Interview with Heather Bartos

Rappahannock Review Fiction Editors: We love how “Surrendered” uses elements of science fiction; what compelled you to choose this genre to write your short story

Heather Bartos: I don’t consider “Surrendered” so much a traditional science fiction piece as a speculative climate fiction story about this bizarre, dysfunctional government trying to somehow function in an era of extreme global warming, and how living in that world affects ten-year-old Nathan and his family. I love stories by Ray Bradbury, George Saunders, Lois Lowry, and Suzanne Collins, and their influences probably show up here. It’s just looking at the types of severe weather events that we’ve seen over the past several years and taking it to a more extreme level imaginatively—what if every day was that bad? What would that mean for childhood and family life the way we know it now?

RR: The world-building seems very poignant in many aspects of the piece. How did you develop the world these characters live in?

HB: Nathan’s world evolved as I was writing, and although not all stories I write come to me in chronological order, this one did. Having Nathan focus on wanting a new screen seemed to be a natural thing for him to want. He can’t fix anything in his world, but he can escape into his digital fantasy life and try to build new worlds. In the movie Soylent Green, which is about a world shaped by environmental disaster, there’s a character who chooses to die rather than continue to live in such a messed-up society, and he gets to choose the video he watches while he’s dying. In “Surrendered,” each character creates their own personal end of the world—except for Nathan, who doesn’t want one. I remember realizing that both Chad and Nathan weren’t going to make it out alive. It felt like the right ending, but it also felt like one I didn’t want for either of them.

RR: Were there any challenges in writing the main character from a child’s perspective?

HB: I had child narrators on my mind when I wrote this story because of what I was reading. I read Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, which also has a young male narrator (although he tells the story retrospectively), and then I re-read To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I was able to hear Barbara Kingsolver talk about child narrators last fall, and she said something to the effect of that as readers, we tend to believe child narrators and we care about them. I’m also a parent and a teacher, so I spend a lot of time with young people. Nathan’s voice came pretty easily.

RR: Were there any particular media or current events that inspired parts of “Surrendered”?

HB: There were a few things I remember reading last summer that influenced “Surrendered.” One was the fire in Maui and hearing about tourists having to flee into the ocean to escape the flames. I wondered about couples who might be there for their honeymoons and then ended up sending Nathan’s parents there. I also remember two different New York Times articles. One was about how scientists were trying to use these enormous tarps to shield glaciers in the Alps from melting, and that shows up in the story when Nathan and his family go on vacation. The other article was about how refugees from weather-related evacuations and relocations experience “climate anxiety” afterwards. Around that same time, I remember being in a waiting room and striking up a conversation about the weather with a few other people. Instead of talking about the actual weather where we were, we all talked about the extreme weather events on the news. It was normal small talk…about what wasn’t normal.

RR: The future you describe appears shockingly possible; how do you think speculative fiction can teach us about our contemporary reality?

HB: Speculative fiction can teach us about our contemporary reality by hopefully activating our empathy, and our ability to consider how our actions could affect the future. Nobody wants the future to look like the future looks in this story. Nobody wants hummingbirds to only exist in pictures, and nobody wants schools to pass out free anti-anxiety medication to their students. Speculative fiction can shake us awake by showing us alternative futures that can be very dark, and oddly enough, it can also shine a type of light, a way for us to take a good look at the world we live in now.


Read “Surrendered” by Heather Bartos in Issue 11.2