By Paul Goat Allen
Amidst the backdrop of a pandemic killing millions of people worldwide and the planet in the death throes of environmental collapse, debut novelist Elly Bangs has released a post-apocalyptic thriller that is simultaneously terrifying and hopeful. Set on a future Earth where humankind is largely relegated to existing in underwater cities, the storyline revolves around a woman who is so much more than what she appears—with transcendent wisdom that could potentially save her deeply flawed race from annihilation. BlueInk caught up with Elly just weeks before her highly acclaimed debut novel Unity was officially released and asked her about writing, publishing, and every novelist’s ultimate goal—to find your people.
BIR: Elly, I’ve been a genre fiction book critic for 25 years—and one of my favorite categories is apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction. I’ve studied this category going back to the mid-1950’s both from a commercial and cultural perspective, and I teach the evolution of this category in my Genre Fiction Trends class at Seton Hill University. So, with that as background, your debut novel Unity blew me away—like a brass knuckle punch to the skull. I described it as a generation-defining read, comparable to On the Beach (1957), Lucifer’s Hammer (1977), and The Road (2006). When you began writing Unity—15 years before it was published, if I recall correctly—what was that initial seed of inspiration?
EB: I’m deeply honored by your praise, Paul. The initial seed was pretty humble. I was talking philosophy with a dear friend, and she asked me whether I thought it was possible for two people to ever truly communicate—because whenever we try to share a thought (or concept, or feeling, or experience, or anything) with someone, we have to convert it into some kind of language, and then hope the other person converts that language back into a thought that’s anything like the original. There’s so much loss and noise at every step of the process. It was a fairly brutal revelation to me at the time. I really needed there to be such a thing as a perfect understanding— not only because I was a high school kid with a lot of big feelings, but because (between climate change and the dystopian tendencies of the Bush years) it already felt like the collapse of industrial civilization was increasingly likely to happen within my lifetime, and no one was communicating about it. Some really important understandings were not widely shared. So what would it really be like if two people could directly share the same exact thought?
BIR: Okay, so perfect segue. I’ve read numerous interviews with you and, rightfully so, you’ve talked about the concept of collective consciousness and the role it plays in your novel—but I wanted to take that one step further. A quote from Unity really resonated with me when I first read it: “I am young and old, poor and rich, black and brown and white, and I am men and women and a dozen other genders. I’m a native speaker of fifty tongues. I’m from everywhere.”
I’m everyone, from everywhere. Isn’t that the big thematic takeaway here? That true understanding, empathy, and compassion can save humankind and elevate us collectively as a people?
EB: When I hear people talk about their ‘faith in humanity,’ it’s usually in the context of having lost it. Twitter can feed us a thousand good reasons per hour to lose it. All my life I’ve wanted to know what a serious faith in humanity might look like, and I mean the brutal, deeply-examined, ‘fear and trembling’ kind of faith. I want to have faith in humankind the way one would in a deity: not just to believe that any one such thing as humankind actually exists in the first place (which is hard enough, really), but to know all our hideous flaws and crimes deeply, to let go of any uncomplicated notion of inherent goodness, and yet still have faith that the human race is a beautiful, powerful, worthwhile thing that we should want to be part of; something capable of solving its own problems; a siblinghood. So the character that quote comes from is partly my attempt to imagine that faith embodied; humankind as a person. Flawed and tortured, but extremely powerful.
“Listen, are we helpless? Are we doomed to do it again and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall? Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Carthage, Rome, the Empires of Charlemagne and the Turk: Ground to dust and plowed with salt. Spain, France, Britain, America—burned into the oblivion of the centuries. And again and again and again. Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork, helpless to halt its swing? This time, it will swing us clean to oblivion.”
Isn’t right now—with willful ignorance and fear mongering rising up all around the globe once again—the perfect time for people to read Unity?
EB: That’s a damn powerful quote, and you’re right: it feels like it could’ve been written this morning. This is a terrifying moment to be living through. Even if you don’t worry about global thermonuclear war anymore (which I personally still do, very much), the world as we know it is ending by a half-dozen other means all at once. And there are a lot of forces driving the spread of fascism and science denialism right now, but I think a big one is that everyone can feel, in their guts, the world ending, and on the whole we’re not coping well. A lot of folks crave something to tell them it’s not really ending, or that it’s okay that it’s ending because they have a white supremacist birthright to whatever’s left afterward, or that their special insider knowledge of the global baby-eating conspiracy will protect them from harm; really any narrative, no matter how destructive or plainly bizarre, that promises that everything is deceptively simple and fundamentally under control. I think culture in general, and stories in particular, have a crucial job to do in helping us cope in a better way than that. A good story can shore up our will to live through these times, face our apocalyptic problems for what they are, and imagine a future on the other side of them. And on that note, it’s important to consider that many of the empires on that list really needed to end. I have to believe something better is possible on the other side of the current empire.
