This week we have another very special guest for you all: author Premee Mohamed, just in time for the release of the thrilling conclusion to her Beneath the Rising trilogy, The Void Ascendant. We had a great time chatting with her about Benjamin Franklin, Science Octopus; things that rhyme with Nyarlathotep; the differences between Canada and America; how to tell if something is YA; recycling trends; big ol’ aliens; The Silmarillion; cloning dinosaurs; man-eating plants; Charles Darwin; tips on getting out of the slush pile; and gut microbes. Enjoy!
Media mentioned: the 99 Tiny Terrors anthology, Arrival, In the Woods by Tana French, The Little Mermaid, The Machineries of Empire series by Yoon Ha Lee, Nick Harkaway’s books, and Ursula K. LeGuin’s books.
Media mentioned: the 99 Tiny Terrors anthology, Arrival, In the Woods by Tana French, The Little Mermaid, The Machineries of Empire series by Yoon Ha Lee, Nick Harkaway’s books, and Ursula K. LeGuin’s books.
What is Fire the Canon?
Prefer your books in comedy form, but still want to sound smart at parties? We got you. Discover the hilarity hidden in the classics with new episodes every Thursday.
THEO: Hi, everyone. We are so excited for you to hear today’s episode. We’re joined by Premee Mohamed, a scientist and science fiction/fantasy writer. She recently published “The Void Ascendent”, the finale to her critically acclaimed “Beneath the Rising” trilogy. And she’s just a generally funny person, and a great guest! All right, let’s listen.
* Intro music plays -
JACKIE: Hi everyone, welcome to Fire the Canon. This is the podcast where we read the books in the Western canon and decide if they belong or not. But today we have a special guest and you're going to find out who that is in a second, if you haven't already found out by reading the title. My name is Jackie, I'm one of your hosts.
RACHEL: My name is Rachel, I'm your other host.
THEO: I'm Theo, I'm the producer. And…!
J: Our guest!
PREMEE MOHAMED: And I'm Premee Mohamed, the special guest!
R: Yay! Woo woo woo wooo.
J: We have another guest as well who's not special enough to mention, so we're just gonna move on.
R: That is exciting. So I'm gonna show you guys. I have a few of our guest’s books with me today, so if we end up putting this on Youtube, people get to see what they look like. I have the first two books in... It's going to be a trilogy, right?
PM: Yeah, the next book is coming out… God, in about twenty days. Yeah.
R: I was kind of like, we should have recorded the podcast like three weeks from now and then I could have read the final book! I’ve also got The Annual Migration of Clouds, a delightfully slim novella for anyone who has less time on their hands.
J: Well, I've been listening to Beneath the Rising on audiobook and I feel like there's always a part of the podcast where we tell the guests how much we like and appreciate them, but it's always very genuine. And I was just like, it's hard sometimes to find books by people who you know, have a different specialty in their day job, like who are scientists or whatever, that also have really good prose. And I honestly thought your prose was so good.
PM: Oh, thank you.
J: And I was just so impressed by it, and I told Rachel. And I also told her that I was very, very, very deeply saddened about Benjamin Franklin, Science Octopus.
R: Oh gosh.
PM: Oh God, yeah!
J: I audibly gasped.
PM: That has been an ongoing thing.
PM: So, I guess I was under the impression that a character who got something like four paragraphs of on-page time -
J: No, you're wrong. You're wrong.
PM: No, people really bonded with him! I knew when people had finished the book because friends, strangers, random people on the Internet would come up to me…. virtually for the most part, because the book came out during the plague… were like, “I'm so sad!” I'm like, I know what page you just got to. I am so sorry about your feelings. I didn't think that everybody was going to pack bond with Benjamin Franklin, Science Octopus.
PM: There was talk about having, like, a memorial book, like one of those things you sign at a funeral or whatever. People were talking about organizing it. There was talk about another anthology of anecdotes about Benjamin Franklin.
J: Yeah, maybe like baby stories and photos of like -
PM: Stories, yeah!
J: Yeah. Oh, gosh.
R: Let this be a lesson to you.
PM: Yeah, I have learned my lesson. Yeah. No more killing cute animals to show that the bad guy is bad. Oh my God.
J: Yeah, no. We… we got that, one hundred percent. I - when it happened, I went, (huge gasp) and I actually had to stop for a while because I was like… I can’t keep up with this, it’s too much!
PM: I'm sorry!
J: No, but it's excellent to be able to have that effect on people.
PM: I guess so, yeah.
R: I'm glad that Jackie was able to - so, okay, usually when we have a guest, I'm the only one who's familiar with their work at all, but this time I'm glad Jackie was able to read it, because I always feel like it's nicer when someone else can also ask questions.
J: When someone else can grieve the death of Ben with you.
R: Of an octopus, yeah.
J: This is the reason we invited you on. I wanted a personal, face-to-face apology from the author for doing that.
PM: Yeah, I don't think you’re the first. Yeah.
J: We recently got a request from a fan to explain our acronyms. So, SF/F is science fiction and…
PM: A lot of us often now also say SF/F/H, so science fiction, fantasy, and horror.
R & J: Ohh.
PM: Yeah, there's also a lot of us that have given up trying to make the acronym fit in everything and just say “spec fic”.
J: Spec fic. Okay, I like that.
PM: Yeah, because it's speculative fiction.
R: I've also heard people just say “genre fiction” to also include, you know, romance, mystery -
PM: Crime, thrillers, yeah.
R: Yeah, anything that's not literary fiction, I guess.
PM: Yeah, which, again to me, saying “genre” is fantastic, because it's very broad in that sense, but then to me that covers something like 90% of books. That leaves lit fic in like the 10%!
R: Also, literary fiction - okay, sometimes people don't like to hear this, but it definitely is a genre, like it has its tropes, it has its writing styles. Sometimes people like to push back, but no, it's a genre too.
PM: Yeah, I think my big thing is I don't have any writing background in terms of like, education. I took English 101 because you needed it as a requirement for my first year of university. And that was kind of where my English education stopped, because I was doing a molecular genetics degree, and then after that I was doing an environmental science degree, and the requirements for other options like that literally didn't fit into my schedule.
J: Well it just goes to show, I mean you don't always need those classes to be able to write. And we just interviewed Yoon Ha Lee as well, and you know, he said the same thing. He doesn't have any formal education in [writing].
PM: Does he not?! God, I love the Machineries of Empire series. I thought my head was going to explode like fifteen pages into the first book.
R: Yeah, it's really, really, really good.
PM: It's so good!
R: He also writes a lot of poetry and said he's had like no poetry education whatsoever.
J: No, except for reading.
R: Just that he's always loved poetry since childhood.
J: And I listened to Beneath the Rising on audiobook and I was telling Rachel that I thought the prose was very poetic, which you kind of - I'm sure you could get from reading it visually with your eyeballs, but also when I hear it, you know, read to me, I feel like that makes it even more apparent. Do you like to write poetry ever, or do you read it?
PM: No. I did write a poem last year for a solicited anthology because I was in 99 Tiny Terrors, which was an anthology of flash horror. So 500 to 1000 words, something like that, and afterwards the editor contacted us all and said, “Well, we're going to also do a poetry anthology for the Kickstarter, can you write something?” So I wrote a sonnet because I thought, you know, the form would help. Because I like poetry, but I don't write poetry. I don't know how, I guess.
J: Yeah, just take one of the paragraphs of your book and increase those margins a lot.
PM: Yeah, people have said that, they're like “Well, just you know, blurge out whatever and then, you know, hit the enter key in a bunch of random places and break it up. And I was like, “That's not what poets are doing! If it is what poets are doing, don't tell me because that will destroy all my illusions.”
J: No, that is.. I can -
R: Don’t - Jackie...
J: I completed many classes. All you have to do is just enter key, enter key. That’s it.
T: I'm curious, did that turn out to be a fun project or was it kind of intimidating?
PM: No, it was fun. It was fun. Particularly because it was a cosmic horror poetry anthology. Nothing rhymes with Nyarlathotep.
J: Challenge accepted.
PM: But it was also kind of fun trying to come up with the stress pattern. Iambic pentameter, or whatever, and also try to keep some kind of tone or atmosphere or mood or vibe in it and not just have it be, you know, kind of a dead block of words that happens to fit the needed rhythm, if that makes any sense.
R: Do you consider yourself to be a horror writer?
PM: Still kind of no, because I don't consume a lot of horror fiction and horror movies scare me. I don't watch them as a rule. But before Beneath the Rising came out, I noticed that I was getting messages from people, including my editor, saying, “Oh, you know, this is on an upcoming horror list. You're up for horror awards.” I was like, “I didn't write a horror book. Horror is scary!” People were like, “You wrote a scary book!”
PM: And I suppose in theory an editor would know. (laughter from all) Because I wanted the characters to be scared at several points, but I thought the point of horror was to scare the reader. And he kind of had to pull me aside and be like, “If the characters are scared, surprisingly, often the reader will be scared!” And I was like, “Well, that sounds fake. Do you even know what you're doing?”
J: I really enjoy how you have these effects on your readers and you don't realize that you're doing it. But like it's not good to be scared, necessarily, but sometimes it is.
PM: Well, it certainly is for horror.
J: You know, that's definitely the mark of, yeah, compelling authorship, I think.
PM: Well, I think that's also the goal for horror. A good horror author is trying to set out to get a reaction, and the reaction isn't like it would be for lit-fic or whatever. Not like, “Oh, I admire this character's personality” or whatever. It's, “I’m feeling something. This work has caused me to have an emotion.” Same with horror movies, I think.
R: So what I was going to say is, the covers are quite scary. Of your… Is it the Beneath the Rising trilogy, or is there another name for the series?
PM: I think we've been calling it the Beneath the Rising series, yeah.
R: Okay, well, they're quite scary to me.
R: And they also remind me of the Arrival alien words, which I don't know about this cover artist -
PM: Yeah, I kept getting that from people when the book came out and I was like: A, don't tell me, tell the cover designer. I had zero input into them. But also, B, if you finish the book, what it occurred to me later that it looked like (aside from being slightly scary and having the silhouettes in it, which I didn't notice for like six months, and then when I did notice that, I dropped the book) It kind of looks like, the first one at least, it kind of looks like a bullet wound.
PM: And again, I didn't realize that either till quite a while later.
J: Which is interesting because bullet wounds play a very important role in the story.
T: I'm so curious about this now. So how does it work with a cover designer, like do you go back and forth about something or they just totally design it?
PM: Um, not in this case. No, basically I got a Twitter DM from a friend who said, “Hey, your book is up for preorder on Amazon!” And I said, “Wow, that's exciting. Does it have a cover?” So that's how I found out what that cover looked like. But I know with some of my other books I've been a bit more involved. So, for instance, with The Annual Migration of Clouds with ECW press, my editor emailed me and was like, “Well, you know, we'd like to do an illustrated cover. Here's the portfolios of three illustrators. Go pick out which one you'd like or, you know, rank - go rank them, and come back to us and then we'll have a chat on our end with the art director.” And then they picked the same one that I picked. We came back, we had like an hour and a half long brainstorming session to kind of talk about images in the book that we thought were striking or if there was kind of a vibe we were going for. And I also got sent something like 6 or 8 preliminary sketches of the cover and got to kind of pick between those. And then they sent me a mockup of what was almost the final one and I didn't like the colors because it was kind of weird and neon, kind of garish. So I asked if we could change those and they did, and that's what ended up as the final cover. So I was actually involved start to finish on that one, which was really nice.
R: Wow, yeah. A much - a very different experience.
J: I wonder, if you had to compare the process of writing and getting a book published - if you had to compare that to a food, what food would you pick?
PM: Oh, that's a very good question. I would almost say sushi.
PM: But particularly sushi rolls.
PM: Because if you don't know what you're doing, it's easy to make them look sloppy, even if they taste good. But people are going to look at them and be like, “Oh, what a mess, I'm not eating that.”
PM: So again, possibly that, you know, judging a book by its cover thing.
