Douglas Lain was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1970. His parents moved to Colorado Springs shortly after this event. Lain has been writing since he was eighteen, longer if you include book reports on Anne Frank and papers on the reality of Extrasensory Perception. His short stories have appeared in Amazing Stories, Strange Horizons, The Third Alternative, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and the forthcoming anthology Jigsaw Nation. His first short-story collection, Last Week's Apocalypse, was published by Night Shade Books. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and four children.
Mahesh Raj Mohan: Why don't you tell us how Last Week's Apocalypse came about.
Douglas Lain: I was writing what I thought was a novel. It was my second attempt at a novel—the first attempt being a story called "The '84 Regress," which is in the collection. The second novel attempt became a novella called "I Read the News Today," and it's also in the collection. I originally was looking for places to publish "I Read the News Today" and I ended up talking to Jason Williams, cofounder of Night Shade Books, at World Fantasy Con 2003 . . . he wasn't very big on the idea of a little thin volume. But, when I contacted him about a year later, he did say that I could send him a collection, so that's how it ended up.
MRM: How long did it take from that conversation to Night Shade's actually accepting the collection?
DL: A year . . . maybe eighteen months, something along those lines. I distinctly remember a conversation I had with Jason at a lunch with a bunch of other writers. I'd sent the manuscript to him about three or four months earlier at that time and I said, "Well, I'm trying not to think about it" and he said, "I'm having no trouble not thinking about it." [laughs]
MRM: So when did the acceptance come?
DL: Jeremy Lassen, co-owner of Night Shade, was the one who bought it. I joined LiveJournal and started bugging him about the book. Not overtly, but I started commenting a lot in his blog and then occasionally sent him emails, and so then he read the book. He was outside on a break from his work and found a twenty-dollar bill right after he finished the book, or right after he finished one of the stories in it, and he decided that was a good omen, and so he bought the book . . . later he said, "No, I was going to buy it anyway." But I don't know, I figured it probably means that twenty dollars is just about the amount he thought he would make on the book.
MRM: Great. I've read a few of the stories and there's a lot of recurring themes that go through them—
DL: Yeah, because I only write about one or two things.
MRM: What would you say are the common threads that run through the stories in the collection?
DL: The title is kind of a clue for the "common thread," although in some stories it's more obvious than in others. Like in a story like "Shopping at the End of the World" or "I Read the News Today" or "The '84 Regress," it's pretty obvious there's a kind of dystopian or "end of the world" or apocalyptic theme. But the main theme I think is that my point of view is that humanity, or American society, has gotten off track. We're coming upon a very destructive spiral. And I'm writing about reacting to that. When I was younger and first realized we were off track, it was actually almost a point of pride that I'd figured out that it's all a sham. As I've gotten older this knowledge does not console me. I feel much more a part of it.
MRM: When you say, "off track," what do you mean?
DL: I think particularly our economic system is set up to benefit a very few and harm the majority. I'm basically a socialist.
MRM: What made you come to those conclusions?
DL: Hm, that's hard to say. Reading the newspaper, certainly.
MRM: Have you had any personal experience?
DL: On the wrong end of the economic spectrum?
DL: Not as much as you might think. I come from a pretty well-moneyed family. My father is a doctor. But I always worked on a low end of things. So I'm a bit of a "fallen" middle-class or upper-middle-class person. I've personally as an adult not had a lot of money, but my personal problems are not very significant, because I've never worried where my next meal is coming from or anything like that. So, personally I've never been through the deprivation that the real victims of this system—who are the majority of people—experience. I did get involved with a political organization called OSPIRG, an environmental group.
MRM: A public-interest group, right?
DL: Yeah, a public interest group. I think most people when they are seventeen or eighteen kind of look and see that the world is polluted, there are a lot of wars that don't make a lot of sense. And I was like that and also it was convenient because it was a job that didn't seem to require any skills. [laughs]
MRM: So you were a canvasser.
DL: Yeah, I went door-to-door and collected checks and told people that we were going to pass laws that were going to change the world. And through that, I met a lot of people who were more radical in their thoughts than the organization. And I was also reading a lot then.
MRM: What were you reading?
DL: Let's see . . . the one I really remember reading was somebody I wouldn't necessarily politically align myself with, but I remember reading Robert Anton Wilson's Cosmic Trigger. [laughs] It was the early nineties, and I was pretending it was 1973. I was doing some drugs—not too bad—a little pot or whatever and reading Robert Anton Wilson and publishing my own 'zine, Diet Soap . . . Noam Chomsky was a big influence, though he's pretty much the opposite of Robert Anton Wilson. And I read Alexander Berkman, who's an anarchist, I read the ABC's of Anarchy, I read Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle . . . I read about the Situationists, which was a group of French radicals who had an impact on the uprising in Paris in 1968. There was a strike that turned into a general strike and the city was closed down . . . it was a revolutionary moment, that was a revolutionary year across the globe . . . and the Situationists felt that the industrial life was based on commodity dominance and illusions and lies. Their writings had a big impact on what happened in 1968. But the big thing in 1991, more than OSPIRG, that shook me—
MRM: The Gulf War.
