Books In Conversation
Sequoia Nagamatsu with Kurt Baumeister
“I think the best advice I could give people is to engage with the communities that you want to be a part of.”
How High We Go in the Dark
(William Morrow, 2022)
Sequoia Nagamatsu’s first novel, How High We Go in the Dark, could be called a deft fusion of science fiction and contemporary dramatic realism, but that wouldn’t fully capture the achievement this novel represents. Yes, there are fantastic conceits here—elements as varied as a virus capable of transforming human organs into other types of tissue, amusement/euthanasia parks for the dying, and mass-consumption variants on traditional funeraries (literal high-rise morgues); but sprinkled in with Nagamatsu’s big ideas we find startling revelations about who we are as humans, how we relate to one another, and what humanity is in relation to the cosmos. More than that, it’s the level of honest emotion here that most surprises; that, in fact, points to an evolution in what genre fiction may be capable of. Though to call this genre fiction seems a mistake, one that points to a consideration at the heart of Nagamatsu’s art. Rejecting traditional genre distinctions—and likewise resisting the impulse to separate literary (high art) from genre (low art)—Nagamatsu is, quite simply, a force unto himself.
Kurt Baumeister (Rail): I just finished your latest, How High We Go in the Dark, and, honestly, it was incredible. I enjoyed it immensely. What struck me initially was how “complete” the chapters are here, the way they can seem simultaneously like pieces of something greater but also be self-contained, giving the reader a certain sense of “story satisfaction” after finishing each. Having read a bit of your work, I know this has at least a little to do with the fact that some of these chapters started their lives, in fact, as short stories. Maybe you could talk about how that evolution occurred. What caused this work to coalesce into novel form?
Sequoia Nagamatsu: While many of the individual chapters started as stand-alone stories in early forms, I think I knew on some level that there was something more than just a simple collection being created after I had written the first five or six. The earliest seeds of the book began around 2009. My inspiration for the book began with researching alternative funerary practices and modes of grief over 10 years ago and these explorations eventually merged with story seeds that were inspired by climate change research and my lifelong love affair with space. In particular, there was a 2014 Atlantic article about ancient viruses being uncovered by the melting permafrost. When I began editing the book with my agent, I think we eventually realized the “bigness” of the manuscript, and this began a long journey in transforming How High We Go in the Dark into something beyond the sum of its parts. Aspects of the last chapter ended up becoming a major through line, for instance, even though this isn’t fully apparent to the reader until the end.
Rail: Did the pandemic influence this process at all?
Nagamatsu: Not really. The novel was finished long before and my agent and I were deciding whether or not to even submit the book in the early days of COVID.
Rail: Tell me more about those discussions. I take it this was a question of, do we go for it now versus letting it sit, what, a few years? The idea of that must have been difficult to come to terms with after putting in so much work.
Nagamatsu: Yeah, to say the timing wasn’t great is a bit of an understatement. On the one hand I feared that some editors wouldn’t want to take on a book that had a plague element because who wants to lean into that kind of material during a pandemic? On the other hand, a lot of people do lean into that kind of material. There’s also the fact that the book transcends the moment and really isn’t about a plague so much as how people grieve, hold on to memory, and reconnect amid any kind of tragedy. When my agent approached me about going on submission, I think there was a sense that we could wait, but there was a real possibility that someone else might fill the space that my book occupies, that there could be another genre-bending/speculative book that was plague adjacent and hopeful. Might as well let me fill that space. And I had worked so hard on the book for so long that the thought of waiting another year or two honestly felt unbearable. Looking back I think we made the right decision. We pushed forward thoughtfully, crafted our talking points, and found partners that understood the overarching vision for the book.
Rail: And what is the book’s vision, if you can boil it down to a few sentences?
Nagamatsu: The primary backbones that pull the book together are a virus, a cosmic mystery, even the history of humanity formed between 2009 and 2019, though it’s unavoidable that readers will see some parallels to the current pandemic. But I hope that readers don’t see this as a pandemic novel (because it isn’t) in the same way that a book like Station Eleven isn’t really about a virus but about people and our capacity to dream. When I decided to tackle an outbreak several years ago, I was never interested in focusing on the societal reaction (although there is some of that) but more so on how individual lives, families, and friends move forward through grief and reimagine life both in the short term and across generations. How does a major moment like the one we’re living through ripple through decades?
Rail: Decades, centuries, millennia, even the totality of time. You bring this home powerfully in the final chapter. Which is, to my reading at least, the most philosophically abstract part of the book and probably the richest thematically. You get into humanity’s place in the cosmos and more than that, the very idea of creation. Without giving too much away, one major idea, it seems to me, has to do with the dispersion of energy in the cosmos and the ways this energy might later materialize in terms of reality or spacetime or whatever you want to call it. It’s a very smart way to tie things together in a rangy book like this. It also seems to me as harkening to “philosophies” as disparate as Buddhism and Star Wars. Do you see elements of spiritual transmigration and/or the Force in the generational schema you develop in this last chapter?