PM: I’ve judged books by their covers. I judge books by their covers all the time.
J: Yeah, I mean it's the initial thing that might make you want to walk across the store and get it. If we ever were to go out in public again.
PM: If we ever were to go out in public. Yeah. All my books so far - my entire publishing career so far, which started in mid-March 2020, has been during the plague.
R: I was gonna ask you about that! Within less than three years, like basically within two years, [from] having zero books and now you've got what? Like five books out, maybe more?
PM: Yeah, five.
PM: Next one… Yeah, next one's coming out in a couple weeks, so that'll be six, and then it looks like there'll be either two or three next year. I've kind of lost track.
PM: And/or lost control of my life. And again it's funny because people last year were kind of like, “Oh my God, you're so prolific.” I'm like, this isn't how publishing works!
PM: It's like public transit. I didn't schedule those releases.
PM: And all of those contracts were signed at different times. All of those books were signed at different times. What happened was they all ended up scheduled for 2021, like you know, the second Beneath the Rising book - That book deal was made in 2018 and it was always supposed to come out 2021, about a year after the first book. These Lifeless Things was written in, I think 2017. It was under contract with the publisher, and then the publisher broke the contracts for all the novellas that were supposed to happen that year. So it had to go out and find a home again. And What Can We Offer You Tonight?, which came out in July, was written eight or ten months before or something, and then, to my surprise, came out a couple of months, like six months or whatever after it had been published. And then we did the paperwork for Clouds in late 2019. So that was scheduled to come out in 2021. So it was just… you’re just standing at the bus stop and four of the same bus pull up at once.
R: So it's actually been, on your end, a much more reasonable output. It just looks like -
R: - you're putting out like a book a month.
PM: Yeah, that's what it looks like.
J: It looks like you're the main character in Beneath the Rising and you never sleep and you're just like, “Gotta write all the words all the time!”
J: Just for anyone listening who hasn't read it, Johnny is a girl… I don't want to call her a girl genius. That makes it sound very cheap, like a Jimmy Neutron kind of thing.
R: I feel like she gets called that in the book, though.
PM: Yeah, she gets called that.
J: Yeah, but she's also much more than that!
R: Now, wait, Jackie's only halfway through. so let’s not spoil anything for her -
J: No, I know the twist.
R: You DON’T know the twist, or you do?
J: I do know the twist.
R: Girl! Well, don't - let's not tell the audience the twist.
PM: Oh, I'm not telling the audience the twist!
J: I'm not going to. But she's a genius and she stays up all the time and she's just always working on stuff, and I was finding that so interesting in the beginning and I was like, “Yeah, that's motivating, I wish I could be like that!” And then I was like “Wait, no.”
R: Oh gosh.
J: “I don’t know that I want to be like that.”
R: I think it's funny that you called her the main character, cause I would have said that Nick was the main character.
J: Um… I guess he is, he's the one that it’s speaking from…
PM: Well, I would disagree. I think Johnny is the main character.
PM: And I think it's a case where Nick is bearing witness. So it's like if you look at Moby Dick, Ishmael isn’t the main character. Ahab is the main character. Or, arguably, the whale is the main character. But Ishmael narrates.
R: That's true.
PM: Is the narrator always the main character? I disagree. I don't think he has to be.
J: She's driving all of the plot.
PM: Yeah, she's what's making things happen for the most part.
R: I guess I'm thinking the character whose head I'm staying in, like the perspective I'm getting, to me, that's how I would define “main”.
J: Oh, mine was the octopus. So I mean, it was shocking when you killed the main character. I mean…
PM: I owe so many people's therapy bills for that.
R: So I guess we all three have different ideas of main character. So when I first bought your book, when I first bought Beneath the Rising, it had come out on… you know, like you said, it was on a lot of horror lists, and I'm the one on the podcast who doesn't like to be scared. So I held back for a really long time because I'm like, “This looks so scary, and everyone's talking about like, it's horror, it's horror!” So finally I started reading it. And I will say, at the first maybe quarter of the book, there's some stuff that was really scary to me. But then after that I haven't really been scared, even in some very - I mean, there are some parts in book two where obviously, if it was happening to me, I would be freaking out. But for some reason, anyone who's afraid, I think you'll be fine. Just get through the first few chapters of Beneath the Rising and you'll be fine.
J: Yeah, there are some parts that are really funny too.
R: Oh, yeah.
J: Like I was laughing out loud. There's a little part where it's like, yeah, Johnny's this genius and she, you know, has all this crazy stuff going on in her genius house. And there's like, dung beetles that have been genetically engineered so that there's no dung for them to roll, so she just gives them ping pong balls and they just roll those around the house. That was like so funny to me.
PM: Yeah. Well, again, I didn't think that I was writing a horror. And also I don't think that I would be good at deliberately setting out to write a horror. I thought I was writing basically an adventure book. And I should also add that the book was written… it was started when I was Nick's age. So I was writing it during undergrad. I finished it the year I graduated, so when I was 20. So when people are like, “Oh wow, this is such a good period piece! People are wearing Gap khakis, they’re using Netscape Navigator!” I'm like, okay, first of all I was using Netscape Navigator, how dare you? But yeah, like I was very much peers with Nick and I was slightly older - because at the start Nick is supposed to be about 18, Johnny was supposed to be about 17, and when I started I was about 18 and when I finished I was about 20. So, you know, 9/11 was very fresh in my mind.
PM: All of that was very fresh in my mind. But also, being a science undergrad was what I was writing around, and writing through. Yeah, I didn't really read very much horror at that point. Mostly what I was reading at that point was how not to blow yourself up in an undergraduate organic chemistry lab.
J: I mean that's the first priority. You’ve gotta get that straight or you can't do anything else.
PM: It was super the first priority. But yeah, I thought I was writing like, you know, almost like Indiana Jones, but with one super nerd and one kid with anxiety.
J: Yeah. Well, and sometimes adventures are scary. But you made one very interesting choice, which I apologize if you've been asked about this before, but very early in the book it mentions that, you know, there was that day in September when the planes almost hit the towers, but they didn't. And it didn't work. And 9/11 didn't happen.
J: What was your thought behind that?
PM: So technically this is a sci-fi, fantasy, horror, alternate history.
PM: I think it also mentions in the second book, you know, that U2 broke up in that one in like 2004 or whatever.
J: Both very momentous changes.
PM: Very momentous changes! And I was talking about that with another friend the other day and he was like, “How could you? Because then Bono released, like, those 19 solo albums and drove everybody insane and it would have been better if U2 stayed together!” I'm like, “Oh, you've seen this alternate universe, have you?”
J: Yeah. What made you decide that, in the world of this universe, it would be better to not have had 9/11 happen?
PM: Plot reasons.
R: Well there you go, Jack.
J: So basically I just don't know yet. Okay.
PM: Yeah, without giving too much away, I guess it's that's a question that gets asked in the second book and it's a question that Nick asks, that he probably should have asked in the first book.
J: Okay, so from my perspective, not knowing all that yet, I was thinking, well, this is an interesting choice. Because maybe… my boyfriend, his family is from Bangladesh. And I remember him talking about after 9/11, it didn't matter whether anybody understood what nationality you were from. If you were Brown, you were probably aligned with the terrorists in some way.
J: And so I was wondering, you know, that might have been an interesting choice to think about. Like, well, 9/11 didn't happen, and yet Nick is still getting, you know, maybe prejudice from people or like, looks from people for being Brown.
PM: Because it almost happened. Yeah.
J: Because it almost happened, right.
PM: Yeah. And that was pretty much firsthand my experience as well. Even being on campus at the time, and I thought, well, you know - naively, I guess - it's a university!
PM: People here aren't going to be like they are, you know, on TV or whatever, where you see these kinds of things happening. And then I was going to a talk one night and a friend of mine that was supposed to come with me didn't show up. And it was because some guys had ambushed him outside of his dorm and beaten him up. Yeah, and he was from the Middle East. I guess they kind of seized on that, and his last name, and made a choice. It felt very immediate to me, and it felt very visceral. And there was kind of no distance between myself as a Brown person - luckily a woman, because women seem to get slightly less of it at the time. But just the level of free-floating prejudice in the air was like smog, like anywhere you went, you breathed it in. And it seemed like it lasted forever, too.
PM: It certainly lasted until I graduated, which was in 2002. So, and that's why that ended up in the book.
J: That's crazy. And I mean he - yeah, my [boyfriend] - he was a child at the time and he still got this.
J: Right, so it's happening - it sounds like it was happening to everybody. So I just thought that was like a really poignant, interesting choice.
PM: Yeah, thank you. I guess. But, yeah, it's important for Nick to feel like an outsider for the whole book, or I guess it's important for him as a character to feel that way.
R: You went to university in Canada, is that correct?
PM: Yeah, University of Alberta.
R: Yeah, I guess it's just, to me, it's kind of surprising to hear that, you know, people had to deal with this same prejudice in Canada because, of course, like the three of us are Americans and you know, we had to... We grew up with all these truly horrible, jingoistic country songs that I still can't listen to without, like, flinching. And I'm just surprised, or I guess I'm disappointed, that this happened in other countries too. I'm like, okay, Americans certainly didn't have an excuse, but Canadians have even less of an excuse to act like this!
PM: Yeah, certainly, growing up here, the distinction between us and Americans was always very, very slim to begin with, and anything that started in America, we knew would migrate its way here, probably instantly, at worst within a couple of months. And you know, that's good, bad, and indifferent. As far as I can tell, the only difference between Canada and America, my entire life growing up, even including now, is that I think we get slightly different candy then you guys get. And even that’s starting to erode, because my understanding is that there are many areas of the states where one can in fact purchase a Coffee Crisp!
T: A what?
J: I don't know what that is, so, not in our areas.
R: I would imagine...
PM: Oh, okay, it's a candy bar that we get up here, and that American friends have literally occasionally asked me to send them a box of.
PM: I also like their tag phrase, which is, “It's a nice light snack.” Like first of all, that's terrible. Secondly, It's accurate. I mean, who came up with this?
R: “It's a nice light snack.”
T: That’s funny.
PM: It’s a nice light snack.
R: That seems like if someone was going to make a parody of a Canadian snack food motto, that's what it would be.
PM: Literally. They're like, well, we can't come up with anything really striking or offensive or attention-grabbing or something.
R: “You'll probably like it!”
J: Like, if you asked me to guess the food that was being advertised with that slogan, I would think, “Hmm. …Kale? Seaweed crisps?”
R: Like, a veggie chip.
R: Was there ever talk of your book - of the Beneath the Rising trilogy being shelved as YA [young adult] just because of the age of the protagonists?
PM: Yeah, not very much, though. Which, I'm surprised, because I am friends with a lot of authors, and it seems like if you write fantasy and you're a woman, particularly if you're a woman of color, automatically, no matter what else is happening in the book, the book gets shelved as YA. So that includes friends that have had books with characters, you know, the entire cast of characters is like in their 30s to 60s, and it still ends up as YA. And yeah, Beneath the Rising wasn't marketed as YA. It wasn't aimed at teenagers. And again, as far as I know, YA is a marketing right thing.
PM: And I have no idea how they choose what's YA and what's not YA. But even with main characters aged 17 and 18, I never ended up having it on YA lists, or having people tell me, you know, “Oh, I'm going to let my kid read this.” Or maybe people were and they just didn't tell me, I don't know.
J: It’s interesting because, I mean, I could see liking that as a teenager, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's YA. And it's not a bad thing for something to be YA, of course.
J: But you know, you look at Catcher in the Rye. That's not YA. Like, you know, you're dealing with very, very adult themes and you need to have a certain level of maturity, and, yeah.
PM: Yeah, and that - I think that was my question too, is what makes something YA if it's not the age of the characters?
PM: What makes something an adult book that happens to have young characters? How do we know the difference? And by YA I mean marketing.
PM: Because it’s clearly not the author's decision, as far as I can tell.
R: How do THEY know the difference?
PM: How do they know the difference? When do they decide something is YA?
