Transcript: Sylvain Neuvel and Tayari Jones

This is a transcript of Recommended Season 2 Episode 3.

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JENN:

This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. In this episode, Sylvain Neuvel picked The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton and Tayari Jones discusses Meridian by Alice Walker.

JENN:

Sylvain Neuvel is the author of the Themis Files trilogy. The series blends science fiction and apocalyptic thriller, and is told in the cutting-edge cadences of interviews, journal entries, transcripts, and news articles. The most recent installment, Only Human, is now available wherever books are sold. Based in Montreal, Neuvel is also a linguist and translator, and is at work on an R2-D2 replica and his next novel.

SYLVAIN NEUVEL:

My name Sylvain Neuvel, and the Andromeda Strain is my recommended.
Here’s in a nutshell what the is all about. It was written in 1969, so there was a virus from space that lands on Earth when a satellite crashes, and this team of scientists is put together to try and stop the virus from wiping out life on Earth, and they enter this top-secret underground facility and try to find a cure for it.

The Andromeda Strain is a book that I read when I was a teenager, so I first read it in French. It was called something like [French language], which is a horrible translation, but I didn’t speak English, so that’s what I did. I read French translation, Crichton and Clancy, and the, I don’t know, at that time, the subject sounded interesting, and it’s a book that really left an impression, and that influenced I guess my writing, especially the Themis Files, in some ways.

When I started the Themis Files, my first thought wasn’t, “Well, I’m going to, you know, take a few things from the Andromeda Strain,” but unconsciously, yeah, probably.

There are two books that sort of made me … like quirky books that put a different spin on things. That one and Les Liaisons dangereuses, Dangerous Liaison, which was the first epistolary novel that I read, and so if you combined these two things … I didn’t put computer everywhere, but there are aliens involved in my book, but, yeah, they were probably the two books that influenced the Themis Files the most.

My favorite character or scene from the book? I would have to go with a scene … at the end, and a lot of people hated that scene, but okay, so they’ve contained the … They think they’ve contained the virus, but it mutates again and it starts eating at rubber gaskets which, somehow, will cause the world to end one way or another, and the facility they’re in goes into self-destruct mode, nuclear self-destruct, and so you have this computer voice, it was written in the ’60s, so it’s a sultry female computer voice, apparently, starts counting down from 30 seconds to zero.

The whole chapter is this guy trying to insert some gizmo or push a red button, because you have to push the button, while dodging, I don’t know, poison gas, and the computer is shooting tranquilizer darts at him the whole time. It’s so over the top and absurd and ridiculous, but it’s so fun to read at the same time. That has to be my favorite scene.

Why did that book impress me so much? I have no idea. If I had to sort of analyze it, it was more of a experience for me, but it showed me that you could do anything really. I mean, that book is so over the top. It starts with a warning that you’re reading a top secret document and you can go to jail if you shared it with anyone. Then you go to the acknowledgement and, instead of thanking his editor, he thanks the participants in this project and talks about how this had to be shared so that the world would know.

The beginning of it I think is interesting because it allows, it gives the book, like the physical object, some sort of meaning like you would if you were reading an epistolary novel, but he does tell the story in a more traditional third-person narrator, but you still get that sense that you’re not reading like a normal story.

It’s also filled with graphics and maps and computer printouts and diagrams and all sorts of weird things that you never find in a novel and, of course, you have a 30-second super slow motion scene of a guy being chased by a crazy computer who wants to blow up the lab where he’s at, shooting tranquilizer darts at him. I mean, it just showed me that you could … There was no limits to what you could do. This is a book that shouldn’t exist, and yet it’s super entertaining.

For a book that was written in 1969, I do find myself recommending it quite often.

That said, to say that this book is not without its flaws would be the understatement of the century, but it’s still fun.

It’s interesting in part because my adult mind looks at things slightly differently than the 15-year-old me. Also, that book was written before I was even born, so it suffered from a few of the things that stories written in that era usually suffered from. There’s a hint of sexism here and there. Single males are chosen for their ability to react fast to this kind of situation and so on. You have the female computer voice that I think one of the characters even hits on at some point. It’s safe to say that at least Crichton wasn’t on the frontlines of the battle for women’s rights, but if you managed to get over some of those things, it’s a very interesting book.