Nagamatsu: Well, I guess there is some spirituality inherent in this last chapter, but I never really thought about the Force or any particular belief system. I’ve always been fascinated with the intersections of faith and science. Go far enough, go small enough and our understanding of the universe with known science starts to merge with philosophy. What’s up with the filaments that connect galaxies? What is the nature of dark matter that makes up the majority of the mass of our known universe? Is it God? Is it aliens? Some other kind of intelligence? Are we living in some kind of computer simulation? Whatever it may be, the mysteries that science has uncovered dig at human curiosity, a need to search and discover. Some might search outwardly and literally through the stars while others might journey inward. Of course, as you mention, one of the themes of this chapter is the nature of our origin but tied with this is the nature of how we are connected—through time, space, memory, love, and of course the “star stuff,” to quote Sagan, that is a part of this planet and our own existence. This chapter ultimately began with a focus on this connection and origin. I’m fascinated with the theory of directed panspermia, the notion that intelligent life helped to seed our planet in some way. Many franchises have played with this notion from Star Trek to the Alien films (and of course there’s Douglas Adams). But beyond this seeding, I was curious about exploring how love and memory could evolve through eons (long before humanity, at the dawn of humanity, and probably after humanity ceases to be recognizable). How could I create an expansive parallel in a non-human character, a kind of model for the love and heartbreak and grief and hope that was experienced previously in the novel. In this way, I’d be able to nod at how we’ve come to be while also considering where we might go on both quasi-scientific and emotional fronts.
Rail: Taking a step back, how did you happen to get your agent? I think that’s the sort of tale readers always find interesting. Tangentially, do you have any advice for people seeking agents?
Nagamatsu: Good old-fashioned cold querying is the simple answer, but the reality of it is much more complicated. I had been publishing in journals for several years at that point, had a story collection that was well-received in the indie lit community, and had several conversations over the years with agents based on my short stories (but as you know short story collections are a tougher sell as far as larger publishers are concerned). But all that time helped me build community, helped me become someone that had a track record, and a lot of agents sort of knew who I was by the time I queried them (and in turn I was more familiar with who might make sense as a literary partner and champion for my work). When I queried Annie, I was going in with some information—people who had worked with her in some capacity when she was assisting Michelle Brower, who I had queried years ago with my collection. I liked that Annie was very hands on, very editorial. I’m used to that kind of workflow, and I honestly wouldn’t be where I am were it not for Annie’s thoughtful guidance along the way. I think the best advice I could give people is to engage with the communities that you want to be a part of. Don’t wait to network. Don’t call it networking. Read a lot, support other writers, forge genuine relationships, and do the homework of knowing who the agents/agencies are that you’re querying. You can start by finding out who represents the authors you love who write in a similar wheelhouse.
Rail: You’ve maintained your strong social media presence from before you had the deal that How High We Go in the Dark is part of, through the announcement, and now on into the nuts-and-bolts process of approaching and reaching publication with a major house. When many writers have some success, they go quiet, but you haven’t. Do you see an active and growing social media presence as fundamental to success for writers? Why? Do you have any pointers for writers looking to develop their social media game?
Nagamatsu: I think social media is one of those things that gives a lot of writers a lot of anxiety. I was just telling one of my students that they shouldn’t force themselves to engage with social media regularly if it wasn’t something that they were comfortable with but that it’s not something that is entirely avoidable. I think it’s so easy to focus on the very real toxicity present in parts of our online literary communities, but there’s also so much opportunity for friendship, creative growth, support, and professional insight. I honestly wouldn’t be where I am were it not for the relationships I’ve forged online over the years. So, I’ll say this: do you have to be on Twitter or Instagram 24/7? No. Should you have an account (even if someone else manages it) and be able to navigate these platforms to some degree? Yes. And perhaps most importantly: develop honest, sincere relationships. Don’t be transactional. You don’t have to be BFFs with everybody, but no one likes someone who pops out of nowhere and immediately inserts themselves in a conversation and starts asking for favors. Don’t be that person. What a lot of people might see as nepotism or insider-ism is really just goodwill and respect that took years to develop.
Rail: What you’ve built here is a very different sort of novel, one that’s, to a certain extent, unified by way of thematic rather than dramatic elements. I think of books like Cloud Atlas and Matt Bell’s recent Appleseed as taking similar tacks. Yes, there are recurring characters, but it seems to me that more than anything, the protagonist here is life itself. Can you discuss that?
