The Infinite Future: An interview with Tim Wirkus about his novel
by Gabriel González
Tim Wirkus is the author of one previous novel, City of Brick and Shadow (Tyrus Books, 2014), which was a finalist for the Shamus Award and the winner of the Association for Mormon Letters Best Novel Award. He’s currently a doctoral candidate in the University of Southern California’s Creative Writing and Literature Program. His newest novel, The Infinite Future, was published last week, and has had received strong reviews in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Locus, and Booklist.
Publisher’s blurb: “A mindbending novel that melds two page-turning tales in one. In the first, we meet three broken people, joined by an obsession with a forgotten Brazilian science-fiction author named Salgado-MacKenzie. There’s Danny, a writer who’s been scammed by a shady literary award committee; Sergio, journalist turned sub-librarian in São Paulo; and Harriet, an excommunicated Mormon historian in Salt Lake City, who years ago corresponded with the reclusive Brazilian writer. The motley trio sets off to discover his identity, and whether his fabled masterpiece–never published–actually exists. Did his inquiries into the true nature of the universe yield something so enormous that his mind was blown for good? In the second half, Wirkus gives us the lost masterpiece itself–the actual text of The Infinite Future, Salgado-MacKenzie’s wonderfully weird magnum opus. The two stories merge in surprising and profound ways. Part science-fiction, part academic satire, and part book-lover’s quest, this wholly original novel captures the heady way that stories inform and mirror our lives.”
Gabriel González interviewed Wirkus by email.
Thank you for accepting this invitation to be interviewed for the AML blog. I was asked to review The Infinite Future for Dialogue. My own interpretations of the novel, however, may be quite removed from the author’s own thoughts and intentions, so I appreciate this opportunity to peek behind the curtain. I have put together some questions regarding the book’s inspiration, characters, and themes.
First, I’d like to get a sense of the novel’s origin and inspiration. What events or thoughts inspired you to create this world and this narrative? Along these lines, the second part of the book is where things really get weird. Is this part a homage to old, pulpy science fiction?
Shortly after Ray Bradbury died, I read The Martian Chronicles. I’d been a big fan of Bradbury when I was younger, but had never gotten around to reading that one. What struck me about the book was its potent sense of nostalgia and loss. It’s been said before that science fiction is more about the present than the future, but Bradbury’s book takes that premise even farther, immersing itself in the past, even as it depicts future settlements on Mars. One chapter that really sticks with me is about a group of astronauts who land on the planet and discover an old-timey abandoned neighborhood right out of The Music Man. They’re swept up in happy memories of their own childhood in similar neighborhoods, but that nostalgia ends up destroying them. So there’s a terror of the past, along with a genuine sense of longing.
The book got under my skin, and I wondered if I could write something that would create a similar vibe, a melding of futurism and nostalgia. The approach I eventually landed on (and which eventually became The Infinite Future) was to have a science fiction novel that was written in the past, but read by people in the present. In the first half of my novel, then, fans of the fictional Eduard Salgado-MacKenzie long to read his never-published novel. I hoped that would create a sympathetic longing in actual readers of the book, and imbue the second half of my novel—which comprises the manuscript of Salgado-MacKenzie’s unpublished book—with the feel of something lost for decades.
Speaking of inspiration, the book specifically mentions authors like Clarice Lispector and Jorge Luis Borges. Who were your literary inspirations for this book?
Yeah, Borges is huge for me, so there’s certainly an undercurrent of his stuff running through the book. I’m also a fan of Lispector, and for The Infinite Future, her life served as (very) loose inspiration for the Eduard Salgado-MacKenzie figure–a writer caught between cultures. There’s a recent biography of Lispector called Why This World by Benjamin Moser that’s really terrific and that I consulted pretty heavily for this book.
