Alaya Dawn Johnson: The Interfictions 2 Interview
By Christian Desrosiers
(Note: To celebrate the launch of Interfictions 2, the IAF's second anthology of short interstitial fiction, Christian Desrosiers from Small Beer Press interviewed several of the anthology's contributors. The third of these interviews was with Alaya Dawn Johnson, author of "The Score". For more interviews with Interfictions 2 contributors, please visit our Interfictions 2 Interviews page.)
How did you come to this unusual method of storytelling?
I tend to be experimental in my short fiction or at least, more so than in my novels. One of the reasons I love the short fiction form is that you can do the sorts of weird, fascinating, bizarre things you might not have the patience for at 80 to 100 thousand words. So I wanted to tell a modern epistolary story, but also tell the future as though it were a historical document. I recall the AP test in American History had a section called a DBQ, or "Data-Based Question" that involved dozens of only tangentially-related historical documents from a single era, and you had to use them as your primary sources to form an argument in an essay. In some sense, I guess I decided I wanted to create a fictional DBQ with the same sort of parameters find your own story (and argument) among the pieces.
After your time reading these radical blogs, do you have a sense of why these kinds of conspiracy theories are so compelling?
I think the fundamental appeal of conspiracy theories is that they make the world a much simpler place while at the same time privileging the believer of the conspiracy as someone with special information, or a uniquely true viewpoint upon the world. It's a form of self-marginalization that is also self-aggrandizing. Now, I want to clarify that I have a very specific definition of conspiracy theories, and that not everything that might initially sound like a conspiracy theory in fact is one. So: Bush and his cronies used missiles to bring down the twin towers and caused 9/11? A conspiracy theory. Why? Not because I put any sort of twisted morality like that beyond Bush & Cronies, but because it requires the silence of too many people, a cover-up of such massive proportions they'd essentially need a Bond-villain style mind ray to make it work. The same is true of germ-theory denialists or global warming denialists who essentially posit that the thousands and thousands of scientists doing research in these subjects are covering up the real truth because they want to get funding from the secret cabal that doles out funding. On the other hand, I'm a big fan of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, two critics of US foreign policy who are often (and falsely) accused of promoting conspiracy theories. But claiming that the US has a vested interest in supporting criminal regimes around the world is not a conspiracy theory. It's reported every day in the BBC and the Wall Street Journal. Beyond the factual verification, there's also a conceptual one: none of their critiques rests on a foundation of widespread and statistically unlikely silence. Indeed, most of what they criticize has been widely reported in the mainstream press.
Is the character Jake Pray closely modeled on anyone? Is there any special significance to his name?
He isn't closely modeled on anyone, no. He is very loosely modeled on the singer-songwriters everyone is familiar with: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, John Lennon, etc. His name is only an obvious affectation, the sort of name a folk singer might choose, especially if he were attempting to be ironic about his beliefs and the religious conflicts that drove his family from their home.
Distrust and skepticism (healthy & otherwise) is a major element of your story, do you think we ought to be more skeptical of what is reported to us in the media? Or, is the story for you a observation of the ultimate hopelessness of such profound distrust?
"In the media" is probably too broad a category for me to answer this. Do I feel it's good to be skeptical of what's reported, say, in Fox News and the New York Post? Of course much in the same way you'd be skeptical of the latest issue of the Weekly World News. On the other hand, I'd make this claim of more "liberal" news outfits as well, like CNN and MSNBC and even the New York Times. This is not to say that you can't find some nominally accurate reporting in all of these outlets (even Fox News and the New York Post), but that the overall effect of reading these news sources, if that's your only source of news, is a picture of the world that is, in total, profoundly inaccurate. The New York Times gave us Judith Miller's notoriously inaccurate pre-Iraq reporting, all about issues that were easily debunked at the time if you read other news (international ones are good, as are reports from NGOs and health organizations). The New York Times is fundamentally an organ of a centrist (even "left" leaning on certain issues) majority of upper-class Americans who support American imperialism with an unthinking reflexiveness that would make Queen Victoria proud. So, as I said above, conspiracy theories reflect a desire for a simpler world that in no way describes the real one. That doesn't mean I think the New York Times has all the news that's fit to print.
With so little first hand knowledge, how do we know when to be skeptical and when to trust what we are told?
I'd suggest searching out other sources of knowledge. In this age of political blogging and citizen journalism and on-the-spot twittering, it honestly isn't hard to find non-traditional sources about a host of worldwide conflicts. The results of this knowledge, at least for me, make it difficult to support any effort of American imperialism, no matter how "noble" or "democracy-promoting" the stated goal. And, frankly, never trust what you are told if it comes from a head of state or anyone remotely connected to them.
This piece powerfully gears the personal to the global/political, do you believe these two, often separate spheres, are as tightly bound as they are in your story?
The personal is always political. At least, in the sense that everything that happens in the world comes down to individual decisions made by individual people. But there are power dynamics at play, which make the decisions of some people vastly more important than the decisions of others. Some people really are cogs in a machine. Maybe everyone is, and it's impossible to change things. I don't (mostly) believe that, but it's a dynamic I wanted to play with in this piece.
Do you see similarities between "storytelling" in the to-be-believed mode of news and conspiracy theories and storytelling as art? Is engagement with a work of fiction significantly similar to engagement with the larger world through news media?
I absolutely believe that people who report news (particularly news as processed and massaged and sometimes outright manufactured as that of traditional US media outlets) are engaging in a type of storytelling. And sometimes that storytelling, as in all storytelling, rises to the level of artistry. The red scares of the middle of the 20th century had a poetry to them that I think is undeniable. The story of America, alone against the Muslim horde of those who "hate us for our freedoms," clearly had a great deal of resonance around 2002 for many people. Engagement with a work of fiction is always going to be a step removed from engagement with true propaganda (though of course they're not always so widely separated). A reader of fiction is always, on some level, aware that what she is reading is not true. Someone listening to a presidential state of the union speech, on the other hand, might find it impossible to grasp that what he is hearing might simply be a story. Fiction might be dangerous, but presidential charisma can be deadly.
What is interstitial writing to you? Did you consciously write this piece as a work of interstitial fiction?
I wrote this piece months before I'd ever heard of interstitial fiction, so I believe I can safely say it wasn't conscious on my part. On the other hand, the ideas and goals of the interstitial arts movement are close to my heart, and I've always been interested in hybridizing forms and subverting genre cliches and in general fucking with my audience.
What is your next project?
"Next" is a bit of an interesting word for me, as I'm always working on about a dozen things at once. But perhaps of interstitial interest are the conclusion to my Spirit Binders trilogy, which is not as overtly interstitial as The Score, but still does its quiet best to fool around with YA and Fantasy and Hero's Journey genre norms. I'm also working on a graphic novel project, which merges two of my favorite things: a magical post-apocalypse and evil nuns.
About Alaya Dawn Johnson
Alaya (rhymes with "papaya") lives, writes, cooks and (perhaps most importantly) eats in New York City. Her literary loves are all forms of speculative fiction, historical fiction, and the occasional highbrow novel. Her culinary loves are all kinds of ethnic food, particularly South Indian, which she feels must be close to ambrosia. She graduated from Columbia University in 2004 with a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures, and has lived and traveled extensively in Japan. More about Alaya Dawn Johnson can be found at alayadawnjohnson.com.
How to Order Interfictions 2
Interfictions 2 is now available from Small Beer Press, Powell's and Amazon, and via IndieBound. The book was published on November 3rd, 2009 from Small Beer Press and was named one of Amazon.com's Top 10 Books of 2009: Science Fiction & Fantasy.