New Author Spotlight: Joanne Rixon
What drew you to writing stories that move across genres? Is this a new direction for your writing?
Let me answer this question with a story:
About five years ago, I was talking with my doctor, post-surgery, about whether I was going to need follow-up chemo treatments for my melanoma. The attending nurse cocked her head, leaned in, and asked in a hushed voice, “Is that why you shaved your head? You assumed you’d need chemo?”
I should mention that I’d shaved my head. I’d moved with my first serious girlfriend to our city’s gay neighborhood, close to downtown, and could barely afford the rent, let alone a fancy haircut. I knew I wanted to look queer, though, so I shaved all my hair off in our tiny apartment bathroom.
Up until the nurse asked me that, it had never occurred to me that people might assume that I, a female-presenting person with a shaved head, was ill instead of poor and queer. So the moral of the story is, I don’t often know what genre I exist in to begin with, and have certainly never managed to express a single clear genre in my writing or anywhere else.
The theme for this issue is Novelette. Did you write it for the theme, or was it something that you’d already completed that seemed to fit?
My earliest draft of this story is from November 2013, but the draft that I submitted to Crossed Genres was a revision that I did specifically for this theme. Earlier drafts were shorter, less well developed, and had a significantly darker ending.
I never thought to marry my thoughts about mass extinction to my thoughts about terminal illness, but now, having read your story, I can’t divorce them. What gave you the idea to bridge these orders-of-magnitude-distant tragedies?
I was proximally inspired by a few lines from a poem I heard on the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, episode #20, “Poetry Week.” The poem was contributed by Katherine Ciel, and the lines in question are: “Many find it difficult to breathe/ without the atmosphere/ but we knew how./ We just stopped breathing.” I heard the episode while at the gym, and was immediately struck by how obvious it was that without an atmosphere the only people left would be those who used to be human but who weren’t any longer. When I came home I immediately wrote the first choppy draft of this story.
Some experiences that I’ve had with illness also contributed, including the melanoma from several years ago (Stage 1, totally cured, no condolences necessary thanks) but also the longer, more mystifying illnesses I’ve had that seemed to come out of nowhere and lingered inexplicably. I’ve been sick kind of a lot, my whole adult life actually. In this story, Marissa got melanoma because I was familiar with the symptoms and treatment of melanoma; the world ended in stages that no one could stop or explain because that’s been my experience with how bodies fail. Bodies are complex systems; I guess it seems natural to me that the planet, an even more complex system, would collapse in similar ways.
New technologies are clunky, and often require multiple upgrades to allow them to work as planned. Those problems are certainly magnified when release dates are literal deadlines, and the code is as organic and complex as a person’s mind. Did you set out to write neural uploading as a metaphor for the transformative process of dying? Or was that an emergent quality of writing the experience from the main character’s point of view?
Yes and no. There’s a part early on in the story where Marissa looks at the surgical site where her tumor was removed and tries to wrap her mind around the idea that the thing killing her is part of her own body, not an outside invader. Because she doesn’t believe in souls, she is her body – she is her cancer, her cancer is her. That’s a weird experience, and that’s what I was thinking about when I wrote the second half of the story: fallible bodies, but also the relationship between body and self. If the body is fallible, is the self also fallible? The two halves of the story mirror each other in that way, and that was definitely something conceptual that I had in mind from the beginning.
I’m not sure I’d commit to the idea that the neural uploading is a metaphor for the transformative process of dying, though. In a sense the bugginess and clunkiness of AI! Marissa is a reflection of the experience of dying, but I think it’s also a reflection of the experience of living. If we are our bodies – and bodies are just these collections of cells arranged in a particular order – than any change to the body is both a death and a transformation from one person to a new, different person. I think my experience with illness has made this a theme I’m interested in exploring, and transhumanist ideas were a natural fit for a story about it.
Plus, honestly – can you imagine a technology being developed that doesn’t have a version 1.0 that’s basically terrible? I can’t see it happening.
Tell us something about your future writing projects. Are you developing more stories? Do you have a novel in the works?
I do have a novel that I’ve been working on for over a year, but it’s nowhere near finished – I have an outline and a few chapters written, but I’m also still doing research on desertification and Chinese bankruptcy law and coal miner’s lung and …other things. I actually consider myself more of a short story writer, which is maybe why it’s taking so long to get my novel up and running. I have a folder full of rejection letters I’ve received from short story publishers for other stories, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that you’ll see more short stories from me, someday, somewhere.
Where is your favorite writing place? Can you draw us a visual picture of the kind of space you create for yourself when you write?
I do a lot of writing at home, in my “office,” which is a corner of my room with a small armchair and a laptop desk. The armchair is second-hand – I bought it from Goodwill for $19. It’s teal, and covered in dog hair despite my best attempts to keep it vacuumed. The laptop desk is from Ikea, and piled with enough junk mail, receipts, scrap paper, To-Do lists and candy wrappers that my laptop barely fits sometimes. That’s when I know it’s time to clean, and it’s one of the reasons I don’t have a bigger desk. Like a vapor, I expand to fill the container I occupy.
What’s the question that you wish someone would ask, but no one ever has?
I love cheesy internet-quiz-style questions, so: “If you could choose any three literary people to have dinner with, who would they be?”
What’s the answer to that question?
I would want to have dinner with Saeed Jones, Clementine von Radics, and Sherman Alexie. I would be terribly outclassed, but I feel like I would learn a ton just by sitting and listening to any one of them talk. I draw a lot of my literary inspiration from poetry, and it would be kind of amazing to get to meet poets who have made me feel so many complex and interesting feelings. There are a ton of poets who I respect and admire, and it’s tough to narrow it down to only three, but Saeed Jones turns pain into the loveliest phrases, Clementine von Radics is so unapologetically modern and woman, and Sherman Alexie is just – I can’t even describe what his poetry has meant to me. I’m not religious; I don’t have saints, I have poets. So.
Is there anything I didn’t ask that you think is important or that readers might want to know?
Um. If you have light skin, wear sunscreen. Ask your doctor about any suspicious moles (that is, moles that are asymmetrical, have a ragged border or uneven color, and that noticeably change in size or shape), and don’t procrastinate, because melanoma sucks a lot once it’s metastasized but if you catch it early it’s really not that bad.