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Novelist Brian Slattery, Prescient Predictor of Economic Woes

Brian Slattery discusses the auspiciousness of his new book, Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America, which foretells a U.S. economic disaster.

Q: Your first novel, Spaceman Blues, was a vision of a dystopic New York. Is Liberation an extension of that?

A: Yeah. There are a lot of ideas that had come up in the writing of Spaceman that I thought were interesting, but they didn’t really have a place. When I started the Liberation, I realized a lot of them fit very well.

Q: How did it evolve from a heist story into a study of the U.S. economy?

A: I had this idea that I wanted there to be a heist, and I wanted it to be in the context of an economic collapse. I initially imagined it being really pretty short and kind of punchy, like heist movies are. So as I tried to make them fit, I realized I could do this more potent story. The more I got into it, the more I started thinking about what the consequences of economic collapse could be for the United States. The issue of slavery for example — I realized I couldn’t just use it in the background. If you’re going to bring it up, you’ve gotta really get into it.

Q: Your book came out the same time as a real U.S. economic collapse. How did you know it was coming?

A: I edit a lot of public policy stuff dealing with economics, and the idea that the U.S. was headed towards some serious downturn has been in the air for awhile. The timing of it is downright eerie, and I feel kind of icky about that. If you had asked a lot of economists if the U.S. would suffer a downturn, they probably would have said it’s in the cards. The conditions were amenable to something bad happening. At the time I started the book, it seemed like an idea that hadn’t gotten into the popular sense of how the U.S. was doing.

Q: Did you see this book as some sort of apocalyptic prediction or warning to U.S. society?

A: It was more like reasonable extrapolation. I certainly wasn’t trying to be a prophet. Once the story took the turn that it did, I was a little uneasy about it becoming a prediction. That always seems weird to me. I like Mad Max-type stuff as a working metaphor for what it says about our society now. And as soon as I could get the book to feel like that, rather than one big prediction, I was much happier with it.

Q: Your heroes, the Slick Six, are a gang of criminals.

A: That started off because I wanted to write a heist book, and it just sort of stuck. I think part of the reason it stuck is there’s a really great essay by Charles Tilly — and he would be mortified to learn someone has applied his idea as I have — but he makes the argument that governments are basically organized crime, except that people think governments are legitimate. In many ways the structures are very similar, including the way they use violence. And I realized it would be fun to take that idea literally.

Q: What about the scifi genre allows you to get out your message?

A: I think science fiction readers are more accustomed to having the books being about ideas like that than literary fiction readers are now. I think literary fiction has shied away from being political to motivate the plot, but it’s something science fiction readers are accustomed to dealing with. The more I’ve learned about scifi the more I’ve learned how much I fit into it. I guess my books aren’t as weird to scifi readers as they are to literary fiction readers. That’s been a really exciting discovery for me.

Q: Would you ever consider writing a book about a future Utopia?

A: The kneejerk reaction I have as a public policy guy is, Utopia for who? Utopian societies can’t ever include everyone. Some are left out, so what do those people do? There seem to be a lot of hippies in my book, and there is this way that hippies represent this possible utopian ideal. If everybody decided to be a hippie all at once tomorrow, that would be a very interesting place, and that’s always a compelling idea.

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