, organically plotted, written sparse prose. There's certainly much of the hippie in Varley's writing, especially as he presents readers with questions about personal responsibility and the role of government.
What came first with Slow Apocalypse—the bacteria, the Colonel falling through the window, Dave Marshall, a "what if?" or something else altogether?
What came first was my editor suggesting that she would like to see a post-apocalypse book from me, if I could come up with an idea that hadn't already been done to death. I got the idea about bacteria eating all our oil, and then the story grew as they always grow, with a few characters and a few ideas. I never know where a story is going when I start it.
You mentioned on your website that Slow Apocalypse is your "attempt to reach a larger audience." So how does a goal like this effect the writing?
The only way it affected the story was that it was not supposed to be hard science fiction. No spaceships or time travel or things like that. By a strict definition, it is SF, because it involves a new strain of bacteria developed by a scientist in a lab—a mad, or at least angry, scientist, I guess—and the disintegration of civilization. Other than that, I didn't have to do anything different. My writing has always been about characters and how they develop, plot and ideas are always secondary, and it was the same here.
Where did you find Addison, the protagonist's daughter? How'd you develop the character?
I don't consciously develop a character. I see them, and I start to write about them, and they grow as you do that. It's a mysterious process, and I don't think about it too much because I'm afraid it wouldn't work anymore if I did. I can tell you where I got the name. I'm a Disneyland freak. We visited more than a dozen times while we were living in Southern California, on one of those great passes that pay for themselves after you've used them twice, and then it's all free. We were in California Adventure about to ride on one of the kiddie rides, the Golden Zephyr spaceships, and one mother was calling out to her daughter to sit still. I liked the name.
I'm guessing you did a whole lot of research for this novel.
Of course the Internet was helpful. I had to find out about energy, food, and water needs of Los Angeles, where it all came from, how many people the region could support without a constant supply of things from outside. (Answer: not very many.) I was surprised to find that 50% of LA's power comes from coal burning. Almost ALL of its water comes from elsewhere. I had to find maps of fault lines, and discovered that one passes less than a half a mile south of the apartment building where I was living.
All the locations in the book are scrupulously accurate. Much of that was enabled by actually driving and walking around in the areas I covered and taking pictures. The only location that was fictionalized was the Marshall's house. I used an actual house on an actual site in the Hollywood Hills as the model, but I placed it elsewhere. There is a Mockingbird Lane in that area, but it's in a different location from where I have it.
It would have been much harder to write the book without Google Street View. I drove up and down many streets, virtually, and it saved a lot if time and gasoline. I don't like Google the company, but I used their excellent products because they are free.
The book takes off like a rocket. How do typically you plot your novels? How'd you plot this one? How do you build suspense in a novel in general and how'd you build it in Slow Apocalypse in particular?
Again, it's like characters, the plot just grows as I write it. I don't outline, and seldom think more than five or ten pages ahead, until somewhere around two-thirds of the way through, when the ending takes shape. I don't consciously build suspense, not like Hitchcock did; I just follow the story where it leads.
You grew up in Texas, a state that some folks think of as a country all its own. Do you think of yourself as a Texan? What of your Texas childhood shades your writing, if anything?
You can't stop being a Texan, much as I sometimes want to when I hear of the political insanity down there. The only tolerable place I know of in Texas is Austin, which many Texans themselves call "The People's Republic of Austin." I got out of the place right after graduation from high school, and have scarcely been back since. I don't think it has much to do with my writing, except the Cajun influence I had when growing up in the southwest corner of Texas, close to the Louisiana coast, inspired two of the main characters in my semi-juvenile books starting with Red Thunder. Many of my classmates were Cajun.
In what ways—artistically, personally, politically, etc.—are you still a hippie? And in what ways have you left that part of your life behind?
I'm obviously not still living in crash pads in Los Angeles or the Haight-Ashbury, and not doing any drugs, not even grass, because I seem to be allergic to it. (Something that's saved me a lot of money over the years.) I'm still anti-war, anti-pig-capitalist (I am a capitalist, but not a greedy, cheating one), and in favor of tolerance as much as humanly possible. I never got into the loonier aspects of hippiedom, so that is still the same. I'm still and always will be an atheist unless Jesus shows up and changes my mind.
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. He is the Staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly and Booklifenow.com. He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006. Jones lives in Upstate South Carolina with his wife, daughter, and flying poodle.