Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Nicole Kornher-Stace

Nicole Kornher-Stace lives in New Paltz, NY, with her family. Her books include Archivist Wasp (2015) and Latchkey (2018) -- which are about a far-future postapocalyptic ghosthunter, the ghost of a near-future supersoldier, and their adventures in the underworld -- and the forthcoming and Jillian vs Parasite Planet.

Kornher-Stace's new novel is Firebreak.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

At the outset, not very much! It becomes obvious later on but not until we're a good chunk of the way through the book. Titles usually for me go one of two ways: it occurs to me out of nowhere and I know immediately that it's the title I want to use, or I agonize for days/weeks/months over it before just slapping something on because I can't very well try to publish a book or story without one. This, luckily, was the former. There was some short story I'd read years ago that used the word "firebreak" in a nonliteral sense, in that case to contain a viral pandemic--I wish I could remember the story so I could credit the author, but I think it must have been in one of hundreds of library books I've borrowed over the past few years so I have literally no idea even whether it was in an anthology or collection or what. In any case, in hindsight it's amusing because there's a ton of concepts in this book that ended up being news headlines in 2020, with the glaring exception of the, y'know, global pandemic. The fact that the title was inspired by a pandemic short story, though, kind of brings it all together for me.

What's in a name?

So the same thing goes for character names as titles: either they arrive with a nametag or I spend forever trying to figure out what nametag to put on them. Mal arrived with a nametag. That is, I knew she went by Mal, and then I just kind of extrapolated that her full first name is Mallory. Her last name, which only shows up I want to say twice in the novel, was pretty randomly selected--when I have to pick a name that doesn't really matter a lot to me/the story, I tend to just kind of grab the first name I see. Sometimes that means I go to an online name generator and just grab something, sometimes it means I scan bookshelves or my kid's school yearbooks and grab a first or last name at random from there, sometimes I'll be kicking the name question around in the back of my head and read an article or something that mentions some first or last name and I just borrow it from there. Mal's was one of those. I honestly don't remember which! In my head she's Mal, or her in-game handle Nycorix (which just popped into my head one day and I gave it no further thought from there)--her full first name and last name were afterthoughts.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

Somewhat, I think, at first! As a teen I was already seriously writing speculative fiction and trying to get it published, but it was all very folklore-inspired dark fantasy stuff, very Tanith Lee- or Angela Carter-esque, heavy on atmosphere and imagery and lyrical prose. If you had told teen-me that I'd be writing a cyberpunk techno-thriller, I'm not sure I would have believed you. That said, around the same time I started becoming politically aware. I was a huge Rage Against the Machine fan and they did this genius thing where they gave you recommended reading lists in the album liner notes that explained what their lyrics and message were based on. So I got every single one of those books and I read them and it was life-changing. Firebreak is absolutely saturated from page one with that stuff. People tell me constantly how realistic the book's corporate-police-state dystopia is. There's a reason for that. It's based on the corporate police state dystopia we live in.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I often hear writers say they love writing beginnings! Nothing's constraining them! The blank page holds infinite possibilities! Etc. You know what I see when I look at a blank page that I'm trying to turn into a book? Anxiety. I like to start books in medias res and feed the reader the context they need organically, bit by bit, a breadcrumb trail that leads them deeper into the story without slamming them into the brick wall of pages and pages of exposition. Which a smart person would worry about in a second draft. Apparently I'm not that person. Writing that first chapter is like feeling my way through a maze in the dark with the world's tiniest flashlight. But the upside is that once I know where I am and what I'm doing, the rest of the book just falls out! I drafted Firebreak in five weeks and deleted nothing from that first draft...apart from the ending. I was told it wasn't hopeful enough, which is something I wanted to change for sure, because the thing with everything I write is that it's dark, it's scary, but it's never hopeless. At least, that's the goal. Especially in a dystopian novel. I want to suggest that positive change is still possible, because I want to believe that in real life it still is too.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

There's a lot of me in my characters, but probably less so in the main characters than the side ones. Mal's a gamer, as am I, and it was really important to me to write a book that shares some worldbuilding similarities with Ready Player One but is about a woman gamer--or rather a pair of women gamers--working together, because I wanted to provide a kind of antidote to certain aspects of RPO that frustrated me. Mal is also introverted, prickly, not great at people, but she cares very deeply about justice. That's all me. Oh yeah, and we both curse a lot.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I grew up on a steady diet of video games and movies as well as books, and they all influence me equally. All of my scene framing and pacing and fight choreography, etc. comes from movies, and Firebreak's VR video game is based loosely on a number of massively multiplayer online RPGs I played back in the day when I had that kind of free time. And as I mentioned above, the book could not exist independent of its politics. The world is very, very recognizable. It's just a few steps ahead of where we are now. The hope is that we never quite get there.
Visit Nicole Kornher-Stace's website.

--Marshal Zeringue