I was also very directly inspired by the work of Roberto Bolaño. His 2666 concerns (among other things) the search for an elusive and obscure writer. The search becomes a springboard for so many other narratives and interests, and as I was working on The Infinite Future, I tried to create a similar capaciousness and digressiveness, although with markedly different narratives and concerns. Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas was maybe even a bigger touchpoint for me. It’s a fictional encyclopedia of right-wing literature written by fugitive Nazis throughout the twentieth century. My favorite section of the book focuses on fascist science fiction, and there’s something both darkly funny and fascinating about the summaries the book provides of these imagined science fiction works, as in the opening lines to the entry on the nonexistent Zach Sodenstern: “A highly successful science fiction writer, Zach Sodenstern was the creator of the Gunther O’Connell saga, of the Fourth Reich saga, and of the saga of Gunther O’Connell and the Fourth Reich, in which the previous two sagas fuse into one.” There’s a really subtle, really specific humor there that kills me. I have the book open in my lap right now and can’t resist throwing out another example: “The opening pages introduce the reader to O’Connell’s dog, a mutant, stray German Shepherd with telepathic powers and Nazi tendencies.” There’s something about reading a summary that’s much more interesting than the book itself could ever be that really appealed to me, something I wanted to explore in my own fiction. So in The Infinite Future there are more summaries of Salgado-MacKenzie’s work than actual excerpts.
I was also reading a lot of Muriel Spark while working on this novel, and she ended up being a strong influence as well. Novels like The Girls of Slender Means and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie balance on a razor’s edge between comedy and tragedy that I find really compelling and admirable. And a lot of her later novels, like Loitering with Intent and A Far Cry from Kensington feature first-person narrators who are fairly self-aware, sharp, and funny. My first novel was written in third person, which I was more comfortable with, and so Muriel Spark’s first-person narrators served as a useful model for the narrators in The Infinite Future.
Now I’d like to move into some of the characters in the book and what they intend to convey. The book has three key Mormon characters. The first we meet is Daniel Laszlo. He’s kind of adrift spiritually even as he continues to practice his Mormon faith. Does this mean to convey something about members of the LDS Church?
One challenge of writing about Mormons is the relative scarcity of Mormon characters in contemporary fiction, especially Mormon characters written by people who have a deep familiarity with the culture. For some readers (and, honestly, for me as a writer), that scarcity can create a certain pressure to make any Mormon character function as a statement on the culture as a whole (whatever that means). My deeper inclination, though, is to push back against that impulse, and to make the characters I write as idiosyncratic as the Mormons I encounter in real life. So to answer the question, I imagine the situation Daniel Laszlo finds himself in—practicing Mormonism while searching for meaning both inside and outside the faith—will be recognizable to some Mormon readers, and foreign to others, but my bigger hope is that as a character he approximates a realistic human being—singular, alternately predictable and contradictory, frustrating.
Yeah, there is tendency for Mormon readers to read Mormon characters as representatives of their culture. This may have to do with the fact that the LDS Church is a missionary church, so Latter-day Saints tend to be very conscious of how they are perceived by those outside the faith. Your novel has several key Mormon characters, and yet it seems to be written for a wider audience. Did you have any specific groups in mind as you wrote this book?
That’s a good point.
In terms of thinking about audience, I really like narrative theorist Peter Rabinowitz’s idea that when a reader sits down with a book, they’re bringing with them the experience of every other book they’ve ever read before. So, for instance, if someone primarily reads cozy mystery novels, when they pick up a new book, they’ll be coming into it with a set of expectations and reading strategies created by cozy mystery novels. Consciously or not that reader will be asking the new book to function like a cozy mystery novel. The book may not conform to those expectations, though, and from there, the reader will either form new expectations and reading strategies from their experience of reading this new book, or they won’t. And if they don’t, reading is more likely to be uncomfortable or unpleasant.
When I’m working on a project, then, I think about which readers are likely to have (or be willing to develop) the expectations or reading strategies needed to enjoy the novel (or story or whatever it is). And for me, that usually means thinking in terms of readers of specific books or writers that ask similar things of their readers to what my project is asking of them. So if I were to describe the ideal audience for The Infinite Future, for instance, I would say it’s readers who like (or would like) the authors I mentioned in that earlier question: Borges and/or Lispector and/or Bolaño and/or Spark (and/or Ursula K. LeGuin and/or Kurt Vonnegut, to throw in a couple more). That sounds jacket blurb-y, but I do think it’s a useful shorthand for that larger matching-up process.
As I write all this down, I realize it sounds more complicated than it feels in practice. I also feel like I just tried to explain a joke or something, which is not great.
Anyway, I guess that’s all a really roundabout way of saying that whether a reader is Mormon or not is not a primary consideration for me. I do try and make sure that any Mormon stuff in my fiction will make some sense to someone less familiar with the culture, but that’s about as far as it goes.
