Jennifer Marie Brissett is a writer, artist, former bookstore owner, and former web developer. Her debut novel Elysium (Aqueduct Press, 2014) received the Philip K. Dick Award Special Citation and was a Tiptree Honor Book, Locus Recommended Read, and Locus Award Finalist. Elysium follows a set of characters who maintain their relationships but change their identities, including gender, from ancient Roman times into an apocalyptic future. Their story unfolds through a computer program etched into the atmosphere of a city. This interview was conducted by email in May 2015.
Sofia Samatar (SS): Since Elysium is your first book, I'd like to start by asking how it came about. What was the impetus? Did you know it was a novel from the beginning, or did it surprise you? Where did this book come from?
Jennifer Marie Brissett (JMB): It was a little bit of a planned surprise. I was working on my MFA and thinking that my thesis would be a story collection. Around my second semester I realized that I simply didn't want to go out like that. I occurred to me that this was the time to write a novel, and if I didn't do it now, when? My mentor at the time was David Anthony Durham and I tried out a few chapters of a book with him that utterly failed. Maybe that's not quite true that I utterly failed, but the book I started simply didn't "move." (I still have those chapters and maybe one day I'll return to them.) I tried again the next semester and the chapters I wrote then somehow clicked. I felt the rush of "this could work!" So this is how Elysium was a planned surprise. I wanted this to happen, I planned it out, but the book came from a wellspring of feeling that I didn't honestly know was there.
SS: The narrative of Elysium is extraordinarily complex. It's almost like a series of short stories, in which the same characters appear in slightly different forms: Adrian/Adrianne, Antoine/Antoinette, Hector/Helen. Was it difficult to keep things organized? How did you manage it?
JMB: I used blank index cards, paper clips, staples, and rubber bands. Seriously, that's been my organizing method. I know writers who use computers for all of this and, yes, I suppose it's neater and most modern, but there is something about the tactile feeling of moving parts of my narrative around with my hands. Sometimes I spread out my cards and look at them as a landscape. It helps me to see my story flow. By the time I have a full first draft the cards go away, but that initial bit of putting together the ideas is all about the index cards.
SS: Elysium seems not only post-apocalyptic, but specifically post-9/11. Is the novel a response to recent history?
JMB: A lot of my experience of 9/11 came through in the book. That kinda surprised me a bit because I didn't realize how much of that stuff I was still carrying around. I remember the day like it was last week. Seeing all those people in business clothes and shoes covered in dust walking down Fulton Street because they had walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. Many were lost because they had never walked all the way home before. It was a terrifying time and no one knew what was going to happen next. I had a bookstore at the time and I opened it up to see if I could help anyone. I suppose that was a silly thought but I honestly didn't know what else I could do. I wasn't scared as much as I was numb. I mean, given the way the world is, something like that was bound to happen one day. Yet, going through it was like a surreal dream. I think everyone was a bit out of it. NYC cleared out. A lot of folks left and headed to grandma's. The smell was awful, too. Brooklyn got most of the smell because the wind drove all of it in our direction. And the days that followed were hard because so many people were missing. I was sure that I lost people. I knew that some had just left town, but others . . . it was hard to tell. I did lose one person that I know of for sure. I poured a lot of that feeling into the book.
SS: Talk to me about the animals in Elysium: the elk and the owl that disappear and reappear much like the human characters.
JMB: I really like the idea of the organic and the inorganic interrupting each other's spaces. For me the elk and the owl somewhat represented nature taking back the space. While the green dot was somewhat the opposite of that. I don't want to introduce spoilers, but just let's say that nature reasserting her dominance over the world is an important part of the book to me.
SS: This reminds me of a moment that really stuck with me. It's when Adrian nicks himself several times shaving and stops the blood with toilet paper. Shortly afterward, he throws the scraps of paper in the sink where they mingle with his fallen hair. You write: "They looked like tiny flower petals on a bed of freshly cut hay." I'm intrigued by this association of hair, blood, and toilet paper in a dirty city with flowers, freshness, and the countryside. Can you talk about that connection?
JMB: I write what I see and this was the image that I simply saw as I was writing the scene. Adrian's beard was important as it was a signature feature of Hadrian, who was also known as the Greek Emperor. It's thought in black culture that hair can sometimes hold sorrow so that during times of mourning folks cut their hair. After 9/11 a lot of folks cut off their dreds. So for Adrian when he cuts off his beard, it's a time of renewal, a time of letting go of sadness and moving on. Also, I like creating images of contrast, i.e., the organic described in mechanical terms, or something hot described in terms of something cold, etc. I think such descriptions highlight what can be seen in the mind's eye; it plays with the senses in a synesthetic kind of way.
