Author Spotlight: Scott Guild, ‘Plastic’

    Erin Jacobs might be a plastic girl in a plastic world, but this isn’t Barbie. The protagonist of Scott Guild’s dexterous debut novel, Plastic, must navigate her world of eco-terror attacks and climate change while her own past comes to haunt her — a dark look at the American future. After a terror attack at Tablet Town, where she sells wearable tech, she meets another figurine, Jacob, and the two form a connection while zipping through a virtual reality world to escape the horrors of the everyday. But Erin’s imaginative world keeps sending her signals back to her sister, Fiona, who joined a resistance movement named ‘The Conversation’ that attempts to bring attention to environmental destruction by any means necessary; Erin needs to keep unaware of her history, but also safe from possible oncoming attacks. Relentless, witty and truly heartfelt, Plastic is a dystopian satire much less stiff than the characters it details.

    Our Culture spoke with Scott Guild to talk about Barbie’s culture shock, levels of morality, and infusing zingers within fiction.

    Congratulations on your debut novel! How does it feel now that it’s so close to being out?

    Thank you! You know, gratitude would be the number one emotion. This was an experience of working with a lot of friends who are readers, teachers who are readers through the years, the people who came up in the industry to help the novel be published who also gave me incredible feedback. It is my book and I wrote it, but there’s also a this sense of community of literature geniuses working with me where I could bring them things and we could have discussions, so the fact that it’s now in the world, and I love the way it looks, and my publisher is supporting me so much by putting an album out, there’s a sense that I’m an immensely lucky person to be in this position.

    I read that the book around ten years, starting when you were in graduate school — what was it like to be working and thinking about this project for so long?

    There were some breaks, so maybe in those ten years it was maybe six or seven years on the novel, which, as I say that, is not a short period. And it didn’t start out as a book about plastic figurines either, that came in around 2018. I worked on it from 2013 to 2016, and I kind of stalled out, and it felt like a somewhat generic speculative fiction novel about a grim future. I took a two-year break, and when the brainstorm idea came of making everyone talk in these clipped sentences, made them plastic figurines, pushed it into a stranger space, what would that be like? And suddenly myself and all the people who had been reading it before, it just gained a different kind of momentum and excitement.

    We have so much to talk about, because alongside the book, you’re releasing an album full of original songs this spring that serve as the novel’s soundtrack. When did you first start to connect the idea of a novel with an album?

    When the book was sold to Pantheon, it did not have songs in it. When I was working on edits, an idea of a song came to me that a character could sing. I just went with it and wrote some lyrics, and I hadn’t written a song in quite a while at that point. I sent it to my editor to see what she would think, and she was really enthusiastic. I started writing more songs, more moments for songs came to me. And this was late in the day in terms of working on the novel — it’s always weird when you’re adding something last-minute, when now it feels like a core part of the book. At the end of it, it was almost like there was an album’s worth of songs in the book, and that was the point where I started thinking about reaching out to musicians I really loved and see if they were interested in crafting an album around this with me, ad they were, which was really exciting. Part of it, too, was that I spent so long with Erin as a character, and when I was making the album, the book was done, so this was a way of spending one last year with her and finding her journey through song, a whole other form of creative expression. It’s been really magical and immersive in different ways. 

    What caught me so off-guard about Plastic is that it’s so sneakily smart and cutting. You think about plastic figurines and your mind goes straight to Barbie, but Plastic is actually a dystopian satire. Was this mislead intentional?

    The whole Barbie thing coming up nine years into the process… I think I turned in the final draft either on ‘Barbenheimer’ day or around that time. I remember thinking it was the strangest thing, this book I’ve worked on for forever, that I thought was so odd, and difficult for anyone to get into the imaginative world of it — all of a sudden, plastic figurine worlds have become mainstream. It felt very serendipitous that one barrier to access this book is gone, because people will have the idea of a Barbie world in their minds. And then, the wonderful opportunity it creates, like you said, that it’s a plastic figurine world infused with these specific characters and humanism they have. I don’t think I intended it to be a twist, where you think plastic figurines, and your mind goes to sunshine-y Barbie, I think when I was starting it I thought of figurines as tonally stiff and alienated from nature. I think the way the Barbie culture moment came in created the opportunity to talk about a twist. I love that, and I love the way that something cultural happened that affects the reading of my book. That’s so wonderful and unplanned. But when I was writing it, I felt that these characters were in this grim, difficult future, and to capture that with the actual physicalities of their bodies had an emotional tone. But now the fact that it reads differently is wonderful. I’m so excited to see what readers make of things in ways that the author doesn’t intend. 

    Plastic is immediately heavy — our protagonist, Erin, sells wearable tech at Tablet Town, when one day a shooting erupts. We learn that a group of eco-terrorists called The Conversation constantly plan bombings and shootings in order to direct national attention back to climate change wreaking havoc, which is not too distant from the anxiety we live in now. Why did you want Plastic to go in this darker direction?

