Zachary Jernigan is a quarter-Hungarian, typically shaven-headed male writer of fantasy and science fiction. His short stories have appeared in a variety of places, including Asimov’s Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, and Escape Pod. No Return, his first novel, comes out March 5th, 2013 from Night Shade Books. He kindly agreed to let Paul Weimer ask him some questions.
Paul Weimer: Who is Zachary Jernigan?
Zachary Jernigan: Zachary Jernigan is an entrepreneurial mastermind, founder of twelve successful Arizona fried chicken restaurants.
Okay, that’s not even slightly true. Sorry for attempting to deceive you.
I, Zachary (Zack) Jernigan, am not even slightly entrepreneurial, as my bank statements will reveal–though I do like friend chicken. In fact, I like anything fried. You could fry a sock and I’d probably eat it. The proof of this is in my waistline.
When I’m not eating fried foods (and articles of clothing), making playlists on iTunes, or playing Mario Kart, I write science fiction and fantasy, both in the short and long forms. Since 2009, my short stories have appeared in such places as Asimov’s, Crossed Genres, Murky Depths, and Escape Pod. My debut science fantasy novel, No Return, comes out on March 5th of this year.
PW: You didn’t come to writing until your mid 20’s. What finally sparked you to start writing, and why genre in particular?
ZJ: Oy. That’s a tough one to answer, honestly.
That not just some pat statement: it is difficult to talk about. The main reason for this is because I haven’t quite worked out what motivated me to complete my first story at the age of 25–in a locutorio (internet cafe) in Santiago, Chile, during my last horrible semester abroad. Sure, I can say it was self-disgust that brought me to that point, and though this is true it’s not the whole truth.
It wasn’t as if I never wrote anything before that point: starting in my late teens, I’d regularly feel the urge to set down my thoughts/complaints/emo-ish whining, almost in a confessional sense. All the while, I was reading sff, but it wasn’t until my early twenties that I began to feel the urge to write fiction. With this urge came the near-requisite (for me) feeling of envy toward writers. With every novel or short story, my enjoyment of the act of reading would decrease, so intense was my jealousy. Now and then I’d start to write a story–I’d never written one before, mind you–and almost immediately stop. By the time I reached the age of 27, I had a great collection of 250-word story beginnings and 2 (maybe 3) stories I’d ever completed.
And then I left for the University of Liverpool to begin studying in their MA in Science Fiction Studies program (seriously–if that doesn’t prove my love for the genre, nothing will). After only a few days, not having even begun the program, it became clear that I’d made a massive mistake. I experienced an existential crisis, basically. If I was going to go massively into debt, I reasoned, I wanted to invest it toward writing fiction instead of studying it. (This is not to say that studying fiction is less important than writing it.)
So, long and probably boring story short, I started studying the craft of writing fiction, first at the University of Arizona for two semesters and then at the Stonecoast MFA program. Stonecoast, in particular, was a transformative experience. I was allowed–nay, encouraged!–to write the only kind of fictions I’ve ever had any desire to write.
It’s no hyperbole to say that science fiction and fantasy have a grip on my soul. I have no desire to write about the everyday world.
PW: It’s apparent that you prefer your genre fiction firmly within the field, even if the boundaries between subgenres can be blurred. What
virtues does genre fiction hold for you, as a reader and a writer, especially in the spaces where science fiction and fantasy blend?
ZJ: Ah! What a fantastic question! Hopefully my answer will come around to answering it in a roundabout way.
In college, I studied religion. Knowing that I was in fact an agnostic atheist, many of my peers and teachers would ask why I chose the subject. My answer, invariably, would be, “Well, they don’t have degrees in science fiction here, so I study religion.” I’d go on to explain myself, but oftentimes I’d just muddy up my meaning.
What I meant then, and mean now, is that—at its best—science fiction (and fantasy) offers glimpses of the near-numinous, allowing access to places and personalities so huge and awe-inspiring that they produce in me a feeling close to religious reverence.
For a constant doubter and skeptic like me (a man who was raised in the Mormon church, constantly assured he would live forever and see wonders beyond imagining—indeed, that he would one day be a god presiding over his own planet—but who now strongly suspects his consciousness will be extinguished at death) reading and writing genre fiction of a certain kind is an act of protest and joy. It is, not to be overdramatic or anything, an affirmation that my brain will not be so easily bound by reality.
Considering what is possible—in fact, what may be impossible—does not simply represent escapism. At least, not if you’re doing it right.
Of course, readers and writers will disagree about which “style” of sff is best at achieving the goal of transporting the reader, of making that intellectually imaginative leap from Here and Now to Weird Over There. I strongly prefer works that blur the lines between science fiction and fantasy, because for me the most important aspect of reading is the stretching of the mind to conceive of how a person or persons behave in a fantastical—and perhaps impossible—situation.
