Isolation Interview with author Denise R. Stephenson

Greetings readers, bloggers, geeks, and authors and welcome to The ToiBox of Words. I’m your host Toi Thomas, author of Eternal Curse, and today I’m sharing a special interview with author, Denise R. Stephenson, about her fiction book entitled, Isolation. Enjoy!

Image provided by author.

Where did the idea for Isolation come from?

The germs of my novel Isolation came from 1) the fear of a swine flu epidemic in the fall of 2009, 2) changes in behavior that swept through the country, 3) my concerns about the overuse of 99% bacterial killing soaps and sanitizers, and 4) a line that stuck in my head: “laying a finger aside of his nose.” I imagined a boy who found the The Night Before Christmas in a box from his mother’s childhood. Seeing Santa touch his nose, the boy recognized the book as contraband, since face-touching was not allowed in his world. Suddenly I was thinking about a world in which face-touching was prohibited and I knew the idea was worth following.

How did the title of this book come about?

I was walking on a beach talking with a friend who asked about my working title. With hardly a thought, I blurted, Isolation. At the time, I had no idea it would stick. But as the weeks of writing wore on, I realized more and more resonances of the title in the workings of the novel.

What genre is this book and why did you choose to make it so?

Isolation is a dystopia which puts it in scifi. Dystopias have interested me as long as I can remember. Farenheit 451 was probably the first novel I ever read multiple times. Handmaid’s Tale was the novel that made me an adult reader. The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist may be my favorite dystopia, filled as it is with notions of sacrificing the old at the altar of health research, an idea not too far from Isolation. Let’s face it; the premise of not being able to touch our own faces screamed–Government overreach!–a characteristic common in dystopias. What choice did I really have?

What would you say is the overall message or the theme of this book?

While fiction generally doesn’t deliver a message, my favorite responses from readers are when they tell me that Isolation has made them conscious of what they eat and what bacterial safety means to them now. I want people to think about the choices they make in their everyday lives. It’s not that I want or expect changes in behavior. Though a recurring mantra in the novel is—Habits learned early are habits for life—I recognize that mostly we do what’s easy and cultural. I hope readers ask: Is the easy choice the healthiest choice?

Tell me about the experience of writing this book; how long did it take.

I was fortunate enough to have a sabbatical to write this novel. I wrote the first 300 pages on an island in Kapa’a, Kauai in three months. The following 120 pages I wrote at home over the subsequent four months, a much slower pace. The next two months, I reordered and revised. Then I ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund my indie publishing and a portion of my promotional budget. At that stage, I’d spent 10 months. It would take another 10 months to find a proofreader, walk through the publishing stages of print and e-book versions, provide Kickstarter rewards, and promote the book through venues such as this generous offer. From start to finish it took a year and a half, fast by most standards!

Tell me about the main storyline within this book.

In the first section, “Unsuspected Sources,” bacterial contagion arrives and decimates various individuals and areas. The story moves around covering a number of locales. In “Don’t Touch,” the government begins legislating human behaviors, especially public ones, in an effort to protect people from disease. This section also contains news articles that interrupt the narrative and provide information about the changes taking place. The narrative continues to involve locations throughout the country. In the third section, “The Dangers Within,” a quarantine is imposed and everyone must stay indoors and the narrative becomes confined to a small group of characters in San Diego.

Who is the protagonist of this story?

Like a good indie film, there isn’t a single protagonist in Isolation. Rather, there are a cast of characters whose lives we follow. Like Stephen King’s, The Stand, the action in the early part of the novel takes place in far flung, remote locations in the U.S. By the middle, there are a handful of characters whose lives come together in a single area. The three primary characters are Maggie, a mother who must raise her son in the confines of her home; Gary, a Sterilizer who spends 12 hours a day scouring the infected; and the Professor, who reveals how the dystopia took shape over the course of his lifetime.

Who is the antagonist of this story?