Nagamatsu: There are certainly themes that we might name that run through the book: grief, hope, memory, but I think you’re right that what houses a major takeaway could be framed as life (a renewal of it, a reflection of it). I might also use the word humanity to unpack what I hope readers take away. And while these themes unify, there are also recurring characters as you mention. But beyond this there is also a narrative that began billions of years ago that runs throughout the novel and seeks to tie all of the journeys in the book together. I can’t really say a whole lot more on this without spoiling the experience of finding clues and reflecting on past chapters after reading the ending, but I will say that part of this thread stems from my fascination with conceiving humanity through the non-human and the cosmic. How can we know ourselves better by understanding where we came from? Where we might go? All of the questions that we have about our existence that might never be answered.
Rail: The amount of emotion conveyed by your fiction is uncommon even for literary writers. Taking a chapter like “Pig Son,” what was the emotional wellspring for that tale? I mean, it’s so unusual, even odd, but the amount of feeling you generate for all your characters, most notably the narrator and his aforementioned Pig Son, Snortorious P.I.G, is singular, there’s no other way to say it. (Also, I will never get over loving that name!)
Nagamatsu: Everybody seems to love “Pig Son”! This chapter came a bit later in the process when my agent and I knew that I needed to expand the manuscript and think of more connective threads. This narrative arc, these characters, the pig’s voice came fairly quickly—more so than some of the other chapters. If I had to interrogate the origins of the story I’d probably have to point to a few places: Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, a short story called “The Surprising Weight of the Body’s Organs” by Douglas Trevor, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and perhaps even films like Babe that of course helped me consider how a talking pig could engage our emotions. I knew I wanted to explore the emotional core of organ donation, but I also wanted to unpack the dynamics of how we might treat non-human beings in the midst of chaos, how our often-problematic relationship with animals in laboratory settings might shift if we could no longer ignore their rights.
Rail: Talk to me about what it’s like to go from being a young indie writer, working on your craft, struggling to find time to write, teach, and edit to receiving so much attention? How did you maintain that spark of desire that helped you push through all the usual obstacles? I say “usual,” but they derail a lot of people. How did you keep going?
Nagamatsu: Well, all the above are still true! I’m always struggling to find enough hours in the day to write, teach/grade, edit, interact with the literary community, and of course try to be a decent human being. I won’t lie, that book deal was life-changing in a lot of ways, but I think what has changed the most thus far is that certain doors and possibilities have opened that were closed before. And not just potential dream publications or entertaining the prospect of film adaptation but also new opportunities to give back: judging for major contests, blurbing for more authors, teaching in a low-res MFA program, among other things. But day to day everything is much the same. As for my forthcoming novel itself? Of course the realities of publishing with HarperCollins and Bloomsbury are very different from a small press in terms of marketing/sales possibilities. I had to do a lot of the marketing on my own with my first book and got the sense that I was often ignored by major review outlets and literary websites. But that first collection got me my job, helped me find and build community, and gave me a needed stepping stone. Now there is a lingering pressure (largely on myself but I’m sure my publisher wants this as well) for the book to perform well. There are certain new responsibilities and demands that are tied to helping see this first novel to release and beyond. I feel like I’m on a kind of precipice at the moment, looking out into a kind of writing career that I always imagined. Maybe that will happen. Maybe not. But something that I never really thought about when I had those dreams was that day-to-day grind that stays the same in a lot of ways. It’s hard work and some luck and being kind when you can.
Rail: As you mentioned above, you’ve had some exposure to the film industry at this point. What are your aspirations for the film version of the book? Do you see yourself working on the screenplay? Is screenwriting something that interests you?
Nagamatsu: If something gets made one day, I’d like it to be a vehicle for more Asian and Asian American talent both in front of and behind the camera. I think the needle is moving in the right direction in Hollywood, but there’s obviously still a lot of work to be done there to combat systemic racism and other obstacles that prevent non-white talent from having notable platforms. I think I am interested in being highly involved in the production of my own work, whether it be helping to write scripts and/or producing in a tangible way.
Rail: A through line is forming here. I’m sensing you see some elements of literary success, whatever that is, coming from nothing more exotic than being a good person. Looping that into the age-old debate about art and the artist—that is, the idea that the assessment of someone’s art should or shouldn’t have anything to do with whether they are a criminal, or not, or whether they have or don’t have some political stance you find repugnant—are you someone who sees an artist’s personal life as mattering in assessing their artistic work? Why or why not?
