August has officially arrived in Vancouver (and everywhere else) which means the end of summer is in sight. Grim news for those of us who enjoy the hot weather, but the looming threat of September won’t stop us from posting another Life Finds A Way creator interview!
Today, we’re sitting down with Ryan Clement to discuss his story “Runners of the Woods”.
This post is a part of a series of articles about Cloudscape’s Life Finds A Way anthology. Visit the landing page for more information on the project.
What’s your name?
What’s your artistic background?
Well, I’m more of a writer than an artist, so in other words I will likely get a bit long-winded on some of these answers, but I’ll try to keep it on point. I have been writing in one form or another for years (I have a PhD in English), but creatively most of my writing has focused on speculative fiction and creative non-fiction, often with a bend towards comedy (I did the sketch writing program at Toronto’s Second City). I’ve been writing for comics a lot in recent years, ever since getting one of my stories—“One Night on the TTC”—selected for the third Toronto Comics anthology. However, I have been creating comics of my own, in form of another, since childhood, notably for my undergraduate student newspaper—Brandon University’s The Quill—and the comic book final project I completed for my MA in Communication and Culture.
What comics/comic creators inspired you to make comics?
Ooh, that’s tough. To be honest, since I grew up in rural Western Manitoba and nobody in my family or close friend groups were into comics, my access as a kid was rather limited. I did regularly pick up comics like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Sonic the Hedgehog at the local small-town grocery store in Ninette, MB, near where we spent most of our summers at Pelican Lake. Later on, as a university student, I was introduced by a colleague at The Quill, to ground-breaking comics like the Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen series, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher, and quite a number of people on Hellblazer. After that there was no going back. Since that time, quite a few comics have continued to impress me about the possibilities of the media form, but if I had to name a few that had the most impact on me, other than Gaiman and Moore’s work, I’d have to say Mike Carey and Peter Gross’s The Unwritten series, Jim Zub’s Wayward series, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga, Bryan O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series, Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead series, Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist series, Rumiko Takahashi’s Inuyasha series, Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix series, Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang, and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics series.
What about Life Finds a Way caught your imagination enough to submit a story?
I liked the spin of an apocalyptic setting—which often can be compelling as its forces characters into situations with high stakes and limited options—that wasn’t over-the-top grimdark. While I enjoy post-apocalyptic stories as much as the next survivor, I do find far too many would-be architects of annihilation mistake grimness, violence, and hopelessness for good storytelling. I get that not every story can or should have a happy “Hollywood ending,” but putting your characters through hell and giving them no hope at the end—like some sort of maniacal tyrannical god—can be just as cliché. In my life, I’ve been fortunate enough to have travelled extensively, including to places that have been ravaged by extreme poverty, war, or other forms of intense loss, and no matter the universe has thrown at them, people have proven far more resilient than we in the comfortable west often give them credit for. For example, I enjoy the Walking Dead and have been reading the comics since long before the TV show aired, but I still find it hard to believe at times that humanity would turn so quickly to despair and distrust and that they could maintain it for that long. Humans, at our core, or tribal by nature. In times of great stress, while some individuals might take advantage, the main instinct of most is to band together and work together to address the problem. We’ve demonstrated this time and time again. Our current global issues with poverty, the environment, and violence, have only persisted because certain powers that be have preferred us to cling to divisions that aren’t really there. While the world at times feels more polarized than ever, I think if we ever realized what was truly at stake, we’d put aside our differences and pick up a shovel for our neighbour.
On our theme of hope, what did you find fun about creating stories within this framework? Furthermore were there any unexpected challenges?
I don’t mind writing hopeful stories.
