For some, social media is a way to stay connected to friends, family, and the world at large. For others, it’s the engine that feeds much of the hate and stupidity that’s ruining society. But for writer Premee Mohamed, it was a place to find an image that inspired her new dystopian sci-fi novella And What Can We Offer You Tonight (paperback, Kindle). In the following email interview about it, Mohamed not only explains how that happened, but what else influenced this story.
To start, what is And What Can We Offer You Tonight about?
And What Can We Offer You Tonight is the story of Winfield, a dead courtesan who returns to life and declares her revenge on the client who killed her, and on her living friend Jewel, who is first a witness and then an accomplice in this mission.
It’s set in kind of what I’ve been calling a logical extrapolation of our current labor situation: a future dystopia in which you literally have to work or die. Since the crux of everyone’s existence is that the government can kill you if you don’t have employment, the employed characters are very motivated by keeping their jobs…and have lost touch with their other motivations. It’s a city divided strictly into the ultra-poor and the ultra-rich, flooded presumably from a changing climate, full of strange wildlife, hover-cars, and people scraping by and trying to watch out for each other, since no one else will.
Where did you get the idea for And What Can We Offer You Tonight?
Oh I love this question because actually the entire story came from a single image that I found somewhere on, I think, Twitter, and saved… I think it must have been about a month between finding the photo and sending the novella to my agent with an email subject line like “Surprise!” It was a photo of a dilapidated church next to the ocean, so close actually that it was soaked with seawater, and it was also blackened as if it had recently been on fire. And I just immediately was like, Oh hey, how did that happen? Why was it built so close to the sea? Or did sea levels rise to meet it? Did someone maybe set it on fire deliberately? When? And when was it abandoned? So I came up with this whole back-story for the church and a very clear mental image of a service in it, a funeral, full of flowers and luxurious, beautiful things, a secret ceremony, for people who had nowhere else to mourn and gather, and the rest of the story kind of went from there. I assure you no one was more surprised than I was when Winfield sat up in her casket.
And is there a reason Jewel is a courtesan as opposed to someone who works in a less fancy brothel or who works the streets?
Yes, the whole time I kept thinking about that particular “bird in a gilded cage”‘ scenario…of course, all the outside birds are looking at it like “Hey, stop complaining, you have a fantastic life, shut up.” But I really wanted to probe into Jewel’s psyche in particular as someone who doesn’t want to be involved in the story at all, as someone who’s still resisting the “call to adventure” practically till the end, because it’s implied that she was on the streets, or worked at less fancy places, and was barely managing to survive, before she was purchased by the House of Bicchieri. So she doesn’t want to go back to where she was because she knows exactly how bad it was there, and how good her life is here. She thinks she has to cling to this because she’s lost the ability to survive in her former life. That really informs so many of her fears and decisions; she’s a coward, but she doesn’t think of herself as one particularly. Just a pragmatist. Like, “Well why would I choose to go back to that, knowing how bad it was. I’d better hang onto what I managed to get. I work hard, I deserve not to fall. It’s a long way down.” So Jewel allying herself with Win on this new mission is awful for her, it risks everything she has in her life, and we see that particularly after she returns from the first revenge mission, when she’s not punished by being ejected from the house but by being fined and told she can work it off. The owners know exactly what they’re doing and they know exactly what she fears.
It sounds like And What Can We Offer You Tonight is a dystopian urban fantasy story. Is that how you’d describe it?
I think I would call it a dystopian sci-fi, though I think fantasy would also work. I’m not very interested in keeping genres separated when I write, and I don’t think putting a fantasy element into a far-future setting automatically makes it a fantasy rather than a sci-fi. It’s certainly a dystopia. I initially waffled a little on calling it a cyberpunk dystopia but truthfully, I don’t think it’s cyberpunk. There are some of the set-pieces (constant surveillance, cybernetic body mods, etc.) but it’s lacking the “punk” part of it, in which the characters would subvert, repurpose, twist, or actively fight against those things. They’re just the setting in which the characters move, not part of the plot.
And What Can We Offer You Tonight is your second novella and fifth book overall. Are there any writers who had a big influence on it but not on anything else you’ve written?
Definitely Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus, particularly the first story (they’re all intertwined but mostly the first one). I must have been noodling around in my head for years that while the story is interesting, and also set at an ultra-luxury brothel, it focuses on the owner and his son, and is extremely vague about the actual people who work there. I always thought it would be quite interesting to hear the events of that story from the courtesans’ point of view. That was definitely a huge influence. I think that also made it more purely a sci-fi with a fantasy element, because more often what I think I’m writing is fantasy with sci-fi elements.
What about non-literary influences; was And What Can We Offer You Tonight influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Not that I can think of.
You’re an Associate Editor for the sci-fi short story podcast Escape Pod. How do you think working with other writers influenced what you wrote in And What Can We Offer You Tonight or how you wrote it?
Actually, that’s a former Associate Editor now unfortunately — I left the slush team due to time pressures, although I’m still with Escape Pod as a Social Media Manager.
