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Cynical Optimism, Hopepunk, and the End Times: Talking with Mike Chen about A BEGINNING AT THE END

Mike Chen

This time last year, Mike Chen made his debut with Here and Now and Then, a genre-bending story about a time-traveling secret agent separated from his daughter by more than 100 years. Today, Mike’s sophomore novel, A Beginning at the End, arrives and it is another winner (it also earned a starred review in Booklist‘s November 1 issue). A Beginning at the End follows a wedding planner, a pop star in hiding, and a grieving widower and his young daughter six years after a pandemic has wiped out 70 percent of the global population.

This book sits comfortably within a growing collection of nongrimdark stories (including Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers) that feature hope and survival amidst the chaos of the apocalypse and its aftermath. In fact, if finding hope at the end of the world sounds like your kind of story (and you’ve already devoured A Beginning at the End, of course), check out Mike’s recent roundup of a few more optimistic tales in this piece for Tor.com—and our interview with Wendig.

I chatted with Mike over email about his debut experience, his new book, and why he’s drawn to these heart-healing, genre-bending kinds of sci-fi stories.

Here and Now and Then published in late January 2019, so technically you’re still in your debut year for another few weeks. You’re so active in geek culture and fandom, as well as in communities surrounding sports (you were an NHL writer) and music (so many indie rock references in this book!). What does community mean to you, and what has the writing community been like for you in your debut year?

One of the biggest themes of A Beginning at the End is found family, and I include community in that. Community, in all its forms, is a feeling of belonging. I joke that when I become interested in something, I go all in on it, and it’s usually because I enjoy finding kindred spirits, whether in person or online. It’s led to a lot of my writing gigs, because joining those communities means diving deeper into the discussion, then posting my own thoughts on it. I realized over the past few years that a lot of this stems from wanting connection growing up but having immigrant Chinese parents who didn’t have the tools to communicate well. That’s probably why I feel found family is as important as blood family.

As for the writing community, it’s been overwhelmingly positive. I know different genres tend to have different experiences with their online community, but my experience with the sf/fantasy community has been inclusive and welcoming. I think the best example of this is Fran Wilde, award-winning author of Updraft and Riverland. Fran blurbed Here and Now and Then, which was huge, but she went far beyond that. Before I debuted, she included me in a Tor.com roundtable session, and at WorldCon 2018—my first con as a professional, though I was still in ARC stage and no one knew who I was—she took me around and introduced me to literally everyone that passed by. I’ve tried to pay that forward to the next debut class, and I feel like I wouldn’t have my sanity without my writer friends because being a published author is a very strange thing with a lot of ups and downs that the public never sees.

You wrote the first draft of A Beginning at the End in 2011, even before you wrote the book that ended up being your debut. What has spending nearly a decade with this story and these characters taught you about writing? In what ways did you change as a storyteller in that time, and what was it like to grow with this manuscript?

Well, it taught me that the original draft wasn’t very good! I learned a lot about craft before I started major revisions in 2016—structure, voice, world building, pacing, stakes, all that stuff. I can see that the original version had this very unique concept but the writing simply wasn’t good enough. Shelving it in 2013 to start the project that became Here and Now and Then meant that all the craft lessons through my debut process applied to A Beginning at the End (originally entitled “The Pause”). Dialogue has always been my strong suit, but I think I have a much better understanding of building stakes into that to identify character beats, and that simply took a lot of work and lessons.

Returning to a shelved manuscript has a lot of pros and cons. The pros are that you already know the characters and world, and it felt really easy to slide back into those voices. The cons, though, are that they come with mistakes of early work . . . so you’re not just writing new stuff, you have to undo a lot, then consolidate and shift and rewrite. I think the text is about 80 percent rewritten even though the arc is largely the same. One of the final rounds of revision was simply about smoothing out the prose because it was stitched together from so many different versions.

“The ultimate message, I hope, is that the only way out is through, but it won’t be as scary if you surround yourself with the right people.”

However, I will say that I have so much affection for these characters. During the closing lines of this book (no spoilers), I get so many feels because for all their in-universe sense of getting to the finish line, there’s a real-world component to that, too, because they’ve been with me for so long and endured so many career ups and downs. Don’t tell the Stewart family from Here and Now and Then this, but I think this cast means more to me.

In the opening chapter of A Beginning at the End, we meet pop singer Moira “MoJo” Gorman performing songs from her less-successful second album and thinking of her father telling her, “There is no sophomore slump. Smile!” Did you draw on your own experiences and anxieties as an artist when building and understanding Moira? I understand she wasn’t initially one of the point of view characters; when did she enter the picture?

My indie rock bands never got past the half-empty club stage, so Moira’s pop star experiences were based purely on research. I find the behind-the-scenes guts of entertainment really fascinating, along with the emotional toll it often takes on the performers and their families, so a lot of the inspiration came from interviews I’d read/heard of 1990s/2000s artists who escaped that life.

