Novelist Paolo Bacigalupi brings The Drowned Cities to Tattered Cover and Boulder Bookstore
After racking up awards -- Nebula and Hugo honors for Best Novel -- for his debut novel The Windup Girl in 2009, Paulo Bacigalupi followed up with Ship Breaker, set in an equally dismal, dystopian future, and won another round of awards, including a National Book Award nomination and a Printz Award for Best Young Adult Novel. His latest -- The Drowned Cities, billed as a "companion" to Ship Breaker -- hits bookstore shelves today, and the Paonia-based writer will be reading from the book tonight at the Tattered Cover Highlands Ranch and tomorrow night at the Boulder Bookstore. We caught up with Bacigalupi for a far-ranging chat on the new book and what winds him up.
Westword: What was the inspiration to go back into the world you created for Ship Breaker, and what did you get out of going back to it?
My original intention when I wrote Ship Breaker was to write a series of books with Nailer as the main character, going through a series of adventures, and I actually did try to write a direct sequel to Ship Breaker. It didn't work for me; it was actually a fairly terrible book. And what I realized was that, for me at least, Nailer's journey was essentially a completed journey by the end of Ship Breaker, and he'd sort of done the things I needed him to do as a character. I found myself trying to force a sequel to occur for a sequel's sake, so I threw it all away and started really thinking about what it was that was important to me to be writing about. There was a single line from the original draft of that book that still resonated with me: Nailer and his compatriots had been sailing past this wrecked place of perpetual war called the Drowned Cities, and Nailer asks, 'How did the Drowned Cities get this way?" The captain of the ship says something like, "A nation as strong as this one doesn't just fall apart. It has to be deliberately destroyed.... The demagogues just whipped up the people and the people bit on their own tails, and they chewed and they chewed until there was nothing left but the snapping of teeth."
I'd been watching a lot of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, stuff like that, you know, paid performers who are making their money essentially by spewing hatred onto other Americans. So I was looking at that, and thinking about how deep our political schisms have become. I started really thinking a lot about where does a country go when we stop being able to speak to each other, when a nation stops being able to solve problems because its ideological differences become so deep that it just becomes dysfunctional. I'd also been watching things like the protests up at the Wisconsin capitol when the governor up there was doing the union-busting and everything was going to hell.
Today's science-fiction writers don't have to look very far to find perfectly dystopian models as inspiration.
Right? You saw this moment where there was no conversation, no compromise, there was only "We're going to ram one thing through" and the other side saying, "No, we're going to fight you with everything we have, tooth and nail" and that's where you start to see where democracy can fail. Democracy depends on the idea that different opinions come to the table in some sort of genuine way, and that no longer occurs in the United States, really. So when I put on my science-fictional hat and start thinking, "Where does this lead us, what does this road look like and how far can this go on?" you sort of end up in a place like the Drowned Cities, in my mind. That was the starting point for building this story. The Drowned Cities are completely dysfunctional, and you see all these weird political schisms where nobody even knows why they're fighting each other, but by God, we're going to kill 'em.
How different is the finished book from the book you had in mind when you began writing it?
Very. Once you have all your characters on the page, you end up telling different stories than you intended to tell, and this book became much more of an exploration of war and violence than I set out to write. But the questions I wanted to address going in are all in there: When is dialogue worthwhile? When is force worthwhile? Those were interesting questions for me.
Do you feel like the success of Ship Breaker and The Windup Girl has been liberating for you as a writer, freeing you up to do want you want to do, or do you feel pressure from that success?
Initially I felt a lot of pressure, and I think that's what made the original sequel-driven version of this book so very, very bad. The only way I can describe it is when somebody keeps telling you, "This book is amazing," you sort of have this pleasing instinct to say "Oh, let me make you happy again, let me do that trick again." The problem with that is very much like the problem you have as a new writer when you set out to emulate your favorite writers: If I sit down and try to write like William Gibson or Cormac McCarthy, it's going to be this weird, sad pale shadow of these other people's writing. And you almost end up with the same sort of thing when you try to ape yourself: Here I was trying to be the writer and the person I was when I wrote Ship Breaker and I can't do that because I'm not the same writer and the same person anymore. Realizing that I was, in this sad sort of way, trying to copycat a previous version of my own writing, there was this shock moment where I realized, "This is not going to work, no matter what. No wonder it's terrible! You should stop trying to do this."