The Denialist’s Almanac of American Plague and Pestilence
When the rapture envelops Balta, Wisconsin, the unlucky few who are left to survive on Earth must do so in a sea of frogs. An overweight teenager struggles to strip himself from virtual reality long enough to experience his last moments of real life, a pair of metal-heads seek solace from past misdeeds by saving abandoned pets, a meat-headed ex-marine tries to reconcile the mortality of his muscles with the impending apocalypse, and a hospital intern scrambles for her faith amidst dead, dying, or raptured patients. Whatever the case, characters in Mohar’s exhilarating novella strive to make peace with themselves before they meet their own ends, whatever that may be. The Denialist’s Almanac of American Plague and Pestilence captures the frantic humanity of the end of the world with a steady string of humor and cynicism. Mohar, a recipient of the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing Fellowship, and The Southwest Review’s McGinnis Ritchie Award for fiction, delivers the rapture with oddity and uniqueness.
“But if it is the end end–which I’m not necessarily saying it is, but hypothetically–what do you think is going to happen to us?”
Chapter 2, ``Lyle Denial,`` p. 21
Interview with the Author
Zach Swaim: What influenced you to write a novella about the Christian rapture?
Christopher Mohar: In late 2012, a bevy of vocal doomsayers took to the media to voice predictions of the coming apocalypse, allegedly scheduled to occur on December 21, the final date of the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar. According to Mayan creation myths, the world in its current cycle was created on the date equivalent to August 11, 3114 BCE, so their calendar begins there, then counts forward in a non-repeating sequence until it hits 12/21/12, at which point it just sort of ends. From this, the doomsayers drew the spurious conclusion that the Mayans knew something we didn’t—so when the calendar ends, so ends the world. (A view not articulated in Mayan horology, BTW.) Now, perhaps some of these doomsayers were serious—perhaps they were frightened to the very cores of their beings and honestly trying to do the good work of helping others get their affairs in order before it was too late—but many seemed to be shysters preying on people’s fears, trying to make a quick buck selling snake-oil: bomb-shelter supplies, for-profit religious paraphernalia, freeze-dried food and whatnot. The era also saw an impressive proliferation of email forwards containing Biblical End of Days prophesies, and among the memes making the rounds was a website offering “After the Rapture Pet Care.” I visited the site and couldn’t tell if it was a hoax or not. The proprietors seemed dead serious. Now, I don’t mean to make light of any Christians out there who truly love their pets, but I was a bit bemused that any demand for such a service might actually exist. More fundamentally, I was baffled that the Rapture conversation was happening at all. I couldn’t wrap my brain around how people would suddenly be anxious over an impending Christian Rapture due to some essentially arbitrary date predicted by the cosmology and mythology of a decidedly non-Christian culture. Anyway, the ideas stuck with me and fermented in my brain until they eventually re-emerged in my fiction.
ZS: How much research did you have to do for this topic?
CM: Not much. I may have skimmed The Bible a tad, but rather than hewing closely to the source material, I took whatever creative liberties I felt like because I intended the events of the novella to read with some ambiguity, not strictly as “The Rapture” in a Christian sense. My goal was for the setting to evoke The Rapture, without necessarily recreating the Book of Revelations piece for piece—all those seals being broken and trumpets being blown and beasts with multiple heads, etc. Therefore, imagination alongside hazy memories from Sunday school were enough to get the job done.
ZS: In many of your author bios, you refer to previous occupations as jobs you worked in your “past lives.” Do you consider your writing career to be the beginning of a new life, and if so, why?
CM: Well, the phrase “past lives” certainly implies that, doesn’t it? But I guess I was being more cute than ideological when I wrote that, because the truth is a bit more nuanced. Yes, I’m happy to have left behind the days of mopping vomit from toilet stalls in favor of spending more hours with pen in hand. However, your history makes you who you are, so even if you leave an old era for a new one, it’s never a clean break. Those “past life” experiences stay with you, sometimes in subtle shifts of understanding, sometimes explicitly, as material. Writers who never leave the ivory tower seldom have anything worthy to write about. You also need to get out and live a little. Climb mountains. Work shitty jobs. Have your heart broken. Stuff like that.
ZS: Where did you expect this novella to go when you started?
