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The Urgency of Writing Fiction in the Trump Era

Two novelists discuss writing dystopian tales for Slate’s Trump Story Project.

Soon after the election of Donald Trump, author Ben Winters assembled a group of contemporary writers to imagine America’s dystopian future. The resulting collection of short stories—Slate’s Trump Story Project—explores alternate histories that sometimes feel disconcertedly close to reality, from an investigative reporter facing deathly charges for treason to a teenage girls’ underground abortion network to a young black man trying to skirt a voting ban.

In this Slate Extra podcast, Chau Tu chats with Winters and Héctor Tobar about their contributions, “Fifth Avenue” and “The Daylight Underground,” respectively. The novelists discuss how they approached writing speculative fiction in this new era of uncertainty, and how the Trump administration has affected their work and writing.

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This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Chau Tu: Ben, let’s talk a little bit how the series came together. What prompted you to compile this collection?

Ben Winters: Well, it was the election of Donald Trump. It was literally the next day, Nov. 9, that I woke up, like a lot of people did, feeling this really intense sense of surprise and distress, and a need or a feeling that I wanted to do something. I think we’ve all felt that, and a lot of that has come out in these wonderful displays of public protests and of calling representatives and all the public action that you’re seeing. For me, I guess as a writer, as an artist, I felt this need to do something. After the election, I was really struck, not only by the surprise of the result and my sense of distress at the result, but also how surreal it seemed. The election of Donald Trump is, to me, this very clownish personality with no political experience, who had literally been using fascist slogans in his campaign. It had seemed so impossible. Even after he was elected, and even now, it still feels impossible. It felt like we had fallen into this wormhole of history.

It really reminded me, and the feeling reminds me still, of works of speculative fiction, the kind of what-if novels like The Plot Against America and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, where the writer takes some specific historical event and undoes it or changes it in some dramatic way to imagine what would things have been like if our history turned out differently. This felt like one of those moments. History was supposed to go a certain way, and suddenly, strikingly, it had gone this very different way. It occurred to me, as we were all looking down the barrel of the Trump administration, like one way to think about and to grapple with what was about to happen and what was already happening was by asking writers who do this sort of thing for a living, to help us to imagine it.

Tu: So you kind of felt that fiction was a way to express your feelings. Is that right, Ben?

Winters: Not exactly. I think it was, fiction felt to me, like one way of thinking about the immediate future. I think it’s hard sometimes for people to grapple with the real-life consequences of political change. I think that, we as a culture, feel like politics is one sector of our lives that can feel apart from our personal lives and the cultural things we’re interested in and the sports we watch. It feels like this separate, different thing. All of a sudden, with this massive change in the nature of politics in our country, it felt kind of overwhelming and disorienting. It felt useful to me, as I wrote in the introduction of the series, that fiction has this special power. It has a power to clarify, to galvanize, to prophesy, and warn. It just felt like one way of thinking about how our real lives were actually going to change. I’m speaking of all Americans and people around the world who are going to be dealing with the fallout of the Trump administration—what are the real ways that lives are going to change? It felt like fiction was a really useful way to think about it.

One thing that fiction does is it allows us to take big picture questions, big issues, big moral and socio-political changes and see how they play out on real people’s lives, with real individuals. Actually, Héctor Tobar’s story is a great example of that. I think, in the series it was the first one we did and it was about how changes in American immigration policy would affect individuals and how it would feel for those people going through those changes.

Tu: Yes, you mentioned Héctor. How did you choose your writers, and what did you ask for them when you were putting together the series?

Winters: I wanted a strong concentration of writers who do speculative work in different ways. When I say speculative, it’s a wide category. I spoke at the beginning, Chau, about novels that are specifically what-if historical fiction, like The Plot Against America, The Man in the High Castle, my own novel, Underground Airlines. I took the speculative category quite wide. I wanted authors who, in various ways, imagined versions of reality. Authors like Nisi Shawl, who wrote a great speculative fiction last year called Everfair; Saladin Ahmed, who does science fiction and does fantasy and writes poetry. Elizabeth Bear is a Hugo Award winner. There’s a writer named Lauren Beukes who participated: She writes mystery fiction and also writes paranormal fiction. I asked J. Robert Lennon, who I’ve known for a while; he is sort of a more traditional literary fiction novelist, but he’s also kind of a bold experimenter who really likes to fuck around with reality. I guess, if I can say that on the podcast—I really wanted writers who were not afraid to fuck with reality. It felt to me, so much, like we’d entered this period in reality that felt so fucked up. It felt so surprising and different and new. It felt to me like it required these people with high powered imaginations to try and grapple with what it’s all going to mean.

