Blending the Scientific with the Surreal: An Interview with Jen Julian

Wednesday, January 23, 2019
Last spring, when the editors of TriQuarterly were reading submissions for consideration in issue 154, a story came across our desks that began: “I’m told I should get a new husband. This one has gone dead, as they always do.” Since then, these two sentences, which appear at the beginning of Jen Julian’s “Attachment,” have become my go-to examples when talking with other writers about the utility of a strong opening. It’s impossible to read these lines without a dozen or so little mysteries rising up, all at once, in your mind: Who is this narrator who takes such a callous view of death? What happened to her husband? What kind of world are we entering, where husbands “go dead” left and right and their widows (in lieu of receiving comfort) are advised to run out and grab another one, as if the death of a husband were no more unfortunate than finding a hole in one’s sock. Just shake it off, there are more where he came from. It’s impossible to read these opening lines and walk away from the story. Julian leaves you with no choice, you have to read on. And when you do, you’ll find that the story that grows out of these sentences not only answers the questions raised at its beginning, it does so with a mixture of intelligence and inventiveness that will inspire you to seek out more of Julian’s work. (Naturally, we accepted the story, and you can read it for yourself here.)
You can find more of Julian’s fiction in her debut collection, Earthly Delights and Other Apocalypses, which was published by Press 53 in 2018 and ranks among my favorite books released last yearIts stories offer a unique blurring of the line between the scientific and the surreal, introducing every variety of scientist from paleontologists to physicists to bioengineers, and placing them inside worlds that obliterate the very laws of nature they hold dear. Here, houses can shrink and expand, husbands can be implanted beneath the skin, and AIs can commandeer the social media accounts of the dead. What I find so compelling about these stories, though, is that they are as grounded in human emotion as they are in the strange. Even in the most outlandish scenarios, the characters still feel like us; we can still recognize them through their experiences with grief and isolation and loss. I had the opportunity to talk with Jen Julian recently about her collection, and how an early fascination with science eventually gave birth to these most peculiar and affecting stories. 
TQ: The sciences feature prominently in these stories. In them, we have characters working in every field from psychology to bioengineering. What attracts you to the world of science and scientists? 
JJ: Well, I was interested in science as a kid. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I really starting mining science for stories. I think I had this idea that writing was a world apart from that. But when I was twenty-five, I was commuting to work every day, and I listened to some audio books of Carl Sagan and just found myself deeply affected. This idea that there are all these mechanisms in place that have brought me to where I stand on this planet—in terms of physical laws, in terms of technology, in terms of social systems—and that it’s very easy to forget about them, or to write stories in which they don’t play a role. You’re forced to think about things very differently when you consider scientific perspectives, and it’s that perspective shift that fascinates me, how that overlaps with and sometimes contradicts the stories we tell about who we are.
TQ: One of the most enjoyable aspects of these stories is their ability to bridge the gap between the otherworldly and the scientific. You’d think these two concepts would butt up against one another, but they actually braid together quite beautifully on the page. When conceiving a story like “Earthly Delights” (in which young errand boys are grown in the backyard of an aging bioengineer) or “Stereograms” (in which a nurse seeks out the company of ghosts), what tends to take shape first—the ethereal or the scientific?
JJ: First of all, thank you! I always feel a little guilty, like I’m going to make people mad if I say I’m writing sf [a blanket term Julian uses to incorporate both speculative fiction and sci-fi], when what’s on the page is scientifically implausible. For “Earthly Delights,” I started with the idea of an elderly woman bioengineering gigolos in her garden; I was less concerned with the scientific credibility of this than I was with the character potential, and the impact something like that would have on a community—and then, with the character of Mary and her facial deformity, the anxieties and possibilities it would present for her. I think the otherworldliness of that story might be a side effect of a very physically uncanny situation. As for “Stereograms,” that story grew much more succinctly from a real psychiatric hospital, which my mother worked at in North Carolina, and which had a haunted on-call house. That story and all its earlier drafts were built around that concept of being haunted, being disconnected. I don’t know if that fully answers your question; I typically conceive of situations for stories first, and then other stuff, the general feel of them, grows out of that.
