Author Q&A: Matthew Baker

Why Visit America

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Named by Variety as one of 10 storytellers to watch, Matthew Baker debuts in the UK with this short story collection, eight of which have been optioned for TV and film. The near future, the near ordinary and the near possible are his vantage points for a disturbing but humane travel guide to the US.

There are 13 stories here, one for each stripe in the US flag. Did you start with the structure or did it emerge after the stories, and what did it allow you to do?
The book began as a concept: 13 parallel-universe stories that would span all 50 states of the nation, and that together would create a composite portrait of the real United States – a Through The Looking-Glass reflection of who we are as a country. So, although the stories are speculative, I was specifically looking for set-ups that would give me a way to write about the social and political systems of the real world. Through the book, I wanted to examine the fundamental assumptions underlying the structures of American society.

And for the stories themselves, do you tend to start with a concept, a character or a plot, or does it vary?
Like the book, each story began with a concept. From there, all of the other narrative elements – character, plot, setting, perspective, voice – were designed to complement that central premise. For instance, the story Life Sentence began as this note in my notebook: “A society where instead of being imprisoned, criminals have their memories wiped, for minor crimes, a recent year or two, for major crimes your entire life, and then have to begin again…”

One of your characters has to make up new words, and one of those represents sexual desire for something that doesn’t exist. Can fiction ever keep pace with the changing human experience?
Realist fiction does have to try to keep pace. But speculative fiction is often what sets the pace – not just in imagining possible futures for us, in imagining alternative ways of being, but in imagining a new vocabulary for us to talk about previously inexpressible experiences.

Without giving too much away, people engage in some fairly extreme and violent transformations of life in stories such as Rites and The Transition. Are they agents of them or do they have them done to them?
I think that different readers might come away from those stories with different answers to that question, to be honest. And then – maybe this is a spoiler, but I’ll be as vague as possible – of course there’s the final story in the collection, which is ultimately meant to invert the reader’s understanding of every transformation in the book. In that sense, Why Visit America is a book in which every question has at least two true answers.

Why write speculative fiction when the world is already so weird?
In any human society, having a constructive conversation about social or political issues can be difficult, and the United States today is a country so radically polarised that at times the country seems to be on the verge of a civil war. If you try to have a conversation with somebody about a topic like gender or immigration, immediately these walls come up, these psychological barriers as thick as brick. It’s become impossible to talk about anything important. There’s no way to do it – unless you disguise what you want to talk about, cloak the topic in a seemingly harmless form. I turned to speculative fiction in hopes of giving readers a space to genuinely grapple with the ideas behind these issues and to genuinely access the emotions involved.

How has Covid-19 affected your working day and how do you think it will inform your writing?
I’ve always worked from home, so the pandemic hasn’t affected my process. I’m still doing my usual routine: wake up, make a pot of tea, throw on some headphones, and then write until the sun goes down. New York Times Magazine recently published an all-fiction special, The Decameron Project, devoted to stories set during the pandemic, so I did write a story about the pandemic for that, called Origin Story, which is available to read online. Otherwise, though, I haven’t felt interested in writing about the pandemic at all. Instead, I’ve felt drawn toward writing about the past. Simpler times, happier eras. The smell of the pine trees in the summer behind my childhood home.

Why visit America?
You could come for the Statue Of Liberty. You could come for the Golden Gate Bridge. You could come for the Grand Canyon. You could come for the barbecue or the key lime pie or the deep-dish pizza. But then again, America is a country currently ruled by an egomaniacal neofascist in the vein of Mussolini. It’s a country that responded to a global pandemic with pseudoscience and blame-gaming and outright denial, with a childish refusal to wear protective masks, and as a consequence is currently being ravaged by the disease. A country where there are more guns than people. A country where there are mass shootings daily. A country where police officers can murder innocent civilians without any fear of repercussion. A country so barbaric that the death penalty is legal. A country whose lakes and rivers have been polluted with toxic chemicals. A country whose restaurants serve mass-produced foods tainted with harmful ingredients. A country in which corporations are viewed as legal persons. A country in which the vast majority of citizens are paid unliveable wages by corporations whose shareholders own multiple homes. A country where mediocre health insurance costs as much as rent. A country where commonplace pharmaceutical drugs cost as much as rent. A country whose roads are crumbling and whose trains are decaying and whose airports blast pop music at max volume at every gate. A country where scientists are treated like cultists of some sinister religion and superficial celebrities are regarded as experts on any imaginable topic. A country plagued by roving gangs of anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, and flat-earth conspiracy theorists. A country forever haunted by the genocide of a native people. A country where even the water from the tap isn’t safe to drink. You should visit America, in other words, if you’re an adventurer at heart and have always wanted to travel to a true dystopia, just to find out whether or not you have what it would take to survive.

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