Turning Up the Volume from 3 to 10: Talking with Blake Crouch

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Blake Crouch is the best-selling author of more than a dozen novels, and several of his genre- and mind-bending projects have been adapted for film and television. His Wayward Pines trilogy, which begins with the star-reviewed Pines, was adapted into a television series for FOX; he is the creator of the TNT show Good Behavior, based on his trio of Letty Dobesh novellas; and he’s writing the screenplay for his last novel, the star-reviewed Dark Matter, for Sony Pictures. Up next from Crouch is Recursion (out tomorrow!), which is currently in development with Shonda Rhimes and Matt Reeves at Netflix as both a television sci-fi universe and a movie.

Recursion follows New York cop Barry Sutton and neuroscientist Helena Smith as they contend with the reality-threatening force behind “False Memory Syndrome,” an upsetting phenomenon sweeping the globe. As a Blake Crouch superfan, I don’t think I can tell you how excited I was for this bookand how excited I was to chat with him about it!

ROTH: Your last novel, Dark Matter, was such a personal journey, about one man’s life and choices, while the stakes of Recursion are global, with the very nature of reality in jeopardy. But in many ways, both books are exploring elusive what-ifs. Do you see Recursion as a return to, or continuation, of the themes you explored in Dark Matter, or is this something else entirely?

CROUCH: I see Dark Matter and Recursion as two sides of the same coin. The stories are quite different. The stakes are personal in Dark Matter, global in Recursion. But both cover the very fertile subject matter of the nature of reality, identity, time, regret, and the mysterious universe that encompasses us.

Recursion seems to also be exploring the destructive “dark side of finding your purpose,” as Helena calls it. There’s an exchange early in the book in which a character says, “I think balance is for people who don’t know why they’re here.” In an adjacent vein, Dark Matter highlights the fork in the road created by what we commit ourselves to and what we gain and sacrifice in doing so. As a writer—which for many can be an isolating and consuming endeavor—have you learned anything from these characters about “sacrifice” and “balance,” or do you write them because you’ve learned something?

I think it’s more that I’m reflecting in these characters my own struggle to find that elusive work/life balance. Creating stories is an all-consuming process that requires the writer to live in their own head and spend hours at a time staring off into space. So I have an affinity and understanding for characters like Helena, who feel completely drawn to their work.

In much of your work, Recursion being absolutely no exception, there’s this moment where, once we’ve seen and are amazed by the initial demonstration of the high concept idea, it’s like act three says “hold my beer” and that idea, in an explosive climax, gets followed to its logical but wild conclusion. How do you maintain control of your own plot when extrapolating on an idea that’s in danger of becoming unruly and paradoxical? One misstep and you’d fall into a plot hole or run into a dead end.

It’s so funny you mention the “hold my beer” Act Three thing. Much of what I’m doing lately in my books is trying to come up with a really cool concept and then finding ways to scale it up so that my books do things other books can’t do. I wrote myself into so many dead ends in Recursion. There were moments I thought, “well, there’s no way to actually finish this book.” All I can say is that I have great editors and writer friends who supported me every step of the way and read multiple drafts as I tried to find my way through. I also threw out 40,000 words of the book after my first draft and completely rewrote the end so I could get to that “hold my beer” third act.

There are a number of nods to current events in Recursion, including domestic terror and school shootings, WikiLeaks, the threat of nuclear warfare, drone strikes, and whether “fact” and “truth” even exist. What does Helena and Barry’s story have to say about how we process, cope, and respond to fear and instability in our society and world? Did watching the news play as much a role in the writing of this book as researching neuroscience?

I think we all feel, to some extent, that the fidelity of truth is being challenged, especially by America’s ostensible leader. Sometimes the best way to underscore something that’s happening in society is to turn up the volume from 3 to 10, and say, “what if you couldn’t even rely on your memories anymore? What if reality could change on a whim?”

You’ve said Dark Matter took ten years to really come together. How long was Recursion percolating, and what was the process of finding and telling this story? You say in the acknowledgements of Recursion that “this was hands down the hardest book I’ve ever written.” Why is that?

Hard to say how long Recursion percolated. I have books I feel have been simmering under the surface for 20 years. It was the hardest because of the nature of the narrative. Without getting into spoiler territory, it is highly serpentine, bending back on itself, branching, sometimes simply falling out from under your feet.

There’s a conversation in Recursion about Helena’s “memory chair” being dangerous in anyone’s hands, not just those who would use it recklessly. Yet in the acknowledgements, you note that in 2012, MIT neuroscientists really did succeed in false memory implantation in a mouse, saying, “I’m profoundly grateful to them, and to all scientists who have dedicated their lives to unraveling the beautiful mystery of our existence.” What’s your take on the potential Pandora’s box of innovation, and why are you drawn to the sci part of sci-fi?

The easy answer is that without a Pandora’s box approach, where do the stakes in scientific discovery come from for a story? The better answer is that groundbreaking scientific discovery is a two-sided coin. Take CRISPR, for instance, the gene-editing technology that’s been burgeoning in the last decade. It could be used to eradicate disease that is programmed into genes. But it could also, if used improperly, lead to changing the human genome beyond recognition, in detrimental ways. The development of AI poses a similar too-much-power-for-humans-to-play-with scenario. That is real science, and its applications are potentially powerful enough to make humanity exponentially better, or to destroy us. I can’t think of anything more exciting to write about.

Next up, I understand it, is a collection edited by you and your partner, Jacque Ben-Zekry, called FORWARD, which will feature work from you, Andy Weir, N. K. Jemisin, Veronica Roth, Amor Towles, and Paul Tremblay. What can you tell us about that project?

It’s a collection of six sci-fi stories written by my favorite writers. Jacque and I curated this collection, she edited it, and I couldn’t be more proud of how it turned out. Look for it on September 17, 2019. 



About the Author:

A former Booklist intern and current Booklist reviewer, Ellie is a reader and writer based in Chicago. She holds a BA in writing from Wheaton College (IL) and is the assistant to the president at Browne & Miller Literary Associates.

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