Monday, March 9, 2020

Interview: Premee Mohamed, author of Beneath the Rising

A coming of age story that involves a young scientific genius, eldritch horrors,  secret libraries, clever banter, and compelling characters?  Sign me up!  Hitting bookstore shelves this week, Premee Mohamed's debut novel Beneath the Rising balances horror and adventure against teens who are on the cusp of adulthood and responsibility.  If you're looking for an Indiana Jones style adventure, it's there, and if you're looking for deeper layers that subtely touches on privilege and risk, those are there too.    And if you're like me, and you'd pick this book up in a heart beat because the cover design looks like the alien language in Arrival, that is ok too.

She began writing Beneath the Rising while she was in college,  and was thinking about "what would happen if I could all the science I wanted?",  would she use those powers for good, or for evil? What if you used them for good, but something bad happened?   It sounds like she also had a blast writing about two best friends who have a messy friendship.  

Premee Mohamed's short stories have appeared Podcastle, Augur Magazine,  Analog, Lackingtons, Mythic Delirium, and Nightmare Magazine, among others, and the anthologies Broad Knowledge, She Walks in Shadows, A Secret Guide to Fighting Elder Gods,  and A Breath from the Sky, among others.  One of my favorite short stories of hers is "The Redoubtables", which appeared earlier this year in the January issue of Apparition Lit (read it here!). She was kind enough to chat with me about impersonal enemies, wish-fulfilment, character development,  the differences between publishing short stories versus novels, "The Redoubtables", and more.  She even offered me some much needed advice on tackling an especially intimidating trilogy!  

You can learn more about Premee Mohamed by visiting her website,
 or following her on twitter, where she is @premeesaurus .  I enjoy following her on twitter because she posts a combination of science humor,  truths about writing for the fun and joy of it, fan art, and just generally fun and happy posts. 

NOAF: In regards to Beneath the Rising, you had me at "eldritch horrors". What drew you to write about awakened Lovecraftian horrors?

Premee Mohamed: When I finished the book in 2002, they were less Lovecraftian and more traditionally demonological! A byproduct of twelve years of Catholic school, I guess. But as I polished it for querying in late 2016, they became more what I'd call 'cosmic' horror—less well-defined and individual. Maybe it was around that time that I began to see the prevalence of impersonal enemies, or enemies who had no real conception of their victims as individuals, and began to see the appeal of writing an evil that was so self-centred that it did not even perceive its actions as evil. You don't have to understand someone's tragic back story, necessarily, to defeat them, if they've already stated that they're going to continue doing evil no matter what. And it is a terrible feeling to know that your survival depends on living in a way that's agonizingly small, quiet, closed-down and repressed, just so that you can avoid awakening and drawing the attention of evil things. That should be a source of real anger, because it is really unjust. This idea that the sleepers are owed their sleep out of fear: No. Terrible. Not if the mere act of trying to make a better world can wake them in anger.   

NOAF: There is way, way more to Beneath the Rising than just creature hunting and closing rifts. Johnny and Nicky discuss everything that could be connected to saving the world - quantum physics, space-time, archaeological digs, and plenty more. What research did you do for this book? If you had to write a bibliography, what might be found on that list?

PM: This is probably where I admit that I whiffed on a lot of the actual science; I read a couple of pop-sci articles about clean-energy reactors and quantum physics and made up the rest in a way that entertained me. Definitely while I was polishing the novel, there were a couple of episodes of the 'Nature' podcast that I loved and took notes on. I had to do a ton more research on the Middle East—and while it was being written, that involved the libraries on campus, travel memoirs, National Geographics for photographs, history books, weirdo conspiracy anthologies, asking my friends who travelled, and photocopying atlases. (The internet wasn't a great deal of help in 2002, if I recall correctly.) Later on, photos, tweets, blog posts, and articles by people in the cities that the kids visit. Cookbooks by locals also proved to be helpful in terms of architecture, neighbourhoods, and food.

I wasn't trying to reproduce the individual cultures at all; Nick and Johnny are very much visitors there, very much tourists, and they're in a rush, and they know they are. It's an adventure in which they do not even have the same level of knowledge as (say) Indiana Jones, who's at least involved in the same field. I also had to strike a balance between what was real in that alternate 2002, and what would have been changed in a world that had had Johnny Chambers and her ridiculous technology and corporations operating in it since she was little.   

NOAF: How long did the novel take you to write? How did you go from "I have a great idea!" to typing "the end" at the end of the manuscript? How did the finished product end up being different (if at all) from tour original story concept?

PM: I think it took about two years, so from second-year university in 2000 to around when I graduated in 2002. When I started writing it, I was about Nick's age, and saw us very much as peers. But I had been noodling around the idea of Johnny as wish-fulfilment, little-blonde-Mary-Sue, for a while before that. It wasn't till I began to ask myself 'Wait a second, how would that happen though' that I thought there might be a story there. Someone unrealistically intelligent and rich, someone trying to improve the world, someone inherently a laundry list of 'good' things, interacting with someone who loves her but hasn't really been paying attention, and that person going "Just a minute here, something doesn't add up."

