Yes, they’re in a pilot program called SUBlife that transfers their memories into cloned versions of their old bodies. They wake up with a body that’s theirs, it just doesn’t have any of the environmental damage their old bodies had. No scars, no wrinkles, no tattoos, none of the little traits that they’re used to in their daily lives. And the impact of that loss turns out to be rather severe.
You mean, this turns out not to be a good thing?
It’s a very good thing, because it does save their lives. Everything works the way it’s supposed to, medically speaking. They’re completely cured. Except the emotional impact of losing so much of their physical identities begins to weigh on the members of the pilot program when they try to renter their old lives. So it’s not the miracle that it seems to be.
So tell me about cloning.
I really don’t know anything about cloning.
Nothing at all?
If you stop a random person on the street, she will probably know as much about cloning as I do. And that was intentional; I didn’t want to try to prove to the reader that I knew something about cloning by adding a lot of superfluous scientific detail to the text. I didn’t want to distract from the fact that the novel is really about the characters, not about why or how SUBlife works. And I am in no way qualified to try to justify something as complex and extreme as SUBlife with actual science.
So you’re not really a “science” person.
No, not at all. Please do not ask me about the life cycle of a cell.
(Crosses out question about the life cycle of a cell) Okay, so why do you write science fiction then?
Well, that’s actually a really tricky question. I would say that I don’t write science fiction, because the scientific element in the story is actually more akin to magic than it is to science. I would classify what I write as speculative fiction.
And have you always been drawn to speculative fiction?
I started out writing a lot of realistic fiction, because the prevailing wisdom seemed to be that realistic fiction was somehow better than anything that could be considered genre. But then I took a speculative fiction class in my graduate program, and suddenly my writing had this energy that it never had before. I had way too much fun with it and it showed. The stories I wrote for that class were of higher quality than the realistic fiction I tried to write, which was all sort of derivative and tired and written because I felt it was what I was “supposed” to write. Then I remembered that writing is never what you’re “supposed” to be doing with your life in the first place, so if I was going to break the rules, there was no reason not to go big.
What are you “supposed” to be doing with your life, if not writing?
Me personally? Nothing. I don’t think I’m really cut out for anything else. But people don’t take you seriously when you tell them you want to be a writer, that you’re writing a novel or a screenplay. They just assume you haven’t failed enough to give up yet. So the overarching implication is that you’re supposed to fail, give up, and become a more productive member of society.
Would you ever go back to writing realistic fiction?
I would like to have the option. I certainly don’t want to be pigeonholed in any one thing. So if I think of an idea and it’s compelling enough and I’m excited about it, certainly. I just tend to get more excited about ideas that deal with how the world could be, instead of how it really is.
Is that the sort of thing you like to read?
Yes, though not exclusively. A lot of the books that have had a huge impact on me have also been mainstream. But I also grew up watching movies like Star Wars and Terminator and Aliens, so those have been huge in terms of their influence.
So you’re still in graduate school.
Yes. I have an MA from DePaul University and now I’m in the MFA program at the University of California, Riverside.
Why the two degrees? One wasn’t enough?
My BA was in political science (also from DePaul), and it was only after I graduated from undergrad that I realized I wanted to seriously pursue writing. Since DePaul had this MA in Writing and Publishing, it seemed like the perfect way to jump in and see if I was really any good at it. At that point I wasn’t ready to go straight to an MFA program; I needed those years of workshop to develop as a writer first.
And now you’re doing an MFA.
Yes, which has been a wonderful experience so far. UCR’s program is growing really quickly, and there’s so much talent here, both in the faculty and the students. I feel very lucky to be here.
Right. Is this a desperate attempt to stave off the real world/adulthood/being a productive member of society?
You wrote this book for a class, correct?
Yes. I wrote it in a two-part novels class at DePaul, where we took ten weeks to write 60,000 words and then another ten to revise them.
And that pace was conducive to producing quality work?
God no. It was really, really bad in its early stages. The point wasn’t to write anything good. The point was to walk away with a completed first draft that I could re-write and revise further. And there was no better way to write a first novel than with the professor and the classmates I had. It was like the perfect storm of talent and encouragement, where we were all benefitting from each other’s feedback and simultaneously propping each other up.
Sounds like a very pleasant experience.
Oh, it wasn’t. There were some terrible weeks, where it seemed like none of us even had the energy to sit up straight in our chairs, where we all just wanted to kill off all of our characters. But at that point, we were invested enough in each other’s stories that we sort of forced each other to continue. It’s always nice to have that, people who are as invested in your work as you are, especially early on.
Okay, final question. What would you do if you got a brand-new body?
Probably be a lot better at yoga than I am now.
JESSICA CHIARELLA is the author of the debut novel AND AGAIN. She grew up in the Chicago area and has a master’s in writing and publishing from DePaul University. She is currently a student in the University of California, Riverside’s Creative Writing MFA program.