Today, Erica’s debut novel, STAY CRAZY, arrives from Apex Book Company, and it’s probably quite unlike anything you’ve ever read — exactly like her short fiction is.
Erica dropped by to talk about the book, mental illness, and badgers in books.
Tell us how Stay Crazy came to be.
I had just graduated from college and I was working in a certain big-box store, frozen food aisle, night shift. The work was extremely tedious and to pass the time I started making up stories in my head, and eventually I’d built the story that would become Stay Crazy and I spent the next year thinking about it until I finally started writing it down. I’d also just discovered Philip K. Dick, so a lot of my story ideas were pulled in the direction of alternate realities. The story went through numerous mental revisions, and the only constant was a being that spoke through RFID chips.
Anyway, in 2005 I actually wrote the book, and then I revised it a decade later, because my writing process is counterproductive and makes absolutely no sense. However, I became a much better writer in the time that elapsed between the two drafts, so it’s a lot better for that period of abeyance.
Stay Crazy tackles some big themes, namely mental illness. How did you approach research?
In the year before I wrote it and while I was working on the revision (these two things happened almost a decade apart), I read upwards of two dozen memoirs written by people with schizophrenia. I read a few clinical books, too, but for the most part I stuck strictly to first-person narratives. Among the best of these were The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Saks, The Eden Express by Mark Vonnegut, and The Day the Voices Stopped by Ken Steele.
But even more than striving for authenticity, I was striving for empathy. Fictional characters with schizophrenia typically only fill one role, that of a killer. In reality, someone like Em would be vastly more likely to be a victim of violent crime than a perpetrator. I also didn’t want the novel to be about mental illness; Stay Crazy isn’t meant to inform but to entertain. If it does happen to change someone’s perspective on people with schizophrenia, though, so much the better.
One of the things I like best about Stay Crazy is that Emmeline gets to be the hero–where normally someone with a mental illness would not be thrust into that role. She’s almost a Cassandra at times–with people not believing her because her illness has caused them to doubt even her normal reactions. Was that a challenge to write–everyone in the book may think Em is unreliable, but she knows her own truth?
That’s actually my favorite thing about the book, the layering of different types of unreality. Even Em doesn’t really know her own truth at first, and she backs off from it several times. And not to get too far into spoilers, but she isn’t always right – I wanted to make her both reliable and unreliable, sort of a broken Cassandra. One coping mechanism used by most people with schizophrenia is reality testing, the constant checking of one’s internal sense of what is real with the way other people are reacting to a stimulus. So there are two conflicting realities; on the one hand there’s definitely something supernatural going on since Em’s coworkers are dying in droves, and her internal senses tell her that Escodex and the entity are real, but she’s been wrong so many times before. And the stakes for her are so high; a neurotypical protagonist who uncovers a sinister plot against the universe might get brushed off, but Em is in real danger of getting locked up in a mental hospital if the people around her discover what she’s doing. This is the kind of ontological quandary that I eat up with a spoon.
I quite enjoyed Escodex, an interdimensional investigator who must’ve been often frustrated by the limitations placed on him in this case. Any plans to explore Escodex’s world?
This is a standalone novel, so probably not. Although I guess if people really wanted a short story from his perspective…
The artwork for Stay Crazy is amazing; who’s the artist? Did you have input on the art?
Isn’t it so great? The art is by Nick Brokenshire. He’s the artist for Amelia Cole, a comic that just finished its run and is available from IDW in 5 volumes. I met him because my friend Adam Knave co-wrote the story with his frequent collaborator, DJ Kirkbride. It also features a young woman in a contemporary setting who stumbles across a supernatural realm.
It was really difficult to find pre-existing art that worked, because a store doesn’t usually make for exciting subject matter. A lot of the potential art just seemed way too dark when paired with the title, so I asked Apex if we could pay for original art instead of licensing something, and Nick came up with some sketches based on the synopsis. So far people seem to really like it! I think it really fits with the tone of the novel, plus it ties into Em’s interest in alternative comic books.
Was there a particular scene in Stay Crazy that was especially challenging or fun to write?
Em’s hallucination scenes were the part of the book that required the most research but also flowed the best once I actually started writing them. The challenge was to always keep two seemingly opposing truths in mind: Em knows her hallucinations are not real, but at the same time they feel so real that she gets swept up anyway. So they had to come across as both true and false, be something that readers can tell is too bizarre to be real yet have them understand how and why a person would still be taken in by them.
Do you think Em has sworn off TV dinners forever?
Wouldn’t you? Of course, one can’t truly trust fresh foods either. Don’t trust anything!
Your fiction is often touching, but still always recognizable for the absolutely weird things going on: eyeballs in unexpected places, sentient forests, cyborg butlers, people selling actual pieces of themselves. Are there any specific writers who influenced your style?
Aside from the obvious influence of Philip K. Dick, I’m also a fan of James Tiptree, Jr., Cordwainer Smith, Samuel Delany, and J.G. Ballard. Among newer writers, Daryl Gregory and Kelly Link are two of my favorites. I’ve had a weird, uneven schooling in science fiction. Never read Asimov, only read one Heinlein and that was as an adult. So I don’t feel constrained at all by any Golden Age nostalgia. I think SF should be as weird as possible at all times.
Do you have a favorite short story among your own?
I’m pretty partial to “States of Emergency” (which appeared in Shimmer #26) just because it was an attempt to be as weird as possible without the hindrance of a cohesive plot. Down with plot! My current best story is still in a slush pile, and saying too much about the story will jinx it, but it may just have the strangest voice of anything I’ve ever written.
Will you put a badger in your next book?
No, but there’s a woodchuck that navigates the multiverse.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
When I figure it out you’ll be the first to know!
If Stay Crazy had a soundtrack, what would the first three tracks be?
I actually had a full soundtrack for the novel at one point, each song cued to a specific scene, but I don’t know where it is anymore. But the tracks that were most thematically apt (as opposed to just having the right tempo for the scene) were “Where Is My Mind?” by the Pixies, “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse” by Of Montreal, and “Sick of Goodbyes” by Sparklehorse.
What’s next for you?
In January I finished an alien abduction/sinister terraforming novel currently called Human After All, and once Stay Crazy is released I hope to get into editing the thing. I also want to write more short fiction, I haven’t written a single short story in 2016 and that’s way too big of a gap. I’ll be honest, getting this book out was a lot more stressful than I thought it would be, so I’m also looking forward to just relaxing a bit and working on some projects that don’t come with a timeline. Although I hope it doesn’t take me ten years to revise the next book!
Erica L. Satifka is a writer and/or friendly artificial construct, forged in a heady mix of iced coffee and sarcasm. She enjoys rainy days, questioning reality, ignoring her to-do list, and adding to her collection of tattoos. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Shimmer,