I think one of the things that makes this one of my favorite books is that I read as a teenager and, at the time, I wasn’t spending or automatically going into writer mode and over-analyzing everything. I just read it for fun, and it did the job that it was supposed to do and, perhaps, because of that, I’m able to read it again now and sort of get the same thrill.

There are very few books that I’ve read as an adult where my … I was able to sort of stop my brain from going into full analytic mode, which I get used to, but it can sometimes ruin the experience a little bit. There were large parts of The Martian that felt like that where I was just flipping pages smiling, not necessarily all of it, but certainly big parts of that.

My first reading of Red Rising was like that. Pierce Brown’s brain works in a way that is fairly completely different from mine, and I didn’t see things coming when I thought I had something pinned down. He twisted it in a way that I didn’t see.

One of the things about Crichton that I like is that, at least at the time, I had no idea I was reading science fiction. I was reading … so comparing this to The Hunt for Red October, I had no clue that these were different things. It was happening here now. You had people facing a crisis. Whether it was a rogue submarine or a virus from space made sort of little difference to me.
I guess it’s sort of shaped my appreciation of or my definition of what genre should be. I don’t like boxes. I never have, and one of the things I like about that book is, at least when I was 15, I had no clue that I was reading science fiction. To me, science fiction was in space and had aliens and spaceships. This has alien viruses, but it doesn’t count.

When I was 15, I didn’t really see the boundaries between genre really well, and now that I know that most of what Crichton worked was … is a different kind of animal than what, say, Tom Clancy wrote at the time, but I still don’t feel it. I know it, but I … I don’t know. There’s something that I find this connection between books like the Andromeda Strain or even Jurassic Park and something like The Hunt for Red October. To me, they’re the same kind of experience and I … That’s what I hope to do with my own stuff, to blur the lines between genres.

People ask me what kind of books I write, and I usually say, “Well, I write grounded sci-fi,” but I don’t like the question. I certainly don’t like my answer. I never like boxes. I don’t know. One of the things that keeps coming up in the reviews of my books is, “I never read science fiction, but I really enjoy that.” I think it’s the best compliment I can get.

JENN:

Thanks again to Sylvain Neuvel for joining us and recommending The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton. Only Human, the third book in the Themis Files, is published by Del Rey books and is now available wherever books are sold. You can follow him on Twitter at neuvel.

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JENN:

Tayari Jones is the award-winning author of the novels Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling, and Silver Sparrow. Her writing has appeared in Tin House, The Believer, The New York Times, and Callaloo, and she is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. An American Marriage is a 2018 Oprah’s Book Club Selection, and a deeply insightful look into the hearts and minds of three people who are at once bound and separated by forces beyond their control.

TAYARI JONES

My name is Tayari Jones, and Meridian by Alice Walker is my recommended.

Meridian is a novel about a young woman from a small town in Georgia who, she wants a different life. She has a child very young by her high school sweetheart, and she just figures out that she is not cut out for motherhood in any way, shape, form, or fashion. And she leaves the child behind in a small town, I think to live with a grandparent, and she goes to college. And when she’s in college she becomes an activist and just kind of navigates all of the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and she tries to figure out what is her role in making the world a better place. And I feel that it is perhaps one of Walker’s overlooked books, but I think it’s so timely right now.

I read it in college and I actually resisted it because it was such an unromantic look at the life of an activist, which is why I think it’s probably essential for us right now since so many people are engaging in activism. The questions of self-care, the gender dynamics within activist groups, all of this. But when I was in college I kind of wanted a more romantic idea of activists where everyone wore a leather jacket and loved each other. I felt like this novel was pulling back a curtain that I wanted to keep closed.
I had already read The Color Purple and adored it, and I had read some of her short stories. But this novel, Meridian, it’s written in a very unconventional way; the chapters are very short, it is basically linear, but there is sometimes a kind of an unmoored sense when you read it, and I just think that when I was 18 that wasn’t what I was trying to experience. But now I just can’t get over how brilliant it is.

I’ve also taught it to my students at Rutgers-Newark University.

When I taught it to undergraduates, they responded much as I did as an undergraduate. For example, Meridian, like I said, is unsuited for motherhood and she gives the baby to her husband’s mother, and she goes away with peace within herself because she feels that by giving him up she saved ‘a very small person’s life’, I think is how it’s phrased. And I just feel that my undergraduates, in their youth, this idea of a mother not mothering was just so upsetting to them that they couldn’t really read it as a feminist moment in the novel, or a subversive moment. They were just kind of appalled.

