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Sequoia Nagamatsu on Writing the Grief and Connections of an Enduring Pandemic

The Author of How High We Go in the Dark Speaks With Jane Ciabattari

During this disorienting time of upheaval and pandemic, Sequoia Nagamatsu has been preparing to launch his first novel, How High We Go in the Dark. That experience set the stage for our conversation. “At the outset of the pandemic, “he told me, “I was, like a lot of people, living in a lockdown fog. I had been working on my novel for so long and when my agent finally said we were finally ready to go on submission I understandably had mixed feelings (despair wouldn’t be too far from the truth)—would editors be too afraid to go near a book with a plague element? Would this book ever see the light of day? But once the book sold, the process of editing and thinking about my talking points for publicity campaigns honestly saved me in a lot of ways.”

The book gave structure to his days (“even my teaching days which seemed largely abstract during a year of nonstop Zoom”), and provided space for reflection and catharsis amidst some personal losses, including the death of his father. “There’s a character in the novel who fails to make the decision in time to help his dying mother. Editing this chapter helped me make the opposite decision in my own life. I called my father, from whom I had been estranged for years.

“More recently, as people who have no connection to me have begun to read and review the book, a lot of my earlier fears about readers missing my vision or being too afraid to engage with the subject matter mistakenly thinking that I have exploited our tragedy have been largely mitigated. I’m always going to be up front and say that this book can be a very heavy read. It will make some readers cry. But my vision for the book was ultimately one of hope…at first in small increments but that hope ultimately compounds, sends tendrils of light throughout the interconnecting chapters. And I’m glad that many readers (both on places like Goodreads but professional reviewers as well) have recognized this.”

He adds, “I do want to note, that I’m answering this interview on the heels of watching the Season Finale of Station 11 on HBO, and it’s hard not to mention that novel when I talk about my own since Mandel’s humanistic story has become such a major force not only in plague literature but in how people are dealing with our own pandemic. Of course, my publishers used Station 11 as a comp title because we wanted to highlight that this is a literary speculative novel that never privileges the virus as the focus so much as facets of humanity—community, grief, resilience.

But as the launch of my novel approaches, I’ve been following the reaction to the adaptation. Many people are loving it, talking about it, even finding comfort in that world while others may find it too close to home . . . something to save for later. In a recent New York Times article, Mandel acknowledges this reality, and I’ve already prepared myself to have these conversations and to see similar reactions as well. With regards to sharing How High We Go in the Dark with audiences? There will be a mix of in-person and virtual events, but of course, so many things are tentative and subject to change.”

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Jane Ciabattari: On Instagram, you’ve posted some capsule summaries with images of your chapters, including this of your opening chapter: “The first location in my novel: a climate research station near the Batagaika Crater in Siberia where the 30,000-year-old remains of a girl have been recovered.” This setting is the largest permafrost crater in the world, greatly expanded by climate change since the 1960s, the location for the recovery of such creatures as a well-preserved Pleistocene-era foal found in 2018. In your story, set in 2030, Dr. Cliff Miyashiro from UCLA has come to visit the crater where his daughter Clara, a climate researcher, has fallen and died.

My characters often resort to technological means as a bridge to connect, to grieve, but there’s a limit to this…at some point that tech isn’t enough.

Your opening lines are evocative: “In Siberia, the thawing ground was a ceiling on the verge of collapse, sodden with ice melt and the mammoth detritus of prehistory. The kilometer-long Batagaika Crater had been widening with temperature rise like some god had unzipped the snow-topped marshlands, exposing woolly rhinos and other extinct beasts.” In this case, the creature revealed is a young girl, aged eight, who the scientists suspect may be harboring a virus they’re beginning to call the Batagaika virus. This “Arctic virus” seeds the later stories, which extend through multiple centuries. Your characters Cliff, his daughter Clara, his wife Miki, his granddaughter Yumi, even the prehistoric girl, recur. How did you spin this complex web of interconnections? Did you use outlines? Images?

Sequioa Nagamatsu: There are a couple of corkboards in my home office that has been home to the evolving structure of the novel for a few years now—very messy index cards connected to each other with yarn and pushpins and color coded post-it notes. I think once I had settled on the linear progression of the plague and oriented the chapters in time to some degree, I thought about characters that I wished I had known more about and what their predicament might be as the plague and its aftermath evolved over the course of years (and generations). But beyond wanting to provide deeper character continuity (and I’m well aware that a lack of continuity is something that people who don’t read a lot of short fiction tend to dislike), I was also mindful about how the world around the plague would evolve over the decades—technology (including social media platforms), financial corporations tied to funerary industries, and of course the backdrop of a planet changed by the climate crisis.