While some of my stories do have dark endings, or dark for some characters at least, I consider it equally as cliché to have all unhappy endings as all happy ones. I have had a couple of writerly friends over the years, who always wanted every story in one fashion of misery or another. Whether they were trying to appeal to critics by appearing more “edgy,” or using writing as a means to deal with their own insecurities which could never envision being resolved, I am unsure. I do know, aside making an ending all too easy to see coming, constant grimness never compelled to me as a reader, almost as if the author were more concerned with their satisfaction than mine. Perhaps, in spite of everything, I still have too much faith in humanity—I have always been a jester at heart—to really believe that, in the face of unfathomable destruction, nobody would at least try to crack a joke to lighten the mood. There’s a reason, after all, why some of the greatest comedians come from the some of the darkest places. No matter how dire the situation, from robotic enslavement (why would the robots enslave us? We make terrible workers.) to the heat death of the universe to Donald Trump getting elected for another term, at the very least you can ride the nuke Dr. Strangelove-style to Armageddon, staring oblivion in the face and giving it your cultural equivalent of the finger.
Of course, most apocalypses aren’t even all that bad.
As I expected, I found it fun to explore this traditionally overly dour subgenre from a more upbeat angle, and think about how actual people might actually act in a world gone wrong. How they might be playful jerks to each other about their inevitable screw-ups, how they might have differing views of the way things were before, and how they might actually fall back on pre-industrial modes of transportation and ways of life which were normal for far longer than our way of life is. Despite the end of the world, some folks get along just fine.
Part of the fun of Post-Apocalypse is the worldbuilding, how do you deal with the limitations of the short story format with that in mind?
Ah yes, the challenge of world-building in a short story! To be honest, I usually think in longer arching stories—its just how my brain works, maybe I don’t want my stories to end—so limiting myself to a short story can often prove daunting. In this case, I cheated a little, and I took the Forgotten Cabin chapter from a longer narrative, Runners of the Woods, I have been working on for years now. I still hope to get the full story published some day (*cough* *cough* *wink* *wink* *nudge* *nudge* message me if you’re interested, Cloudscape!).
I decided early on to pick a chapter midway through the main arc, rather than at the beginning or the end, as I felt it captured more of the typical spirit of the story. If I had done a chapter near the beginning or the end, the story would have been overburdened with exposition, so a middle chapter—after their post-apocalyptic “road” journey was well underway—allowed me to laser focus on the two main characters, Brendan and Geneviève, after they had already established a precarious but working relationship. It also allowed me to give hints about what two had been through up to this point, what was hopefully enough to interest in readers in learning more without hitting the reader over the head with a paddle full of details. While this chapter is arguably a quiet in terms of the main plot points of the larger narrative, it is one where both Brendan and Geneviève both have to make significant decisions in the discovery of an unexpected boon in the form of a safe, remote, well-stocked cabin. They ultimately decide to give up this assured safety and ignorance in favour of continuing on down the path in pursuit of adventure, knowledge, and a duty to those they left behind. Also, this chapter had a waterfall in it.
I was also happy to focus on this particular part of the world, the heartland of the main narrative, the majestic and remote Canadian Shield country, without getting distracted by what had happened on a global level. Not only is the Shield rarely seen in most literature, post-apocalyptic or otherwise, it is also removed enough from “civilization” that I could suggest an apocalypse had happened some time in the past without having to give the readers the expositional equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation. I liked how I could show how Brendan in particular looked back on our civilization much in the same we look back at the ancient Mayans or the pre-contact Easter Islanders. For one, having the apocalypse happen a long time ago, meant no one alive probably fully remembered it and the world that now existed would be all they knew, leaving to wonder about the “magic” of ages past like the early Vikings stumbling on Roman ruins and inventing stories about elves to explain them. Frankly, I kind of like leaving it a mystery, something up for the reader’s imagination and speculation, as there is very little that I could come up with that could compete with that. And the whole story started with the idea of Toronto, suburban sprawl and all, as a lost city to be rediscovered, which still fascinates me.
What’s your favorite post-apocalypse media, and why? (Games, Movies, Books, etc.)
Favourites are always difficult picks for me. While I’ve been a long-time reader of Walking Dead, I have to admit that the zombie apocalypse genre has pretty much run—or shambled—itself to death by this point, although the challenge of using your survival skills is still a compelling one (I still don’t know why no survivors built their camp on an overpass and just let the zombies pass underneath. Seems like a no-brainer to me—pun fully intended and without apology).