    I think that was the space I was starting out from, even before they were plastic — trying to capture the feel of what our moment is right now. We’re in a climate crisis, the clock is ticking, we feel the disaster of this coming. Setting the emotional tone and backdrop of the story was something I was going for, and the plastic figurine-ness of it all was supposed to intersect with. Right from the start, it was a part of the book. What’s fascinating about your question of ‘Why’ — I think sometimes when you’re trying to tell a story that captures what it feels like to be alive in a certain moment, that’s kind of the end of itself — how do you wrap metaphor, language, characters, that are doing that work?

    Someone very close to Erin actually left her in order to join this terror group, and it was so interesting to hear her perspective. As is the case in the United States right now, it seems like the people in control really have no plans to stop or halt climate change, but by killing people in the name of the environment, their message is finally being given attention, no matter how horrific their means are. What was it like to write about this dichotomy?

    Yeah, how did you feel?

    Well, I love morally different fiction, where you’re reading something you don’t necessarily agree with. It was interesting to hear this character’s perspective, where they talk about enacting these horrible attacks for the sake of the environment to finally get some attention. I found myself agreeing a little bit with both perspectives.

    When that character tries to follow through on their beliefs and what makes sense to them, there’s a different, emotional, spiritual level where they don’t agree. And I think that’s part of the paradox of that character. Even in the song named after that character, it’s like, the environment is falling apart, in a moment that’s this drastic, you would think we’d do anything we can, that the ends would justify the means, to get the message out there. But also, killing people is wrong in a way that is transcendent and core. Writing those sections of that character finding out about the movement, as the writer, you also feel seduced, but then you go on the journey with the character, and by the end of it, you remember violence is horrific. 

    Plastic is not all-together bleak, and it’s peppered with the quippy jokes and products one might see in a George Saunders story. Erin’s anxiety pills are called SettleSelf, she has a one-year streak on her phone’s PrayZone app, she explores VR worlds like CityCity and Jungle Jam, frequents the Worship Wow! Arena, and in my favorite, a virtual assistant named Sally Survivor helps Erin during the shooting; she says, “Much sorry you in TERROR ATTACK. How I help?” How did you come up with these, and did you have any comedic inspirations in mind?

    It’s almost like a continuous riff, once you find that strain of humor, a little smirk goes on your face, and then you just have the joy of each new situation coming up. It’s interesting to think of inspirations for that — I think an underlying one is how Dostoevsky, one of my favorite writers, at the darkest moments of his stories, suddenly things will get very weird and absurd. In The Brothers Karamazov, the moment you think everything is lost, one of those characters will start behaving in the most bonkers way imaginable. It’s the same way in Kafka — the darker something gets, the more strange and twisted it appears. George Saunders, like you mentioned, comes out of that tradition, too. That impulse to find humor or the satiric in the dark moments for the characters has always resonated with me as a reader.

    Running parallel to Erin’s storyline is a show called Nuclear Family, which gives a little bit of backstory to the figurines’ world, namely, that the nation’s president was an egotistical maniac who threatened enemies with violence, which resulted in disastrous consequences. Why did you want to introduce the show within the story? How was it like coming up with a world’s history?

    Yeah, the show was really interesting — in the draft that sold to Pantheon, it was just a random TV show that didn’t really tell the story of the world that much; it was just a show Erin liked. It was a comedy, maybe like forty pages of the book. One of the comments I got from my editors was that if there’s gonna be this story Erin’s watching, let’s make it integral to her life and something that can push the story forward, deepen the world. I completely agreed and went on this journey of making a very different TV show for the book, and I wanted it to enrich the sense of how the world had come to be this way. Obviously the show we’re seeing, Nuclear Family, is a mixture of an actual show that existed and fan-fiction that Erin creates in her mind. I wanted something that deepened our sense of her father’s life, so the whole thing felt very personal and emotional to her.

    I loved Jacob’s character too, this love interest of Erin that reacts in a kind of blasé way to everything. How did you develop their relationship?

    In earlier drafts of the book, there was a little more of a sense that Erin was pretending, to a larger extent, that she was a different person, almost betraying him in that way. Because in the final version, Erin’s just not giving the full picture of herself to Jacob. I found that the more I dialed that back and really let them have more of a sincere relationship, the more he came alive and the more I could get his experiences onto the page, and he felt like a full person to me. But also the emotional stakes for Erin really increase; instead of it being a person with a dark background who is having trouble finding love, there was a sincere connection between them, and it really could be the thing that changes her life and allows her to find trust and meaning and hope in a way she hasn’t gotten before. I was compelled by the possibilities of their relationship, even though I knew what was going to happen next. 

    Finally, what are you working on next? Will you still run along a speculative, highly-detailed world like Plastic, or something different?

    In all the breaks I took from Plastic through the years, I have some other novels I’ve started work on, so I do have a few projects that are a few years along. It probably won’t be another ten years of work. And some of those years were a bit of an apprenticeship type, learning the basics of craft and things like that. Even though I’ve been writing my whole life, it was in my mid- to late-twenties that I decided that this was what I wanted to do with my future and take it super seriously. 

    Plastic is available now, and Plastic: The Album is available April 26th.

    Arts in one place.

    All our content is free to read; if you want to subscribe to our newsletter to keep up to date, click the button below.

    People are Reading