Jennifer Marie Brissett‘s novel Elysium begins with a scene in a city that’s recognizable to the reader. People go about their daily lives; friends stop at stores and dine at restaurants. And then, suddenly, there’s a burst of code and things change. Some of them are subtle; others are much more significant. At the heart of the book is the relationship between two people–but who those people are remains in a state of constant flux. Sometimes their relationship is romantic; sometimes it’s familial. And slowly, the landscape in which they live becomes more and more altered. It’s a dizzying reading experience: each of the permutations that the narrative undergoes is compelling on its own, but the way in which they all come together makes for the proverbial whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a moving, memorable novel, and I reached out to Brissett to learn more about its origins and what’s next for her.
While reading Elysium, I was impressed by the sections of code that interrupt and shift the narrative. Was it difficult to balance having code that read as believable code but would also be understandable to readers without a programming background?
It wasn’t really hard at all. Most code is designed to be readable. That makes it easier for different coders to work on the same codebase. I played with some ideas that are in UNIX/LINUX because that operating system already has some neat subversive undertones embedded in it. Daemons and the number 666 show up as a normal part of its processing.
The novel’s setting constantly shifts, from a recognizable modern city to one influenced by ancient Rome to one whose residents’ bodies are becoming avian or reptilian. When you began writing Elysium, did you set out an underlying logic behind these changes?
I didn’t really think of those ideas specifically. I knew I wanted to have things get freaky. The idea of taking flight shows up in African slave folktales. Virginia Hamilton refers to it in The People Could Fly and you see it happen in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, there’s even an old gospel song called “I’ll Fly Away.” It’s the idea of freedom and taking back control over where your body is. I find it a very beautiful image and I truly enjoyed writing about it in the book.
Given the constant shifts in characters and setting, Elysium isn’t a novel that can be easily summarized. How do you describe it when talking with people about it?
Oh, that’s a good question. When I pitched the book to the man who would become my agent, I evidently did a really great job, but I was so nervous that I’ve completely blanked on what I said! I really wish I could remember. Nowadays, I say something like, “it’s a book about two people who deeply love each other and constantly lose each other in a spiral narrative that tells about the end of the world—through code. And it’s based on the theme of the Emperor Hadrian and his lover Antinous.”
After finishing Elysium, I revisited the beginning, and saw the extent to which certain images recur; the way that a much less ominous dust shows up early in the book, for instance. How much of that structure was done beforehand and how much emerged through revision?
I’m a believer that writing is about 90% editing. The goal—or at least my goal—is to make the work so clean that it doesn’t look like you’ve been over the text a million times and that it feels natural and easy. Some of the stuff I knew I wanted to do from the get go. Other things developed over time and I worked them in. That’s part of the fun of writing a novel. It’s like a puzzle that you map out and figure out as you go, seeing what belongs where.
The notion of an operating system existing in the atmosphere is a fascinating one. What inspired that idea?
To be honest, I don’t know. It was such a wacky idea I was almost ashamed to use it. In time I realized that it’s my wacky ideas that make me interesting, so I might as well go for broke and base my whole first novel on it.
In an afterword, you discuss the historical inspiration for two of the novel’s characters; when did you first encounter that slice of history?
It was a long time ago when I had a bout with insomnia and I watched a lot of History channel, late night PBS, and documentaries on the BBC. I’m not sure when and what program I learned this story from exactly, but it’s a story that stuck with me. The idea of this man mourning the death of his lover over and over and over and making monument and tribute after monument and tribute, simply fascinated me. It also made me deeply sad.
What are you working on these days?
I’m working on my second novel. It’s called Eleusis, and subtitled A Mystery. It’s based on some of the stuff in Elysium but further in the future and on a different world. The theme I’m working with this time is the myth of Demeter and Persephone.