Let us move back to characters. Another key Mormon character is Harriet Kimball. She is portrayed rather sympathetically as she is victimized due to her quest for truth through historical inquiry. Is she meant to act as an expository vehicle for things that could be uncomfortable about Church history? And then there is another character, Craig Ahlgren, who is written as the opposite of Kimball in nearly every way. He is a man. He is in a position of authority. He is portrayed rather unflatteringly as he relentless pursues Kimball to get her to recant. He’s absolutely convinced of his version of the truth, which is based on personal spiritual experiences. Is he to be interpreted as a critique of Church leadership or perhaps of so called “true blue” Mormons in general?
As a writer, I’m interested in high-stakes conflicts where both parties deeply and sincerely believe that they are doing good. It’s a dynamic you often see at play with intra-Mormon conflicts, and it creates so, so much tension. A prime example of this would be the excommunication of the September Six in 1993. There was so much anger and anguish on all sides, and it seems to me that both the scholars who were excommunicated and the leaders who excommunicated them were acting in good faith, according to the dictates of their consciences. I wanted to explore that dynamic in a fictional setting, driven by the question of how to write a story like that without turning anyone into a moustache-twirling villain. In that way, then, the characters of Harriet Kimball and Craig Ahlgren did grow out of an impulse to explore a specific cultural dynamic at a specific point in history.
Thinking of the two characters primarily as emblems of warring cultural impulses proved limiting, though. In very early drafts of The Infinite Future, Harriet and Craig engaged in lengthy Socratic dialogues debating the merits of their respective viewpoints. The dialogues weren’t uninteresting, I don’t think, but they just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger, which makes sense because the issues and questions at play are supremely complicated. I didn’t want the dialogues to dominate the book to that extent, though, so I decided that a more fitting approach for this particular novel might be a more experience-based exploration of their respective positions. So basically, my question became, how had these people’s lives influenced the ideologies they came to embrace? This required reimagining the characters more as distinctive individuals, asking myself why this particular person believes what they do. That approach fit more organically within the rest of the narrative, and it also helped me as a writer sympathize more with the characters, so for instance, while I disagree with Craig Ahlgren’s views on excommunication, much of his personal religious narrative (as related to Danny in their first meeting) resonates to varying degrees with my own experience.
Speaking of characters, I noticed all your strong, sympathetic characters are female, including Irena Sertôrian and Sister Ursula. Was this a deliberate choice? And if so, what prompted it?
I’m not sure I’d agree that the only strong, sympathetic characters are women. Sérgio seems pretty sympathetic to me, and is dogged in his pursuit of meaning in life, which I find admirable. Danny is a flawed character, but hopefully sympathetic, and I do think there’s a strength to him, especially in his role as the fictional writer of the introduction—he’s turning a lens on a portion of his life he’s not entirely comfortable with, and that’s difficult to do.
That said, I’m glad characters like Sertôrian and Ursula stood out. It’s important to me to have complex, compelling female characters in my fiction, and for this particular project, I did end up looking at a lot of religious writings by women, from Hildegard of Bingen’s accounts of her mystical visions, to Juanita Brooks’s Mountain Meadows Massacre. Personally, I felt under-exposed to perspectives from women on theology and religious history, and that’s something I’ve been working to remedy.
Speaking of Ursula, she is a multi-layered character, even if her story is played out in the background to some degree. She belongs to a sort of galactic sisterhood of apparently agnostic nuns. She is a historian (much like Kimball). She is a lesbian. Where do these different elements come from, and what do you hope they convey?
To me, there’s so much drama inherent in the work of religious historians. Not only are they–detective-like–piecing together clues about the lost country that is the past, they’re also (to keep mixing the metaphor) wading through deeply-held religious beliefs and expectations that may (or may not) be at odds with the historical clues they discover. Because of those tensions, I find myself as engaged by writers like Elaine Pagels or Gary Wills or Jan Shipps as I do by Stephen King or Tana French. It’s like watching someone juggle chainsaws, and I wanted to try and recreate that dynamic in a fictional setting. I decided, then, to compose the novel within my novel as a historical work written hundreds of years in the future. The character of Ursula grew out of that decision, and became, in part, a vehicle to explore the tensions of writing religious history.
