Hi Rick, very cool to have you here for a chat! Pull up a chair and pour yourself a hot drink (I hear mushroom coffee is a thing). Before we dive into your book The Mold Farmer, I’ve noticed you’re actually a big real life fan of moulds and fungi; what got you into such a niche interest, what does being a fungi hunter involve and do you have any pictures of recent finds you can share?
I seldom paid much attention to fungi until my son, who was six at the time, became kind of obsessed thanks to a field guide, Mushrooms of the Northeast by Teresa Marrone and Walt Sturgeon. With him going around pointing out edible and toxic fungi to his first grade classmates, I had to learn all I could too, for safety reasons. Now we go on walks every week, and I’ve eaten over a dozen different species of fungi I foraged myself.
My most exciting recent find is not a fungus at all, but a slime mold. I’m doing my best to keep it alive and happy in some homemade habitats. I started a thread on Twitter about it. Folks who are interested can check that out.
Long live the plasmodial slime mould. There’s a fair amount of what you’ve described as leftist agitprop in The Mold Farmer and you’re actually running a workshop in December called ‘Worldbuilding as Activism’. What role do you think fiction can play in left wing organising and what do you hope teaching the workshop will achieve?
To be honest I don’t have a whole lot of faith in the idea of fiction being very helpful for organizing. But I do think there is a gap in culture in general, a dearth of anticapitalist stories, and that putting these kinds of stories down on the page means others who recognize the contradictions can experience a kind of validation through art that comes from this perspective and this sort of experience and draw strength from seeing the experience reflected back toward them.
The workshop is going to be focused generally on writing speculative fiction as social commentary, which all the best speculative fiction does and does without coming off as didactic, and, more specifically, on political and ideological considerations one might keep in mind when constructing the setting for a story.
You published both The Mold Farmer and your other book, Leech Girl Lives, through small presses and I’m currently reorienting Parsecs & Parchment to focus more on small and independent presses. In a world where so many imprints are owned by the Big Five, what do you think makes small presses so important and what do you think they offer that perhaps the big publishers don’t?
Soon to be Big Four, with Penguin Random House’s imminent acquisition of Simon and Schuster! Small presses rule. (Shout out to my small press publishers and labelmates at Six Gallery Press and Spaceboy Books!) Most of the most interesting and exciting fiction I find comes out of small presses, much of it existing on the boundary between genre and literary (obsolete categories, in my opinion, but still very much in use). Honestly, book stores should have like, a “cult” shelf like the best old video stores used to. That would be the section I’d always make a beeline for as soon as I arrive. Lucky for me I live just outside of Providence, Rhode Island, home to the Lovecraft Arts & Sciences book store, which is basically a store-sized version of the cult shelf. I love it.
Ok so let’s dig into the book. What’s The Mold Farmer about and why should everyone buy a copy?
The Mold Farmer is the story of Thorner Tenter and the extreme economic exploitation he and his family endure in order to survive in their post-apocalyptic world. This is a world ruled by these tentacled beings that use people for their own inscrutible purposes and with absolute indifference toward the people they exploit. I’ve called it Lovecraftian horror capitalism. It’s also somewhat a sendup of this hero dad trope you see in films, where when the people the dad loves are threatened, he transforms into this unstoppable super hero who saves the day. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say this dad is up against something he just can’t win against except in his revolution fantasies.
I’m not big on the hard sell. Buy The Mold Farmer if you like grim, minimalistic post-apocalyptic fiction with weird creatures and body horror. Buy it if you like the idea of leftist speculative fiction. Buy it if you like Black Mirror-type, bleak social commentary. Buy it because it’s short, so it’ll help you reach your books read in 2021 goal.
I was very interested in the character Weckett, the overseer of the mould farm where Thorner ends up working. There’s a particular subsection of people in our own society who think that by sucking up to the billionaire class that they’re somehow a strata above us mere plebs. Was this how you saw Weckett when writing him and, if not, how do you see his role in the story?
