When nuclear disaster strikes a New York City not so very different from our own, there is only one way out: the Gate, a one-of-a-kind prototype that offers an escape route for exactly 156,000 people. Now on the other side of the gate, these Universally Displaced Persons find themselves in our own New York—a place that is both familiar and utterly foreign. Sometime around 1910, a divergence in the timeline of these two worlds resulted in two separate realities, and now, the UDPs must catch up on ninety-plus years of political, social, and cultural history while simultaneously grappling with the loss of the world they have always known.
This is the premise of K Chess’s Famous Men Who Never Lived, a virtuosic debut novel in which first-rate world-building serves as the backdrop to the recognizably human struggles of the displaced, out tomorrow from Tin House Books.
Before the Gate, the novel’s protagonist Hel was a workaholic medical doctor; her partner, Vikram, was a PhD candidate studying a science fiction novel called The Pyronauts. A cult classic in Hel and Vikram’s world, The Pyronauts exists in this new place only as a single paperback, carried through the Gate in Vikram’s backpack. Deep in feelings of anger and grief, Hel becomes obsessed with the novel, launching a mission to preserve the history of her own world that leads her from rundown neighborhoods and park benches to art world galas and a stately mansion upstate.
K Chess was a W.K. Rose Fellow and her short stories have been honored by the Nelson Algren Award and the Pushcart Prize. She earned an MFA from Southern Illinois University and currently teaches at GrubStreet. K lives with her wife in Providence, Rhode Island.
I corresponded via email with Chess in the weeks before the novel’s release. We discussed obsessions, building alternate realities, and revision.
The Rumpus: It’s easy to imagine a more simplistic version of this story where one reality is clearly preferable: our New York exists as it does, but Hel’s world is either a utopian or a dystopian version. Yet the genius of the novel is that neither version of New York is obviously better off than the other. Even though the departure of the UDPs is precipitated by a nuclear disaster, it’s not a disaster of the sort that we can’t imagine happening in our own reality.
Chess: You know how, in time travel stories, the hero always has to be careful not to set off a ripple effect of unintended changes in the past that will irrevocable alter the present? There are in-story reasons for this—self-preservation, avoiding a temporal paradox, etc.—but it also seems like the audience is really attached to our world not being changed, at least not permanently. We have an idea that the way history happened to shake out here is inevitable and therefore preferable. Presenting an alternate universe that’s not easily categorized as better or worse was my way of signaling that the world of the UDPs is just as real. It’s more real, to people like Hel.
Rumpus: What role did research play in your writing? Or perhaps: what’s the interplay between research and imagination in creating a world that (as far as we know!) has never existed?
Chess: In order to write about divergences from history, I had to know what had actually happened and when. I researched questions like: how was lite beer invented? When and why did Brownsville in Brooklyn become such a poor neighborhood? What’s the history of the swastika? I enjoy that kind of trivia, anyway, so I learned a lot! At one point, a mentor suggested I consult with a physicist about the Gate that enables travel between worlds and how such a thing might practically work, but I never did. I didn’t want anyone to laugh at me.
Rumpus: I read in a Twitter thread on revision that, at one point during the writing of this novel, you flipped the genders of your two main characters. Tell me more! How did you make that decision and why did it turn out to be the right choice for this book?
Chess: This novel grew from a short story in which Vikram was the protagonist and Hel sort of supported him as he figured out his shit. I’m a woman and I like to believe that I’m thoughtful about avoiding stereotyping, but as a consumer of fiction, I guess I’ve internalized the idea that the male lead in a story should be the one who is getting into trouble and that another person, usually a women, will balance him and help him. Once I recognized that this was going on in my short story, I flipped them. That made the task of expansion more fun. It seems to me that many real-life relationships have both a Calvin and a Hobbes and that neither role is implicitly gendered. That said, I’ve noticed that a male protagonists are often unpleasant, yet still relatable. Readers seem to have a high tolerance for men who are stubborn, who complain, who make terrible decisions. I’m interested to see how well people will relate to Hel, who is a mess in all those same ways.
Rumpus: I’m so interested in the main characters’ jobs, and the way their professional lives change after they pass through the Gate. In some ways, it seems counterintuitive: as a medical doctor, Hel should be most able to translate her professional experience to a productive new role in our New York, and yet, it is Vikram who ultimately proves more adaptable. Why is that?
Chess: A lot of it has to do with personality, but some of it’s about privilege, too. Hel is a white woman and her former vocation conferred social capital. She worked really hard to get there, but she’s never had to consider that it could all be taken away. Unlike Vikram, who comes from an immigrant background, she’s used to being seen as an individual, not as a member of a group. So it really does a number on her.
Rumpus: What are your obsessions? How do they inform your writing?
K Chess: I’m not really an expert on anything practical, but a lot of my part-time fascinations found their way into Famous Men Who Never Lived, including Tarot readings, what squirrels do in the winter, the Krukenberg procedure, Ostalgie, and hoarders. This is the longest thing I’ve ever written, so these topics lent me energy when momentum started to stall. And my twenty-five-year-long obsession with shipwreck paintings helped me figure out the climax of the book. (Some other obsessions that did not make it in: survival cannibalism, confidence scams, figure skating, and the X-Men. Look for those in the next novel, I guess!)
Rumpus: I can’t wait to read a book about figure-skating cannibals! Now, I’d love to talk about the premise of the novel, which is both high-concept and beautifully executed—a fascinating thought experiment with a tangible, human ache. How did you end up settling on this particular “what if?” as your ultimate focus?
