Earlier this month, I attended a reading and Q & A with Nicole Kornher-Stace, author of the recently released adult SFF novel Firebreak. The event was hosted by C.S.E. Cooney, with guest co-host Amal El-Mohtar. While I read Nicole’s YA novel Archivist Wasp years ago (2015, apparently!), I have still not read its sequel, Latchkey. But I like following Nicole on Twitter, and of course I like Amal El-Mohtar, and I’d just enjoyed C.S.E. Cooney and Carlos Hernandez’s short story “The Book of May,” so I jumped on that registration link.
As we settled into Zoom, Amal talked about her walk that day and the swarm of swallows she’d seen over the river, which led to a discussion of what the collective noun for swallows is (options include gulp and kettle). In the chat, attendees shared where they were connecting from. Then Claire (that is, C.S.E. Cooney) eased her co-presenters into the Q & A by asking Amal what she’d been burning to ask Nicole. The answer, it turned out, was what she was going to plant in her garden! Nicole revealed that she lives in a townhouse without a backyard but has lots of containers, potentially in defiance of the homeowners’ association. The pandemic inspired her to try to grow food, so she has (in upstate New York) a baby nectarine tree, a cherry bush, a fig tree, a persimmon tree, and three kinds of raspberries, among other things.
The three authors then reminisced about how they had met one another at various cons and how they were all connected through the online poetry journal Goblin Fruit, founded by Amal and Jessica Wick. Somewhere in here, my Wifi failed me, and when I returned, Amal was asking Nicole about Firebreak, the novel whose release we were celebrating. Specifically, she asked her why, in the book, she’d wanted to have giant robots in the real world (as opposed to the immersive video game that plays a major role in the book). Nicole said that she just takes a bunch of things she enjoys, squishes them together, and sees what sticks. She also cited watching anime and playing lots of video games.
Claire noted that Mal, the protagonist of Firebreak, is employed as a dog walker and then mentioned how she had this constant sense of thirst while reading the book because all the characters are dehydrated. (Maybe I should mention that Firebreak is a near-future dystopian novel in which a corporation controls all access to drinking water and collecting rainwater is illegal.) Claire asked Nicole what kind of research she’d done on water scarcity and dehydration. Among the sources she mentioned was the documentary Blue Gold: World Water Wars. For the benefit of the audience, Claire said that the rage and the thirst (and the tenderness) were part of the experience of reading the book.
Amal said one of the things she loved most about Nicole’s writing, of which there was more in her recent work, was the physicality of everything, how the prose was always slamming and hurting. She called her writing extremely embodied. Then she invited Nicole to talk about the origins of Firebreak. Nicole said she’d been kicking the idea around since before Archivist Wasp came out and spent three years telling herself she wasn’t good enough to write it and could never do it justice. (Of course, she did write it!) Firebreak is a standalone, but it’s about the war that’s referenced in Archivist Wasp. She’d gotten a review of Archivist Wasp that said obviously the war mentioned in that book hadn’t been fully thought out, so she wrote Firebreak out of spite. She also said there was a lot of her in her main character Mal, including being bad at people and having a gamer background.
At this point, Claire put in that Mal thinks she’s bad at people but is actually surrounded by friends and is good at friendship and at being loyal. She asked Nicole if she’d chosen her name for malcontent. Nicole said she hadn’t but that Mal’s name made her think of Amal. Amal said the only time she saw her name in books was when someone she knew tuckerized (new word for me!) her. In Firebreak, she’d enjoyed seeing a name that was most of hers.
My Wifi was being exceptionally persnickety that evening, so I missed another bit, but when I was back online, Nicole was talking about how she’d been thinking a lot about social media activism. There’s so much organizing you can do if you get people together in any way. In Firebreak, the company that runs the game Mal plays is trying to keep everyone isolated and unable to organize. Nicole said this was like the world we live in. Especially now, we’re all isolated. She said she’s an idealist, so she wanted to write about the potential and where it could go, but she still wanted it to be realistic. Claire said, in relation to the organizing, I think, that it was a collaboration between Mal, her friend Jessa, and all the viewers of the game, who were supplying the players with what they needed. Amal said it was striking to her now how much that dynamic of having to fight to keep your rank was echoed in Archivist Wasp. And that dynamic doesn’t change until people stop fighting and start working together against the people who want them to keep fighting. I believe she said this dynamic was one of the few true things in fiction.
