On The Grill: Nick Kolakowski on Storytelling, Social Media, and how Hurricane Sandy led to Maxine

Sandra Ruttan: Total geek writer question. You chose to segment this story and allude to missing gaps in Maxine’s history. Did you write those bits or outline what happened during those gaps? 

Nick Kolakowski: I did not write those bits! But I know what happens during them. I’ve been trying mightily over the past few years to curb my impulse to show as much as possible; if you create the right kind of gaps, a reader will stuff an entire world in there—and their world is often just as colorful and interesting as anything you could have dreamed up.

With the gaps (and the time-leaps within them) I also wanted to the abruptness of cutting to Maxine at various ages. I wanted the reader to feel a bit of shock at how she’s progressively ground down throughout much of the book, despite her best efforts. That makes what she does more understandable.

Sandra Ruttan: What inspired you to choose this segmented approach to the story? How much of this decision was inspired by the need to put the academics and AI on the page throughout? 

Nick Kolakowski: Many years ago, I read an award-winning novel by Peter Carey titled “The True History of the Kelly Gang.” It’s a stunningly innovative book; if you didn’t realize that it was fiction, you’d think you were reading the actual diary of the outlaw Ned Kelly. To further blur the lines between fact and fiction, it’s also bookended by academic essays.

That made me fall in love with the concept of “fictional biography,” and I wanted to put it into practice at some point. By using “academic research” as a framing device, I could set up a second story-thread that eventually shows the full consequences of Maxine’s actions; plus it would allow me a little bit more leeway in terms of larger world-building. To have Maxine pause and talk about Native American tribes getting a nuke, or the flooded streets of Manhattan, might have come off as an exposition dump; but layering those details into a bit of academic paper comes off as a bit more natural.

Sandra Ruttan: You have a reference in the story to the death of democracy due to social networking. Lay out your theory on how social media is destroying democracy for us.

Nick Kolakowski: Social media means there’s no respite for any of us; we’re constantly being bombarded with messaging. Democracy depends on people hopefully pausing to think through their choices, and we’re losing that ability, thanks to this screaming digital firehose in our faces all day—it’s making us emotional and reactive when society depends on thinking.

Sandra Ruttan: This is a wild story. What came first, the story idea or Maxine?

Nick Kolakowski: The idea of Maxine as guarding convoys of self-driving trucks through a lawless New York—that was the first idea, and I originally tried it out as a short story, way back in 2014. From there, I stayed interested in how she ended up running such a dangerous job… and the story exploded out from there.

SR: As a male writer, how did you approach writing Maxine?

NK: Very carefully—I wanted to get it right. My beta readers were all women, and I listened to whatever they told me in terms of what I missed.

SR: Okay, let’s cast the movie. Who would you want to play Maxine? Preacher? Rodrigo? Brad? Mark Stevens?

NK: Oof, that’s a tough one. Preacher is definitely a Woody Harrelson/Ron Perlman type—gruff, sarcastic, but with a warm heart underneath the layers of iron and bullshit. Someone actually asked me who I’ve pictured for Rodrigo; I’d have to say Diego Luna, although Rodrigo isn’t nearly as brave as Luna’s “Rogue One” character. Brad could be any actor capable of playing a lovable idiot; Mark Stevens is a Michael Shannon type.

Maxine is the hardest, though. Now that I’ve walked around the house a few times, thinking about it, I’d have to say Mary Elizabeth Winstead. If you watch that one season of “Fargo” she’s in, or that “Cloverfield” sequel, she’s definitely someone who’d beat you to death with her own prosthetic arm in order to ensure her family’s survival.

SR: This is a pretty action-packed story, but at the same time you weave in a lot of commentary. You definitely have some things to say about socialism and poverty. What inspired these references? How much of your own political views informed this story? 

NK: I’m pretty liberal. I think when you create these huge dichotomies between rich and poor, you’re begging for Guillotine Time, simply because the poor won’t stay repressed forever. Usually my books don’t edge overtly into political territory but politics and economy are so deeply woven into how Maxine becomes who she is, it’s pretty much unavoidable as a topic.