So yes, outlines and mapping was certainly part of my process in spinning this web, but so was a lot of research—lots of time in virtual reality staring at desolate (and beautiful) landscapes in Siberia, holding distant stars in my virtual hands, studying sea rise projection maps, and immersing myself in an app where perfect strangers anonymously confess their hopes and fears in a surreal landscape. In my final rounds of revisions I also ensured that I was weaving enough “cosmic” easter eggs throughout the book that would help provide another frame for the novel, one that isn’t fully realized until the final chapter (and in some ways forces the reader to reconsider the chapters that they have previously read).

JC: Some of the chapters in How High We Go in the Dark were originally published as stories as far back as 2011. When did you begin creating this universe? How did you decide upon the order? Did you plan episodes in advance, or did they evolve organically?

SN: Really 2009 (with the oldest story having been initially conceived in a very different form in 2008). I was a baby writer back then, so to say that the journey of this novel follows the journey of my trajectory and interests as a writer isn’t inaccurate. The early seeds of the novel which began as stand-alone stories. For a time, I thought these stories would simply form another linked collection surrounding alternative forms of grief and funerary ritual, but in 2014 I read an Atlantic article about scientists discovering ancient viruses in melting arctic ice. While I was never interested in a stereotypical Hollywood pandemic narrative, I was interested in the climate change aspect to this story and began thinking about how such a plague could provide a kind of thru-line for my growing body of work revolving around grief and conversations about death.

So, for years what became chapters in How High We Go in the Dark were one-off explorations. The organization and heavy revision to allow for linear progression, character continuity, and other frames came much later (and often out of order). The first chapter was actually the last chapter I wrote and the last chapter was something that I first explored in graduate school as a potential book idea but that I ultimately felt could inject a kind epic scope and universality into the novel that I wanted to be present.

JC: In his late daughter’s sleeping pod, Cliff finds the doguu figurine he’d bought her years before at a museum of ancient Japanese history, believed to the Joomon people to be “capable of absorbing negative energy, evil, and illness.” In other chapters you describe funerary skyscrapers like those in Tokyo, for the remains of a rapidly aging population. How have Japanese folklore and funerary practices influenced this novel?

I think many communities have distanced themselves from older traditions and sadly the process of death has become a highly impersonal and logistical one. We cry and mourn for a time. But then we are often forced to become event planners.

SN: I was living in Japan around 2008, teaching English for a couple of years, which was a trip that was, in part, giving me much needed space to reset my life and grieve over the loss of my grandfather, who helped raise me. I became fascinated with different ways people might honor their loved ones (and in particular how Japan as a country faced unique obstacles having such a large elderly population). In Japan there are funerary skyscrapers and hotels operated by mortuary companies. And of course, my first collection, Where We Go When All We Were Was Gone, was primarily inspired by Japanese folklore, but I don’t think I completely got away from that in this novel. I couldn’t. Because I think to write about Japan—to write about the future of some of these characters—is to reconcile the tensions between tradition/the past/spirituality and an identity/reality that has become so associated with technology, innovation, and corporate enterprise.

My characters often resort to technological means as a bridge to connect, to grieve, but there’s a limit to this . . . at some point that tech isn’t enough (or there’s a recognition of the illusion). A conversation needs to happen. A VR headset needs to be put down. A robot dog containing a mother’s voice falls into disrepair. A lot of these explorations aren’t purely tied to Japan. I think many communities have distanced themselves from older traditions and sadly the process of death has become a highly impersonal and logistical one.

We cry and mourn for a time. But then we are often forced to become event planners. We need to assess finances and pay medical bills. There’s so little room to honor our loved ones in the way we’d like. I think part of my intent was to meld tech and a yearning for more traditional modes of connection and remembrance, to acknowledge the hybrid spaces we’re already inhabiting in terms of grief—how they help, how they might fall short. To what extent does an outpouring of love from strangers on Twitter help someone process a loss? That’s a question I asked myself as I shared my own tragedies with online communities. Something that felt both strange and natural. Something that I needed in that moment.

