K Chess’ novel Famous Men Who Never Lived follows the survivors of nuclear war in an alternate timeline of the United States who are now refugees in our own not-so-parallel New York.
The main character, Hel, confronts a world both recognizable but foreign. While others, like her partner Vikram, attempt to assimilate, Hel refuses to reclaim her former career or create a new life. Instead, she obsessively rereads Vikram’s copy of The Pyronauts―a science fiction masterwork in her world that now only exists as a single flimsy paperback―and becomes determined to create a museum dedicated to preserving the remaining artifacts and memories of her vanished culture.
K Chess’ work has been honored by the Nelson Algren Literary Award and the Pushcart Prize. She was a W.K. Rose Fellow and earned an MFA from Southern Illinois University. She lives with her wife and daughter in Providence, Rhode Island.
This was your first full-length book. What surprised you about the writing or editorial process?
The thing that surprised me the most is how you can figure out something at the end that’s going to be important, and then go back and seed hints of that throughout.
That was really fun for me from a craft perspective because you don’t do that when you’re writing something that’s 12 pages total. In a novel thats hundreds of pages long, you almost forget what you’ve put into the early chapters, but then you can go back and lay down clues that pay off later for the reader and make you look like way more of a genius than you actually are.
In the book’s parallel timeline, the design of, and relationship to, things like cars and computers is totally different. Did you think about technology as you were sketching out the larger narrative?
What you’re talking about was the most fun thing about writing this book for me! I really enjoyed thinking up ways that things could be different and thinking up small changes that, in fact, happened by complete chance.
Technology can feel so predestined in hindsight. We have a hundred years of history with the car. Our whole physical world – the landscape, the way we go to school, the way we go to work, the way that our town centers function – all of that is predicated on car culture. But it could easily have gone a different way.
The other timeline’s designs for computers and the web are totally different. And it didn’t take much in that history for the design changes to lock into place in a way that would seem alien to us. Even things like medical devices are radically different there because of small biases and changes, which is something we’re only starting to interrogate in real life.
What’s one of your favorite bookstores?
One of my favorite bookstores in Dumbo, Brooklyn closed down about 6 years ago. P.S. Bookshop. Do you remember that? They had a cat in there and I added it to my book.
A current bookstore that I really love is Symposium Books in downtown Providence, where I live now. They’ve got mostly new, a little bit of used, some records. They’re really welcoming to browsers. And they do fun events. If you’re ever in Providence, you should definitely drop by.
Did you ever have one of those “my band’s on the radio” moments, where you were walking by a bookstore somewhere and saw your cover?
I had the exact opposite! Right after the book came out, I was traveling for work in the Orlando area. I went out of my way to go to this small independent bookstore, hoping they’d have it on the shelf. And they were like, “Yeah, we have it ordered. We’re going to have it later.” I felt like a big chump for asking about it, but it’s okay. They were super nice.
However, one of the best things about having my book get published is when anyone sends me a text or a picture of it on a shelf somewhere. It’s such a thrill. It doesn’t get old.
I mean, you have no control over those things, and the randomness of where your book ends up is kind of a beautiful thing. People’s reading choices are so dictated by chance. I bet a lot of people picked up this book and hated it, but I bet some people who don’t usually read this kind of thing picked it up and loved it. It’s fun to imagine that.
Who’s a creative person you really admire?
I actually love YouTube creators. There are a lot of people making a lot of money on YouTube, but there are also people who spend a ton of time recording originals, recording covers, building Lego models of Minas Tirith … you know, all these labors of love that get something like 300 hits and you know that doesn’t translate to the amount of time and energy they put into whatever it was they did.
I found this video by chance. It’s this guy in his spare room with plaid curtains behind him covering “True Faith” by New Order, and I literally am half of the hits he’s ever gotten. I hope he knows that he touched somebody, but he’s probably thinking, “Oh man, only 44 listens. That flopped,” you know?
There are so many unsung, unnamed, creative people who – everybody with an unpublished novel in their drawer. So I’m going to put it out to the unnamed today.
Obsession is a consistent thread in your work. What’s your approach to writing about it?
I think obsession is a double-edged sword. Obsession can be the source of a lot of joy as well as dysfunction. And I think that it’s a way through for Hel. Her obsession is not bringing her joy at the moment, but it is the way she’s getting through a difficult time in her life.
But as a writer, I love obsessives. That’s, I guess, what I’m getting at with the YouTube people, you know? They love what they do and they do it whether they’re getting any recognition for it or not.
