Alexander Weinstein is the author of the short story collections Universal Love and Children of the New World which was chosen as a notable book of the year by The New York Times, NPR, Google, and Electric Literature. His fiction and interviews have appeared in Rolling Stone, World Literature Today, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, and Best American Experimental Writing. He is the founder and director of The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and a Professor of Creative Writing at Siena Heights University.
Allison Peters: I love Universal Love! In the midst of our strange present, the pandemic has radically changed fundamental elements of human connection, and the future feels more uncertain now than ever in our lifetimes. Do you envision the futures you depict as cautionary tales actually becoming reality sooner than later, or do you think humanity’s experience with coronavirus has shifted our collective perspectives on love, loneliness, technology, togetherness, and what matters in life for the better?
Alexander Weinstein: I’ve been thinking a lot about technology, the pandemic, and love over this past year, and I do think the pandemic has shifted our collective perspective. There was an immediate cessation of our previous way of living and a mandate to head inside (both literally and spiritually). Everything came to a standstill, and amid all the death and fear, we found ourselves focusing on what was absolutely essential. Suddenly the waters were becoming cleaner, the smog disappeared, the Ganges was no longer filled with plastic, dolphins returned to the waters of Italy, whales took back their oceanic passageways, our cities were being visited by coyotes, and there was the sound of crickets singing in LA. The wilderness was returning, and the landscape was like a scene out of one of my stories. I don’t think we’ve ever had such a time of complete global unity and collective consciousness. And in those first weeks I had immense hope for humanity. Perhaps we were being given a last chance and this pandemic would finally transform the destructive ways we’d been living. And then…we began fighting over toilet paper.
Which is to say: I was crestfallen by how effectively and thoroughly humanity misses opportunities for unity and love. Which, of course, is what many of my stories in Universal Love are about. They are warnings—wherein I’m saying: let’s be careful about how we’re sacrificing our humanity to technology—and they’re also tales of hope for human connection.
AP: Are all eleven stories in this new collection part of the same timeline, or do they each interpret different possibilities for what the future might hold for humanity? And are the futures portrayed in Universal Love related to those in Children of the New World?
AW: I like to think of them as various points on a cohesive dystopian timeline. “Comfort Porn,” with its Tinder-like technology, is pretty close to where we presently find ourselves (I imagine that story is probably only five years in the future). The robotic children in the story “Childhood” are maybe fifteen years from now. And the flooding of Earth that happens in “Islanders” is the most distant timeline of all. Maybe forty to fifty years?
There’s lots of small hidden connections between the worlds of the two collections. For example, the flooding in “Islanders” is the precursor of the frozen setting in “Ice Age” (the final story in Children of the New World). The mall that the father/son visit in “Islanders” is the same mall that a father and son visit in the story “Migration” (from Children of the New World). And the company that manufactures the robotic child Yang (in Children of the New World) is the same one producing the newer, more emotional robotic children in “Childhood” (Universal Love).
AP: I read that Lulu Wang is directing a film adaptation of Children of the New World. So exciting! I also read that your short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang” is being made into a movie starring Colin Farrell. Can you talk about the build up that led from the page to the screen, what the adaptation process is like, and if you’re writing the screenplays?
AW: Film is one of my favorite art forms, so it’s a joy to watch my stories becoming movies. I’m a huge fan of Lulu Wang’s films, and I’m thrilled to have her working on the screenplay. Similarly, I love Koganada’s work, and am a big fan of Colin Farrell’s, so the adaptation of “Saying Goodbye to Yang” is a dream come true. In both cases, I’ve left the magic of screenwriting to the directors/scriptwriters. They’re the artists and experts in those fields and I trust their vision. The collaborative part comes from creative conversations that I’ll have with the directors. For example, in the case of “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” Kogonada and I talked about various plotlines and additions to Yang’s story, and Lulu Wang and I have been talking about the thematic expansions of Children.
Something I find amazing about the process is how filmmakers often pick up on underlying ideas hidden in early drafts of my stories. For example, the landscape of the film After Yang is a green future, almost Solar Punk in nature. This reflects my own hopes for a greener, more ecological future. This, however, was something I cut from the original draft because it felt superfluous to the tight constraints of the short story (the only hint remaining in the actual story is the mention of solar cars). So, in this way, the directors get to bring to life a much deeper dimension of my fiction.
AP: In “Beijing,” the concept of “patching” is described as filling memories “like cavities.” The story takes place at a time when oxygen stations are as common as gas stations, and it’s become more and more popular for people to “patch” over bad memories to overcome depression. “I’m healed and you’re bringing me down,” David (a patched man) tells his unpatched lover, Gabriel. Do you think our suffering (or our memories of suffering) are partly what connect us and make us human? In what ways do we “patch” today, and is there anything redeeming about this Eternal Sunshine-esque technique to forget?