I will add, though, that one of my favorite books when I was a kid was A Wrinkle in Time, which, now that I think of it, is a book that also weaves together science and mysticism. I remember I was only passingly interested in the scientific mechanics of how those kids were traveling across the universe—really, it was more about the possibilities it presented, 2D planets and weird creatures, beast-aliens without eyes, all that.
TQ: I was so drawn to Rhetta (from “Earthly Delights”). We just don’t see many characters like her in fiction—intelligent, career-driven, older women who still maintain an interest in sex—and yet we come across so many women like her every day, in real life. I was impressed by how matter-of-factly you wrote her, as if to point out that we shouldn’t be surprised to encounter someone like her in a story. Did you adopt this understated tone on purpose?
JJ: Now that I think about it, I don’t believe it was intentional, but I’m glad that came across. It just made sense to me that Rhetta would be the way she is, both as a person and as this mythic figure in her community. There are so many stories about the sexuality of aging men, and so few about the sexuality of aging women, and fewer still where that sexuality is presented positively, or as something other than a joke. I knew I didn’t want Rhetta to be monstrous or silly. I wanted readers to take her seriously as an active agent in the story. 
TQ: Do you have a favorite character from these stories? 
JJ: It’s hard to pick one! I immensely enjoyed writing Rhetta, and Mary, too. I had a great time crafting both Aunt Vivian and end-of-the-world-obsessed Mott in “Little Ones Weary.” Mott is kind of delusional, so his behavior on the page always felt like a surprise. “What’s he going to do now? We’ll see!” Also Winni, the AI in “I’m Here, I’m Listening.” She was a blast to write.
TQ: There’s also a distinct thread of abandonment weaving through the collection. Several of the main characters have lost someone to death or disappearance. Why was it important to infuse the collection with a sense of loss?
JJ: This is an interesting question. I wrote these stories over a long period of time, not necessarily with the thought that they would all go into a collection together, and the theme of loss, characters missing important things, kept coming up. It might have to do with my own neurotic ethos; I tend to think people are defined as much by what they’ve lost as they’ve gained, what they don’t have versus what they do have. And that feeling of loss creates an otherworldly space, a ghost world, a could-have-been. I’m interested in the effect that has on people’s lives.
TQ: Of course, I can’t help but ask a question about “Attachment,” the story TriQuarterly published from the collection. The narrative places us inside such a peculiar and compelling world, one in which women have little fish-husbands implanted under their skin as a means of obtaining low-maintenance companionship. One in which women are free to prioritize their own careers and passions over those of their partners. It’s such a nonchalant upending of traditional gender roles; I enjoy it more each time I read it. Was it as enjoyable to write as it is to read?
JJ: It was so much fun to write! And it was actually a story I wrote quickly, compared to how long it usually takes me to write things, though I’d had an idea for an anglerfish love story for about a year at that point. I was at the Clarion workshop when I produced my first draft, and I don’t know if I would’ve written it at all had I not been around such delightfully strange and talented weirdos. I think I might’ve chickened out and just decided it was too silly or too gimmicky. So I’m glad I finally sat myself down and wrote it.
TQ: Please tell me more about what gave you the idea to write an anglerfish love story!
JJ: Gladly! So I had read somewhere about anglerfish reproduction, how the males latch onto the females and then atrophy into brainless appendages. It’s often written about as if it’s this horrifying, grotesque process, but I was thinking, “This could actually be kind of sweet and sad.” So I wrote about it as if it were a natural fact for this married couple. I had also recently read James Tiptree Jr.’s “Love Is the Plan and the Plan Is Death,” which is an sf short story about a courtship between these two mantis-like aliens, which also deals with the inevitability of natural processes, and how conscious beings struggle to make sense of that.
TQ: You mentioned the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. Are writing workshops and retreats a significant part of your writing life? 
