Today I am interviewing K Chess, author of the new science-fiction novel, Famous Men Who Never Lived.
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DJ: Hi K.! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview!
For readers who aren’t familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself?
K: Sure thing! I come from New England, where winters are cold and turn signals are optional. I write fiction and teach fiction — and work for a coffee company. I also drink a lot of coffee. If I give you a gift for your birthday, it will probably be coffee, because I get it for free.
DJ: What is Famous Men Who Never Lived about?
K: It’s about a woman who’s willing to do anything to recover the last copy of a book that was never even written in our world. Hel is a member of a group of New Yorkers from an alternate timeline who fled nuclear war and ended up in our version of the city, where the 20th century went completely differently. Unlike some other Universally Displaced Persons (UDPs) — like her partner Vikram — she is not interested in assimilating. She spends most of the book looking for Vikram’s paperback of the sci fi masterpiece The Pyronauts and getting into trouble.
DJ: What were some of your influences for Famous Men Who Never Lived?
K: The summer I began to write this book, I was reading Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber and The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi, as well as The Intuitionist and Zone One by Colson Whitehead. These are all books about doubles and lost worlds and the disconcerting nature of urban life.
DJ: Could you briefly tell us a little about your main characters? Do they have any cool quirks or habits, or any reason why readers with sympathize with them?
K: I feel like every relationship has a Calvin and a Hobbes. Hel is the Calvin, here — she’s got schemes and gets into feuds with people. I think she’s an interesting character because she was an extreme high achiever in her home universe, where she worked as a surgeon. Forced to start her life over at the bottom, she uses her intelligence and persistence in a very different way. The only thing she likes about our world is drinking cans of RockStar. Vikram is the Hobbes. He’s laid back and dependable. Though he’s also mourning the deaths of everyone he ever knew, it’s easier for him to move on because he’s open to making new connections.
DJ: Aside from the main characters in the story, who is a favorite side character or a character with a smaller role for in story? Why?
K: This is an unusual book structurally, because it includes first-person interview “transcripts” from a number of UDPs who don’t appear in the main narrative. My favorite of these is Stormie, a woman who has found joy in telling outrageous lies to non-UDPs.
DJ: What is the world and setting of Famous Men Who Never Lived like?
K: Though the book is set in our world, I had fun showing glimpses of the ways the UDPs’ 20th century differed from ours. There are hints at big unfamiliar geopolitical forces, but there’s also minutia about the New York City the UDPs came from — all beer bottles were twist-off, the trains ran aboveground, there was a highway through Park Slope and a transnational airship terminal in Hoboken, people were addicted to visor video games, etc. Those details are the most disorienting for Vikram and Hel, and I had fun weaving them in.
DJ: What was your favorite part about writing Famous Men Who Never Lived?
K: Coming up with slang from Hel’s world, especially curse words!
DJ: Did you have a particular goal when you began writing Famous Men Who Never Lived? Was there a particular message or meaning you are hoping to get across when readers finish it? Or is there perhaps a certain theme?
K: This is my first novel, so finishing it and making sure it would entertain someone besides myself was a big goal! Beyond that, I’ve always liked experiencing multiple universes in fiction. I wanted to invent an alternate reality, but it was important to me to stay away from utopia or dystopia and keep it roughly equivalent to our own. When I look at Famous Men Who Never Lived, I see an expression of how attached we all are to our homes — down to the tiniest details! — and the individual ways we deal with loss. And through the sci fi conceit, I’m exploring anti-immigrant bias.
DJ: When I read, I love to collect quotes – whether it be because they’re funny, foodie, or have a personal meaning to me. Do you have any favorite quotes from Famous Men Who Never Lived that you can share with us?
- This is from a scene in which Hel mistakes a boy on the street for the son she left behind when she passed through the Gate to our world. A security guard has just tackled her to the sidewalk. Here goes: “‘It was an accident,’ Hel said then. The pressure on her back felt far greater than it should have. She sensed the weight of her whole creaturely existence pressing down upon her, the mass and heft of a missing world. A tiger was standing on her, digging rueful sharp claws into her skin. ‘I didn’t mean it,’ she gasped. ‘It was an accident.’”
DJ: Now that Famous Men Who Never Lived is released, what is next for you?
K: I’m traveling to the west coast this spring to do some events in support of Famous Men Who Never Lived and catch up with friends and family. After that, I’ll be back in Rhode Island, where I look forward to getting back into a writing routine with a lot of coffee and an outline for a new novel that has nothing to do with this one!
DJ: Where can readers find out more about you?
DJ: Before we go, what is that one thing you’d like readers to know about Famous Men Who Never Lived that we haven’t talked about yet?
K: I love books like Misery and The Princess Bride that include fictional books — so I put sections from The Pyronauts into Famous Men Who Never Lived.
DJ: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to answer my questions!
K: It was a pleasure. Thanks for having me!
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*** Famous Men Who Never Lived is published Tin House Books available TODAY!!! ***
Buy the Book:
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About the Book:
Wherever Hel looks, New York City is both reassuringly familiar and terribly wrong. As one of the thousands who fled the outbreak of nuclear war in an alternate United States—an alternate timeline—she finds herself living as a refugee in our own not-so-parallel New York. The slang and technology are foreign to her, the politics and art unrecognizable. While others, like her partner Vikram, attempt to assimilate, Hel refuses to reclaim her former career or create a new life. Instead, she obsessively rereads Vikram’s copy of The Pyronauts—a science fiction masterwork in her world that now only exists as a single flimsy paperback—and becomes determined to create a museum dedicated to preserving the remaining artifacts and memories of her vanished culture.
But the refugees are unwelcome and Hel’s efforts are met with either indifference or hostility. And when the only copy of The Pyronauts goes missing, Hel must decide how far she is willing to go to recover it and finally face her own anger, guilt, and grief over what she has truly lost.
About the Author:
K Chess is the author of FAMOUS MEN WHO NEVER LIVED (Tin House Books, 2019). Her short fiction has appeared in The Chicago Tribune’s Printer’s Row Journal, PANK, Midwestern Gothic, and other fine journals. She earned a BA from Vassar College and an MFA from Southern Illinois University. K was awarded the W.K. Rose Fellowship in the Creative Arts for fiction writing in 2008/2009 and was named as Finalist for the Writers’ Room of Boston Fellowship in 2018. She teaches writing at GrubStreet in Boston and Rhode Island, and reads fiction for Quarterly West.