In the future, pollution will smell like lilacs. Families will live in new, single-storied houses (stairs are dangerous) without pets (animals carry disease). In the future, sidewalks will be all but extinct and children will be ferried to and from school, carefully strapped into buses that crawl through gridlocked traffic while cars honk paid advertisements. In the future, technology couches our lives in seven layers of safety while breeding fear and caution and a strange creature known as the wikkeling that feeds off the young. This is the world in Steve Arntson's debut novel, The Wikkeling. Several years ago, Stranger books editor Paul Constant and I were in a writing group with Arntson, in which we critiqued two early drafts of this novel. Arntson and I recently discussed she-male cats, child migraines, how Seattle inspired Arntson's dystopic future, and anything else that came to mind.
No one knows what the hell a wikkeling is—let alone the youths this book is geared toward. Where does "wikkeling" even come from? When I read the book in its first draft, that character was called the Age Man. Explain, please.
I was dissatisfied with Age Man, partly because it signified gender. It's kind of a golem creature created by the world's interplay with technology. It's been wound up, in a way, and now it's pursuing these kids. Much of the book is devoted to the kids tracking it and trying to figure out its nature. So I selected a word that thematically represented the creature—to wind—put it in Google translator, and came up with a Dutch word, wikkeling. Though it's possible that wikkeling is a weather reference. I wasn't that careful. I found out later that it's also a Dutch last name. Hans Wikkeling is a Dutch martial arts expert. Google "wikkeling" and you'll see this guy doing flying kicks on the internet. Man, he can really fly!
The protagonists—Henrietta, Gary, and Rose—are delightfully ordinary, ugly children stuck in an ugly, hypersanitized, mundane world. They're the antithesis of Harry Potter characters. Is that what you were going for?
Definitely not. For me, it was more the process of remembering being a kid, being inspired by being a kid, and investing myself in the heroes of the world. All three of them change in very pragmatic ways. Henrietta learns to question her universe and gains critical thinking skills—which is kind of what the whole book is about. Gary somewhat fulfills his promise to be a reckless kid. He realizes there are great potentials in his native recklessness. I'm hoping he'll go even further that way if the series continues.
The wikkeling gives the children terrible migraines—a very adult affliction. I took it as further evidence that this is a world where children aren't allowed to be children. But did you worry that young readers wouldn't be able to contextualize the debilitating pain of a migraine?
I didn't think of that, but it's true—kids don't often get migraines. We don't have Flintstones Motrin. This is one of the more intensely autobiographical aspects of the book. I've always gotten intense migraines that were very bad, even as a kid. Like Henrietta, I go blind, then the headache comes on—it's called a classic migraine. I guess writing about them was a therapeutic process.
Henrietta lives in the last old house on her block—the only house with an attic. The things this attic contains—Mister Lady, the Bestiary—are in many ways more protective and parental than her parents.
Henrietta's world is obsessed with safety, but she doesn't feel safe there. I wanted to create a safe space for her, and it's the attic, inhabited by this cat, Mister Lady. [The cat] definitely serves that parental function. She's also a living embodiment of all that's been lost in the world and a hint that not everything has, indeed, been lost. The Bestiary reinforces that—it's an ancient book full of strange creatures that in Henrietta's world are all extinct. But more importantly, I just wanted to write descriptions of fantastic creatures.
The Bestiary is beautifully juxtaposed with the horrific evening news that Henrietta routinely watches with her parents—which almost always details horrible things happening to children who weren't being safe enough.
Yeah, I really cracked myself up writing those parts—the kid getting scratched by a cat in the eye and having his eyeballs amputated. It still makes me laugh. But there was also a rage behind it. I'm so tired of those fear-driven, safety-obsessed cultural trends, and I feel like they're getting worse long after they should've started getting better.
In your dystopic children's future, pollution smells like lilacs and cars don't fly—they honk advertisements. Why make the future so deliberately, mundanely weird when the Bestiary proves you have a predilection for the fantastically weird?
I spent a lot of time reading old sci-fi, trying to figure out what makes the genre feel dated. One author that's totally immune, in my opinion, is Philip K. Dick. I think the great thing about him is that he's just so weird. He doesn't belong to a place, he's not trying to prognosticate, he's just a weird guy. I just wanted to create something that's weird and I really like the smell of lilacs. It becomes an awful caricature of itself. It's a low-budget way for Henrietta's world to gussy itself up.
The buttoned-down world they live in—the shiny, safe New City encroaching on the moldy Old City—is it based on Seattle?
To say the world is buttoned-down doesn't do it justice, but yeah, I was thinking of Seattle. Specifically, Seattle's predilection for knocking down old shit to make new shit. I live in an old house near Seattle University, and one day this giant house-eating machine came and ate the house next door. It was awful. Now there's a brand-new condo there. I wanted Henrietta's world to be kind of incompetently done. There are a lot of dark fantasy novels in the world, but it's kind of a glut at this point—a competition of who's going to have the darkest, most dire fantasy book of all. I wanted to steer away from that, make a prosaic, boring dystopia. I think I succeeded.
In the acknowledgements for The Wikkeling, you first thank our writing group. How did that informal group shape your work in comparison with the Iowa Writers' Workshop, which you also attended?
I didn't do much writing in grad school. I felt everyone deserved to be there and I didn't. I worked with great faculty; I worked with Marilynne Robinson and James McPherson, got to study with Ethan Canin. They did help my writing a lot. But while I was there, I didn't feel like I had a real cohort. The first thing I did when I got to Iowa was find out where the music department was and play piano every day—and no one was critiquing my skills as a piano player. When we were in that writing group together, drinking beer and critiquing each other's work, it was really great for me. It was more my speed—friendly people who had highly developed critical apparatus. Better critical skills, in some regards, than my fellow students when I was in grad school.
Do you have more plans for the wikkeling?
Yes—I have rough drafts for five books, and I just sent the second installment to my publisher to read. In the meantime, though, I just sold another book about a girl who meets Death. It's also young adult fiction. As reviews for The Wikkeling have been coming out, I've noticed that some aren't satisfied with the ending. I still wanted people to have questions about the wikkeling and its motivations. Some reviewers don't like that. But they're wrong.