The Mirror Man was released just about a year ago. I remember waking up on that Tuesday morning thinking I would feel somehow ... different. After all, this was the first time I had woken up as a published author. And it was a long time coming. I'd sold the book nearly two years earlier. I'd spent months with my editor refining and revising the thing until we were both happy. There were proofs, line-edits, refining the cover art, seeking blurbs from established authors for the back cover. So much had gone into the book. So much of myself. It had been both a struggle and a labor of love. I was extremely proud of this story. I still am. But when I woke up that morning I didn't feel the slightest bit different. Not at all. Of course, we were in the middle of a global pandemic. Maybe if the world had been normal and I could have had that launch party I'd always dreamed about, or done a live reading and book signing in front of people, it would have felt more exciting. Instead, I got up, made the coffee and took the dog out to pee.
Then I opened Twitter, thinking I should probably tweet about it. And I saw that writer friends -- the great majority of whom I had never met in real life and likely never will -- were already doing it. And that's the moment I felt like an author. I was humbled and amazed that so many people were out there celebrating my debut. Every author who had given me a blurb was tweeting and retweeting about it. The incredibly talented James Anderson Foster, who narrated the audio version of the book, was hyping it complete with an audio sample. Readers who had received an early copy were tweeting links to their blogs and reviews. It was overwhelming to me.
Later that night I had a launch event over Zoom with Sylvain Neuvel (author of The Themis Files, A History of What Comes Next, and more) who had so graciously offered his time to help me celebrate with a conversation about the novel. After the zoom event, we shared a zoom beer and chatted for another hour on our own. He remains a good friend.
A few days later I was informed that another author, Wade Rouse (aka Viola Shipman), had chosen The Mirror Man as the October release he wanted to discuss on an event organized by A Mighty Blaze (a collaboration of authors dedicated to supporting debuts released during the pandemic). I was amazed that Wade had selected my book as we write in completely different genres. And it turned out to be one of the most memorable conversations I've ever had. (You can watch it, by the way, on this website.)
I have been thinking about all of this over the last few days in the context of the recent New York Times article titled "The Bad Art Friend and The Kidney Person" -- which is a long and bizarre expose of two writers who got into a heated conflict. It involved plagiarism, lawsuits, wretched chat sessions where a group of writers bad-mouthed another writer relentlessly and - you guessed it -- a kidney donation. It was a weird and oddly riveting story that had virtually all of writer Twitter taking sides and offering comment on one side or the other. And it put a spotlight on something else I've discovered since being published: There is an awful lot of infighting and petty competition among authors. Whether it's traditionally published vs. independent self-published or POC authors vs. white authors, or genre against genre ... there is a lot of it. And it can get mean.
Thankfully, that sort of thing is easily ignored because for every snarky remark there are a hundred examples of writers lifting each other up, offering advice, commiserating on pitfalls and celebrating successes. And that's what I focus on. And that's what I try to do for other writers. Because on that October morning last year, when I wanted to celebrate and feel like a real published author, it was fellow writers who made that happen. I still have to take the dog out to pee, but now I do it with a little bit of swagger in my step.
What made you write this novel?
I love characters that are almost but not quite human. My favorite Star Trek characters are always ones like Spock, Data, and the Doctor from Voyager. Clones, to me, are about as almost human as you can get. Some of my favorite science fiction stories deal with clones. But there are so many good ones already out there I didn’t feel like I had anything to add, and I never really set out to try.
But I was reading something a few years ago that posed a straightforward and fascinating question: What would it be like to meet your own clone? The article I was reading left it at that, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
I knew it might be interesting to write a clone story that focused not on the clone, but on the human, who had beencloned. I thought that presented a whole new set of ideas and issues within the topic. It sort of turns the whole thing around when you look at it from that human perspective. What would it feel like to see yourself replaced in your own life? There is something so creepy and sad about that idea. Also, though, I saw something hopeful. I think it brings up the possibility of making a change in your life or seeing the opportunity for a second chance, which is always a good thing to explore. Those are some ideas I tried to keep in mind as I was writing The Mirror Man.
Medical thrillers are all the rage. Why, do you think?
I think there is something intrinsically threatening about so-called Big Pharma – especially right now. In the midst of a global pandemic, the world is waiting for a viable vaccine to fix it, but there’s this nagging doubt that maybe it’s being rushed. We have government agencies relaxing rules on testing protocol, funding research with budgets the size of planetary systems, and all these drug companies racing to be the one that comes charging in on the white stallion to save the world. But poll after poll in the news says the public won’t feel safe getting vaccinated right off the bat, even if it means getting back to normal. And there are more people in the world today that don’t trust mandated vaccines to begin with – not even for the tried and tested ones for polio or mumps.
People don’t trust that these huge companies truly have the public’s best interest at heart. I think that really became more evident when pharmaceutical companies began advertising drugs on television and pushing people to “ask your doctor or pharmacist if (insert drug here) is right for you.” I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t want to suggest a drug to my doctor as though it were a brand of cookie that looked good on TV. I’d much rather my doctor had a more educated idea on what medicine I ought to be taking.
So, I think medical thrillers are big right now because people are pretty easily convinced that an industry that seems motivated more by profit and less by altruistic science just might have the capacity for evil. For a lot of people, that distrust is already there.
