Exclusive Interview: “When We Hold Each Other Up” Author Phoebe Wagner
While plenty of people have issues with gentrification and the tearing down of small buildings to make much larger ones, you don’t hear as much about cities themselves getting bigger. Maybe because some of them physically can’t — I’m looking at you, Manhattan — or maybe because it happens so gradually that people don’t have time to notice. But if they could…they might find solace (or maybe ideas) in Phoebe Wagner’s new solarpunk sci-fi novella When We Hold Each Other Up (paperback, Kindle). In the following email interview, Wagner discusses what inspired and influenced this cozy sci-fi story.
To start, what is When We Hold Each Other Up about, and when and where does it take place?
The novella follows two characters, Eduardo and Rowan, as they travel to warn other communities about an expanding city. It’s loosely set in northern Appalachia about two hundred years in a future where there has been ecological and social collapse due to the destruction caused by climate change, but now things are starting to even out somewhat. Rowan is a fifteen-year-old human, and Eduardo is a Harmonizer, a more-than-human character who can sense and move energy in ways that balance environmental and physical harm. But Harmonizers can also take too much energy, causing a lot of destruction and making themselves very powerful. The city expansion is not in balance with the ecological harm it would cause, so Eduardo and Rowan want to warn the other communities so they aren’t caught up in the expansion. Ultimately, they both have to face their own fears of the city.
It sounds like this story has a social / political message to it….
Absolutely. I’m afraid I’m too earnest of a writer; everything has a message for me; As a solarpunk novella, this story is concerned with imagining futures that are environmentally and socially just. The communities that Eduardo and Rowan meet all have a different vision for what a healthy community for all looks like. At the start of the book, Rowan lives with a group of nomads who believe the best way to live in balance with the world is to travel lightly and not put down roots in one place. Another community, the Archivists, lives in the opposite manner because they believe it’s important to restore a place and collect the stories and histories of that place. Ultimately, I hope the takeaway is that hopeful futures are possible through community.
So, did you set out to write something with a social / political message to it, and When We Hold Each Other Up is what you came up with, or did you have the idea for Up and then realize it would work better if it had a social / political message to it?
I see solarpunk as being a subgenre that inherently has a social message due to its focus on anti-capitalism, anti-racism, and environmentalism. With that in mind, I knew this story would be focused on community, with both human and the more-than-human, but I didn’t set out to write something didactic. I wanted to show positive things, like hopeful futures or queer-normative worldbuilding. I knew I’d be working in the tradition of Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler, but I also wanted to channel the page-turning aspects of their work. Ultimately, I started with the characters and their story. I wanted to see what happened when Eduardo and Rowan went on a quest.
And then where did you get the idea for the plot of When We Hold Each Other Up?
I’ve written about Eduardo a few times before, so I had his character in my head for awhile, though this is the first story that’s been published featuring him. I love found family tropes, and the sort of reluctant parental figure on a quest like we see in The Last Of Us, so when I started writing about Eduardo, this being who has lived through social and ecological collapse, his character really drove the rest of the story. I knew I wanted a foil to him in the character of Rowan, this kid who has grown up in this new, adapting world. Rowan’s view of the world is meant to be different than Eduardo’s, which was one of the struggles and joys to write: how can I look at this changed world through the eyes of someone who has not grown up under capitalism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and so on?
As you’ve said a couple times already, When We Hold Each Other Up is a solarpunk sci-fi story. Are there any other genres at work in this story?
I definitely see it as a majority solarpunk story, though it has a few more fantasy-esque elements with the Harmonizers than something like Psalm For The Wild-Built by Becky Chambers. While Chambers does a great job with this sort of solarpunk robot story, I wanted to look at the nonhuman from a non-A.I. standpoint, which guided me in writing the Harmonizers as beings who melted from glaciers in the 2040s.
When We Hold Each Other Up is your first book, though you’ve written other things, which we’ll get to in a moment. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on When We Hold Each Other Up but not on anything else you’ve written?
Oh, that’s a tough one. I always see what I’m reading as going into this big compost pile in my head and what grows out of it is all intertwined with what I’ve written before. For When We Hold Each Other Up, I’d have to say Le Guin’s The Dispossessed had a big impact on it for her writing about community…though I think that book is influencing just about everything I’m writing currently. Novels with frame narratives were particularly important to this story because I knew I wanted Rowan to be reflecting on traveling with Eduardo. I have a PhD in 20th century U.S. literature, so I was thinking about the narrative traditions of Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner and how to undermine this white male canon at the same time as thinking about N. K. Jemisin and her amazing frame for the Broken Earth trilogy.
When I was originally drafting this novella, the cozy sci-fi / fantasy genre was just gaining popularity, so while I wasn’t reading those books at the time, I was pulling from older books that captured a specific sense of welcome and coziness, particularly Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, which are often also frame narratives, and The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games?
Oh, definitely in the reluctant parent on a quest trope. I have spent too much time playing The Witcher III. I’m too much of a scaredy-cat to play The Last Of Us, but I did watch a friend play it, and I love Joel and Ellie’s relationship. Same with The Mandalorian. I rewatched a lot of season one while drafting this novella. It felt far enough away as a space opera that I wasn’t too worried about it influencing me but there were certain aspects of Mando and his quest that helped me stay creative.