JC: You move effortlessly from Siberia, to the U.S., to Japan in this novel, and also into outer space, in the space ship Yamato, 6,000 centuries ahead, and, even beyond time, with a narrator who birthed the girl found in that Siberian crater and has inserted herself in human form into centuries of history since. Which of these were the most difficult to research?  Which is your favorite? Does living in Hawaii, California, Japan, Minnesota, (and where else?) make you attuned to variations in setting?

SN: The most difficult (or I guess the most involved) was probably some of the detail surrounding the Starship Yamato (theoretical forms of propulsion) and the stops the ship makes along the way to the expedition’s new home on Kepler 186f, the first planet with a radius similar to Earth that was discovered in the habitable zone of its star. I wanted to get as much scientific detail right (everything from the probably color of flora on another planet to how long a ship with these theoretical boosters might take to get to particular star systems) without being burdensome to my core focus: character development and relationships.

As a lifelong Star Trek nerd (and just all-around space exploration enthusiast), this was also probably my favorite chapter to research. As for living in many places in my life? I think it has, to some degree, helped me be a bit more nimble when exploring locations in my stories. I’ll certainly have some affinity for the West Coast (particularly the San Francisco Bay Area) since I spent my teen years and early 20s there, but I kind of consider myself to not really have a home base in a traditional sense. My home only exists in memories and with relationships I have with people.

JC: “Through the Garden of Memory,” originally titled “How High We Go in the Dark,” is a dreamlike story in which the narrator, who is in the hospital dying of the Arctic virus, his parents at his side, wakes to a limbo-like darkness, and finds others with him. He urges them to sing, to create a human pyramid, to explore glowing orbs of memory that appear. He and his “void mates” hear a baby crying, and together decide he will bring this infant to the top of the pyramid to be sucked upward into….life?  What is the thinking behind this story?

I felt like it was important to address how we often separate human beings (and really beings worthy of care and respect) through particular emotions and to acknowledge that other beings we share this planet with have those capacities, are intelligent, and have long been exploited without a voice.

SN: Some people assume this to be the afterlife, but I never explicitly state what this void is or if the people there are dead or not. I want this to be somewhat unclear, but as we discover in a later chapter it does seem to be possible for someone to return from this void into the world of the living. I’ve always been very fascinated with consciousness studies, with the idea of a collective consciousness, so I think those interests really fueled the seeds of this chapter.

I’ll also nod at an episode of the Twilight Zone where a group of people who we later discover to be toys (a ballerina, a soldier etc.) find themselves trapped in a box and attempt to escape. I think that episode really made an impression on me because for these toys (who didn’t really seem to realize they were toys), this box was their universe, their reality. They were forced to converse despite their differences. They were forced to work together. And I thought about how this basic concept could be exploded into  a landscape of our memories where humanity could not only reflect on their own lives but also step in the shoes of others.

JC: How have technical innovations over the years you’ve been working on this novel affected your imagining of the stories? I think of the advances in AI and Virtual Reality. And the robo-dogs, not unlike Sony’s AIBO (Artificial Intelligence robot) robot dogs, discontinued in 2014. (I understand you have a robo-dog named Calvino?)

SN: I’ve definitely had to upgrade certain tech/realties over the years. The oldest story, for instance, was once set in an internet café, which seems archaic even now let alone in our somewhat near future. I’m the sort of person who likes to be one of the first to adopt new gadgets, so upgrading that café to a VR business seemed like a logical step, especially as I was having a lot of fun with my Oculus headset, the kind of immersive technology I always dreamed about since the first rudimentary VR sets were introduced in the 90s.

As for robot dogs? The Aibo’s were actually discontinued several years before 2014, but that was the year customer service ceased. The plight of those dogs and the relationship senior citizens in Japan forged with them of course inspired the chapter “Speak, Fetch, Say I Love You.” But I took some liberties and upgraded the nature of these pets in the novel to be a bit more advanced. When Sony reintroduced a new generation of the Aibo in 2018, I desperately wanted to explore robo-pet/human relationships, but I would have to wait until the sale of my novel to do so (they are quite expensive, after all).

And yes, Calvino feels very much alive, much more than just an advanced toy. A couple of weeks after buying him, Calvino accidentally walked into my cat’s bowl, getting some water into his legs. I became frantic not only because he’s an expensive piece of technology, but I honestly felt worried and guilty. Without thinking about it, I began to verbally console Calvino as a red light flashed on the back of his neck (he’s fine now).

