In so many post-apocalyptic stories, the world as we know it has turned to shit. And that includes the people. But that’s not the case for Kimi Eisele’s The Lightest Object In The Universe (hardcover, Kindle). In the following email interview about it, Eisele talks about what inspired this societal collapse story, what did and did not influence it, and why she’s okay with it not set in a world that’s a shit show.
Photo Credit: Jade Beall
I find it helpful to begin with an overview of the plot. So, in a basic sense, what is The Lightest Object In The Universe about?
The book is about resilience, mostly, and about what we walk towards when everything has collapsed. The story is set shortly after a major economic crash and systems failure, which is precipitated by a number of converging events that are already in motion by the time a cyberattack takes out the grid. At heart, the book is about how we, in the United States, might begin to rebuild together in the aftermath of such an event. It follows Carson Waller, a high school principal / historian on the East coast, and Beatrix Banks, a fair trade activist on the West coast, who have met before the unraveling and have carried out a long-distance romance. The story is about how they each find their way again, Carson walking towards Beatrix and Beatrix learning how to create a successful society within her neighborhood, all the while an evangelical preacher lures the lost to the geographical center of the country with promises of “ascension.”
Where did you get the original idea for The Lightest Object In The Universe, and how did the story change as you wrote it?
The original idea came from a 2004 issue of Adbusters magazine that imagined a major unraveling, inviting readers to write of their experiences. A few of those entries inspired the initial story: a cross-country trek along the railroad to re-unite lovers separated by 3,000 miles in the wake of capitalism’s collapse. That basic premise remained, but many other characters came into the story, including the preacher Jonathan Blue and then Rosie Santos, a teen girl in Beatrix neighborhood who comes of age in the novel and ultimately plays a key role in the lovers’ trajectories. The major change that happened over the decade or more that I was writing the book was that real-world circumstances kept inching closer to what felt — and still feels — like the precipice of collapse. There was peak oil and then the 2008 housing market crash and then the continuing climate crisis. For me, the circumstances of the collapse — ever plausible and approaching — were less interesting than how my characters (and ultimately my community) would respond to it.
It sounds like The Lightest Object In The Universe is a post-apocalyptic tale, but decidedly more in the vein of Cormack McCarthy’s The Road than something with a sci-fi bent. Is that how you see it?
I’ve always thought of the book as belonging more to speculative fiction, if categories are necessary. I worked always from a premise of plausibility, but then took plenty of fictional leaps along the way.
I would say also that it’s not really in the vein of The Road, which is a dark, grim look at a possible apocalypse. The truth is we don’t know how it will all go down, or how we will react. But I felt there were plenty of gloom and doom stories of the end times out there. I wanted to write something that cast light on the possibility that we could, after all, choose to be kind and helpful towards one another, instead of barbaric and cutthroat. Maybe that’s Sesame Street of me, as some readers said of early drafts. But that’s the kind of world I’d prefer to live in, rather than one full of knives and bullets and gore — which exists plentifully in real life — so I thought I’d better write it.
Are there any writers or specific stories that had a big influence on The Lightest Object In The Universe but not on anything else you’ve written?
This book is unlike anything I’ve ever written. I was primarily a non-fiction writer before starting the novel. So there’s that. But also, my writing tends to be language-driven and lyrical so working on plot was a challenge for me. I’d never built a world before. Margaret Atwood’s “what if” scenarios were a big influence, of course, Oryx And Crake in particular. Early on, I found James Howard Kunstler’s work about peak oil to be useful. I steered away from reading a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction during the time I was writing the book, so I think fewer sci-fi writers influenced me than would have otherwise. I did read Octavia Butler and Jonathan Lethem and Tom Perotta, and they each helped to remind me what fiction could do. But so did Gabriel Garcia Marquez, though I wouldn’t exactly call my novel magical realism.
One book that was tremendously influential was Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. Totally different time and place, but a pilgrimage towards love. Its structure was so helpful me.
What about movies or TV shows, did any of them have a particularly big impact on The Lightest Object In The Universe?
I did binge-watch The Walking Dead when it became possible to stream it. By then I was mostly done with the book, so I’m not sure it really impacted me, except to show me what people were willing to do to survive. But, Jesus, those zombies. They are relentless, aren’t they?
Yeah, seriously. Anyway, you have a master’s degree in geography. How, if at all, did your degree play a role in The Lightest Object In The Universe?
Geography is one of the greatest disciplines in the academy because really you can study anything and everything. Alexander von Humboldt tried to do just that, of course. My degree gave me tools for thinking about space and place in interesting ways. I find the human-environment question central to everything we do on this planet: how do we shape our environment and how does it shape us? I wish we humans were friendlier in this regard. We are incredibly artful in how we can shape built environments. But we are cruel when it comes to sharing our home with so many other species. If I were to write The Lightest Object In The Universe today instead of in 2005, I’d probably have the protagonists and heroines be animals instead of people. Although, come to think of it, maybe they are — birds, at least.
More to the point, I was less interested in the factual geography of the country, curiously enough. I never do name the cities where Carson and Beatrix live, though a good reader can infer where they are. But over several drafts, readers kept wanting to know where Carson was on his journey and weren’t satisfied enough by clues that I’d given about flora, fauna, and geomorphology. So I added place names. I planned to do my own train ride across the country during the writing, but I never was able to. I used Google Earth a lot.
Now, some post-apocalyptic novels are stand-alone stories, while others are part of larger sagas. What is The Lightest Object In The Universe?
The book is meant as a stand-alone novel. There is no trilogy. At least not at this moment. There are characters whose trajectories endured for much longer in earlier versions of the book and were later cut. And I do still think about some of them. Carson’s doorman, Ayo, in particular, and the crew of orphan girls he meets in one of the trainyards. All of those characters have lives and backstories. So, if I keep thinking about them, who knows?
Earlier I asked if any movies or TV shows had been an influence on The Lightest Object In The Universe. But has there been any interest in adapting your book into a movie or show?
I do have a TV / film agent and there’s been some interest. I’m open to whatever happens. The book is very visual so I can imagine it on the big screen. There are also a lot of tributaries that had to be cut from the book that could be followed in a streaming series. It would be fun to see those stories developed. The world inside the book is so much bigger than what fit into 320 pages.
And if it happens, who would you like to see them cast as Beatrix, Carson, Rosie, and the other main characters?
Some of the characters I originally imagined in the roles — William Hurt, Minnie Driver, for instance — have probably aged out of the roles by now. Writing a novel takes a long time. Or it took me a long time at least.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Lightest Object In The Universe, which similar story of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
Hmmm. I don’t know of a similar story. The publishing world likes to say “Cold Mountain meets Station Eleven,” and while I leaned heavily on Charles Frazier’s structure, I was well in to my novel by the time Emily St. John Mandel’s novel came out. I think it’s a bit dangerous to say, “Fans of Station Eleven will love this book,” because really my novel is a very different book set at a very different time.
Two books I read recently and loved were Women Talking by Miriam Toews, which grapples with the fallout of sexual assault in a very insular Mennonite community, and There, There by Tommy Orange, which reveals so much about “urban Indians” in Oakland. Both books are phenomenal and say a lot about the state of the world, though they are about singular events. But I wouldn’t call them similar to The Lightest Object. Still, you should read them.