Chess: I started with the idea of a piece of art that existed only in people’s memories. What would happen if every single copy of a book that’s considered to be important just suddenly vanished? I read A Tale of Two Cities once, in tenth grade, and I still recall details like the improbably long letter written in blood and Madame Defarge knitting and “‘tis a far far better thing,” but not much of the actual plot. A scholar of nineteenth-century prose would be able to recreate what happens in what order, but no one could replicate its essential Dickensian-ness. Yet even if it was gone, I think the story would haunt the millions who have have read it. What kind of apocalypse could make a book vanish, I wondered. And what if it wasn’t a highbrow canonical classic? What it it was a pulp favorite, instead? And then I realized that I had to write parts of the missing book itself, too.
Rumpus: While we’re on the topic of career, I know that you’re a writer with a day job—how does working a 9-5 affect your writing?
Chess: It’s hard! Solidarity to anyone else trying to balance their writing with other obligations. I wrote a lot of Famous Men Who Never Lived when I barely had a real job. I would go in for a couple of hours and then I had the rest of the day to myself. This gave me the flexibility to work the way I always thought was most effective for me—in big, undisciplined bursts. Now, if I want to write, I have to get up at 5 a.m. I don’t have time to screw around as much. Because of the routine I’ve developed, I’ve found I can get into a groove quicker.
Rumpus: I love the way that the items that each of the UDPs choose to bring with them through the Gate becomes emblematic of who they are—a deadly serious version of our hypothetical questions about what you might bring to a desert island. In that spirit, I’m wondering: what would you bring through the Gate? I imagine this is something you’ve thought about.
Chess: I actually haven’t! Is that weird? I’m very comforted by the small objects that live on my dresser. I’ve got a picture of my wife as a fifth grader in a birchbark box, a bottle of perfume she gave me, two brass ashtrays shaped like shells, a plastic skull that I put spare change in. Maybe I’d take one of these useless items. What I realized from writing this book is there’s not a good choice, exactly. Why not go for sentimentality?
Rumpus: You recently taught a class on queer speculative fiction—is that right? Or queer characters in speculative fiction? What does it mean to you to be a queer writer? How does queerness inform your approach to writing?
Chess: Science fiction is a metaphor-happy genre, so there’s potential for queer themes to turn up in all kinds of clever ways. It was exciting to talk about that in the class, but I realized that what I crave most as a queer reader—in any genre—is representation that’s varied and realistic. As a queer writer, my work is creating characters like Ayanna and Angelene. They’re Black women. Their marriage is loving but imperfect. And being queer affects, but doesn’t define, the way they are with each other.
Rumpus: One of the many things that impressed me about Famous Men was the way you write so frankly about sex in a way that really shapes the reader’s understanding of the Hel, Vikram, and their relationship. Was that something that came easily for you? What were you thinking about when you were writing those part of the novel? Do you have any great tips for writing sex scenes?
Chess: I have never written about sex before! I think you’re absolutely on to something here: it’s a way to establish Hel’s and Vikram’s personalities and explore the dynamic between them. Sometimes, couples express themselves in sex when they’re not communicating well in other ways.
Rumpus: I’m also interested in the way the novel manages to be extremely timely and yet you’ve clearly been working on this project for a long time. Were there any current events happening while you were writing this book that shaped your writing process?
Chess: It’s creepy, right? When I was writing this, Mike Brown and Sandra Bland were in the headlines, and my sadness about their deaths made its way into the book. Unfortunately, profiling and prejudice and authoritarianism are perennial themes outside of fiction, too—they always seem relevant.
Rumpus: What are your influences? There is so much in this book that feels original, and yet I know that our writerly minds are always treading the territory of our readerly experiences. What are the books without which this book could not have been written?
Chess: One strong influence is Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich, which compiles interviews she conducted with dozens of ordinary people, including the firefighters and “liquidators” called in to do the dangerous clean-up work, and their families. What I especially admire is the way Alexievich allows her subjects’ individuality to come through as they tell their stories. I also read the novel The Insult, by Rupert Thomson, just before beginning Famous Men Who Never Lived and couldn’t get it out of my head. It’s a strange book which has little to do with my own from a plot standpoint, but it takes place in a city that is totally not a real place to its protagonist. I wanted that pervasive feeling of disorientation.
Rumpus: It’s clear to me as a reader that Tin House is doing incredible work, and I’d love to hear about your experience working with them on this project. What was your path to publication like? What has been your experience working with an indie press?
Chess: It’s been great! I want to give a shout-out to my editor, Tony Perez, who not only understood the story I wanted to tell, but had this amazing sense of what the draft needed. He encouraged me to reorder scenes to amplify tension in the second half of the book—something I never would have figured out alone. I also adore the cover and interior design of the book, by Jakob Vala. Everyone over there is really on point. It seems like my path to publication has been pretty typical; it took a couple of months to find an agent and a couple more months for Tony to express interest. The thing that took me by surprise is how long the publication process takes after the deal is sealed. There are periods of waiting in between each step that seem interminable when you don’t know to expect them.
Rumpus: What’s next for you? I see you bravely clocking into the #5AMWritersClub on Twitter. Would you share anything about what you’re working on now?
Chess: I’m working on a book about paranoia and double-crosses on an isolated marijuana trim-scene in northern California in 2010, just before legalization.
Rumpus: I feel like we writers tend to be rather cynical—and I imagine that the process of waiting for a book to come out is rife with anxieties of all kinds. So, as a sort of antidote to all that, tell me: what are you most proud of in this project?
Chess: When I reread my own book at the copyediting and proofreading stages, it was hard to see it the way a stranger would. I was tired of looking at it. But by the middle, I fell under its spell again and got caught up the momentum. I wanted to see what would happen next! That felt really good.
Photograph of K Chess © Bradlee Swinton Westie.