Ali: Thanks so much for letting me interview you about External Forces!
Ali: External Forces is a very well developed YA Militaristic Dystopian story. Where does your knowledge for the armed service lingo and social structure come from?
Deborah: Most of it came from research – watching movies and reading fictionalized accounts and then following it up by reading posts on military websites and asking veterans questions online to weed out the Hollywood from the true experience. I connected with a US Marine Sergeant based out of 29 Palms in California and spent one of the most interesting days I’ve ever had with him and his wife. She comes from a military family and her perspective was just as valuable as his. As well as answering a million questions, they drove me around the marine base and he showed me the type of vehicle he’d been in when he narrowly survived an IED explosion. It was a humbling experience.
Ali: It’s very hard to write a unique Dystopian novel these days with the market being flooded with them, what do you feel is the strong points of this tale that make it standout from others?
Deborah: I’ve always been a fan of future fiction which extrapolates from today, William Gibson being my personal favourite, so as I imagined a near future I strove to create one that was all too horribly possible. There was no singular event that changed things; even the meteor in my story is not cataclysmic enough on its own. What I imagined was a whole host of smaller disasters happening rather than one environmental or societal change occurring in a vacuum. What I hope stands out (and becomes more apparent in Acceleration and Opposition) is that life is complex. There is no simplistic narrative that will lead us to dystopia or utopia. There is not one enemy, there is not one problem, there is not one single wall that needs to be torn down, there is not one hero who can change the world for us. My characters are not destined to greatness. They need to choose who they are going to be and what they stand for.
The other thing I hope readers notice is that I really tried not to make shit up. There’s not much in my books that isn’t already on the verge of existence, or based on a historical event. Whatever I made up in my head, I then did some research and without exception found it already existed or there was a prototype in the works. It’s hard to stay one step ahead of the future, it keeps catching up to me. So I hope that my dystopian future is familiar is a strangely warped way.
Ali: The Special Forces personnel and the soldiers have a very liberal and rebellious characteristic. Why is it that you gave the military a fractious role?
Deborah: Because I hope that it’s true. I hope that the real soldiers with boots on the ground have the where-with-all to look around and say “this is fucked” and to alter course even within the constraints of a military chain of command. They have lives on the line – their own and others – which can mean they have the most and the least to lose and can make their choices in the purest manner. Not everyone makes a good choice, sometimes it’s a Heart of Darkness sequel, or Abu Ghraib revisited, or a self-serving military coup. But I like to believe that there are good people in the military who will do the right thing and kick the correct ass.
Ali: Jay and Jess have a very strong bond, it’s almost like a sibling connection, was that bond the same in your earlier drafts?
Deborah: I conceived of Jess and Jay almost at the same time, before Matt or any of the other characters. I couldn’t imagine Jess without Jay there to set her straight, and you’re right, it is like a sibling relationship. I will confess that in an earlier draft Jay was killed off, rather than injured. I was writing the scene and tears were streaming down my face as I wrote. My daughter, who had read a draft, asked me what was wrong, and I sobbed out that I’d just killed Jay. She said I could NOT kill Jay and successfully pleaded for his life. A surreal moment if there ever was one.
Ali: You did an amazing job of building Jess’s sense of self, how she works with others and her understanding of how other people work. Jess’s impact on the situations which arise and the escalation of the story is subtle yet very successful with tension building; were you concerned about the pacing?
Deborah: The only area where I deliberately thought about the pacing of Jess’ character development was with her intimacy with Matt. The rest seemed to flow naturally as the story progressed. I did not want them having sex to be the culmination of their relationship, because it should really be near the beginning of it. But I didn’t want them to rush into it either because that would be unrealistic for Jess. Writing for a YA audience that would mostly be young women, I wanted to explore some the steps along the way and describe how it could be pleasurable, not shameful, and one part of a healthy relationship. The real culmination of their relationship is about trust, not sex.
Ali: Matt has the full list of Book Boyfriend qualities. He’s smart, witty, sexy, strong, and a touch of a bad boy. What do you think are Sergeant Anderson’s faults?
