With the world ending around him, Ward flounders for purpose and survival. Resources are gone, disease is rampant, and governments have all but dissolved. The only way off the broken planet is with the Order. Obsessed with technology, the Order is a cult that has developed the means for faster-than-light travel. They claim they can populate the galaxy and save humanity.
Ward joins the Order, inspired by sudden and irrational love for a mysterious beauty named Kansas who saves his life. But quickly, he finds out Kansas and the Order want him to kill adults and kidnap children from across the country. With impressionable youth filling their starships, the Order hopes for their tenets to be spread to all future generations of humanity.
The Order is Ward’s only chance for survival in the wreck the earth has become. Worse than that, those in the Order come to accept him and value his skills for their nightmarish quest across the dystopian landscape of America. But, somewhere inside of him, still, is the strength to strike out on his own and protect whatever good he can find left in the world.
Interview with J.P. Lantern
Can you talk a little about what the book is about?
Dustbowl follows Ward, a very troubled young man, in a dystopian, civil war-torn America that is all but decayed. At the start of the novel, he is grieving his younger brother’s death by suicide, which Ward blames himself for, and uses alcohol to cover the pain. When he hears of his father’s death, he goes on this enormous bender and almost ends up dead—but his life is saved by a mysterious woman named Kansas.
Kansas is a member of the Order, a cult obsessed with moving humanity off Earth to colonize other planets. Ward, trying to impress Kansas (who he has fallen in love with, instantly), joins up with the Order and quickly finds himself doing sordid work for them.
The Order needs lots and lots of people to get on their starships, which they have, but they want true believers to their cause. So, their plan is to round up lots of children and indoctrinate them. Ward is assigned to a “cleaning crew,” which goes out to small towns, kidnaps children, and murders all the witnesses left behind. But even while he persists in this terrible work, Ward clings to the notion that he can find some good, somewhere in the world—and is willing to risk everything to find it.
It’s dark, violent, and full of catharsis! You should read it.
Where did you get the idea for the book?
I think any dystopian novel sort of has to look at the trends of a current time and just consider what could happen if anything sort of bad or really bad just kept happening without any stoppage.
So, Dustbowl is a dystopian novel, and because of that, it’s a pretty morbid book at times, and so it came from some morbid places. When I started writing it, I had just been learning a ton about genocides in the twentieth century, and how the one striking similarity between all of them was just how human beings are so good at becoming used to most anything, even terrible amounts of murder and death.
Our adaptability in recent years has become almost a sort of curse—I think you see this with the older generations when they talk about younger folks, about how we’re so good at getting used to new technology that it spoils us immediately, and we never get satisfied. There’s that day every year now where there’s a new mind-blowing Apple product, and if it’s not leaps and bounds ahead of the last thing, it’s a disappointment. Isn’t that nuts? We have to double how good something is just for it not to be considered lesser.
In a similar way, the idea of all this genocide is so horrific that we just institutionalize it in some part of our brain under “that’s just what happens now.” We all know intellectually that there are these horrible atrocities happening constantly, but it’s kind of covered over by this veil of powerlessness, and from that feeling of powerlessness we create apathy—because if you can’t change something, why care about it?
So, I thought that if you fast-forwarded forty or fifty years, how might we be affected then? If we kept progressing down this path, then we’d be even more used to immense amounts of death, and what does that mean for humanity?
What message do you want readers to get from reading the book?
I don’t know—that they read a good story, I hope!
I mean, there’s a lot of things I am afraid of or that I enjoy thinking about that sort of bleed through in a work, but I wasn’t actively considering a message that I wanted to wrap in a tight package for everyone to take home with them. I imagine in a story featuring a dystopia created by environmental decay and over-capitalization of formerly governmental concerns (police are paid by the crime, water is tremendously expensive, etc.), there are some things that a reader can ferret out about extremes that scare me, as well as the responses to those extremes that I find captivating in a kind of happily morbid sort of way.