Alice Walker is such a brave writer in that way, that she doesn’t worry about whether or not the reader, as the students say, relate to the conflict. She writes characters to do kind of unpopular things, but she’s always engaging such a larger question.

I often recommend it to my women friends because most people have not read … I have a first edition of the book right here, I’m looking at it, And I was able to purchase the first edition fairly cheaply because it’s an under praised novel, most people have never even heard of it.

But right now, in the context of Black Lives Matter, and a lot of other grassroots organizing, this idea of women struggling to be considered equals in the movement, this is … And also questions about, like, there are questions that we would now kind of call ‘me too’ type questions about sexual coercion within these social justice movements. There’s all this really interesting race questions, like, Meridian is caught between a black man, who was once her lover but is not now, and his wife who is white. And as a person who can identify with the wife because they’re both women, and identify with the husband because they’re both black, she’s mediating between these two at the cost of her own peace of mind. And the story begins with Meridian is so ill that she falls down, she faints, and she has to be carried sometimes from place to place, but she continues with her activism. So you already see this emotional toll of this positionality of the black female activist. It starts off with kind of, in my opinion, almost the worst possible case scenario, when you give so much to others that you short circuit your own wiring.

I think that it, in many ways, informed some of the questions that I would ask in my writing. I do think this is probably my first experience with intersectionality before I knew the term because that’s what, I mean, that’s what Meridian is about. It’s about being a woman and being interested in feminism and equality, and being black and also interested in dismantling white supremacy. This is what people talk about when they talk about intersectional questions, shared and split allegiances. And this is the first time I had seen it engaged in such a forthright way.

I definitely don’t think it’s a critique of the desire for justice, but I do think that it is a gendered reading of the civil right movement, which was primarily dominated by men. So absolutely it is a critique in that way, but not a critique of the core values of the espoused values of the movement.
I do find myself most engaged by books that are asking questions that are on my mind, because part of why I read is to sort out my own mind. So, I do read a number of … Like, I just got through reading Circe by Madeline Miller, and I don’t think that people would automatically think of that as something that is similar to what I’m doing, but it is a question about women trying to sort out their principles and their actual lives. It’s just that in Miller’s book, the woman in question is a goddess who’s trying to be in a relationship with a mere mortal, and I suppose we can all identify with that. But when I was drawn to it, I didn’t know that I would identify so closely with it, but I did.

One of the things that I really love about Meridian is that it is set in Georgia, both in the rural areas and the city of Atlanta, and how she finds an entire world in a single state. And it’s not a state that I think has been overly talked about in literature. But the sense of place is so strong, and she looks at Georgia as the site of, of course, Africans who were enslaved, and then their descendants who are black Americans, but she also talks about the kinship between those of us who are descendant from slave and those people who are descended from the indigenous people. Like, she really ties the story to the land in a multi-generational way. And that is one of Walker’s many gifts. I think people think of her singularly, sometimes, as a feminist writer because of The Color Purple and her commentary on domestic violence, but she is also a Southern writer. She is a daughter of the American South.

There will never be enough people reading her. But I do think she’s kind of fallen out of fashion, in a way. I don’t hear many people talking about her overall body of work. The Color Purple is such a part of the fabric of the culture that I hear people quoting the movie all the time, and I do believe that a lot of people have read it, but I don’t think that people are reading her body of work in the way that I think they should.

It’s safe to say the past is prologue. We are in a moment where we’re trying to become better activists, more inclusive activists, and this is a novel that is about exactly that. I just feel, like, what’s not to like?

JENN:

Thanks again to Tayari Jones for joining us and recommending Meridian by Alice Walker. Her latest novel, An American Marriage, published by Algonquin Books, is now available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at tayari.

OUTRO:

Next week on Recommended, one author discusses a character who spoke to her on a personal level:

UNNAMED AUTHOR:

There’s a whole passage where she’s had this falling out with her older lover and he’s accusing her of these monstrous things and, and she’s thinking to herself, “Maybe I am monstrous.” or not even a maybe, “I am,”. And she says things like, “I feel like … it feels like I’m something evil. Like something that has emerged out of a cave and I’m living off my own pain and anger and I don’t even care.” And she sort of comes back to that and she says, “You know, I’m something born with out a mother.”

OUTRO 2:

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