BIR: We have a lot of writers and aspiring writers who read this blog. How difficult (or relatively easy) was your road to getting published? Any advice?
EB: My advice is basically the same as everyone’s: the road to publication is paved with hundreds of form rejections. I learned that the hard way in the short story market, and I spent years building a critical mass of short story sales to help me springboard into novels. Then again, sometimes you get really lucky. The night after I finished the first draft of Unity, I had a dream that told me which agent to query; I woke up the next day and wrote him my very first query letter, and he ended up becoming my agent. The best any of us can do is cultivate an almost inhuman tenacity and keep putting our work out there.
BIR: Agreed. The publishing industry is brutal. There’s so much noise out there—it’s extremely difficult to get your release noticed. You’ve done numerous interviews and are doing some virtual events with other authors through bookstores like Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego and Argo Bookshop in Montreal. I’ve interviewed many writers about their thoughts on publicizing and promoting their work and it seems to come down to finding your people. Two questions here: How important is getting out there and interacting with your readership, even if it is virtual, to find your people? And who do you think your people are? In other words, in what audiences do you think Unity is going to resonate with the strongest?
EB: I’m no social media genius, but I do think every little bit of human presence helps. This seems to be a moment in which it pays for an author to also be a character (ideally a likable one) in the great collaborative absurdist play that is the interminable scroll, so I strive to put out at least one original shitpost per day. Beyond that I’m grateful for Tachyon’s excellent marketing folks who’ve arranged these fabulous launch events and rounded up such amazing blurbs and reviews. As for who my people and my audience are, I think they’re everyone who has a hard time seeing any kind of future, but who won’t stop trying. Nearly everyone I know is some flavor of anxious, depressed, or at the very least wrestling with some serious existential despair. They’ve got secondary trauma from watching the world burn on TV and regular trauma from breathing the smoke, both metaphorically and literally. They know capitalism and the political status quo can’t and won’t solve any of our potentially extinction-level problems, and they’re not having an easy time holding their daily lives together under the shadow of that, but they believe in each other and work to find things worth living and fighting for. The worse things get, the more people like that there are. For what it’s worth, I want to give them something good to read.
BIR: I want to stay with the topic of finding your people since that’s ultimately monumentally significant when it comes to whether a release is a bestseller or a commercial flop—the book, any book, somehow, has to find its way into the hands of the right readers—be it through word-of-mouth, reviews, book signings, giveaways, etc. When it comes to indie writers, this is a huge deal. From your experience, what advice would you give writers who are self-publishing but have very little time or money for promotion?
EB: I’m pretty new at this—but in the grand scheme, I think the big one is to be as prolific as you reasonably can be. That does take a lot of time (both in hours per day, and year after year), and it’s not compatible with all writing styles or all lifestyles—but when you put new stuff out there regularly, you keep your name familiar. Publishing short stories and flash fiction in pro magazines lets a lot of new readers sample your style without a huge initial investment of time or attention, and that helps you build a readership that’ll look forward to your next thing, keep interest in your earlier works alive, and hopefully spread the word. Me, I try to get a few short stories per year published if I can. It’s hard work and comes with lots of rejection, but it also helps keep me sane when I’m toiling away on novels.
As for promoting, I tend to think the less organic it is, the thinner its likely impact. Reviews and events are wonderful, but every novel I can remember reading since I got out of high school English reached me via word-of-mouth from someone with no vested interest—whether that was a friend, or a panelist at a con, or someone squeeing about it on Twitter. Our minds are callused against anything that looks like an advertisement, and everybody’s already sitting on a to-be-read pile a mile tall. Maybe the best we can do is tell stories worth talking about—and when people do talk, appreciate them for it and amplify their voices. Treat their attention as a precious resource they’re choosing to share with you and reward them with your own.
BIR: Last question for you. I tell people that Unity is one of those rare books that changes those who read it. Readers will look at themselves, and the world, differently. This is obviously a complex storyline with many Big ideas but if you were to condense the reading experience down to one revelation, one morsel of enlightenment, what would you want readers, particularly younger readers, to take away from this story?
EB: I think it would be that the human race is a hive mind, in a way. All our cultures, stories, and ideas are like thoughts in a planet-wide brain, and right now that brain is trying to decide how to solve the great problems of our time. To be a person is to be one cell in that brain. It can be terrifying to be so small, and so subject to the whims of the whole—especially when you’re different in some major way from all the neurons around you—but that’s exactly why it’s so important to hold onto, and cherish, and share, the things that seem to set you apart. You might be holding a thought or a bit of sense data that no other neuron is holding in quite the same way, and that makes you part of humankind’s imagination and its capacity to evolve and learn from its mistakes. It needs every bit of that perspective it can possibly get.
BIR: I love that answer. Thanks so much for your time, Elly, and best of luck with Unity!
Paul Goat Allen has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with BarnesandNoble.com, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and more. He also teaches in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program.