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Interview with T.C. McCarthy: Debut Author of Germline

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Monday, July 25, 2011

Interview with T.C. McCarthy: Debut Author of Germline

Germline is T.C. McCarthy's debut novel from Orbit Books.  My review can be found here and I'm calling it my favorite debut of the year so far.  It's due out in stores tomorrow July 26 and on August 1 in eBook format.

War is Oscar Wendell's ticket to greatness. A reporter for The Stars and Stripes, he has the only one way pass to the front lines of a brutal war over natural resources buried underneath the icy, mineral rich mountains of Kazakhstan.

But war is nothing like he expected. Heavily armored soldiers battle genetically engineered troops hundreds of meters below the surface. The genetics-the germline soldiers-are the key to winning this war, but some inventions can't be un-done. Some technologies can't be put back in the box.
Kaz will change everything, not least Oscar himself. Hooked on a dangerous cocktail of adrenaline and drugs, Oscar doesn't find the war, the war finds him.

Justin: Given the extremely personal nature of Germline’s first-person narrative, any conversation about the book will begin and end with your main character - Oscar Wendell. I would think that an author’s first published protagonist would be very personal. Is that in the ballpark?

McCarthy: Not only are you in the ball park, but that's a bulls-eye. It was my first book and so reflected the fact that I'm in that "write what you know" zone. Oscar is a blend of my own feelings, observations I've taken reagarding people around me, and what I would imagine combat to be like from the perspective of someone least equipped to handle it. This last point was a conscious choice because it underscores the emotional aspects of Oscar's character since he was no warrior at the book's start; I wanted a strong contrast. That was the idea, anyway, so I hope it worked.

Justin: The most surprising thing to me after finishing the book was that you aren't a vet.  The whole story is told from inside the head of a guy on the front lines and it feels so authentic.  With your background I’m sure you’ve been exposed to guys who've been in the shit.  Did you do any interviewing or biography reading to prepare to write this kind of firsthand account?

McCarthy: I did no interviewing, but I've read about war almost my entire life and it's odd now that I have kids; one of them is already showing signs of liking the same books despite my efforts to steer him in another direction. Back to the question: I already had a sense of how war-novels read, and how the best ones are written -- especially Michael Herr's Dispatches (Justin: not in eBook format yet, grrrr). I re-read it a few years ago after I'd failed to sell any short stories and realized that his style was so amazing and so unique, and his story so compelling, that many science fiction war novels have a hard time measuring up. I'd already started working on Germline at that point as a novella. But upon receiving a critique from a fellow writer (Nick Mamatas) I scrapped my draft, and re-wrote it as a novel while still under the influence of Herr. Blame him.

And, yeah. I know guys who have been in it, and only one stands out but he wasn't an influence for Germline. He was a lifelong friend of my family, had been in Vietnam, and was a supremely nice man whose gentleness overwhelmed everyone. But he had those eyes. Sometimes you sensed he was back in the jungle-- mentally -- and you just knew never to ask him questions about the war.

Justin:  We've got a lot of soldiers coming home these days suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Symptoms shown in the novel suggest PTSD among well – everyone.  In your imaginings of Germline's war, how much thought did you give to what kind of impacts it was having back home? Will we see those impacts at some point in the trilogy? 

McCarthy: Confession: I have PTSD -- but it was the result of a family tragedy, which occurred here in the States, so Oscar's thoughts and feelings (some of them -- and not the really crazy ones) came from those experiences. I have given thought to the impact PTSD will have here at home, but other than what's in Germline, its impact only makes a brief appearance in book three. Instead of trying to deal with such a complex issue in my writing, I decided to send freebies to veterans' groups who deal with returning soldiers. My thought was that young guys and girls coming home probably will resist discussing their personal problems despite having PTSD symptoms (funny thing: if you have PTSD, the last thing you want to do is talk about it), but they might be willing to discuss Oscar Wendell's problems; so I'd like to see Germline used as a tool to get people to open up. PTSD is really, really shitty. Really.

Justin: In your novel, the primary conflict between the U.S. and Russia is over rare metals.  Have you been following the Rare Earths issue in the press (article)? China is the largest exporter of Rare Earths today and the U.S. is in full-court press to begin developing our own source of supply. It seems like your conflict in Germline is a bit prophetic. Should we send some clones to China?

McCarthy: You bet I've been following it! There's a lot of attention being paid to oil and the fact that we'll run out of it someday. This is true. However, as a geologist I look at the oil problem and see so many solutions: fusion, tidal power, alcohol, biosynthetically derived hydrocarbons, etc. How does one synthesize rare earth elements? Just like oil, our metallic resources will dwindle and expire some day (and what about gaseous resources -- have you ever thought about where all that cheap helium comes from?) and to replace those we can't just set up a production factory; we'll have to go into space. I really hope lawmakers can make some kind of deal where US rare earths can be mined in a way that satisfies environmental concerns. And it's amazing you'd ask: in books two and three we don't send clones to China, but they sure send them at us...

