By Matt Switliski
Julie C. Day has published fiction in magazines such as Interzone, PodCastle, Electric Velocipede, and Farrago’s Wainscot, among others. Her debut short story collection Uncommon Miracles was released by PS Publishing in 2018, and her 2019 novella The Rampant (Aqueduct Press) was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. Last year she served as editor-in-chief for Weird Dream Society, an anthology benefiting the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. A graduate of the Stonecoast MFA program through the University of Southern Maine, she’s writing a mosaic novel set in the city of Driesch, currently being serialized monthly on the Vernacular Books website.
The milieu of Driesch, where did that come from as a concept? And then what made you decide to stick with it and do a novel-in-stories?
Driesch originally was a story I was working on—I can’t even remember which story it was. I have many of these partially finished constructs that have a certain right energy, but which I fail to figure out their correct final form. For this story, let’s call it story X, I’d spent a lot of time on the world-building. I do a lot of world-building. That’s one of my strengths, I think. And so I’ll spend a lot of time on this story, many, many pages. And like other similar stories, it sat in my laptop’s Unfinished Projects folder. And there it likely would have remained. But I met a guy at a café who worked for a role-playing game. We were both regulars, and one day he took an interest in all the papers I’d spread around my space as I worked on my novella The Rampant. It was a mess! So I was talking to him about world-building and the deep dive I was currently performing. And in one of those weird “creatives” moments, he’s like, “I work with a company that creates role-playing games, and we’re looking for writers who can come up with interesting worlds.” And being the fool that I am, I said, “Oh, okay. Sure.”
Still not taking it too seriously, I took a couple of my short stories that I hadn’t been able to find the end of, and I made three quick proposals. And surprise, surprise, despite my lack of RPG experience, they came back with an offer for one of them. At that point, the world was similar to the Driesch you’ll find in the mosaic novel, but it involved ghosts rather than AI. Cyber-fantasy maybe? I did a ton of work on it, NPCs, a map, terminology, etc. But it was never an exact fit. Finally, we got to the point where it was time for me to deliver the final draft. That’s when they told me, “There’s a big part of the work that you need to do that’s about being the DM.” And I nearly lost my mind. One, with kids, and a day job and my fiction writing, I’m super busy. Two, I don’t game. So I made one of those prioritizing decisions and decided I’m not gonna do this. And into the virtual drawer it went.
And then Joe McDermott at Vernacular Books reached out to me. He said, “I want you to be part of my anthology, The Way of the Laser, an anthology of near-future crime stories.” I’m usually not a fast writer. The idea was rather terrifying. I knew I’d need a crutch. So I went back through my Unfinished Projects folder and I grabbed my Driesch document. Because my life is generally overbooked, I hid like an ostrich. Mid-December 2019 Joe came to me and was like, “How’s your story going?” And I’m like, “I haven’t started it, but it’ll be done by the deadline, January 2020.” That’s when I got the news-to-me, the deadline was actually the end of the December. Joe was really amazing, he basically gave me an extension. “Well, we need it ASAP, but we don’t want to leave you out.” In other words, when I started writing I was already behind schedule. I didn’t have the time to do my usual meticulous research and mapping as I transformed a ghost-based world to an AI-based world. Instead, I just went kind of wild and fast. And somehow in less than a month, with the encouragement of Joe, Vernacular’s other owner, Eric Bosage, and two dear writing friends, I managed to deliver “Speculative Execution.”
Somehow, Joe had gotten me to write a story from first to final draft in less than a month, which was something I never done before. Actually, I didn’t think it was something I was capable of doing. And then came COVID, and I basically stopped writing. As a café writer, my usual writing schedule was completely shot, as was my state of mind. And then another one of those “creatives” weird moments occurred. I went to a Zoom Halloween event for Vernacular Books As part of that event, I did a reading from “Speculative Execution,” and I thought, “You know, I could do something more with this world. I have a couple more stories I can already see popping out at me.”
I’ve known Joe and Eric for years, and I really appreciated Joe’s encouragement while writing that first Driesch story. He was somehow able to stop me from freezing or backing out under the pressure. It occurred to me that he might be able to do that again. So I reached out to Joe and straight out asked, “Joe, do you want to be my accountability coach? Because I’m no good without a deadline, and I’m not writing. I’m really not writing.” It was a total writing-friend to writing-friend ask, but he came back to me with this professional offer for a mosaic novel instead. I thought, “Well, certainly one way to back myself into a writing corner is to just sign the contract.” So fool that I was, I said sure. I actually thought, “I’ve already got so much world-building done, it won’t be that bad.” The more realist parts of the decision revolved around skills and my support network. I’ve been writing for a while now, and I know I have some pretty good craft skills. I also have some terrific writing partners, and I knew they wouldn’t let me send anything out that was horrendous. Both the falsehood around world-building and the two truths around skills and friends gave me the confidence to say, “Yeah, I can pull this off.” And then, like any project once you get into it, the truth set in. At least for now, the world-building is a lot bigger than I expected. It’s also really entertaining. Somehow, I went from a ghost-world short story collecting virtual dust to an AI-world mosaic novel published in serial form. In other words, life as usual.