Ultimately it’s just a story about a person who is exposed to way too much death from far too young of an age—surrounded by a country of people with the same problem. So, what happens when that problem is that widespread? I think one natural human response is just to get the hell away from everything—and that’s the group of people, in part, that this novel explores with the Order. Ward is a character who is surrounded by bad things, and sometimes does really terrible things—but in many ways he’s a product of a terrible system as well. When he breaks from that system, I think he’s left outside of the conventions of any sort of morality, and has to choose his own way—and that’s all of us, all the time. To a certain extent, we’re only inside of a system as much as we believe that we are
How long did it take to write the book? Can you talk about how you wrote it?
The original draft I wrote from about August of 2008 to very early April of 2009. When I started, I outlined some very brief things on the back of a Sears receipt (I had been working in an outlet store at the time)—just the basic plot points. But it all sort of came together when I got the name “Ward” for the main character. That just put it all together for me—because that’s also what I wanted him to be, in the end, in many respects. But the name was still just slightly-subtle enough that it worked for me.
Other than that, I just kept revising it and reworking it—printing off copies and marking them and reading them aloud and thinking about the story a lot and what I wanted to communicate. The radio was stolen in my car a few years ago, and I’ve always talked to myself too much, so on long drives I would just talk about the characters and the story and what I wanted to be conveying and what I thought was good or bad. You try to be as critical as you can be—to know your own strengths and play to them and eliminate anything that you don’t do very well.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve always been telling stories. I grew up playing with LEGOs and building all these elaborate starships and bases and such and weaving these huge intergalactic storylines of betrayal and intrigue. I arranged minifigs by color and their color determined their powers and personality and such. It was very anime, I guess, though I didn’t know it at the time.
Anyway, I think I self-identified as a writer sometime when I was nineteen or twenty. I had written a couple of bad novels at the time and I knew that I wanted to be writing, but I don’t know that I really put it together that I “was” a writer already. I was breaking apart bricks in this weird job as a landscaper for a golf course, and it just dawned upon me. I had a lot of time to think in that job, so even as bad as it was, I had time to put some things together for myself.
What are your favorite books and authors?
As far as authors that I just burn through as quickly as possible—Cormac McCarthy tops the list I think. I just devour his books in a few days—except for Suttree and Blood Meridian, which both took me a while even though I loved them. There’s like pages and pages of his that I’ll read and have no idea what it is that he’s talking about, but I’ll go along with it anyway because it’s always written so beautifully, and at the end of it you just feel like you’ve been inside of the surface of the sun watching light get made.
I love Gene Wolfe as well—The Book of the New Sun is probably my favorite piece of science fiction in the world, and I really loved the The Book of the Long Sun as well, though in different ways. But basically everything he writes just draws me in completely—it takes an active effort me to start critiquing it, and when I do, it’s always just me being in awe at the levels of conflict that he draws in with every single sentence he writes.
“Would you be willing to kill a thousand parents so that there might be a thousand million more in the future? Would you orphan a thousand children just so they could foster thousands of their own? That is not a name put to courage. That is not something you don’t understand. That is something very simple to understand, you just don’t have the will to do it yourself. That is a name put to strength. To resolve. That’s what a set is.”
There was a light in the office behind the booth, flickering every so often and casting strange, tentacled shadows into the room. Joe looked at Ward and his face was sagging with fear. Maybe understanding had not quite dawned in the liquored canals of his mind but it showed in his eyes, and Ward felt satisfied for the first time all day.
Joe shook his head. “Why you telling me this?”
“I thought you should know what’s going to happen here.”
“Just what exactly is that gonna be,” asked Joe. “Or have you told me already?
Ward looked at him for a moment and took his gun out of its holster. He laid it on to the table with his hand resting on it, just in case he needed it. In his imaginings, usually people tried to run.
“Every adult here is going to die. One by one, mostly. Some of this will be done by me.”
The eyes of Joe stayed fixated on the gun on the table.
J.P. will be awarding a grand prize of a $25 Amazon gift card to a randomly drawn commenter during the tour, and one commenter on each stop will receive a digital download of a backlist book.