Justin: When Publishers Weekly gave you a starred review, what did you do to celebrate?

Nothing. I am on such a tight schedule that I jumped up and down for a while, told my wife, tweeted the news to everyone I could and then started writing again. Sigh. It was the first indication that a professional reviewer "got" Germline; a few "meh" or negative reviews I've gotten don't appear to have come from people who are widely read. That's the great thing about PW, Kirkus, Staffer's Musings, etc; their reviewers will have not read only SF, but also all the great military nonfiction, literary fiction, and anything else they can get their hands on -- so their perspective is likely much broader.

"I love Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon, therefore am qualified to review everything", or "I don't know you or your background so without reading it I can tell your book glorifies war" or "your book mentions Stars and Stripes and has Marines so must therefore be an SF version of 'Full Metal Jacket'" are assessments that (a) I've actually encountered -- I'm not kidding -- and (b) are somewhat disturbing. By the way, Full Metal Jacket was actually based on a book by Gustav Hasford called The Short Timers, and I don't think that particular reviewer ever read it. I have the fourth edition from 1983 and promise you: it reads nothing like Germline.

Justin: So, Germline is due out tomorrow and I believe you've already turned in the sequel Exogen to your publisher.  Is it a sequel or more of a second, but detached, installment to the Subterrene War Trilogy?

Two is detached from one. It has different characters, leaves the battlefield within the first three chapters, and you never see Oscar Wendell again. However, books two and three are a little more linked to each other and I could see how three would be considered a sequel to two. In those books I examine something that seems really strange to me: there are people who feel at home in war. So I wanted to look at the character traits of folks like that from two perspectives -- one genetic, one human. 

Justin: What's the "goal" for the series? Feel free to wax rhapsodic here. 

I have two goals.

The first is simply to get people talking about war, its effects on people young and old, and what happens when war becomes a business. Where is our society headed? You mentioned in your Germline review that some women might be offended by the way they're portrayed, and when I read that I thought "good." In book three you get a closer look at the homefront and how women are treated in what, I admit, is an extreme scenario with a low probability of actually occurring. The point I'm making is not that I think women can't fight, it's that the closer we move toward treating war as a business, the less we think in terms of people and their rights regardless of sexual orientation, gender or race; economizing war makes its practice more a question of efficiency and bottom lines than one based on human life. Hence the choice of women genetics over men. Hence the removal of human women from the battlefield so they can have children to populate future armies. It sounds corny here, but I think in a fictional setting it plays out better.

The second goal was to write a book that would sell -- in real brick and mortar stores. And I want to continue writing, hopefully until I die. In order to accomplish this mission and get future publishing contracts, my books have to make at least some money for Orbit and can't just sit on shelves. Fingers crossed...


Of course, I couldn't let T.C. go without asking some nonsense questions... believe me... I'm full of nonsense questions.

Justin: I know you've got a few kids. Where do you come down on Dora the Explorer and her cousin Diego?

McCarthy: Resistance is futile. Just go with it. Backpack, backpack; backpack, backpack...

Justin: You're from down south. My wife wants to move us down there. Give me two reasons why my wife is right. 

McCarthy: The people are very friendly. 2. I love the slow pace. 3. I love the kudzu and Spanish moss. 4. There's a feeling you get when you see the poverty down here that just makes you want to help, and makes you feel like although things are bad, the people are tough -- they deal with it. 5. would be golf, but I'm not much for golfing.

Justin: Texas, Memphis, or KC barbecue. I'm open to a fourth option.

McCarthy: Carolina. I love the honey-based sauces and I'm not talking about the stuff at Applebees, I'm talking about the barbecue joints down here that are run out of people's homes and are only open two days a week because they need the rest of the time to roast. Now I'm hungry. But Texas is pretty good too, especially brisket.

Justin: I have a full head of hair, but choose to keep it buzzed at a zero blade. Are you horrified by this disregard for my wavy locks or do you find it an expression of brotherhood with the follicly challenged?

McCarthy: You are a fool; doesn't your wife beg you to let it grow? (Justin: no, my mother on the other hand...) I find myself horrified and grateful at the same time for the show of solidarity. That being said, as soon as they find the cure, I'm breaking out my wallet and growing some hair to leave you guys behind.

Follow T.C. on Twitter @tcmccarthy_ or visit his website and blog at

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