If you grew up in the United States, then you probably reached an age, early in your childhood, when American pop culture slammed you like a shockwave—when you suddenly realized that TV commercials and music videos and billboards and radio singles were calling out to you personally, ushering you into a strange new world of mass entertainment and consumerism. Most of us eventually become inured to this steady barrage, and we look back on the cultural flotsam of our formative years—the first movie we watched a hundred times, the first song we played on repeat—with rueful nostalgia. But we moved on.
Robert Repino never moved on. His debut novel, Mort(e), is a frantic mash-up of 1980s action movies, Saturday morning cartoons, and desperate, yearning love—the kind of love that a child feels for his mother. But in Mort(e) the love is between a former housecat—who served as an elite soldier in a war between humans and giant, hyper-intelligent ants—and his best friend, a dog. It’s as if an explosion happened in Robert Repino’s head when he was a kid—a Big Bang of riotous influences—and only now, decades later, has he been able to write it all down.
But that’s not a fair description. It’s hard to sum up someone you know really well, and I know Robert Repino really well. He has crashed on my coach. He has thrown me touchdown passes. He gave a toast at my wedding. He is someone I can describe in a million different ways.
So here is another way. Robert Repino is a Senior Editor at Oxford University Press, where he works closely with scholars such as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Caribbean nation of Grenada. Having been raised Catholic in a suburb of Philadelphia, he is endlessly conflicted about issues of religion, community, and duty—and he is well aware that being conflicted about such things is nothing new. He looks and sounds almost exactly like Chris Messina, the actor who plays Danny Castellano on The Mindy Project. He has written a debut novel, Mort(e), that uses an allegory about common household animals in a post-apocalyptic world to open up new and unanswerable questions about the nature of love, belief, and individuality. Both the author and the book are absolutely terrific.
The Rumpus: Do you feel like a writer?
Robert Repino: I do, finally. I can actually say it out loud. Not to suggest that you have to publish a book to call yourself that, but I definitely felt very self-conscious about calling myself a writer until recently because it initiates these awkward conversations, where you have to explain why you’re calling yourself a writer, and what exactly it is that you do. But for the past two years I’ve been working on my writing almost every single day. It’s actually a very weird day when I’m not writing. I have to either be on vacation or at my parents’ house in Philadelphia to not be doing work. I feel like I’ve put in so much work now that if I’m not a writer, nobody is.
Before Mort(e) I was working on another book, and when I had trouble selling it I felt like, “I’m not a real writer, I’m just a pissed-off, frustrated writer.” I was starting to fit every stereotype. I was like, “Grrr, don’t even talk to me about the publishing industry.”
Rumpus: Why do you think this book is the one that’s getting published? Because you have written other novel manuscripts, other screenplays. Why did the world say yes to Mort(e) compared to your other projects?
Repino: Well, it is a lot of timing and a lot of luck. I am convinced of that. In this case I had an agent who was hellbent on selling it, and she was willing to take some chances and send it to some unlikely publishers. Soho Press doesn’t do science fiction, typically, definitely not this kind of wacky science fiction, and my agent was willing to give them a shot, where I think other agents would have said no. And I had a champion for the book in [Soho editor] Mark Doten. That’s a great example of the good luck that this book had, because an editor who has written a novel [The Infernal] about George W. Bush in hell might really be the guy for my book.
A lot of the stuff I write is trying to straddle that line between literary and science fiction, and as frustrated as we can get with those categories, they are still useful in some ways. They’re certainly useful to people in the publishing industry. Publishing industry people use those terms and they mean business. Some of the agents who turned down Mort(e) said, “This book can’t make up its mind about what it is,” and I can’t blame them for that because it’s an accurate statement. But I like to think that maybe it’s time for some science fiction books that aren’t just, you know, a white guy on a quest. My book is trying to be subversive in that sense. Not only is it a story from the perspective of animals, but it’s also a story that’s trying to undermine the whole idea of being a chosen one.
