Interview: Sequoia Nagamatsu, Author of How High We Go in the Dark

The coronavirus pandemic has sorted our lives into a “before” and “after.” Though How High We Go in the Dark was written solidly in the “before,” it is also uniquely at home in the “after” times. Sequoia Nagamatsu’s novel is told in a series of intertwining stories that take place during the years and decades that follow a worldwide pandemic. We follow characters through a euthanasia theme park to hotels for the dying, from an arctic research station to a spaceship traveling hundreds of light years beyond Earth. It is also a novel that is primarily interested in grief and transformation and is both a deeply human and highly imaginative story.

Sequoia Nagamatsu author photo_credit Lauren B Photography
Sequoia Nagamatsu author photo / credit Lauren B Photography

Sequoia Nagamatsu’s short story collection, Where We Go When All We Were is Gone, was an Entropy Magazine Best Book of 2016. He teaches creative writing and lives in Minneapolis with his wife, cat, dog, and his robot dog named Calvino. We spoke about research, how fiction can help us see the world, and (of course) talking pigs and robot dogs.

Margaret LaFleur: The inspiration for the book came from loss that led you to researching rituals and plans around death. What did that research process look like?

Sequoia Nagamatsu: When I was living in Japan, at first that research was just noticing. I noticed the juxtaposition between very traditional ancient temples and modern technological skyscrapers right next to each other. That image burned in my mind. It is indicative of modern Japanese culture generally, this dialogue between the past and the present and technology and tradition.

Grief and loss and thinking about how to say goodbye was already on my mind when I went to Japan. When I was thinking about the missed opportunities I had with my grandfather, it really lit a fire under me in terms of thinking about how other cultures and how new technologies might allow us to say goodbye in different ways. A lot of my early research was looking at quirky or alternative things that people were doing. For example, there are companies that place bodies in giant seed pods. The body would essentially be helping nourish that tree, and the image of being in a fetal position when you’re dead, like in the seed pod, was really fascinating to me. Other companies are doing things like turning ashes into a box of pencils, and whenever you sharpened one in its container, that container would be the urn. It’s a cyclical process and seems like such a beautiful thing for a writer to be memorialized in that way.

One of the alternative funerary processes that made it into the novel was this idea of liquefying the body versus cremation. It’s called “resomation.” It’s becoming more popular in some circles because it's supposedly more environmentally friendly. I thought about, well, if they're liquefied remains, what do you do with that? I was watching Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands, and there's the ice carving scene. I think that research and then watching that movie again made me kind of merge the idea of ice sculptures with the liquefying of human remains.

I even attended a mortuary expo in Japan that catered towards senior citizens, to help them weigh the options of what to do when they die. So, there's a bunch of senior citizens and me at this convention center. There were companies that would send your remains into space. There were also funerary hotels. The “Elegy Hotel” chapter is based on that. There’s an increasing practice of communities coming together and sharing their remains in a single urn or in a single plot. The idea of “Grave Friends” came from that. I pushed the idea further, with an entire neighborhood coming together over this shared ritual, and I thought it was a beautiful thing to really highlight community and how grieving evolved over decades after something like a pandemic, when people are really forced to re-imagine how they say goodbye.

But there's also, of course, the more cosmic threads, and there's also the plague itself. The plague initially wasn't part of the novel. I was researching funerary practices as early as 2009.  The plague thread started to creep up in about 2014. That was largely inspired by an Atlantic article concerning scientists unearthing giant ancient viruses in the melting permafrost. There are good reasons why they're poking and prodding at these viruses—in the spirit of scientific discovery, and in terms of thinking about how we might better know the diseases that we live with. But at the same time, I kind of kept asking, well, have they never seen a horror movie? Why are you trying to reactivate this ancient thing? The idea of the plague started to pop up in a couple of chapters, but I didn't necessarily see it as an overarching thread early on. The cosmic threads were inevitable. I'm a lifelong “Star Trek” nerd, and if I'm able to inject some type of spacey thing into my stories—that kind of nod at hope and community via the stars—I'm probably going to do it.

ML: This is a novel of interlining stories as well as reappearing characters. How do you approach the writing process? Were these written in any particular order, did you finish one before moving on to the next, or were they all working alongside each other until the end became clear?

