In this series I explore the writing and editing processes behind some of the books I’ve put out. Obviously, I am not really an expert on this process, but I’m learning as I go and am happy to share what I’ve figured out.
Last month I finished my last edits on my first linear novel (since What Lies Beneath the Clock tower is non-linear), a utopian novel called A Country of Ghosts. The book is going to be released this March by Combustion Books, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to write a utopia (and a bit about my own process).
I remember the battered, moldy, hardcover copy of Aldous Huxley’s Island I got or borrowed or stole from my high school girlfriend, back when I was probably fifteen or sixteen. More than any book I’d read, it felt heavy with importance–even before I read the first page.
Dystopias are all the rage, these days. Dystopias are safe. You can teach a dystopia in high school because, hey, we all know that fascism is bad. It’s safe to be critical. What’s hard is to offer alternatives. Note that I mean this primarily in the realm of words, rather than action… obviously, it is not safe to act against oppressive systems, and those who do so are to be lauded. Being critical is safe–doing something about it, or even offering alternative proposals, that’s what draws ire.
I’d probably already read and been pretty indifferent to Brave New World by the time I picked up Island. Brave New World was full of bad things happening to people… it was like any book I’d read. But Island… Island was different. It’s been half my life now since I read it, and maybe there wasn’t that much that stuck with me, besides the call to be “here and now,” the admonishment to really savor your meals and your life alike. But that book felt important, at least to me, at least then.
A few years later, I became an anarchist–because I found a group of people willing to articulate and work for a world without oppressive systems. Many years after that, I learned that Huxley too had been pretty excited about the whole anarchist thing–in the introduction to Island, apparently he’d talked about how the world needed decentralization of a Kropotkin-esque manner.
Then came a bit more than a decade of social struggle, fighting for the earth and for liberty and for a world where we don’t fuck one another over to survive. And when it came time to reflect on what it was I was fighting for, the answer seemed obvious: I should write a utopian novel.
A utopian novel–any book, actually–shouldn’t ever be understood as a blueprint, or a road map. Sure, I’d love to live in the San Francisco of Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing, but if by some miracle we’re ever in the position to rewrite society, we’d be fools to follow her book over our own lived experiences. This is actually one of the many places in which anarchists have an advantage over other political philosophies: we know we shouldn’t adhere to rules or programs set out by anyone other than ourselves and our immediate communities.
So I didn’t write “A Country of Ghosts” to say “this is what society should look like. Exactly like this.” I don’t want us to ratify the accord of Hron and just assume that what works for 19th-century mountain villagers and exiled revolutionaries would work for us. This is one of the reasons why A Country of Ghosts is set in a fictional world, actually–to reduce any chance that anyone might confuse it for prescriptive.
While I have no interest in writing out a set of instructions for how we might live, however, I am interested in showcasing the ideas of my community. I’m interested in showing the world an example of how we could get along without government or capitalism. I’m interested in showing that anarchism is a viable political system, which, while probably not perfect, has an awful lot going for it when compared to the ecocidal, racist, classist system we live in today. I’m interested in creating work that might help inspire, not direct, revolutionary change.
The challenge left to me, in writing the thing, was to showcase a society without boring the reader to tears. Another reason dystopias are more common than utopias is that a dystopia has a built in sense of conflict, one that immediately resonates with the average reader: being in a totally screwed up situation and wanting to escape or change it. But I, and so many others, do have the experience of being part of defending something beautiful and functional from outside attack–which is a perfectly realistic source of conflict for utopian fiction.
Practically speaking, I had to balance plot with quite a bit of exposition, since I not only had to show the landscape and culture of Hron, I had to explore plenty of its inner workings. I hope that I succeeded–I’m cautiously optimistic.
Other posts on writing: