While the idea of parallel dimensions isn’t new — just ask any guy who’s grown a goatee — writer K Chess is taking a different approach to them in her new sci-fi novel Famous Men Who Never Lived (hardcover, Kindle) by showing us what it would be someone who has to live in a reality slightly different from their own. In the following email interview, Chess discusses what instigated and influenced this novel, as well as why she set it in alt-NYC as opposed to alt-West Orange, New Jersey.
To begin, what is Famous Men Who Never Lived about?
It’s about thousands of men and women from another world — from a part of the multiverse where the 20th century went entirely differently — who flee a disaster that kills everyone they know, only to get stuck in our NYC. Here, they’re called Universally Displaced People, or UDPs, and they face mistrust and harassment. Famous Men Who Never Lived follows two of these UDPs, Hel and Vikram, as they grieve, get into trouble, and figure out their shit. There’s also a book-within-a-book; Hel is looking for the last copy of a sci-fi paperback from her world that’s gone missing.
Where did you get the initial idea for Famous Men Who Never Lived and how did it evolve as you wrote the story?
The idea of a museum dedicated to people who were never born in this timeline came to me — I swear this is true! — in a dream. I wrote it as a short story first, but it was terrible. Vikram was originally the main character. I decided it might be more interesting to read about how a woman would deal with leaving behind her family and career, so I promoted Hel to protagonist and expanded it into a novel.
Famous Men Who Never Lived is clearly a sci-fi story, but are there any other genres or sub-genres or combinations of them at work in this story as well?
Most of what I wrote before this was realistic fiction. I’ve been told this is “literary” sci fi. I’ve also got a second-hand ’60s pulp sci fi pastiche and fake interview transcripts within the novel.
It also seems like Famous Men Who Never Lived is trying to say something about our modern times.
Yes, I definitely think that’s true.It wasn’t why I started writing the book, but it’s hard to write about a sci fi version of immigrants and not feel the political resonances.
And why did you set the story in New York City as opposed to Los Angeles or Paris or West Orange, New Jersey?
Setting the book in NYC felt natural because I used to live there. It was easy to imagine the action of the book going down in certain neighborhoods.
But also, NYC is an old, layered city; a lot of the buildings predate the timeline divergence. Some things would look familiar to Hel and Vikram, and others would be very different, and that appealed to me. Also, New York has been a traditional port of entry for people coming to America, so it seemed fitting.
While Famous Men Who Never Lived is your first novel, you’ve written a number of short stories. But are there any writers, or specific stories, that were a big influence on Famous Men Who Never Lived but not on anything else you’ve written?
I really admire Octavia E. Butler. I like how weird her work can be while talking about systems and issues through individual character’s experiences. Famous Men Who Never Lived was also influenced by a book called The Insult by Rupert Thomson. It’s about a man blinded by a bullet who believes he can see, and the way he perceives the city around him. I wanted the UDPs to have a way of looking at New York that felt as detached and bizarre.
What about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that had a particularly big impact on Famous Men Who Never Lived?
I’ve always been super entranced by alternate universes — like the ones in Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Supernatural, and in the Days Of Future Past storyline in the X-Men comics and movies — and what they say about choice and chance. But an alternate universe wouldn’t have to apocalyptically bad to feel make you feel unwelcome, if you landed there by mistake.
True. Now, as you mentioned, Hel reads a science fiction novel called The Pyronauts. How much of The Pyronauts did you figure out while writing Famous Men Who Never Lived?
I figured it out as I wrote, which was fun. It felt a little like magic. I don’t know the ending, but I’d like to.
Has there been any thought to actually writing The Pyronauts as its own book?
Yeah, I think it would be fun to write The Pyronauts. The sections included in Famous Men Who Never Lived are mediated through Hel’s understanding of the book. If I wrote it as a stand-alone, the challenge would be to really lean into the Bradbury / Heinlein voice of that era and maintain it for hundreds of pages. It’s something I might take on for fun, but I don’t have any immediate plans for it.
Speaking of other books, some sci-fi novels are stand-alone stories, others are parts of a series. What is Famous Men Who Never Lived?
Nope, not a series. I feel like I’ve said everything I have to say about these characters. And I have so many other ideas.
Earlier I asked if Famous Men Who Never Lived had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. But has there been any interest in adapting Famous Men Who Never Lived into a movie, show, or game?
I have an agent for film / TV stuff. I hope someone calls him, because I think Famous Men Who Never Lived would make an awesome show. (No, I’m not biased at all!) We’re living in an era of great TV, and I think an episode format would off all the individual UDP stories, not just the main characters’.
If that happened, who would you like to see them cast as Hel, Vikram, and the other main characters?
I can’t answer that! I imagine the characters looking a certain way, but I wouldn’t want to influence how other readers might picture them.
Finally, if someone enjoys Famous Men Who Never Lived what similar sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you recommend they check out and why that?
Okay, it’s not really sci-fi, but I’d recommend the dreamy Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, which is also about gateways and borders and the connections people form when they’re strangers together.