CM: I knew right off that it was going to have a nested Matryoshka doll structure. Although my characters and themes are nothing like David Mitchell’s, I unabashedly stole the shape of thing from his novel Cloud Atlas. (That said, I reworked his idea in a more literal fashion; Mitchell’s nested sections switch genres each time, and they link up more loosely/thematically, as opposed to using direct plot inter-dependencies). So, like a blank coloring book, I had the shapes in mind before I had the story to fill them in. I began to color by simply chasing after characters who interested me. At some point in this process, I realized that the common denominator between them was escapism—whether Lyle’s drug use or Mindy’s domestic fantasy or Obama’s delusions of grandeur, these characters are all in denial of some harsh truths about their extant world. I began to consciously cultivate this “denialism” to bring it to fore. I wanted the greater arc to illustrate these personal struggles, made more urgent by the backdrop of the encroaching End of Days—the implication being that age-old question, “Hey, if the world ends, are you really going to be happy with the path you’ve been taking?” All this dwelling on the flaws of humanity might’ve felt too bleak or unfair if I didn’t give a few of the characters the opportunity to change or see outside themselves, if only for a glimmer—a hint of self-awareness at the end, however minor. So I set my sights on that endpoint, and wrote toward it.
ZS: What motivated you to submit this novella again this year?
CM: I believed that the work had gotten stronger with revision and hoped that it might better resonate with a different pool of readers this time around. Well, that, and a stubborn, almost stupid determination to keep putting my work out there into the world! Rejections are sometimes indicators of poor quality work, but sometimes merely indicators that you as a writer haven’t found your ideal readership yet. Reading is a subjective experience. Editorial readers, like laypeople, don’t always agree on what to love. As your writing career goes on, you have to get used to rejections, take them in stride, and go out there and try again. Writing is a both a business and an art, and submissions and rejections are par for the course on the business of things. So if you believe in your work, you have to keep trying. Of course, I’m glad I gave it another shot!
ZS: You once gave a list of 10 things every novel needs to be complete. How did you determine this list?
CM: At the time, I was teaching in a context that catered primarily to what might be called “commercial” writers. Top Ten lists were big. My boss told me to deliver content in top ten lists and bullet points whenever possible. I tried to do this to the best of my ability without embarrassing myself. This meant being true to my understanding of fictional craft while also fitting the information into an accessible vessel. But even if I slap on a new coat of paint, the craft elements I tend to return to in my teaching have mostly already been articulated better by wiser teachers than I (e.g. Burroway, Gardner, etc.). Let me be clear and emphatic that despite the “Every” in that presentation’s title, I don’t believe there’s a single “right” way to make art.
ZS: Please describe how your novella meets your own criteria.
ZS: You also have a list of 10 rules for writing with humility and dedication. Why was this list created, and how often do you come back to it for reminders?
CM: I wrote these rules to help clarify my own thoughts on the matter. They began as reminders to the self, but I wanted to share them with other writers who might be going through similar struggles. It’s easy to get bogged down in the turf along the intersections of art and ego, process and achievement. I don’t physically re-read the list on a regular basis, but I certainly need to remind myself of these concepts regularly. It suffices to keep an internalized version in my working memory, and I continue to stand by the (ostensible) wisdom proffered therein.
ZS: You name coffee as something you enjoy. How much coffee do you think was consumed in the making of this novella?
CM: Oh, lord. So, so much. A precise estimate would be impossible because I just don’t track all the relevant data, but an order-of-magnitude estimate might begin with around a cup-an-hour habit while I’m working. If writing is going well, it probably takes me less than an hour to draft a page, but lots of those pages get thrown away, and each page that makes the cut takes several more hours by the time you factor in revising the whole story five, then ten, then fifteen or more times. Which is to say: in the hundreds, easily.
ZS: Out of all the characters in your novella, which would you say you relate to the most, and why?
CM: Probably Wode. One of the hallmarks of adolescence for many people is feeling uncomfortable in your own skin, and I certainly had extreme social anxiety in my youth. Writing Wode’s section really took me back to my own feelings of shame and inadequacy. Not to mention escapism via RPGs and video games. Lyle is the other character who comes closest to echoing lived experience—over the years, I’ve played in a lot of bands and hung around plenty of people in that scene who were going nowhere fast, some of whom had dreams predicated on internal moral vacuity, as is Lyle’s. Ultimately, though, as a writer you put yourself into everyone you write, so they are all echoes in some way or another. Yes, even Obama.
ZS: How satisfied are you with the finished product?