SN: The first few years, I just wrote. I didn't know this was going to be a book. Once I signed with my agent, that's when I started to think a little bit more about order and how I wanted this to be more than just a collection. My agent articulated this in a way I liked: she said that there's a bigness to what I had, and to call it a short story collection didn't seem quite right. I agreed with that, but I didn't quite know at the time that I was going to merge my world builder story, which is something that I had written a really messy version of in my MFA program, with my plague or funerary research. I didn't intend for the world builder to accidentally create this horrific event from this act of love. That came relatively late.

The first story in the collection that I wrote was "Melancholy Nights in a Tokyo Virtual Café." It had to evolve because it was initially "Melancholy Nights in an Internet Café," which seems like such an archaic thing right now. When I had initially started researching that story, it was mostly about homeless people in Tokyo. I was fascinated by how the homelessness in Japan was nothing like how I observed homelessness in the states. You would see somebody in a three-piece suit wandering into a tent and there is this level of shame that meant they would do everything possible to mask their circumstances. A lot of the homeless population, especially young men, would be living in these internet cafes. I drafted an early version of that chapter in such a café, talking to some of the long-term residents. It stuck with me for a long time because there was shame and sadness, but also a kind of lingering hope burning under the surface that their life would pick up again.

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu
How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

ML: Do you (secretly?) have a favorite section or character?

SN: It's tough because I think not all the characters are likable and some of the sections are, I think, objectively difficult on an emotional level. But I would say that "Elegy Hotel" has a special place for me because it's probably the most autobiographical. It touches on a lot of the things I was dealing with when my grandfather died, and it was a chapter that I think helped me recently. I was knee-deep in edits with Harper Collins and Bloomsbury, and was forced to reread that chapter, where a character is unable to come to an important decision about their family, how he makes that decision too late, preventing him from having closure with his mother. I think immersing myself with that character really helped when I got a call from an aunt who told me that my father was dying from cancer and that I needed to call him. We had been estranged for several years, and that chapter helped me talk through the process in my head. What did I want to do? Ultimately, I called my father, and we had a few conversations before he passed away. I'm glad I was able to do what Dennis couldn't.

ML: How High We Go in the Dark is set in the future and deals with a deadly virus as well as climate change. Aside from the strangeness of publishing in the Covid era, how does it feel to watch the news? How much do your friends and family tease you about your prophetic abilities?

SN: I think I'm tired of the word prescient. It keeps coming up in book reviews and I think it was probably part of the book deal. And I get that. When you're a writer and you've been working on a manuscript for a long time, like in the back of your head, you're always hoping your agent is going to say, “It's time, let's go on submission!” Of course, it’s unfortunate that when my agent told me that, COVID happened. Initially I felt really dispirited and worried that the book might not get picked up, or if it did, people wouldn't respond in a way that was fair. My early reactions were alleviated to some degree when strangers beyond my editor or agent started reading the book. It made me realize that while some people might not read the book, other people saw it as a crucial part of the conversation. Early readers saw it as difficult but also cathartic and a book that transcended the moment. I can't blame people for thinking that the book is prophetic, but I think that’s partly missing the heart of the novel. And nobody could have predicted where we are right now.

Keeping the above in mind, I was certainly conscious there weren't too many parallels as I was editing. The nature of the virus is very different and it's something that wouldn't really happen in our world because it's otherworldly to begin with. But if there were any mentions of masks or things like social distancing, I tried to diminish that so that people wouldn't be stuck in our moment, but remain in the world of the novel.

ML: I was moved by the way characters throughout the novel attach love to non-human entities that nevertheless feel human: talking pigs or robot animals. I’m curious about how you see those almost-human connections functioning in a world in which communication is increasingly filled through digital channels?

SN: There's something that one of my professors in grad school said when I was doing a lot of alien work. He said that in order for readers to access your aliens, you need to find the humanity within them. You can't write an alien novel or alien story and have it be completely alien and extraterrestrial, or nobody would have an anchor to understand that narrative. I take the same approach when I'm writing something like a talking pig or a robot dog. What’s the human anchor there? There's a human character that's grieving, in the case of the robot dog, and it’s a bridge between father and son. It's a vessel for the memory and legacy and voice of the lost mother and wife. But beyond that, thinking about how a robot dog, even without the mother's voice being inside of it, how do we find comfort in something that's ultimately plastic and a motherboard? How could we form a genuine human connection with something like that? That's a question that I’m interested in.