JJ: I definitely try to make room for workshops and conferences and such, because I get a lot out of them. They help me get out of writing plateaus, big time, and they allow me to get to know the most amazing and talented people. But they’re also draining, on time, on finances, on emotions. So I have to choose wisely and sparingly. This summer, I attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference; that reinvigorated my writing in a way I really needed. As for retreats, I’ve never been on a proper writing retreat. A grad school friend and I have talked about organizing one. We always worked well together and gave each other needed creative support, and we’ve continued to be in touch since our paths separated. These relationships for writers, they’re invaluable. I can’t stress that enough.
TQ: Have you always written speculative fiction? And if so, what do you think inspired your interest in the sub-genre?
JJ: Speculative fiction was a genre I arrived at through sci-fi, which I became interested in through popular science and science history, those aforementioned Carl Sagan audio books. This was a term born out of the sci-fi community that has been appropriated by literary writers. Nowadays, you see “speculative fiction” being used as an umbrella term for all nonrealist literary fiction, fabulism, magical realism, and so on. I’ve always been into fantasy and magic; I read and wrote fantasy all through middle school and high school. As an undergrad, I first started reading people like Kelly Link and Aimee Bender, and I had that “Oh, wow, writers can do this?” kind of moment. It was another year or so before I started trying out some of those techniques myself. The tools of realism have become invaluable to me—the groundedness of physicality and specificity, the building of characters from place, the building of complex and believable character dynamics. But there’s always been a sense of universality, an emotional depth, a general enjoyment in the strange and unexplained, which pulls me back to nonrealism.
TQ: And it seems that readers have a very large appetite for nonrealism these days. We see it in the literary community with the popularity of writers like Link and Bender, and even in literary television, with shows like “Black Mirror,” “The OA,” and “Stranger Things” becoming more popular by the episode. Any theories on why we’re so enamored with this form of storytelling?
JJ: That’s a really excellent question. I think it might have something to do with technology, how our world isn’t really real to us anymore. We spend a huge portion of our lives ungrounded and unphysical. Increasingly strange and fragmented narratives surround us—through the internet, through advertising. What does realism mean in the face of that? And some of it may also have to do with nostalgia—I can’t think of “Stranger Things” without thinking about how much that show operates off nostalgia. Most millennials grew up with nonrealist narratives. They had a lasting impact on us. And we were told, either explicitly or implicitly, that we were supposed to grow out of them. And now we’re reclaiming them. We’re going back to the narratives that gave us a sense of possibility.
TQ: I admire your prose. I’m one of those readers who highlights sentences I find particularly well crafted, and my copy of your book is literally covered in yellow. Does the prose come easily to you, or do you find yourself fiddling? 
JJ: Fiddling. So much fiddling. I have a bad habit of fiddling with prose before I complete a draft. I recommend not doing that.
Sometimes I do get into that space where the prose just comes and it feels right. It’s easier if I’m inhabiting a first-person narrator, and I have a very clear sense of their voice. It’s easier when I’m in scene or writing dialogue. It’s those boggy expositional transitions that give me the most trouble. I can struggle with those for hours. But this is why I enjoy editing and revising—producing new work is difficult, because I know I’m putting something on the page that I’m probably going to go back and work with. Once it’s on the page, that’s when I have firmer control over what I want the prose to do, how I want the sentences to lead into each other.
TQ: I read that you’re working on a dystopian novel. Can you give us a glimpse into what we can expect?
JJ: Oh, right, the novel! I need to work on that. It’s still in very early stages of planning and drafting. I had a bunch of stuff written, but I’m switching gears on it, so I’m not sure how much of that I’ll use. Some of the ideas extend from the novella in the short-story collection; it’s a near future in which AI technology has become more ubiquitous. I’m also working with a narrator who lives and works in exploitative conditions in an augmented reality (AR), so I’m doing some research on AR tech and how that can be applied. Really, though, I want to maintain that balance you mentioned earlier between the scientific and the otherwordly—so there’s also an AI that essentially functions as a ghost, a weird cult, a system of lore about transcending the body. I’d like to somehow work in a colony of genetically modified cats—just for fun? I don’t know. It’s still a playground right now.