What are your thoughts about cloning?
I find the concept of cloning to be fascinating. The thought of having a clone – someone who could say, clean the bathrooms for me, make dinner, go to a meeting in my place – is sort of tempting. But there are all these sinister elements about cloning, and a whole lot of ethical questions, too, that are a lot more serious. What if we created clones for harvesting body parts in the event that we got sick or injured? What if we used them to fight our wars or for bomb disposal and other dangerous endeavors in our place? Would the auto industry begin using clones instead of test dummies for crash test data? Presumably, a clone would feel every bit as real and human as the host it sprang from, but would it be? Would clones have the same rights and privileges of personhood if they were mere copies? Would they be entitled to such rights and privileges? And if they didn’t get them – what then? Would they organize and rise up against us?
There is a lot to consider about human cloning and I only touched briefly on these questions in The Mirror Man, but I think we – as a society and as a species – ought to start thinking about it.
How did you research this novel?
Because the main focus of The Mirror Man is more the psychological changes of the protagonist as he watches his clone, it isn’t a book that’s especially science laden. That being said, the science (even though most is invented) had to be believable and plausible and so, is based on real science.
For the cloning aspect in the story I researched the way cloning is currently done in mammals – via cell transfer and embryotic implantation. But I also needed to identify ways in which scientists might grow a human clone quickly, so it would reach a full, adult maturation rate in about 48 hours. I read a lot about Human Growth Hormone (HGH) in the pituitary gland of our brains and its effect on how our bodies grow. The research was intriguing and sent me down so many rabbit holes dealing with the role this hormone plays in cell repair, muscle mass, weight gain, and even life expectancy. The articles I saved and the notes I took might well come in handy for a future novel.
I also did some research for Meld, the invented drug in the story. I wanted to create a drug that – if two people took it together – could offer a literal glimpse into someone else’s mind but one that could also be used to transfer brain patterns and consciousness from the main character into the clone. In the novel, the drug is used in a myriad of ways – not only to copy a mind, but also as a promising medical tool and as an illegal recreational drug with dire consequences. For Meld I researched the areas of the human brain such a drug might act upon – especially our aptly titled mirror neurons which are responsible for making us yawn when we see someone else yawn. (If yours are especially active, you might have yawned at the very thought of that. If so – sorry!)
Do you believe human cloning is possible?
As the lead scientist in The Mirror Man likes to point out, “the science exists.”
Human cloning is absolutely possible. We are already so adept at cloning animals that there are actual companies out there whose entire business model is built on cloning our dogs and cats. And people do that more often than you’d imagine. Did you know Barbara Streisand has had something like five clones of her favorite dog? It’s true. And we all know the story of Dolly, the sheep with the dubious distinction of being the very first mammal to be successfully cloned in 1996. From dogs and cats and sheep it isn’t a giant leap to cloning humans. Essentially, the science is the same. What’s stopping us (thankfully) isn’t the feasibility, but the ethical and moral dilemmas associated with human cloning.
While many countries have passed laws that prohibit human cloning, the US currently has no such legislation (although some states do). Congress has proposed many bills to that effect, but none have been enacted into actual law. The reason for that is partly because things like medical stem cell research overlap the science of cloning. But there are reams of material written on the ethical implications of human cloning from agencies including the World Health Organization, and there are ongoing congressional discussions to agree at least on some level of regulation. But at the moment, in the US, human cloning is both scientifically possible and essentially legal. That’s just a tiny bit terrifying.
Talk about the meaning of identity in your book
It didn’t take me long to understand that what I was really doing with The Mirror Man was writing a story about self-identity. It’s a topic that finds its way into a lot of what I write and is strangely compelling to me. My favorite line from David Bowie’s song “Changes” is this:
I turn myself to face me, but I never caught a glimpse of how the others must see the faker
I find that idea fascinating. We all have this idea of who we are, and how we come across to other people, but it’s probably not the truth. The way we see ourselves is muddled with all these filters and little lies. We are all, in a sense, just fakers. I wanted to explore that concept, so I came up with a way to put a character in a situation where he literally had to turn and face himself – to see himself exactly as everyone else sees him -- from the outside. Cloning seemed an obvious choice for a science fiction writer.
In the novel, my character, Jeremiah is largely locked in this laboratory/apartment and made to watch his clone on a TV monitor for four hours a day. Even though he’s typically seeing mundane things – the clone interacting with his family and co-workers – the experience is difficult and eye-opening for him. While he has to admit that his double is every bit identical to him, he begins to despise who he’s watching. It makes him question fundamental things about his own identity.
Meanwhile, we have this illegal street use of a drug called Meld that allows people to see themselves through someone else’s eyes and it leads to a rash of suicides. It’s another way of looking at what the main character is going through, but the result is basically the same: It isn’t easy to face the truth of who you are.
There are a lot of figurative and literal mirrors in my novel. Jeremiah is often looking at his own reflection as he grapples with questions about his life. He spends quite a bit of time creating an avatar of himself for a video game. And, obviously, his clone is sort of the ultimate reflection. But he never fully understands what he’s seeing until he’s forced to face himself. And I had to bring him to that point in a very literal way. Hopefully, the novel will leave readers asking some interesting questions about their own identity.
As an author I write adult speculative fiction with a thriller element. As a person, I write about all sorts of things