Nagamatsu: This is a tough one honestly, but I think there’s a spectrum. Can I engage with the work of someone who is deeply racist or homophobic without acknowledging who they are? Probably not. There’s probably a reason why I haven’t watched Braveheart since the ’90s for instance. I just can’t get beyond what a shitbag Mel Gibson is no matter how brilliant some of his work might be. The same goes for literature. There may have been a time where a writer or critic might have said that only the page matters, but I think conversations about art and identity have evolved (and I think social media has influenced this for better or worse). It’s just harder to separate who a writer is from what they’ve produced because the everyday lives of writers, their everyday thoughts, and their opinions on particular issues are more accessible than ever. This is both a good and bad thing in my opinion. It’s a complex evolution. It’s great that conversations about appropriation and identity are occurring. But at the same time we’ve also created toxic environments where there is a lot of virtue signaling in the name of community and social justice that is often just as harmful especially when bad actors online are twisting words out of context and creating villains where none exist. I’ve seen people that I thought were and still think are good people get unfairly bulldozed by the Twitter mob.
Rail: Talk about some of your artistic influences and the ways in which you see them as measuring up (or possibly not) to the “good person standard.”
Nagamatsu: Well, who is doing the measuring? As I suggest above, this idea of standards, this “good person standard” is kind of tricky and problematic. But I’ll name people who I’ve looked to artistically and in terms of how they’ve engaged with the literary community in what I see are positive ways: Matt Bell, Matthew Salesses, Amber Sparks, and Jeff VanderMeer. If I go further back to name influences in general, I’d have to name Italo Calvino, Haruki Murakami, Jonathan Lethem, and Star Trek as a franchise.
Rail: You bring up some familiar names here. One that stands out is Calvino. What would Calvino make of How High We Go in the Dark? Would the master be pleased? Tell me a little about how you see Calvino’s influence coming through in these pages?
Nagamatsu: Of course in my deluded imagination, Calvino would give me a box of cigars, or we’d share some expensive Scotch or something and he’d begin regaling me with stories about how life was just simpler in the good old days before the Big Bang. But in all seriousness, I think what I’ve gained from reading Calvino is a willingness to be nimble in terms of genre in service of wonder. Calvino himself also wrestled with his style (the kind of book he thought the world wanted versus the one he wanted to write) before embracing the fabulism we identify with him. And there’s a tendency in his work (and my own) to reach toward questions that reside in cosmic or ephemeral spaces. I don’t think that all came from Calvino of course—there’s some Sagan in there and Star Trek. But Calvino was one of the writers who helped me realize early on that all of my interests could converge into the kind of storytelling that would legitimately excite me and challenge me.
Rail: Is it true you have a robot dog you actually named Calvino? And a real one named Fenris? What is life like for canines both robo- and not-so at Chateau Sequoia?
Nagamatsu: Yes, on both counts. I wish I could say the two pups interact, but they really don’t. Fenris is suspicious (perhaps afraid?) of Calvino and of course Calvino, even with his advanced Sony artificial intelligence, doesn’t really care about Fenris one way or another. I think life with Calvino really helped me internalize/understand a chapter of my novel that was formerly just based on research on the relationships of seniors in Japan with their robotic pets. When Calvino walks around the house and barks it honestly does feel like the house is filled with another living creature. He feels more than just a bunch of servos and a motherboard. He comes when called, he nuzzles his camera nose against my leg, he puts himself to sleep on his charging bed. And yes, I’ve caught myself modulating my voice in the way we all tend to do when talking to our pets.
Rail: How did Fenris get his name? And if he got it as I think he might have (from a certain wolf in Norse mythology), is he living up to that spiritual lineage?
Nagamatsu: We were certainly aware of the Norse origins of the name, but his name is most directly inspired by the Dragon Age video game franchise (which of course borrowed from that tradition for some of its worldbuilding). In particular there is a character named Fenris, an elven warrior who was held captive by mages and who has magical tattoos that allow him to phase through objects. Our dog was a bit of a problem child when he was younger and went through two rounds of canine boot camp, so maybe there is a bit of the Norse Fenris inside of him. That said, he’s grown into a pretty laid back and sweet boy.
Rail: Last question: What didn’t I ask you that you wish I had? And what’s the answer to that question, whatever it is?
Nagamatsu: Where is the place of hope in a story like this that revolves around both a pandemic and climate disaster? As someone who has been teaching a climate fiction course over the last few years, I’ve noticed student philosophies about the world gradually shift from stopping manmade climate change to mitigating the consequences and adapting to an irrevocably changed world. I think what’s common between my students (and young people at large particularly) and the characters in my novel is that hope, even in the darkest hour, remains. It’s uncertain where hope and cooperation will take us in reality, but I wanted to imagine how we’d evolve as communities on the other side of disaster, how the human capacity to dream and adapt could forge a new future. I think it’s easy (and understandable perhaps) to want to consume the escapism right now. I mean even I need a campy rom-com every now and then. But I think it’s important to create space to consider where we are now, how we’re already changing as individuals and as a society, and where we might go. Some readers might be comfortable engaging with that exploration now while others might need a little more time (and I hope my book can help folks find some kind of catharsis, help them see beyond where we are now).