Issue 033 Author Interview: Meghan Cunningham and “Borrowing Ark Sutherland”

Want to know more about the behind-the-scenes of the short stories in Luna Station Quarterly? Of course you do! We talked with author Meghan Cunningham whose story “Borrowing Ark Sutherland” appears in our current Issue 033. Go check it out, then come back and read about Meghan’s story behind the story.

LSQ: The concept of borrowing a body for a finite amount of pleasure feels both gruesome and inhumane and yet . . . somehow believable. What does this say about the objectification of our bodies?

Meghan: Objectification and commodification and quantification of the body were definitely things I was turning over when the central concept of this story came around. I was thinking a lot about debates around other body-markets: certainly sex work and porn, but also surrogacy and pay-for-plasma. For that matter, anyone who’s worked a twelve-hour retail shift knows that most low-wage jobs make demands on your body in exchange for a paycheck. I wanted to explore this weird corner of those debates without necessarily coming down on one side or another; there’s always a tension that can’t be resolved easily between choice and coercion in these cases.

LSQ: The overall setting of your story is sometime in the future, with novel technology and gadgets, but the age-old war between the haves and have-nots as well as worker versus The Man remains. It feels as though these basic conflicts will never change. Can you comment on this?

Meghan: It’s certainly hard to get away from imagining the future. I find it kind of interesting that somebody like Carnation can get away with maybe not even having a body, whereas physical labor and effort is so intrinsic to low-wage jobs. Even today, when we talk about the jobs that are going to escape (at least the first wave of) automation–jobs that require creativity and collaboration and so on–they’re very white-collar jobs, jobs that are not necessarily accessible to a person without the right credentials in our current model. Where does that leave people who don’t have those credentials? That sense of being left behind was something hovering in the air for me as well when I was throwing down ideas for the setting and economic system.

LSQ: The reader’s view of Happiness from his introduction to the end of the story changes from inferred malevolence to (maybe?) some level of benevolence. What is it about this character that made you want to develop him in this way?

Meghan: For the most part, when I thought about reasons why somebody would want to borrow a body, other than the possible therapeutic applications of the technology, the emotions I was coming up with were pity and contempt in different measures. Really I suspect that Happiness just doesn’t have a holistic understanding of the chain of production, as it were. He doesn’t think about the person on the losing end of the transaction. And to be honest, part of the reason I feel so little outright antipathy toward Happiness–other than the whole cult leader thing–is because probably everything I own also involves a dose of cruelty at some point along the chain. The chains are so big we almost can’t avoid it. If a Bolivian farmer flew up tomorrow to confront me in my home about my pack of quinoa, I would probably be surprised too, but who’s to say they wouldn’t be justified?

LSQ: Is there any hidden intention behind the name “Happiness” and his longing for freedom?

Meghan: When I was first drafting this story I honestly just thought it was funny to have this character who’s obsessed with America as a kind of myth in a world where I’m not sure the USA as we know it today even exists. (For all I talk about economics here, a lot of stuff in this story originally happened because I thought it would be funny.) But as the story evolved it became more and more about the trade-offs we do and don’t get in an economic system, so maybe it’s natural that the antagonist has these motifs of a country that is obviously famous for its brand of capitalism.

LSQ: Early in the story, the older man is more concerned with STIs than the bioethics of borrowing and using someone else’s body. The immediate (although in hindsight) concern of the individual versus a broader set of concerning morals feels like a classic take on human nature. Did you intend this?

Meghan: In a way this is also Happiness’s problem. (Carnation is probably just kind of a rich jerk.) Immediate personal things are much easier to think about, question, and control, and we live in such a big interconnected world—the characters in this story even more so—that maybe we’ve outpaced our own capacity for moral action in some ways.

LSQ: What was the hardest part of this story to write? What came easiest?

Meghan: When I was first letting this story percolate I debated with myself a lot about what combination of genders the “client” and the “body” should be. In the end I felt like when both participants were men it left the most conceptual space open for what I wanted to explore. I knew I wouldn’t have been able to resist making the F/F version about the relationship femininity has with the body and its value. And then there were a lot of complications to untangle with a cross-gender body-borrower, because in any direction, casting this client as pitiful or villainous created unpleasant implications about gender-crossing in general that would have required a lot of care. All the options were such different stories and I was sad to let go of them.

But I loved the freedom this setting gave me to rapid-fire possible future-isms. Part of the fun of an intentionally eclectic and piecemeal world is getting to just throw stuff at the board and see what sticks. Like, I have no idea what data nursing is or how Indonesia acquired part of Mindanao, but sure, that sounds interesting, let’s run with it.

LSQ: Are you working on any other writing projects at the moment? If so, can you tell us about them?

Meghan: I’ve been focusing on short stories for the past half year. My . . . romantic? . . . story “You Two Should Feel Very Lucky” about two women spliced together in a teleporter appears in the Jan/Feb issue of Iridium, and I have a weird little piece of magical realism flash in the upcoming anthology Broken Metropolis: Queer Tales of a City That Never Was from Mason Jar Press. There’s a lot of short-form stories I’m excited to tell and share, but I am also letting ideas percolate for long-form stories–including a long-form version of this concept!–and I’m interested in developing games and interactive fiction in the future.