J: I would have guessed it was just about like, the level of difficulty of the literature, right? Like how - what level of reader do you need to be to get through this? But I have no idea.
R: That's not the case!
J: Yeah, clearly not!
R: So I've been talking to some - just various friends about this. But like, for example, I've not read these, but one of my friends I was hanging out with recently, she like loves the Sarah J. Maas books about - it's basically having sex with fairies. I think they were originally… It's something odd. Like they're obviously adult books, they're extremely erotic, but they are shelved with YA.
R: And the cover art is like, YA-style. But also they recently released some editions that have like, the non-kind of painterly illustrated covers and those are shelved with adult fiction. So I've seen them in both sections and that's kind of strange. And also I know that, like, I think at this point over 50% of the readership of YA is adults. And you know, I've read books that are considered YA that have a very high level for reading and a very low level, and it's just very… it's very strange.
PM: Yeah, like I said, I think that's very much something marketing chooses to do, but I would be very curious to see what rubric they're using.
If they have one, like when a manuscript comes in and they're like at the acquisitions meeting or whatever… because marketing goes to these things -
PM: - because that's how they decide if they're going to take the book on or not, and marketing goes, “Yeah, we can market that as YA. We’ll just… blah.”
J: And one thing that Yoon Ha Lee told us is that you know, these middle grade or YA books tend to be much more highly profitable.
J: And for the publishing house, I assume. So maybe they're just like, “Yeah, this is going in the YA pile. What is it? It's a textbook about, like, statistics. But yeah, put that in the YA pile.”
PM: Put that in the YA pile. We’ll put a nice cover on it. It'll be fine.
J: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
R: I wonder if the setting in terms of time had an effect on it, because obviously, teens today aren't going to feel that nostalgia for the early 2000s that maybe adults do.
J: Yeah, I sure miss being a fetus.
R: So I do wonder if it was set in like 2018, what would have - if there would have been a difference.
PM: This whole conversation makes me feel extremely old. Thank you. (laughs)
PM: Yeah, no worries. Obviously you guys are talking fetuses, which is quite incredible. Congratulations.
R: We're 30! … Right?
J: We're 30!
R: Yeah, we're 30!
PM: I’m 40!
J: I know. It is amazing, though, we've somehow gained cognition and everything.
PM: Yeah! No, actually, that was one thing I was wondering after it did get acquired, was, are they just going to ask me to update this to like 2018 when we signed the paperwork? And my editor was like, “No, I don't care. If this isn't being marketed at teenagers, I don't care what teenagers think.” But also there's a lot of historical YA as well, right?
PM: There's fantasy YA that isn't set in a specific time period. There's YA sci-fi that’s set in the future. So I don't think the time period matters.
J: I didn't think - I mean, I noticed it and I was like, “Oh, that's interesting, it’s set a while back.” But it didn't really change the story much.
PM: It was just that when it was being written, is all. Yeah.
R: Right, exactly. I was just thinking of other books, like other sci-fi books set in the same era, and I know… so Lindsay Ellis has a book called Axiom’s End that is also set around like, I think, 2003-ish. Which, I know your book was written well before hers, but I am kind of curious if we're going to see… because, I mean, fashion trends are also in the early 2000s right now, and I am kind of wondering are we going to see like a bit of a micro-trend in publishing of books set in that period? But who knows.
PM: Who knows.
R: Guess it’s just something I’ll keep an eye on.
J: Yeah, that's one thing that we do have in common, fetuses and adults alike. We're old enough now to notice that the stuff that was popular when we were younger is now coming back again. And I'm just like, “My God, just…”
PM: Oh my God.
R: Some of it is fine. I am worried about the very skinny eyebrows. Like, don't do it, kids.
PM: Oh, me too. I already want to pull people aside and be like - okay, I managed to resist that trend back in the day because, again, we were all at university when that started to become really popular, and nobody had any free time and we were all deranged from lack of sleep, so nobody could pluck their eyebrows because nobody had that kind of hand-eye coordination anymore. There are people I wanna pull aside now and just be like, “No. No no no! No! Resist. Don't do it!”
J: No. I did. I did fall into that trend. It's permanent.
J: You pull out that root enough times, it ain't growin’ back!
PM: It screws up your eyebrows.
J: Give yourself a choice!
R: I remember when I was in middle or high school that sometimes my mom would be like, “Oh, here, let me pluck your eyebrows,” and I would be like, “You have to s- I would let her do a little bit, and I'd be like you have to stop there,” and she's like, “Let me just get a few more!” And I'm like, “No, no, no.” So I'm glad, because I don't have super thick eyebrows anyway.
PM: Yeah, I was trying to explain to my mom, like, I don't touch my eyebrows because they're kind of thin to begin with and then they're going to look like yours as you get older, which they’re getting thinner and thinner and you have to color them in with a pencil. I'm never going to color mine in with a pencil. That's a lie. If I'd actually put on make up this morning other than like, lipstick, I would have colored them in with a pencil.
J: Yeah. I fill mine in with eyeshadow every day, because I just look weird if I don't.
PM: Yeah, me too. Like you look kind of weird and washed out.
J: Yeah! And then I like, go to a pool party or something. You come out of the water and they're like, “Who's that?”
PM: There's Theo, like, priding himself on his fluffy eyebrows. Thank you, Theo. Making us look bad, how dare you? Yeah, no, no, it's fine. I'm not jealous of your eyebrows. But, yeah.
T: (laughing) Sorry.
PM: I don't know if the early 2000s thing is going to come around. What's handy about that period is that there are problems that you can't solve in two seconds with a cell phone.
R: Mmm. Yeah.
PM: And, in fact, Nick is very excited to have a cell phone in the first book, and he loses it. And then Johnny drops hers.
J: Well, I mean at that time, though, you drop the phone and it's like…
R: It’s fine.
J: You could throw it against a wall for all you care. It's fine.
PM: Well, what's the thing! I remember that. I dropped one of my phones around that period down a flight of concrete steps and I ran down the steps. I was like, “Oh God, my parents are gonna kill me. Oh, never mind, it’s fine.”
J: Yeah! I can compare two phone stories. Which is, back in like 2005 I got my first cell phone and it was, you know, one of those flip phones. It was a Samsung Katana.
J: I left it in my pocket or something because, you know, at that time you don't need it for absolutely everything, because it can't do that much. So I just left it in my pocket. My mom washed my jeans, she comes back in, she's like, “You're buying yourself a new phone.” And she just dropped it on my dresser and I was like, aww, man. You know. So it went through the wash and I was like, whatever. So I put it aside for a while, and then a few days later I'm looking at it. I'm like, “It looks fine.” And I just turned it on.
PM: Seems fine?
J: It was fine, totally fine.
PM: Do you remember when phone batteries used to last like, two weeks without having to charge it?
J: But then, compared to that, like a couple weeks ago or last month, I had my phone in the shower because I was -
R: This again.
J: And I talked about this on a different podcast episode already, but I was just like, listening to something in the shower. We don't need to talk about what that thing was. It may or may not have been our own podcast.
T: Okay, the fact that it's our own podcast, I don't think is the least embarrassing part of this story. You had it balanced up against the handles for the water, like the faucet.
J: But the point is it wasn't soaked in water, it was just NEAR water, and it DIED. Like, it was killed. Whereas before, we could put that thing through a washing machine, and nothing would happen.
PM: No, like you could literally, you could punt that thing across a football field and it would be fine.
PM: I actually - again, moving I have to, like, touch everything I own and throw out a bunch of stuff, and I kept finding old flip phones that apparently died or were replaced, and out of curiosity, I turned one of them on. And it did turn on, and then it bitched me about not having a SIM card, which is totally fine.
T: Yeah, right.
PM: The fact that it turned on, though, and it was like a Motorola Razr from like, 2007...
PM: I guess I just bought a new phone, turned that one off and it's just like, “Well, I'll just wait till she turns me on again.”
R: I wanted to tell, I guess, all three of you. So, we started the recording a little bit late because Jackie's poor little dog is having some health problems. The email that I sent said, “My cohost’s dog is having health problems.” I was so close to sending an email that said, “My dog's cohost has been having health problems.”
PM: Like, oh! I didn’t know your dog had a podcast.
R: Yeah, I was hovering over the send button, and then I’m like, wait a second.
T: “My dog's cohost” - in parentheses - “(me).”
J: Yeah. “I am having health problems.” No, I love the idea of alternate universes as a way of exploring different ideas. I mean I wish we could just put that into more things. Like not just sci-fi novels.
R: Let's go to a universe where all podcasts are made by dogs.
R: That would be great.
J: That would be fine with me.
R: So previously on this podcast, we had the author Ruthanna Emrys, who is like, you know, a Neo-Lovecraftian writer. And your books - they're sort of, I feel like you've got these aliens, like big old aliens.
J: I thought of it that way too.
J: I didn't want to say that, because I'm stupid and I don't know if I'm right, but I kind of felt that way.
PM: You know, it's - yeah, I think people have been referring to it as modern cosmic horror to get Lovecraft’s name right out of it. But Ruthanna Emrys actually is a Lovecraft academic, I believe, like a scholar.
PM: And I paneled with her a few years ago and she's very, very knowledgeable about all this kind of thing.
R: Oh yeah.
PM: It’s incredible. Yeah.
J: This is so interesting now that we're getting guests that know each other.
J: Cause genre writers are just the nicest ones and they're the ones that agree to talk to us.
R: That's what I told Jackie! Jackie was like, (silly deep voice) “You know, all of our guests have been so great, but like, what if you try to get some who aren't sci-fi writers?” I'm like, “I do try. They won't come on.”
J: (silly deep voice) “What if you try to make my voice sound a little more stupid?”
PM: Aww! All the lit-fic writers are like, “Wait, you want to talk to me?”
R: No, they don't respond.
R: Like, I have emailed so many literary fiction writers, I've emailed so many poets, and reached out to them. I don't think a single one has ever even been like, “Sorry, I can't!” But if I - I can reach out to like, a really big romance writer, someone who sells, you know, a thousand times as many books as a poet. And you know, they'll come on or they'll at least be like, “Oh, that sounds great, but I'm really busy, sorry.”
J: I can tell you what the poets are doing. They're getting that email, and they're going, “...Aaaah!” and they're moving it right into their anxiety folder and they never look at it again.
PM: I was about to say, I - yeah, I know a lot of poets. Poets can't deal with emails like that.
R: I just need to go to their house and be like, “Hey, I've got a mic, come on my podcast right now.”
PM: You have to be gentle with them. You have to offer them some food first and let them sniff your hand.
J: Yeah, yeah yeah.
R: Mhmm. We're actually having our first poet on soon -
PM: Oh, that’s fun!
R: Right, Jackie? But it's her former poetry professor, so we've got a connection.
PM: You’ve got an in.
J: Yeah, exactly. And I did promise to give him food as well. We're sending him a gift card. I'm just kidding.
PM: There you go. Oh, I'm sorry. We were talking about Ruthanna Emrys. Sorry.
R: Oh, okay, okay. Okay, cosmic horror. We all know at this point, because we've done an episode - Lovecraft? Bad dude. Even for the time, super duper racist. And you know, this is - so in our episode with Ruthanna Emrys, we were kind of talking about, some of his ideas were very good, and then you get a lot of, you know - cosmic horror writers now, who are women or queer people or people of color who are interacting with that body of work from a very different perspective. And I'm wondering, with your cosmic horror stuff, is this just stuff that you absorbed from society? Did you read Lovecraft, anything like that?
PM: Yeah, I - Well, I started to read some Lovecraft - I think I'd read “Call of Cthulhu” when I was, I don't know, maybe in high school or something. It was a story in a larger book of myths or something that was in our high school library. But I didn't really know any of his stuff. I didn't know anything about him. And I started reading some of that stuff, or like older horror stuff. So like, his stuff, and Edgar Allen Poe, and Arthur Machen, and William Hope Hodgson, and folks like that. Slightly more when I was in university and had more choice of, you know, things to read, because otherwise it's pretty much literally whatever's in the school library.
