LJ Talks to First Novelist Rachel Heng | Debut Spotlight

Rachel Heng's Suicide Club offers a riveting contemplation on what it means to live. Here the author talks about turning the complexities of life and death into a literary dystopia.

Suicide Club (LJ 5/15/18) is a riveting contemplation on what it means to live. Debut author Rachel Heng talks about turning the complexities of life and death into a literary dystopia.  

Where did you get the idea for a story about prolonging life?

It came from my own obsession with and fear of death. I first wrote about [it] in a short story that featured a similar world to that in Suicide Club. It began as a thought experiment, a way to think about what life would be like if we didn’t have to die. It wasn’t a very good story, but I remained intrigued and eventually started writing a novel set in the same universe.

Then I started seeing articles in the news about cryogenic freezing and Silicon Valley billionaires trying to “hack death,” and it turned out I had to make up much less stuff than I’d originally anticipated. So much of it was already happening.

Your book cover features the line, “a novel about living.” What does living mean to you and what did you want your protagonist Lea to learn?
Living to me is a kind of openness to cruelty, loss, and pain, but also beauty, kindness, unexpected grace. I suffered a loss at a fairly young age and the biggest way in which it affected me was that it made me close myself up. It taught me to be “strong” and left me with a deep fear of not being in control. Death undoes all of that; we exercise, sleep early, eat kale, or whatever, but in the end we still all die, and there’s nothing we can do to control that. The world of Suicide Club is one that is hyper-controlled, and at the beginning, Lea has fully bought into that. As the story progresses, she opens herself up bit by bit, first to cruelty—the world’s, but also her own—and pain, as well as beauty, kindness, and peace.

The epigraph I chose...is a line from Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Kindness.” I love this poem because it links joy to pain, kindness to loss, and seems to embody the openness that is the project of my novel.

Why did you decide to use the estranged relationship between Lea and her father as the thrust of the narrative?
When I started the book, it was very much world- and premise-driven, and the hardest work was figuring out who the characters were and what they would do. I knew I wanted Lea to be someone who had bought into the system from the beginning, whose beliefs would be slowly undone. What I didn’t know was how this would happen. Then as I was redrafting, I realized that her relationship with her father was the most emotionally compelling aspect of her narrative and ended up writing this into the main plot.

I think this relationship works because our first encounter with death is so often dealing with the mortality of our parents. I remember not being able to sleep as a child, gripped by the terrible thought that one day my parents would die, that I would never see or speak to them again. This estranged relationship is similar in that it is the first loss that Lea experiences, one that causes her fear of other losses and death to take root.

How did you develop the Suicide Club?
The Suicide Club itself was one of the earliest things that came to me as I was writing the [original] short story. Those in the Club are the logical consequence to a world in which death is taboo and practically illegal. It made sense to me that there would be two opposing, somewhat extreme forces: on one hand, the gleaming “lifers” who seek to live forever and the Ministry that dictates who will and who won’t; on the other, the Suicide Club that wants to undo society’s all-consuming drive towards immortality. Both positions are untenable, but one couldn’t exist without the other.

How do you feel as you get closer to the July release of your first novel?
I think one of the ways I managed to finish the novel was by telling myself that no one would ever read it. But now...that illusion doesn’t hold up, and I find myself feeling increasingly anxious. While part of the anxiety is worrying about how the book will be received, the bigger feelings have been of exposure and vulnerability. Writing has always been very private for me—I wrote in secret for many years, and most people around me didn’t even know I wrote fiction—so to have it out in the world in such a public way feels extremely exposing. Yet at the same time—like any writer—I wish fervently for my book to be read, or I wouldn’t have published it in the first place.

I just don’t want anyone to talk to me about it because that would be mortifying (unless they absolutely, 100 percent got it and loved it and thought I was a genius—I kid, I kid).—Kate ­DiGirolomo

Photo by Andrew Bennett

 

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