Hypertext Interview with Margaret Wappler
Interviewed by Christine Rice
A few chapters into Margaret Wappler’s surreal (and, at the same time, totally realistic) novel, Neon Green, a family wins an extended backyard visit from a spaceship. In light of this, I mentioned to Margaret that, in the mid-1970s, our neighborhood had a twilight encounter with a craft that momentarily hovered over our neighborhood kickball game.
Then, and at the expense of sounding like a total crackpot, I asked, “Have you ever had an encounter with a UFO?”
After a few beats (wherein I imagined Margaret rolling her eyes), she politely replied that, no, she hadn’t. But, she continued, during her research she did read about many UFO sightings in the Midwest, mainly in the 1950s and sixties and some in the 1970s, and that my neighborhood’s collective experience did fit many of the same patterns: a craft not of this world that hovers and makes some unusual movements, very unlike a plane or helicopter.
In the end, all of is neither here nor there. What’s important is that you read Neon Green because it’s completely unique. It isn’t another one of those souless dystopian novels with a wildly illogical plot. It doesn’t keep the audience at arm’s length. It gathers you in, tangles you up. It is, at its core, a novel about family and the way family deals (or doesn’t deal) with crisis, with illness, with loss.
Margaret and I spoke earlier this year, shortly after Neon Green was published.
CHRISTINE RICE: Why did you set Neon Green in 1994?
MARGARET WAPPLER: I wanted a time that I had warm, nostalgic feelings towards, to contrast with the spaceship’s chillier sci-fi tones. The year 1994 also feels like the last of a certain era – the Pre-Internet Age, when you couldn’t Google the answers to every last mystery. I came of age in the ‘90s – I’m not saying it was a better time, or a more innocent time or any of that, but it’s a decade that I personally miss, and which I haven’t seen much of in fiction. I also got a big kick out of taking the authenticity-obsessed mid-‘90s and dropping something otherworldly but still crassly corporate in the middle of it. Here are spaceships controlled by a U.S. corporation who will only let the middle-class get one if they win a sweepstakes. That’s pretty gross, according to the cultural ethos of 1994.
CR: Did you ever doubt your decision to set it in 1994? And if you did, what convinced you otherwise?
MW: This is possibly selective memory at work here, but I don’t remember seriously doubting it. There were too many good reasons to set it at that time, too many thematic tie-ins. For instance, the environmental movement in the mid ‘90s. Everyone thought Clinton and Gore would usher in better legislation; that renewed optimism plays into the plot and the characters in direct and indirect ways. Ernest, the environmentalist patriarch of the family, is feeling more empowered, and well, self-righteous, because of that renewed vigor.
CR: That is interesting…considering the current political climate.
MW: If this book was set in 2017, with Trump as president, Ernest would be completely terrified. Let’s be real though: You don’t have to be a diehard environmentalist to be scared of what Trump and his administration will do, or not do, in terms of climate change. I’m sure they will attempt to loosen or destroy every safeguard currently in place. In that political reality, I can see Ernest rising up for battle. He’d be inspired by the fight. I hope we can all summon that kind of fire for the next four years, if Trump makes it that long.
CR: Do you recall the first moment when you envisioned this story? Was there a hair trigger idea or did it develop more organically?
MW: I usually get story ideas from images. For Neon Green, I saw a classic B movie flying saucer parked in a suburban back yard – not a suburb of McMansion affluence and not King of the Hill working class but something in between. An older, statelier suburb, with well-educated liberals. A family was gathered in the grass looking at the spaceship and they all had different expressions and not one of them was shock. The expressions ranged from irritated (Ernest) to amused (Cynthia) to elated (Gabe) to slightly freaked out but trying to play it cool (Alison). Initially, I wrote to find out why they’d all be on such different pages about it. Pretty quickly, I knew what I wanted the ending to be but I had to figure out how the story would organically arrive there.
CR: Have you always been fascinated by space and UFOs?