Despite what some naysayers assert, there is a practical benefit to considering the impossible or extremely unlikely. No one who’s read a great work of sociological sf—typically the purest fantasy in light of current scientific theory—will say her or his mind has not been expanded. There is immense value in considering how we respond to the alien, the fantastical. It broadens us as human beings, makes us more compassionate.
Extrapolating from current technology—getting the details right, dammit!—is not all that interesting to me, and part of the reason for this is because I think such fastidiousness often creates a more conservative work wherein characters reflect current mores and modes of expression. (Not always, of course, but disappointingly often I believe this to be the case.) Such works fail to shed light on our species’ ever-changing mental state.
PW: You brought up the phrase ‘Glimpses of the near-numinous’. What works of science fiction and fantasy, especially recent ones, do you feel manages to capture that?
ZJ: What’s funny is that it’s rarely an entire work that strikes me in this regard. It’s typically just a section of writing, or even just a sentence. The most obvious example, for me at least, is the final descriptions in Childhood’s End—a truly mind-altering experience, a few moments’ worth of contemplating the beauty of the destruction of everything known to man.
More contemporarily speaking, however, two outright fantasies—Sean Stewart’s Resurrection Man (1995) and Elizabeth Hand’s Mortal Love (2004)—transport me to places I couldn’t have imagined going before having read them. Much of the effect is achieved through absolutely stellar prose that manages to convey the otherworldly better than any of their contemporaries. By this I don’t mean to say they are unambiguous or perfectly clear in their descriptions (clarity is certainly not Hand’s main aim); instead they are simply, through the pure act of stringing words together in a beautiful way, forcing you to see what is not real. They are painting before your eyes.
A different kind of transportation occurs in Brent Hayward Filaria (2009), a science fiction narrative that occurs inside a gigantic building shielded from the rest of the world. There is a scene in it where two ancient elevator-repairmen brothers are hanging in a massive (and malfunctioning) elevator shaft—or rather, have been hanging in a massive elevator shaft their entire lives. This may seems a somewhat mundane scenario when compared to interstellar wars and such, but there is for me this moment of consideration: what must life be like, hanging in silence and darkness for most of your life, waiting on… what? An elevator car that will never come?
It’s frightening to consider, and yet in its way it is also beautiful in an immensely sad way. It’s almost like considering death, that great unknown.
I think sadness and fear are the emotions that most often connect me to the near-numinous. The longing, in particular: the longing to be immortal, to see the stars and other planets: to not be left alone in the cosmos. There is a scene in Jack McDevitt’s space opera novel Chindi (2002) wherein a romantically involved woman and man are separated on different vessels. The ship she is traveling in is going far too fast to pick him up.
In other words, they will never be united. Knowing this, the man dons a spacesuit, goes out on the ship’s hull and—it nearly makes me cry; it gives me chills thinking of it—waves to her as she passes by.
It’s these little moments that make sff literature so fundamental to me. I can imagine living without a lot, but not those moments.
PW: So let’s focus in on your novel. Where was the genesis and inspiration of No Return, Vedas, Churls and the other characters?
ZJ: Well, that’s a tough one to answer. My motivation isn’t always clear to me. I often think I know why I do things, only for time to reveal another source of inspiration. Certainly, the most obvious driving force in writing No Return was to communicate something close to what had been communicated to me in my favorite books, but to say that is hardly to simplify the issue: it’s quite easy to list works that strike a chord, harder to get at just why they did so.
My first concern was aesthetic. I can pretty well remember how it felt when I first read a book that presented a character or setting in a way I found to be particularly beautiful, and I wanted to recreate that — at first for myself, and then hopefully for others. In No Return, I wanted a cast and a world that inspired an appreciation of the physical. I don’t kid myself that everyone will find my images to be as beautiful as I intended them to be (after all, even I don’t think I wrote them as well as I should have), but it would please me no end to know that even one person appreciate it on the same aesthetic level I appreciated, say, Phyllis Gotlieb’s Flesh and Gold, for my money one of the most “visually” compelling works of speculative literature published in the last two decades.
Of course, there can be no knowing that this has been achieved. I’m not psychic. Still, it’s a nice thought.
This is not to say, however, that a longing to evoke the aesthetic was the only — or even primary — driver. It was just the first feeling I had. In short order after I’d established rough character profiles and settings, I started considering how I wanted the novel to feel. My favorite sff has always been the mythic variety; both those works that expand upon or attempt to create wholesale mythologies (as in Roger Zelazny’s and Samuel R. Delany’s early work) or those works that make use of narrative devices to evoke the mythological (as in the large scale space operas of Iain M. Banks or Alastair Reynolds). I very purposefully invented mythic stucture within which I could cram all of the cool things I always wanted to see in sff books but hadn’t.
