Q&A with Ian MacAllen, author of “The Lives of Paul”

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Ian MacAllen’s “The Lives of Paul” was published in The Offing’s Fiction department on February 3, 2020. Q&A conducted by Julia Chen, Reader, Fiction

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Julia Chen: I was immediately struck by the unspecified future/alternate universe you’ve created in “The Lives of Paul”, especially the way you’ve explored a world where people can come back from the dead. How do you approach your world building? Was this a world that came into your mind fully-formed or did you start writing first and reshaped it as the story progressed?

Ian MacAllen: Nancy and Paul live in a universe that I see as a natural progression of our own. For instance, we have billionaires funneling money into longevity research rather than the climate crisis. I’ve read the first human to live forever may already have been born, which would mean developing life extending medical technology just as the earth becomes uninhabitable. I’m cynical of our future. We run a real risk that technocratic oligarchs — people like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mike Bloomberg, Peter Thiel — guide society towards a hyper-capitalist libertarian dystopia.

Resurrection as a product would be extremely profitable. But also it would be exploitative. Paul has a job that pays for his resurrection insurance not because the corporation he works for is altruistic but because the insurance makes them better at exploiting him. They don’t make his job less unsafe, they just pay to have his body rebuilt, despite the external costs he personally incurs like missing time with his family. At one point, Paul’s resurrection is even delayed because a war has resulted in a backlog of dead people requiring resurrection. War is big business, and obviously the global capital behind arms manufacturing has a vested interest in making war with fewer consequences rather than a world without war. These are the influences I see as a threat to our future and influencing the world inhabited by Paul and Nancy.

History tends to have a lot of inertia. Progress is slow. We might develop technology to allow us to continue living indefinitely, but to me, our society would make bad choices for centuries to follow. We would use it for things like cosmetics, infinite war, and unsafe work environments rather than something more meaningful like a great creative work or finding enlightenment. I don’t really see anything I’ve written as world building as much as portraying how our world already exists, although through a filter where the contrast ratios have been turned up.

JC: In “The Lives of Paul”, death has become meaningless and mundane, subject to bureaucracy and commodification (resurrection parties!). Do you believe that that’s where we’re headed as a society? Or are we already there and you’re bringing it into focus?

IM: Death is already commodified. Rich people live longer because they have access to better healthcare. Life extension already exists in the form of blood pressure medication, cholesterol medication, and western medicine — provided you can pay for it. The desire to extend our lives and the unexpected nature of our imminent deaths informs so many of the decisions we make in our lives, and yet we only ever have one chance to live one life. I wanted to explore how people might behave and what kinds of decisions people would make if they suddenly didn’t have the burden of committing to a single path. What if you could reset from the last mistake you made? What if you could start over entirely? Obviously every choice we make and every life event shapes us and changes who we are in some way — which is why resurrected people in “The Lives of Paul” always come back a little bit different. But I do think we would all want to live our best lives — that is, trying to meet our own expectations for who we should have become — and when we failed to achieve that, absolutely, we would reset and try again.

JC: It isn’t just Paul’s life that is central to “The Lives of Paul”. You explore in great detail the ways the lives of his wife, Nancy, and his children are affected by Paul’s repeated deaths. What do you think is gained from exploring this story through Nancy’s perspective? Have you considered how the story would look if we saw it from the perspective of the adult children?

IM: Entering the narrative through Paul would have probably created a lot more sympathy for him. He’s definitely haunted by the fact that his father chose to actually die without resurrection, and he’s certainly undergoing the kind of personal crisis most middling, middle-aged men enter into when they realize their greatest accomplishment is paying off the mortgage on their suburban tract home. But why would I want the reader to have sympathy for Paul? Even when Paul is alive, Nancy is responsible for all the domestic and emotional labor in their household. He never really participates. All Nancy really even asks of Paul is to keep his memory backups current, and he’s pretty bad at doing that. She’s holding the household together while setting a very low bar for him to be a good husband and a good father, and yet he still manages to disappoint her. Nancy’s perspective provides readers a deservingly sympathetic point of view, and her final, selfish decision to erase their lives and start over has a lot more meaning because of it.

I don’t think the adult children had much capacity to worry about their father’s life, death and resurrection. There isn’t a universe where living on an orbital mining colony doesn’t turn into some kind of dystopian hellscape. Even Maggie, who ends up wandering Europe like bohemian and Jacob, with his fancy college degree, have more pressing issues to keep them occupied. These children are living in a world where nobody dies. That’s got to put a lot of stress on the already limited resources. Plus, if nobody ever really dies, young people are hugely disadvantaged in the workplace. Today, Boomers are working longer than the previous generation, earning huge salaries in top jobs, hoarding wealth, and generally standing in the way of social progress. Now imagine if those people could go on holding their jobs forever with the occasional eight-week sabbatical to resurrect a newer, younger, fresher body. Suddenly it sounds like Peter is pretty lucky to have escaped to that hellish mining colony. In short, the children are living their own kind of miserable existences, and they simply weren’t ever in a position to have a compelling story about Paul’s recurring deaths.

JC: In the end of the story, Nancy decides on a cosmetic death. She will bring herself and her husband, Paul, back from the dead using their original data files which means they will lose all memory of their children. Do you see this ending as in line with who Nancy is as a character? Or does it further complicate all we thought we knew about Nancy?

IM: There is a selfishness to Nancy’s decision to reboot her life and start over. I think it’s important that Nancy waits for her children to be self-sufficient adults who don’t really need her anymore. So much of her identity is raising them, and then they leave. The decision definitely erases the life she had and who she was. But it also gives her a second chance. Who doesn’t want the opportunity to correct some past mistake? And ultimately this cycle could be endless. We might actually be watching the second or third or forty-seventh iteration of Nancy’s life.

JC: How do you approach voice in your writing? All of the characters in “The Lives of Paul” are so specific in their speech, be it the corporate speak of all the resurrection admins to Nancy looking for support at the medical center. I read each line and I know who this person is! Do you workshop conversations with peers or is this a process you work through on your own?

IM: I read everything out loud. When I compose the first draft, I’m focusing on story, scene, and pacing, and these elements are what end up getting discussed during workshop sessions. Once those elements are in place, I will revise again a few times before I begin focusing on the more micro level language. Eventually I read the manuscript out loud to myself making changes as I go.

I approach this read-out-loud-edit as though I’m preparing for a staged reading: how are these words going to be performed; How do they sound; What words are superfluous, and what superfluous words are necessary for a sentence to have the correct rhythm and beat? Narrative pacing can be adjusted, too. Word choice, sentence length, sentence structure — all these elements combine into voice, but I think unless you hear it out loud, you can’t really hear how those words sound. And then just as soon as it seems like it’s perfect, I end up doing another round of revisions.

The final round of edits involves trimming out words from the manuscript. Sometimes I’m trying to get a word count under a threshold for submitting to a specific venue, and other times I just want to cut away the chaff. Cutting text almost always improves a manuscript. I usually will be reading out loud when I’m making these cuts, and after a few passes over the manuscript if the word count remains unchanged, it’s a pretty good bet it is ready to enter the world.

Ian MacAllen’s writing has appeared in 45th Parallel, Little Fiction, Vol 1. Brooklyn, Chicago Review of Books, Fiction Advocate, and elsewhere. He is the Deputy Editor of The Rumpus, holds an M.A. in English from Rutgers University, and lives in Brooklyn. He tweets @IanMacAllen and can be found online at ianmacallen.com.

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