PM: Because I didn't have time to go to our local library and hunt things down, and we didn't have a ton of fiction at home. Like, my parents had a lot of books, but it was mostly nonfiction because they considered fiction to be kind of… I don't know, not worth reading, or not worth having in the house, because it made you stupid or something? I'm not sure.
J: I disagree. I don't read much fiction and I'm the stupidest one on this podcast.
R: Have they changed their minds?
PM: They definitely had an attitude towards it. They definitely had an attitude. They have not changed their minds.
PM: Yeah, they're still slightly embarrassed about my ‘little hobby’.
PM: And I'm like, “But I'm up for awards and stuff now!” And they're like, “Yeah, awards in FICTION!” Like, okay.
R: Oh no!
PM: Okay, so you're bitter that I'm not a doctor! Okay. Just… go to therapy.
R: You're a scientist! You're literally a scientist.
PM: I literally have two science degrees, and they're like, “Urgh. Agh.”
R: “But fiction.”
PM: “But fiction. Eww.”
R: Oh no.
PM: So I didn't start sort of absorbing that cosmic horror stuff until, yeah, about university, and actually that's what kind of kickstarted getting started on the book again. Because it had existed in an earlier form previously, which was the same kind of contrasty ‘poor boy, rich girl, ordinary person, genius’ story, but in that one the villain literally was the actual devil. And he had a team of like, demons and stuff, and I was never satisfied with it. I was just - after twelve years in Catholic school where they didn't teach us any of the interesting stuff about being Catholic but just told us to not do the deed before marriage - which was like, the entire extent of our Catholic education - I was still just like, “This has just been done to death, I am pretty sure. Having the actual devil as the bad guy has been done to death. What else can I do with this story in terms of a supernatural villain?” Luckily, around that time, when you start to get into that older stuff, you're like, “Oh my God, there's this whole world!” Of like dozens of people writing either a shared or not shared - you know, if you read stuff like… what's the guy’s name? Brian Evenson or whatever? He kind of comes up with his own mythos. There's lots of people writing stories about these unfathomably ancient evil, essentially motiveless bad people that occasionally interact with human beings and occasionally don't. And there's this whole back story, there's this whole sandbox, there's several sand boxes, and also it gave you the impression that if you wanted to just randomly come up with a sand box of your own, that would fit neatly into the existing structure because they're so ancient.
J: Those are the monsters from Lord of the Rings that I find the most interesting, and I feel like a lot of people don't talk about them. It’s like, yes, Sauron, whatever. He has motives. He's basically an understandable psyche. But you know, then you've got like, the Balrog, and the deep things that live in the lake.
PM: Anything could be out there!
J: Yeah! And there's other things that are hinted at…
J: Mmhmm, yeah. Hinted at and he never describes.
PM: You've got the Balrog, you've got Shelob, and you're like, “The HELL is living in the lake?”
J: They're just basically an animal, or like, but a god also, but just ancient and, yeah, like a force.
PM: And Tolkien just kind of skips right past it. I think you could argue that many, many things in the Lord of the Rings are cosmic horror.
PM: Bbecause they aren't a villain in an understandable human structure, like a force. Right, like I have a friend right now who’s doing a Silmarillion re-read because apparently he never wants to sleep with anybody ever again or something.
PM: But he says, “Yeah, the Silmarillion is clearly cosmic horror!” And I was like, “Oh, that's a cool idea. I'm never going to read it. That’s a cool idea. You should write some essays about that and get paid some money.” But like, I did an essay for Tor last year about how the Alien series initially could be considered cosmic horror.
PM: It's got all the hallmarks. There's nothing explainable about it. And you know again, they're ancient. They don't seem civilized. You can't reason with them, you can't even communicate with them.
PM: They're going to do whatever they're going to do, and all you are is in the way or at best a resource.
J: Right, they're not afraid of you. They'll destroy you for other reasons, like it's not like a tiger will destroy you because it's afraid of you or something.
PM: Yeah, like the aliens will just destroy you because you're in front of them.
J: I wonder, how can we rebrand the Silmarillion to get you to want to… like, what if we sold this to you and we were like, we're not going to tell you JRR Tolkien wrote this, we're not going to tell you it's called the Silmarillion, we're not going to tell you it's in the Middle Earth universe. How do we get you to read the Silmarillion?
PM: I think you need something like one of those 30 to 40 word-long lines that tells me exactly what the central conflict is. And again, that's a long running gag with genre and lit-fic, which is that with lit-fic the central conflict is “I'm sad and I would like to be happy.” And with genre it's usually something like, “If character X does not do Y, then Z will be the result.” (exagerrated gasp)
J: Yeah, and usually the result is the whole world ends.
PM: It's usually the whole world, yeah. Or like, a nebula blows up or something.
J: And I'm very emotionally attached to a lot of nebulas. Nebulae? So I don't want any of them to explode, any more than they're already currently exploding.
PM: But yeah, I don't know enough about the Silmarillion really to know what actually happens in it. As far as I know, it's a string of related mythological anecdotes about gods that I don't personally know.
J: There's not a whole lot of sexiness to it. Well -
R: Not yet! We'll see what Amazon does.
J: Anyway. So I was going to ask… you are working in molecular genetics, or you have a degree in molecular genetics, right? And then I'm a genetic counselor, so I kind of wonder -
R: And I have a 50% chance of having a genetic disease, just found out!
PM: Oh cool!
R: So we've all got something in common.
J: Yeah, I've been counseling Rachel's family.
R: It's not a big deal. It's like, an easy one.
PM: Yeah, a bunch of people I graduated with ended up becoming genetic counselors, actually.
J: Oh really? I wonder - we probably know some of the same people, because it's a small field.
PM: Possibly, yeah.
J: I wonder, does genetics in any way feel poetic to you? Or, you know, does that - obviously you write about science-y stuff, but like, what is it about genetics that made you kind of fall in love with it? Or was it just the closest thing to not disappointing your parents that you could come to?
PM: No, I was interested in genetics - the little of it that we learned in high school, because, again, twelve years of Catholic school, they kind of glossed over a bunch of stuff. They weren't actually anti-science in my high school. They weren’t really pro-science.
R: Agnostic on science.
PM: They were agnostic on science. They were like, “Welllllll….”
J: “That's a thing.”
PM: “I guess the Pope’s probably gonna pardon Galileo at some point.” Catholics have long memories. But yeah, I don't know. I was interested in genetics and I joked that I was going to get in there and run amok and start cloning dinosaurs. Anyway, they don't let undergrads do that. They barely let undergrads do anything.
J: Yeah. Got to wait till year two for that.
R: Theo, dinosaurs!
T: Yes. I heard it. Yes.
PM: But I was very interested in genetic modification of microbes, and particularly of crop plants. Agriculture. And agriculture was kind of where I wanted to end up. There wasn't actually a ton of plant genetics classes offered. We did do one on plant genetic diseases, actually. So I know a lot about black leg for some reason. But yeah, and then after I got out of that degree I was going to wait and apply to to my master's, and in the meantime I worked in a combined cancer and hepatitis lab, and kind of realized, oh, okay, so there are people that have personalities that can work in labs and do lab work. There are people that cannot. I have recently discovered I am the second kind. So I didn't renew my contract and I went back to school to do soil science - what I thought was going to be soil science. And then they were like, “Well, how about land reclamation?” Which is - I think they call it something different in the states, but the legal term up here is land rec. So basically restoring, you know, the predisturbed state to disturbed sites, so cleaning up contamination and rewilding.
J: I think we call that communism.
PM: Yeah. But yeah, then I got a degree in that.
J: Oh, interesting!
PM: When I have to talk to people at work they're like, “Oh, well, you've got a very multidisciplinary background.” And I’m like, “I do.”
J: It's all related.
PM: It's not very useful for fiction. It's useful when I'm talking to a huge variety of people in my current job.
J: Yeah, and I mean I imagine now you basically have become more or less an unpaid corrector of misinformation about GMOs.
PM: Yes. Yeah, we get a lot of calls on that. It’s like, they're not even supposed to be coming to us because we're the land policy department, we’re not agriculture.
PM: And people still bump the calls to me sometimes, where I have to reassure people. “No, they're not triffids, they're not going to come to life and eat you. You're fine!”
PM: In this day and age when everyone has access to every bit of information that’s ever been produced, go look it up.
J: Look it up.
PM: No, they're afraid. They want a human voice.
J: Right. Don't you think that if we could make plants that could go around and eat people, the military would have used them by now? Like, we would have seen those plant guys walking around.
PM: Exactly. I have to reason with these people. Like, don't you think the Americans would have used it for that by now?
J: Yeah, exactly!
PM: Yeah! That's an American thing. There's movies about this!
J: Don't you think we'd probably have one in office? Yeah. And you know, in mine, I get people being like, “Oh, you're the - you make designer babies.” And I'm like, “Yeah, sure, I make designer babies.”
PM: “Yeah, fine. Do you want one? Here, I’ve got one in the cabinet, hang on.” But yeah, I don't know. Genetics is beautiful in a way. The entire idea of evolution, the randomness of it, the results of it, the whole anecdote about Charles Darwin finding that orchid with the 30-centimeter long, you know -
R: Pistil? Stamen?
PM: Whatever it’s called. Yeah, and predicting that eventually we'd find an insect with a 30-centimeter long proboscis. And they found it, in like 2003 or something.
PM: And I'm sure people went over to Charles Darwin's grave and were like, “Chaz, we found it!”
J: “We found it!”
R: “You were right!”
J: “I know you're still thinking about this down there!”
PM: “I know you're still thinking about this! We actually found the moth that you were looking for!”
J: He's like, (weak, croaky voice) “Thanks, got it.”
PM: The undead corpse of Charles Darwin.
J: I mean he basically was like that throughout his lifetime anyway. He had a lot of problems.
PM: No, he was always sick. Poor guy.
J: Yeah. Yeah.
PM: “The Voyage of the Beagle” is an incredible read, though.
PM: It's a very fun - it's a fun adventure story, and it's also, you know, he goes on for like 30 pages for some reason about like geology, and you're like, “Okay,” that reminds you that he was a geologist first.
PM: And then on the next page, you flip it, and he's like, “Anyway, one of the guides caught a puma, so we ate it. It tastes a bit like veal.” Flip a couple more pages and he's talking about barnacles, and then you flip another page and he's like, “I saw a fox on the headline today, so I snuck up behind it and hit it on the head with my geologic hammer, and now I have a specimen!” I’m like, “YOU HIT A FOX ON THE HEAD WITH A HAMMER?!”
J: But a geologic hammer! Then it's not brutal.
PM: It was a geological hammer, so it’s science.
J: Yes, science fox. Yeah, I just… I mean, I find it beautiful too, but there's different things that like… So my, I want to say ‘favorite genetic disorder’, but of course it's very, very horrible for people who have it. So I don't want to trivialize that. But it's something called Lesch-Nyhan disease. Have you ever heard of that?
J: It's basically one single tiny nucleotide change in one gene. Like one letter of DNA gets shifted over. It's the tiniest possible change there can be.
J: Once you have that, you have a disorder that makes you behave in the opposite way of whatever you want to be behaving as. It is fascinating. It's like, they harm themselves, to a terrible degree. Like they oftentimes unfortunately don't live very long, because they will harm themselves so much that they'll succumb to infection. If they like you, they'll be mean to you. If they hate you, they'll be nice to you. They'll make themselves eat foods that they don't like. It's just fascinating that this one tiny change means that all of your preferences get flip-flopped with your behaviors. And, like, you know, I just think about that and I'm like, “Howwwwwww??”
T: It’s just like, eternal opposite day.
J: Eternal opposite day! But like… how! Do! Any! Of us! Survive? Like, how does this work?
PM: I was actually talking about this with someone the other day. We were doing a talk - so I got invited to talk about this, about The Annual Migration of Clouds, which has a parasitic disease in it. Er, sorry - hereditary symbiont. It doesn't like being called a parasite.