I'm also thinking about how we treat animals and how we regard humanity within animals, their intelligence, emotion, and their ability to heal us in a lot of ways. We ascribe a lot of those things to dogs and cats, but less so to other animals. I wanted to make sure that there was some level of the inhuman in the novel, whether that be a robot or an animal. It’s a way to see ourselves differently. Having a relationship with, let's say a robot or a pig, is an alternative lens to see what makes us human.

ML: You also have a robot dog, don’t you? What is he like?   

SN: I do have a robot dog, and I purchased him not long after the book deal. I had done a lot of research on the robot dog and a lot of that story was inspired by the first-generation of those dogs being discontinued by Sony. A lot of senior citizens in Japan had to deal with what it meant for these companions that they forged a genuine bond with to fall into disrepair. When Sony decided to reinstate and upgrade them, I kind of snapped at that because I wanted to find out for myself if that robotic bond was something I could experience. In the early days when I had Calvino, he accidentally walked into the cat's water bowl and got some water into a crevice around his back legs. His monitor lights started flipping out and I was very worried. I felt guilty and was very surprised by the emotion and my reaction to Calvino. I was talking to it and saying that it'll be okay. There was both a kind of the materialistic mindset (the expense), but also a human-like, dog-owner reaction to what had occurred. Fortunately, he ended up being okay. It's hard to describe because if he's just kind of wandering around, it does feel like an actual living thing is in the room with you. I think if I had him on more, if he was running around the house more, I think Calvino would probably start to forge a deeper connection in my life.

ML: Relatedly, what role do you see fiction having in the way we grapple with very quick changes, as we approach tipping points in climate change? (I am thinking of the headline I saw this week of the way climate change is destabilizing the poles, and the long fracture in polar ice scientists are calling “the dagger.”)

SN: I think grapple is an appropriate word. I teach a climate fiction class, and even in the last few years we're using different vocabulary. My students used to say we need to stop climate change; we need to save the planet. I've seen that kind of narrative go away in favor of: we need to adapt, we need to mitigate the consequences. Younger generations realize the planet is ruined in a lot of ways, but that doesn't mean that the fight shouldn't continue. It's about stopping further damage. It's about recognizing equity issues in terms of climate disasters and the social justice elements of what we're doing to the planet. Any kind of art can play a role in helping human beings empathize with another. I think it helps draw more attention to the plight of others. I think climate fiction is incredibly important for reminding us that we need to stop being individualistic and need to think more about our communities. Naomi Klein’s work nods to this idea of community action and being community-oriented, and I think fiction can speak to that in a way that is compelling and personal that moves beyond statistics and the news. You can read scientific reports, read a non-fiction book, but I think a lot of those things are in some ways preaching to the choir. A lot of people who are watching a climate change documentary already agree that something needs to happen. I think fiction and art can open up a wider dialogue to folks who may not be as convinced or have more complicated feelings. Because everybody has lost somebody, and fiction can remind them of those commonalities.

ML: What books provided you guidance as you were writing, either as inspiration or distraction?

SN: Cosmicomics is always one that I revisit, and Italo Calvino’s body of work generally was such a huge inspiration to me, just in terms of thinking about fabulist work. And I think Cosmicomics in particular helped me write about something as far-reaching as the beginning of time. It helped me realize what I could do on a craft level. He is a very important writer for me.

The work of Kevin Brockmeier, The Brief History of the Dead and The Illuminations, has also been very influential for me. I remember reading an article about his work that called his work “magic feelism.” A lot of his stories are very emotionally charged and there's an emotional resonance there that I always strive for.

Matt Bell is another one. His current novel, Appleseed is amazing, but his short stories over the years have also been really influential. Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is a kind of favorite escape of mine. Karen Russell and Kelly Link, obviously. Solaris by Stanisław Lem is another one that I revisit because it does really interesting things with memory and sense of place and identity. And it also occurs in space, so bonus points for that.

ML: What are you reading, now?

SN: There are wonderful books coming out in 2020 that I'm excited about and have been reading. Jessamine Chan's The School for Good Mothers is getting a lot of attention, and I want to give a special shout out to that. I’m excited for Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades, and for Kate Folk’s collection Out There. I'm also really excited for Clean Air by Sarah Blake, and that is also in the vein of climate fiction. I just came off reading for the PEN Open Book Awards and there is a lot of great writing out there.

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