Tu: Héctor, on the flip side, what were your thoughts when you were asked by them to do this story? Why did you chose to participate?

Héctor Tobar: I think, like him, I really felt I had to do it. I felt a sense of urgency about what was happening to the country. We’re writers. What do we do? We tell stories. We make up stories. We create art. To be given a chance to respond to these surreal events, and to do it in a public forum, a forum as widely read as Slate, it was an opportunity that I just couldn’t pass up. I, too, felt this sense of hurt, this sense of being transported into the Weimer Republic. It was a comparison that I made during the campaign and writing op-eds for the New York Times and to friends.

I am someone who is fascinated with European German history, the Holocaust, and to see these parallels in our own democratic system, and then to see them come to this absolutely incredible climax, and this fruition with the election of The Donald, it was just too much. I felt I had to take this opportunity and to do the things that art can do with a surreal event, which is to create something joyful from it. To create something human from this cruelty we’re all living through.

Tu: Your story focuses on deportation. As a journalist and an author, you’ve long focused on Latin American issues, but why did you decide to focus on this issue, in terms of Trump and this series?

Tobar: In the Latino community, the Trump campaign, even when it seemed it was a long shot he would be elected president, his campaign itself just caused lots of consternation and nervousness and anger. Famously, piñata makers started making piñatas of Donald Trump, even before he won the Republican nomination. There was this sense that, here’s a person who’s rising in the polls because he’s insulting us, because he’s created this scapegoated image of us as the people responsible for the decline of the United States. We’re the reason why Americans can’t get jobs. We’re the reason why the prisons are full. We’re the reasons why the schools don’t work. He’s now elected president. He’s president. What does this mean? I decided to write a story that sort of flipped the image of the target of Trumpism of the anti-immigrant movement that looked into the future, and into a future when all Latino people were suspect. The protagonist of my story, the protagonist about to be deported, is a U.S. citizen who has had his citizenship taken away because of the provision in the Constitution that grants citizenship by birth has been overturned.

In real life, there are right-wingers, there are anti-immigrant activists who want to overturn this constitutional right that we have to become Americans when we’re born in this country. There’s lots of people who believe that this has led to the phenomenon of the anchor babies. I am an anchor baby. My parents were able to receive their residency and citizenship because, I, a U.S. citizen child of theirs, was born in Los Angeles. [In this story,] I took an average, ordinary middle-class Latino intellectual and made him the target of this right-wing anger.

Tu: Actually, since your story was published on Slate, there’s been a ramp up of immigration raids, especially on Latin American communities across a few different states. Were you shocked by how closely your story seemed to be reflecting true life?

Tobar: Undocumented people have been targeted for years now. Even under the Obama administration, there was a really large number of deportations of undocumented people. Trump has just taken that policy and ratcheted it up several notches. He’s made it much more intense. We’ve had situations where people who would have been covered by the Obama administration, people who had been promised a path toward legal residency, had that taken away. I did not imagine that. I could never have imagined that happening.

I guess, naïvely, I held out some hope that the cooler heads would prevail in the Republican Party and keep this president from taking these kind of measures. And then, of course, the Muslim ban, the ban against the people from these seven [Editor’s note: It’s now six.] Muslim countries, I never could have imagined that all happening so quickly. I really couldn’t have imagined the resistance, either, even though my story tells of a kind of resistance at the end of the story. The people who are subject to deportation find a way to fight back and thumb their noses at the system. You can imagine that in a story, but to see it unfold in reality is also very satisfying.

Tu: Ben, your story is focused on freedom of the press, or maybe a little bit more of lack thereof. In many ways, that story also had some foresight in terms of the recent incidence where there are some media outlets who were banned from the press briefing. Were you surprised by all that?