Deborah: He is too sure of himself. He hasn’t had to deal with failure in a big way which makes him unsympathetic to failure in others. Despite, and perhaps because of, his leadership abilities and strong moral compass, which gave him a clear path in life, he hasn’t had to question his own purpose.
Ali: The other characters of the Black Ops Team have an intensely synergistic energy. While Jess is revealed to be a Deviant they all have certain skills that seem not quite “normal”. Is this to minimize the abilities Jess has and to bring the others up to her level?
Deborah: I didn’t write those characters with that sort of intention, they came into being with those skills as part of each character. To be part of that team, to make it into Special Forces, they would have to be extraordinary. And kickass. It wasn’t to minimize Jess in any way, but, yes, they needed to be her equals on some level, so they could both support her and call her out on her issues. As the story progresses, they each have their own choices to face and destinies to create, so they all needed to be strong in their own ways.
Ali: You spared no expense in the brutality of “Americans” and “America” in their view of the Genetics Integrity Act. Is there any current social commentary that you are making with that choice?
Deborah: Well… I’m Canadian, and there is some (possibly unfounded) smugness in that identity. Bigotry is not unique to the United States, but it is so fundamentally contrary to my perceived values of that country that it is always shocking whenever I come across it. Intolerance is already tolerated and defended to such an extent that I didn’t have to extrapolate very far. American history is rife with manufactured xenophobia and it persists today – it’s the easiest way to get military funding approved. Genocide happens all over the world, in far more brutal ways, and it gets reported on (sometimes) as a sound-byte in North America. Were genocide to happen here in North America, I don’t think the rest of the world would react at all.
On the believability of the act getting passed, that was just as easy to come to. The Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate on evolution was flabbergasting. The election or appointment of wildly inappropriate people to critical positions of influence over funding of scientific research, and education in general, is astonishing. Right now, textbooks are being rewritten to obliterate historical fact or sound scientific theory in favor of advancing a particular agenda – religious or political as the case may be. I do think that generally intelligent people can be lulled into believing almost anything if they are not vigilant in their critical thinking. Just look at the recent attack ads on Planned Parenthood. Anyone with two IQ points to rub together knows that they are not selling baby parts, and yet…
Ali: Why did you choose to sacrifice so many characters in the story and make the bold move to allow such a high body count?
Deborah: People died because that is what felt real to me. Babies are killed because they aren’t the “right” gender. Citizens are killed by their own police forces because of their skin color, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs or because they spoke out. Soldiers get killed for defending what they believe in, or for simply being in the wrong place. It would have felt false to tell this story without the reality of death.
Ali: If you were to review your own novel what would you have to say about it now that the book has been out for almost 2 years?
Deborah: Too much to say and nothing at all. I plan on re-releasing it with some minor revisions when I publish Acceleration. I have a new cover ready to go with a look that will tie them all together.
Ali: When will Acceleration be released?
Deborah: I am terribly overdue but life has sidetracked me, repeatedly. It is written, I’m in revision. I’m on it!
External Forces Synopsis:
Treason. Betrayal. Heartbreak.
A lot can happen to a girl between
her first kiss and her first kill.
It’s 100 years since the Genetic Integrity Act was passed and America closed its borders to prevent genetic contamination. Now only the enemy, dysgenic Deviants, remain beyond the heavily guarded border. The Department of Evolution carefully guides the creation of each generation and deviations from the divine plan are not permitted.
When 16-year-old Jess begins to show signs of deviance she enlists in the Special Forces, with her best friend Jay, in a desperate bid to evade detection by the Devotees. Jess is good with data, not so good with a knife. So when the handsome and secretive Sergeant Matt Anderson selects her for his Black Ops squad, Jess is determined to figure out why.
As her deviance continues to change her, Jess is forced to decide who to trust with her deadly secret. Jess needs to know what’s really out there, in the Deviant wasteland over the border, if she has any hope of making it to her 17th birthday. Because if the enemy doesn’t kill her first, the Department of Evolution probably will.
