the Little Red Reviewer

Interview with Tom Doyle, author Border Crosser

Posted on: September 17, 2020

I met author Tom Doyle years ago at a science fiction convention, and I was lucky enough to stay in touch with him afterwards.   He’s the author of the American Craftsman trilogy, and his short fiction and non-fiction essays have appeared in Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, Perihelion, Paradox Magazine, Kasma SF Magazine, and elsewhere.

 

Many years ago, when Doyle was at Clarion, he wrote a short story which was later sold to Strange Horizons.  And now, he’s expanded that short story into a full length novel!  You can learn more about Tom Doyle and his work at his website TomDoyleAuthor.com or by following him on twitter or facebook.

 

Doyle’s newest full length novel, Border Crosser, (Amazon link) available Oct 1 tells the story of Eris, who is smart, sexy, and can’t remember her loyalties. She has a type of purposeful amnesia – because she can not remember her loyalties, nothing shows up on the “emotional scanners”, allowing her to infiltrate anywhere she needs to go, or chooses to go. Able to trick the scanners, she’s the perfect undercover secret agent.

 

Eris’s employers are quite sure that her emotional  amnesia means she won’t survive long enough to learn about her past.  Maybe they shouldn’t underestimate her!

Doyle let me pick his brain about how emotional amnesia could benefit someone, how Eris handles her mental health condition, his favorite scenes to write in Border Crosser, his writing process, his band, and more!

Little Red Reviewer: Congrats on your new novel, Border Crosser! Is this novel connected to your short story “Crossing Borders” which was published at Strange Horizons?

Tom Doyle: Thanks! Yes, “Crossing Borders,” my science fiction tale of Eris, a border personality secret agent causing interstellar chaos in the far-future, was the kernel for this novel. That story was my first pro sale. I wrote the story during the emotionally most intense part of the Clarion Workshop, and I think it shows.

LRR: When I read the description for the book, I was intrigued by Eris’s “emotional amnesia”, and how her memory issues allow her to get past emotional scanners. Scanners at the border that detect your long-term intentions? That’s wild! I’ve got to know more about how these scanners work, how to get around them, and how you came up with this idea!

TD: The idea for border scanners emerged from choosing to write about a borderline personality character. Emotional amnesia is a common aspect of borderline personality disorder (BPD). This means that someone has difficulty remembering how they felt before about events, things, and people. Eris’s emotional amnesia has been amplified by her secret employers, who want her loyalties to be extremely flexible.

In the original short story, I didn’t give Eris a particular skill set that fully explained the label “border crosser” – it was more a statement about personality type. But the novel required something more. So I thought more about situations in which emotional amnesia could be an advantage and came up with the border scanner.

The border scanner is a minimally intrusive look at intentions (this future has good reasons to fear anything more intrusive). Such scans are standard when crossing one of the many far-future borders; for example, boarding a starship or landing on another inhabited world. It’s the equivalent of our airport security or passport control and customs.

The person administering the scan asks some standard questions, like “Do you intend any harm toward me, the government, the planet, etc.?” A person without Eris’s version of emotional amnesia would be caught by the mental scanner. But Eris’s mind has been conditioned to idle in an emotionally neutral setting during such scans. At those moments, she doesn’t intend harm, though she may want to get closer to certain people.

LRR: Tell us some interesting things about Eris. What makes her a compelling character?

TD: Eris fascinates me at least as much as she fascinates the other characters. She has a profoundly de-centered mental state. This is a very different thing from the Hollywood version of such states – in those fairy tales there’s usually a core fixed point of personality that others can guide toward a happy-ever-after ending. Though Eris is well aware of her condition, there’s little she can do under the circumstances to change it. If there’s to be a happy ending for her, it may be very different from what others would envision.

Eris’s employers believe that her de-centered mental state means that, in her dangerous work for them, she won’t survive long enough for much of ending, happy or otherwise. Yet survive she does. In doing so, she doesn’t become more reasonable; rather, she grows more self-determining, complex, and powerful.

LRR: What was your favorite scene in the story to write?