PM: With an actual parasitologist from McGill. And we started talking about, well, is there anything out there in parasite-land that can actually, you know, control humans’ behavior? And we started talking about toxoplasmosis. The evidence is not conclusive. You know, things like cordyceps fungus that changes the behavior of creatures that it infects. It causes it to act in the opposite way that the creature wants to do.
J: Yeah! It's crazy!
PM: And now you're talking about this disorder, and I keep thinking about the neurological studies that show things like, you know, we're actually making the movement before our brains show that we've made the decision to make the movement.
PM: It forces you to ask, “What is free will?”
PM: “Why are we doing what we're doing, anyway? What’s controlling us?”
J: And it's like, we could ask that question anyway. But then you hear about stuff like this, and you're like, “I don’t - I throw up. I can't tell, I can’t possibly tell you.”
PM: Yeah. We're a bag of electrically animated meat. What's causing us to do and say the things we do?
PM: Our gut microbiome can produce neurotransmitters. It's producing dopamine right now. It's producing serotonin. It's producing anything that it wants to to survive down there.
PM: If I'm in a good mood, how do I know that that's me, or my life, or a decision I've made, or something in my lower intestine?
PM: It's all the same chemical. Your brain can't tell the difference.
J: And our mitochondria are just, like, other organisms that just came in there and were like, (slurping sound) “We're important now. You can't live without us.”
PM: “We’re important now!” Yeah. We're like, “We appreciate you.”
R: Yeah, humans are basically mecha, and the gut biome is like our pilot, is what I’m getting from this.
PM: Yeah, the brain’s not the pilot. Or you know, again with that disorder, like the single tweak in the single gene… one changed nucleotide.
J: I know, that's why it's so fascinating to me.
PM: Yeah. You should read The Annual Migration of Clouds.
J: Yeah. Cool. Well, thanks for geeking out with me on that for a little bit. I was just like, you know I had to ask the genetics question.
* Interstitial music plays -
T: Hi everyone, I hope you’re enjoying what you’ve been listening to, and I hope you will enjoy what you will continue listening to after this.
R: Which is our podcast, by the way.
T: It’s called Fire the Canon. So, we have a Patreon. If you go to patreon.com/firethecanon, you can find lots of ways to support us. For just $3 a month, you get access to allllll…..
J: There’s one way, but multiple different levels.
R: There’s one way, which is giving us money.
J: The way is, you give us money. Yeah.
T: So, $3 a month or more gets you access to all of our bonus content. I came up with a little game that Rachel and Jackie played, that I think has either come out or will come out soon based on when this episode is released. Which, I’m very proud of!
J: Yeah, very proud of. Rachel and I competed in this game against each other. And the winner was… I won’t tell you, but I’ll just tell you it’s a shock. It’s a shock and a half.
R: It is a shock. It’s a surprising upset.
J: Yeah. If you come in and listen to that -
R: You’ll be shocked.
J: We would appreciate it. But yeah, so, check out the Patreon if you want to help support us. Every little bit just really means a lot to us and helps us out so much. So, we appreciate it. And back to the episode!
R: I have another science related question, which is basically like - especially in book two. Well, you know what? In book one. How concerned are you with making Johnny's science talk plausible? How plausible is it? To me I’m like, “Sure, yeah.”
J: Yes, that was so fun for me, because the guy reading the audiobook - I was like, I'm so sorry you had to learn all these words.
PM: Yeah, I did get a really long email beforehand with like, “How do I say this? How do I say this?” I’m like, “Iunno, I made it all up.” The first one in particular, some stuff got added in. That kind of last-minute polish before we sent it out on sub, and that was definitely pulled straight out of my colon. (sudden laughter from Jackie) Afterwards -
J: I think I just spat on my phone.
PM: Sorry. A fellow author who got a copy of the ARC [advance reader copy] to read - he blurbed it. Adrian Tchaikovsky came to me on Twitter and was like, “Hey, so you know this reactor that she comes up with? This sounds shockingly plausible. I've been doing some reading about this torus and this graphite coating. Do you think this could work?” And I wrote back, “DO NOT TRY IT. I MADE IT UP.”
R: Are you sure you read the book?
J: Yeah, did you read the book?
PM: Yeah, he did read the book, and he was super excited about this reactor. And I was like, “I made up the reactor!”
J: Do you see what it did?
PM: Also, do you see what it did? It caused a problem!
J: Yes, exactly.
T: “Hi, I'm a mad scientist and I read about your reactor…”
PM: Yeah. And I'm worried that at some point, parts of the earth are just going to start sinking into a singularity or something and people will be like, “Well, I read it in a book.” Jesus Christ, did you read it in a PHYSICS book or did you read it in a fiction novel?!
PM: No, I'm not interested in plausibility.
PM: I'm interested in its sounding like something that Johnny can explain to a layman, which is Nick generally.
PM: But I'm not interested in it working, because the Reddit nerds are going to nitpick stuff anyway. There's entire subreddits about people being like, “Well, in THIS book he wrote that there are two moons around this planet, and that means that in this scene where it's daylight, it absolutely should not be….” It's like…
PM: Okay, A: get a life, but B: you can't avoid it anyway.
PM: My argument is always, well, you know, in this alternate world, how do you know this isn't how it works anyway?
R: Yeah! There you go.
J: Yeah, it's like, everybody wants to be the Neil DeGrasse Tyson being like, “If you look at the background of that Titanic scene -”
PM: Right! Yeah, yeah.
J: “James Cameron flipped those stars, that's totally -”
PM: Everyone wants to be like that.
PM: I'm willing to sacrifice stuff for the cool factor unless it's really, really egregiously not good or if it perpetuates a myth that probably shouldn't be out there anyway AND is scientifically wrong. Like the whole idea that you can hit someone on the head and knock them unconscious and not kill them. So I think Nick actually comments on that in the first book. Like, he’s shocked that Johnny managed to hit somebody hard enough to knock him unconscious and DIDN’T kill him, because he should be dead!
J: Yeah, yeah.
PM: In general, if you're unconscious for more than like thirty seconds, you probably are going to die.
J: I wonder if Rachel, or maybe even Premee, if you could read a little example from the early part of the first book to just give an example of what that kind of language sounds like. I think when he goes to Johnny's house for the first time, and she's maybe explaining something to someone else. I don't know. If you have it handy I just thought that would be cool.
PM: Oh yeah, where she’s all like - I don't have it on hand.
R: I mean, I can pull it up, but I'll feel awkward reading it to the writer. But I’ll pull it up right now.
PM: Yeah, where she's all hopped up on caffeine and she hasn’t slept since she got off the plane, and Nick is like, “Are you - are you all right?”
PM: And she’s like, “I’m fine!!”
J: “I’m fine, I just haven't slept in five years!” I mean that's just an extra layer on top of the like, “Yeah, I didn't know people were going to be sad about Ben, and I didn't know people were going to be scared by this, and I didn't know I actually created an idea that was doable for this generator…”
PM: Yeah, I did not. I definitely did not know that.
J: I don't know, Premee. You might just want to… We don't know what you're going to create next.
PM: I know. I've already - I do have people sending me emails all the time about feral hogs, thanks to The Annual Migration of Clouds, where they're like, “Did you cause this?” I'm like, “Cause what?” They send, you know, an article about a feral hog infestation, and I'm like, “I did not.”
J: “If anything, I gave you a nice warning and you dummies failed to prevent it.”
J: That’s how I would spin it.
PM: Yeah! But this is a book set in the future.
PM: I didn't CAUSE a feral hog infestation. I may have predicted a feral hog infestation. Anyways, everybody loves feral hogs.
R: I found a good bit. If you guys want me to read it.
J: Here's an example of the kind of language that, you know, the author is not super concerned about being correct, but sounds very crazy.
R: Okay. (reading from Beneath the Rising) “All right, the graphene doughnut is atomically plated in silver, which I got from melting down my Cartwright metal, but it's okay because if you tell them you lost it or had it stolen or whatever, they'll send you a new one, but it's just stainless steel, I already sent them an email, so now we've got this topological graphene matrix, right -”
R: “- and it's creating edge effects because I gave it a fractional angstrom flex and then linked it to the C-398 magnet that I sort of pulled out of the RC-NCI back end over there, it's fine, I'll buy a new one, and in the aqueous matrix, the electrons display independent choice behaviour and they start to generate their own topographical material…” and it goes on.
J: That is so fun. Like, did you just have a ton of fun writing that?
PM: It was so fun. Also, the fact that she's using, like, lemon Perrier just poured in there because she didn't even want to go to the sink and get sink water. She was just probably drinking her Perrier and then was like -
J: There you go! So I mean, did you just have like a ton of fun writing that, and just being like, “Yeah, what - what's another science word? Electron, yeah, haven't used that one yet, put that in there.”
PM: Yeah, I’ll just throw it in there.
PM: Well, some of that was based on a real paper that came out around the time that I was doing the edits, so I did throw that in there. The idea for the fact that if you do take this graphene material that's made out of these specific carbon atoms, and give it a certain type of flex, it tries to unflex itself, and in so doing generates a little bit of electricity.
J & R: Oh!
PM: But the amount of electricity that's generated is very, very, very, very very minimal. Really minimal! But it's kind of self sustaining, because the flex is physical and it trying to flex itself back is basically electrical. So it keeps trying and keeps trying and keeps trying. It's like, it gets pushed back into the same position, and then when it moves back, because it's a moving electron, it creates electricity.
J: So, would that be a perpetual motion machine, or does it have to keep having that force on it in order to keep going?
PM: No, it basically is a perpetual motion machine.
PM: But the amount of electricity that's generated is so small it can barely be measured. So it's always - so their plan, literally, in this paper, they were like, “Well, you know, if we ever get this to like, a million times more efficient, we can make phone batteries out of it!” And I'm like, guys, I feel like you're thinking REALLY really small here.
J: Yeah, yeah. So, I remember how I used to work in a patent law firm as, like, an assistant. And I learned that there’s only one thing that you're not allowed to patent, and it's a perpetual motion machine.
PM: Does it count if the thing that's in motion is an electron?
J: I don't think you can patent an electron, first of all, but I might need Rachel to correct me on that. But -
R: I don't know if you can patent an electron!
J: I don't think you can.
T: You could make a fortune!
PM: No, I don’t think you can, but - sorry, not patenting the electron, but the thing that's in motion is the electron. So the machine itself.
J: Right! The motion of the electron? You - I don't know!
PM: I don’t know.
J: But yeah, because that's an actual rule from the US Patent and Trademark Office.
PM: That's a good rule.
J: That’s the one thing you can't patent. And it's like, “Well, because… well, you'll never make one.” And I'm like, is that really the reason? Or are you afraid that if someone…
T: Yeah, really.
R: It’s cause the government wants access.
J: Yeah! Yeah.
PM: Yeah. But yeah, it was a really interesting paper. Just the fact that the SHAPE of something could cause an effect, and nothing else.
J: And that it's a doughnut?!
PM: Yeah, and that it's a doughnut. Well, a torus. They said torus, and I was like, “Ooh, doughnut.” But yeah, the torus shape also was important, because topological effects start to get into basically quantum rules rather than standard physics rules. What they start doing can't be predicted, and all of our current rules about, basically, physics and chemistry and math break down at that level.
J: That's the kind of math and science that I like, because I didn't… I couldn't do it before anyway. So once it gets to that point that no one can do it, I'm like, yeah! I'm with the rest of you here.
R: Equal playing field.
J: I couldn't predict it before! So.
PM: Oh totally. It resets the playing field. Yeah, that's what I was finding while I was looking this stuff up.
J: Yeah, yeah!
PM: Basically, you'd start going through these papers, and in the conclusion section they'd be like, “...Well, anyway. So these are our measurements, and we don't know why this is happening. Research is ongoing. As far as we can tell, it's a quantum.”
J: Yeah. Quantum mechanics is the great equalizer. I mean -
PM: It is.
J: We're all equally smart once we get to that plane.
PM: Yeah. It was very fun to read about. And I think Nick even at some point, just says something like that. He's like, “Ah, yeah yeah. I get what you’re saying. It's a quantum.”