In terms of non-comic books, I’ve read some truly grim stuff like Nevil Shute’s On the Beach or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but if we’re talking favourites, I would have to recommend Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl which takes current debates over genetic engineering, climate change, and geopolitics as its starting point in its biopunk dystopia after the “Collapse.” In addition to focusing on a range of vibrant ensemble of characters from a discarded Japanese organic lovebot to an American neocolonial agri-corporate hitman, its one of the few post-apocalyptic worlds I have seen to focus on a non-Western locale, in this case Thailand, and do it justice. A more recent book of his, The Water Knife,focuses on the interstate shadow conflict that erupts as the natural result of unsustainable water management in the American Southwest. It is also worth a read. However, if you’re want to stick on the side of hopeful with some of the best current writers in science fiction, Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer’s sci-fi short story collection Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future is a good bet.
As for games, I mostly play tabletop these days. Apocalypse World has a classic RPG engine, although it often has little to do with apocalypses. Dead of Winter is always fun if you’re more into the board variety. In terms of digital games, I thoroughly enjoyed Oxenfree and Firewatch, which, while not technically post-apocalyptic, can often have that vibe to them.
As for movies, just go re-watch Shaun of the Dead and call it a day.
Clichés, our editors outlined some that we did not want in our stories in our narrative guide. What elements about post-apocalypse media do you think are over-done?
I think you were right to call out the “grimdark” constant gloom and doom. While I can understand moments of depression and despair—and who hasn’t had a question or two at their darkest hour—most people I know don’t survive the worst the universe can throw at them by going “emo.” They survive by figuring who they are, who their real friends are, and rallying forward with what they have left.
One thing I find odd is how quickly groups of people seem to turn on each other in these stories, particularly when they need each other to survive, as if that old TV show Survivor actually reflected reality. There is a reason we naturally clump into groups, because groups have a far greater shot at long term survival than any lone wolf, no matter how badass he or she is. I can certainly understand conflict arising amongst groups, particularly in times of stress or scarce resources, but if you have a world of roving bands of survivors the cost going to war with each other is usually going to be higher than either side can pay. There is a reason most hunter-gatherer sides tried to avoid it whenever possible.
Speaking of violence, gore can be campy fun, but if its overly used for schlock value or for cheap “edginess” it can be the horror equivalent of a fart joke.
Post-apocalyptic fiction can often be a reflection of anxieties that occur in contemporary society, does your piece reflect any societal anxiety that you can identify?
Definitely. For one, I would identify identity, in particular national—or in this case post-national—identity in a country that has always struggled with it in light of the past buried beneath our feet and an uncertain future.
There is also the question of how much faith we would still have in the world we have constructed for ourselves. I also purposely choose two main characters with opposing worldviews. One looks for answers in what some of us might call “progress,” the pursuit of science and civilization and all that entails. The other fears the impact of this knowledge, and perhaps rightfully so, and pivots more towards a make-do sustainability which she knows works (mostly) in the world in which she already exists, chaos and all. In the end, neither character is fully right nor fully wrong, and both learn to appreciate elements of the others’ point of view.
Another issue I tried to explore, although I couldn’t go too deep into it in the short story, was how a multicultural society like Canada would function in a post-apocalyptic setting. Would different cultural communities maintain distance from each other, or would they come together? Would they see themselves as Canadian, or as something completely new and different? How much of the “old world” would they maintain and how much would be lost? How would they view the past that once was or would they pay it mind at all?
Do you think you could survive a week in the wild with a knife, a poncho, and a fishing hook?
I was once a chief scout, although I am quite a bit out of shape now, I like my odds.
Honestly, it depends where I am. A desert would be tricky, although as long as I could keep out of the heat of the day, I could probably get what I need done at night. In a jungle, I’d mostly just try to stay dry and protected from mosquitoes. In ice and snow, I’d just try to stay warm. I’ve seen enough Survivorman Les Stroud (and ignored enough Man vs Wild with BearGrylls) to figure that as long as I could keep myself out of the cold or the heat, and from getting sick or injured, I’d probably do alright.