CM: I’m thrilled with everything Etchings Press has done for me. It’s wonderful to see my story given such a sharp tux to wear to the debutant’s ball! As for my writing itself, I’m simultaneously proud and unsatisfied. I like much of what I’ve accomplished—I’ll admit to making myself laugh aloud a few times while working—but I’m also a perfectionist. Given endless time to re-write, I would tinker forever. But at some point you have to just say, “Okay, this is as strong as I can make it as the writer I am today,” and move on.
ZS: The title of your novella is very unique and sure to catch some eyes. How did you come up with the idea for this title?
CM: Honestly? I don’t remember. I’ve always been a fan of “excessive” titles, though, so there’s that. I also know that the first working title was “A Complete User’s Guide to American Plague and Pestilence,” but sometime during revisions I changed the title to reflect the evolving priorities of the work.
ZS: What does your writing process consist of?
CM: Lots and lots of revision. I’m a firm believer in what Anne Lamott calls the “Shitty First Draft.” Which is not to say that you ever go into the process with the intention that your work will suck. Just that you have to let go of the platonic ideal of the “Great American Novel” in your mind before you’ll be truly free to sit at the keyboard and hack out whatever humble offering it is you have to give the world. When drafting, I try arranging my mental and physical contexts to facilitate letting things flow. I often give myself a goal in writing time or word count. Generally, I write way too many pages. Then I cut, clean things up, and revise. Compress, squeeze out the excess. Revise, revise, revise. That’s when the real magic happens. Not over one or two drafts, but dozens.
ZS: Is there a habitual routine you take part in, or do you have a go with the flow approach?
CM: No magic socks or morning yoga, but I do write nearly every day. If you want to make a proper go of it as a writer, you simply have to. There is no alternative to hard work for honing your craft and actually getting the pages done. By analogy: nobody disputes that if you want to run a marathon, you have to run. You can’t just talk about running with other aspiring athletes, or read books about other people running, you’ve got to pound the pavement until you earn some nasty blisters on your feet and wake up sore the next day. Then get up and do it again.
ZS: How important was winning this contest to you?
CM: Winning this contest was absolutely huge for me. The Denialist’s Guide to American Plague and Pestilence will be my first book-length publication, which is a career milestone for any writer. Although I’ve been lucky enough to have several shorter works benefit from the generosity of some fine literary magazines, this publication is a whole new order of magnitude by comparison. I mean, now I’ll have a proper answer for those awkward cocktail party moments when someone says, “Oh, you’re a writer? Do you have a book?”
ZS: I’ve read that you’ve previously worked as a metallurgical researcher, a literacy tutor, a computer programmer, a busboy, a legal assistant’s assistant, and have taught at the University of Wisconsin as well as a men’s correctional institution. That’s quite a wide variety of jobs. Have your experiences working at these places influenced any of your writing?
CM: Oh, yes. You can’t help but be a product of your life experiences. Lived experience is particularly important for writing characters. And it’s not necessarily limited to the sense of “Hey, I was a busboy, so now here’s a novel about a busboy!” but more in the broad sense of worldview and character-shaping that I referenced above, learning to see the world in different ways, to develop empathy and perspective. I often found my work forcing me outside my own comfort zone, which is a healthy experience that most of us need more of.
ZS: At what age did you begin writing, and when did you begin pursuing a career in it?
CM: I took an undergrad degree in Materials Science engineering, but somewhere between Thermodynamics 201 and Crystallography 311 I started feeling too boxed-in, so later in college I started mixing in some humanities classes, including English and Creative Writing. So I guess I was flirting with the craft somewhere around my legal drinking age. Flirting led to falling in love, and a few years later I went back to school for an MFA. But it wasn’t really until after my master’s that I honestly began putting in the hours needed to take the work more seriously. So, really, I was in my late 20s by the time I started giving the “career” part a proper go.
ZS: What other projects are you currently working on?
CM: Assuming all goes well, my first novel should be coming out in the near future. (Fingers crossed!) The story takes place in a world where livestock are illegal and in-vitro meat is farmed indoors in huge aseptic domes, and it follows intertwined narratives, firstly about a black-market meat-smuggler trying to re-unite with a lost lover who has been isolated in quarantine, and secondly about an infantryman/reality-TV star in a special Army squad whose every combat operation is formatted as entertainment. The working title is American Hunger but that is highly likely to change between now and publication.