That’s a beautiful thing about being human and it’s not dark for me, even though sometimes obsession can be dark. I think it’s a tunnel of hope as well.
Has becoming a parent changed your writing schedule at all?
I really like to write at 5 AM, but my daughter gets up at 6 AM. I’m just getting started at that point, so I’ve been writing in the evenings now and it’s not as productive for me. It’s a challenge. I haven’t really solved that problem but I’ve kind of made peace with it.
The startup energy cost is higher in the evening. But a lot of times I’m surprised by what comes out, pleasantly surprised. So it’s not all bad news. Having to do something you never wanted to do can pay off.
What’s the worst advice you ever got as a writer?
I think I got a lot of pressure in graduate school to sort of become more “perfect” at writing before attempting something long. And I don’t think that’s necessary – to kind of wait until you’ve deserved it to take the next step.
Writers should keep challenging themselves and dreaming big, and not feel like they have to do a certain number of years as an apprentice or a journeyman or something like that. Break rules and push forward.
Is that the advice that you give as a writing teacher?
I do. I think people should do what they’re interested in, and not what they’re told others will be interested in. As long as you’re genuinely entertained then you’re probably on firm footing.
But conversely – and this happens to me for sure – if you’re writing a scene and you’re kind of bored and you think, “Okay, let’s get to the next part,” your scene should probably be cut or fixed. If you are boring yourself with what you’re writing, readers will be bored.
Sometimes writing teachers recommend writing about what’s dangerous, writing about what makes you uncomfortable, because that will definitely be the most interesting thing. I don’t think that’s always true, and it can be dangerous for people – if you’re being encouraged to write about your personal trauma by others instead of coming to that naturally, when you really feel ready. I try to hold back and let writers decide that for themselves.
What’s the biggest cliché you see in current speculative fiction or sci-fi?
Hmm, I don’t know. Even in the last five years, more diverse voices have been at the coming to the forefront and I’m seeing really adventurous, avant-garde, interesting, weird stuff. I don’t see anything that makes me roll my eyes and think it’s a cliché. I think we’re doing pretty good.
There’s been a lot of post-apocalyptic stories. But I think now people know they have to be careful and considered about it. Pandemic books that are still coming out are weird and interesting in a way that the ones that were coming out five years ago weren’t
I’m tired of hearing about “Before” and “After” talked about continually in narratives where something happens to change the world, as if there’s this strict line. That’s something that exists in my own book, so I’m picking on myself here too. We do think that way about COVID, Before and After, but also … history is just a series of different Befores. There’s never just one moment that changed everything.
Favorite takeout in Providence?
Piemonte. It’s a pizza place, but they’ve got Kurdish pizza that’s delicious. And they have falafel that’s to die for, so it’s all of your different junk food needs under one roof.
Do you ever listen to music when you write?
I do. It’s gotta be something I already know. I’ve been listening to Thao & The Get Down Stay Down’s 2020 album Temple. It’s super good and came out right after lockdown.
She did one of the first zoom music videos. We’re all tired of zoom now, but this music video is still amazing to watch. It’s choreographed with nine people in all of the different boxes doing really cool things.
What’s one of your favorite smaller museums or cultural spaces?
I love the Worcester Art Museum. I’m from Worcester, Massachusetts, about an hour from Boston, and it is a small museum with a competitive worldwide collection. They’ve got great pre-Columbian art. They’ve got a Monet.
But my favorite thing is The Shipwreck painting you’ll see thinly disguised in my novel. It’s not exactly the same, but there really is a hand sticking out of the water and it gave me chills as a child.
We’re road tripping. Where should we go?
Hmmm … I’m deliberating between the known versus the unknown here. The only time I drove across the country, I took the northern route on I-90, and I think that the Badlands are so amazing. I’d want a road trip to Portland so that we could drive through the Badlands on our way across.
I actually don’t drive. I require really generous road trip companions because I don’t take a shift. I’m like the entertainment, and I pay for gas. I provide playlists. So that’s all I got.
Give us a nonprofit we should donate to.
Providence Streets Coalition – or maybe a similar organization in your area. The newspaper in my city recently did an investigation and reported that over 3,000 pedestrians and cyclists here were hit by cars in the last ten years! That’s super terrifying for me as a parent and community member.
Streets should be for everyone, and people should feel safe out there. Providence Streets Coalition says “more mobility choices and people-centered roads will result in less traffic congestion and air pollution, fewer crashes, and a more healthy and just city.”
They do their advocacy work by highlighting the stories of real people, keeping intersectionality at the forefront, which I really love. Donate here: https://pvdstreets.org/donate/