With superpowered people being treated badly by their government and fellow citizens, it’s pretty obvious that Bob Proehls’ sci-fi novel The Nobody People (paperback, Kindle) was inspired by both The X-Men and what’s been going on in the real world. But in the following email interview, he explains how his story differs from The X-Men, what else inspired this tale, and his plans to complete this saga in a second book.
Photo Credit: ©️ Heather Ainsworth
To start, what is The Nobody People about?
The Nobody People imagines a not-so-distant future in which people with supernatural abilities go public — and are faced with backlash from both a government and fearful society. As tensions rise, everyone is forced to question what lengths they’d go to in order to fight for friends, family, and one another.
Where did you get the idea for The Nobody People, and how did the plot evolve as you wrote it?
The bigger backdrop story, of these people with superpowers emerging onto the national stage, grew out of watching the lead up to the 2016 election. A privileged majority was rallying around this idea that they were being replaced, culminating in the Unite The Right rally and chants of “Jews will not replace us.” I say “culminating” as if that was a turning point and things didn’t get worse from there. Anyway. That fear of demographic shift and displacement invested a lot of rhetorical power in populations that have historically been excluded from political and economic power, as well as victims of discriminatory violence. I wanted to think about what a literally empowered minority would look like, what the effects of their emergence would be.
On a more personal level, a lot of the book is about the irreconcilable distance between parents and kids, and how there’s something really beautiful in that moment you realize your kid is so utterly themself that you’re almost obsolete other than keeping them fed and not messing them up too much.
So did you set out to write something socially relevant or did you come up with the idea for this book and it just naturally became socially conscious?
I think starting a novel in 2016, it felt impossible not to strive to write something socially relevant. There’s always the argument that all creative work is a form of resistance, and while I think that’s true for some people, it didn’t feel true for me. I don’t think of this book as activism in any way, but it grew out of political anxieties that I was having, and am still having, and hopefully what comes out feels like it has some kind of social relevance.
It sounds like The Nobody People is a science fiction story. Is that how you see it?
I always look for sci-fi that uses its high concept aspects to look at something super normal and everyday. I don’t care how thorough the world-building is, how scientifically plausible the FTL drive is, if it isn’t pointing me back toward real life, I’m probably going to check out. So this book is taking a big idea and using it to think about difference, and discrimination, and found family. It’s definitely a sci-fi book, but it’s also a coming of age novel, and a family novel, and there’s some straight-up horror stuff in there.
It also sounds like The Nobody People is similar to The X-Men. Were The X-Men a big influence on The Nobody People?
I am a huge comics fan, and The X-Men is sort of written into my creative DNA. I wanted to really strip down the concept. There is so much I love about The X-Men and how sprawling and adaptive and genre-crossing the comics are, but I wanted to take that central metaphor and play around with it without having to do it in the tone of action / thriller stuff. I started out thinking about ways in which the metaphor has never made sense to me, which is to say: the mapping of The X-Men onto racial issues has always been a weird fit. Following the thinking of more contemporary writers on the franchise and, more importantly critics like Jay Edidin and Ramzi Fawaz, I decided to come at it a little more from the angle of disability rights, and that opened up a lot of ideas. But beyond the politics of it and any kind of political realism, I wanted to think about the emotional impact of abilities like this on people. What would it feel like to be psychic, or invisible, or visibly “different” from everyone around you, including those in your already marginalized community.
So I don’t think it was any particular run of the comics, or the movies, I think I was starting from the core concept and inserting it into the real world.
Now, in the previous interview we did about your first novel, A Hundred Thousand Worlds — which was about a woman and her son driving to comic book conventions — you said you wrote it as a prose novel because “I can’t draw” and because “I’m not a super visual writer.” Is that also why you decided to write The Nobody People as a prose novel instead of as a comic book?
Yeah, I still can’t draw. I wrote this as a prose novel because I’m a prose writer.
That said, I’ve left a lot of space in this book, a lot of stories that are only hinted at, either because they weren’t close enough to the central through-lines of the main characters, or because they didn’t feel like they were my stories to tell as a white, cis-het male. I would be beyond thrilled if people wanted to fill in those spaces, in any medium. But this particular story has a beginning-middle-end structure that, for me, lends itself more to novels than to the ongoingness of comics.
Speaking of which, you also said in our previous interview [which you can read here] that you’d love to do a comic book of Lady Stardust, which is a comic the people in A Hundred Thousand Worlds are making. Did you ever pursue this idea?
Part of that was just that I had so much extra material lying around after A Hundred Thousand Worlds. I’d plotted out the whole series that Brett and Fred were working on in the book, all twelve issues. But once the book was done and out, I really found I’d said everything I had to say about that world and those folks, so it was time to move to something new.
So were there any writers or books that were a big influence on The Nobody People but not on A Hundred Thousand Worlds?
Octavia Butler’s writing is such a big influence on this book, which was not true of the first book. I’ve always loved her work, but it never really came into play in my own writing. When this idea started to take form, I went back to her Patternmaster books as a kind of grounding. Far From The Tree by Andrew Solomon, which is about parenting across difference, was a big influence. Enforcing Normalcy and The Minority Body, by Leonard Davis and Elizabeth Barnes, respectively, shaped my thinking on disability rights and how they’d match up with this idea, and Deaf President Now by John B. Christiansen and Sharon Barnartt was kind of the case study for “nothing about us without us” activism within the disability community, along with Keenange-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter To Black Liberation.
What about non-literary influences, such as movies, TV shows, or video games? Did any of them have a particularly big influence on The Nobody People?
Not so much with The Nobody People, but the sequel has really been shaping itself around the storytelling structures of Avatar: The Last Airbender, which has been kind of a surprise. And since you mention video games, it becomes suddenly apparent that there’s a lot of Final Fantasy VI in here too.
Oh, so there’s going to be a sequel?
The Nobody People is the first of two books, with the second one, The Somebody People, planned for next fall. I’m working on a second draft of it right now, matter of fact. I knew pretty early on that this was a big story, too big for one book. As I got further along with it, the idea of a trilogy felt like it didn’t quite fit. There were so many binaries and dialectics in the book, and the most natural break in the story fell right in the middle. So it’s one long story told across two books.
There are going to be people who’ll wait until The Somebody People comes out before reading The Nobody People, and some will then read them back-to-back. Do you think this is a good idea?
The books have a gap built into the narrative, so I don’t think it’ll feel weird to wait a year in between. At the same time, I’m working to make them feel complete in and of themselves, so I hope the first book has a fair amount of closure, while leaving some open questions for the second. I can tell you that writing them back-to-back has been a lot. So I would not recommend anyone write two five hundred page books about the same people back to back. Next time I’m going to sneak an unrelated novella into the middle or something.
Earlier I asked if The Nobody People had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. But has there been any interest in adapting The Nobody People into a movie, show, or game?
This will probably be public knowledge by the time this interview runs, but the book has been optioned by 20th Century Fox for television. Fingers crossed that something comes of it.
That’s kind of funny, given that they made all of The X-Men movies. So if they ask who they should cast, who would you suggest?
I am so bad at this game. I wish I had awesome dreamcasting for the book, but I don’t. Sorry.
No worries. Finally, if someone enjoys The Nobody People, what similarly socially-relevant novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that one?
Again, I’d say Butler’s Patternmaster books if you want big sci fi, and her Parable books if you want something more socially relevant. I’d also throw out Charlie Jane Anders’ All The Birds In The Sky, which is big sci fi, and also big fantasy, and also socially relevant, and also just brilliantly written.