Rumpus: When you were writing from the perspective of animals, did you ever decide to be wrong about the biological science? Like, did you ever make a judgment call where you decided to misrepresent the facts about these animals in order to make the story better?
Repino: Definitely, and most of that involves the ant queen. The ant queen in my book is a ruler in the traditional sense, while the queen in a real ant colony is not. In a real ant colony the queen is just a specialized worker who is very valuable to the others—a worker who is so important that the other individuals have to protect her in order to keep the colony alive.
Also, I took some incredible liberties with the ant language. It was a really complex topic, and I needed to simplify it for the purposes of the story. The book is already quite long so I didn’t want to have a huge information dump about the way the ant’s chemical language works. So I took some extreme liberties with that. The ant language in the book is much more complex, and the queen is able to use the language as if it were a store of knowledge. She stores it all in her brain, so she remembers the entire history of the colony from the perspective of every single individual who’s ever been a member of it. That was the storyline that I wanted to go with, and obviously there’s nothing in biology even close to that, as far as we know.
I probably could have done more research on the dogfighting sequences. It’s kind of hard to do research on an illegal activity. I don’t know how accurate some of the information was, so I kept it purposely vague. But yeah, those are the main areas where I was definitely in over my head and just had to make some decisions and move forward.
Rumpus: And I imagine you’re prepared to defend your decisions to any science geek who comes out of the woodwork to complain?
Repino: I am. It sort of reminds me of the line from the Mystery Science Theater song.
Rumpus: Which is?
Repino: It’s something like, when they’re talking about Joel’s stuff on the space station: [singing] “If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes, and other science facts / Repeat to yourself, ‘It’s just a show. I should really just relax.’”
So there you go. I’ll sing that if the scientists give me a hard time.
Repino: One of the things I discovered while writing about animals is that Microsoft Word has a bias against referring to an animal as a person. So if you write something like, “He was a cat who liked jazz music,” the little green squiggly line appears under the word “who.” Because they think it should be, “He was a cat that liked jazz music.” So there’s a weird linguistic bias against the concept of personhood when it comes to animals. It speaks to the whole question of, What would we do if we came across another sentient species? It would upend a lot of our assumptions and biases and narcissism. Whether we meet them as aliens, or whether we meet them as a sentient species on our own planet, it would overturn everything.
Regardless of whether we meet them, we should probably overturn everything anyway.
Repino: The tips of his fingers have actually been cut off. That’s why declawing cats is arguably inhumane. And it’s one of many reasons for Mort(e) to be angry at the humans who owned him. It sort of shows the unintentional cruelty that you can inflict on a pet, even though you’re doing it to protect them and make them healthier. But if a cat had our intelligence he would regard that as a grave violation.
The neutering plays into the many prejudices and caste systems that you see among the animals in the novel. And it plays into the weird relationship that Mort(e) has with Sheba. Their relationship is fraught for a number of regions. It’s more than a friendship, but it’s not sexual. They are different species. They are the product of an illicit affair. And he can’t mate, while she has a very biological desire to mate.
Rumpus: How did you decide which species of animals to turn into humanoid characters, and which species to leave alone? Like, why don’t we see any anthropomorphic grasshoppers, for instance?
Repino: A lot of that is because of the location. It would have been cool to have some lizard characters, for example. But the story takes place in Pennsylvania, so the selection of animals is dictated by what you’d find in a temperate climate like Pennsylvania.
Rumpus: I know you watch a shit-ton of action movies. And Mort(e) is really cinematic. It’s full of battle scenes and action movie tropes. Did you feel limited by the format of the novel when you were writing this very action-oriented book? Or, conversely, was it ever liberating to stage a cinematic scene using the tools of a novel?
Repino: I enjoy writing action scenes. I guess it is easier in a novel because you have the freedom of simply adding exposition at any moment. Of course you have to pick the right moments to do that. If you’re in the middle of a battle and a character starts thinking about something that happened to him when he was a teenager, then it’s not the right time for that. When you’re writing a screenplay you don’t have that freedom. It has to be all visual. And that’s the thing: so many times you can tell a movie is trying too hard when they decide, in the climactic third-act set piece, to stop the action and have the characters think about something. Or worse, talk to each other about what’s happening, even though there’s an explosion going on, or they’re in a collapsing building. It doesn’t work. In a novel you have the ability to enter the character’s thoughts during an action sequence, but you have to use that ability properly.