MW: Now that I’m thinking about it, some of my most seminal childhood moments involved space of some kind. In fourth grade, my teacher wheeled out the TV for us to watch the Challenger launch and a few minutes later, we were having a very shocking talk about death. The movie Space Camp was the first one I ever saw at a slumber party. On Beta, nonetheless! Thinking about space, for me, is also the straightest line to awe and wonder. Maybe it’s corny, but I get shivers reading about the discoveries of new planets. I don’t read those articles unless I want to get a touch freaked out!
CR: Can you comment on your exploration into how humans react to change, to distress in Neon Green?
MW: Neon Green isn’t so much about aliens; it’s about how humans react to aliens. It’s about how families in distress act, and act out. You can learn a lot about a person by seeing how they handle the unknown, whether the unknown is another person, the future, or something unknown in themselves, emotionally or physically. Of course, the Unknown is also tightly wrapped up with The Other. How do we approach The Other – with distrust, empathy, enthusiasm? Why does one person get panicked while another person gets excited?
CR: The Allen parents–Cynthia and Ernest–have spent their entire lives working to improve the environment. Sometimes, the battle seems hopeless. Is that how you feel about the current state of the earth? That humans have done too much damage to turn things around? Or are you more hopeful than that?
MW: Depends on the day! There is just no way to know if we’ve done too much damage. It might sound strange but the damage isn’t as depressing to me as our denial that we’ve done it. When I wrote Neon Green, I thought a lot about climate change denial, and how that position has been embraced by many on the religious right. It struck me as an odd group to deny something simply because they can’t see it. One of the ideas rattling around in the book is how and why some of us deny the existence of anything we can’t see or touch – whether that means holes in the ozone, or gods in the sky, or aliens that may or may not be hiding in a spaceship.
CR: Like Cynthia and Ernest in their middle age, the spaceship has become tattered, a bit shabby. Can you talk about how the spaceship developed in your imagination?
MW: I always wanted it to be a bit ragtag. I like to call it the Spirit Air of flying saucers (sorry, Spirit, don’t sue me). It felt realistic because these spaceships have logged serious miles. Also, I wanted to tap into that banality that all objects eventually suffer from, no matter how new or futuristic they were in the beginning. I did experiment with how much power the spaceship would wield; I wanted it to have some degree of power but to also be vulnerable in certain ways, much like humans are.
CR: Neon Green is set in a fictional suburb of Chicago called Prairie Park and is as integral to the narrative as the characters. Tell me about how the city of Prairie Park developed on the page? You live in LA but you are from the Midwest, yes? How is Prairie Park similar or different from your hometown?
MW: Prairie Park is pretty close to Oak Park, the suburb just west of downtown Chicago where I grew up in the 80s and 90s. (I moved to LA in 2002.) Oak Park was an appealing template because it’s beautiful and idiosyncratic. It has real character as this tiny liberal utopia. It’s not the cookie-cutter suburbs; it’s old guard due to its close proximity to the city. I wanted a setting where people are sophisticated and worldly but they also value safety and security. In the book, you see how different characters react when they think that safety has been compromised.
CR: The father, Ernest, has trouble living in the moment and compromising his standards. That, along with a host of other irritating habits, puts him at odds with his wife Cynthia and teenagers Alison and Gabe. At the same time, he is bracingly self-aware. Tell me how Ernest’s character developed. Did he surprise you in any way?
MW: I’m not going to lie: In earlier drafts, Ernest was a total pain in the ass. I hear from readers sometimes that they hated him and I always want to say – but he’s grown so much! His self-awareness, his humor and the changes he goes through at the end of the book all surprised me, in the sense that I had to dig into him to find those softer parts. He’s obviously a very flawed and demanding character but I think we’ve all got parts of Ernest inside of us. We all have those personal, political or cultural dogmas that we can’t let go of till they’re forcibly pried from us.
CR: At one point, the spaceship is in distress and has run an extension cord to the Allen’s house. After some discussion Cynthia yanks out the cord.
“What do you think is happening in there?” Cynthia whispered. The ship’s windows were dark, as always.
