Michael Pogach: Five Things I Learned Writing Dystopias in the Age of Trump

In tomorrow’s America, belief is the new enemy. Faith in anything other than the State is outlawed. Rafael Ward has nothing else to believe in anyway. He’s content to teach the revised, government-approved narrative of history and collect his paycheck.

Ward’s life changes when an outlaw Believer named MacKenzie shows up at his door demanding his help. She insists he’s the key to finding the fabled Vase of Soissons, a Dark Age relic prophesized to return faith to the world. Or destroy it. Only when they are within reach of their goal, however, do they discover that the Vase is not at all what they thought.

The Spider in the Laurel, Book One in the Rafael Ward series, is available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook.

The Long Oblivion, Book Two in the Rafael Ward series, is now available in paperback and ebook.

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TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN FICTION

“…because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t,” Mark Twain concluded in his famous quote. Truth is insane. Nobody predicted the 2016 election results. Nobody predicted a world in which it’s better to deny a tape exists of you doing something horrible than it is to simply deny doing that horrible thing. Yet here we are. You remember the meme, don’t you? “I wasn’t expecting the park rangers to lead the resistance; none of the dystopian novels I read prepared me for this.”

Truth is wacky. It’s stunning. And when it snowballs into the shit show of conscienceless asshats running things in Washington these days, it can be downright paralyzing. That’s where fiction comes in. Because fiction does have to stick to possibilities, it is our great release and our great inspiration. It gives us Frodo and Samwise. It tells us Rey can be the daughter of nobodies rather than another damn Skywalker. Reality is oppression and denying science and internment camps. Fiction is dystopias. And dystopias can be toppled. They can be redeemed. The first thing I’ve learned writing dystopias in the age of Trump is to not be afraid of reality. Yes, reality is dark and foreboding, but that’s what makes it the perfect crucible for inventing the hero we need.

PLAY ‘WORST CASE SCENARIO,’ NO MATTER HOW SCARY

Think of writing a novel like making a movie sequel. Reality is Part 1. Your book is Part 2. Are you going to up the ante Michael Bay style and make bigger explosions and add robot dinosaurs? Are you going to do it like Aliens and scare the shit out of Bill Paxton till he’s babbling “game over” like a college freshman during finals week? Your job as the author is to imagine the worst-case scenario for your ragtag band of plucky heroes. Part 1 is a political party saying they want to cut spending. Part 2 is you imagining life after the elimination of all healthcare, welfare, and public works. Part 1 is a little man screaming about living space. Part 2 is George Lucas putting the Nazis into space and giving them the Death Star.

Things can always get worse. An author’s job is to imagine what that “worse” is. What if, I suppose in my Rafael Ward series, it’s not a tyrant oppressing the people? What if it’s the people themselves begging for oppression? What if they rise up after a terrorist attack by and demand the government keep them safe by volunteering to have all their freedoms stripped away?

The second thing I’ve learned writing dystopias in the age of Trump? Be brutal. Be Machiavellian. Kick your hero in the teeth with the worst reality can offer. Don’t worry; they can take it. And so can we.

FICTION IS MORE DANGEROUS THAN TRUTH

Would we have had flip phones if it weren’t for Star Trek? Would we have the Taser if not for Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle? Better yet: Would Trump be able to deny saying things he’d literally tweeted days earlier if not for Orwell’s Ministry of Truth?

Control the narrative, and you control the truth. Control the truth, and you control reality itself. The common thread in the first three things I’ve learned writing dystopias in the age of Trump is simple and terrifying. Truth and fiction feed on each other like Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent, eating its own tail, until it’s impossible to know where one ends and the other begins. When you can no more trust reality than you can the reliability of a Paula Hawkins narrator, you’ve got a dystopian regime.

KEEP YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR

If ever there was a time to keep up our sense of humor in America, it’s now. Make a screen saver of all those Joe Biden memes. Or watch a good comedy like Nicolas Cage’s The Wicker Man (what do you mean it’s not a comedy?!). Point is we have to laugh. It really is the best medicine. And who knows how long we’ll be able to afford this particular prescription with the way our government treats health care as the second greatest threat to national security behind immigrants (breaking news: North Korea has fallen in this week’s POTUS-approved power rankings of worst threats to America down to #83; meanwhile Russia remains dead last for the 72nd straight week).

Comedy reminds us of our humanity. It makes us vulnerable, and in doing so it connects us with others. That connection is imperative for an author. It doesn’t have to be a series of fart jokes in your grimdark novel. But readers can feel it when we write without that tiny, ironic glint in the eye. They know something’s missing when we forget that life is ridiculous and so is blowing your nose then putting the handkerchief back in your pocket. And, damn it, it just feels good to laugh, especially when you don’t want to. Don’t forget this as authors, as readers, and as human beings.

DON’T QUIT

The final thing I’ve learned writing dystopias in the age of Trump is that no matter how much the news or social media or your Uncle Floyd in his MAGA hat worry, scare, or depress you, you have to push on. Take a break if you need to. Shut off the television or place your phone on silent or tell Uncle Floyd you can’t make it to his annual Bowling and Funyuns Bash. But don’t let politics, school shootings, internment camps or whatever else stop you from doing what you need to do. Protest. Donate. Call your state rep. Go for a run. Paint. Write. Hug your kids. Go to the movies. Resist, big or small. Stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. Be the inspiration for the hero you want to write or read about. Because if no one resists, they win. If no one resists, it’s not a dystopia at all.

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Michael Pogach is the author of the Rafael Ward series — The Spider in the Laurel and The Long Oblivion. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and daughter and has an empty space in his garage for his next motorcycle project.

Michael Pogach: Website | Twitter

The Long Oblivion: Amazon | B&N