In The Mold Farmer, the most materially successful people are those who betray their fellow humans — essentially, they betray humanity — in order to serve the indifferent, inhuman rulers. Capitalism is, at its core, an inhuman system, with, in its most extreme manifestations, market logic structuring society in a way that prioritizes the growth and reproduction of Capital over all else. You wind up with a society that’s increasingly indifferent to the actual material needs of its human members — say, health care, education, breathable air and drinkable water, and so on — and is instead focused on deregulating corporations and giving the billionaires tax breaks, based on the lie that the benefits the ultra wealthy will “trickle down” to the rest of us. Weckett is someone who has internalized this inhuman logic. He isn’t stupid. He understands it and sees virtue in it because he has materially benefited. We see him through Thorner’s eyes, and it’s in this way we see that what Weckett takes as self-evidently virtuous is, well, perhaps not so much.
Indentured servitude plays a big role in the book, with Thorner effectively becoming indentured on the mould farm. I recently saw Elon Musk raise the spectre of paying the travel costs for future Mars colonists and having them pay off their debt working there. If not this specific example, was this general trajectory of the future of work on your mind when writing the book?
I’m reminded of the William Gibson quote, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” We don’t need to wait for Elon Musk’s indentured servitude fantasies to play out — workers right now are deep in debt and struggling to survive. Education debt. Medical debt. Housing debt. The way wages have stagnated over the decades while the cost of survival goes up — rent, groceries, transportation, childcare, all of it, people are just barely scraping by. You have so-called “gig economy” businesses embracing worker precarity, exploiting workers while not even categorizing them as employees. You have Amazon, that monstrosity of Taylorized surveillance capitalism, treating people with the same expendability as parts in a machine that can be thrown away when worn out rather than repaired. Immigrant workers have few protections, especially if they’re undocumented, and are exploited by abusive bosses who can threaten them with deportation. There’s child slavery in the supply chains of the most popular chocolate brands. There are nets around the roofs of factories that build smart phones to catch workers who are driven to suicide. And of course, with the pandemic, you have all manner of businesses, from restaurants to mutltinational meat conglomerates, gambling with employees’ lives, demanding people “get back to work,” risking sickness and death for themselves and their families. If anything, with so many on the conservative right now buying into conspiracy theories that conveniently minimize the risks to workers, it’s possible that when I wrote this book, I may have underestimated the accelerating savagery of late capitalism.
On a lighter note perhaps, I saw you tweet recently about a current writing project involving ‘people acting like insects infected with parasitic fungi’. Can you expand on this horrific concept and are you working on anything else at the moment we can look forward to?
Ha! That’s my pandemic story, which is not what I intended to write when I sat down to write it, but it’s how it came out. It’s based on behavior I’ve observed in crane flies infected with erynia sepulchralis, a parasitic fungus. Flies infected with this fungus are compelled to gather in one place, where they die and the fungus erupts from their bodies to spread their spores. The fact that this fungus hijacks the flies’ minds and influences not only individual behavior, but group behavior as well, is fascinating to me.
I’m also working on a novel, tentatively titled Skull Slime Tentacle Witch War. It’s the strangest thing I’ve ever written. It’s far from complete, but I’m so excited about it that I’m actually looking forward to querying agents and presses. For a taste of what’s going on with that, Heavy Feather Review published an excerpt.
And finally, what writer Q&A would be complete without asking what have you been reading recently and do you have any good recommendations?
Some of the most exciting small press novels that I’ve been reading that would be exciting for speculative fiction fans are David Leo Rice’s Dodge City novels (Alternating Current Press), Bonding by Maggie Siebert (Expat Press), and We Were Called Specimens by Jason Teal (Kernpunkt Press). I honestly could go on and on geeking out about authors I’m excited about, which, aside from posting mushroom photos, is a lot of what I do on my Twitter feed. I do have to mention The Beauty by Aliya Whitelely (Unsung Stories), a post-apocalyptic fungal horror novella that is simultaneously moving and disturbing, and written in achingly brilliant prose.
Awesome, I’m always on the lookout for more small press recommendations. Thanks so much for joining me Rick, wishing you a successful next mushroom hunt and I am of course looking forward to your next book 🙂
Thanks Jonny, it was my pleasure.
The Mold Farmer is published by Six Gallery Press. Did you enjoy this interview? Subscribe to Parsecs & Parchment for more reviews and bookish chat!