Jeff Hirsch is the author of the nail-biting new novel The Eleventh Plague, which you can start reading for a limited time here on Figment. After the devastating one-two punch of a war and a plague, America has become a rough, dangerous place—and lost two-thirds of its population. Why are we all so crazy for post-apocalyptic, dystopic fiction these days? And is there a problem with that? Below, Jeff weighs in on this and other weighty matters, just for us Figs.
Dystopias are all the rage right now. What would you say to people who think that dystopian literature has a bad influence on teenagers?
A lot of times adults are scared of darkness in teenagers. That’s understandable; sometimes that darkness can take bad turns. But I think it’s important to understand that an interest in dark books or dark movies or dark music doesn’t necessarily mean that a kid is troubled or disturbed. I ate that stuff up as a teen and it was about nothing more than normal curiosity about all corners of the world, especially ones that seem exotic and intense. Best bet I think is to know your kid, know what they’re reading, and talk about it.
What’s your favorite dystopian novel and why?
Wish I had a more original answer, but I gotta say The Hunger Games. What I love about it is how Collins managed to take an incredibly exciting thriller and bring a level of imagination, insight, and craft to it that’s really amazing. Solid characters, a moving and resonant story, perfectly crafted writing. What’s not to love?
Stephen, the protagonist of The Eleventh Plague, loses both his grandpa and his father within the space of a day and within the first 100 pages. How do you manage to write about grief without letting it take over the entire book?
That’s a great question, because you want to deal with grief and pain seriously but you can’t let it drag the book down into static wallowing. As a character, Stephen really helped that. He lives in a world where day-to-day survival is key. So while Kevin very keenly feels the pain, he’s been trained since childhood to keep moving forward, no matter what. He deals with his grief by doing, which makes sense for the character and keeps the novel moving at the same time.
After America is devastated by a war and a plague, Stephen travels to Settler’s Landing, the last populated town in the country. By the time he gets there, he’s never had friends, gone to school, or played baseball. Was there anything you missed out on in your childhood that you wish you could have done?
I spent a lot of time in the woods as a kid, just playing around really, but I wish I had developed the skills—hiking, climbing, camping, orienteering etc.—that would have helped me to extend that into adulthood.
On your blog, you ask whether movies are killing books. Would you ever turn The Eleventh Plague into a film, and if so, what would you be worried about?
Oh sure, I’d love to see a movie version of the book. The point I wanted to make on my blog wasn’t that we shouldn’t make books into movies. I don’t have a problem with that. What I’m concerned about is how the way stories are told in films has become so dominant that when people are writing books they often ape the structure and conventions of film rather than making a book that’s, well, book-like.
What we have to remember is that movies and books are good at doing different things, and if you’re writing a book it’s best to focus on what a book does well. To my mind that’s language; deep explorations of characters, relationships and ideas; and an expansive sense of time and place.
Not that writers don’t have things to learn from film, we do—we just need to remember that we’re writing novels, not screenplays.
If the world was ending and you were going into a bomb shelter, what five things would you bring?
Hmm, are we assuming there’s already food and basic amenities down there? If so then:
1) The wife
2) The two cats
4) The complete DVD series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
So, we hear that you know how to escape from a straitjacket. What would we have to do for you to teach us how?
Just hand me a straitjacket. Wanna learn how to eat fire too?