The Echoes of Hinterland series weaves a compelling narrative that is hopeful, tragic, and uplifting all at the same time. The protagonists, Myron and Sindra, make for unlikely heroes, but their plight makes it clear this isn’t just a dystopia of geography, but that of the human condition, ravaged by history. Their journey is a revolt against the destitution of their world and M.E. Parker is a cartographer of the spirit, navigating us through his powerful prose that is unflinchingly honest. I spoke with M.E. Parker about how his series came to be, his plans for its future, and his reflections on having been an editor to one of my favorite magazines, Camera Obscura.
Entropy: Tell us about the evolution of Jonesbridge, the guts, the backstory, whether it changed over iterations, or it came out pretty much intact.
M.E. Parker: The idea of Jonesbridge emerged from a short story entitled “the Harlot of Baltimore,” published by the MacGuffin in 2009. That story began as a tale set in a post Civil War Chesapeake Bay in a timeline altered by a history that zigged when it should have zagged. The story evolved from there to a setting in a more distant future where the past is a mystery, a dark age where neither the characters nor the readers know too much of how it came to be, except that the landscape is littered with carcasses of unfamiliar eras. This includes wooden-masted frigates alongside the remains of nuclear submarines, all ruins, all enigmas, a world that is different and similar to our own in disquieting ways.
A few months after this story appeared in the MacGuffin, I received an email solicitation from a literary agent who liked the story and asked me to submit a novel. I carved the original manuscript for Jonesbridge from the “feel” of the “Harlot of Baltimore,” not the details. It took shape as a dark, nihilistic tale that offered, according to the agent, too much despair and not enough hope, which I ultimately agreed with. I rewrote it multiple times times, weaving in glimmers of hope, dropping into it the literary equivalent of damp stones on a parched salt flat. Then, I sent it out to other agents until I found one who saw Jonesbridge as I did.
The original manuscript bears little resemblance to the final draft, which made writing Jonesbridge a lot like pulling the cushions off the old sofa in the basement and finding crumbs from three different decades, coins, dead bugs, hair clips and unrecognizable snack food. The first draft unfolded from a place of quiet desperation, the soul of its characters inseparable from the smoke that fills the Jonesbridge valley. As the manuscript evolved, the characters got younger, and their motivations more urgent, but the feel of the book remained the same.
Entropy: Did you always envision it as a trilogy? What are some other trilogies you’ve enjoyed?
M.E. Parker: I didn’t see it as a trilogy, but I did anticipate a series. The intent was a slow reveal of the world through the eyes of the characters who began in a confined area called Jonesbridge.They’re surrounded by an impassable Great Gorge and grow as characters, enriched by the breadth of the world they discover on the other side of the gorge in later stories.
In the Nethers and Bora Bora, the characters experience an awakening to the idea that they are more than slogs in the factory working to fuel a never-ending war as they fight their way through a world full of mystery. They have to piece together a larger tale of what happened to the Old Age and why the world is what it is now. I am not drawn to three books, but that was the natural division of the Hinterland story in my mind. There could always be more later.
As far as trilogies, I don’t seek them out, but I do consider them as a unit, whether they deliver from beginning to end. Trilogies were a mainstay of my youth. As a kid, I was taken by many of the sci-fi classics like Asimov’s Foundation series, having read it before the trilogy was expanded with later books, and the Dune Trilogy, and of course the Lord of the Rings. But there are some such as the Divine Comedy and the Inferno, where one part stands far above the other two.
Entropy: What are some of the challenges of writing a sequel? Do you find it easier, or harder, since you know the world?
M.E. Parker: In the case of Hinterland, with the feel of the series established in the confines of Jonesbridge, the heavy lifting in world building takes place in the Nethers and Bora Bora. The world expands as the series grows, but the sequels were much easier to write, and open up the world on the other side of the gorge in ways that the slogs in Jonesbridge could never have imagined it.
Entropy: The series is dark for YA. How did you balance between keeping the sensibilities for a YA audience and incorporating some of the more disturbing dystopian elements?
M.E. Parker: The interesting thing about this question, and I think it also speaks to the question of genre, is that Jonesbridge, in some places is referred to as YA and in other places is not. The main characters are 17/18, but their ages, given that Jonesbridge makes no real distinction between young and old, rewarding production over seniority, the books are not written for a particular audience. But I think there is an age where the world can be as foreign and frightening regardless of the circumstances. Jonesbridge straddles that line.
Entropy: I miss Camera Obscura a lot. It was one of the most visually stunning literary magazines I’ve ever seen. Has your background as an editor affected you as a writer? (full disclosure: Mitch published a story of mine in the Camera Obscura)
M.E. Parker: We didn’t solicit work, and we read submissions blind. Initially, this was a safeguard to prevent predisposed opinions of a work based on the author. I soon realized that this was both well intentioned and problematic at the same time. A blind reading by an eye biased by cultural norms is not necessarily any more objective than soliciting a diverse pool of stories. This was a challenge that I undertook with great concern, and the diversity of those represented in our pages, both on the literary and the photography sides included as many voices as possible, reading blind of author and, as much as possible, and blind of cultural expectation to the best of our ability. It all came down to the reading. The stories and the photographs did not inform one another but rather the coexisted in the literary space. I think this distinction was an important part of what we tried to accomplish.
One of the most daunting and the most rewarding tasks in editing Camera Obscura was the reading. There are many ways to screen material, and I had a certain eye for what had a chance to make it into the journal, but in the course of three years, we had about twenty thousand submissions–so many of them with merit, so many we could not publish that deserved publication. It affects you as a writer in many ways. You see the sheer number of writers and voices, the amount of talent, and competition you are up against. Reading thousands of stories, seeing where they succeed, the moments the fail, the time and care expended in the story’s creation puts your work as an author into perspective.
Entropy: Also, will we ever see something like Camera Obscura again?
M.E. Parker: Some literary venues are stalwarts and cultural vanguards. Others are a beacon. Camera Obscura was much more like a fireworks show, beautiful, ephemeral, meant only to last long enough to remind us that we still need firework shows as much as we need pavilions. I might cook up something else in a similar vein, but it hasn’t yet fully formed.
With the current trend to defund endowments for arts and subsidies for entities that don’t support themselves, the future of the literary journal, in my opinion, rests with our ability to include more people outside the literary world.
Entropy: What’s next for you and any books you’d like to plug in the new year?
M.E. Parker: Well, the third book in the Hinterland series, Bora Bora: Flight from Hinterland, will hit shelves in 2017. I have another book unrelated to the series, but it is still a little ways off. I have an updated website with all the latest at www.meparker.com.