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Interview With an Author: Edward Ashton

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Edward Ashton and his latest novel, Mickey7
Author Edward Ashton and his latest novel, Mickey7. Photo credit: JustTeeJay

Edward Ashton is the author of the novels Three Days in April and The End of Ordinary, as well as of short stories which have appeared in venues ranging from the newsletter of an Italian sausage company to Escape Pod, Analog, and Fireside Fiction. He lives in upstate New York in a cabin in the woods (not that cabin in the woods) with his wife, a variable number of daughters, and an adorably mopey dog named Max. In his free time, he enjoys cancer research, teaching quantum physics to sullen graduate students, and whittling. His latest novel is Mickey7 and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Mickey7?

I’ve always been interested in the tele-transport paradox, a philosophical problem that people have been chewing over since the mid-1700s. The basic question it asks is this: if you could perfectly replicate your memories, your loves and hates, hopes and dreams, and then transfer all of it into a perfect replica of your body, would that new person really be you? More to the point, if you step onto the Star Trek transporter pad, is that you that steps off the pad at the other end, or have you just been dissolved and now somebody else is getting his hands all over your stuff? That question really provides the central conceit for Mickey7.

Are Mickey, Berto, Nasha, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

I think that really depends on your definition of “based on.” I have a good friend named Mickey. Was I thinking about him when I initially described Mickey in the book? Maybe? Does the character Mickey Barnes act or think or speak in the way that my friend Mickey does? No, not really. His character developed in my head as the book progressed, and at the end of the day, nobody who knows IRL Mickey would in any way confuse the two. In the same way, Berto has bits and pieces of people I’ve known in him, mixed in probably with bits and pieces of me and other stuff I just made up. It’s the same with any of my characters. I generally need at least a nugget of something real to start with, but then they grow and develop in ways that the needs of the manuscript dictate.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

Unlike my second novel, The End of Ordinary, this book really never went through a cut-down phase. It began as a short story, that grew into a novella, that grew into a full-length novel, all without ever needing any serious pruning. The characters and plot points certainly changed and evolved during the revision process (for example, I didn’t realize Mickey needed to be a historian until the middle of the second draft) but there weren’t any major characters or plot points in the first draft that didn’t make it through to the finished product.

If the type of “immortality” describe in Mickey7 was available today, would you consider it?

Oooooh no. Hard pass. Even without the whole constantly dying horribly thing, that sort of immortality via replication doesn’t have any appeal to me at all. If there’s no continuity of consciousness, then from my perspective all you’re doing is making sure that some version of you will always be around to bother other people—and I’m not nearly arrogant enough to think that the world won’t continue spinning just fine without me.

You provide compelling arguments for both sides of the “Ship of Theseus” argument within the novel. How do you answer the question?

It’s a difficult question, isn’t it? On the one hand, as Jemma notes in the novel, there’s pretty much not a single living cell in my body now that was there ten or fifteen years ago, and I’m the same person now that I was then, right? I? Fun fact: you use a different part of your brain to think about things that have happened or might happen to you than to think about things that have happened or might happen to other people. Guess which part kicks in when you remember something that happened to you twenty years ago?

I guess for me, again, it all comes down to continuity of consciousness. As long as we’re just swapping out parts cell by cell and those standing waves in your brain keep pinging along, you’re still the same person. Once you go through a complete shutdown, though? That’s probably a different story.

You provide a very realistic view of what colonizing another planet would probably be like (especially for the first colonists and the early subsequent generations). If you were offered the chance to colonize another world, would you go?

Again, hard pass. I like Earth. It’s a nice place, and I’m the product of three billion years of evolution that have exquisitely tailored me to live on its surface. It’s certainly possible that we will figure out a way to survive on other worlds. Elon Musk seems to think we might pull off a Mars colony in the not-too-distant future, and it’s not impossible that he’s right. It’s going to be a very long time before we figure out how to have a good time there, though, and that’s kind of a deal-breaker for me.

