Sarah Elizabeth Marrs & Kate Lu

Sarah Elizabeth Marrs: Tell me about “Circuits.” What inspired it?

Kate Lu: When I first started work on “Circuits,” I began with a theme that emerges in most of my writing: the idea that, because we are all individuals with our own life experiences and points of view, no two people can ever fully understand each other, and this leads to a sort of miscommunication. I’m also fascinated by the ways that technological advances help us, connect us, and divide us. Writing “Circuits” was a way of sort of combining the two: How can technology make miscommunication even worse, one hundred years into the future? And so I created two characters, Bobby and Sophie, who are products of technology that will never understand each other.

How much research into artificial intelligence did you do, if any?

I actually didn’t do any research into artificial intelligence! I mainly felt my way around the technology instinctively, and probably unconsciously drew on news stories I’d read about scientists who are programming robots who can do more than just physical tasks, like machines that can write a novel or poetry, just based on an algorithm. I think my being a digital native also helped—I’m so used to having apps like Google Now that learn about your likes and habits as you use them, so it made sense to me that even the most advanced artificial intelligence might work much the same way.

In the story, Bobby becomes a fully actualized person. Do you think that happens when he begins having independent thoughts and wilfully acting against his programming, or when he feels emotions like fear and love?

I think the point of humanity comes when Bobby experiences emotion. The independent thoughts and actions act as bridges to Bobby being able to feel emotions, but I think complex feelings like love are what make us human. There’s been so much research on whether or not animals feel things like love and sadness, and I think the fact that we still don't know the answer is significant to the way we view them: They are other. What if we knew for sure that they experience complex emotion? Would they still be animals? The uncanniness of the concept of something that isn't human feeling and acting like a human is something that I hoped to explore in “Circuits”.

Bobby and the other robots were created to do menial work and they feared their human overseers. Were the parallels to slavery in this story intentional?

That’s a fantastic question, because they weren’t intentional at all. I think it’s something that I didn’t see while I was writing this story, mostly because of the word you use in the question, &dlquo;fear.&drquo; The robots were invented to be tools, and they are programmed such that they must be useful to humans in order to satisfy their purpose, but they don’t necessarily derive enjoyment or fulfillment from what they do. Although they all have the potential to become actualized people like Bobby, I envisioned that most of them wouldn’t, and so they wouldn’t feel resentment or fear of humans, only whether or not their programming was being satisfied by their job performance. Slaves and the robots in this story were seen by their masters as inhuman, but in the case of the robots, in this universe, most of them literally will never be human, unlike slaves.

What was the most difficult aspect of writing this story?

I think the most difficult thing was nailing down Bobby’s initial voice and overly logical way of thinking, and then plotting the curve, so to speak, at which he would slowly acquire more human traits and become an actualized person at the story’s end. It took a few editing passes to cut out any emotional responses Bobby might have had toward the story’s beginning and a lot of trial and error in the middle to subtly build the changes in his character.

Who are your primary influences as a writer?

It’s cliche to say, but F. Scott Fitzgerald is my most major influence. Reading The Great Gatsby for the first time in high school made me want to be a writer. I read its first paragraph ten times before I could move on to the rest of the book, because even though it’s not necessarily the best paragraph ever written, it’s so fluid and so full of nostalgia that I wished I had written it. And I wanted to become just as good a writer. Fitzgerald, and a lot of Modernist writers, wrote about the things I’m interested in: This feeling of nostalgia, of something lost, either in your life or in the world. I’m fascinated by the things we miss—the things we lack and the things we don’t notice until it’s too late.

Do you have a ritual for dealing with writer’s block?

For me, writer’s block is usually just laziness—if I don’t feel like working that day, I won’t think about the story, and if I’m not thinking about the story, then I can’t continue. The challenge is getting myself to sit in a chair, put my fingers to the keyboard, avoid social media, and just write through it, no matter how bad the writing is. What also helps me sometimes is hand-writing notes about possible plot points. It’s less distracting than plotting on the computer, and having to put more energy into the act of writing forces my brain to put in the energy.

Which comes first for you: Characters or plot?

It used to be characters, but these days it’s plot. I often stumble across things in the news or on the internet that will be a good spark for a plot, and I keep a lot of these on file for future stories.

Book or e-reader?

Books more often than not—I get sentimentally attached to physical things. I’ll use my e-reader for quick reads, though, and it comes in handy when I don’t want to lug huge volumes around.

If you could have written any book, which would you take credit for?

I think The Great Gatsby for the path it launched me on. Plus, who wouldn’t love to say that they’d written The Great American Novel?

This interview was conducted by email in March of 2014.

Related story:
     Circuits

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