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External Forces Excerpt:
I haven’t slept in forty-eight hours.
It’s part of the Special Operations Assessment and Selection course, twenty-eight days of grueling work. The two days of no sleep are meant to disorient us, part of discarding our former selves. There are three hundred of us trying to figure out how to do what we’re told, when we’re told to, and how to do it correctly. Jay and I weren’t assigned to the same platoon, which was unexpected. I’m in the “civilian” platoon; we’re the ones with skills that don’t generally require brute force. I think Jay is in some kind of elite group because I haven’t seen him, I’ve only seen the G-men platoon. They are all about brute force; they’re the ones that opted for genetic enhancement at age thirteen without the supervision of the Devotees. But Special Forces is, well, special, so they have to prove they’ve got more than muscle and I’ve gotta prove I’ve got more than a quick mind.
If I don’t make it to Special Forces, my life expectancy in the regular army could be pretty short. And if I’m a complete washout, I’ll have to go to my assessment with the Devotees and they’ll find out about me, making my life expectancy even shorter. I seriously need to pass.
Zero dark thirty is when I have to haul myself out of bed in the so-called morning. My drill sergeant has been yelling at me for most of the past two days. The word “why” has been surgically removed from everyone’s vocabulary. Any individual hesitation in following orders means at least one private is getting smoked, if not the whole platoon, which usually means push-ups. We’ve done a lot of push-ups. I stare straight ahead as the drill sergeant walks by me and continues down the row of privates. I made the mistake of “eyeballing” him yesterday.
Never. Eyeball. A drill sergeant.
Three weeks earlier—May, 2125
My mother thinks I’m a Deviant.
It’s the kind of thing that can really throw a girl for a loop.
The Devotees missed it when I was born, she said, but one day they would come for me. That was a few years ago, she didn’t know I was home when I overheard her; I got out of there lickety-split.
And it’s not as if I haven’t noticed the way my mother looks at me sometimes. If they had taken me when they had the chance, maybe her other baby would still be with her. I’m pretty sure that’s what goes through her head when she looks at me.
So the early assessment notice wasn’t entirely unexpected. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Lots of kids are called for early assessments and nothing happens; they show up at school the next day. Some of them are all excited because they got called to become a Devotee.
But some of them, well, they don’t come back.
I’m in the parking lot of my high school, West Liberty. It’s prom night, and I came with my best friend, Jay. He’s still inside; he likes this sort of thing. I haven’t told him the early assessment notice came this afternoon. I didn’t want to ruin tonight for him. The humidity has made my dress even more uncomfortable than it was inside. Jay owes me. At least he won’t mind if I go home; it’s not that kind of date.
A car door slams shut. There aren’t a lot of kids who can afford the fuel to drive their own car to the prom.
I take a step back. Blake is a popular kid, with the right look, the right home, the right pedigree.
Despite my attempts to blend in and stay in the background, Blake noticed me this year. When I didn’t respond like all the other girls do, I became his target.
His car keys jangle as he drops them in his jacket pocket. I stand still; maybe he hasn’t seen me.
“Hey, freak,” he calls as he comes around the blue pickup I was hoping would shield me. “Not leaving, are you?”
I smell alcohol as Blake backs me up against the truck.
His slicked-back hair smells slightly astringent, and his tongue slides over his upper lip as he looks me over from top to bottom. A shiver of revulsion goes through me. I can’t imagine what girls like about him. I can hear some voices, but they’re at the other end of the parking lot. It’s just me and Blake.
“I’ve got an early graduation present for you,” he says quietly. His face is close to mine, and I can see beads of perspiration on his forehead. Slick from the humidity, his hand glides down my bare shoulder, as if he’s entitled to touch me.
I don’t think I want a present from Blake.
I’m surprised when my hand moves. There is a wet sound as Blake’s head snaps back.
Blood spurts, and it seems as if time has gone into slow motion. The blood sprays toward me. I move my head to the side to avoid it, and watch it slowly drift by, suspended in the air.