Mickey7 ends with several issues that are, if not entirely unresolved, open to being pursued further. Will there be a sequel or is this the beginning of a new series? If this is the first entry in a new series, do you know at this time how long the series will be and how many books will be necessary to tell the story you want to tell?

Well, the sequel is already in copy edits with my friends at St. Martin’s Press and Rebellion, so at a minimum, this book is the first of two. I’m not a big fan of books that don’t tell a complete story in and of themselves, even in the context of a series, so I don’t think I can say how many books might be necessary in this series at the end of the day, but I love the characters and world I’ve built here, and if my publishers are willing I’d certainly be very interested in adding to the collection.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

I just started in on T.J. Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea, and Ta-Nehisi CoatesThe Water Dancer is next on my TBR list. I’m also very excited to get my hands on Scalzi’s The Kaiju Preservation Society, but I’m probably going to need to squeeze something else onto the list while I’m waiting for it to show up.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

In no particular order:
George R. R. Martin pre-SOIF—Dying of the Light and Tuf Voyaging are bangers
Alice Sheldon Up the Walls of the World is one of my all-time favorites
Kurt Vonnegut
David Brin—the Uplift series in particular—not so much The Postman
Ann Leckie's The Raven Tower is in my opinion, an under-appreciated masterpiece

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

The answer to that depends on what part of childhood we’re talking about, but if I had to pick one book, I’d probably go with Spaceling, by Doris Piserchia. It’s a super trippy story about a kid who spends her days traveling through portals to other worlds, flummoxing every adult she encounters, and occasionally unraveling global conspiracies with apocalyptic implications. Parts of it don’t hold up particularly well today, but I still gave copies to all three of my daughters.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Ha! You clearly haven’t met my parents.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

I once wrote a twenty-page paper on The Sun Also Rises without ever opening the book (sorry, Dr. Hand!).

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

No, that’s not really my style. I appreciate good cover art, but I’m not a super visual person and I don’t think I’ve ever picked up a book without being pulled in by the first few pages.

Is there a book that changed your life?

That’s a tough question to answer without being able to interrogate the counterfactual, isn’t it?

Just kidding. No, I don’t think I can point to one book from the mountain I’ve read that has caused me to dramatically change course in some definable way. I think it’s more that the cumulative weight of all that reading has had a profound effect on the person I’ve become.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt VonnegutSlaughterhouse-Five gets all the attention, but in my opinion, Cat’s Cradle is Peak Vonnegut. “She laughed, and touched her finger to her lips, and died.” Gets me every time.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Titan, by John Varley. That book is an absolute wonderland.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I just saw a show at the local theater called Airness. It’s about people who do air guitar, which sounds awful, but it’s actually very funny and borderline touching. Highly recommended if it winds up anywhere near you.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

At the northern end of Shenandoah National Park there’s a place called Mary’s Rock. It’s a two thousand foot spire of stone looming out over the valley with a flat overlook at the top maybe twenty or thirty yards wide. My perfect day ends with a sunset on the overlook and then a night spent sleeping out under a crystal-clear sky so full of stars that they look like they’re touching. As long as it doesn’t involve me being eaten by a bear, I don’t really care what happens before that.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

Q: Is it true that you and your best friend once found an actual abandoned mill wheel in the woods and decided for some godforsaken reason to bring it home, then completely lost control of it because it weighed like 250 pounds and you lived on the side of a mountain and you’d apparently forgotten how gravity works and it rolled down the cobblestone street, faster and faster until it flew across the main road at the bottom of the hill and knocked the rear bumper clean off of a car that was sitting at the light there and somewhere in northern West Virginia there is quite possibly a very elderly man who is still wondering how in the hell his car got wrecked by a mill wheel while he was waiting for the light to change at the corner of Locust and Fourth?
A: On the advice of my lawyer, I would rather not say.

What are you working on now?

I’ve got two chapters and a very vague outline done for my next book at the moment. It’s the first non-Mickey thing I’ve worked on in almost two years now. I haven’t gotten to the point yet where I’m 100% confident this one is going to make it across the finish line, but it feels good so far.

Book cover for Mickey7
Ashton, Edward