Issue 038 interview time! Today we chat with Johanna Staples-Ager about her short story “The Extent.”
LSQ: Stories in the form of an epistolary are always fun, as they create definitive layers to plot and character, the most basic of which is the finder/reader of the documents and the author of the documents themselves. What made you choose this format for your story?
Johanna: “The Extent” started out as a list: Hair, Scars, Tattoos, Names, and so on. It was an obsession list, a list of objects and concepts and motifs I’ve become obsessed with in the process of writing a post-apocalyptic novel and reading large amounts post-apocalyptic fiction. But as I started expanding the list, exploring the meaning of each word, Annika’s voice started coming through, and I knew the process of definition was no longer my own. Clearly, my narrator wasn’t content to just define each word — she was in a bad place, and each subject, each thing offered a way out for her, a way out of that bad place. But was her story a cry for help? A rallying cry? A warning? Maybe all of the above, maybe none of the above. Either way, I knew her story was going to take her out of that bad place for good, and that her escape would ask extraordinary things of her as both a narrator and as an agent in her own life. As I spun the line of the story further, the flashcards and the found-document format of the story came in, grounding the story’s format as both a list and an act of defiance.
LSQ: Most of Annika’s personal notes on the flash cards are in some way about personal identity and through them we see how it’s been stripped away from her and her fight to get it back. Can you tell us more about Annika’s character? What’s her backstory?
Johanna: Annika Yang remains somewhat of a black box to me. I think this is partially because she’s writing to Smith, the very person who stripped away much of her identity, and partially because she’s a writer and someone who feels a lot, making her doubly protective of her selfhood. I do know that she’s good at survival, good at pushing herself, good at flying under people’s radar. She’s had a lot of time to put up walls between herself and the world, and she’s been treading the line between action and inaction for years, using passive as opposed to active defiance to stay sane. I’ve coded her as having a Chinese father and a white mother. I like to think that she grew up near the ocean, with her parents and her two younger sisters, filling notebooks with lists and doodles every day, sleeping in an old house that creaked every night, with a radio constantly dribbling out pronouncements of doom in the background. Maybe she liked history class in school before everything went wrong, liked diving into the truth underneath the biases presented in the classroom. Annika’s a little afraid of her own voice, indeed fiercely protective of it, and like many post-apocalyptic narrators, she could be almost anyone. But unlike the undifferentiated narrators of much post-apocalyptic sci-fi, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Even if Annika’s hidden many of the specifics of herself from Smith (and therefore the reader), she owns her voice — so I loved allowing her to keep secrets, in the same way that she lets Eden keep her secrets, too.
LSQ: Scars, both physical and emotional, are an important motif in your story. What does this say about the dystopian future you’ve created and how it impacts your characters?
Johanna: There’s a reason scars made it onto the obsession list. I tend to write what I’m afraid of, or what makes me angry, and move from that place of anger or fear towards some kind of emotional release. Scars fascinate me particularly because they can hold so many emotions — anger and fear being the usual, but also pity, love, pride, the entire spectrum of emotions that can arc through a person when they’ve been hurt. They’re often used as a shortcut to a Dark Backstory in fiction, which I find a cheap under-utilization of their narrative power. Especially as I dive into dystopia, a genre where scars are the norm, I want to find the ways that people live with themselves and their scars — how they move beyond anger and fear to something else, something that can at the very least be carried. I want to write not necessarily what created a particular physical or emotional scar — although that’s an important aspect of learning how to carry it — but about all the little things that a character does to make it easier to live with that scar. For Annika, writing is one of those things. Many of my POV characters who have scars — and in my dystopia, they all do — tend to be artists in some way, allowing them to create that critical emotional release for themselves.
LSQ: What was the most challenging aspect of this story to write and why? What was the most enjoyable part?
Johanna: The most challenging aspect was working in hints of Annika’s backstory, the memories that had been stripped away from her, the things she kept most secret. That’s one of the funny things about writing and reading dystopian fiction: dark, awful things can become commonplace, while lighter and happier things, any memories of goodness, can become almost more painful than the present itself, both to read and to write. It’s very easy for a post-apocalypse to contain only nihilism and abandoned buildings, and it’s hard to make any good memories of the pre-apocalypse a rounder flavor than bitter or saccharine. The most enjoyable part of writing “The Extent” was the action, the scene in which Annika and Eden are stumbling four-legged and bleeding towards the surface. Once I had done all the exposition, the careful tweaking of the setup, the “Blood” section flowed out of me easily. Even though it contains, like most of the rest of the story, terrible things, it was also a moment of great release for both me and Annika, and stayed almost entirely intact throughout revision.
LSQ: This story just touches on what seems to be a very complex world in terms of war, politics, geographical/geological/
Johanna: Yes, definitely. This particular world comes from the novel I’m working on. As soon as I knew that the narrator of “The Extent” was in a bad place, I took the almost reflexive shortcut of making that bad place Black Mile, the underground military school I already carried in my mind. I intended to use the story as an opportunity to explore Black Mile and the potential of all the things on my obsession list. I’m looking forward to exploring more concrete exposition of this world in my novel’s third-person format.