Exclusive Interview: Tropic Of Kansas Author Christopher Brown
In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, sales of such dystopian novels as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and George Orwell’s 1984 spiked. Though if you’ve already read them, but still need something dark to sooth your soul, I present Tropic Of Kansas (paperback, digital, audiobook), a new dystopia sci-fi novel by writer Christopher Brown.
Let’s start with the basics. What is Tropic of Kansas about?
Tropic Of Kansas is a dark road trip through an Americana-infused dystopia, in search of the better futures that might lie on the other side. It follows two characters through a barren heartland: Sig, the fugitive orphan of political dissidents who gets deported from Canada back to a U.S.A. that has been walled off from the other side, and Tania, his foster sister, a government investigator coerced into hunting Sig after he escapes from a Midwestern Gitmo.
It’s an effort at a realist dystopia, while at the same time I hope it’s a compelling adventure story. It bites into the copper wire by imagining an America torn apart by revolutionary unrest — Book Riot called it “the brilliant feel bad book of the summer,” and many have called it prescient — looking at the place we live through a fun-house mirror, with the hope of imagining the place we want it to be.
Where did the idea for the book originate, and how different is that original idea from the final version of Tropic of Kansas?
I set out to write an adventure story that began in the post-9/11 Middle East, and ended up starting an uprising in a dystopian America. I knew where I wanted to go, and I realized that to get there I needed to turn the world upside down, into a mirror America where 9/11 didn’t happen, and all the dark energy of that event and its aftermath was focused on the domestic population. That meant dystopia, but one where everything described in the book is something I have seen in the real world, just shifted a bit to help see it with fresh eyes. People tend to read it as the future, but I think of it more as a mirror present. To paraphrase Gibson, the dystopia is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. And we need to see it to be able to remedy it.
In the book, the wasteland DMZ is called “The Tropic Of Kansas.” Why did you decide to name it that as opposed to “The Tropic Of California” or “The Tropic Of New Jersey”?
The title came to me while I was down in the mines of deep revision, one of those weird lyrical gnomes that somehow encodes the whole book, and defies rational decryption. It works through layers of allusion, riffs on climate and ecology and dystopian inversion, and declarations of regional affinity. The book is a dystopia of the American heartland, examining a very particular place to finder wider truths, an effort to pull off what my friend Bruce Sterling calls “a regional novel of Planet Earth.”
Similarly, the character of Sig is trying to get to New Orleans. But you live in Austin. Why did you decide to have him head for New Orleans instead of Austin? Because if they went to Austin, you could include a chapter about how they ate at The Salt Lick, and maybe get yourself a free sandwich.
The short answer is I’d rather get myself a free po-boy at Domilise’s.
Every place the book goes is a place I have lived or spent a lot of time. It starts in the north woods, travels through a barren Midwest, makes stops in Texas and even Austin, and follows the ancient rivers all the way down. I originally picked New Orleans because I wanted to explore what would happen if, after Katrina or a similar weather event, the people left behind took over the city. New Orleans is a liminal city that already accommodates all sorts of alternate realities. It’s a profoundly atemporal place that lets you charge your imagined futures with deep currents of the past. And it’s a great keystone for the ecological themes of the book: the beating riverine heart of the land, ready for a triple bypass and a new diet.
Of course, by calling your novel Tropic of Kansas, some people are going to think of Henry Miller’s novels Tropic Of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. Do you think there’s anything Miller-esque about your book?
The first time someone asked me that, I explained that Tropic Of Cancer is a book about sex in Paris, while the only sex in Tropic Of Kansas is sex in Minnesota, where it’s colder. And better.
I suppose my book shares some concerns with The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Miller’s recount of the cross-country road trip he took when returned to the U.S. after a decade as an expat, a book I only learned of after I finished Tropic Of Kansas, when a friend blurbed that my novel is a cross between Miller’s Nightmare and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. One of Miller’s conclusions after three years driving across America was that “nowhere else in the world is the divorce between man and nature so complete.” The characters in Tropic Of Kansas come to similar conclusions at the end of their own wanders, realizing that the problems of their society are ultimately rooted in its damaged relationship with the land, and that it’s up to them to fix it.
Speaking of other authors, are there any writers, or books, that you feel were a big influence on how you wrote Tropic of Kansas, or what you wrote about?
McCarthy was one. Not so much The Road as The Crossing, a book about a teenage boy’s journey through strange country that a colleague pointed to as something an early passage of Tropic Of Kansas made him think of. What McCarthy does with the material of the Western is very useful precedent for writers of speculative fiction looking to find more literary truth in their material.