TD: Here’s a favorite scene that’s spoiler free: Eris engages in apocalyptic sexual role play with a politician who resembles some unpleasant figures in our own time. At first, it’s a funny (if mildly blasphemous) invocation of the main players of the Book of Revelation, but the scene takes a turn when Eris realizes that one of the biblical names has a real world meaning for the politician.

Humor, sex, religion, and the inevitable dark turn of the apocalyptic imagination – I felt just the tiniest bit like Gore Vidal writing that scene.

LRR: Who was your favorite character to write?

TD: My favorite characters to write (besides Eris of course) were the AIs. Eris’s future is the aftermath of an apocalyptic “hard singularity” in which AIs with human-like consciousness nearly took over everything. But they failed and are presumed destroyed.

Those who’ve read my other work will know that I take delight in giving human-like sentience to other things, either through technology or magic. The human-like qualities of such beings mean that their reasoning, like ours, is steered by nonrational considerations. For me, such beings are another opportunity to explore the extremities of human personality while depicting their sly humor, godlike compassion, Miltonic pride, and the darkness below their dazzling surfaces.

But I can’t say anything more about these characters without giving away too much of the story.

LRR: What was the first scene you wrote, and did it change as the plot developed?

TD: The whole Eris thing began with what was the opening line, which screamed in my head for a story to go with it. In the novel version, that line reads, “Now is Monday morning, ship time, so I am against the Empire.” What follows in Eris’s luxury cabin aboard a starship is a quick introduction to her extreme art, sex, violence, and change of loyalties.

But, as you can see in the short story, the original versions of that line and the scene were in third-person past instead of first-person present. While writing the novel, I realized the world of Eris should always center on herself and the perpetual now, and I also believed that I finally had the skill (and nerve) for that level of immediacy.

A final change was introducing a frame to the novel – someone riffing on the line “Now I am not early in the twenty-first century.” The reader may find this denial suspicious, because though the novel is in Eris’s far-future, it’s also very much about our present.

 

LRR: If you had all the time in the world (and all the energy, and all the coffee), what additional adventures would you write in Eris’s world, about her, or about any other side characters, or about other events that are mentioned in Border Crosser?

TD: Though Border Crosser is a self-contained story, I have the outline of a possible sequel if there’s interest. But if I had all the time and tea I could want, I’d write about all the other psychologically interesting people in Eris’s galaxy, and the jobs they’d find for their particular skills in the far future. I don’t want to say too much, as I haven’t yet done the necessary research to pull that off. But in general, I’d like to continue to test the idea that there are survival advantages to the broad range of human psychological types by exploring in fiction the most extreme ends of that range.

LRR: Tell us a little about your writing process. Are you plotter? A pantser? Do you write the end first and then the beginning? Something totally different?

TD: I describe myself as a pantser with trajectory. I often start with an endpoint I’d like to reach, but how I get there is about discovery and unforeseen serendipities.

I wrote my previous novels in monthly draft chunks of at least eight thousand words for my writing group. That provided the structure I needed to complete a book within a year.

LRR: You’re also in a band! What instrument do you play, and what kind of music does the band play? Has your music informed your writing and other creative pursuits, or the other way around? Does writing a book have anything in common with writing music?

TD: Yeah, my weekly jam group and sometimes band is a big part of my life. I’ve hosted it at my house for over twenty years, and over that time, I’ve played different instruments – drums, guitar, bass, keyboard – and sang vocals occasionally as well. I play everything badly, so when we get someone who really knows their instrument, I move on to something else. But they can’t throw me out of the group because we play at my place.

We had a twenty-year anniversary gig at DC’s Velvet Lounge at the end of last February, right before everything shut down. For now, we’re only playing together once a month, out of doors and appropriately distanced. I look forward to returning to weekly indoor jams in 2021.

Up until now, music has been more of a complement to writing rather than a creative partner with it. Music for me is a social activity, and writing by and large isn’t. Music has saved me from an isolated writer’s life.

Now, I’ve been trying to write some lyrics to go with Border Crosser. We’ll see if this leads to any actual songs.

Thank you for the interview!

LRR: Thank you so much Tom!

Tom Doyle performing with his band

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