R: Do you kind of start with an idea and then you just crank it up?
R: Is that how you get your science? Okay.
PM: Yeah, and again I think a lot of authors do that, because - There's also a class I occasionally teach called Writing Sci-Fi Like a Scientist, and one of the questions that always comes up at the end is someone going, “Well, there's something that I want to do because I think it would look really cool on the page. Unfortunately, the science says that that probably wouldn't happen. Like this giant explosion, for instance, can't happen if my characters combine these two things.”
J: Eh, just find different science. Everything can happen.
PM: Literally that's what I tell people, is, write it first. Justify it later.
PM: You can always look up something that supports your position, trust me. If it's not the two things that the characters stole, god, make them steal two other things! What's wrong with you?
J: Ask for forgiveness, not permission. And also, don't ask for forgiveness.
PM: Ask for forgiveness, not permission. Yeah. And also, it's fiction. You're fine. The Reddit nerds may be sad, but I mean, what are we supposed to do about the Reddit nerds?
J: I mean, it's an expression of love in a way, right?
J: Like that they’re spending so much time… not if they're being mean about it, though. But you know.
PM: Yeah. But if the Reddit nerds look in there and they're like, “Hey, those two chemicals would work!”
J: I don't know, it… I don't care what they think!
PM: Yeah, I don't care what they think either, because I only hang out on Reddit when I'm asked to do an Ask Me Anything by my publisher.
J: And then do you get a lot of questions that are just like, “Why did you have this graphene donut do this thing?” And then you have to just be like -
J: “I - this is the wrong question to ask.”
PM: No, they're all about Ben.
PM: They're… all the questions are about Ben. What's his favorite fish?
R: Oh, no.
PM: How big was his tank? What did his castle look like? People are upset. People are still upset. No, I kid.
J: I created so many alternate Reddit accounts and I was just like, “Ben! Ben! Ben!”
R: It was all Jackie.
PM: “How could you? Is he coming back in the third book? Is he coming back in the second book? Are you going to write a book ABOUT him?”
J: “I know he was torn into pieces, but you could reconstitute him, right?”
PM: “But she's a genius, she can just clone him, right?”
R: “Yeah, use science!”
PM: Yeah, use science. I had enough people ask me about that that my editor literally had to come to me in the second book and be like, “You don't have to say anything if you don't want!” I'm like, “I'm aware of that.” I think if you were talking to a 20-year old debut author, as I would have been if I had tried to publish Beneath the Rising when I wrote it, which was when I was 20, it would have been a different story. But now I am 40, and I don't care. That's the nicest thing about getting older.
J: I can't wait. I'm already, like, most of the way there.
PM: You just write whatever you want, and it sells or it doesn't sell, and then you're like, “Well, that's life.”
R: True. When we had Yoon Ha Lee on, he said that also - the servitors, he had no idea the servitors were going to be so popular.
PM: Oh, I love those!
R: Yeah, cause he was like, “I don't really care about robots!” But he - unlike you - he said that he gave them a bigger role in the second book, and then did the servitor POV because of the audience reaction.
PM: Fan pandering.
R: Yeah, I mean, I'm glad. I love the - everybody loves the servitors.
PM: I think my big issue too, was that I basically - I barely remember writing the second book. I was a wreck. That was due May 2020, and I had basically stopped functioning from insomnia and anxiety, and I had just been having like, at that point, a three month-long panic attack because of the pandemic. I turned it in on time, and I celebrated with a cupcake with a candle stuck in it.
PM: I vaguely remember that. And then I got it back for edits, you know, six months later or whatever it was, and I was like, “I don't remember writing any of this.” It's not bad. I'm shocked at how few edits there were.
J: Was the cupcake just a bunch of Valiums covered in frosting? Or you know, what - can we get some more information on the -
PM: Pretty much. I wish.
R: Yeah, tell us the flavor.
PM: Uh, tasted like panic. I think I turned it in at like ten to midnight or something, too.
J: Still, impressive!
PM: Just so I could say that I got it in like before the deadline. Yeah, I got it back. It only had a handful of edits, and I was like that's impressive, but kind of alarming, and kind of depressing. I don't remember any of this. I don’t remember writing this, I don’t remember looking stuff up for this. You know, good job, past Team Premee.
T: So you wrote this second book after the first one had been published.
PM: Technically, yeah, but I've been working on it basically since edits came back for the first one so that I knew what I should be doing for the second one.
PM: The deal for both books was inked in early 2018. So, end of 2018, I think, all the edits and stuff were done and we were going to print. So I was finally like, “Okay, first book is now set in stone. That's what's going to the printer. So now I can get started on the second book.”
J: And these are almost two decades apart. So did you have trouble remembering?
PM: Yeah, completely, because you know, I never wrote serious. I just wrote whenever I wanted to write and kept them on like, you know, a 3-inch disk I kept in my bag, or like, 50,000 lined notebooks. And it was never going to be a series. It was just a book that I had finished and like, stuck in the trunk or whatever. And then my agent was like, “Well, publishers like series. So, you wrote it as a standalone, let's pitch it as a trilogy.” And I was like, “Okay.” And then the publisher bought two books. So it's like, “Okay, well, I'll just write the second book then, and just shut the door on everything.” And then a couple of months before the second book was supposed to go to print, I got an email from my editor saying, “So what do we think about a title for the third book?”
J: How do you do - how can you do that to someone? You just wrapped everything up, or you thought you did!
PM: Yeahhh. Anyways, I almost have a stroke, I think. And luckily, since he had CC’d my agent, my agent wrote them back. He's like, “Just don't worry about it, Premee and I are just gonna talk for a minute here. Amongst ourselves.”
J: He takes you in the corner and gives you a paper bag to breathe into. Yeah.
PM: Yeah, pretty much. He was like, “No, no, no, you're not hallucinating, and you did only sign for two books. This sounds to me like they want to offer on a third and make it a trilogy.” And I was like, “Well I didn’t know it was gonna be a trilogy! They didn't want a trilogy, otherwise they would have bought three books!”
J: Isn't their whole job kind of supposed to be, like, good at communicating?
PM: So, anyways, I don't know if Rachel's finished the second book -
R: I have.
PM: But a lot of doors really do slam shut at the end.
R: Yeah, I was like wait a second, there's a third one going out soon?
J: So was she. That was also her reaction.
PM: Yeah, that was kind of my reaction. So if I had known… if I had known there was going to be a third book, maybe I would have changed the ending of the second book!
PM: The time to do that would have been when the second book was in edits, and we could still change it. And if my editor knew that he was going to offer on a third at that point - anyways, it's fine.
J: Maybe they - is that a strategy you think they use, where they're like, “Okay, we're going to let her wrap everything up,” and then be like “Ooh! We have to come up with something else, and that's going to be shocking for readers.”
PM: I think it might’ve been sales numbers as well.
PM: That they were like, “Okay, well, we made some cash on the first two books.” And the first book got nominated for a bunch of awards. The second one so far has been nominated for… it's on the Locus Recommended List, and it's also nominated for the Aurora prize, which they're announcing on the 9th. So technically that's still a secret.
PM: But I figured the podcast will come out after that.
R: It will.
T: No, we’re gonna release it tomorrow, now that you said that. Gotta push this one out.
J: Yeah, and we have a HUGE audience.
PM: But yeah, I guess at some point they were like, “Well, we could just, you know, we could do a third book and then it would be a trilogy instead of a duology. And the author will just produce a third book out of nowhere.”
J: Sure she will.
T: I mean, did you feel - I mean, because I imagine you've changed a lot as a person in between the first and second book.
PM: Yeah. The first one was done in 2002. Second one was written in like 2019, 2020, and I was like, well, I'm not Nick anymore.
J: You've probably been through three different personalities by then, I mean.
PM: Yeah, I'm like - well, I'm looking at Nick, who's like, what? 19 going on 20 in the second book, because it's about fourteen months later.
PM: And I'm like, well, I'm not that person anymore. And I'm looking at these people like, “You goddamn kids!”
J: “Get off my lawn!”
PM: “Sit down, do your homework, get off the lawn, straighten up and cut your hair!” It was very, very hard to get back into the mindset. I don't think I captured his voice the same way that I did when I was writing it the first time.
R: I never would have guessed that they were written like twenty years apart.
R: Like, I was shocked to hear you say that just now. Well, not just now, like 30 minutes ago.
PM: Yay! Uh, go team. Yeah, I guess you can fool some of the people, some of the time.
R: He seems a little bit… You know, he'd been through a lot, so I feel like I just chalked up any changes in his voice to like, “This poor kid.”
J: Yeah, you age quickly when you've been through what he's been through.
PM: Just complex PTSD, which I think he had after the first book, and so does the rest of the world.
J: Yeah, I mean that's timely. I mean, but in addition to like, just being a different person, I also wonder… So again, I'm not a writer in my day job by any stretch of the imagination, but I remember writing when I was like, you know, 17 to 19, like around the age that Nick is. Or that you were when you were writing this, and it just felt so much easier. Like it was, you know… you just had so much less on your mind in terms of like, “Oh, but I know about this other thing now and I don't want to copy that.” Whereas when you don't know anything, you're kind of just like, “Bleh! Free!” Have you noticed that?
PM: That was totally totally it. I felt much less self-conscious, and not just because I was writing for myself and nobody else ever read anything that I did. Like it was my hobby.
PM: And it was kind of like - I think I've used this analogy before, but it's like, you know those dads that had like an old car or something in the shed?
PM: In the backyard, and they tinker with it, and they tinker with it, and they tinker with it, and that's just their hobby.
J: Are you even a dad if you don't have that?
PM: Exactly. My Dad has that. His is actually a lawn mower, but… it's just something you do. You go out in the afternoon and you've got all your tools, and you just mess with it for an hour. And that's what writing always felt like to me. I wasn't writing to be published. That seemed like a frankly ridiculous thing to want to do. And it wasn't really until like, I don't know, 2015 or so, when I had… I guess we'll call it kind of a health scare. It did inform me polishing it up a little bit, just cleaning up the grammar and the formatting and stuff, and deciding to start querying with it. In, I don't know, whenever that was. 2017? Because I'd started, you know, getting short stories and stuff published, because it was fun and it's quick cash and they pay you a lot faster than novels do. And the reason that I queried with that one was because it was done, not because I thought it was good, but because a lot of my other books just weren't finished. And I was like, “Well, here's something that I don't have to write from scratch.” I reread it and I was like, “This doesn't strike me as something a twenty year old wrote, so I'm just going to clean it up and try with this one, because it has the word ‘the end’ at the end.”
J: Yeah, like you get and more experienced, but you also have the burden of the experience, it sounds like.
PM: Yeah, and you kind of lose that feeling of ‘I'm the first one who's thought of this,’ which you guys probably hear a lot, because you talk about the canon. Well, I haven't read most of the canon. I don't think I've read most of the canon. If there is a spec-fic canon. I noped out of Foundation. I didn't finish reading Starship Troopers. I did read all the Dune books, but I think they killed part of my brain.
R: ALL the Dune books?
PM: No, just the original series, not the 47 or whatever it is spinoff books, although I have got quite a few of those, as I again discovered when I was moving.
R: Are you a Dune fan, or you just can't stop yourself? You see a Dune, you buy it?
PM: I think I just can't stop myself. I'm Duned. I haven't seen the new movie yet either, but -
J: It’s good.
PM: - the original movie, the David Lynch version, is certainly… a movie.
R: It’s a movie.
J: Yeah, things happen. So the part of your brain that it killed, was it the part that had any desire to write, like, political science fiction, because it's like, well, you know…
PM: No, I think it… I mean, at least for a little while, it felt like it killed the parts that were responsible for keeping me breathing and upright. But that was because the first four books were so good, and then there's… more books after that.
J: Sometimes you gotta stop when you’re ahead.
PM: But anyways, I think the important thing is that ambition is really important in fiction. That's a very ambitious series.
R: That’s true.
