M.E. Parker is the creator of the erstwhile literature and photography magazine Camera Obscura, as well as author of Hinterland Trilogy, a series of novels that melds elements of dystopian, post-apocalyptic, steampunk, and literary fiction. Book 1, Jonesbridge, introduces his main characters, Myron and Sindra, in a dystopian work farm, and book 2, The Nethers, picks up the action with Myron as he ventures out into a post-apocalyptic world beyond Jonesbridge. Book 3, Bora Bora is due for release later in 2017.
In this interview, M.E. Parker and I discuss his love for craftsmanship, how the real world influences his dystopian visions, and his place in the world of literature which is so keen on creating categories. In doing so, he lands upon a term for a subgenre that's new to me, and one that I particularly like: junkpunk.
GC: You’re a bit of an enigma. As editor for Camera Obscura and with your short fiction, you’ve carved out a place in the literary world, but you also cross over into the spec-fiction world with your Hinterland series. Where do you see your place in the world of writing, and are you hung up at all on genre distinctions?
MEP: While searching for that illusive work that straddles rich and stark, that says as much by what is left out as it does with what’s included, I write books I would like to read. I let others categorize them how they wish. But I do understand the need for genre distinctions as a way for readers to find, and booksellers to sell, books that meet certain expectations. Makes perfect sense for bookstores with physical shelves, but literature is evolving, and with digital venues on the rise, sub categories of sub categories of sub categories have arisen within genres that have expanded the traditional bookstore shelves of science fiction or fantasy.
But it’s true that genre labels are a sticky topic with many writers, more so with literary writers, I think. Where it gets dicey for me is the tendency to lump all works with certain elements into a particular category. For example, just because a story takes place in the future, that alone does not make it “science fiction.” This sort of categorization does a disservice to readers as well as writers. Genre tends to follow certain guidelines (and some are formulaic) that fulfill reader expectation. Some work borrows elements often used in a particular genre, but it does not follow its expected course. If forced into a particular category, this sometimes sours readers expecting to find one thing in the pages and discovering something else, readers that might have otherwise enjoyed the book were it not for the unfulfilled expectations.
The term “speculative fiction” seems to be a more palatable catchall category for books that deviate in any way from modern realism, but this is such a broad classification that is basically a way to say what a book isn’t rather than what it is. In general, I’d say the Hinterland series would be something along the lines of one part dystopian, two parts post-apocalyptic, one part steampunk, two parts literary. Jonesbridge leans more dystopian, the Nethers more post-apocalyptic, and Bora Bora gets a good dose of both with much of the world building taking place as the characters see outside the confines of Jonesbridge. Perhaps we could create a new label for these books, junkpunk, for their use and reliance on the leftover junk of past eras repurposed for the current one. Or any one of a hundred labels.
GC: I like that: junkpunk. Let’s see if we can get it to stick. Okay, enigma two. Not to put too much credence in stereotypes, but you live in Texas, often considered the conservative heart of the nation, and I believe you have a military background—yes?—and yet you’re pretty progressive, from what I can tell. In what ways are you a product of your background and where you live, and where does your strong sense of individualism come from?
MEP: This is an interesting segue from the genre question because political affiliation is also a genre loaded with expectations. Outrunning a label sometimes feels as futile resisting the Borg, but if you were to shelve me, as person, in a bookstore by genre, the progressive section is one place you’d definitely find me. I sometimes describe my politics as pink and green, inclusive rather than exclusive, light on dogma. I’ve always run counter to the popular opinions where I grew up, but as a writer, constructing and massaging narratives daily, I think it’s easier to see how narratives are manipulated to demonize or support positions. For me, it all comes down to having respect and consideration for all kinds of people.
Growing up in an area without mountains or the ocean, no trees, semi-arid but no stark beauty of the desert, a wind-swept plain that sometimes requires work of the viewer to find the beauty, I think this is how my background has influenced my writing. I require my characters to search for beauty in their environment and each other rather than being presented with it. Few panoramic views of fertile valleys or flowers blooming and plenty of wasteland and scorched earth.
GC: Both your work with Camera Obscura and your Hinterland series show a fascination with human craftsmanship and ingenuity. I see a good bit of the steampunk ethos there. What inspired your love for that sort of thing?
MEP: It’s a combination of things. I have a construction background coupled with a fascination for antiques and old tools and clocks, how they work, their mechanics. Gearworks also intrigue me. I have always been drawn to the concept of modern machines created from antique components and technology. You’ll always find obsolete, outmoded, and salvaged items in my books (not just Hinterland) that will require characters to repurpose, repair or endure.
blog, you wrote, “Dystopian novels are not and should not be in the prediction game other than the reliability of humans to be humans.” What aspects of the human condition do you find compelling in our day and age, and how have you approached dealing with those issues in the series?
People seek happiness but are often mistaken about what it is. This idea of happiness, what is it exactly, and if one achieves it, how does one know it, and is it possible to keep it. How much does the desire for freedom impede the search for happiness when characters are faced with choosing between being free and alone or being in captivity with those they love? This is a major dilemma in the series. The drive to survive, the drive to press on, beyond each milestone, the destination not yet visible, how much of their happiness is derived from being too preoccupied with surviving to have enough time to consider how miserable they are.
GC: I know book 3, Bora Bora: Flight from Hinterland, is forthcoming. Any tentative release date yet? And have any of our recent political happenings found their way into the new book or otherwise influenced your writing?
MEP: Not specifically, but the concept of truth plays an important part (and this sounds rather familiar to our current climate). Do we trust our eyes, our senses, or what we are told and what we extrapolate from that? The characters in the Hinterland series are bombarded with clues to the Old Age, what it was like and how it went dark. And the known truth is always a partial truth. Dystopian worlds, those in fiction and in real life, rely on control of information and manipulation of perception. What part is disclosed and which parts are unknown plays a major role in these stories, but no one has much knowledge in Hinterland. It is a dark age, but even the facts they do have are altered by their perception with no context or comparison. For example, gravity might be imagined as a giant magnet of sorts within the earth attracted to some impossibly small element within all things the way a normal magnet (something they possess) is attracted to iron.
GC: Let’s finish things off with some of your inspirations. What are the top influences of yours that made the Hinterland series possible? Books, movies, real life events, whatever…
MEP: I think the biggest influence on this series is probably the terrain and the aura of the Desert Southwest and the idea of characters thinking the entire world looks the same as the only places they have ever seen or know about. Probably my greatest influence in the dystopian canon is Fahrenheit 451. And as far as writers, in general, Calvino, Borges, Atwood, LeGuin, Bolaño, and Saramago. Of course, I could list influential writers for pages but these have had a lasting effect.
GC: What new books are you enjoying now as a reader? Any reading recs for fans of yours?
MEP: Lately I’ve been reading Three-Body Problem, Bone Clocks, and One Damn Thing After Another. Highly recommend United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas.
GC: Yeah, I just finished reading United States of Japan—it’s great. Okay, last question: beyond the last book in the Hinterland series, what’s in store for you? Any new writing or editing projects you’re looking forward to?
MEP: I am finishing up a new novel that will soon be searching from a home. I also have an updated website at www.meparker.com with everything current, past, and on the horizon.