Exclusive Interview: “Burrowed” Author Mary Baader Kaley

 

Any new novel written about a plague or pandemic will inevitably be assumed to be about Covid. But in the following email interview about her post-apocalyptic dystopian sci-fi novel Borrowed (paperback, Kindle), Kaley notes that hers was actually inspired by previous pandemics.

Mary Baader Kaley Burrowed

To start, what is Burrowed about, and what kind of a world does it take place in?

After a devastating genetic plague depletes the world’s population, the story begins in a futuristic post-apocalyptic time, and takes place mostly underground: home to the Subterraneans. The plague left no one untouched, so even if a person was lucky enough to survive the initial outbreak, their genetic code was altered for all future generations, who were born either Omniterranean or Subterranean. The altered genetic code present in the Subterranean group enhanced their intelligence yet left them infertile with crippling health and immune system weaknesses, not to mention poor life expectancies. Our heroine, Zuzan Cayan, has a five-year life expectancy, and she wears darkened goggles because her eyes cannot handle much light. The Subterraneans are forced to live away from diseases and toxins in underground burrows for their own safety, which means they also live away from their own Omniterranean families. While Omniterraneans, who live above ground, enjoy healthy bodies and excellent immune systems, this population also suffers from genetic alterations that cause cognitive issues like severe learning disabilities and limited reasoning. The science required to “solve” this genetic divide falls to an elite group of hyper-intelligent Subterraneans. But time is running out when a brand-new virus breaks out that is suspiciously deadly only to Omniterraneans. Growing distrust between the two populations leads to war, and now Zuzan’s group of scientists tasked with solving the genetic divide must throw their efforts into figuring out this new virus because if they can’t, the only human population with the ability to continue the species is at risk.

Where did you get the idea for the plot of Burrowed?

Ten or so years back, when dystopian stories were big, I had this general idea for Burrowed loosely based on Jane Eyre. I was working on my main character and I couldn’t quite fill in key plot points and setting. About the same time, I participated in a weekly online flash fiction (stories of under 1000 words) contest-for-fun, in a group called “The Flash Factory” on a website called Zoetrope where aspiring writers receive honest feedback from other writers. At The Factory the winner from the previous week comes up with a prompt and word limit (somewhere between 50-1000 words) for the following week, and then anyone wishing to participate would have a few days to write a story. There was a good mix of literary, sci-fi, fantasy, and contemporary writers, so it’s probably where I developed a more eclectic appreciation for a lot of genres. Some of the funniest, and saddest, and mind-blowing things I’ve ever read have been in a flash piece.

One week many years ago, there was a Flash Factory prompt that helped me bump my un-pin-downable story out of its funk, and though I don’t recall exactly how this prompt was worded, it was something like: “write about a shocking surprise or big reveal that shakes your main character to his or her core.” I wrote a short scene where my super-intelligent main character discovers a restricted area where she finds an illegal scientific experiment on humans. I loved the scene, and the eerie buildup to the discovery, and how my character came to life in it. The setting and so many other aspects of the story grew organically out of this short piece. I don’t even remember if I posted the story to the factory that week.

And much as I hate being obvious, I have to ask: What role did our current pandemic have on Burrowed?

Sometimes the obvious isn’t so obvious, because the current pandemic played no role in my writing Burrowed whatsoever. I wrote this story ten years ago, when earlier outbreaks such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola, H1N1, among a few others, had caused their fair shares of panic in the world, and I can’t deny that those viruses had some influence.

But more personal experiences played a role in creating virus-as-villain for me. My daughter, who is grown and healthy now, was hospitalized with meningitis when she was just six weeks old. I was never more terrified as I stayed in the quarantined hospital room with her for over a week, watching nurses and doctors wearing full Hazmat suits and masks treating her the best they could. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that such an awful sickness could be so ineffectively treated with all the medical advances we’ve made up until then. There’s nothing more emotionally gripping as a parent seeing your wonderfully happy and healthy baby deteriorate so rapidly while you stand by utterly helpless.

In addition to my daughter’s sickness, when my father was a small child, he suffered from Polio for months, and my aunt (his older sibling) tells a story that each night she’d go to bed expecting to hear that he had died overnight. He recovered, my daughter recovered, and I’m thankful. But living through the pandemic these past few years have felt like a contemporary, surreal déjà vu variation of this story.

You mentioned the differences between Subterranean and the Omniterraneans, how the former are smart but sickly, while the latter are not smart but they are strong. Some could construe this as a commentary on the differences between liberals and conservatives. Did you ever consider making Burrowed more of a political allegory? Like, did you ever consider making the Subterranean and the Omniterraneans more like liberals and conservatives? Or, conversely, like, conservatives and liberals?

Thank you for asking this, because I would not draw absolute lines between our current political groups of liberal versus conservative to the two populations in Burrowed. The physical separation and health differences of the Omniterranean and Subterranean populations naturally result in certain people in each group seeing the alternative group as “other.” Likewise, because some people within the liberal / conservative dichotomy participate in “other” mentality, they tend to villainize one another. So inasmuch opposite political groups have the tendency to view valid complaints or issues of the other political group as something more aggressive than they perhaps should (rather than a cry for a help and an opportunity to cooperate on a solution), and subsequently react in ever increasingly amplified levels of aggression — there’s a definite relation to this story. But in that vein, the general practice of “other-ness” is socially pervasive everywhere in our world so the fact that it spills over into politics is maybe more of a symptom.

So how then did you decide what the Subterraneans and the Omniterraneans would be like?

