Will McIntosh was a closet sci-fi writer for much of his life. A professor of Psychology at Georgia Southern University, McIntosh wrote on his spare time for fun and passion. He was, however, unlike many other amateurs, driven to succeed.
When I began teaching creative writing, McIntosh introduced himself and sent me to some of his stories, and immediately I could tell that he was an extraordinary undiscovered talent.
Those stories I read so long ago ended up being the foundation for his debut novel, Soft Apocalypse, a riveting, fast-paced story about a group of close friends who try to survive economic and political disasters that eventually destroy life as we know it.
Even before McIntosh won his Hugo Award in 2010, I sensed that he was on the verge of success. It is rare to find such a congenial combination of humor, social criticism, futuristic vision, and imagination, all wrapped up in a tidy red ribbon of silky prose such as McIntosh delivers with each and every one of his novels.
I had a chance to converse with Will McIntosh about his most recent work, Love Minus Eighty, which was recently named on NPR’s Book Concierge as Great Reads of 2013. In this Interview I ask McIntosh about his writing process, his fertile imagination, his tastes in literature and the wacky ideas that lead to his eminently enjoyable novels.
LV: You’re a very prolific writer, and for a long time you’ve been juggling a demanding career in Psychology and a growing family. Do you have a method that keeps you productive?
WM: Before I resigned from my university position, I wrote during all of my free time. I did almost nothing except work, write, and take care of kids. Come to think of it, now that I’m only teaching one class as an adjunct, it’s no different, except I write more and teach less.
LV: Your books and stories often focus on romantic relationships in an apocalyptic world. Where does the inspiration for this theme come from?
WM: I have no earthly idea. The romantic relationship part probably springs from the fact that I was single during my first decade as a writer, so dating and romantic relationships was on my mind. The apocalyptic part is more of a mystery. I’m fascinated by decay and decline.
Some were better suited to being single than others. Nathan was certainly suited to being single (to Veronika’s eternal dismay). But she wasn’t. It always felt a little off—a little wrong—to come home to an empty apartment. It was as if her life was on hold, the real part yet to get under way.
LV: You are a professor in Psychology. Do you find any confluence between your scholarship in that field and your writing?
WM: Less than you’d guess. I was in experimental psychology, rather than clinical, and it’s a data-driven field, not particularly rich in insights related to individual people. It’s about averages.
Emotion is just the label you place on that arousal. If someone is pissing you off, that beating heart is ‘anger’; if you’re giving a speech, it’s ‘terror’; if you’re in a horse-drawn carriage with a beautiful woman, it’s ‘love.’
LV: Many of your novels and short stories deal with death and the afterlife. In Love Minus Eighty, society is desperate to avoid death and they would go to any length to keep themselves alive or to cling to the possibility of revival after a fatal accident. But your previous novel, Hitchers, flirts with the paranormal as the ghost of a popular cartoonist tries to possess the body of his grandson. Do you have any personal views about death and the afterlife that influence your work?
WM: I’m pretty much an atheist when it comes to the afterlife, so my personal views are more accurately reflected in the stark existential terror in Love Minus Eighty. I’d like to believe there’s more to come, but it’s just not in my DNA. Hopefully I’ll be pleasantly surprised.
“What’s more real: what you think you are, or what external, objective reality tells you you are?”
LV: The theme and setting of Love Minus Eighty as well as that of your other two novels, HItchers and Soft Apocalypse, is that of a dark, collapsing world where most struggle to maintain some semblance of normality. Yet you manage to keep a humorous and light-hearted tone in all three of your novels, especially in Love Minus Eighty. How do you do it?
WM: I’m not a particularly deliberate writer. Most of what ends up on the page results from me just blindly telling the story I want to tell. But in retrospect, I think the big issues I’m interested in are dark, awful things, but at the page-by-page level, I’m interested in the everyday lives of average people. In Love Minus Eighty, I wasn’t interested in the CEO of Cryomed, or the President, just average people trying to navigate the world they’re living in. Their lives are going to have joy in them, and love. They’re going to joke around with their friends, and angst over the details that are so important to us as individuals, but have no bearing on history. I think mixing the two levels is what creates an overall feeling of doom, mixed with lighter stuff.
LV: What were your influences when you first became interested in writing?
WM: I used to read a lot of both SF and lit fic, back before I had kids and my reading time vanished. I love Nick Hornby, Richard Russo, Kurt Vonnegut, Pat Conroy. On the SF side, Dan Simmons, Connie Willis, Robert Silverberg, Kim Stanley Robinson.
LV: Love Minus Eighty is both poetic and prophetic when it comes to projecting what will become of our social-media obsessed society. What kind of research do you do when you begin to write?
WM: Mostly I work from articles I’ve read recently in newspapers and magazines. What I’m already interested in turns up in my novels, so most of my research is already finished before I start working on the novel. Most of my actual research involves seeking specific information once I’ve begun writing. Love Minus Eighty was a relatively easy book in terms of research. I did far more work writing my next one, Defenders, because it involved a global war. I had to learn about tanks and guns and military strategy, and I knew close to nothing about any of that. Then for the novel I just finished, Faller, I had to consult with an astrophysicist!
LV: What is your personal philosophy about the future of humanity?
WM: We’re doomed. No, I’m partially joking. I think we’re in for some very hard times. I believe in science, and if most of the world’s climate scientists believe we’re heading off a cliff, I’m inclined to believe them. That being said, I’m even more afraid of the calamities we can’t see coming. Too much advanced technology combined with too many fools in charge.
“So you’re saying people break their backs, some working two jobs, so they can afford a hundred and fifty thousand a year in insurance, all to cope with the existential terror of nonexistence.”
LV: Any guilty pleasures in your reading?
WM: When I’m reading something for pure entertainment purposes, I often gravitate toward books about young love. Dash and Lilly’s Book of Dares, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Waiting for Alaska. I’m also a huge Stephen King fan, although I don’t feel as guilty about that.