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Charlie Jane Anders on Supporting Bookstores, and Ourselves, During Coronavirus

The author of apocalyptic fiction talks coping with the strange new reality of quarantine.

Charlie Jane Anders interview
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Photoshop

Charlie Jane Anders has written award-winning speculative fiction about global disasters. Now, like the rest of us, she is living through one. 

Anders is known for imagining strange futures that are both unsettling and optimistic. The Bay Area-based author's Locus and Nebula Award-winning 2016 novel All the Birds in the Sky is set in a near-future San Fransisco threatened by devastating climate change. Her latest novel, 2019's The City in the Middle of the Night, follows a revolutionary exiled by her planet's fascist rulers. Anders is also a writer on the upcoming Y: The Last Man TV series, an adaptation of the acclaimed graphic novel about a cataclysmic event that kills male humans and animals. 

In addition to her fiction, Anders is known for co-founding influential sci-fi site io9; co-hosting Hugo Award-winning podcast Our Opinions Are Correct; and hosting the Bay Area reading series Writers With Drinks. And now that coronavirus has transformed our lives into something out of a sci-fi novel, she's using her quarantine time to protect a vital resource: independent bookstores. 

Anders is one of the organizers behind We Love Bookstores, an initiative to help Bay Area-bookstores survive quarantine. The campaign connects readers with indie establishments, in part through hosting online readings and other virtual fundraisers.  

We spoke to Anders about the power of fiction during this unsettling era, and how readers can support local bookstores during the shutdown. 

The Portalist: What do bookstores mean to you and your community?

Anders: Bookstores mean everything to me. As I've said before, they're like petting zoos for stories. They're the best place to discover new authors and to hear great readings and conversations, but they're also some of my favorite spaces to be in. For as long as I can remember, browsing inside a bookstore has been one of the most pleasurable and soothing activities I can possibly imagine. 

But more than that, bookstores are the heart of our literary communities, and they help to define the character of the neighborhoods, towns and cities where they are located. I've spent time in towns where all of their local bookstores had gone under, and they were kind of sad places, where everyone seemed to share a real feeling of loss and discontent. I've learned the hard way that a city without bookstores is a dull, terrible place.

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"I've tried to write optimistic stories about the end of everything. And I hope that I can bring some of that optimism to this particular challenging scenario."

How do you find the motivation to organize for a cause during a time of major uncertainty and anxiety?

Some days, it's been easier than others. It's very natural to feel exhausted and hopeless during this time of isolation, when we're all coping with a problem that we can't even see or get a clear image of. Ironically, the thing I most wish I could do right now is spend a few hours wandering around Green Apple or Booksmith or Borderlands.  

But I realized pretty quickly that the social distancing stuff was going to be really terrible for bookstores, which have a very low margin and high fixed costs, and we needed to do everything in our power to help them, or they would be lost. That awareness has kept me very motivated, because I don't know what I would do without these stores. And I'm lucky that we have a fantastic team of heroic organizers, who are all helping to make this happen. I definitely could not do this on my own. 

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Between All the Birds in the Sky and Y: The Last Man, you have experience writing about global crises. Do you think that impacts the way you are experiencing this pandemic?

I've written a lot of books and stories and stuff, featuring big disasters, crises and apocalyptic scenarios. The main thing I've always tried to get at in my own work is that terrible events are not a reason to give up, or to abandon hope. They're an occasion for us all to rise to. 

I always say that the apocalypse is kind of a wish-fulfillment scenario, because you wouldn't have to go to work or pay taxes, and you're automatically special if you're one of the few survivors. There's something very cozy and snuggly about the end of the world. But I really hope people can learn to think of these scenarios differently, as something that demands more of us. 

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I've tried to write optimistic stories about the end of everything. And I hope that I can bring some of that optimism to this particular challenging scenario.

(Also, one of my somewhat dystopian/disaster-oriented stories, "The Bookstore at the End of America," is really a love letter to bookstores and their role in helping us get through awful times. It's in the book A People's Future of the United States.) 

"The more experience you have with navigating strange and unsettling fictional worlds, the better you might become at coping with those moments when the real world suddenly turns very strange."

Are there any books you’re reading to help you through this time? Anything you’d recommend to our readers? 

Currently I am reading "The City Born Great" by N.K. Jemisin, which is just wonderful. It's reminding me why I love New York, and why cities are still worth loving, even when they become plague centers. 

I'm also thinking a lot about Doris Lessing's Martha Quest novels, which capture the fabric of every day life wonderfully, leading up to a bizarre apocalypse. (Spoiler alert.)

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What role, if any, do you think speculative fiction can play in helping our communities survive and heal from coronavirus?

One of the main things that speculative fiction can always offer us is escapism, which is more valuable than ever when we're all trapped indoors. 

But also, speculative fiction helps you to exercise your imagination, which is the only way to cope with unexpected and unimaginable turns of events. The more experience you have with navigating strange and unsettling fictional worlds, the better you might become at coping with those moments when the real world suddenly turns very strange.

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How can our readers support #WeLoveBookstores? 

All of our upcoming events are here. I'd be so incredibly grateful if people could donate whatever they can afford, and also spread the word to all their loved ones, friends and frenemies. All of these upcoming events are going to be pretty mind-blowingly awesome, and every penny we raise goes directly to the bookstores we're supporting.