The genetic plague that caused the apocalyptic conditions impacted both populations. Subterraneans were easier to define, in that they had to have a reason for living underground, away from everyone else. They’re weaker, sickly, and smaller. Most suffer from albinism, like Zuzan who has no pigment in her eyes to protect them from light. The Omniterraneans were more challenging to define in this world, but I drew upon some opposites from the sickly group, and also from some people in my life who are perfectly happy who deal with something extra, like my son who has autism, or another relative with dyslexia, or my own struggles with a speech impediment growing up.

Burrowed sounds like it’s a dystopian sci-fi story. Is that how you see it?

Burrowed is a bit of a mashup. There’s a gap in time after an apocalyptic genetic plague during which time fully functioning social structures develop and work for a while, when another potentially apocalyptic plague appears and throws everyone into chaos again. Jane Eyre was my original influence, so there’s also a flavor of the classical romance story. Zuzan represents Jane, and Ringol represents Rochester, adapted in many ways but if you look for it, you’ll see it.

Now, unless I’m mistaken, Burrowed is your first novel, though you’ve written some short stories. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Burrowed but not on anything else you’ve written? You’ve mentioned Jane Eyre a couple times already…

Albert Camus wrote The Plague, and because of the subject matter, I re-read it as “research” when I worked on Burrowed, and once of the head scientists in my story is named “Camu.” Camus’s theme in The Plague centered around the absurdity of the human experience, and he treated the Bubonic Plague almost like a character — it started up out of nowhere, devastated the town while killing a large portion of the people no matter what they did to curb it, throwing them into quarantine and struggling to bury their victims, and after months of wreaking havoc, the plague subsided on its own. In Burrowed, the viruses have a life or characterization of their own but controlling or conquering them is the goal. If absurdity enters into this story, it shows up more in the way each group struggles with people who want to make the other group “the enemy” instead of seeing the huge, horrible issue (the new virus) as a common problem.

What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Did any of these things have a particularly big influence on Burrowed?

My favorite show when I was writing Burrowed was Downton Abbey. My sister and I watched the show religiously, and we’d talk about it all week until the next episode came on. It was our thing. You might see this influence in Burrowed‘s focus on hierarchical jobs within the Subterranean population, where the topmost position in any organization was the overseer of everything, and maids and technicians were treated as less important contributors — though you can (hopefully) see how impactful every position is, depending on the person within that job. But also…as I wrote some of the dialogue, I could hear echoes of Lady Mary’s bite in Kleo’s dialogue. True story.

Science fiction novels can be self-contained stories or part of larger sagas. What is Burrowed?

If Burrowed finds a solid readership, Zuzan (the main character) and her crew have more work to do.

The new virus causing the pandemic in Burrowed was a diversion from the bigger problem: the original plague that caused the genetic divide. Our elite scientists clearly have yet to wrestle that one down.

Earlier we talked about the movies, TV shows, and games that influenced Burrowed. But I’d like to flip things around, if I may, and ask if you think Burrowed could work as a movie, show, or game?

My oldest son is a video gamer, so he’d probably vote for that, and my sister is a board gamer, so she’s got opinions, but I’d love to see a Netflix-type show. I think a miniseries or show would be the best way to dive into characters, subplots, and red herrings.

So, if someone at Netflix wanted to make a Burrowed TV show, who would you want them to cast as Zuzan and the other main characters?

Well, because you didn’t add any budget constraints (as I tap my fingers together Mr. Burns style), I’m going to GO BIG.

For Zuzan, a.k.a. Allele, she needs to be someone who has a smart-but-awkward quality to them like [Harry Potter‘s] Emma Watson or Taylor Russell [Lost In Space]. Ajay Friese [also Lost In Space] would make a kind-hearted Jalaz Cayan. Maddelyn, Zuzan’s bestie, has to be Maya Hawke [Stranger Things] or Zendaya-esque. [Black Panther‘s] Angela Basset would make a wonderfully poised and caring Gelia Cayan, Zuzan’s substitute mom. And may I please have a multi-layered, hard to figure out [Black Panther‘s] Leticia Wright or [Ozark‘s] Julia Garner for Kleo? Whomever plays Maven Ringol would need to portray that quirky trait of thinking a million things all at once, but only a tenth of them make it out his mouth in rapid talk in Deadpan or Tony Stark style; maybe Rege-Jean Page [Bridgerton] or Henry Cavill [The Witcher] could pull it off.

What about if someone wanted make a game out of it?

I’m going to answer this one too for my son’s and sister’s sake. I think a video game like Civilization would work, but you’d have to choose to be an Omniterranean or Subterranean. For board games, I’d do a mash up between a game my science-y daughter liked called Covalent (involving chemical compounds, but maybe focusing more on the virus and immunology) and a game my sister likes that may be the captain-obvious choice, called Pandemic — so a role-play cooperative game where different types of people have to come together and figure out how to solve for the overall problem. In the case of a Burrowed game, players might work to figure out the genetic divide, but have problems with intermittent plagues and wars or clashes between the groups.

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Burrowed?

Burrowed is about the ability or inability for people to maintain their humanness — in the best case, approaching new people or problems with a sense of wanting to understand and connect.

Mary Baader Kaley Burrowed

Finally, if someone enjoys Burrowed, what plague-related sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that one?

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel begins with several main characters’ normal status quo just before an apocalyptic plague erupts and kills off most of the population, and in the subsequent downfall, every societal structure collapses. “Hell is the absence of the people you long for,” is the quote from this story that just pulls at the heart. The survivors must figure out how to rebuild a meaningful civilization, which includes deciding which parts of the old world are best left in the past.

 

 

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