I turn back to Blake and a thrill zips through me. Thick, glossy blood creeps down his chin from his mashed nose. His mouth is open in shock; blood colors his teeth and gums. He moves sluggishly, and each blink seems to take effort.
Drip by slow drip, the blood falls from his chin onto his shirt. Fascinated, I watch each droplet burst on his crisp white collar.
A wet plonk hits my forehead as a sudden coldness envelops me. The grin I’m shocked to find on my face sags. Fat droplets of rain release the pressure in the air and mix with the blood on Blake’s shiny shoes.
Hands to his face, he doubles over as time suddenly speeds up again. The rain pelts down now. I take two steps to the side and run. I hear a sob and realize it’s me.
What just happened?
It’s the morning after prom, and Jay saunters along beside me as we walk back to my house. I met him half way, as per my usual. His t-shirt is a bit wrinkled, but that’s on purpose, to go with jeans that are a little baggy in back. He’s over six feet and gets asked if he’s a model, which he laughs at, but I know he’s pleased. He could be quite popular if he wanted, but he hangs out with me instead.
Jay and me are Fifth Generation. We’re the ones born between 2100 and 2120. We found each other in the seventh grade. We were the last two kids left when we all paired up for gym class. He asked me why I wasn’t moving when we were supposed to be heading out to the field. I explained that I was trying to activate my special powers so that I could use them to transport me far away. Usually that kind of talk would send kids running, and they’d whisper that I must be a Deviant. But not Jay. He blinked at me, then asked if I would take him with me, should my special powers ever actually work. We’ve been best friends since, and tell each other pretty much everything.
“So, can you come to the thing?”
I think I’m supposed to know what he’s talking about.
“Uh, when is it again?” I stall for time. What thing?
I push my hair behind my ears to help me think. It doesn’t always work. I have shoulder-length brown hair, parted on the side. My no-nonsense look is how I think of it. I still don’t know what the thing is.
“Wait. Jess. You’re joking, right?” Jay says with a laugh that’s on the edge of anger.
“I’m sorry.” I do my best pleading cringe. “I’m a little distracted.”
The early assessment and whatever that was with Blake last night are the distractions. I can’t quite believe I punched him, broke his nose by the look of it. He’s probably going to have two black eyes. But more than that punch, as surprising as it was, is the way time seemed to slow down around me. I want to say it was shock, or some kind of temporary fugue state, but that’s not what it was. Something happened.
“My mother’s thing, remember?” Jay practically yells at me.
“Oh, that,” I say with relief. Jay’s mother is hosting a party to celebrate his seventeenth birthday. That’s what the thing is. It’s going to be awful.
“We met up, what? Five minutes ago? And you’re already trying to drive me crazy?” He pinches my butt. Hard. He’s pretty worked up about this party.
I yelp and dance around. “No way. You are not blaming your crazy on me.” I give him a solid punch in the gut. “You had years of exposure to your mother before we even met.”
I go rock climbing, so my arms are strong. I’ve never needed to go to the gym to work out and “stay in shape” like some of the other girls do. I’m five feet ten and a half inches and the coach at school said I have an athletic body; he tried to get me to go out for track and field. I don’t like the idea of people watching me like that.
But hitting Jay is like hitting concrete. He doesn’t even notice my punch.
“And of course I’m coming, I already told you. That’s why I didn’t know what thing you were talking about. I thought you meant some other thing.”
“You didn’t actually confirm with my mother,” he complains, “and I know how you feel about people, in general.”
“I don’t have a problem with people, in general. Just the idiots,” I say. “And your mother.”
It’s kind of a toss-up, I suppose. A mother like mine, who actively avoids you and has already decided you’re not worth the effort, or one who pays too much attention and has too many expectations.
Jay nudges me as an unfamiliar dark-haired boy, a bit younger than we are, walks toward us. He doesn’t look right at us, but he flashes us two crossed fingers with his right hand.
I look up ahead and see them coming our way. Three Devotees. Jay and I mumble the greeting in unison, “Blood of our blood, flesh of our flesh, soul of our soul,” and we look down as they brush past us in their crisp white lab coats. It’s best not to be noticed.