Winters: No, I have not been surprised. Although, I mean everything still feels surprising and everything feels shocking. When he, specifically the use of the language that he’s used, the press is the “enemy of the people,” like his usage of the language of “America First,” that phrase that he invoked over and over again during the campaign, which students of history know to be as a fascist-sympathizing organization during the end rallying cry during the run up to World War II, it was the isolationists who did not want the U.S. to get involved in World War II, in part because of their sympathy for Hitler and his anti-Semitism, America First.

But, similar to that phrase, he used “enemy of the people,” now which has a long history of in Stalinist and Maoist rhetoric of being something that when you want to eliminate someone’s participation in society—and not just that, but also eliminate them as a person—you declare them being “enemy of the people.” No, not surprised. One thing we’ve learned about this president—this candidate first, president-elect, and now president—is that he has this sort of reptilian instinct for rooting out supposed enemies and finding people he can whip up distrust into rage.

As Héctor was just saying about the Latino population, using them as a scapegoat for lost jobs and for crime and for everything else, the media, he’s discovered, is another population that certain elements in our society have a natural distrust for, a distrust that has been fomented now over many years. He has found that it’s a pressure point, it’s a way of riling up his base, and scoring easy points, and doing so with no regard or frankly, just not giving a shit about our long history of having a free press.

So, anyhow, my story, which imagines an enterprising journalist who makes some rather shocking discoveries about the connections to Russia, which again, seems to be stubbornly in the news, because we have clearly not come nearly to the bottom of this story. In my short story, “Fifth Avenue,” my journalist character had made some shocking discoveries and it has landed him with a treason charge, and of course, treason is a capital offense. The story takes place as the re-election campaign is ramping up and Trump needs a distraction and excitement something to galvanize his base once again. My hero is about to be executed by the president personally. That last bit of it? It wanders into the territory of satire, sort of a high-concept moment. Although, boy, we’ve already come so far where we started, in terms of democratic norms, in terms of our sense of what is happening now, connecting it in an orderly way to our past, but, who the hell knows where it will be by the election campaign of 2020.

Tu: This is a question that’s for both of you. Has this Trump administration changed your work, or you’re writing it anyway beyond these particular stories?

Tobar: For me, already, I’ve had to write several pieces that I wouldn’t have written otherwise. I write op-eds also for the New York Times and other publications and so, I felt the urgency to respond to what’s happened. Beyond that, I just feel that art is more important than ever, that art is something that can unify us, that can make our country stronger. For me, I write with a little bit more desperation than I did before November. I write, fighting for every sentence, fighting to hold the reader with every paragraph. I want, in my fiction, in the novel I am working on now, I want to bring Americans into some experiences they ordinarily would not consider. Experiences in Latin America, people in Latin America, I want to bring them closer to those people, and I know I have to work extra hard at my craft to reach across these increasing chasms, these gaps that exist between different kinds of Americans, and that’s the work of the artist, is to create these works that sort of help us understand our time. I just feel a greater sense of urgency for my work.

Tu: What about you, Ben?

Winters: Before I answer, I just want to say, that no matter what I say, it won’t be as smart and as well-said as Héctor just said, but I’ll just stumble along anyway. That’s all totally true. I think that art, in times of political crisis or in times of interpersonal crises, where I feel like we’ve arrived at this moment in American history, where people are refusing to even try to understand each other in any serious way. Our political divides have become our personal divides. I think that, in fiction, very much so, has this special responsibility or this special ability to help people to empathize, to demand of people that they understand other individuals and other people’s experiences. And, as Héctor said, we have this new sense of urgency to that work. I think it even goes beyond politics. It goes into where we are as a culture, in terms of what kind of art and what kind of things seize our attention.

We spend so much time, these days, on forms of literature that don’t rise to be literature, and I’m speaking about Twitter posts and quick and hot takes on different websites. We sort of zoom from thing to thing like a hummingbird. I think that one thing fiction can offer, and must offer, is a place where someone’s mind and their imagination can come to rest for a little while. A book is not a tweet. A book is not a half-hour television show. A book requires for both reader and writer sustained discipline attention. It asks you to immerse yourself in something and really deeply feel it. That is, I think, an increasingly valuable and precious thing in where we are right now as a people.