PM: But yeah, other other canon books, I don't know. So I'm also an assistant editor at a short sci-fi venue, Escape Pod, that Mur is the editor of. So the slush readers read the first avalanche of stuff that comes in. They pass about 10 to 15% of that stuff up to us and we pass about 50% of that up. But I used to read slush, so I saw what came in in that first avalanche and it was absolutely incredible - and I would not have believed it before I started doing it - how many of the same exact, identical stories would come in from different people at the same time. Same exact premise, virtually the same exact plot, and each of these people, I guarantee, was thinking that they were the first person to come up with that. And there's no way to say politely, “This is going to shock you, but I've read 25 stories this week that look exactly like your story. And also, believe it or not, in the past month we've had seven stories with this same title.”
PM: Yeah, don't call your sci-fi story ‘Dust’. Everybody names their sci-fi story ‘Dust’.
J: Dust, okay.
PM: Again, I would not have believed it when I started doing it that the same story would come in again and again.
PM: And you know, it's just - it's the world we live in. It's the gestalt or whatever.
J: Well, that makes you ask weird questions about free will too, right?
J: Like, well, gosh, do I actually have a brain?
R: Our gut microbes, they want us to name everything Dust!
PM: Our gut microbes! Why didn't you guys want us name it, like, ‘Microbe’? You know, for a little while after I started slushing, I couldn't write any short fiction.
PM: I was like, oh my God, I'm just going to write something that an editor is going to look at and be like, “Oh, I've read 30 of these already and I didn't buy any of them, and I'm certainly not buying yours!” So I just stopped.
J: Yeah, it makes you want to quit before you even start.
PM: Yeah. But it does make the stuff that's unusual stick out a lot more like, which is nice.
R: That’s true. I - okay, Theo, and anyone who hasn't read the books, I recommend that you do. But they're very much - it's like, you know, like a pas de deux. It’s two characters. It's their interactions that's the crux of the Beneath the Rising trilogy, I would say.
J: Are we talking about the romance stuff?
R: No, I'm not. I'm just talking about - like, encompassing romance, friendship, whatever.
J: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
R: Because you, surprisingly to yourself, kept writing more and more books, were you kind of like… Obviously in the first book, the two characters end in a particular place in relation to each other. The second book they end in another place in relationship to each other. Did you kind of feel like, “Look, I ended the first book, this is how I wanted them to be. I kind of want to keep their relationship the way I wanted it to be.” Or are you like, “I'm going to change it a little bit, because…”
J: Is there a correct way they should be, in your headcanon?
PM: No, not really, I don't think. But it is interesting that you mention that, because in the first book their relationship is already changing kind of at the start. That Johnny's been away for a while, that Nick feels kind of… not abandoned exactly, but he's eager to resume the friendship exactly the way it was. And they've got a way in the first book that they've always thought of each other.
PM: And in the first book that gets ruined by the truth, basically, of the history that Johnny is aware of and that Nick is not aware of. So when he finds out the truth about her, that changes who he is as a person and it changes how he relates to Johnny, who is his best friend and someone that he thought he might be romantically in love with. So in the second book that's what he's got to reckon with. So he's kind of like, “Well, okay, now I know this about her. And I feel that she can't be trusted. And I feel that if I lean any of my weight on her, she'll just, you know, let go and disappear. So I can't trust anyone but myself now. That basically leaves me entirely without friends.” So he's got a changing relationship to himself. He wants to be friends with her again. It's not easy, for various reasons. I wanted to portray a complicated relationship that wasn't just as simple as “best friends go on adventures together.”
PM: Because that's kind of what they both wanted in the first book, but by the second book that's acknowledging that too much has changed. And also, we should both be in therapy.
PM: So much therapy that we are currently not in and are never going to be in.
R: Right, no time.
J: And it's interesting because you managed to set it up as a very realistic-feeling relationship. Even though the truth that gets discovered is not anything that could ever happen to any real person… in this universe. Still, there could be something analogous to that, that could cause someone to have that realization about someone that they previously trusted and, you know, maybe were starting to fall in love with or something. And it's just interesting how you can, like Rachel said, take the science and then crank it up to eleven. And then you do the same thing with relationships, and it ends up feeling very real.
PM: Yeah, thank you. And I think too, the other thing that kind of… Somebody else actually pointed this out, not me, it was an interview, actually, with an English student? I think she was doing it for an assignment or something? Kids these days. She was like, “Well, basically, the relationship between Nick and Johnny in both books parallels what's happening to the plot in both books. So the entire world around them in the first book is counting on friendship to save the day. The only way it works is if they join up enough strength to do what needs to be done at the end.” And you know, by time the second book comes around, we see that the world is fractured. Governments don't trust each other, nobody trusts scientists, militaries have started to ramp up whatever it is they're doing. There's all these new defense systems and things like that, and that exactly parallels what's happening with Nick and Johnny. They don't trust each other. Defense systems are up, alarm systems are ready to go. They're waiting for the other person to say anything that'll set them off. So it's kind of, you know, the small and the big in both books. And I don't know if that happened in the third book, but I guess we will see. The third book is VERY different from the first two.
R: I guess we’ll see, yeah.
J: Maybe another English student might tell you about it. Yeah.
PM: I would like another English student to tell me about it, yeah.
R: So, the relationship between the two of them, like Jackie said, it felt very real. Obviously it's full of banter. This is just an extremely bantery friendship.
J: It was fun to read.
R: And the two of them are both very funny, like you can tell they've been good friends for a while or like, just know each other extremely well. And I would like to make a recommendation. If anyone wants to read…. I don't - you may not want to, but if anyone wants to read another book where you have two people and you're like, “What a beautiful friendship, this is great! They have such good banter,” and then by the end the friendship is destroyed, I would recommend reading “In the Woods” by Tana French in the Dublin Murder Squad series. So it's… that is a book where I cried for a long time and I emailed the author something very deranged at 3 A.M. Have never heard back.
J: I vaguely remember the story. Can you tell it?
R: I basically… I emailed and was like, “I'm very sad about this. Please help me!”
T: “Please help me”?
R: But she doesn't have an online presence, so I'm hoping it's not because she's like “Okay, this person is gonna kill me.” But anyway. So I really like both of those dynamics. It makes me sad when friends stop being friends. But like, obviously in your book I get the reason.
R: I've seen a lot of reviews, obviously from Nick's perspective, where they're just like, “Yeah, Johnny's just evil. She's just very, very evil and this is a horrible relationship. Blah, blah, blah.” What's your take on that?
PM: Oh, it’s pretty toxic.
R: Yeah, I would definitely - obviously toxic, look at the effects. But like, what - do you kind of agree with that? Are you like, “Yeah, she's evil, she sucks.”
PM: Well, I think evil's a pretty easy word to throw around. I think that she's definitely some kind of egomaniac. But she's also… So, at the time that this was being written, I don't think I would have looked at, you know, someone like Elon Musk as, like, the model for Johnny. Because, frankly, look at Elon Musk. What Johnny wants is not just to be a hero and to save the world with her science, but also to be seen as the hero.
PM: And to be seen doing it. If, in the process, she does happen to give a lot of people clean water and give people electricity and rescue everybody after natural disasters, and those cheap solar panels that are up all over the book, for instance - if that's the way to do it, then that's the way to do it, and that's what she wants, is for everyone to look at her and go, “Oh my God, what a saint.”
PM: But yeah, I don't think that it's that she's an evil, bad person. I just think things kind of, for her, spun out of control in an unforeseen way, because the real villains expected it to and waited for it to do that, because they know it always does. She thought she was going to take what she was given and be the best person in all history with it. And so, yeah, there's a lot of people who are like, “Well, yeah, this is obviously an evil person and a toxic relationship.” And I want to ask those people, “Have you guys graduated out of reading Dick and Jane books yet?”
PM: Because this isn't something that I'm trying to model for you, and I'm not writing morality plays either. This isn't the 1800s. This is a complex portrait of two people discovering the truth about each other and how far each person can be pushed. And I don't think I want to suggest either that we're only friends with people who are perfect. My friends aren't perfect. I'm not perfect.
J: I am.
PM: Oh. Well, now I'm friends with one perfect person.
J: I’m just kidding. Yeah, no, you see that with, you know, real life examples of child prodigies, right? Like just because their mind is so advanced does not mean that their emotional maturity is that advanced. You know?
PM: And I think the other thing I was trying to communicate there as well, in the first book, was that they have been friends for a long time. And part of that was because I had recently read an unpublished book by a friend of mine that supposedly had two long time friends in it. And by the end I noticed something quite weird, which is that they only spoke to each other to convey information that kind of pushed the plot forwards, which is what a lot of writing books will tell you to do with dialog. But it gave the impression that they weren't friends? That they were just kind of…. information exchanging machines.
PM: They never had any stories about their past. They didn't even really seem to like each other. But they were always - in the book they were like, “Oh, you have been my best friend, Sir Knight, for 20 years!” And I'm like, yeah, you guys don't really sound like friends though.
T: That’s the sort of stuff we say all the time.
PM: You sound like co-workers who are like, you know, “How is the project coming along?” “Well, let me tell you how the project is coming along.”
J: Yeah, exactly.
PM: And that wasn't really feedback that I gave back to this friend, because the book had some other problems… But -
J: Whereas Nick and Johnny are like, early in the book having a one-sided argument where Nick is like, “You need to tell me if you want coffee or you want chicken tenders. You can't have both. You need to pick one. This is so annoying.” And she's just like “Daahh!” and then she falls asleep.
PM: Yeah. “This is a conversation that we've had before.”
J: Yes, it doesn't move the plot forward.
PM: Yeah, I just - I want to present people that do have a past together and that like each other and are likable people and can prove it. Because, yes, Johnny is horrible. She's an evil little goblin. But she's also funny, she's generous, she's likable. There's a reason that Nick has always been friends with her.
R: Well, a couple reasons.
PM: Yeah. A couple of reasons. Several reasons. Yeah.
J: Horrible, evil little goblins can find friendship too.
R: It's plausible that they are friends by choice, is maybe a good way to phrase it.
PM: I mean, I've got a bunch of horrible little goblin friends as well. I don’t see what the big deal is.
J: Both of our cats are walking around and we're just like, “Yeah, I have some horrible goblin friends. I mean look, here’s one right here.” (lifts cat up into view of screen)
R: Oh my gosh!
PM: Who is that horrible goblin?!
R: Is that Evangeline? She's gonna kill you.
J: No, this is Eloise.
R: Okay, good.
J: She’s fine.
R: Okay. Jackie has one really mean cat.
J: It’s not her fault.
R: That will try to kill her. Yeah.
J: Also, I wouldn't have been able to pick her up like that without slipping a disc. So…
R: Back to what I was talking about about the book. I - and I'm sure I'm primed because of how pop culture is to be just very sympathetic to Johnny. She's written like you would expect her to be. She's the hero, she's the star, she's the beautiful science prodigy and whatever. So I mean, you know, I just - I just read it, and I see Nick being like, “Oh, I hate her, she's the worst person on earth!” And I'm like, “Oh, come on!” And then I catch myself and I'm like, “Wait a second!”
J: Well, no one makes good decisions when they're that sleep-deprived.
J: It's honestly not her fault.
PM: I love that dichotomy too. And again, I don't think I was being as deliberate with that as I could have been. But you know, whenever I joke about it online, there's people that come out and they're like, “I'm team Nick, I'm team Johnny.” They're not on the same team.
PM: They're like, “These two characters are not on the same team.” They should be on the same team. It will be more helpful, literally, for the fate of the earth if they were. But there are still people on team Johnny who are like, “Yeah, I love her, I don't care if she was right.” I'm like, well, you've - again, you also probably need therapy. But, you know, the fact that she is flawed, she is human. And that Nick still sees some redeeming qualities in her. I think she's not an unlovable person. She feels like she is. And she certainly doesn't give it back, I guess, in the way that it would be expected.
PM: But again, that's important for the events of the story. You know, like, we're the ones always saying, “Character is destiny.” Well, characters are what make the story go. If they were two different people, we wouldn't have the same books.