People can actually go a lot longer than they realize without food, up to three weeks, and up to a week without water, so really my main focus would be on finding shelter, and trying to signal for help (assuming this is a scenario where help might actually come). If this is a full-on apocalypse scenario where no help is coming—and there are no clouds of radiation, hordes of zombies, or other intense calamity that would otherwise screw with my usual survival strategies—then I would first find shelter, maybe get a fire going. Once I was settled and had a sense of my surroundings and predicament, then I would go look to gather whatever supplies I could (man-made if any were around) and see if there were other people around (I wouldn’t assume everyone was hostile, as in my experience we tend to bond together in dark times more than they turn on each other as a survival instinct). If I had to live off of the land, I’d look for known edible plants, and test any plants I was unsure of on my arm (to see if they caused a reaction) before throwing them down the hatch (and even then, I’d try to eat only little bits at a time and boil them first if I could). Only once I was pretty well set up would I even bother trying to catch animals for dinner (they really make you work for a meal!), but I figure a few well-placed traps might work nicely.
Nature can kill you, sure, but it usually isn’t trying to do that on purpose and normally it isn’t all that efficient at doing so. We did evolve to live in it after all. I knew park ranger at Kruger National Park, a place filled with lions, leopards, hyenas, black mambas, all sorts of African predators, and I asked him once, if a person got lost in the middle of the park, far from help, what would kill them first. His answer? Probably exposure, starvation, or the person’s own stupidity. Most of the animals probably wouldn’t know what to make of a random human appearing out of nowhere, and if the person left them alone, they would just leave the person alone, lions included (they have plenty of impalas to eat after all). After all, the scariest animal once you enter the wild is usually you or another person.
All in all, I’ve probably packed enough “energy storage” in my belly area to be okay for a little while. The knife and hook would probably end up getting used more as tools than weapons, and unless it was particularly cold out that poncho’s likely going to be co-opted into a waterproof roof for the shelter and possibly a means of collecting rainwater for drinking. Honestly, this basically just sounds like camping. But especially since my life is pretty comfortable right now, it’s nice to hypothesize what I would do if I suddenly had to revert to hunting and gathering.
Where do you look to find hope for humanity’s future?
Let’s not kid ourselves. Humanity has made a real for itself. But just as we had to power to create the main problems we face today, so too are we the best hope for dealing with them. There’s no better hope coming.
Humanity has proven itself time and time again in the past of being capable of coming together in times of crisis. The problem is that while in the past we could look to our family, our tribe, our nation, or even our grand alliance of nations, as our kind, we must now look to everyone on the planet as kin, and some folks seem to be struggling with that. Nevertheless, our problems are truly global in scope and we will have to approach them globally if we hope to resolve them. I do not expect it to be easy, and I expect there to be much pain and suffering as the result of the decisions and policies being made today, but if we can find a way to balance our use of technology, our use of the environment, and our use of each other, we may end up creating a world our grandchildren would still be willing to share with us.
Do you have any projects you’d like to plug?
Oh, let’s see. I’m going to be doing a one-man fringe storytelling play, Adventures of a Global Village Idiot, about my (mis)adventures across five different continents at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, but that will likely be over by the time this comes out. Other than that, I have comics work published in Toronto Comics vol. 3 and Strange Romance vol. 2, as well as creative non-fiction in Moose on the Loose and Never Light a Match in the Outhouse. If Cloudscape Comics was interested in the full version of Runners of the Woods, I would gladly plug that! I have also recently designed and published a card game Awkward Party, if you’re into lighthearted parodies of social dysfunction. For more information about my work, please visit www.clomy.ca or my facebook page fb.me/Clomy.
Oh, and I have a friend Safiyya Hussein, who often writes about comics and has some great comic and visual essay work coming up in My Kingdom for a Panel: A Shakespearean Anthology and Called Into Being: A Celebration of Frankenstein. Check out her stuff as well!
Well I think that’s it for my plugs and your questions.
Thanks for the interview and good luck with the poncho or whatever the future brings.