As a teenager, Trevor reports on every infraction his classmates make, no matter how trivial. Trevor believes in following the rules, every rule, all the time. As an adult, Trevor becomes a Chief Enforcer, running the Anti-Bacterial Center where Gary works. He manages Sterilizers, Enforcers, and Cleaners in his efforts to keep Homelanders safe from contagion. Trevor’s OCD leads him to count items incessantly; ensuring good numbers and avoiding dangerous ones. Rule following becomes challenging as new rules emerge quickly as bacteria morph into more and more deadly strains, but Trevor keeps up, even devising ways of observing more rule-breakers all at once.

What is the major conflict in this story?

Escaping contagion is the conflict. This leads to tremendous fear which immobilizes people. When the government stops individuals from touching their own faces, most participate willingly, to the best of their ability. But by the time touching others is forbidden and quarantines begin, the desire to connect grows beyond containment. Eventually, even the most accidental touch between strangers ignites passion.

Where and when is this story taking place?

The timeline is epic. It begins where we are today: contaminated spinach or cantaloupe can sicken the unsuspecting and kill the immunocompromised. As bacterial resistance grows, the government legislates behavior. Eventually the story moves three generations, or roughly 70 years, into the future—real and fictitious.

Who is your favorite character in this book?

I’m going to surprise myself and say Cathy. It certainly didn’t start out that way. In fact, I’ve been accused of not treating her very well, because her daughter Maggie often complains about her incessant talking. But there’s something I like about Cathy’s spirit. She doesn’t let life get her down. She takes things as they come and makes the best of them. That’s certainly not a quality I possess; I wish I had more of Cathy’s easy going nature. I wouldn’t want to be around her for long; don’t get me wrong. She would annoy me like she does Maggie, but I do admire her verve!

Are there elements of your personality or life experiences in this book?

One aspect that’s recognizably me is the way the Professor contemplates possible influences in how the world has come to function as it does. I ponder the culture around me constantly. Another part of me comes in the middle of the book when Maggie starts to develop a conspiracy theory about agri-business and the government working in cahoots. I don’t lie in bed at night with aluminum foil on my head to protect me from telecommunication waves, but I do see patterns in the movement of Monsanto’s top execs into a variety of government posts as less than ethical.

What is one thing from this book you wish was real or could happen to you?

I think I’d like to experience the Stir-Ball I created which provides a means of generating energy. It’s the equivalent of a hamster ball with a gyroscopic control to limit upside-down inversions as desired. I think it would be fun to drive a Stir-Ball if I had a large enough space to not hit walls often, something Pele isn’t given the luxury of in the novel.

What is something you wish wasn’t real and hope doesn’t happen to you?

I hope there are never Enforcers patrolling the streets keeping me from touching my face. I don’t want to live in a world in which government lackeys are dressed in various colors of burqa-like cover-ups hiding their features in an effort to protect them from contagion. Just the outfits provide a vision of the world falling apart in ways I hope to never see. It’s not unlike some of the street scenes in Ebola-ridden West Africa and that’s downright frightening.

Let’s say your book is being turned into a feature length film; quick- cast the main two characters and pick a theme song or score.

Isolation as a film would be a kind of the 1995 Outbreak meets Soderbergh’s 2011 Contagion.

Maggie would be played by Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Gary would be played by Billy Crudup.

Trevor would be played by Josh Malina.

Philip Glass would write the score. It would be in the vein of Koyaanisqatsi.

Do you have any special plans for this book in the near or far future?

My plans for Isolation involve finding more ways of promoting it. One of those may be my plans for writing, not a sequel exactly, but rather a variety of possible “next stages.” I want to pen several follow-ups that create different possible outcomes for readers to enjoy their visions of what could happen. In fact, if readers want to share ideas with me, I’d be thrilled to hear about their ideas on Isolation’s Facebook page:

Okay readers, bloggers, geeks, and authors, that’s all for today. Be sure to follow this blog to see who will be visiting next time. To obtain your copy of Isolation, please visit the links provided.

Electronic copies can be purchased directly at:
Denise Stephenson

Soft cover print versions can be purchased at the following links:
Amazon | Barnes and Nobel

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Toi Thomas

I like reading, writing, cooking, dancing, movies, and music. I'm a big kid and choose to see the world in my own special way. Yes, I'm educated, but I haven't let that stop me from being who I want to be. I'm a wife, teacher, author, blogger, and more.