AW: The Buddhists believe that suffering is not merely part of what makes us human, but a gateway through which we can heal our inner wounds and karmic inheritances in this lifetime. And while I don’t enjoy suffering (who does!) it does have great value in changing us for the better. And yet Western society is incredibly adept at finding ways to run from suffering or try to “patch” it over. I think this escapism can be seen in our daily addictions to technology, pop culture, consumerism, advertising, drinking, smoking, drug addiction, etc. There’s a plethora of ways we’re trying to run from suffering, and I think we struggle with the challenges of slowing down, examining our own shadows, and working to heal them.
This is what I’m exploring in “Beijing,” where patching is a technological party drug that fills in neuropathways of depression. Characters can “feel good” but beneath the partying is an urge to escape unresolved trauma by constantly patching. I see this as akin to using ecstasy or plant medicines recreationally to “party” rather than heal, and David’s use of patching in the story is ultimately a flawed approach to overcoming depression, precisely because he’s never dealing with the deepest core of his sorrow. On the other hand, neuroscience suggests that we can wear grooves into our thinking—ditches of depression, anxiety, and sorrow—and I think Gabriel’s constant rehashing of his trauma can create this kind of eternal trap. So, I also see the benefit of the Eternal Sunshine patching, because sometimes you can’t think yourself out of your pain.
I personally like to think there’s a middle way between David and Gabriel’s attempts at healing suffering, one that I’m hinting at near the end of the story. That it’s the ability to finally sit with suffering—not trying to erase it by patching or “fixing it” through endless processing—but simply being able to sit with that suffering and accepting it.
AP: “But this isn’t how people are supposed to live. You need love. You need friendship.” The dialogue you craft in “Comfort Porn” is incredibly moving, heartfelt, and tragic. Why do you think humans sometimes deprioritize or reject what we need? Are we so afraid of what we truly want that anxiety holds us back? Self-consciousness takes over for the story’s main character Mandy, as she fantasizes about belonging, longing to be included and loved. After some enlightening conversation with an old friend, Mandy sheds a little anxiety: “I don’t care if they think I’m acting for a selfie video; it feels good.” Is following that feeling of feeling good a good gauge for living life, do you think?
AW: In Mandy’s case, yes. It’s a very positive choice for her, because the context is that she’s legitimately showing genuine emotion (she’s waving to a friend in real life rather than recording herself waving so to upload the video and get likes about how she’s “waving to a friend”). For her, following the feeling of good means stepping away from the selfie culture and actually feeling her loneliness and her need for people.
And this is what the story “Comfort Porn” is about: the anxiety we have of always having to present ourselves online. Thanks to social media, many of us live in a deeply hyperactive state of constant performativity. It’s practicing a thousand smiles for the perfect selfie, a hundred kissy-lip faces or mid-air jumps to get the ideal social media post or dating profile pic which captures the idea that we’re “having fun” or we’re “sexy” or that we’re enjoying ourselves. Then we search for filters, dodge and burn our wrinkles out of the photo, and spend hours making sure all our photos portray a highly curated version of our lives.
I don’t think this kind of hyper-consciousness actually feels good. How can it? It’s a highly produced advertising campaign we’re running for ourselves! And I think this creates precisely what you suggest, an anxiety that holds us back from actual happiness. The anxiety is the distance between our emotional inner lives and the outer masks we feel we need to project.
AP: Would you consider “We Only Wanted Their Happiness” a horror story? The arc and tone remind me of Get Out or Rosemary’s Baby meets Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone. Toward the end of the story, that “Please…” and the sinister smiles freak me out! I find it fascinating how you explore the future of family and children-parent relationships in your stories. What are your thoughts on the evolving intersection of parenting, technology, and happiness?
AW: Yes, totally! It’s a slow-burn horror story—which is actually what parenting with technology feels like these days. This particular story came out of my own battle in controlling my son’s media consumption. This is a subject every twenty-first-century parent of a tween/teenager can attest to: We’ve lost our kids to technology! Whether it was the iPhone we got them for Christmas, or the PS5, or the avatars of Fortnite, our children were suddenly sucked into the very devices/games that we hoped would bring them happiness. Meanwhile the dinner on the table is getting cold as we call them for the eighth time, or they’re secretly watching YouTube beneath the covers when they should be sleeping. Getting our kids to do anything—like read a book, or go for a bicycle ride, or build a fort in nature—has become boring to them. So, our kids wait until we are tired of asking them to do things with us, and then they go right back to their games, and we go right back to scrolling through our Facebook and Instagram feeds.