The Devotees work for the Department of Evolution—everyone just calls it Devo—and they do the work of Creation in partnership with God. The Department of Evolution is under the direction of Secretary Galton. Basically, she’s God’s voice here on Earth. In the midst of the genetic revolution a hundred years ago, when the Genetic Integrity Act closed America’s borders, strict protocols for border biosecurity were instituted to stop genetic contamination. But we were still in danger of being overrun by the Deviants on the other side. Galton took control, ordered the fortification of our borders and gave the military the authority to do what they needed to do. Most people agree; she did what was necessary for our survival by relinquishing certain powers to the military to ensure our protection. Including the ability to create proprietary, genetically enhanced soldiers. The G-men. Since then, Galton has been leading us through the current stage of evolution, Regenesis, removing unwanted traits and improving and enhancing our best traits with the guidance of God.
In Social Biology class, Devotee Theresa taught us that we must all work for the common good, whether we like it or not. The less intelligent are more fertile and must be discouraged from breeding. Only those with desirable traits are allowed to produce the next generation.
There’s this section, practically a whole semester of tenth grade, where we studied pedigree charts, and DNA, RNA, proteins, and ribosomes. DNA is a double helix that carries the genetic information for all life. If only one part of one gene is wrong, it can create a whole generation of imbeciles, and that is not in God’s plan. Or in Devo’s plan. All Devotees have that DNA double helix tattooed on their forearm, as a constant reminder of their purpose in life.
That’s what the crossed fingers warning represents, the double helix tattoo.
We come up to the old Palace Theater. It’s been shut down for a long time, and the large sign that hangs out front lost its first A, so it says PLACE. Someone found a way in down the side alley, and now kids hang out there. They say, “Meet me at the place.” If they’re overheard or an adult sees a message, it only says “the place.” So far it’s stayed secret. I’ve heard they have illegal sim-seats in there, ones that can scramble the biometrics and mask what you’re doing.
“Jess,” Jay says as he slows right down, “something’s wrong.”
“It’s time to wake up!” a skinny boy with curly red hair yells. He’s standing on a wooden crate, and people are hesitantly milling about. “People are dying! Out there, children are starving, and you send them poison. People are sick, and you send them plagues. The blood of our blood is on your hands!”
There are gasps at his blasphemy, but a few people cautiously move toward him in morbid fascination. His eyes are wild, there’s spittle on his lips. Jay grabs my arm to tug me backward.
When the bullet enters the boy’s left temple, it’s as if he doesn’t know it’s there for a moment.
He’s about to yell, his mouth opens, his lips form a word he will never say. Then he topples backward, and I hear the terrible thud as his head hits the ground. The people closest to him quickly step back. No one screams, no one looks up to see the Guardian with the rifle on the roof across the street. Everyone wants to blend in.
Another Guardian comes toward the Palace. The Guardians work for Devo and protect us from Deviants. The stiff collar somehow makes his slightly rumpled, brown uniform shirt look crisp. The yellow double helix is on the front of his cap, and above his left shirt pocket.
“Move along,” he says. “It was just a Deviant.”
We all know that the plain fact of his yelling out crazy stuff in the street like that is proof of his deviance. It’s what happens sometimes, but it’s most prevalent during adolescence. The deviance manifests and people become dangerous, psychotic Deviants, intent on our destruction.
The Guardian rests his hand on the butt of the holstered pistol hanging from his belt and waits for the brown panel truck with the whooping siren we can hear approaching.
Jay swears at him under his breath and keeps hold of my arm. We hurry off with the rest of the crowd, wanting to move as far away as possible. I look back in time to see somebody dart in behind the Guardian, dip a hand in the boy’s blood, and leave an angry red handprint on the front of the Palace Theater. A red hand. I’ve heard the whispers but never thought it was true. As I stare at it, I bumble into Mrs. Yamoto, one of my neighbors. She walks fast, gripping her daughter’s hand tightly. Last year, I saw the brown truck with the double helix on the side parked in front of her house. The Guardians had come to take her son.
That was his name.
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