There’s also, running through the novel, a motif of yearning (often accompanied by disappointment). Given that throughline, as the stories were unspooling (I worked on both halves of the novel in tandem), I decided there should be a romantic plotline in the book. I ended up choosing Ursula to fill that role because of two different books I love. The first is The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, which features at its center a romance between two characters that goes unfulfilled because of the protagonist’s vocation as a butler (or more rightly, by his opinions of what being a butler entails, and what emotions he is and isn’t allowed to express). Stevens (the protagonist/narrator of The Remains of the Day) seemed to me like a kindred spirit to the character that was unfolding in Ursula, and so he (and the novel) served as a useful reference point in developing Ursula’s plotline.
The second book was more of an oblique but still potent influence. In Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith (major spoilers ahead), a crime novel set in the Victorian era, two young women fall in love as each is trying to con the other. It’s a terrific novel full of betrayal, surprises, and richly drawn characters. Maud (one of the two young women) is the ward of a wealthy uncle who’s compiling a bibliography of literary erotica. He enlists Maud as an unwilling research assistant in this project, and also trots her out to read from his collection of pornographic novels to curious friends of his. Early in the novel, the books are a form of imprisonment for Maud, but as the novel progresses, her relationship to the books (and the knowledge she’s gained from them) becomes more complicated. Anyway, the relevance here to Ursula and The Infinite Future was the idea of a character who’s surrounded by books, whose worldview is so heavily shaped by those books, and whose romantic longings are both constrained by and fulfilled by the knowledge in those books. There’s also the final scene of Fingersmith, which takes place in a library, among books, and is lovely.
Considering the book as a whole, it can be read as being about many things. For example, is this book about theology? I ask because the term “the infinite future” refers to the afterlife, and the question of whether there is an afterlife is prominent in the second half of the book.
One question that runs through the novel is, How do people find and/or create meaning in their lives? The answer to that question looks different for every character in the book, but the two arenas I ended up focusing on the most are religion and literature. Both are intensely subjective. One person may have their life changed by, say, To the Lighthouse, while another person is left cold by the book. Similarly, someone might find great meaning in a religious concept such as an afterlife, while someone else might be frightened by it, or find the concept hollow. That unpredictability is both exciting and disturbing to me, and it’s one that I wanted to explore at length.
Okay, so one last question. One of the salient features of this book is how many stories are told by different characters. Why did you choose to tell so many stories within stories?
A few years ago I was a little obsessed with two books: The Thousand and One Nights, and Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Both those books have so many concise, memorable stories all smashed up together, which creates—for me anyway—kind of a thrilling, vertiginous effect. It’s a sensation that’s nicely recreated in Pasolini’s film versions of the books which, along with an adaptation of The Canturbury Tales, constitute his Trilogy of Life. It’s an apt title, one that I’ve retroactively applied to the book versions in my mind. Readers (and viewers) are presented with so many stories of people from all walks of life, and the situations run the gamut from bawdily farcical, to tender, to tragic. In all their immensity, these books communicate some of the vastness, the strangeness, and the richness of human experience. And it’s largely due, I think, to the juxtaposition of so many compact, memorable stories. With The Infinite Future, then, I wanted to create a similar effect, interlaying as many narratives across one novel as I possible could.
Just a quick follow up question then: Were each of these individual narratives intended to convey something different and specific about the human experience? Any specific examples that come to mind? Or was it simply the accumulation of them that made the stories collectively a reflection of that vast, strange, and rich experience.
More the latter, I would say. My general approach was to make the stories included in the novel as wide-ranging as possible, but still falling within certain thematic parameters. Again, I was looking to The Decameron for inspiration on this, where each set of ten stories is united by some kind of theme or motif or structure, like “lovers who trick someone, but then escape justice with a witty remark,” or whatever. Within those constraints, the stories in The Decameron still run the gamut of moods and ideas, which is something I wanted to replicate. So for any story I included in The Infinite Future, I made sure it fit within one (or more) of a handful of motifs that run throughout the novel: searching for meaning in life, the politics of interpretation, authoritarianism, loneliness, to name the main ones that come to mind. But by also having each story differ from other ones in the novel (in mood, or content, or arguments it may be making) I hoped to create a broad, essayistic exploration of those same ideas.
Thank you for your time and insights.