NOAF: 2002? We graduated the same year!   And yes, you are remembering correctly - the internet of 2002 was not very helpful.

You've had a number of short stories published in magazines and anthologies, includes Drabblecast, Apparition Lit, Auger Magazine, Analog, Mythic Delirium, Pseudopod, and the anthologies A Secret Guide to Fighting Elder Gods, The Internet is Where the Robots Live Now, and Broad Knowledge, just to name a few. Beneath the Rising is your first novel. How was the experience of writing and publishing the novel different from your experiences of writing and getting short stories published?

PM: Very, very different. I actually did a little talk/class the other day as part of my duties as Capital City Press Featured Writer (support your local library, folks!) in which I listed authors who were famous for their short stories, and authors who wrote novels and had also written short stories. I tried to emphasize that short stories aren't like training wheels for a novelist; it's not the case that you have to 'pay your dues' by publishing some number of short stories, which then 'prepares you' to write a novel. The skill sets of writing a short story versus a novel are absolutely apples and oranges, and more so the shorter the short story.

In my case, Beneath the Rising was my tenth or eleventh novel, though one of a mere handful that I'd actually written 'The End' on. But I wasn't interested in publishing them at all, or letting other people read them; I basically wrote because I needed to. And I had no short stories in my folders. I didn't write any till about 2015 when a friend encouraged me to submit to an anthology (She Walks In Shadows, edited by Paula R. Stiles and Silvia Moreno-Garcia). I hadn't written one since high school, but I cooked something up anyway (and for a brief and thrilling period, my ratio of submitted:accepted was one (1); that didn't last).

Anyway, the biggest difference I've perceived so far has been the editing process of novels vs. short stories. No one had ever read my stuff, let alone edited it. When I began selling short stories, the majority were very lightly edited—in some cases just American versus Canadian spelling. I had edited the little novella I self-published in 2018. I knew that having a novel edited by someone else would be a very different process, but I didn't know how, exactly. I admit I was pre-emptively terrified and embarrassed by how much work the book, as more or less juvenilia, would surely entail. I had my own novel revision process, which I was absolutely bracing myself to throw out the window so I could comply with the requests. I had no idea what to expect; I had never seen an edit letter, didn't know what they looked like, what kinds of changes people had made, etc etc.

Luckily it turned out to not be that bad, and with enough short stories under my belt by the point the book received its edit letter, the only real difficulty turned out to be managing the chronology, which I already had a system for. I think everybody in the process kind of heaved a sigh of relief that I'd been dealing with long-form fiction for a couple of decades (me loudest of all).

NOAF:  In early reviews of Beneath the Rising, many reviewers are saying how much they enjoy the two main characters, Johnny and Nicky. Can you tell us a little about these characters, and how you developed them?

PM: Interesting question! I think as mentioned, Johnny started off as wish-fulfilment while I was beginning my undergrad degree; I couldn't help but fantasize about what research might look like if you had unlimited money, lab space, assistants, equipment, and so on. The natural question that spun off that, though, was: But if you had all that, wouldn't you start disregarding the gatekeeping, like peer review, audits, and ethics? And from that: Uh oh. What might be the consequences? So it was kind of fun to write a character who wanted to use her resources and abilities 'for good' but absolutely without fetters, and the necessarily awful personality that would develop with that. (And I blatantly stole her name off a girl I knew in grade school named Joanna that we all called John or Johnny because she hated 'Joanna.')

Nick, I think, was me projecting my personality into fiction instead of going to therapy: he's an anxiety-riddled ball of family responsibilities for a younger sibling, constantly worrying about doing the right thing, loyal to an actual fault, fearful of abandonment and neglect, sensitive to all the ways in which he feels he is failing or making bad choices, much lonelier than he thinks he is because he's constantly surrounded with people. And they were always going to be a boy/girl pair of friends, because I write about that a lot; speaking from personal experience, there's so much interesting tension in a friendship perceived by others to be about to turn into romance, particularly with very close friends of many years. And a lot of that tension is external, coming from friends, family, strangers, which is totally inappropriate but we let it slide and even joke about the inevitability of it.

Friendship is complicated, unrequited love is complicated, I wanted to make it all as tangled and ugly as possible.  

NOAF:  Your educational and professional background is in genetics and environmental sciences. How has your experiences in those fields informed your writing (if at all)?

PM: I find myself wondering about this a lot as I continue to write and publish. In general, a science background and dayjob really hones your skills to find, collate, filter, organize, and synthesize tremendous amounts of raw data and primary research from a huge variety of sources, including ones people might not often think about. (And by 'hone' I mean I cannot get away from it, day or night.)

