Tell me about the inception of this story. Is this familiar territory or were you exploring something new?
I’m fascinated by the possibility that crimes can mean something other than simple expediency or deviance, so I write fairly often about odd ones, like a disco-era Charles Manson on the loose in ’70s New York in “Night Fever” a few months ago in Asimov’s Science Fiction. One of the things I like about genre fiction is that it gives us an opportunity to make strange things meaningful, and crime—essentially a storm of human desire—could use some more meaning-making for its victims.
As for this particular story, when I was fourteen I read a book called Zodiac about the real serial killer, and I was fascinated by someone who had evaded capture and committed his crimes with a weird intelligence and, well, panache for lack of a better word. I’d grown up with a father who was violent and sociopathic, and I was vulnerable to the idea—to the hope, horribly—that if you had to deal with evil in the world, at least you could have the consolation that it was purposeful in a sick way. My father was a psych counselor (ironically), and it made me feel better as a teenager that he wasn’t just a random disaster in our lives but some Great Deliberate Evil Genius.
As I’ve grown up, though, I’ve discovered that both he and the real Zodiac were more likely to be lucky idiots, using the trappings of intelligence to make them feel better about their own violently-expressed inadequacies. They did dramatic awful things not because they were more powerful than anyone else, but because they desperately wanted to be and knew they weren’t. When they look smart, it’s not because we can’t think up to their level, but because we can’t think down to it.
When I noticed recently that the real Zodiac started writing his first confirmed letters to the SF Chronicle and other papers not long after the Moon landing, I wondered what inspiration someone like him would take from it. What if he’d decided that it was time to step up his game and do something truly great (in his own twisted definition)? I wondered how he’d express it, and that’s where the story came from.
There’s a crazy moment when the murderer shifts their thinking of what achievement means. Which matters more to a killer, excellence or fame?
In Zodiac’s case, it seems to be more about fame. He had his own logo (the precursor of our own personal branding!) and a dramatic name, and he clearly wrote his threatening letters and cryptograms for attention. When his bragging exceeded his courage and ability, he didn’t blow up a school bus like he’d promised, but went for lower-hanging fruit. In the end, he wrote that he’d make his crimes look like accidents from now on, the perfect out.
In a way, we’re lucky he and other killers are more interested in fame or hedonism than excellence: it’s usually their narcissism and error that helps us catch them.
I reread the story a few times, and it was striking not only how he described the space-chick, but all the reasons men would have to kill her. Do you think that humanity’s desire to conquer space and our desire to conquer each other are rooted in the same thing? Was there a parallel there?
That’s an interesting insight, and that was probably a subconscious symbol on my part, because I do believe they’re rooted in something similar. I think we have evolved with a compulsion to seek challenges and emergencies that ring our limbic bells and clarify our lives. Yesterday, I was wondering what I’d do this weekend, and now with the hurricane coming, I know!
The trouble comes when there aren’t challenges and emergencies, and we have to find other ways to get that endorphin rush of achievement and meaning. We’ve evolved to solve problems, and without problems to solve, we cause them first.
In some cases, we choose good problems like landing on the Moon. In others, we choose bad ones like wars and murder.
Did you seriously just run from Hobbiton to Mt. Doom (bit.ly/2x3hnob)?
I did. Isn’t that crazy? I’m evolved to cause/solve problems, too, and one way of seeking achievement is to do a weird stunt like running the 1,779 miles from Hobbiton to Mount Doom over two years. Partly it was to lose weight, but mostly it was to do something grand to prove I can. I’m having a hard time working on a novel, and I like the metaphor of being able to tell myself, “You ran 1,779 miles. You can probably get two hundred and fifty words done today.”
What can we look forward to next from you?
My next collection Acres of Perhaps is coming out from Lethe Press next spring, so that’s exciting. It will include both previously published and new stories, at least three of them about crimes with speculative elements. I guess that’s my genre, “weird crime.”
My agent and friends would probably want me to say that I’m working headlong on a new novel, and I’m in the developmental stages—I have the concept and I’m building out the characters and emotional set pieces of it. I’ll keep everyone posted!
Spread the word!