“What if it’s exactly like our house in there?” Cynthia asked.
“What do you mean? An exact replica?”
“Not exactly. What if there’s nothing futuristic in there beyond the hardware it takes to fly that thing around? What if there’s a couch, a TV, a rug? A tacky painting above the mantelpiece? A junk drawer.”
Ernest laughed. “Is this supposed to comfort me right now?”
Cynthia didn’t seem to hear what he said; she was caught in her vision. “They wanted to escape their ordinary lives to look into ours. Are we their fantasy? Do they want to be us?”
In different ways, each member of the Allen family wants to escape – Ernest wants a cleaner planet, Alison and Gabe long to shed the constraints of teenage-dom and their boring suburban lives, Cynthia is trapped in a body that is betraying her. Everyone is in distress. As these conflicts progress, the second half of the novel becomes decidedly darker than the first half.
Did you know where the novel was going when you first started it? In other words, as a reader, I felt surprised by the events. Were you surprised by the events that started to unfold or do you wield more control over the plot?
MW: I had a concrete sense of the feeling of the end, as well as a foggy sense of the actual events, but it was still hard to figure out the best way to get there. One of my favorite quotes about endings is one from Joyce Carol Oates; she says an ending should feel “surprising but inevitable.” I had to find the right balance between those two notions. It had to feel earned, and organically developed. I’m not sure that surprise or control had much to do with it. I thought more about listening and tuning in, like the way a musician might play a note and immediately hear if it resonates with the rest, or if it sounds dissonant. I definitely played some wrong notes in earlier drafts (and I’m sure a few survived).
CR: Neon Green investigates ‘invasions’ of all kinds. At one point, Cynthia recalls the moment she realized she was pregnant with Gabe:
It was the Big Bang in the body. Combustion. Light. White-blue light but not cold. A series of cellular replications, exploding again and again. She loved to close her eyes and look at this image, this density made from her but still totally separate. Eventually as the fetus grew inside of her, the light poured into the physical creature, which changed what she saw when she closed her eyes–she imagined the curl of his fist, his fresh tiny lungs– but she never lost track of the way it felt in the beginning. Like a secret between her and Gabe.
For the moment, she was stable enough to drag herself to the bathroom window. Looking through the dusty glass, she caught the alien ship with one neon green light pointed downwards, blanching a spot of grass.
She waited for the nausea to build up again, and wondered what kind of light was in her now. Was cancer a light or was it an absence of light? Maybe it was a black light, picking up little white flecks in her system and highlighting them as ultraviolet. Was it a searchlight, sweeping back and forth over her insides, looking for more vulnerable tissue? Did it permeate the cancer cells themselves so so that they radiated a bitter white, like burning magnesium that she remembered from college chemistry class? Or was the color more like the neon green of the spaceship, shining out on the light of the grass. The two greens were nearly indistinguishable. One natural; one alien, but nearly the same. The cancer cells were almost like her other cells, with one catastrophic shift in code.
The moments describing Cynthia’s illness and pain are so poignantly and beautifully written. Can you talk about how you developed those moments on the page? In other words, did you research the effects of cancer and the treatment of cancer? Or did you have a more personal experience?
MW: Thank you, Chris! I researched breast cancer – chemotherapy treatments in particular – but it’s also, sadly, from personal experience. My father died from a rare brain tumor when I was 15, after five years of surgeries, chemo and radiation. The way Cynthia’s cancer plays out is very different from my father’s but the essence of the experience is still there. The scene excerpted above juxtaposes early pregnancy with cancer because both of those experiences have been scientifically tracked and yet they’re still mysterious. They’re examples of the body taking over and doing something creative, literally, in one case, and then destructive in the other. The book plays around with how close death and life can be; how our bodies hold the codes for both. All those tiny mysteries that your body, spirit, the person next to you act out every day are part of what keeps Neon Green revolving.
Pick up a copy of NEON GREEN at UNNAMED PRESS or at your favorite indie bookstore.