Children of the Wrong Time has a very thoughtful story, and at the same time, it feels that it is a warning. What brought about the idea for this book?
The original “Ha ha!” moment was a line from the movie Parenthood. Not a particularly memorable movie, but this line struck me as the perfect summing up of a topic I’d been mulling over for a while. The line is: “You need a license to drive, you need a license to fish, you need a license to own a dog, but any moron can become a parent.” It got me thinking, what if there is a way to expand into a full story the idea expressed by this line?
This idea was reinforced by the normalization, if not the glamorization, of dysfunctional parenthood that can be found in contemporary popular culture; for instance in TV shows such as “Sixteen and Pregnant”, “Paternity Court”, and the worst of them all, Maury Povich’s endless variations on the theme “I’m seventeen, which one of these three men is the father of my baby?” By contrast, another source of inspiration was a voice of reason from one of my favorite people, Judge Judy Sheindlin: her memorable catchphrase, “If you can’t feed them, don’t breed them.”
Children of the Wrong Time feels to me like one that had to come out in an inspired frenzy that didn’t let you sleep until it was on paper. Was this a frenzy, or a more calculated development of an idea?
Actually, it was slow writing. Once I posited a society based on rules that don’t exist, I needed to make sure that all the rules compute. The premise is that, according to the laws of this futuristic society, people are not allowed to become parents until they prove that they are fit to be parents. That’s easy. Then come the details: Who wrote the laws? Why did they write the laws? How are people tested for fitness to be parents? Who administers the tests? What are the tests? A lot of interlocking details to be worked out so that they meshed into a believable picture. The story was originally 60 pages long or so; but the pieces of the puzzle kept coming fast, and the length basically doubled. Interestingly enough, the story originally was set in a futuristic America.
As I was proofing the story just prior to publication of the book, it occurred to me that Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has been criticized in America because Atwood is Canadian, and as a Canadian she has no business imagining a futuristic America. I agree with the criticism, so I thought: if Margaret Atwood is criticized because she’s Canadian, imagine the trouble an Italian would get into if I presumed to imagine what a futuristic America might look like. So, over the course of two short days, while Steven patiently waited for my proofs, I reworked parts of the novel to switch the setting to an entirely fictional country. If I can give myself a facetious pat on the back, I’m proud that I was able to avoid this pitfall literally in the nick of time — not to mention relieved.
How was your preparation for Children of the Wrong Time different from the historical novels, The Iron and the Loom and The Names of Heaven?
It’s two entirely different genres of course, but I discovered that the process was surprising similar. In the historical novels I wanted to recreate a world that no longer exists; in Children of the Wrong Time, I wanted to create a world that doesn’t exist, period; which is to say, start from a fixed point, and from there travel backwards in time in one genre and travel forward in time in the other genre.
Stories can spur the imagination, like in science fiction, and tackle controversial subjects in a manner that provokes discussion. What do you see as the reason for this story’s existence?
Science fiction if often maligned as a “lightweight” genre. I think it’s quite the opposite. Science fiction can be the perfect vehicle for some of the toughest existential questions: What would you do if all of a sudden nobody died anymore? What would you do if the world were taken over by beings that have nothing in common with you? What would you do if you were not allowed to have children unless you prove that you’re fit to be a parent? Questions as endless as those that have beset the human race since day one.