SR: The rich do seem to be surviving in this story, but do you think that Maxine would have had the survival instincts she had if she’d had money? If this had been a world where money had been eliminated how do you think things would have been different for Maxine?

NK: Yep, definitely. So much of her life has been formed by spending her entire life on poverty’s jagged edge; if she’d been rich, she wouldn’t have had to learn to shoot, or any of the hundred other things that allow her to survive in an increasingly rough environment.

Of course, money also doesn’t save people in this book. At the very beginning, one character says to another that those with money always survive, but when even Manhattan becomes a hell-scape, that’s simply no longer true. The rich can retreat into a “luxury bunker” like the one glimpsed midway through the book, but that’s not exactly a life, per se.

SR: Global warming is a reality in this future world. What inspired you to incorporate this into the fabric of Maxine’s story?

NK: Hurricane Sandy wrecked my neighborhood. It destroyed big swaths of my city. I didn’t start writing “Maxine” in its immediate aftermath, but when you live through a big event like that, and you see the black water filling peoples’ homes, and a whole city plunged into darkness, it’s an experience that will find its way into your writing, whether you like it or not.

At this point, that sort of destruction is going to become the everyday reality. I don’t think you can write a narrative set decades from now without describing flooded streets and dead crops and climate refugees heading north. It might not happen in the extreme way that I described, but I felt the book would’ve been weirdly empty if I hadn’t placed some kind of destruction in the background.

SR: Now, in this book, the United States no longer exists in its current form, but it still seems like Canada is intact. What is it about the U.S. that makes vulnerable? Do you think current politics makes it easier for people to believe in the U.S. splitting apart?

NK: We’ve always been a nation of polarities. Farmers vs. urban-dwellers, north vs. south, the settled East vs. the Wild West… centuries ago, in the Federalist Papers, you even have James Madison arguing that the United States might eventually become too big to hold together effectively, and he might have been right.

When we still had space to expand out, and when communication wasn’t instant, we maybe had enough “safe gap” between all of our different factions—but now we’re all at each other’s throats. It’s very easy to see a collapse, but the big question is what form it’ll take. This isn’t 1860, where you have two factions neatly divided by geography; these days, all of our groups are mixed together.  

SR: Perhaps your strongest commentary is on technology itself. You really point to the idea that we’re creating the things that will destroy us. I was having some 2001: A Space Odyssey flashes. How worried are you about how technology is changing the way we live? Do you have concerns about being spied on by your phone? What worries you about our reliance on technology?

NK: I think we’re becoming too reliant on technology that’s designed to strip-mine our privacy for profit. We all love what many of these machines and apps can do for us, and we don’t really think about the eventual consequences of having, say, one or two corporations know virtually everything about us.

When we rely on our phones to serve as our “second brains,” so to speak, our own cognition begins to weaken. I remember very few phone numbers now, whereas in the 90s I had the numbers of pretty much everyone I knew memorized. It’s the same with navigation—I feel I had a much better intuitive grasp of how to move through cities on my own, before the advent of Google Maps on mobile devices. If you ask an executive at Google about this, they might say that they’re taking care of “mundane details” while freeing you up to use your brain for “bigger things,” but I still think we’re creating an over-reliance on these machines that’s going to bite us in the collective ass eventually. In “Maxine Unleashes Doomsday,” it’s no coincidence that the one thing that messes up the human race more than anything else is a series of EMP blasts that erases some of the world’s core databases.

SR: Just for fun, if aliens had landed on page 222, how would Maxine have reacted? Could you see her taking over the alien ship and getting out of dodge or taking the aliens down? Or joining forces with the aliens to conquer the world?

NK: I feel like Maxine would have taken a wait-and-see attitude on any alien invaders. If they didn’t mess with her, she’d probably hang out in the hills and let them do their thing. But if they messed with her… well, she’d probably start figuring out how to best put a severed alien head on the nearest pole. 

Nick Kolakowski is the author of “Maxine Unleashes Doomsday” and “Boise Longpig Hunting Club” (Down & Out Books) as well as the “Love & Bullets” trilogy of novellas (from Shotgun Honey). His love of all things crime fiction extends back to when he was given a dogeared copy of “Trouble Is My Business” at the age of 10. He lives and writes in New York City.