And my conceit — the elevator pitch-style statement that tied it all together?
“Space opera… Without the technology.”
PW: What is your writing process like? How did your aforementioned time at Stonecoast (I note that Elizabeth Hand has blurbed your book!) mold
you as a writer?
ZJ: I don’t really have a writing process. It may be unpopular to admit such a thing, and Lord knows it may not inspire confidence, but the simple fact is that I write very, very rarely. In truth, other than some editing I haven’t written any new fiction in a year or so. I spend the bulk of my day wishing I felt compelled (motivated, inspired, etc.) enough to sit my ass in the chair and do the hard work.
All that time worrying over something I don’t do: it’s the most ridiculous sort of madness. And honestly, it’s my whole day. It’s safe to say that I’m not addicted to writing. I love having done it — it makes me happier than any other thing in my life — and yet I don’t do it. Isn’t that moronic?
And yet it’s the state of many, many authors. I wish such women and men would speak up up more often. It would go a long way to understanding what the writer experience is, in toto. It would do much to combat the execrable, one-note privilege of the many writers who say that “writers are born, not made,” and “if you’re not enjoying it, you shouldn’t be writing.” As a group, we writers do an awful lot of talking about depression, but there’s precious little discussion about the ways it manifests.
I struggle with writing; just the thought of it. And then I struggle every time I sit down. It’s never been easy, and it isn’t getting any easier with time. And yet I do it (though rarey) because I think it’ll be worth it in the long run. I have no other dreams but to write and to be read. (Well, and to have a sixpack.)
Anyway, sorry to go off like that. I don’t mean to come across all self-righteously emo; it’s just that we place so much emphasis on the process, on productivity, and that’s only part of the act of writing. It could be a convenient lie I tell myself, but I do consider even the time I appear to waste — and to punish myself for as if I’ve wasted — as valuable. It contributes to my writing, definitely.
As to Stonecoast: I’d live in that program if I could. I’d grow old at the residencies. Everybody’d get so, so sick of seeing me. The two years I spent getting my MFA were, in a word, transformative. I wouldn’t have sold stories to ASIMOV’S or written NO RETURN anywhere else, because I didn’t have the drive on my own. i needed help. Thanks to Jim Kelly, I actually revise — and somewhat enjoy the process — now. Thanks to David Durham, I do the hard work of adding scenes that need to be in my stories. And Liz Hand… Ah, Liz. She’s one of the coolest people I’ve ever met. And by “cool,” I mean every ounce of the word. She was the first reader of NO RETURN. Her enthusiasm for the project carried me through some very dark moments wherein I very nearly quit.
And then there were the students. It’s… Well, I want to cry when I think about How greatly I enjoyed my time among them. Some of them, but very few, were there because they wanted to have viable (i.e. lucrative) careers, but most of them were there because they wanted nothing so much as to be read by an interested party, to begin an exchange with the reader. They loved the written word, and were rarely shy about the fact. I learned from them that it is a virtue to seek the thing you love. No, it’s even more than a virtue: it is necessary to seek the thing you love if you want to be happy and improve the world.
PW: So what does make you happy when you aren’t writing? What’s your bliss?
ZJ: What is my bliss? This, honestly!
And I don’t say that to be a suck up; I love communicating with people — about anything, really, but especially about reading and writing. I like talking about books far more than I like writing. In fact, creating an opportunity to talk with others (in person or online) is 90% of why I write fiction in the first place.
Of course, there’s something blatantly self-serving in this, as I’m very interested in what people think of what I’ve done: I won’t deny I’m seeking that kind of validation. At the same time, I’d like to think my desire to hear from others reveals something other than complete self-absorption.
It’s kind of funny that we’re discussing this right now. I literally just got off the phone with a good friend who said, “I’ve never seen you so alive as when in the middle of a conversation.” What’s sad is that for many years I didn’t admit this fact and let myself get distracted with other pursuits. Ultimately, however, it has worked out in my favor: I know buying stuff is no path to lasting happiness.
And other than interacting with people? Goodness, I don’t know if there’s anything else that I can say really makes me happy. Even the music I enjoy listening to — and I do enjoy listening to a lot of music — is enjoyed best when shared with others.
PW: With No Return coming out soon, where can readers find out more about you and your work?
ZJ: They can visit zacharyjernigan.com to find out far, far more about me than they’d like. They can read some of my short stories and find out where some of my other short stories are. There’s even information about how they can get a surprise from me in the mail! (I know that sounds kind of ominous, but I promise it isn’t.) I’m also on Facebook and Goodreads. My Twitter handle is @jerniganzachary.
And to you, Paul: thanks for having me on Skiffy and Fanty! I enjoyed answering these questions immensely.