Rumpus: What do you mean “properly”?
Repino: I hate to resort to the show-don’t-tell thing, but that’s what it amounts to. You have to decide, in terms of the pacing and the whole point of the action sequence, when to use inner thoughts and when to use exposition.
With a novel you can’t have an action scene just for the sake of it. You can get away with that in an action movie, but in a novel there has to be a point. Either someone has to be learning about who they are, or it has to be moving the story forward in a very specific way.
Rumpus: Last night I watched Divergent. Do you know this movie?
Repino: Uh huh. [My roommate] Freddy Lopez was watching it just now. And I saw it with my book club.
Rumpus: There’s a scene where Tris and her mother are in a gun battle, and all these Dauntless soldiers are coming at them. But as soon as her mother dies, nobody’s shooting at Tris anymore. She’s like, crying and walking down an alley. It’s as if the enemy soldiers just abandon the battle as soon as the hero needs some alone time. I feel like that’s the problem you’re describing about balancing internal moments and action moments.
Repino: They tried to shoehorn an emotional moment into a scene where it absolutely did not belong.
Rumpus: On the other hand, you have movies where something traumatic happens to the main character during an action sequence, and they play out the rest of the scene, and then afterward the main character goes and slumps against a wall and all their emotions pour out. That seems more believable.
Repino: That happens in Children of Men. Very good movie. His wife gets killed, and there’s no slow-motion moment where he’s like “Nnnnooooo!!!” None of that crap. Because there are people chasing them with Molotov cocktails!
Rumpus: I remember that scene. As a viewer I feel like it’s even more breathtaking, or gasp-inducing, when the emotional consequences of the action are delayed. You have to suppress your reaction until the danger passes. It gives you the same confusion and inner conflict that the characters have.
Your book has a lot to say about organized religion, Why are you using a science fiction book about animals to criticize religion?
Repino: Well, I love writing about religion—not necessarily to criticize it, but just to talk about it. I’m fascinated by the whole idea of believing in something without having any evidence for it, and just in the history of religion, the way it’s become fused with politics, the way it’s fused with people’s identities, the way it can animate people. I’m fascinated.
As far as how it belongs in a book with animals, Mort(e) has a central question, a very simplistic question, which is, “What makes humans evil?” The ant queen comes up with an answer that I don’t necessarily believe, but I think it’s a very interesting answer: She puts all the blame on what she perceives as the folly of believing that humans are the center of the universe, and this planet belongs solely to us, and the creator of the universe has designed it all just for us, and there is another universe waiting for us after we die. I think there’s a lot to critique there.
The easy way to criticize religion is to say, “Well, first of all, there’s no evidence for you to believe in all that, and second, look at all the suffering it’s caused.” Of course, that’s very simplistic. It’s a lot more complex than that, and religion is far more than just believing X, Y, and Z. It’s a communal experience, which is something I try to talk about in the book. It’s something that people use to give them hope and give them an identity and create a moral framework. So it’s more than just believing stuff. That’s something that a lot of critics of religion get wrong. They say, “These people believe something crazy and they’re idiots, and that’s the end of the discussion.” There’s more to it than that, and I’m the kind of person who loves debating this with people. I enjoy arguing.
Mort(e) is not simply saying that religion is stupid and people who reject it are good. Because clearly in this book, some of the characters who have rejected it—including the ant queen who has apparently lost her mind, and Culdesac, the bobcat who is so gung-ho for war that he’s even willing to betray his friend—they’ve taken their skepticism of religion to an insane place. Meanwhile, the humans who are still practicing religion—a religion that has clearly been cobbled together—they are resourceful and intelligent. They are trying to build a new society, they are showing mercy, and they are learning from the past in ways that the queen, in her self-righteousness, has failed to do. So I am trying to make it a little more complex than just saying religion’s stupid.
