An Interview with Noah Chinn by Derek Newman-Stille
Noah Chinn is the author of Bleeding Heart Yard (about werewolves, witches, and
romantic curses) and Trooper # 4 (a post-apocalyptic adventure). Noah Chinn tends to play with ideas of comedy and humour while dealing with issues of disaster and destruction… and he brings some of that humour to this interview. I hope you enjoy laughing in the apocalypse with Noah Chinn as much as I did. If you have not already read my review of Bleeding Heart Yard, you can check it out at http://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/17/bewitched-beloved-and-between-worlds/
Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?
Noah Chinn: Hmmm… I could just give you a boring standard mini bio, or I could give you some interesting highlights that make me sound like a rock star. What to do, what to do? Yeah, let’s go with the latter.
I’ve bicycled across Canada and eight other countries (including Japan, England, France and Germany). I’ve hiked a few mountains, including Fuji and Snowden, as well as a few in B.C. I lived in Japan for three years teaching English, and England for five years running a bookstore. I proposed to my wife on the stage of the Lord of the Rings musical (with an Elvish ring no less). I had a long running comic strip online and in print, and now have two novels published with a third on the way. I got caught up in the middle of a riot once. Sometimes I babysit a ferret.
Spec Can: Your story Trooper # 4 is a post-apocalyptic narrative. What got you interested in writing about apocalyptic themes?
Noah Chinn: I wonder if the appeal of post-apocalypse is an urban-centric phenomenon. How many people raised on prairie farms are fans of Mad Max? Some of us daydream about how we could survive in such a world, while others just like being taken out of their comfort zone. It’s not just the threat of death, after all. It’s all the things you take for granted being taken away.
They also say that there are only three types of stories: man versus nature, man versus man, man versus himself. Facing a post apocalypse usually means dealing with all three.
But really my attraction to those stories is the personal challenge. The idea that if you keep your wits about you and learn the rules, you can adapt and survive any imagined hell. The real question is, do you keep your humanity in the process?
Spec Can: People often suggest that those who read apocalyptic narratives are negative in some way. What do you think are some of the characteristics of those who read and write apocalyptic narratives?
Noah Chinn: I’m not sure people who read apocalyptic narratives are necessarily negative. Granted there are a lot of stories where the prospect is bleak once the story ends. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – holy hell. Great book, but you don’t exactly expect the human race to survive long afterwards. We’re pretty much doomed.
But sometimes the stories are about overcoming, surviving, and the possibility of rebuilding. And sometimes it’s about the world changing. I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson, is a good example. Homo Sapiens might be at an end, but we’ve also become something else.
And then there’s World War Z by Max Brooks, probably my favorite of the Zombie genre. In that case it’s not only about the end of the world, but fighting to take the world back, and dealing with the new reality in a rational way. In that sense it’s quite positive.
Spec Can: What is the apocalyptic theme that fascinates you most and what is so interesting and exciting about it?
Noah Chinn: I think some people (especially in film) mistake fatalism and hopelessness with being exciting. To me it sucks the tension away.
Where’s the fun in being thrown into a hell you CAN’T possibly survive or fight back against? Where the enemy is unstoppable and invincible? That was always my problem with the War of the Worlds movies and films like Independence Day – they always had the aliens utterly invincible (baring a convenient fluke that allows us to learn more about them) until the germs get to them (or in Independence Day, a virus, heh). If the story was aboutescaping, that could work, but it’s not.
What made HG Wells’ novel superior, in my opinion, was that the Martians were vastly superior to us, but NOT invincible. The scene where the HMS Thunder Child destroys two Tripods makes you realize the Martians aren’t invulnerable, but we are still so vastly outmatched that the end result is still the same.
That tiny bit of hope adds to the hopelessness of the situation, which has far more tension than constant failure. And it keeps the reader thinking about “but what if they try this” instead of just giving up and waiting for the characters to keep running away. I think the movie Aliens succeeds in a similar way. Sure, you can shoot them, but they can be anywhere, they’re smart, and there’s always more of them.
So to me what fascinates me most is trying to find the solution to the problem – whether it’s the survival of the species or just the main character. If it’s just about counting down the minutes till you kiss your ass goodbye and praying for a deus ex machina type miracle, then it’s just not as interesting to me.
Spec Can: How can apocalyptic themed novels raise social awareness about current social issues? What can readers learn by reading apocalyptic narratives?
Noah Chinn: It depends on who is handling it and what kind of story they’re trying to tell. Some stories are big into metaphors and symbolism, and sometimes have the fall of civilization tied in with various social elements. Sometimes a story has the survivors represent different facets of humanity, and the story is a microcosm of society.
To bring up some of the books mentioned earlier, World War Z does a very good job of dealing with a lot of contemporary social, cultural, political, medical and even military ideas to explain not only how the end comes about, but how different countries cope with what’s next. But it’s not doing it through symbolism.
I Am Legend essentially shows how the last man on earth ends up becoming the boogeyman of the next civilization. In many ways the story reflects the nature of revolutions in the real world, and how the old regimes are vilified.