And that’s correct, she was originally a supporting character. The POVs in the original draft were Rob and Krista, and Moira wove in and out of the story. When my agent Eric Smith started to guide me on revisions in 2016, he gave me the impossible homework of “examine how Station Eleven splits up POVs and adds in background information, then do that.” He also said if I was going to add a POV, I should promote Moira to a main character because a pop star in hiding is way too interesting to push to the side.

It’s funny because while Krista has always been the main character to me, people seem to have glommed onto Moira as the lead. The POVs are actually split exactly evenly, so I suppose it’s whomever you identify with the most!

Parenting features heavily in your work thus far, with Rob in A Beginning at the End and Kin in Here and Now and Then both trying to do right by their daughters and love and protect them as best they know how. In A Beginning at the End, there’s also a focus on “restoring the nuclear family unit” and the pressure on children to carry the future. Have you always been drawn to writing about family, or did becoming a parent affect your creative imagination and the themes or questions you’re drawn to exploring in fiction?

Yes and no. While romantic relationships weave into my work, I don’t want them to be a narrative focus. I just feel awkward writing that, and I think others do it much better than me. So it boils down to which relationships have the most stakes, and that’s parent-child. I do want to see more focus on friendship and found family in fiction, and I think that’s why it’s so prominent in A Beginning at the End (and the upcoming We Could Be Heroes). I personally want to see more male/female friendships without the pressure for romance. Becoming a parent has helped create authenticity to the feelings in prose, but it’s not necessarily a conscious driver. In fact, I was worried that people would think having Sunny in A Beginning at the End would be a bit of a retread to Here and Now and Then, but thankfully readers so far have recognized that the stakes and relationships are completely different.

In Here and Now and Then, Kin’s time travel causes him to struggle with what his family calls PTSD (something essentially nonexistent in his future due to massively improved treatment). In A Beginning at the End, people the world over suffer from “Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder,” or PASD, which Krista notes is “more like paused,” leaving the world in this semifunctional limbo state. Can you talk about your interest in writing about trauma and how you decided to represent it?

The original title for this manuscript was “The Pause,” which I knew would probably change (and I love the final title). However, I thought that felt like it summed up the main theme of the book. During the original drafting of this book, I was dealing with some family stuff and reading a lot of self-help. The idea that trauma could essentially pause you in a feedback loop fascinated me, and knowing that is a natural defensive reaction in the human brain made it a lot easier for me personally to try to break the endless loop. It also made me start to see how some people began to use that feedback loop as a shield, refusing treatment or therapy or whatever because “it’s not going to work” and instead making that victim mentality part of their identity.

Of course, change is scary. And sometimes it’s tempting to stick with the devil you know instead of fighting through all the layers of hurt and pain and damage. But if you don’t process it, you’ll never escape itthere’s no running away from trauma.

The apocalypse has always been a metaphor in fiction, from commercialism to the Cold War to climate change. It creates a defined point where everything changes and the survivors have to deal with the fallout. Thus, it fits well in an allegory for trauma. The ultimate message, I hope, is that the only way out is through, but it won’t be as scary if you surround yourself with the right people.

Some readers pick up a postapocalypse book with certain expectations, but this isn’t “The Road 2.0,” as you’ve said. Can you talk about the tone of A Beginning at the End, how you found it, and why even as it examines loss and trauma and societal collapse, you gave it so much heart and hope?

I think it just comes down to the fact that I’m not a bleak person. I remember a while back when my wife and I were getting to know each other, I called myself a “cynical optimist.” What I mean is that I like to believe that, in the end, good things prevail but I’m cynical and grounded enough to understand that it sometimes requires a lot of work and sacrifice. There’s the emerging movement of hopepunk in fiction, and when I discovered that term a few months ago, it felt like it fit my stories.

So, the tone of this is hopeful, but it’s also very personal. So much apocalyptic fiction focuses on day-to-day survival and how terrible humanity will be. I just like to think there’s more good people than bad, and even if there’s a catastrophic event, people will come together in some way to forge forwardand the most likely way that comes about is as a community, not in isolation.

I get why some people may want something more violent or more grimdark, and that’s totally cool. But I think there’s an unexplored area in apocalyptic fiction about the building of hope rather than the destruction of society. Because at some point, people will collectively get out of survival mode.

You’ve signed on for two more books with your publisher, to my great excitement. What can you tell readers about what you have in the pipeline?

We are in final edits for We Could Be Heroes, which is a little lighter and more fun than my first two books. It’s about a superhero and supervillain who accidentally become friends at an anonymous support group, then form a rocky partnership to discover how they got their powers. Their friendship and banter is a joy to write, and we’re in final edits right now. The current plan is to release in Q1 2021, again with Mira/Harlequin. The whole cycle of cover art and ARCs should hit this summer.

I’m working on the second book of that contract, which hasn’t been officially approved yet. So I’ll refrain from saying too much just in case my publisher ultimately rejects the idea. But as it stands, it’s another examination of family and the impact of time on family. Also, it has aliens.

You can find Mike on his website, mikechenbooks.com, and on Twitter at @MikeChenWriter. His new book, A Beginning at the End, is out now; what are you waiting for? GO READ IT!

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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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