Then Amal shifted gears (“speaking of desire!”) and said she wanted to ask Nicole to elaborate on something she’d been talking about a lot on Twitter, namely, ace representation and aromantic representation. She (Amal) said that in some books she sees a “box of chocolates” approach to representation (“here is an ace character!”), but what Nicole was representing in Firebreak was actually what a certain kind of asexual desire and experience and longing looked like. Amal thought it was really valuable and gorgeous. Nicole said she could talk about this topic for a really long time. She described Mal as introspective but not very good at expressing how she talks or thinks about herself. She’s figuring it (i.e. herself and her feelings) out, but it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to her because, like for us today, she doesn’t have a template for this. So she talks about it, but without using the words we might use. Here, Claire added that Mal’s friends talk about it too. Nicole said she didn’t want Mal to exist as a teaching moment but rather to just be who she is. She wanted to leave Mal’s experience in a gray area. Mal feels something for someone in a way that most people would read as romantic, though in fact it’s platonic. But Nicole wanted to leave room for different interpretations because she doesn’t want to say that platonic relationships are only for aroace people. Claire observed that no one can give the ace-aro experience in a single character.
Amal pointed out that the relationship between Mal and 22 wasn’t the only platonic relationship in Firebreak. She found the one between Mal and Jessa so gorgeous. She noted that she was on the record multiple times as saying she wantd to see more female friendships as driving narrative forces, to see them given the same weight as romantic relationships. Then she had some musings on the transactional nature of romance vs. the creation of a bond in friendship, but I don’t think I captured all the nuance (and am also not sure I agree with the distinction). Claire’s last thought here, which may have been related to this thread, was about Nicole writing characters who grow less lonely while remaining loners. This was something she saw in Archivist Wasp too.
This concluded the host Q & A. Next, Nicole, Amal, and Claire read two scenes from Firebreak. Nicole read Mal’s first person narration and lines while Amal was Mal’s friend Jessa and Claire was 22, when he appeared. In this first scene, Mal and Jessa were in the video game, playing with a bunch of new gear. At the end, Jessa lets Mal go off with 22 so she can get closure with her friend crush or somesuch. After this reading, Claire asked Amal for her best supervillain laugh, which she delivered. Then she (Amal) said to everyone, “I don’t know if this is apparent, but I love this book so much!”
At this point, Carlos Hernandez, who’s Claire’s husband, loosened Zoom’s video permissions so attendees could join with video and applaud. A few people stuck around on camera for the remainder of the event, and I’m pleased to say no fewer than two audience members had cats appear in their windows.
The second reading was from the end of the novel’s third section (of four). Right before this scene, Mal had seen a deepfake of herself supporting the evil corporation, and all her video game fans thought it was her. This excerpt was an intense showdown between corporate soldiers and protestors, and then it started to rain and people lifted cups to the clouds. But things were looking pretty iffy for Mal.
There was a little time at the end for audience questions. The first question was what meal or drink paired perfectly with Firebreak. I think Nicole was stumped, and then everyone concluded the drink would be water, given everyone’s chronic dehydration? Then someone asked what games had been major influences on the book, and I know Nicole at least mentioned Anarchy Online. But also action movies like Fury Road, Edge of Tomorrow, and Aliens. There was a request for anime recs, and Nicole said that every time someone asked her for some, her mind went blank. She said Evangelion was formative, though not necessarily good; it was the weirdest thing she’d seen at the time. Right now she was enjoying Dorohedoro. (I should just come out and say I barely get any of the references in this paragraph.)
Claire asked Nicole what she was enjoying reading right now, and Nicole said she was in a nonfiction phase. Although she was writing a list of friendship books, so she was reading recommendations. To everyone, Claire recommended The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry, and Amal recommended Hench. Then she slipped in a last question to Nicole, asking her if she’d watched the show Killjoys. Nicole said she hadn’t, although many people had recommended it to her. Amal said she found it very delightful but extremely “a lot”; she also cited the core, non-sexualized friendship between a man and a woman (whom Amal had a crush on). Amal made one last plug to the audience for word-of-mouth recommendations, and then that was about it!