My own take on it in Trooper #4 is of a far more personal and internalized nature. I’d rather not say more than that. Spoilers, y’know.
Spec Can: What role does curiosity play in creating a better future?
Noah Chinn: Curiosity is one of the reasons we are who we are. We ask ourselves questions and we try to find answers. Sometimes we make things better, sometimes we make things worse – but even when we make things worse that same curiosity gives us the capacity to try and fix it.
The other reason we are who we are, I believe, is storytelling because we’re the only species that can imagine a different reality than what we’re in, and not only communicate it, but get others interested in it as well. And at some point someone might try to make it happen. Nobody would have bothered going to the moon if nobody was curious about it, or told stories about how to get there or what we might find.
Spec Can: Trooper # 4 features a woman who has lost her memory. Why is memory loss such a popular topic in fiction at the moment? What fascinates us so much about losing one’s memory?
Noah Chinn: Is it? I must have forgotten that….
On the one hand it’s an easy gimmick. Few writers if any have their characters fleshed out before they start writing them. The process of writing is in part the process of finding out who your characters are. And if they have no memory then everything’s as much a surprise to them as it is to you. It also conveniently locks away information that the character might otherwise have that you don’t want them to know until a later time. But that’s me being half heartedly cynical about the writer’s stake in the game.
From the reader’s angle there is genuine curiosity about solving a puzzle. Memory loss on its own isn’t that interesting except from a scientific standpoint. But in a story the memory loss is almost always somehow connected to the story. Why they lost their memory might be central to the plot, or what they forgot is key to unlocking a mystery or saving the day. It also makes anyone and everyone involved in the story unreliable – especially the person who lost their memory.
Spec Can: Your novel Bleeding Heart Yard is partially about a man who discovers his “true love” but is cursed to be unable to communicate with her apart from swearing. Why are supernatural narratives such great places to explore ideas of love and relationships?
Noah Chinn: Probably because it gives the characters something unusual to overcome, and can be metaphors for something else entirely. Twilight is supposed to be about abstinence, for example. And I think most people can relate to the idea of putting your foot in your mouth when trying to talk to a boy/girl you like, so a curse like this lets you ramp up that effect in every possible way.
Spec Can: Why is the theme of the curse popular? How does it speak to modern readers?
Noah Chinn: A curse is something imposed on you, something out of your control. You can point a finger at who did it, but you can’t really do anything about it. I think we all feel cursed now and then – bad stuff happens and we think “What did I do to deserve this?” as if we actually DID do something, instead of just the random nature of the universe. It taps into our paranoia of someone or something that has it in for us. But it also gives us a target for our attention, rather than a vague sense of bad things happening, you have something specific and defined. In an odd way, it brings order to that chaos, which means there’s a chance to do something about it, instead of just swinging at shadows.
Spec Can: What myths of the monstrous and magical do you draw on when you write?
Noah Chinn: Whatever is handy. Whether you’re using something that’s existed for millennia or inventing something new, the truly important thing is consistency. Monsters , magic, and myth all have to follow rules. They can be broad rules, but they need to be there so you know what the limits are and work within them (or, if you break them, come up with a reason explaining how and why).
Spec Can: What is different about Canadian stories of the supernatural from those of other nations?
Noah Chinn: I honestly can’t say. We apologize more?
Spec Can: What werewolf myths do you create and how are they different from the werewolves of other authors?
Noah Chinn: In Bleeding Heart Yard I wanted to have a creature that wasn’t exactly a werewolf, but something that werewolves could have been based on – as well as a number of other mythical creatures. The species in the book has a couple of key powers and vulnerabilities that make it broadly applicable to everything from werewolves and vampires to rakshasa and wendigos. But in actuality they are simians that simply evolved along different lines from humans in a parallel world where magic is strong.
Cute little coincidence: the year after Bleeding Heart Yard came out Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter published The Long Earth, which has a similar idea (tying the creatures to elves and trolls instead) as well as the notion of parallel worlds one can jump to one at a time (which is also in BHY). In my case the ideas are simply touched upon, whereas in The Long Earth they are the full focus of the story.
Spec Can: What can Speculative Fiction do that “realistic” fiction can’t?
Noah Chinn: Depends who you ask, but the most obvious answer is you’re not constrained by reality to get your message across. You could write a story about banning books in a realistic fiction story set in modern day, sure. But what if you wanted to take it further to get your point across? It would be of hard to write something with the impact of Fahrenheit 451 without creating a society in which all books are banned. You need to think not only of why, but what form that world would take, how people live their lives, the consequences of that culture on people’s behavior, and so on. You need to create a world that doesn’t exist, but you can believe could – even if only for the duration of the story.
Spec Can: Are there any other ideas or thoughts that you would be interested in sharing with your readers?
Noah Chinn: Eat your Wheaties and drink your Ovaltine. Don’t do drugs.
I want to thank Noah Chinn for this insightful and humourous interview. There is nothing quite like a talk about apocalyptic themes where you spend most of the time chuckling.