Mike Chen rings in 2020 with another tearjerker of a science fiction novel, A Beginning at the End. This book features four points of view characters trying to find their back to normality in a post-apocalypse where a virus wiped out most of the world. In this interview, Mike talks about his sophomore effort, expanding two POVs to four, and ways to make his world feel lived-in on top of the slice-of-life focus.
Where did the idea for these people dealing with an apocalypse come from?
I found the idea of an actual recovery from an apocalyptic event to be totally fascinating. There are hints of this here and there in various media but then they never actually dive too deep into the actual recovery. Everyone seems to think that the action is all in the crumbling of society, but I kept wondering “What would happen to these people if they didn’t have to worry about survival anymore?” Because that is a fuck-ton of trauma to unpack.
From a narrative structure, one of my go-to books when I have trouble with anything is Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. The concept for this book literally started as About a Boy in the apocalypse, with some gender-swapped roles.
What kind of research did you do or choices did you make in deciding which pieces of technology to keep in order to give A Beginning at the End its very near-future feel?
There was a lot of trial and error. Because this is a slice-of-life story, I took note of things utilized on a day-to-day basis. I knew that a significant amount of the population would return to metropolitan areas and try to get existing infrastructure up and running. So it was considering what people would realistically be able to maintain if manufacturing halted and experts weren’t available for maintenance.
The biggest thing was communication. It seemed realistic that cell towers and satellites would still be functioning. However, the quality of the network would be severely diminished given the lack of people for maintenance. So I established that each metropolitan area has a local network, kind of like how corporations have an intranet. These are all very slow for the public, making smartphones essentially useless except for taking photos and texting.
From a product perspective, it seemed realistic that if the government organized a quarantine, then there would be stockpiling of existing manufactured assets—laptops, toys, anything that could offer some function in society when it resumes. So the idea is that everything freezes at a certain point, and while people could get, say, toys or books or DVDs, nothing new would be made.
Everything is running on bare bones, and availability for electricity, phone, internet, etc. are all fragile. This allowed for a story where life is similar but different, and the focus could be on emotional trauma and rebooting rather than rebuilding society.
How did you come up with the different oral histories at the beginning of each chapter?
That was an idea from my agent Eric Smith, who felt there was more room for world-building but outside of the narrative. We decided on using speeches and articles to fill in these gaps to accomplish two things: first, address the issues in the larger world that couldn’t be witnesses by the core characters, and second, tell the story of the Fourth Path cult. The trick was to synthesize both of these into the very end of the book so it felt like an organic payoff, as they ran parallel regarding themes of security and moving forward.
I’ve heard three types of feedback from early readers on this: those who loved it as is, those who wanted more, and those who felt it slowed things down. Which I think these types of inserts will always do—I know I sometimes glaze over them in books, even books I like. So for the feedback to hit that spread, I think it’s the right balance.
What is up with The Fourth Path? Did anything from our timeline inspire that disaster?
Nothing specific except if you look at historical cults, they’re all really weird. They don’t make sense on paper and from an objective perspective, it’s easy to wonder why anyone would fall for it. And then you have to consider why people would start or join those things, and the answer is generally that there’s been some sort of gap or trauma in people’s lives and the cult easily fulfills that. In this story, you’ve got an entire planet dealing with trauma, and people are generally given a choice of three ways of life: a surface facsimile of old life in metros, a commune-style life in Reclaimed Territory campuses, or a true wasteland life. It seems reasonable to think that someone would seek another alternative, especially if it’s born out of trauma.
So which is the better album: London Calling or Walk Among Us?
I’m a big music nerd and I’m biased because I love The Clash. The Misfits have never really done it for me, even though I know why some punk fans love them. So it’s definitely London Calling for me. Though I’m not as obsessed with them as Krista, I love punk but I’m a bigger New Wave and Indie Rock guy, which is probably why I like The Clash so much as they pushed their musical style a lot.
Also my favorite punk band is The Replacements.
Was this a trunked novel or something entirely new?
This was a trunked novel. In 2010, I was writing contemporary fiction and feeling unsatisfied. Being a lifelong sci-fi fan, I considered putting these same types of stories in a sci-fi backdrop (with a hat tip to my critique partner Sierra Godfrey for encouraging me to do this). This went through many, many, many revisions as the tone and focus shifted, and also as I simply got better as a writer. I trunked it in 2013 after a few revise & resubmit requests by agents, and moved on to Here and Now and Then(2019), which was what landed my agent and became my debut novel.