In the stories, thoughts collide on the page, marked out by different typography. How did you go about landing on that effect conceptually and then representing it in writing?
It is a tricky thing to do, and it took some time to think through. I went back and looked at Ancillary Justice hoping it would help. Ann Leckie created a main character who’s actually a mind fragmented across many bodies. But I realized her concept didn’t require the same logistics on the page. She had a single mind with multiple POVs, the interactions are fascinating to read, but the writing itself can be done using standard back and forth dialog and shifts in visual perspectives. In Driesch I have single-POV characters with multiple, interacting consciousnesses. From a writing perspective, that makes it incredibly difficult to lay out on a page. It’s also exactly what this world is all about: fragmentation of the mind. I didn’t want to lose that concept. I’ve been interested in the connection between personality and the human brain for a while now. We human beings are fragmented consciousnesses. We have multiple neural networks in our brains. We argue with ourselves for a reason. We’re really not one voice within our heads. Running parallel to those ideas is a more painful person connection to this theme. My father has Alzheimer’s. Watching someone deal with and go through that disease is heart-wrenching. There’s a fragmentation of self that is observed by the individual experiencing it. I think that’s somewhere in there too.
For me, one of the real draws of genre is the ability to explore a topic by increasing the intensity. I’m increasing the intensity of fragmentation and loss of self and playing around with that in a world where people are purposefully given multiple voices. So in a way this is an environment where in the worst-case scenario individuals are overwhelmed by the many voices in their heads. Some of those voices maybe nothing but looping ideas—much like those negative tapes we all replay—some of those voices are actual consciousnesses that may or may not have their own agendas, much like the actual arguments we all have regarding whether to eat the cake or go to the gym. And like that cake-voice some of the voices, though they are “yours,” have agendas that may be to your detriment. In real life, we’re dealing with these many voices all the time. Now imagine if those voices are joined by others, inserted for a variety of reasons. And imagine trying to parse your thoughts while also trying to protect yourself from the possibility of infiltration and permanent fragmentation. That’s pretty much Driesch.
When you have those lines or those moments where there is another consciousness breaking through, did you write “normally” and just keep telling the story as is and find those moments to revise them in, or did you do it as you were going along, like “This seems like a good place for that”?
I just did it. That part’s easy peasy lemon squeezy. It’s so integral to how the world works that that kind of stuff, the jumping into multi-voices, happens naturally. In truth, the easiest part of the writing has been the inline interjections along with the script-length dialog between the multi-selves. The time-eater is the world-building; it takes forever. In this latest story I’m working on, I have a social club. Right now, I’m still poking around how I’m gonna present it. For Driesch, I’ve been leaning into the 1900s. While I’ve dredged a lot from Europe, Euro-centric only goes so far. When I started working on the first story, I chose São Paulo as my secret place to find street names. Basically, I go to Google Maps and I look for names that I can use. And then, of course, I get interested in other aspects of the city. Brazil has the largest Japanese community outside of Japan, and São Paulo has the largest Japanese-Brazilian population, a lot of it now three generations in.
As I was writing the second story, which involved a refugee, I started looking at some of the information concerning Japanese-Brazilians. I needed to get out of my own limited thoughts and experiences. This kind of side research is something I often do when world-building. By grounding a fictional situation in something that’s true but is beyond my own experience, I can expand the depth of the fictional world. I’m limited in what I know. But without appropriating, if I can go, “Look at this complicated, layered thing that happens in reality when you have these kinds of environments,” then I can take that information in and make sure it’s part of how I approach what I’m doing, in this case the refugee experience. All of which makes it take a friggin’ while. Though, of course, much of this world-building never makes it onto the page. Instead, it’s indirect. It informs what I write and present.
Do your stories start with character, image, scenario, world? Or does it vary: This story started this way, this story started this other way?