Tobar: And, if I could just add to that, I think that’s absolutely why I continue to write. I think that what we’ve seen is a Twitter coup, the counter revolution of the snarky people who have taken over our brains. They’re trying to take over our brains through our telephones and through these devices that allow us to send these messages in less than 140 characters, or whatever it is. Yeah, what we’re trying to do as writers is rescue, preserve this space of thoughtfulness of language, of a deeper and more honest appreciation of our reality. And, so, we have to work even harder as writers against this tide of silliness, against this tide of superficiality, against this horrible Greek chorus on Twitter where everyone is insulting each other and now we have an insulter-in-chief, who’s risen to the presidency by insulting people. I absolutely agree 100 percent with what Ben said.

Winters: I think it’s a very stark marker of what kind of president we have that, from all available evidence, he has not read a book, as an adult. This is not someone who sits down in the evening to consider the latest bestseller, let alone Tolstoy—but who is very very active on this medium that requires no discipline and no attention and no empathy. It is all about retweeting praise of oneself or very quickly or poorly considered, ill-typed, misspelled diatribes against other people. The medium is the message. Here we have a man who is a master of a medium that is all about self-aggrandizement and/or cruelty to others. I have been off Twitter lately because I had this sudden sort of feeling of, this man is the president of this club and it’s not a club that I want to be in. Sometimes I feel like, well, perhaps it’s not right because as a political activist, this is where politics is happening right now. This is where the conversation is going on, but at the same time, I think there is something corrosive about it. And, I think we’ve seen the effects that in our public square.

Tu: That said, do you feel optimistic about the future?

Tobar: I’m, by nature, a really optimistic person. It goes back to my parents having been each divorced three times and my finding some way to survive all that. I always managed to survive by being upbeat. There’s a lot of really wonderful things about the United States of America, especially its ethnic diversity and its mostly successful struggle to create a democracy out of many different cultures. So, we have a lot of capital as a people, we have a lot of cultural capital to keep our democracy going, and it’s just really fascinating to see what’s happening, to see newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post now rebrand themselves as resistance groups. I’ve seen these ads for the Washington Post and the New York Times in which they essentially say “Support us because we’re all that stands between you and the apocalypse.” So, I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful that all of this experience we’ve built up trying to create a democracy will serve us well in these times of trouble, these times of fright.

Winters: I totally agree with Héctor about the journalism. I take a lot of heart. I am quite heartened by the work of all these folks, the New York Times, the Post, and the AP. I feel like there is a scramble on great stories. I remember I had a joke with some friends during, when these first Russia allegations started breaking, I was like, “We need Woodward and Bernstein to reactive like the Wonder Twins,” but I feel like that’s happening, we’re getting, I feel, like this real intense scramble for stories and it’s exciting. And it is part of what makes America great. That tradition of the free press, and also the tradition of this highly competitive market for investigative journalism. We’re seeing, there’s no question, that we’re seeing a renaissance of that. Also, the public protests. The fact that the Women’s March, I think they said it was the largest day of public protest in American history. People showing up at airports, people showing up in downtown Los Angeles to protest these immigration changes. There are great things about America, as Héctor just said, and they are on the foot right now. Things are happening.

In terms of optimism, I am optimistic. I do think that, in the long term, that America will right itself. I have to think so. At the same time, actually, Jamelle Bouie on Slate has written so eloquently about this, and I remember he had a couple of pieces in the days after the election just sort of reminding us that history is not the linear sort of movement toward better and better things. That one lesson that African American communities have learned over the centuries in America is that you can’t just take for granted that things will steadily get better and better and better until they’re great. It is fits and starts. It is backward and forward. I think with the elevation of a man like Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department, I’ll see if he stays there, someone who has devoted his career to this suppression of voting rights into the rolling back of civil rights, it’s not as if we gained this ground with the election of President Obama and, therefore, we will keep this ground.

Part of the lesson of what has happened, I guess—just to bring it back to the idea of this story project—was that the membrane between where we are right now and a very different reality, is so much thinner than we like to think. Things can go back, and things can go to the side, and things can go to places where we might not even have been on guard that they might go. I think that if there is a great gift that this election gave us, is this sort of sense of vigilance, the sense that we have to remain on guard. We have to support our free press. We have to support the ACLU. We have to support all of these organizations and all of our fellow citizens who are active, who are being thoughtful, who are taking part, because that’s where the optimism has to be, is in people everyday waking up and, “OK, what can I do today? What do I do today. What can I do tomorrow? How can I help somebody who might be in distress, who might need a new layer of support given changes in our politics?”