While I was on sub with HNT, my agent came across this manuscript and said he liked the premise and the world but wanted it to have significant revisions—the biggest being that he wanted to go from two POVs (Rob and Krista) to four (adding Moira and Sunny). He also wanted to use articles and speeches to provide context for the world, and asked for a lot of flashbacks to give us deeper insight. His homework was to read Station Eleven specifically with an eye on structure and apply that to my manuscript.
It was not easy. 🙂
You’ve mentioned before that you needed a spreadsheet to untangle the POVs within this novel. What was that process like and how did you decide which segments went together?
Expanding from two POVs to four while adding flashbacks and interstitials meant a lot of stuff had to be cut or shifted to other POVs. The general arc of the book has remained since the beginning, though it has been pushed, pulled, collapsed, consolidated, and shifted in all sorts of different ways. I started by making a spreadsheet of each chapter with the respective POV. Then I looked to see if I could change the POV, and if so, which would make the most narrative sense. Pacing was also important to consider, as I wanted an equal distribution between the three adult characters, with Sunny getting one POV per act.
Flashbacks were also a challenge to integrate, so I decided that for each act, each character would get one major flashback and one minor flashback—again, spaced out to prevent them from overwhelming the narrative. They also had to feel appropriate for that point in the narrative, as I wanted them tied into the present storyline regarding a decision point. So I started by making a list of potential flashbacks just based on character histories, and then I assigned them in my spreadsheet. I drafted them individually without greater story context to really get into the moment, and then tried to fit them in.
There was another layer of spreadsheeting going on with worldbuilding. I had several critique partners read with the direction of “tell me everything you want to know about this world,” which then made it into a massive list where I came up with answers and then assigned locations for those answers.
My first editor, Michelle Meade, also had some general feedback to tighten things, and this was yet another spreadsheet—which had to be cross-referenced with the others to make sure it didn’t implode under the weight of all the changes. My final editor, Margot Mallinson, deserves massive thanks as she saw the manuscript with all of these changes duct-taped together, including sections that existed back in 2011, and she oversaw smoothing them all out so they linked together cohesively.
This was very difficult. I don’t recommend any writer attempt anything like this!
Are there ways that either the experiencing of writing this novel or its road to publishing that feel different from Here and Now and Then?
Two very significant differences. First, because this was my second go-around, I felt less nervous about various steps in the publishing process, and I was able to stay calm and patient while waiting for ARCs and other things. Second, because I’d been with these characters longer and seen them through so many changes, I felt closer to them than I did to the cast of Here and Now and Then (HNT). When my editor accepted my final revisions and said we were good to go to production, I got a lot of feels staring at that email, in a way that never happened with HNT. I think with HNT, so much of it was just sheer disbelief that things were happening, and with this, there’s a big sense of me pulling Krista, Moira, Rob, and Sunny over the finish line.
Krista would roll her eyes at that comment, of course. She’s my favorite.
Once the tears have dried over that epilogue, what are some books you’d recommend we check out or works you’re looking forward to this year?
For more apocalypse-with-feels books, I highly recommend The Book of M by Peng Shepherd (2018) and Famous Men Who Never Lived by K. Chess (2019). The Book of M is the apocalypse with a magical twist, and its narrative structure is similar to mine. Famous Men is about an apocalypse in a parallel world, and the story follows people who immigrate from their world to ours. It’s a wonderful immigration allegory and a close look at the importance of art as part of our identity.
As for upcoming books, I absolutely cannot wait for Kat Howard’s A Sleight of Shadows, which is the sequel to the brilliant An Unkindness of Magicians. Kat is one of my favorite people in publishing and Magicians is one of my favorite books ever. It is going to rule so hard.
Mike Chen is a lifelong writer, from crafting fan fiction as a child to somehow getting paid for words as an adult. He has contributed to major geek websites (The Mary Sue, The Portalist, Tor) and covered the NHL for mainstream media outlets. A member of SFWA and Codex Writers, Mike lives in the Bay Area, where he can be found playing video games and watching Doctor Who with his wife, daughter, and rescue animals. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @mikechenwriter. A Beginning at the End comes out January 14th and can be purchased from Indiebound, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and wherever books are sold.