DL: Yeah. The Gulf War. And being involved in the protest movement . . . going to some marches and some meetings and being against that war a year before it started and realizing that the character of the United States hadn't changed. Growing up in the eighties and nineties, even as bad as Reagan was as president, and even with the threat of nuclear war, I still held that the United States wasn't an aggressive society. When we went to war in Iraq the first time, it was an eye-opener to see that they will construct completely artificial circumstances to justify violence, aggression, and imperial dominance.
Basically, after the Cold War they continued to have a completely adversarial stance towards the rest of the world, and continued to support the wartime economy we've had since World War II and so on and so on.
MRM: So why genre work to channel these ideas—
DL: I did too many drugs.
MRM: One of my favorite stories of yours, "On a Scale From One to Three," is not a genre story. But generally speaking, your stuff is genre. So what is the appeal of genre for you?
DL: Well, I like genre stuff. I liked Star Trek when I was growing up, I was interested in the stars and wondered if there was life growing somewhere else. Last night I talked to Nick Mamatas and he asked me a similar question. He said, "If you're so middle class"—and he ended up determining that I was very middle class—"why don't you write what middle-class people do, write realistic fiction? That's their job." In the late nineteenth century, realism was seen as a revolutionary path for exposing injustice in the world. People who do realist work today are comfortable with reality as it is, not challenging the basic air they breathe. The economic system is not challenged in a realist work coming out of the Iowa writing program. The big structural things in society aren't challenged very often by realistic works.
MRM: Do you read a lot of realist work?
DL: Well, some. I used to read a lot. When I wanted to be a writer originally in high school, I started reading the New Yorker . . . and I read the eighties New Yorker writers like Lorrie Moore. I'm also a big fan of Philip Roth. I like Philip Roth quite a bit.
MRM: Roth is cool. But maybe realistic writers would argue that making their work political would defeat what they're trying to do with their fiction. I don't necessarily agree with that, but maybe that's one reason why.
DL: I understand why people say that.
MRM: But you don't share that view.
DL: No, I do to a degree. Except that I try to take the path out by not being a realist, by saying, "Look I'm not just talking about East Timor or Vietnam or the Gulf War," although maybe one or all of those are in the story. I'm trying to get at something underneath that and I don't think I'll ever get the whole, but I'm trying to figure out the basics. And the way to do that I think is to be broader than realist.
MRM: You had mentioned before that "A Coffee Cup/Alien Invasion Story" was about 9/11.
DL: Definitely. Yeah, it's even in there. It's metafictional. I wrote that about my experience about 9/11.
MRM: Could you tell me what the UFOs signified to you in that story? And why did you choose a metafictional approach?
DL: The UFOs signified world-altering change, but whether or not that change is cataclysmic or somehow positive I couldn't say. The UFOs were ambiguous despite the fact that I'd set out to write a cautionary tale. The story was a meditation on September 11th—that's pretty obvious because of the metafictional parts of the story—but it also ended up having a mystical side to it. The main character transcends this world in the end, and whether that is a good or bad thing I couldn't say.
MRM: That story came out in Strange Horizons after you had been on LiveJournal for a while. How do you feel about online journals, and what effect has having a LiveJournal had on you and the way you write?
DL: I suppose after writing in a blog, whatever reservations I might have had about using personal anecdotes or writing in a confessional mode dropped away.
MRM: How do you feel about the big online community of writers? Does it help as a networking tool, or a way to share ideas and debate?
DL: It is a great networking tool. I have been asked to write for anthologies by people who would not have heard of me if I had not been blogging away, but the fact that it's a networking tool means that a lot of the conversations and debates are phony. People are trying to get ahead and that's only natural. The problem isn't unique to blogs. That's the way it is when art or literature is produced this way, for profit or as another commodity in a world of commodities.
MRM: What are your ultimate writing goals?
DL: I have a number of goals and some of them contradict each other. For instance, I'd like to write books that stay in print and give me the ability to quit my job. I also hold an old-school avant-garde perspective and hope that my strange stories might play a part in creating social change. I guess you see the contradiction there? I hope to take the first draft of this novel that I'm working on and make it into something worth reading. This is probably the only goal that really matters, the only goal I know I can achieve if I make the effort.
MRM: What's your novel about?
DL: The novel is tentatively titled The Brainwash Brand, and it's based on a short story called "The Sea Monkey Conspiracy" which is included in Last Week's Apocalypse. The sea monkey story is about an eighteen-year-old kid who joins up for a psychological experiment when he arrives at college and then is promptly brainwashed. It is also a story about the first Gulf War, the American system of propaganda and disenfranchisement, and brine shrimp.
The novel picks up twelve years later, when the protagonist is thirty and relapsing in the face of the perpetual war on terrorism. This time the whole story is about his attempts to get beyond the propaganda system that has defined and shaped everything he knows. I'm facing a substantial rewrite, just closing in on the last couple of scenes, so I can't really say much more than that. Also, there is always the chance that the mess I've created won't end up being salvageable. In fact, if you're reading this and you believe in first novels, please clap your hands.
MRM: Good luck with the rewrite, much good fortune on the collection, and thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.