In an alternate future of the United States, debtors sell their debts to the wealthy and becomes Dociles. Harrowing and seductive, Docile takes its time depicting complexities of power and consent against a glittering, sexy back-drop of the ultra-wealthy. On this release day, author K.M. Szpara stops by to talk a bit about the process of crafting this phenomenal debut.
Crafting a Different Kind of Capitalist Dystopia
While it seems near-future, there are elements within the U.S. in Docile that feel contemporary. How did you go about deciding what to keep and what to expand upon in terms of tech?
“Near-future” is not a prediction. I’m not a futurist! Near-future is like alt-history but looking ahead, rather than behind. Docile exists on its own timeline. So some of the technology feels advanced and some feels behind. One of my favorite things about the tech in Docile is that it varies based on who and where you are. When not writing, I work as a paralegal. There are courts still using paper filing, where, if you want something from the court’s file, you have to take cash and go thumb through folders at the courthouse. And there are others that are totally online—but even “online” spans the spectrum from sexy and convenient to 90’s video game aesthetic. It’s similar in Docile. Alex Bishop can wirelessly 3D print a piece of paper from a digital document, like magic, and then transfer it back. Elisha has probably only used a computer a few times in his whole life, max. The Office of Debt Resolution, similarly, has physical files and tablets—more than one in an office, sometimes because everything isn’t synced. Alex hates this, to no one’s surprise.
Did you write this book sequentially or thematically?
I write sequentially, as a rule, but I often call myself a thematic writer. Because I am! But those don’t mean anything similar, to me. Sequentially is the path I walk from beginning to end, while writing a rough draft or revising. (Several times.) Thematically is how I layer meaning into every scene, whether draft or revision. I tend to know the themes of a book going in and keep them in mind as I write. They help me plot—know which characters to stick in a scene with each other and how to guide their conversations. So… both!
Who came first: Alex or Elisha?
They came at the same time! They complement one another. The book depends on their dynamic. I can’t imagine conceiving this book with only one in mind.
There is also a rich cast of side characters. Did they come through with the plotting or with the character development of our POVs?
My secondary characters are usually cardboard cut-outs in the first draft. (Or two.) Once I can see the story as a whole and the various roles the secondary characters play and relationships they’re a part of, I can flesh them out—or condense them! Give them quirks and personalities. It’s hard to hold so many people in your head.
What was your favorite scene or moment to write?
Oh gosh, I have so many favorite parts. I don’t want to spoil, so I’ll just say there’s an encounter between Elisha and Onyx in the latter half of the book that was a joy to write after so many deep conversations and traumatic incidents.
What were revisions like on this project?
They were SO MUCH. I re-wrote the latter half of this book so many times. I revised with my agent for about a year and a half. (Despite consistent dedication, I’m slow.) And when my editor offered he also wanted a revision on the latter half of the book. We originally pitched it as a trilogy, but my editor proposed that my debut should be a complete thought, rather than leaving readers hanging. So, I took what was the main plotline of the second book and threaded it into what was about ¾ of the way through the original first book, and then wrote forward from scratch. Usually, when I explain this, I show people my hands and thread my fingers together. It’s more exciting in-person; you’ll have to trust me.
Publishing and “Next”
Is this your first novel?
This is my first published novel, but it’s not the first one I’ve ever written. Though, to be fair, it’s the second! My first novel was bad. I revised it so many times and packed so much in there because I thought I thought there was a Certain Way to write SFF. (Spoiler: there isn’t!)
Did you find any similarities between writing this 500-page work of art versus more compact short stories?
Novels and stories are both works of art! I find short fiction much more difficult to write, and plan each scene out in detail, in advance, whereas I give myself more room to discovery write in novels. I would say that my authorial voice is consistent and I tend to write short fiction that reads like novels do? I know that makes no sense. My voice as a writer is consistent, whereas some writers adapt theirs. (I may be a one-trick pony, but I’m a happy pony and that’s what counts!) I still have to work secondary characters (if there are any) and worldbuilding and theme in to a short story over its various revisions like I do a novel. Stories are tighter, though. They’re a punch to the face. (Docile is a full body pummeling.)
Do you have any upcoming projects we can look forward to?
I have two more books scheduled to release via Tor.com Publishing, in 2021 and 2022, respectively. The first is about a cult and magic and monsters and a very gay roadtrip. The second is the return of Finley Hall, gay trans vampire from my novelette, “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time.” I’m so excited for them both!
It’s been six months and I am still floored by Docile. What do I read? What are you excited for?
Well, first of all, thank you!! Now, I admit, I read based on my mood and that current mood is YA horror and mysteries. When it comes to those two genres, I tend to pick YA over adult because I love the super personal self-discovery aspects that accompany the spookiness. I recently finished Diana Peterfreund’s In the Hall, With the Knife, which is a Clue novel! How fun, right? The vibes were on point. And now I’m flying through Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious trilogy. What a mystery! I am a sucker for dual timelines and these books deliver. When it comes to new SFF titles (you know, my genre?) I’d recommend the recently released The Seep by Chana Porter—a soft alien invasion novel that digs into identity and art and agency and queer community and—a lot. Give them all a read!
K.M. Szpara is a queer and trans author who lives in Baltimore, MD, with a tiny dog. Kellan’s debut alt-/near-future novel, DOCILE (March 3, 2020; Tor.com Publishing), explores the snowballing debt crisis, consent, and privilege, and can be described as “really gay.” He is the author of “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” a Hugo and Nebula nominated novelette about a gay trans man who’s bitten by a vampire. More of his fiction can be found in venues such as Uncanny, Lightspeed, and Shimmer. You can find him on the Internet at kmszpara.com or on Twitter at @KMSzpara.
Docile is out today from Tor.com and you can get your copy here.