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Interview With Author Joanne McNeil

Neale Stokes, Senior Librarian, Digital Content Team,
Author Joanne McNeil and her debut novel, Wrong Way

Joanne McNeil’s debut novel, Wrong Way, is a tech satire set in a highly plausible near future. The book centers on Teresa, fatigued from a lifetime of precarious employment, who takes a mysterious job with a tech behemoth promising to revolutionize transportation. We spoke with McNeil about Wrong Way’s development, her writing process, and some influential books and writers.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell us a little about your background and career?

This is my first novel. I've been a writer, a critic, an essayist, and a journalist for the past 20 years. Most of my writing has been on technology.

Tell us about Wrong Way. Where did the novel come from, and how did it develop?

I started Wrong Way, either the day after I turned in the manuscript for Lurking, or a few days later. I had already had this process of sitting at my desk for several hours and typing away, and I wasn't in a place to abandon that process after I turned the book in. This was the summer of 2018. And I worked on this novel for a year, and I had a completed draft in the fall of 2019. It was, I would say, not very good, but it was the size of a novel. I could see my ambition in this document, and I had some of the characters, some of the scenes. And as it happened, the period of time that I had set up for myself to revise this novel, which would've been spring of 2020, right after Lurking was published and after my book tour would've wrapped up–all of that went out the window because of Covid.

And [because of Covid] many of the ideas in my book, I didn't have the conviction I had before: things like the housing crisis and rents in Boston. In the summer of 2020, there were studio apartments in Allston, a very popular neighborhood in Boston, for like 1200 bucks a month, because this is a community that counts on students to rent these apartments. The students weren't coming to Boston. I had this novel that's set in 2028, and I still had the sense, well, we've got to get through it somehow. But I didn't have a strong feeling of where the future would be enough that I could continue with my vision of the future. So I stepped away from the novel for over a year before I did eventually revise it.

I began a really intensive revision in early in 2021. I had two weeks where I gutted probably a third of the manuscript, made it much more streamlined, and worked on developing the character. There were many characters in the first draft. This second draft was much more focused on the lead character. I worked on making sure that she felt very real, and she felt very unique and had some eccentricities that I hadn't really seen in fiction before. So I really focused on the character work. And by that point, of course, you're not going to find a studio in Allston for 1200 a month. It was very clear at the beginning of 2021 that, while maybe the world hadn't gone back to normal, the rent had gone back to its absurdities.

One thing that really helped was Claire L. Evans, who edited the Terraform anthology. She had reached out to me to contribute a short story to the book. I don't even know if Claire knew that I wrote fiction–she certainly didn't know I was working on a novel, I was kind of private about it. I took that assignment as a way to test my memory of the novel that I had been working on, and kind of work on the themes with a different character, a different setting–but some of the same vibes of that story. I ended up banging out this short story in a weekend, and that was enough of a creative departure from this 70,000-word document that I'd been dreading to look at, that as soon as I put that together, I felt confident enough that I could get back to the novel and see it with fresh eyes, and I could resume the enthusiasm, and resume the vision I had before.

Tell us about the main character, Teresa, and where she comes from.

Teresa's inspired by a lot of the women I grew up knowing. I grew up in Massachusetts, south of Boston, a city called Brockton. It's very much a working class, New England, small city. When thinking about this character, I imagined someone who is, maybe not ambitious, but certainly wants a good life for herself. Who is intelligent, but doesn't have that drive to be an overachiever, the sense of success. It's not something that drives her as it might drive other people. I don't really see that in fiction these days. I see a lot more of that overachiever drive, that need to be number one, and the drama comes out of being number two and wanting very badly to finally get to number one. I wanted her goals to be a more modest, and still the drama comes through in how difficult it is just to live an ordinary good life.

That was a lot of what inspired me.In those early drafts that I was struggling with, I think I put too much of myself in this character. As soon as I had a really strong sense of the boundary between this character and me, I felt a lot more comfortable developing and working with her.

A lot of the book is framed by Teresa’s work history–and while the job with AllOver is pretty distinct, it has a lot in common with her previous employment.

I was thinking about how we talk about the gig economy: as almost something separate from the rest of working class labor. I wanted to show, with her history, the dead end careers, the jobs she left or lost. I also wanted to show that she has very often been in this position of observing other people, and surveilling feels like not the right word here, but seeing the lives of other people, many people who are in positions of power or have power over her and how she in some ways knows some of their secrets just by being this low rung employee.

Can you talk about the AllOver CEO, Falconer Guidry?

I’ve been writing technology criticism for well over a decade now. So I've followed a lot of these billionaires even before they were billionaires, and seeing how they interact with the public, how mutable their beliefs are when a camera is in front of them. And there were a few things that inspired me when I was developing this character. I was inspired a lot by Jack Dorsey. I find him incredibly fascinating. There is something very genuine in how charismatic he is. People I've talked to who've known him quite well have always said that he's an incredibly charismatic person. It made him a natural founder because he can spin these fantasies for people and get them to invest in his ideas. So he was a big inspiration. But I was also kind of thinking to myself just more as a thought experiment, what if Elon Musk, instead of becoming alt-right–which is horrifying and something that is no joke given the power that he has–what if he were instead tweeting things that sounded more like DSA slogans? What if he was tweeting things like, “every billionaire is a policy failure,” and at the same time being a billionaire. What if he had basically the same actions, but different words?