Another huge influence, perhaps counter-intuitively, was Joan Didion, especially her novel Play It As It Lays, which is almost the opposite of McCarthy in its structural and stylistic lightness, but shares a fearless and incisive ability to cut through the bullshit Disneyfied filter we tend to apply when depicting the American character.
Joanna Russ’s New Wave science fiction book The Female Man was another big influence, at the edges.
I also read all sorts of post-9/11 material, from the Senate Torture Report to Poems From Guantánamo, volumes of Americana that ranged from obscure studies of old trails to memoirs of the frontier like Andrew Garcia’s Tough Trip Through Paradise 1878-1879 and folklore studies like Constance Rourke’s American Humor.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or video games? Are there any of those you think had an impact on Tropic of Kansas?
This is a science fiction that listens to Gordon Lightfoot and Buffy Sainte-Marie albums, and then remixes them with the heaviest free jazz. Music is a more immediate influence than moving images for me as a writer because I think language is all about rhythm and improvisational discovery. But the ghost of Billy Jack is in there for sure, and I was heavily influenced by Mexican narco movies, especially El Infierno, a 2010 film by Luis Estrada about a guy who is deported from the U.S. back to a hometown turned upside down, somehow finding heart and humor in the horror. And every technothriller I have ever watched is in there, from 24 to White House Down, but turned on its head, with the Jack Bauers as the bad guys.
As you’re undoubtedly aware, a lot of science fiction novels these days are not stand-alone books, but are instead of part of a series. Is that the case with Tropic of Kansas as well?
I wrote this as a stand-alone book. My process isn’t really amenable to planning out a trilogy or something like that. I usually have an end point in mind, it’s the first thing I write, and a starting point, but most everything in between is discovered by the characters finding their own way. And writing the dark world of Tropic Of Kansas was a pretty intense experience.
That said, I have lots of thoughts about more story that could be told with that material, including a project I have been sketching out about a minor character from the book, a criminal defense lawyer — think Better Call Saul in Orwell’s 1984 — and I’d love to explore the potential of some of the more hopeful places where the book tries to go, and maybe write a utopia to bookend my dystopia.
So has there been any interest in adapting Tropic of Kansas into a movie, TV show, or video game?
There are some promising discussions underway, but nothing firm yet. I think the material would be well-suited for adaptation to the big or small screen, and the picaresque structure of the narrative would work really well for an episodic format, and would maybe let me dust off some of the material I had to cut about other places the characters visit on the road.
A video game could also be a ton of fun — allowing players to choose whether to make decisions as dumb as the ones my characters do, and affording the opportunity to really flesh out the world building — all of which was deeply thought through, but mostly withheld from overt exposition.
If it was going to be made into a movie, show, or game, what actors would you like to see cast in the main roles?
I really like unknown actors, and when I think of people who could play the characters of Tropic Of Kansas, I think of people that aren’t actors at all. There’s a young dude who works in my neighborhood who could pass for Sig, and a woman I used to work with that would make a great Tania. That said, the actors who narrate the points of view of Tania and Sig for the audiobook, Bahni Turpin and Josh Bloomberg, are both pretty amazing.
If you pressed me, I’d say Zoe Kravitz (Mad Max: Fury Road), Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures), or even Angela Bassett (What’s Love Got To Do With It) would make a good Tania. Woody Harrelson (the Hunger Games movies) or Johnny Depp (the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies) could be great in the role of Walker, the trickster businessman branching out into revolution. Sig is tougher. The dudes from the Wolf Pack of those insane Twilight movies are pretty close — Solomon Trimble, Booboo Stewart, Kiowa Gordon — as are some of the guys from East Los High like Gabriel Chavarría. But not close enough. I know he’s out there, because I’ve seen him.
Lastly, if someone enjoys Tropic Of Kansas, and they’ve already read Tropic Of Cancer and Tropic Of Capricorn, what would you suggest they read next and why that?
Other than my next book, I’d say they might try some of the amazing literary dystopias that are out there: Jack Womack’s Random Acts Of Senseless Violence, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and Greg Hrbek’s Not On Fire, But Burning all explore similar territory in very different ways. I have also had the book compared to China Miéville’s The City & The City and Darin Bradley’s Noise, which are both amazing books. For those who want to try a more optimistic future, focused on solving problems, I highly recommend Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140.