Nick Olson’s newest book, a speculative novel-in-flash titled Afterglow (Alien Buddha Press), will be released in June. Nick is a freelance editor and author of both literary and speculative fiction. His previous novels, Here’s Waldo and The Brother We Share, are available now. He is the editor of lit zine (mac)ro(mic). Nick let me take an early peek at Afterglow and I loved the complex future history he has envisioned. Thanks to Nick for this thoughtful interview.
Myna Chang: Give us a quick summary of Afterglow. What’s the book about? What are the major themes? Does it address any problems or opportunities in our current society?
Nick Olson: My quick summary is that Afterglow is a literary speculative novel-in-flash that charts the spread and effects of the glow: an invisible, mysterious killer that’s changed humanity in ways that reverberate even 50,000 years from now. In it, we follow a pretty large cast of characters across time and place, including folks who are just riding out the first wave of collapse, a child and their mother piecing together the past using a voice recorder from the beforetimes, the researcher who made those recordings several hundred years before their time, someone who started a consciousness uploading process in a bid for more time, the religion this person inadvertently inspired several hundred years later, and many other people along the way, their stories eventually intertwining. It deals with things you might expect in a speculative book: technology as tool or weapon, transhumanism, speculative evolution, religious and social development post-collapse, climate change and disaster and human attempts to mitigate that, human failures to mitigate that, but I tried to keep everything as grounded as possible and center as much as I could around recognizable human wants and needs: (be)longing, love, searching for your place in the world and engaging in meaning-making.
MC: Why a novel-in-flash, rather than a traditional narrative? What benefits did this structure give you? How does that play out for the reader?
Nick: I’d always wanted to do something like this, and the structure seemed like a good challenge. That’s the simple answer. But really, I’ve been in love with flash for close to a decade now, and I’d always been juggling working on a novel while also trying to write at least one flash per week, so I decided with this one I’d just put the two things together and see what came of it. It became a wonderful challenge trying to paint the world and characters in sub-1,000-word sections and let the space between each story fill in what I hadn’t described directly. So that might be a piece that’s a straightforward sci-fi story (as most of Michael/My-Cull’s stories are), but it could also be a piece that’s all dialogue coming from an ancient voice recorder, or it could be an experimental AI-generated story, or even us sifting through command prompt as someone digs through computer records and pieces together the post-collapse world while looking for a missing person. Writing the book this way was one of the greatest joys I’ve had as a writer. There was no way to get bored or stuck, as once I finished one section of this tapestry of time, I could jump back a couple of hundred years in the past or several thousand into the future. It was pure sandbox exploration. The kind of fun I used to have while writing as a kid, just a little more refined this time around.
MC: Afterglow follows several storylines, in various segments of time. How many strands are in that braid? Which character or scene came to you first? How did you weave it all together?
Nick: There are over a dozen separate strands, but they all braid together the closer we get to the end, so there’s a coming-together there that was just pure magic to work on. The order of the book is the order I wrote it in and pretty accurately reflects how everything came to me. I didn’t outline or plan this book whatsoever, and I put it together as I was going. I’d wanted to do something like this for years, and I’ve been a devout sci-fi/spec fic reader and fan since I was small, so the actual process was remarkably smooth. It might seem surprising, but everything just seemed to come out the way it needed to. I barely had to edit, and most of this was written in a flow state. I think this is the most joy I’ve had writing anything, and the final product came out more or less the way I was hoping it would. I doubt that’ll ever happen again, but I’m happy it worked out that way for this book.
MC: Which chapter is your favorite? Did that change over the course of writing & publishing the book?
Nick: Michael’s introductory chapter, “The Big Empty,” was my favorite chapter for the majority of the time, then I think that Will and Willow’s introductory chapter, “May You / Live In / Interesting Times,” might’ve edged it out slightly once I got to that point in the story. I also loved working on “Ancestral Memories,” because I’ve always wanted to do something with spec evo, and that was a blast. “The Big Walk” was a lot of fun, because I got to homage Riddley Walker. But there wasn’t a single chapter I didn’t absolutely love working on.
MC: Which character or scene is your favorite? Does any character or scenario especially resonate with you? Which was hardest to write?
Nick: I think Michael was my favorite character to write. His resiliency, refusal to give up despite all he’s been through, his grappling with trauma and post-trauma. There was a decent amount of me in there. Wyfy was very meaningful for me, because that character was actually salvaged from the first book I ever wrote. That book collected dozens of rejections and didn’t go anywhere, but Wyfy did. None of the characters were difficult to write from an emotional or internal perspective, but it was tricky sometimes to straddle that line between known and unknown, the apocrypha of their time, anachronisms in their history. So inhabiting the POV of someone who didn’t know what a laptop computer really was or how the internet actually worked but instead was someone who traded in awe-thennic pewtertops for food or had been raised to follow the teachings of the Children of the Great and Mysterious Innernet. It was a good challenge to play with these things that could easily become a wink-and-a-nod to the reader but which I tried to ground in recognizable and relatable ways, of people just trying to get by in the time and place they’d been born into.
MC: I was struck by the vivid worldbuilding in each era of the story. How did you come up with the specific elements? What real life things influenced you (if any)? Did you do research into current tech, or languages & customs, to inform your vision of this future?