It struck me that the ultimate 2028 Silicon Valley politics would be leftist sounding slogans and inaction. So: anti-hierarchical, post-capitalist mindset allegedly, but still incredibly wealthy. The same plunder, but different language about it. So that was where he came from. Reading Naomi Kline's Doppelganger this year, felt very gratifying because I think she nails that sense of confusion we're in, where so many politicians say one thing and clearly do not believe in it. And what can you do? Do you vote for the person who's saying the right things when we know they're not going to do anything? Well, yeah, if the other side just wants to blow the planet up, there really isn't a choice–but it isn't a great choice.

The technology at the heart of the story is essentially a big lie, and yet we’re already sort of used to this to some extent–that tech companies will promise big and then lie about it when they can’t deliver.

I've been following news around AI for several years now, and the thing that fascinates me about the AI space is that if you critique the technology, the first thing someone in that world will say is, well, you just don't understand it. If you do understand the technology, you know its failures. The failures always come back to human labor, because this technology is meant to replicate something that a human would do. It means that you ultimately need human labor–either gathered in the training data, or as the labor that fills in those gaps when it’s not working correctly. So it's something I wonder about. It's been a while since I've been part of the soft sci-fi versus hard sci-fi debate, but I wonder if someone would take me to task for taking a soft sci-fi approach, when the fact is this is an accurate depiction of how an AI product goes to market.

It happened recently with the New York Times reporting on Cruise. There was a big story that came out that showed there's heavy intervention from remote operators who do assist with these vehicles. Maybe not with an actual fake steering wheel in front of them, but they are pressing buttons. They are troubleshooting when a car is having errors. And to put a vehicle like that on the road where there are pedestrians, where there are children, it is stunning, because the rhetoric that the founder has provided is about why self-driving cars are so much safer.

The reveal of how Teresa would interact with the tech made me think of horror, or a sort of Cronenberg-style body horror. But ultimately she adjusts, and it seems almost mundane.

The scenes where she's first getting acquainted with the car were very fun to write. I was kind of leaning over a chair in my living room trying to envision for myself how this vehicle would work. I was definitely thinking of it as I wanted it to trigger people's sense of claustrophobia and sense that this is probably really unsafe and unpleasant. I also was thinking about, how would a company that just does not care do this? What would these interiors that the public cannot see look like? And I'd think, oh, there's just all this junk. There's a post-it note over there, there's chain mail. For some reason, I was just thinking of it as like, you look in that interior and it would just look like a science experiment or something.

So I wasn't necessarily going for horror because I also had as a baseline a sense of this type of job. I aimed to have it as horrific as the gig economy jobs that I know are in existence, because of extensive reporting–things like content moderation for Facebook, which is a traumatizing job in a very ordinary environment. These workers go through training and their trainers make it all sound like it's normal, and an individual really has to discover for themselves how out of bounds it is that they're expected to do this work. So that was my goal in depicting it. I appreciate hearing that it sounds somewhat horrific and that it also becomes sort of rote. But at the same time, I hoped with the later scenes to show how perhaps Teresa hasn't fully acknowledged how this job is changing her. Because some of the things it offers her–not just the pay, but also a little bit of privacy. Something I was trying to show with a lot of her earlier jobs, where she has to interface with the public, and that emotional labor expected of you, as a woman worker especially, she really doesn't like that. So this job, where she is kind of in the shadows, is something she's going to gravitate toward. But that comes with a cost too, which is you're constantly surveilling people. You're not ever away from people. You are still engaging with them one-way.

Finally, were there any books that inspired you or served as touchstones in writing Wrong Way?

I was reading Milkman by Anna Burns while I started writing  Wrong Way. I got a copy and I was just mesmerized by it. The author, Anna Burns is playing by her own rules, and it felt unexpected in a way that I hadn't encountered in fiction in a long time. I think that definitely did influence some of my own sense of freedom with the narration, because it is close third, and I try to have a very voicey narrator.

I've long been inspired by the New Wave movement of science fiction, that would be J.G. Ballard. In particular where it’s very experimental and thinking through this built world–a built world that doesn't just have a future, but has a history, and is kind of haunted by its history. Ballard is the author who's probably been the strongest influence on me. The other author is Philip K. Dick, because in his books he consistently depicts these working stiffs, these people who are just struggling to make ends meet, and the worlds they're in are absurd worlds of capitalism and advertising. That's something I've always loved about science fiction, that you do have a lot of working class protagonists.

There’s also, in the seventies, that wave of feminist science fiction like Doris Lessing and Marge Piercy. Books that I was thinking a lot about as I wrote this.

Another writer that was pretty influential was Walter Tevis, because he wrote The Queen's Gambit and The Man Who Fell To Earth. I was thinking with the Queen's Gambit: he’s written about robots, and he's written about aliens, and now he has this woman who feels in many ways like an alien and a robot. When I read that, I was like, oh–he's done away with the device of showing alienation through an actual alien, and just given us an alienated human. It gave me a stronger sense of what to do with Teresa and how to show her alienation in a way that feels true and relatable.

One other book is They Shoot Horses Don’t They, which is kind of classic Southern California literature. That book was heavy on my mind depicting absurdity, injustice, and exploitation in this enormously colorful and surreal way. In some ways that book is much more openly agitated and mine is more of a simple approach. But I saw the movie a couple of times while I was working on this book. I reread the book and it’s one of my favorites.

Joanne McNeil will appear as a special guest host for the Mark Twain Branch Library's Sci-Fi Short Story Club on Thursday, December 14 at 6 p.m. via Zoom. 

Books by Joanne McNeil

Book cover of Wrong way
Wrong Way
McNeil, Joanne

Book cover for Lurking: How a Person Became a User
Lurking: How a Person Became a User
McNeil, Joanne