Jack Skillingstead has produced a novel that is both thought-provoking and hugely entertaining. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about this fantastic book.
For those yet to read the book, could you give a brief outline of what ‘Life on the Preservation’ is about?
The city of Seattle is caught in an endless one-day time loop. A graffiti writer and painter named Ian Palmer periodically wakes up to the new reality but his efforts to sort it out are thwarted by the Curator, an alien presence inhabiting and, apparently, controlling the loop. Meanwhile, outside of Seattle, the world lies in apocalyptic ruin. A teenage girl named Kylie, one of only a handful of survivors, manages to penetrate the dome covering Seattle. When she and Ian find each other they eventually figure out the mystery. The novel is about alien intervention, outsider mindsets, the possibility that we make the worlds we live in, and sex. Honestly, it’s hard for me to reduce the book to a paragraph, but this is the gist of it.
You’ve managed to pack a huge amount of ideas into one novel – a post-apocalypse adventure, zombie automatons, an alien invasion as well as questions of an afterlife along with a deeply heartfelt love story – how did all this coalesce in your mind to form the novel?
LOTP began as a short story I wrote for Asimov’s and published back in 2006. This original version was much more straight forward than what the novel eventually became. I first began to think of doing an expanded version when a famous writer verbally critiqued the story for me at the Nebula Awards in Tempe, Arizona. He seemed to think the background was inadequately filled in. I didn’t agree, at least not in terms of the short story, but it started me thinking. In the Asimov’s story all the action takes place on the Seattle Preservation. Now I began asking myself questions about the world outside the dome. It occurred to me I could write a big science fiction adventure novel about alien invasion and the plucky survivors who reclaim their planet. I must have been out of my mind, because that is exactly the kind of book I would have little-to-no interest in writing. Nevertheless, I tried for about two years to make that concept work, gulled by visions of popular success. Finally, I gave up on that angle and surrendered to what the book really wanted to be, simply showing up at the keyboard every day to discover what came next. This approach allowed things to flow. Basically, I stopped trying so much and my unconscious began to deliver interesting stuff like the rejected androids that wander the blasted lands outside the dome — not zombies, but doomed and immortal simulacrums that had started the process of becoming self-aware. As for the love story between Ian and Kylie, that was the through line that was present from the very beginning, especially in the short story.
Your book has some similar mechanics as the movie ‘Groundhog Day’ – the notion of one day constantly revisited – which has become a cult classic, especially amongst Buddhists. Whilst very different to the movie, your novel considers the same idea of mistakes and learning to make the perfect day – what was the thinking behind your approach?
I’ve always been fascinated with the idea that the world isn’t what we think it is, that there is something going on behind the scenes. This is fertile ground for the imagination and mental illness — that perfect intersection where genius meets the guy in the straight jacket. What I liked about Groundhog Day was the dark stretch, where Bill Murray repeatedly tries to kill himself. He was desperate to get out. In real life, if you want to call it that, I often have the sense of being trapped in a day that repeats with only minor variations. I doubt I’m alone in this feeling, but if I am then please issue me my straight jacket. Is all the world a stage, or are we nothing more than bags of self-deceiving brain chemicals? And can we chose which to believe? Does the truth matter, or just the belief? To reference another movie, think of John Murdock in Dark City. Murdock discovers he can remake his world with the evolutionary power of “tuning.” In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray transforms his relationship to the world, and so transforms the world itself.
The book’s main characters are all quite damaged in their own ways and the work deals with loss, isolation and death in an interesting way by suggesting that love can overcome all – could you explain a little about your intention here?
I don’t know if love can overcome all that stuff, but love is probably our most potent defence against fear. Damaged people tend to isolate themselves. It’s an emotional act of self-defence. There’s a great Stephen King story called, “All You Love Will Be Carried Away.” His character is a travelling salesman in the Midwest, trying to decide whether to kill himself in his crappy Motel 6 room. So, the damaged and isolated person’s response is: Don’t love anything, because if you do it will just be carried away. Isolated people develop crooked interior lives. They may believe they are seeing the truth of the world, but they probably aren’t. In the book, Father Jim’s ugly, guilt-twisted response to his sexual urges and Ian’s desperate isolation are counter pointed by his innocent love, and love-making, with Kylie. Does love overcome all? Probably not, but without love we are something less than human.