Historically, I start with the emotional heart of the story. It’s generally a feeling or a moment. I’ll build from that. It may actually look like a flash piece to other people, but it’s not. After I have that start, I’ll go, “Okay, now it’s time to figure out where the hell I am and who this person is.” It’s not a logical progression. I don’t say, “Where am I? What’s the situation?” Instead, I start to set limitations, for example West Texas versus an island. The more decisions I make, the more the story comes together. The more paths I cut off by saying, “It’s summer” and “It’s in a location along the coast,” no matter how much more difficult it makes the writing, it also creates something that’s unique unto itself. I am all about putting in creative roadblocks by making decisions. It’s the best way for me to find the actual plot—which for me tends to come late in the process. By spending time on the environmental details, I come across information that I wouldn’t have otherwise gathered. As a result of the information I bump into, the story keeps transforming until I end up with a final “something.” Like I said, it’s not a straightforward recipe. It’s more of a tangled mess.
So then how much research do you generally do or how do you go about your research? What’s the role of research with Driesch?
I do a lot of research. Mostly it’s Internet research. I used to buy books and get more out of the library. I haven’t done that in a while. It’s very much what I call a magpie approach to research. The first story in the Driesch cycle included a glass-artist, Even if it hadn’t, I had to learn about glass; it was a key part of the world. So I looked at some videos of factories that make glass, I looked at the Corning Glassware Museum online, I read about types of glass and looked up where all the raw material for borosilicate glass—the glass you’d need in a Glassed-AI world—can be found. I spent time figuring that out and choosing which locations Driesch’s raw materials would come from. And then I wrote about the importation of all these goods because the importing of the goods is a story point. When you’re building an environment, it’s not just that you’re building an environment. You’re building into it pressure points. So the fact that you have to import elements that are essential to your world means there’s a point there where you can have people controlling that, people fighting for that, people withholding that, blah blah blah blah blah. It’s full of dramatic possibilities.
So I do all that writing then I go, “No, I don’t need any of that in this story.” I save all the information somewhere, but does it make it into the story? No. This approach is one of the reasons my stories generally take so much time to write.
When I’m writing these Driesch stories, in order to be fast, I have, say, maybe five or seven documents of what I think are the story—various starts and stops, lovely paragraphs full of info dumps—basically, I’m freaking out because I’ve got so many words all over the place and that damn voice in my head keeps asking me, “How am I gonna find the story?”
What I would normally do is I would spend time with the research, I would build the world, I would draft and re-draft. I would not leave XXX or parentheses within sentences without tracking down the actual XXX food item or [character name]. In the past it’s been the only way I know how to rein myself in. My writing and my thought processes are circuitous. I’m inarticulate when I write a first draft. I’m in the moment. More than that, I’m impressionistic. With these Driesch stories, I’m having to make a blobby mess then go back and refine it. It’s just a friggin’ free-for-all. And then I print up the free-for-all—print it all up—and I look at it and I’m like [noises of revulsion]. And then I start to pull out the elements that I think I can work with. Based on the first two stories in the cycle, with the deadlines I have just enough pressure to get through the chaos of this non-process and find the final draft.
What’s been different about your writing process with this project?
I talked about that a little already. The thing about this project is that each story of mine is a baby, and I usually wanna find the right home for my babies. I don’t aim at a market when I write. I try to find homes for my stories. And I don’t let them go out into the world until I feel comfortable with them. This project is just so weird in that I don’t have any real feedback from readers, and yet I’m zooming ahead with this entire thing, not knowing whether I have readers or I don’t have readers. I have beta readers, so I do know the stories are at least solid, but it’s so much less curated, the experience of writing these stories, than I’m used to. Usually I can remember lines and word choices when I think about a specific story. My writing can be painfully meticulous. With the Driesch stories, because I’m writing them at a much faster rate, I can’t hold them in my head as much as I’d like. It’s almost like I can’t give them the love that I normally would. So I hope that there’s someone at the other end catching them and appreciating them.
But that’s part of my worry, actually: Does this new process work? And I need more feedback and time to figure that out. I’d love to have some independent readers who get super excited about the world and really wanna find out what I’ll do next.
So without giving too much away, what is next?
So serial killers, or a Glassed-world version of serial killers, is what I’m working on for the third story. I spent a few months just doodling ideas before I got started with the actual writing of the novel. I know where the whole story cycle lands. Perhaps that will change, but right now the ending will circle back to the characters from the beginning of the cycle. What happens in the middle is less clear. I have the first three or four stories sketched, and then I have sketched ideas for the last one or two, but the middle part, who the hell knows? As a cycle, I think the book, as a whole, will tie things up in a satisfying way. It helps that the characters we’re rooting for in story one and story two return at the end of the cycle along with the not-so-nice characters from story two and story three. Other than those tidbits, I’ll hold off and let you read the actual cycle to find out what happens.