But anyway, I think that’s a valid question…certainly I would say that reading enough of other people’s stories gave me a sense for what I did want to do and didn’t want to do in my own after a certain point. For example, the biggest influence that slushing had on this story was that I did allow it to become a novella, and not be a short story. One thing I used to see very often in slush was these wonderful stories that were simply trying to cram too much story into a few thousand words. They felt rushed, cramped, and either were so much set-up that they were mostly info-dump, or so much action that it was hard to tell what was going on and why. The solution for a lot of those stories was to give them more room to breathe and let the characters interact with each other and develop the premise. So after seeing that enough times, I knew I didn’t want Offer to be a short story. I was willing to let it be as long as it needed to be to tell the story.
I mentioned your other books a moment ago. While some of them — including the novella These Lifeless Things and your first novel, The Apple-Tree Throne — were stand-alone stories, you’ve also put out two of the three books in a trilogy. So, what is And What Can We Offer You Tonight? Is it a stand-alone novella or the first book in a series?
It was written as a stand-alone, and no more books are planned or acquired at the moment. It’s an interesting setting though, and I’d like to write more stories in it — getting away from the House either forward or backward in time, getting into the city, maybe a story about the old lady up on the roof with her gun and her blanket, maybe a story about the ultra-rich and how they live now, maybe stories from Jewel’s or Nero’s pasts.
While we’re on the subject of your other books, you have a ton that either just came out or are coming out soon: A Broken Darkness (out now) and The Void Ascendant (out March 1, 2022), which are the second and third books of a trilogy you started in 2020 with Beneath The Rising, and the novellas These Lifeless Things (out now) and The Annual Migration Of Clouds (out September 28). People can read more about Darkness and Lifeless in the interview we did about the former, but real quick, what are all of these about?
A Broken Darkness is the sequel to Beneath The Rising, and is about the world after the end of the world: everything seems to have gotten back to normal, except of course it isn’t, and since Nick and Johnny nearly died making sure that the Ancient Ones can’t get back to Earth, there’s really only one person to blame when that’s exactly what happens… or is there?
The Void Ascendant is the third book in the Beneath The Rising trilogy, and is about the survivor of the first two books, and that’s all I’m saying for now.
These Lifeless Things is a stand-alone novella set in the same world and at the same time as my short story “And Sneer Of Cold Command” [which you can read on The Sockdollager]. I think people think it’s the same world as Beneath The Rising, but it’s actually not; I just settled on “Them” in both books as a shortcut for what people might call extradimensional invaders if they didn’t know what they were actually called. Lifeless is set around when it was written, 2017 or 2018, and is a story told in two parts of the account of an invasion that nearly destroyed life as we know it, and the researchers fifty years later looking into what exactly happened and how truthful the account might be.
Finally, The Annual Migration Of Clouds, which is coming out September 28th, is what I’ve been calling a post-post-apocalypse: after climate disasters knock industrialized civilization back to pre-industrial times, a teenager living in a small community here in Edmonton is given the chance to go to university in one of the places that seems to have been spared all the disasters, but it’s not exactly an easy choice, or an easy road to get there. Contains thirty to fifty feral hogs.
Did you write any of these books at the same time, or back-to-back? I’m wondering how do you think writing them so close together, or at the same time, influenced them?
I don’t think they ended up influencing each other much, no… A Broken Darkness was written in late 2019 and early 2020, The Annual Migration Of Clouds was written in early 2019, And What Can We Offer You Tonight was written in late 2020, and These Lifeless Things was written in I think 2018? (It sold to a publisher who subsequently cancelled all their novella contracts, so it hung around for a little while before being re-homed at Rebellion.)
I don’t think my individual books influence each other as much as they show whatever I’m thinking about at the time more generally: friendship, capitalism, plagues (so many plagues!), climate anxiety, and colonialism is often on my mind over these past few years.
Earlier I asked if And What Can We Offer You Tonight had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. To flip the script, as you kids probably don’t say anymore, do you think Offer could work as a movie, show, or game?
I think it would be interesting as a movie — I don’t think there’s enough of it to make a TV show, if that makes sense, and I don’t think it would make a very appealing game (“Keep your job or die!”). In particular, I think it would be neat to see the city in a visual medium, as it’s a character in its own right but is only briefly sketched out in the novella so that it didn’t get too bogged down in description.
And if someone wanted to adapt And What Can We Offer You Tonight into a movie, who would you want them to cast as Winfield, Jewel, and the other main characters?
Oh man, every time this happens I have to go to Google and be like “who are people who are in things” because I never watch anything and haven’t for years…
If we gave [The Good Place‘s] Manny Jacinto blond hair he’d work for me as Nero, because he’s good-looking and can play as a foil to Jewel, who he has the most page time with. Maybe [Deadpool‘s] Morena Baccarin for Jewel, because she gives me the impression she can be the “All right, someone’s got to have some sense here” person in any given room. And maybe Saoirse Ronan [from Lady Bird] for Winfield, because she’s quite young but I think she could play someone really intense and driven and a little unbalanced, as Win is supposed to be.
Finally, if someone enjoys And What Can We Offer You Tonight, and it’s the first thing of yours they’ve read, which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why that one and not one of the others?
Yeah Offer is a bit different from other things I’ve written, I think. Maybe if they enjoy Offer they could try These Lifeless Things, which is also very much about two women who are allies in ways they don’t realize, and also about survival, friendship, and the power of being a witness as well as telling a story.