Now, When We Hold Each Other Up sounds like it’s a stand-alone story, but I could see it being the beginning of many adventures for Rowan. So, is Up a stand-alone novella or the first-book in a series?
Currently, it’s a stand-alone, but I would love to keep writing about Rowan. There isn’t really a story behind why; that’s just how the contract shook out at the time. I plan to keep writing about Rowan and Eduardo as at least some short stories in the meantime, but I’d love to do a full length novel or more novellas.
Now, along with When We Hold Each Other Up, you have two other books coming out soon: Fighting For The Future: Cyberpunk And Solarpunk Tales, an anthology you edited (out in July), and a novel called A Shot Of Gin (out October 3rd). Let’s start with Fighting. The title’s kind of a giveaway, but what is that book about, and who are some of the contributors?
Fighting For The Future makes space for the conversation I always felt cyberpunk and solarpunk were having. Solarpunk has never felt, to me, as a rejection of cyberpunk, but in conversation with it. When Android Press presented me with the chance to edit a cyberpunk / solarpunk anthology, I jumped on it because I wanted to let that conversation happen and see what generative ideas came from it. I love how it turned out. Particularly, how the anthology includes transitional stories between the two subgenres. It starts with cyberpunk, including stories from Brent Lambert and Ai Jang, moves into transitional stories bridging the gap between cyberpunk and solarpunk with stories by Lauren C. Teffeau and Kevin Wabaunsee, among others, before turning to solarpunk, including stories by Cory Doctorow and Cynthia Zhang.
As an editor, you never quite know how an anthology will be shaped. I was fascinated to see how community was a driving force for not just the solarpunk stories but also the cyberpunk stories. Cyberpunk is certainly in a transitional moment away from the lone hacker, and I’m excited to see how this anthology will join the ongoing conversations around both cyberpunk and solarpunk.
And do you have a story in Fighting For The Future?
I don’t, actually. Personally, when it comes to editing fiction, I’m hesitant to include my own work. My name already gets to be front and center on the book, so I want the rest of the word count to go to the authors. As it was, I could have made three anthologies with all the excellent work that came in. It was really hard to narrow down the final selection.
Moving on to your novel, A Shot Of Gin, what is that about, and when and where does it take place?
A Shot Of Gin is my love letter to Reno, Nevada, where I lived for a few years while working on my PhD at University of Nevada, Reno. This urban fantasy novel is about Gin, who works security for a vampire-run casino in Reno. She’s a great security guard because vampires can’t drink her blood, but when whatever magic in her blood starts attracting unwanted attention, from irradiated zombies to the powerful vampires of Las Vegas, Gin has to investigate where the power in her blood comes from.
A Shot Of Gin, as you said, is an urban fantasy story. How do you think writing in such different genres made Gin and When We Hold Each Other Up stronger, if at all? Or did it not have that effect?
Even though it’s coming out later, I wrote Gin well before I wrote When We Hold Each Other Up. I’ve always worked in multiple genres, from urban fantasy to space opera to epic fantasy. I think they ended up influencing each other because they are both about community in the end. Urban fantasy is such a place-based genre, often around a specific community, that it was good practice for writing about groups of people inhabiting specific places, and capturing those places on the page. I loved Reno and hope I did right by it in the novel.
Earlier I asked if When We Hold Each Other Up was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Up could work as a series of movies, a TV show, or a game?
I would love to see it as a TV show. It’s already built into sections revolving around specific places, so I could see it being a sort of “community of the week” show, where there are a few episodes in each location: the Nomads, the Riverroaders, the Archivists, and Open Gates. It would fit right in with The Mandalorian and The Last Of Us.
And if someone wanted to make that show, who would you want them to cast as Rowan and the other main characters?
Because Rowan is only fifteen, I’d love to see an open casting call (though I will say I’ve enjoyed Storm Reid since she was in A Wrinkle In Time). I think what they are doing for Percy Jackson And The Olympians is pretty brilliant.
For Eduardo, it’s got to be Diego Luna. I’ve been a fan of his career for years, and he brings such a quiet intensity to his more recent role as Cassian Andor [in Star Wars: Andor]. As he’s also an executive producer on Andor, which was one of the most powerful pieces of anti-fascist science fiction to be released in the past few years, not only would he be a great fit as an actor, but for the type of story I’m trying to tell as well.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about When We Hold Each Other Up?
When I was writing this novella, the cozy sci-fi / fantasy genre hadn’t really grown in popularity, but I think people who enjoy cozy books will like this story. It’s got some action in it, but I was really inspired by how books like The Dispossessed made me feel at home in a way that felt unique to literature. I hope others find a glimpse of home in this solarpunk imagining.
Finally, if someone enjoys When We Hold Each Other Up, what solarpunk sci-fi novel or novella of someone else’s would you recommend they check out next?
There’s been so much coming out! I’d suggest Another Life by Sarena Ulibarri (which I’ve read an ARC for); much of Sim Kern’s recent work; and Cynthia Zhang’s After The Dragons (which is more environmental sci-fi). All of these authors approach solarpunk or environmental issues from different viewpoints, and it’s important to remember that climate change and the interconnected social justice issues will require a variety of responses, not just a singular response, and these books do a great job of giving so many different hopeful possibilities.
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