We Live in a Speculative Fiction Novel Right Now: A Conversation with Andrew DeYoung

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I once worked a temp job in Colma, California, a town known for the cemeteries that take up most of the city’s land. My fellow temps and I made a lot of zombie apocalypse jokes. I thought of that job often as I read Andrew DeYoung’s The Temps. In this novel, a group of temps are trapped inside their huge corporate headquarters when a world-altering event happens outside. It’s hard not to play out the experiment over your own less-than-satisfying work experiences: How long would we have survived? How long would the internet have remained active to continue our long games of Words With Friends (the Wordle of the early 2010s)? Who among us would have fallen prey to conspiracy theories of what was happening?

Andrew DeYoung lives in St. Paul with his wife and two children. His debut novel, The Exo Project, was the winner of a Minnesota Book Award. The Temps, his second novel, is part mystery, part speculative fiction, and part examination of the nature of work in the twenty-first century. As the characters make their homes in cubicles, find new relationships, and (yes!) continue to make PowerPoint presentations, they also move steadily toward a greater understanding of not just what their world is, but what it could be.

Andrew and I chatted through email and over coffee about the novel’s road to publication, the world of the novel, and how we make meaning from the absurdity of life in our present-day economy.

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The Rumpus: Can you tell me a little about your inspiration and how the premise came to you?

Andrew DeYoung: This one started with an image. For years, I had in my head the image of an office worker wandering alone in a sea of empty cubicles. I found it compelling, but I didn’t know why. I didn’t have a story. The first time I tried to do anything with it was in an honestly pretty bad short story, a sort of modern-day Kafka rip-off in which a young temp worker becomes the sole remaining employee of a mega-corporation due to a clerical error that keeps sending him a paycheck while everyone else is laid off. It was a dreary affair, but at the end things started to get a little surreal when the temp started to simply live at the office, and there started to be hints that the civilization outside the office building was starting to crumble. My readers were in agreement that the story was dull, but that I might be onto something with the hints of apocalypse at the end. I tossed the story, filed the idea away, then eventually came up with the premise of a group of temp workers stuck at the office during an apocalypse. As soon as I hit on it, I knew that there was something there. I thought it captured what made the original image so compelling—it seemed to have something to do with the feeling I had a lot when I was starting in my career and still get sometimes—of being adrift in this world-killing capitalist system that I don’t fully understand. As a story idea, it also felt fun, and even a little bit funny.

Rumpus: What was the writing and submission process like?

DeYoung: I gave it to my agent and he didn’t like it. He and I were already not seeing eye to eye on a few things. It was becoming a somewhat fraught relationship even prior to his not liking the manuscript, and this was kind of the final straw. Not that I thought that The Temps was some great work of genius or anything, but I did think it was very me. It came out of my point of view, and if he wasn’t into it, he probably wasn’t into me, or what I had to offer. So, we parted company. I embarked on a search for a new agent and also submitted it to publishers, including Keylight. They picked it up off the slush pile.

At the time that I heard they wanted to publish it, it was like a year or two after I sent it, and I had totally forgotten about it.

Rumpus: That’s a good story!

DeYoung: Yes! Since then, it has been optioned for TV, so I’m feeling kind of vindicated.

Rumpus: You build a world within a world for the temps. What were the initial challenges in creating this environment? Did the contained setting limit the story in any way?

DeYoung: I discovered pretty quickly that the office couldn’t just be a symbol for the characters’ disillusionment. If I was going to set a whole novel there, it had to be a specific office building, with a specific company, that was in a specific type of business. I had to think about building layouts, the number of employees who worked there, the different kinds of spaces and rooms that might be there. Basically, it was what speculative fiction writers call worldbuilding. I had to create this place and its rules.

Luckily, that stuff was a lot of fun for me. I’m weirdly fascinated with large-scale constructed spaces, the kind of buildings you can walk around in for a long time without stepping outside. The Minneapolis area where I live has a lot of examples of this type of building. There’s the Mall of America, the MSP airport, and then of course a number of huge corporate office complexes: Best Buy, Thomson Reuters, 3M, Target, and also the Minneapolis skyway, which connects dozens of skyscrapers downtown through a series of above-ground tunnels. In spite of their being entirely indoors, these spaces are anything but dull. They’re entire self-contained ecosystems, with bizarre nooks and crannies of the kind that you see in the Liminal Spaces Twitter account. The setting ultimately didn’t feel limiting because I was intent on evoking that strangeness. My corporate complex in the book has a food court, a coffee shop, a gym, a theater, as well as a lot of bizarre stuff that the temps discover while they’re stranded there. My hope was for the constrained setting to really feel like a world: a self-contained infinity of possibilities.

Rumpus: The technology in this book is not exactly ours, but nothing about it seems particularly futuristic. Our apps and games are reflected, like double-edged swords, back at us. When you were writing, how important was it to make the temp’s world familiar to readers?

DeYoung: I think my overall hope was to make the world of the novel both familiar and strange at the same time—or maybe to reveal the strangeness in the familiar. I think our world is very strange, as it is. The things we have to do every day to make money and live are strange. What corporations do to part us from our money or to turn us into money is strange. The way we consume images of death and destruction on tiny screens and leave little pieces of ourselves all over the internet…it’s strange. In a lot of ways, we live in a surreal speculative fiction novel right now. But it’s hard to recognize that, because the strangeness is such a part of our everyday lives that it becomes familiar.

I think the line I was trying to walk, in regard to the book, was to make the world strange, but not too strange, and familiar, but not too familiar. Nobody wants to read another boring Facebook critique, but if I made the tech outlandish, it wouldn’t reflect back on the world as it is. Most of the time I was just messing around, going for that just-right feeling—a little odd and disquieting, maybe a little funny.