J: Yeah, if everybody in the story was really nice and good all the time, there wouldn't be a story. And also -
R: Had therapy.
PM: If anyone in this story could make one good decision, ever!
R: Well, the octopus! Come on.
PM: Nobody makes a good decision in the second book either, I don't think.
J: Nah. Why would they? But I mean, like you're reading - I'm reading this as a 30 year-old, and I'm looking at it, I'm like, “I can't be mad at Johnny. She's a literal child.” You know? She's a child.
PM: Yeah, she’s literally seventeen.
R: Yeah, it’s like watching The Little Mermaid as an adult. When I was five, I was like, “Yeah, she's a grown up!”
J: “Yeah, let her do what she wants!”
R: “She can go to land!” Now I'm like, “Girl, you cannot get married! Your Dad is right! Get back in that cave.”
PM: “Get back in the cage! And you're going to leave the ocean for HIM?”
PM: “You haven't even talked to him! He's a rando! Don't leave your home for a rando!”
R: Under the Sea - I buy it. Like, I really think life IS better down where it’s wetter, based on what Sebastian told me.
PM: Yeah, I agree.
R: But yeah, I had one kind of final question. Just from talking to you - so, you - and reading the book, reading a little bit about your background, it seems like you do kind of share similarities with Nick and Johnny. Like your family, Nick's family, you have a similar-ish background, right? Like his family, they immigrated from the same place -
PM: Right, yeah.
R: From the Caribbean, up to Canada and then… But also you're, like, science girl. So I wonder, do you kind of relate to both of them? Or do you feel much more… because, just hearing you talk, you've been more aligning yourself with Nick in this conversation, and I'm wondering how did you feel at the time of writing the first book. and how are you feeling now?
J: Is Johnny, like, the dark impulses that you have, that you're like, “I'm gonna get this out on paper and not act any of this out.”
PM: Yeah. Maybe it's like the - what is it? Who is it? Carl Jung? Who is like, “You know, there's you, and then there's the shadow you.”
J: Yeah, you’ve got the archetypes.
PM: So yeah, so maybe Nick is me and Johnny is the shadow me. But I know definitely, at the time that I was writing it, I was constantly frustrated. As an undergrad, I wasn't being allowed to do different experiments, the equipment, and obviously there's a good reason for that. You don't want an undergrad blowing up the chemistry building. I already had it evacuated once.
R: Oh gosh.
PM: That was not my fault.
J: Right. But if a grad student blows up the chemistry building, that's fine.
PM: Yeah, oh my God. There were like five thousand people in there. It's… anyway. But yeah, obviously there's a good reason to have oversights. But I was like, “Well, what if I wrote somebody who didn't have any oversight? What would she do?”
PM: What if you had somebody who had all the knowledge and had all the money and had all the equipment, and nobody ever said no to her and she could do whatever she wanted. Would she save the world? Would she change everybody's lives for the better?
J: No, she would be Elon Musk.
PM: Hopefully she would not be Elon Musk. Because she's actually doing good, and Elon Musk is a huge useless asshole.
R: That's what I was gonna say.
J: That’s true, yeah.
R: To be fair, Johnny has actually done good things.
J: Okay, good, because I haven't gotten to the end of the book, so for all I know, she starts Tesla and the rest is history. I don't know.
R: I mean she made the solar panels, she made the stuff to do the clean drinking water.
J: Yeah, whatever. Yeah yeah yeah.
R: Elon Musk hasn’t done that.
PM: I guess. Yeah, I see parts of myself in every character I write.
PM: I'm not writing these things - except for Ben. Because Ben is unadulterated good, and I apparently am a bad, cephalopod-murdering person.
J: Yeah. I know. I really - I want to like you, but I just can't. I'm sorry.
PM: I know, I know. Please don't send somebody to my house to beat me up. I just moved in.
J: I don't have any money. It's fine.
PM: Okay, that's good. I mean, there’s probably hitmen out there who'll do it for cheap.
PM: They say everyone’s got their price.
J: No, you're very, very likable. We very have much enjoyed talking to you, and I know that I didn't say my sentence right just then.
R: We very have much enjoyed talking to you.
J: We very have much enjoyed…
PM: That's okay. Nobody here's an English major. Right? Are any of you guys an English major?
J: She was.
R: I was.
J: You know, there are languages where it really doesn't matter the word order, and I want to be speaking those languages, I think.
PM: Yeah. I would like to speaking those. Yeah, I took Japanese in university - again, because it fit into my schedule. My best friends and I at the time wanted to take it together so we could work on the projects and stuff together. And, yeah, we got in there and were like, “Oh, we're in trouble. We're not smart. We can't learn this language!” That was after like, day one.
J: Yeah, I took Hindi for a couple of years and it's like, you really can just put those words wherever you want.
J: It’s fine.
PM: Whereas English, the editors get in there and they're like, “This sentence makes no sense.” I'm like, I feel like that's a reader problem, not my problem.
J: You got what I was saying.
PM: And they're like, “Actually, it is your problem, because you have to fix it.”
R: All right. So our normal coverage on the podcast - we normally read the books in the, you know, Western literary canon, and we just kind of joke about it. So we like to have - we like to get contemporary writers on, just because the writers of the Western literary canon, they have a very distinct type.
J: And they're dead. They're generally all dead.
R: So, we like - and they're usually dead. Right. So we like to get some more contemporary writers on to kind of promote their work, because it's always writers whose work I really, really love. And we also always like to ask them, do you have any recommendations? Are there things that influenced you that you think should be in the canon, or just writers working now where you're like, “This is great, I'm loving it!” And we will pass that information on to the listeners.
J: Yeah, bump them up.
PM: Oh, yeah. God, yeah. Absolutely Yoon Ha Lee’s “The Machineries of Empires” series specifically.
PM: So good. Yeah, my current favorite, I think, at the moment is Nick Harkaway, and that's a result both of “The Gone-Away World,” but also of his most recent, I guess, sci-fi one, which was “Gnomon,” which is one of my favorite things that I've read, maybe in the past ten years. And I've already read it twice in the last year and I can't see it being shifted off its perch. It's just fantastic. Of course, I think Ursula K. Le Guin should be in the canon with multiple books, If she's not there already. I just finished rereading “The Dispossessed” and “The Left Hand of Darkness,” and they both hold up so well, even if you've read them a million times.
J: I’m excited to get to those. I'm sure we're going to cover them, or at least one.
PM: Yeah, they just stand up so well to any level that you're reading them at. You know, the the level of the style, the prose itself, the musicality of it, the rhythm, the actual plot, the sci-fi elements, the characters’ relationships, everything. She's definitely one of my favorite writers.
R: She's great. Yeah, we will, a hundred percent we will be covering at least one Le Guin book. I'm hoping we'll get to do like one sci-fi, maybe one fantasy. There's just a lot of books out there.
J: God, there's a lot of books, why’d we start this podcast?!
R: No, I'm happy that there's a lot of books. That means we can keep doing this podcast, you know, even after death we’ll still have to keep making it.
J: Yeah, just like Darwin down there waiting like, “Where's the proboscis? Did you find it yet?”
PM: Yeah, where's that freaking moth? Yeah.
R: Well, it has been -
J: Yeah, thank you so much.
R: It's been so great having you on.
PM: Yeah, thank you for the invite.
R: And I'm so excited to read the third book. Ah, I'm really excited about it! Yeah, I'm excited - you know, you've got so many novellas coming out too, so that's great.
PM: Yeah, I had three novellas coming out last year. Last year was the year of the novella.
R: Yeah, my gosh, it really was. Audience, by the time you listen to this, the Beneath the Rising trilogy will be complete, barring any last minute -
J: As far as the author knows…
R: - emails from your editor to you. Yeah.
PM: As far as we know. Without being like, “Oh, by the way, there's no more paper left in the world.” I don't know.
R: Right. So, if you're someone who's like, “I don't want to start something till it's complete,” well, now's your chance. There's three books waiting for you, so get on out there and get those. I think that's a great starting point. If you don't have a ton of time on your hands, if you find that a little daunting, check out The Annual Migration of Clouds. That's been getting some really great reviews lately, from what I've seen.
J: And even if you're not a hardcore sci-fi fan, like I'm definitely not, I'm not as much in that world. They're very accessible. It's not like, you know, you start out with Dune and you're like, “What is happening?” You know?
J: Like, they're good for anyone. They're really entertaining, really fun.
R: And well-written.
J: And you've been so fun to talk to. Like I say this about all of our guests, but I'm just like,
I want to take Premee out, and like, just get drinks and just talk about nerd shit all night. That’ll be great.”
PM: Yeah, let’s go out for brunch!
R: Yeah, we’ll go to Canada sometime, we'll hit you up.
J: I'm going to Canada for brunch, guys. I’ll be back in a couple hours.
PM: Yeah, I’ll be back in a couple hours. Yeah, thank you guys so, so much for the invite. This has been a lot of fun. And hearing all the different perspectives about the canon, about the books and stuff. That's been awesome.
R: Yeah, we mostly talked about your stuff, which sorry about that, but we'd love to have you on again some other time. We should have had you on our Dune episode, honestly, it sounds like.
T: Yeah, really.
PM: I can talk about Dune for ten hours straight.
R: Maybe - who knows.
J: Yeah, we… we have.
R: Maybe I will email you and be like, “Hey, we need to do a bonus episode this month. You want to talk about Dune?”
J: God, no. No, no, no. No more Dune.
PM: Or we could talk about one of my other several books also.
R: Oh, yeah.
J: Well, and then you've only gotten one perspective on the death of the octopus, Ben, which is… there's only one perspective to have. So I'm sorry we couldn't offer any new ones.
R: We don't like it.
J: Thank you for her apology. But yeah, so should we sign off, Rachel? Count of three: one, two, three.
ALL TOGETHER: Bye, Nell!
- Ending music -
J: All right, thanks guys so much for listening. As always, we had an amazing time talking with our guest, Premee Mohamed. You can find her works…
R: Everywhere. Google.
J: Everywhere. Yeah, Google ‘everywhere’ and you'll find it.
R: Yeah, her books, at least Beneath the Rising, it's been popping off. You can probably find it at basically any bookstore.
T: Yeah, just go to www.google.com and then you can search for her book.
J: Go to any bookstore and just look across the room and see the very striking covers.
R: You'll know em when you see em.
J: Exactly. But this has been Fire the Canon. We're really glad that you tuned in to listen to us. Our contact information: you can find us on TicTok, Instagram and Twitter @FiretheCanonPod. We have a website which is firethecanonpod.com. Our Gmail is Firethecanonpodcast@gmail.com, and we also have a Facebook group and an official page for announcements, which you can find at Fire the Canon Podcast. And all of those, the “canon” word part of it is spelled C-A-N-O-N.
R: ALso, if you really enjoyed it, we've got a Patreon, and we have all kinds of bonus content. We have committed now to regularly uploading -
R: At least one Patreon bonus - no!
R: At least one Patreon bonus episode a month. We've got something so fun this month, which… or actually, no. Did we just do…
T: This one's not fun.
J: We have something that sucks this month. Next month, we're doing something fun. I’m just kidding, it’s always fun!
R: Yeah, if you're a fan of the Goosebumps episode, we've got another one coming your way. Or maybe it's already come your way. But you got to go to the Patreon - patreon.com/FiretheCanon to listen to the complete thing. You get access to all of our bonus content, all of our episodes, for three dollars a month plus. So there you go.
J: And as of the time of recording, we have each gotten a Patron to specifically be each of our patrons -
R: Except Theo.
J: But Theo has lost his.
R: Yes, he lost his, so he needs another.
J: Yeah, so if you want to be the Theo patron, please come on and help him out. Even three dollars a month would be amazing.
R: He’s been so depressed.
T: If it's my patron, it better be like 50!
J: Oh, okay! Okay!
T: I’m just kidding.
R: Okay, bye!
T: Bye, everyone.
* Ending music resolves -