Religion is the most fascinating topic. It’s frustrating to me that talking about religion, even politely, is often regarded as inappropriate. I wish we could argue about it all the time and not hurt each other’s feelings.
Rumpus: I thought you thought machine guns were the most fascinating topic.
Repino: You know, it’s funny how they sometimes go hand-in-hand with religion.
Rumpus: A lot of sick things happen in your writing, not only in Mort(e), but also in your short stories and your unpublished novels. You write a lot of very creative, very sickening violence. Is it hard to come up with that stuff, or is it always swirling around in your head?
Repino: I don’t have a handy supply of sickening ideas, if that’s what you’re thinking. But I am morbidly fascinated by violence, even though I’m not a violent person. I don’t own any firearms. I can’t imagine myself ever owning one or using one or getting into a real fight with anyone. That’s just not who I am.
But I love it when a character is pushed so far that they’re willing to commit an act of violence that, at the beginning of the story, you couldn’t possibly imagine them doing. I think that’s always an interesting journey to take with a character—that moment in the story where we finally see them break and resort to some kind of horrific violence that they couldn’t have anticipated, and then they’re living with the consequences afterward.
Rumpus: Tell me about the prose style in your book.
Repino: I’m not a stylist. Let’s put it that way. So I don’t think anyone’s going to read my book and go, “The prose is so beautiful!” No one has ever done that, which is fine. That’s not really what I do. I strive more for clarity—not that they’re mutually exclusive, but for me they sometimes are. It’s that sort of George Orwell—oh god, I’m comparing myself to George Orwell. Please forgive me, George! But as Orwell might say, clarity is the most important thing, and especially in a book as ridiculously implausible as Mort(e), I think it’s a requirement.
Rumpus: I want to say your style is deadpan. With the really sci-fi stuff, you’re cautious, precise. You never giggle. Sometimes I feel like giggling at the ridiculousness of the story, but as the author, you never do. You’re credible, and I think in the long term that credibility is what builds the authenticity of the world.
Repino: Thank you. I like that word, “deadpan.”
One of the big challenges of a book like this is to build the world without getting bogged down in information dumps. I had to drop in details and move on, like the scene where the animals are rebuilding, and Mort(e) drives by a building that’s being fixed up, and there are a bunch of rats wearing goggles. I had to drop this ridiculous image of a family of rats, painting a house, wearing goggles because their eyes are very sensitive to the light—just drop that image and move on.
There are only two or three intentionally funny moments in the book. I’m sure people reading it are going to find more. There’s a Star Trek reference that’s trying to get the reader to actually laugh, and there’s a scene where the pig introduces himself as Bonaparte, and Mort(e) says to him, “Oh, Napoleon was taken?” But there’s really only a couple of those moments that are genuinely trying to be funny. The rest of it is deadpan, like you said, because there’s so much to cover, so many species, so much history, so many people’s personal damage. You can’t get bogged down in stuff.
Rumpus: Whose approval would make you most happy? Like, aside from your family and friends, is there anyone—living or dead, famous or not—who, if they praised your book, it would mean the world to you and you could die a happy man?
Repino: Well I just wrote an essay praising Ursula Le Guin. If she said something nice about my book, I would probably cry, and then I would tell the person next to me I wasn’t crying, it was just my contact lenses. The epigraph to Mort(e) is from Margaret Atwood. Her approval would mean a lot to me as well. And I guess there are some scientists who, if they were willing to read my book and at least find it sort of acceptable. I remember when Neil deGrasse Tyson did a live Twitter feed of all the mistakes in the movie Gravity. I was like, “Oh shit, I don’t want E.O. Wilson doing that to Mort(e)!” That would depress me. George Orwell and Kurt Vonnegut are no longer with us, but that would be amazing.
Rumpus: Jesus? Abraham Lincoln?
Repino: I don’t think Jesus would like it.
Rumpus: Abraham Lincoln was a vampire slayer.
Repino: Yeah, he should be cool with it.