AP: One reviewer described your stories as “so beautiful and often funny but also occasionally deeply sad—and isn’t that the way of life, especially right now?” Despite (or in light of) the strains of intimacy and elusiveness of meaning, there’s something painstakingly human about your books—notes of empathy, hope, and compassion flavor these dark, disturbing, clever, thought-provoking, imaginative stories. The New York Times said your stories contain “moments of moral complexity and, even more challenging—and more moving—moments of grace.” How has grace shown up in real life to inspire you creatively, and what gives you hope during difficult times?
AW: I’m so happy to hear you talk about the themes, because hope, intimacy, and compassion are crucial to my work. I believe art and literature have the power to let us reconnect with our hearts. It’s this kind of transcendentalism—of a character transcending the limitations of their own egos and melodramas in order to deeply connect with others—which is at the center of nearly every story I write. As you point out, much of this has to do with the sacredness of these moments in real life. It’s my son’s small hand in my own at nine years old, or him crossing a room at seventeen for a hug—this is the gold of life. It’s looking at your beloved beneath the covers that’s the treasure of life. It’s small moments of kindness from strangers—a person in the checkout line telling a joke or giving a compliment that suddenly lightens the day. These are moments of true grace, and they have cosmic significance. They are small sacred actions that provide light and hope. Singing together does this, as does gathering to hear a reading, or to celebrate someone’s birthday.
Everything I’m speaking of requires human contact—which, of course, has been difficult to achieve during this pandemic. And yet, there were people singing together from their balconies in Italy during lockdown, or whole cities banging pots and pans to thank our healthcare workers, or Zoom calls where, again and again, we reach out to connect with one another. It’s here that I see the beauty and grace of humanity. And these moments are vital, particularly during the tumultuous times we’re living through.
AP: In what ways has the pandemic altered your writing life? Do you have a routine for your creative work or any advice for writers eager to focus more on producing than consuming in the Covid era?
AW: I used to be a write-when-inspired author. This meant that I might have weeks of productivity, but also weeks of no writing at all. And then, suddenly, I was home all the time. So, I began to work on a novel—one wherein I could channel my pandemic feelings of hope, fear, and love into my fiction. And soon enough I was writing every day and have been for the past year. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve been a daily writer, and the first time that I’m working on a novel.
As for a schedule, I find it best if I write first thing in the morning, otherwise it’s too easy for emails and daily tasks to suck up my writing time. And I make it a priority to return to my writing for at least an hour every day. A couple secrets that I found in the process: 1) Rather than seek perfection, I simply seek the practice of writing. 2) It’s vital that I stay open to the mystery of the story. I don’t need to know everything about the plot to write, I just need to continually listen to where the story wants to go. 3) When I get tired of creating new work, I go back and edit, expand, and revise. 4) Writing can be a spiritual practice—the very place I return to find silence and solace. And: 5) Sometimes the writing for the day is simply practice. It’s like practicing scales on the piano (maybe today’s practice is dialogue, or theme, or setting). The discernment between what is practicing scales and what is concert material is a great strength of revision.
AP: Your books have been so well-received, and Universal Love seems to pick up right where Children of the New World left off. What do you find most appealing about writing stories set in the future? And what are you working on next?
AW: Near-future worlds allow me to explore emotions much more easily than realism does, because the lens of speculative fiction offers metaphors that let me get at some of my deepest emotions. For some reason, a robot child can give me access to my own feelings about parenthood in a way that I’d have trouble accessing if I were to write non-fiction or realism. Part of this is the power of metaphor. Since I’m not writing directly about the subject, the metaphor opens up new, unexplored avenues for the story—and each of these avenues lets me focus on the actual worldbuilding and metaphysics rather than the emotion itself. In my story, Islanders, for example, I’m writing about a flooded world where a father is teaching his son to dive beneath the waves to find treasures from our old, drowned civilization. In building that world, I realized that I was also writing a story about my son getting ready to sail away for college, and my hopes that he’ll take the treasures of our life with him. So, it’s this moment of slippage (when I think I’m just creating the world, but I’m also unconsciously writing about deeper emotions) that allows the mystery to enter.
I’m presently working on a novel set in a post-collapse world where nature has ravaged the planet. Within this landscape a 12-year-old boy is making his way through the remains of post-apocalyptic gated communities and twenty-first-century disaster in search of the fabled city of New Orleans that his father once told him bedtime stories about. It’s been great fun to explore the world of the novel, and I’m looking very much forward to bringing it to the world soon.