Genre Chick Interview: Jeff Carlson

If you like to sleep at night, stay away from this book!  Jeff Carlson’s pulse-pounding debut novel, Plague Year, has turned the world of science-fiction thrillers completely upside down. The undaunted and unafraid Genre Chick Alethea Kontis dons her hazmat gear and gets extreme with the Bionic Man.


Alethea KontisPlague Year has one of the most terrifying and original high concepts I’ve ever come across. What is wrong with your brain that you could even think up something like this?

Jeff Carlson:  The setting was easy: that the only safe places on Earth are above 10,000 feet because of a nanotech plague. I literally built this story from the top down. I’m a life-long backpacker and snow skier, and as a writer, I’m always on the hunt for cool ideas. My brother and I had just had one of those incomparable powder days among the cliffs and trees of our local resort. It was time to leave because we both needed to be at work the next morning, and I thought, “What if we couldn’t go home?”  We’d been snowed in before, but I began to think, “What if we could never go home again?”

AK: And yet you seem so optimistic…

JC: It’s funny. I’m a very upbeat guy, but now that the book is out, I do get strange looks from people who are wondering if they ever really knew me–or from strangers who assume I’d just as soon kill ’em and eat ’em.

AK: Did you freak yourself out while writing this book?

JC: Plague Year is extremely tense. There wasn’t any other way to write it. If you change the world so that no warm-blooded life can survive below 10,000 feet, things get ugly in a hurry. To start with, the biosphere goes out of whack. The insects take over. Imagine an ant swarm as big as a city block!

More important to the story, though, human beings are among the smartest, toughest creatures on the planet. In a crisis, some people will fail. But there are always others who rise to the occasion. Any occasion. To me, that’s fascinating.

AK:  Your heroes, the survivors, are all strong and intelligent characters, but they’re also deeply flawed.  What was it like living with these people as you worked on the novel?

JC:  It was great fun! I was safe in my house with plenty to eat, electricity, a hot shower and a car, my laptop, you name it.

I’m always a reader first. Writing is an extension of that. I wanted to see what happened, and with Plague Year, I was able to use all three classic elements of story: man against nature, man against man, and man against himself. The environment is lethal. The people are murderers. And everyone has to find a way to live with what they’ve done to stay alive.

AK:  Do you work in a nanotech lab? What was your background for the science involved in Plague Year?

JC:  The nanotech in the book is 100% real. There’s a lot of eye-popping material being published in the field right now, and I also attended talks on the subject and then mercilessly hounded the speakers afterward.  Thank God for e-mail.

We’re still a few breakthroughs short of building a prototype like the one that gets loose in Plague Year, but here’s the thing: there are also hundreds of private labs around the world that aren’t publishing their work. Some are military. Others are quietly developing medical technologies like the one in the book, and nobody really knows how far they’ve advanced.

Plague Year could happen tomorrow. That’s the freaky part.

AK:  You were recently a winner in the prestigious Writers of the Future short story contest, and you’re also collaborating with New York Times bestseller David Brin on a new adventure series. And you’re writing a sequel to Plague Year that will be published next summer. Are you about to burst into fire?

JC:   Probably! The amount of stuff I’ve learned in the past year is enough to explode anyone’s brain.  I’m only held together with Band-Aids, caffeine, and jalapeño bagels at this point.

First of all, I could not more strongly endorse the WOTF contest to any aspiring writer. They pay great, you’re published in a sharp-looking anthology with phenomenal distribution, and, most important, they fly you in for eight days of hardcore writing workshops. It’s like being strapped down for a thousand injections of writing basics, tips, secrets, and opportunities.

David has also been a mentor. It’s awe-inspiring to be working with someone whose books warped my mind as a kid, and I’m soaking up as much technique as I can handle. Our new series, Colony High, is a great big classic adventure in the vein of Heinlein’s Tunnel In The Sky, and I for one couldn’t be happier with the project.

As for my sequel War Day, it ratchets up the all-or-nothing stakes from Plague Year to an even wilder ride.  I like to think these novels have it all. There are insect swarms, mad scientists, commandos in hazmat suits, large-scale invasions for safe ground, lost cities, lies and betrayals, and new surprises.

AK:  Word is you’ve got some fun stuff on your Web site?

JC:  Readers can find a free excerpt of Plague Year and one of my favorite short stories on my Web site, along with upcoming tour dates and a lot of other goodies like a science-fiction trivia contest. Top prizes include the chance to name a character after yourself or a friend either in War Day or in Colony High. See you there!

AK:  I usually end with asking who’s your favorite superhero, but… is it true you have a titanium skeleton like Wolverine?

JC:   Who have you been talking to? Yes. You’ve learned the truth! But now Defense Intelligence is going to cart you away to a nice, quiet cell.

No, seriously. After a couple surgeries, my right leg is still reinforced with a 14″ rod, a 4″ plate, and a large handful of assorted screws. I got a little too excited after two days of fresh snow and forgot that I was skiing, not paragliding. There’s actually a great photo from the day before on my Web site if anyone’s curious. Big air, baby.