Nick: Thank you so much. I’m a very research-oriented writer, so this was a treasure trove for me. I dove into quantum computing, mind uploading, neurorobotics, hominin evolution, drone flocking, AI, technological singularity, carbon capture, genetic memory, evolutionary linguistics, the list goes on and on. Honestly, I was like a kid in a candy store research-wise.
MC: I’ve been watching your book come together in real time, via Twitter, and it’s been exciting. Tell us about your process. When did you decide “this is a book?” How long did it take from “ah ha!” to “done deal?” How does this process compare to your previous books?
Nick: I knew it was a book from the first story! I wrote “Glow Storms” knowing that I wanted it to be part of a speculative novel-in-flash, but I knew literally nothing else. I didn’t even know what the glow was at that point. This was a fast process for me, about five months from that first story to a completed manuscript. I chalk that up entirely to how much fun I was having with it. I’d wanted to do this for so long that once I finally started, I don’t think I could’ve stopped even if I tried. My first two books were also rewarding, but they were very emotionally difficult to write. I was peering pretty intensely inward, so this book was my chance to turn the lens outward.
MC: I’m curious about your approach to writing. Do you try to write every day, or when the mood strikes? Do you have any writing rituals or rules? Goals?
Nick: My process changes with every book! So with Here’s Waldo, I wrote on my lunch break at work in little 30-minute chunks, took weekends off, and eventually had a first draft in about a year and a half. The Brother We Share was written in 30-40 minute sections first thing in the morning, every day (even weekends), until I had a first draft in six months. With Afterglow, I started by writing one flash chapter a week, usually on Saturday mornings. As I immersed myself in the world, that became two flash chapters a week (one written on Saturday and one on Sunday), then I got excited for the last four and wrote those in a single weekend. I don’t really have any rules or goals, but with this book I had the ritual of getting up early, making a cup of coffee, and getting right into the work, with a curated playlist on as I wrote.
MC: I knew you as a literary writer before Afterglow came into being. How do you balance literary craft with speculative storytelling? Does it matter? Does any of this affect the way you edit (mac)ro(mic)?
Nick: This is a wonderful question. I’m of the opinion that speculative fiction is just as vital a vehicle of expression as literary realism or any other genre for that matter. So I approached this the same as I would (and did) my more “realistic” work. And come to think of it, I do think my editing sensibilities went a little more slipstream as I went along with this.
MC: Where do you see Afterglow fitting into the speculative canon?
Nick: I’m very glad I won’t be the one deciding this! The short answer is I have no idea. The longer answer is that I’m not at all comparing Afterglow to these books, but I’d hope that folks might be able to see the threads/connections between this and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker or Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. Those books were tremendously influential on not just the way I wrote spec fic but the way I saw the world and my place within it. So I think if you enjoyed those books, you’d probably enjoy mine too.
MC: Have any authors or stories influenced your writing? What are your favorite stories and/or authors (books, stories, movies, comics, whatever)? Do you write in the same genres you read?
Nick: I read widely genre-wise, but there’s so much that’s influenced me here. So Riddley and Canticle like I mentioned, but also Herbert, Asimov, Philip K. Dick, then Haruki Murakami, Charlie Kaufman, Mark Z. Danielewski. Alan Moore was a huge influence, especially and of course with Watchmen, Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams. And then a lot of CRPGs from the late 90s influenced this and me in general, especially the Fallout series. I’ve also been devouring a lot of internet ARGs lately, and I’m sure the found text structure and experimental nature of those stories have found their way into my work too.
MC: Do you think we’ll be seeing more novels-in-flash in speculative fiction? Any other thoughts on genre trends?
Nick: I’d love to see more spec fic novels-in-flash. To be honest, I’m not great about following genre trends, but I love flash and speculative fiction (obviously), and I’d love to see more of the two combined.
MC: What’s next for you?
Nick: I have no idea! Afterglow is going to be my third novel published in three years, and I made a deal with myself and my partner Harmony that I’d take a much-needed/deserved break once this got picked up. So right now, I’m taking it easy, reading a ton, replaying old favorites, and just generally living. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t had flashes of what could be my next big project, but I won’t get started for a few months. So we shall see!
NICK OLSON (he/they) is an author and editor in and from Chicagoland. A Best Small Fictions nominee, finalist for Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award, and 2021 Wigleaf longlister, he’s been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, Fiction Southeast, and other fine places. When he’s not writing, he can be found wandering Chicago’s lakeshore, working as a freelance editor, and sharing the wonderful work of others over at (mac)ro(mic). His debut novel, Here’s Waldo, is out now. His second novel, The Brother We Share, is also out now. His third novel, Afterglow, releases 6/3/22. You can pre-order it here! More information about Nick and his work can be found on his website.
MYNA CHANG (she/her) is the host of Electric Sheep SF. Her work has been selected for Flash Fiction America (Norton), Best Small Fictions, Best Indie Speculative Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, and MicroPodcast’s special science fiction edition. She has won the Lascaux Prize in Creative Nonfiction and the New Millennium Award in Flash Fiction. Connect with Myna on Twitter @MynaChang.
Afterglow cover art by Harmony Dimmig.