But it also gives you not just the ability but the habit of making connections between widely disparate ideas or facts. Keeping correlation and causation appropriately separated is something we are careful about, and with good reason, in science; but in fiction, that can be a key to discovering a narrative. Pushing together things that 'don't go together' to arrange causality in things like history and mythology, physics and biology, geology and anthropology, is always a joyful thing to me. I don't know that it improves my fiction at all, but it's definitely the thing that keeps me in love with it. And I think the distance between the two fields, after I got the second degree, also began having some unexpected knock-on effects; molecular genetics mostly looks at DNA molecules and proteins, almost as small as you can get, and environmental science looks at the world, almost as big as you can get.

I went from focusing tightly on one tiny area of science to a much broader focus; it felt like being in a hang-glider that was slowly drifting higher and higher, letting me perceive and integrate patterns in the landscape that I never noticed before. I think my fiction started getting more complex after that. Or more headachy and tedious, anyway.

NOAF:  I was enthralled by your short story "The Redoubtables", which was appeard in Apparition Lit in January. I love how the story is so slowly teased out through emotional horror, visuals, and then dialog. I like the generation gap, and how Mr. Wells and Miss Bessette have experienced the same event through drastically different lenses. How did this story come to be? While you were developing this story, what came to your mind first - the characters? their conversation? The larger piece of journalism that the Miss Bessette is working on?

PM: Thank you! It was one of those ones that was so weird that when I finished it I looked it over and thought both 'This is exactly the way I want this to look' and 'This does not have a recognized short story structure or narrative arc, editors are gonna hate this.' What came to mind first was just the concept, and I have no idea where it came from (I think I told Apparition that it was from the fire at the Russian disease research lab that had a vial of smallpox, but actually the timing doesn't work for that to have been the inspiration). I just had a note in my files that said 'Scientists working on something so dangerous and lethal (if it escaped) that they're always in the sights of some huge weapon array designed to incinerate the entire facility, island, air around it, insects, etc, like a nuke,' from February 2018. I didn't picture the weapon, the weapon wasn't the point and I didn't want to even allow myself to fixate on it. I didn't want to picture the island, either, except that I wanted it to be warm and beautiful. I just thought 'Yes, but why would you agree to work on it? Why wouldn't you just not do the research, if being vaporized by weird physics was the failsafe plan?'

And so that was where the point of real suffering for the journalist came: Did they know what would happen if it looked like the research had begun to go a certain way? When did they know? Did they get suckered into it? Were they lied to? Did they sign up for it, knowing?

And I couldn't let go of that, I got really stuck on it. I thought about the story constantly since that initial note, mainly trying to figure out how I could write it as a scientist working on the island, maybe talking to another scientist about the inevitable result of their screwing up, because as scientists we fear failure in so many different ways (reputation, ego, career, jail, funding, personal safety, lab safety, public safety, etc etc etc). Then I thought: OK, this isn't working, what if I write it from the point of view of the people who arranged for this all to happen. At last, what I hit on was almost to change it to horror. The worst is past, it's already happened, the failsafe had to be used, and now someone is investigating responsibility, culpability, but also the morals of letting it happen at all. Who, in theory, could do such a thing? And what would it do to you, the investigator, finding out?  

NOAF: In another interview that you did, you mentioned that you've read Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy about a billion times. Someone recently gifted this to me, I don't know a thing about it, and it looks intimidating. Why do you keep returning to this series to give it a reread? What's something I should know about it before I start reading it?

PM: I think I love it because I knew nothing about it before I read it for the first time. (I have also not read the 'fourth' book.) There's no way anyone could have described the actual plot to me in a way that would have made sense. I love the prose (hope you like purple), the poetry in it, the exaggerated aspects of all the characters, their names, Gormenghast itself (I often feel that I know every square inch of it), the isolation, the impossibility of the entire setup, the ceremony of day-to-day life, the formalized and ritualized weirdness. I love the glacial pace of some scenes, the deep-dive into daydreams (the marbles in the schoolroom! the Prunesquallors' dinner party! the jump-glide journey through the moss!), the long irrelevant tangents. It is something that I find totally immersive not just because of familiarity but also the detail of the descriptions.

It's not a book where I identify with or even like the characters, and I think that's entirely besides the point, and is deliberate; it's a series where I step into the setting and shut the door behind me. I haven't found anything before or since that has the same effect, and I read quite a bit. They are books that do not closely resemble any other book.

I think before you start reading it, I would recommend that you toss all expectations out the window about what 'a novel' is supposed to be shaped like, toss out the cookie that comes out of those cookie-cutter narrative and structural craft books, toss out formulas and conventions. Accept that you will be reading a huge soft amorphous blob of beautiful things studded with interestingly unrealistic characters and awful decisions. (Interestingly, I read the second book before the first, not knowing that I was reading them out of order, and did not miss out, I think.) Watch out for that third book. And I hope you enjoy it!

NOAF:  Thank you so much Premee, this interview was a ton of fun! Thank you for the advice on Gormenghast, it was what I needed to hear!