SS: At one point in the novel, we learn that "those with more melanin" were "spared the harshest effects" of the alien dust that brings a terrible illness to Earth. Can you talk about the choice you made here? What does this novel have to say about race?
JMB: I'm not sure that I'm making any real statement about race. I think more that I'm flipping the usual script that I've seen in every end of world scenario. Somehow people of color don't survive in those stories. A lot of times it's not explicitly said, only demonstrated in the remaining characters' pigmentation. I thought, what if in the end the very thing that makes life so difficult for people of color, our skin color, turns out to be valuable in selecting who lives and who dies. And actually that's a lot of people since most of the world is comprised of people of color.
SS: Elysium is about the future, but also the past—as far back as the Roman Empire. How would you describe the relationship between myth and science fiction, both in your book and in general?
JMB: The basis of this book is not really about myth, as much as it's about history. Vestal Virgins did exist and were in fact buried alive for sexual infractions. The Emperor Hadrian did exist and did have a lover named Antinous who died mysteriously. So for me in this book, I was somewhat exploring how myth is made. I think that myths start out as real events and over the course of time, through retelling, the events and people become larger than life. We humans can't seem to help but add things to past events to make them more magical than they actually were. After a while the true and the false become blurred. Was there really a Jason and the Argonauts? Did that adventure really happen? I'm betting that it did. For a long time people didn't believe the Trojan War actually happened either. Historical evidence indicates that it probably did.
Science fiction is never really about the future. It's the past and the present in disguise. Science fiction is more a setting and a place and a time, more than predictions of the future. It allows us, if we are willing, to step outside of our current circumstances and look at ourselves from a different angle. I think it's extremely healthy to step outside of our comfort zones for a while and look at ourselves and see who we are and what we might become. How would we behave if X, Y, or Z happened? By using the past to reflect the future, I'm not predicting future events, but more telling a story of who we are now using the past as a guide.
SS: I'm also interested in your own past as a web developer, since the story you tell in Elysium hinges on a computer program whose data has been corrupted. What was the most satisfying part of bringing plot and programming together?
JMB: Everything about it was satisfying! I had so much fun playing with the code and weaving it in and out of the storyline. I almost wanted to put more code in just for the heck of it! It felt good to take this old part of my life and make art with it. Being a programmer wasn't that much fun for me. I worked for companies that mostly were awful and sometimes treated me cruelly—office politics, sexism, and bigotry. My last job was the best but I couldn't enjoy it because I was completely burned out by then. I couldn't think anymore and I knew it was time to leave the profession. I hated to leave coding behind, but I had to for my own sanity. So for me Elysium is kind of a victory lap. I made a thing of beauty out of something that was so ugly.
SS: That's gorgeous, Jenn.
In your acknowledgements, you mention several writers who've inspired you: Sherman Alexie, James Baldwin, Octavia E. Butler, Ursula Le Guin, Ha Jin, Toni Morrison, and Gloria Naylor. Can you mention a couple of specific works that were important to the writing of Elysium?
"The Sin Eaters" by Sherman Alexie
Just Above My Head by James Baldwin
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Crazed by Ha Jin
Bailey's Cafe by Gloria Naylor
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
and also "The Annals of Eelin-Ok" by Jeffrey Ford
SS: Amazing list! Can you give an example of how one of those works affected the project that became Elysium?
JMB: Well, I copied out "The Sin Eaters" word for word as a personal exercise. I wanted to catch that unrelenting rhythm in Alexie's prose. It's a different rhythm. Alexie called it a Native rhythm or something like that. Different than Westerners. In that story, the beat rushes you forward and makes you clench your teeth. In Elysium and maybe in other pieces that I've written I try to capture a beat in my prose as well. It's a way of feeling the words and not just saying them. A way of using word choice for moving the story along with the sound of the language.
SS: One version of Antoine tells Adrian: "Now you're thinking like an artist. Don't never show your shit before it's ready." Do you consider this good advice?
JMB: Yes. Ha ha okay. I'll say a little more than that, even though "yes" is precisely my answer. Talking about your work or showing your work, especially to folks who are not predisposed to what you are doing, can be damaging. It can mess up your flow if you show your stuff before it's ready to someone who doesn't "get you." At least that's what I think and believe.
SS: I completely agree. Thank you!