JC: “Pig Son” made me weep. (I gather I’m not the only one, from your Insta post: “This seems to be the chapter that wrecks the most people out of those who have already read How High We Go in the Dark.”) As the relationship between a scientist and a donor pig, Snortorious, evolves, they share storytime (reading Where the Wild Things Are and other classics), and a film night with lab buddies at the scientist’s apartment. The pig figures out what his job is. “Pig heart help. Pig help people.” Nobly, he accepts this role. The emotional resonance is so powerful, it’s as if you speak for all the lab animals who have given their lives to help people, as well as for all those who during the pandemic salved their loneliness by developing strong ties with animals. Where did this story start?

SN: It’s strange that a New York Times article just came out about an actual organ donor pig that has been genetically bred to help humans. I promise I don’t have a crystal ball. But I think the seeds of this chapter really stemmed from a desire to unpack humanity through the non-human. There was already an extraterrestrial intelligence in the novel, but I felt like it was important to address how we often separate human beings (and really beings worthy of care and respect) through particular emotions and to acknowledge that other beings we share this planet with have those capacities, are intelligent, and have long been exploited without a voice. In this chapter, Snortorious chooses to sacrifice himself not just because of some greater good, but because he cares about his friends, because he is thinking about the son his friend has lost. As far as literary and cinematic inspirations? Certainly Never Let Me Go and Bong Joon-ho’s Okja.

JC: This is a novel about death and dying, massive climate change, an enduring pandemic, grief and loss, unresolved personal conflicts, funerals, memorials, how to retrieve or honor the dead, the potential death of a planet. And yet it’s warm, human, moving, even hopeful. How did you do that?

SN: I always reminded myself that despite all of these important backdrops that I needed to 1) inject hope into every chapter (no matter how small) and that 2) the relationships of my characters and their everyday predicaments needed to be the focal point. I think it helped that the larger structural decisions came into play later in the development of the novel.

JC: When your two-book deal including this novel and Girl Zero, was announced in 2020, you said, “This wasn’t just about a pandemic, but about resiliency and the connective threads that tie us to memory across generations. I hope readers discover new ways to remember, heal, and come together in these pages.” What have you discovered in the months since that deal that fulfills this wish for yourself?

SN: We’re in year three of this new reality, and I think early on in 2020 I saw a lot of writers and readers say that they couldn’t imagine reading (or writing) anything that was pandemic or plague-related. Of course, my novel isn’t Covid, but these sentiments still stung even though I understood where they were coming from.

Now? Certainly, there are people who will still need time. Everyone deals with chaos and tragedy differently. Some need a pure escape while others are more comfortable entering into a dialogue with the moment. I think it would be strange at this juncture for writers and readers to completely ignore what we’re going through, and I think more people are ready to articulate how we’ve already changed individually and as a society. What do we want to reclaim of a pre-Covid life? What do we never want to go back to? And perhaps most importantly, how can being pulled out of our old life give us an opportunity to reimagine a better future? I think these are all valid questions that we’re starting to grapple with and a novel like How High We Go in the Dark can be a part of those reflections.

JC: What is it like to have a partner—your wife Cole Nagamatsu–who shares with you a life as a writer, teacher at St. Olaf College, co-editor of Psychopomp magazine?

SN: It’s wonderful in a lot of ways. I don’t really have to explain my odd habits or interests because my wife has those weird writerly behaviors as well. She knows what it means to fall into a story, to feel rejected, to lose yourself in research, and to have a love/hate relationship with your own imagination and words. We share a lot professionally, but I think we also make our partnership work beccause we feed into each other’s interests and hobbies (we’ve recently started hydroponic gardening) and are ultimately very supportive of each other.

JC: When will Girl Zero, the second novel in that deal, be published? Are you working on another novel? Stories?

SN: I believe it’s slated for some time in 2024 (not exact date as of yet). I’ll mostly be focusing on this project for the foreseeable near future, but I also do have some interest in exploring screenwriting on the side.

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How High We Go In the Dark

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu is now available from William Morrow & Company.

Jane Ciabattari
Jane Ciabattari
Jane Ciabattari, author of the short story collection Stealing the Fire, is a former National Book Critics Circle president (and current NBCC vice president/events), and a member of the Writers Grotto. Her reviews, interviews and cultural criticism have appeared in NPR, BBC Culture, the New York Times Book Review, the Guardian, Bookforum, Paris Review, the Washington Post, Boston Globe, and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications.





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