One of the novel’s characters is coloured by elements such as graffiti, his motorbike and Seattle – is there another type of love affair going on here?
Ian’s love affair with outlaw art is his way of not inhabiting any meaningful human relationships — those problematical relationships that experience has taught him will only be carried away and leave him broken-hearted. But it’s a fallacious idea that art can save you. The motorcycle belonged to Ian’s estranged father. While the father was building the thing in garage it was like a rival. Ian’s relationship to the bike is complicated. As far as Seattle goes, what’s not to love? I should note that Ian’s neighbourhood landscape differs from the current reality. The building Ian lives in no longer exists, nor does Vivace’s — at least the one that Ian visits in the novel. Both have been supplanted by light rail construction, which is rapidly uglifying Capital Hill.
You’ve created an amazing cast of characters but you’ve also dealt with them as forms of consciousness (or spirits), able to cross time, reincarnate themselves and inhabit new life forms as themselves – could you explain your ideas on this a little more?
You could almost call the book “Who Am I And Does It Matter?” It wasn’t a conscious choice to explore this question, yet it’s all through the book. In subsequent, finer-grained drafts, I noticed this question recurring and deliberately worked it. My unconscious provided Ian’s “WHO” tag, but I more consciously decided how that would play out with the know WHO you are stencils, etc. In terms of identity, Charles Noble is the most interesting. As a human being he was a gay man from a small town, harassed and ostracized in all the usual ways until he took control of his life, changed his name, and moved to Seattle. The name he chooses — the identity — is that of a minor character in some novel. After he dies, the Curator begins using Noble’s body. The Curator was human-like in his original presentation. Then the Cloud “evolved” his entire race. The curator’s final physical form was that of a giant jellyfish thing, perfectly adaptable to space. After that, his transphysical evolution completed itself. When he begins using Noble’s body he is like a puppet master manipulating strings. But gradually he becomes more and more a part of the Charles Noble personality matrix. Here we have, let’s see, seven fairly distinct identities inhabiting the one character.
With such a complex and layered novel, could you reveal a bit about your writing process – did you have to plot and plan extensively or was the process more organic in some ways?
I covered this a bit in one of your previous questions, I think. When I first decided to expand the short story to novel length I did try to plan. But my plans came to nothing, which is what usually happens. At the time I was worried about writing a popular novel and having that kind of success. I’d been publishing professionally for a few years and had plenty of writer friends who were more successful than I was, and it had started to bother me. Also, the story seemed to lend itself naturally to a Big Adventure kind of structure. After two years of hand-banging labour on my so-called adventure novel, I knew that thing was dead-on-arrival. At that point I considered giving up. Instead, I started over from scratch, this time abandoning anything resembling a plan. Every day I simply sat down and wrote what happened next. When I got to the end I went back and rewrote. So it was another two years before I managed to find the novel in my unconscious and then fix it with my conscious editor (and the help of my wife and friends, who read various versions).
It’s fascinating how you managed to sketch in some huge concepts without getting caught up in the idea – how did you manage the details whilst keeping the story moving so brilliantly?
Though I am, at least nominally, a science fiction writer, the kind of Big Idea story that is a staple of our field holds only marginal interest for me. This is funny, since LOTP and my previous novel are both full of big ideas. But those ideas are in the background. The Cloud is like God. You can’t really write about it directly. You can only explore it’s effect on the hearts and minds of your characters. I remember reading an Asimov novel in which there were no human characters. For me it was like dragging my attention through wet cement. Big Ideas are abstract, but human characters can transform the abstract to the personal. For me, smaller is bigger.
Finally, what is next for Jack Skillingstead?
Last year I wrote a reincarnation fantasy set in Las Vegas. It’s a YA, and my agent is currently shopping it around. Now I’m onto a new book, a kind of science fiction thriller based on my Sturgeon-nominated short story, “Dead Worlds.” In December I have a gig teaching a writing workshop on a cruise ship to the Bahamas. My wife and I did this last year and it was a blast.