Rumpus: The other major character in the novel is the corporation they all work for, Delphi Enterprises. Despite the Supreme Court ruling that corporations are people, I have yet to see that play out quite as strongly in a novel as I did in yours. Do you see Delphi Enterprises as a character, absurd as that may be?

DeYoung: I hadn’t thought about it until just now, but I think that’s really perceptive. I’ve always been fascinated and unsettled by this legal concept that corporations are people. My career outside of writing has led me into project management and managing people, and what I’ve observed there is that organizations and systems really do seem to have a personality and a will that exists independently of the people who are part of that system. It’s almost like the organization is a machine, and the people are its parts, or that the people are the neurons or circuits in a form of artificial intelligence. That’s not to say that people who are part of harmful organizations are off the hook. People are complicit. But at the same time, I observe that the organization—through some quirk of its structure, the combined interaction of its human parts and their incentives—has a powerful will of its own. That obviously came through in my book, if Delphi Enterprises is reading as a character on some level.

Rumpus: After the apocalypse, there are temps who just keep working. This struck me as both completely irrational and also very relatable after a pandemic that didn’t disrupt many office jobs. What do you think it says about those characters when they return to their desks despite the death just beyond the walls?

DeYoung: This detail strikes me as less absurd now, after the pandemic, than it did when I first started writing this book in 2017. At the time, I threw it in because it felt outlandish and funny in the right way, but now it hits different. It turns out that in a real global disaster like a pandemic, a lot of people’s reaction is to deny what’s happening and try to make sure that everything continues exactly as before. You can see this in the way a lot of us simply moved our offices to our homes, or the people who insisted on going to bars and gyms without masks.

I don’t know exactly what this says about us, except maybe something about our desire for the familiar and comforting in times of upheaval, and the way we make meaning out of our everyday lives. After our typical daily rituals are taken away, a lot of people struggle to exist moment to moment. What now? What will we do? How will we pass our days? A lot of people don’t have great answers to those questions, so they return to familiar rituals, even if they no longer make sense in the new context.

Rumpus: There is clear corporate satire in the book and I’m wondering how much the temps themselves are able to see it?

DeYoung: I think the reader and the characters are very close, in terms of where their heads are. People’s relationships with work and their relationships with organizations—extremely powerful organizations like corporations—are among the most important relationships that exist even if we don’t always think about it that way. I definitely thought a lot about how people make sense of that. There is a lot about our economy that doesn’t make sense, and there are a lot of jobs where the meaning of what you are doing is not immediately clear. The impact of our work on the world is not immediately clear, and we might be doing jobs that are bringing us closer to the end of the world, but it doesn’t feel like it. We’re just working on PowerPoint slides or writing copy. I don’t always understand how what I’m doing adds up to good or bad in the world.

Rumpus: It makes me think about explaining work to my young son, who doesn’t yet understand the phrase, “I have to go work.”

DeYoung: There was probably a point in history when it was a bit clearer. You’re a bricklayer or make shoes and now there are so many jobs that you can’t explain to a kid. You get to the end of the day, and you haven’t made anything and it’s not even clear to you what you’ve done. And this is maybe most of the jobs in the twenty-first century.

Rumpus: I thought I could explain that work was something grown-ups did in order to contribute to society, but that’s not entirely true!

DeYoung: That’s something the temps are struggling with. They all have things they want to contribute and ways they want to make meaning of their lives, but it’s being denied to them. For example, one of the temps wants to practice therapy and connect with something meaningful in the human psyche. But she’s stuck writing online personality quizzes instead, and she’s not even sure how the company makes money from it. They are all just kind of stuck.

Rumpus: Rather than work being a place to follow your dream, or make a difference, it’s the place you work because you have to figure out a way to pay your rent.

DeYoung: You might follow your dreams, but no one is going to pay you for it, and you’ll have to figure out something else to make money. Or you’ll follow your dreams in the way that the corporate machine can use your skills, which has nothing to do with making the world a better place or giving you a sense of personal meaning. We hope for a work situation where, at the very least, it doesn’t make you feel bad, and hopefully you’re not actively making the world worse. Sometimes that’s the best you can do.

Rumpus: Are there novels or authors you think of as being direct or indirect inspirations for this novel?

DeYoung: I think it’s impossible to write about the modern office without being influenced by Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, one of the all-time great office novels. In particular, Ferris does this thing of treating his office workers as individuals but also as a collective entity, occasionally using a first-person plural “we” as a narrator. I thought about that a lot, as I tried to make my group of office temps a collective that takes on its own group identity.

I also found myself revisiting Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto for its exploration of a confined setting as a self-contained world with its own rules and rituals. Jeff Vandermeer’s Authority—the middle volume of his Southern Reach Trilogy—was an influence for its portrayal of a shadowy organization that becomes a sort of living organism in its own right.

Rumpus: What’s next for you in reading and writing?

DeYoung: I’m in a bit of a strange place when it comes to what’s next. I’ve got a new agent, and a couple of novel manuscripts I’m trying to figure out what to do with. Partly because of how The Temps came to be—my agent not liking it, the book getting picked up off the slush pile—I actually went in a different direction for a while. I attempted writing something in a more straight-realist vein. Now I’m wondering if it’s time to turn back to the speculative or playing with the absurd or bizarre. I’ve been tinkering with a few ideas relating to the decline of democracy that we’ve seen in America, and the vein of ugliness revealed by the Trump and post-Trump eras, which I’ve found both absurd and terrifying to live through. We’ll see. I think I’m in a period of discerning—seeing how The Temps lands with folks, and seeing what inspires me next.


Margaret LaFleur can often be found reading over the heads of her small children. She writes and teaches in St. Paul, Minnesota. More from this author →