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Interview: October 2008

October 2008

Chris Lynch is the award-winning author of several books for young adults, including INEXCUSABLE, ME, DEAD DAD, & ALCATRAZ, and the newly released CYBERIA, which will be the first installment in a three-part series.
In this interview with Teenreads.com's Kristi Olson, Lynch recounts the humorous occurrence involving his pet dog and his newly installed broadband connection that sparked the idea for the novel, and explains his motivations behind the story's villain, Dr. Gristle. He also shares his thoughts on people's ever-growing dependency on technology, muses on how different the world would be if it were possible to communicate with animals and discusses where the series is headed in future installments.
 
Teenreads.com: CYBERIA takes readers on an adventure through a futuristic digital world. What sparked the idea for this project?
 
Chris Lynch: It all started innocent and accidental. When a couple of years ago I was setting up my new broadband, an odd little thing kept happening. Every time I tried to sign on, my dog Chunk would wander in, sit next to me and stare. She doesn't normally come into my room (I'm allergic to her), but she did this with such consistency I started laughing out loud. And, as fiction writers are wont to do, I started imagining things. What I imagined was that she was actually responding to some signal coming from my new broadband. I chased the idea from there.
 
TRC: The main character is a boy named Zane, whose life is monitored by computers. He is wired with an anklet that goes into his skin to track his whole life, from his school schedule to his blood pressure and glucose levels to even when his next anticipated trip to the bathroom should be. In writing this character, were you making a commentary that we’re in danger of letting computers take over our lives as in the world presented in your book?
 
CL: I'm not sure I was flagging a danger as much as recognizing a trend. The more handy and convenient technology is making life today, the more we are also sucked into it, tracked and charted and left exposed to it. It is up to every individual to decide whether this is an overall happy development. Myself, I feel sometimes like I follow the technology blindly and lazily. The ease and comfort of communicating, researching, shopping, etc. from my bedroom lets me forget that I really don't like accumulating a "profile" in cyberspace that I don't control, and that can leave me open to abuses. We've become so tuned in to the release of the next generation of phone or operating system or whatever that we almost automatically follow it when it arrives, even if the enhanced features add nothing to the quality of real life. So it's the gadgetry setting our agenda. I wonder, when a big development comes along that actually sets quality of life back, will we be able to recognize it?
 
As a writer, one wants to be a watcher rather than watched, silent rather than chattering all day. Access to all areas of life is not helpful to me during work hours, but the notion of secluded privacy seems a more quaint idea all the time.
 
TRC: I found it especially sad that while Zane is so connected digitally, he spends so much time alone. Do you think kids today are faced with similar problems? Are we so connected digitally that we’re disconnected with face-to-face time?
 
CL: Zane's situation is extreme --- with his parents being professional communicators rather than personal ones --- but yes, I think it does represent a broader contemporary reality. So much interaction between people gets done remotely now, and there is much more to relationships than the words or images. As great as my broadband is --- and don't get me wrong, great it is --- it always leaves something out, compared to face-to-face. I am, myself, more remote from people than I was before I was all wired up, and I can't say that's an altogether positive development.
 
TRC: Zane’s life drastically changes when he gets a new piece of computer equipment --- “The Gizzard” --- that enables him to communicate with animals. Do you think the world would be a better place if humans and animals could communicate?
 
CL: It would certainly be a radically different world. I'm not sure quite how we would do things differently, but it would be a compelling scenario. We would wind up finding out all the unfair and wrongheaded things we have been doing to animals forever. But what would we do about it? The great majority of people would treat animals with more respect and sensitivity. But since human beings have such a hard time treating each other as equals, I think we would wind up with some excruciating ethical dilemmas when it turns out people don't really want to do the work to reach that higher moral plane. You couldn't possibly eat meat, could you, if farm animals could convey thoughts? Yet, how many carnivores could you see giving it up overnight? The human power for rationalizing what we want would go into hyperdrive.
 
TRC: With this gadget, Zane can finally talk to his dog, Hugo. Would you want to talk to your pets, and what do you think they would say?
 
CL: As I said, I have Chunk. She is a Springer Spaniel, a lovely, lovely creature, but does not rate highly on a cleverness scale. If the sound of her thoughts amounted to more than a dial tone, I'm sure every interaction would be a variation on, "Are you gonna finish that? Can I have that? Do I smell pork?" Yet despite that, she remains utterly enchanting.
 
TRC: The villain in CYBERIA is a power-hungry veterinarian named Dr. Gristle, who is putting tracking chips in animals with the hopes of one day controlling them. The animals have picked Zane to help them fight against Dr. Gristle and his evil, controlling ways. What were your influences for creating the villain of Dr. Gristle?
 
CL: Dr. Gristle represents for me a lot of what goes wonky in people. He's not purely wicked, in that part of him does really care for animals, and he is (or was) a gifted veterinarian. But I believe he got intoxicated with fame and power and ego, and when this became the fuel for his big thoughts and ambitions, it was a poisonous mix. I don't think people set out to be nasty and vile. I just believe their original intentions get perverted, and they then convince themselves that they are doing questionable things for very good reasons. Personal glory and egotism are, I think, the sad corruptors of the best and the brightest --- as well as a lot of dullards.
 
TRC: What is one piece of technology that you personally can’t live without?
 
CL: It would be almost impossible to imagine a laptop-free existence at this point. My professional life is a testament to the progress of writing equipment, from pen to typewriter to clunky desktop to this practically self-sufficient machine I'm working on now. I would be inept if I had to try and make a living in any of the old ways again. It has gotten so serious that, while I would love to do some writing in longhand again, I cannot do it. Every time I try now, it's a disaster because I have no respect for my handwriting. It's like the sound of my voice on recordings --- I find it hideous, and cannot work with it.
 
TRC: CYBERIA is the first book in a series for young readers. How many books are in the works, and can you share any details about future installments?
 
CL: As of now, there are plans for three books in this series. I'm on the second one now. I can share that in book two, Zane has to battle Dr. Gristle's new development of subliminal mind control through talking parrots, and an academy for developing monkey personal assistants/henchmen.
 
TRC: What does your typical writing day look like?
 
CL: My writing day is in a transition period. When my kids were very young, I had to catch odd bits of available free time and make the best of it. Then, when they were in school, I got into a great rhythm, working exactly the same hours they were in school. That was a very productive and sane period. Now, as they grow up (my daughter just went off to university, my son is in his last two years of secondary school), I am finding myself not as needed at home as I used to be. To be perfectly honest, this makes me a little sad. On a more practical level, while it gives me more time, that does not necessarily translate into greater productivity. Structure, I have always found, is good. Even if that structure is imposed on you. I am now sort of re-learning to impose structure on myself.
 
I leave the house often now to work, for the first time in many years. I have started writing in the library of the Scottish Agricultural College, and the change of atmosphere has helped. I've been acting more like I have a regular 9-5 (ish) job that I go to in the morning and leave in the evening, with a trip to the gym in the middle. This has become something of a structure for me, though it's still evolving.
 
TRC: What books have you read recently that you would recommend to readers?
 
CL: Not long ago, I read TWEAK by Nic Sheff. It's a chronicle of a teenager who runs into seriously hard times, primarily through substance abuse. It is an eye-opening account of just how grim and harrowing a young life can get. Then I read BEAUTIFUL BOY, basically the same story told from the perspective of Nic's father, David. While I have issues with each book, together they form a bracing story of how badly we can mangle each other --- parents and children --- and how insensitive we can be to each other's agony.
 
TRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?
CL: Right now I'm doing Book #2 of the Cyberia series, which I believe will be out next fall (2009).