Q&A: Rebecca Ford '18 on Writing a Sci-Fi Novel Capstone Project
Issue   |   Tue, 02/20/2018 - 22:37

Rebecca Ford ’18 is a double major in Black Studies and English, concentrating in carceral studies and diasporic movements of resistance and revolution. Outside of class, she is a member of African and Carribean Student Union Dance and is an academic intern for the African American Dance Symposium this semester. She is also working on a play about the life of Fred Hampton, a Black Panther. For her Senior Capstone presentation she read two chapters from the book she has been writing as a special topics course.

Q: Describe the project you presented at the English Symposium.
A: For my senior English Capstone Presentation, I presented two chapters of the novel I’m writing, tentatively titled “Not Again.” The premise of the book is “Get Out” meets “Black Mirror.” It’s sci-fi, but it’s looking at the history of how we’ve dealt with black people in this country historically and imagining what the next cycle of that containment or control is going to look like. It’s this creepy dystopian looking at the future and trying to imagine what’s going to happen next and then specifically focusing on mass incarceration and ideas of containment throughout history. In the novel, they’re redesigning the prison industrial complex, so they’re looking at a new way to imprison people, “they” being the antagonists. These two app designer dudes who get together and basically think to themselves, “OK, we’ve made this really cool app that looks at criminology in a very specific kind of scary way of making this giant database, let’s see what we can do if we wanted to join forces with a different organization to build a center.” They are the general antagonists, but it’s also a network of an engineer, an architect and other people.

Q: Could you expand on what the plot of the novel is?
A: We follow a character named Gabriel at the beginning and he gets arrested, but the evidence that leads to his arrest has been planted. What’s interesting about him is that he’s representing the innocent that can’t afford a trial or just can’t afford to pay bail to get out — people who are innocent but are still incarcerated. He gets told by his lawyer that they don’t think he’s going to win so he should plead guilty and go to this experimental facility that would give him a lot more freedom than he would have in the regular criminal justice system. So he takes the opportunity, because he’s been told he can see his family more, he would have his own place and where he’s going to be living is going to be modeled more like a town and less like a prison. But the idea is that regular people can also come and visit this town and talk to people who have chosen to live in this community … kind of like “Westworld.” The whole idea is that they’re taking the criminals you once feared and making them the neighbors you know and love, so there’s this creepy paternalistic narrative around “we’re going to bring these people into this better place.” That’s where we start, but I also wanted to show what’s going on with people who are not directly involved with this system, so the second story is that of a girl, AK, who is in a predominantly white high school, and she’s hearing buzz about this new place, tentatively titled “Carcertown” — as in “incarceration” — so she’s representing the outside world’s opinion on it. She decided to go check it out and that’s how their two stories meet, action happens in the town, and I think I’m going to leave the story on a cliffhanger of Gabriel having the opportunity to get out of the town.

Q: How did this first come into fruition? Where did you get the idea, what inspired it and what here at Amherst allowed you to pursue this project?
A: I got the idea the day after the 2016 election … I didn’t feel like doing anything, so I choose to stay in bed and watch Netflix. But it felt really wrong to watch a show like “Friends,” so I found Ava DuVernay’s “13th” documentary which outlines the history of imprisonment and containment in this country of black individuals. It just seemed really cyclical. I was just saying to myself, “OK, so this keeps happening, so I wonder what will be next?” Now thinking about the new political climate, what will be the next form of this “correctional facility,” what’s the next mode? That’s how the idea came into my mind, and then I got into Professor Frank’s “Writing the Novella” class, and that’s where I started writing it. Well, I started writing it the summer before the class and kept working on it throughout her class in the fall, and then I told her I really didn’t think it was a novella, I thought it was a novel. She allowed me to take a special topics course this semester to keep writing it. I’m writing it now, and I’m about 140 pages in.

Q: What do you envision the end of this project being? Do you think you’re close to your goal?
A: I think I am close to it — I’m letting the story run where it wants to go right now, at least I’m trying to. I started out very structured with bringing two protagonists together and weaving their stories in and out. Now that they’ve met up in the creepy kind-of-prison town, I need to find out what’s going to happen next. But I do feel that I’m close to the end, it’s just figuring out what I want to leave the message as. So, I’m trying to figure out that and also the stakes of the story, but I feel that I’m getting closer to the end. I’m probably three-fourths of the way done.

Q: You mentioned “Get Out” and “Black Mirror.” Are there any books that inspired this project?
A: When I was starting to write over the summer, I was also reading a lot. I read “The Handmaid’s Tale” for the first time, and I loved that. Then I read “Fahrenheit 451” and Octavia Butler’s newest book, “Kindred,” and that was great. I was just trying to figure out what the sci-fi genre looks like and where I fit into it. I think there’s a lot of the book that sounds more dystopic and almost like “Hunger Games” with the language of the authority figures that sound really friendly but also creepy at the same time — that voice is coming through. “The Handmaid’s Tale” was really great for getting me to think about an actual system being put in place, but right now, the way I’m framing it is that it’s still a private system, so it’s not the whole government [that] works this way. I’m almost taking a little bit of every big sci-fi novel and spinning it into this really weird new idea with all that I’m seeing and experiencing.

Q: You also mentioned that “Carcertown” is like an amusement park. I was thinking about Europe and America’s history of imprisoning and exhibiting native people from other countries. Was part of your inspiration human zoos?
A: Definitely. Essentially that’s exactly what I’m trying to play into, but I want to be more understated. The whole town is the attraction, which, geographically, is probably taking up four blocks in New York City and has the idea of “Oh we’re all going to go down and take a trip and check out the criminals” in this very much spending a day at the zoo vein. I took the class “Animals in Contemporary Global Novels” last fall with visiting Professor Yu-ting Huang, and in it, I did a project on human zoos, and I thought, “Wow this really reminds me of the US prison system currently; how can I make that even more creepy and exaggerated, but understated at the same time?” So I finish that project, election happens, watch “13th” and I decided, OK this is happening, this is how I’m writing it.

Q:What was your process of writing this?
A: This past summer, I was really disciplined because I was here at Amherst working for the orientation team. I had a routine where I would do my work, and then I would carve out the rest of my night to write, and I got almost 70 pages done in two months. Once the semester hit, everything was crazy, so I got to 100 by the end of first semester. This is while I was taking “Writing the Novella,” which was really good because I was able to workshop pieces, so none of the pages that I wrote over the summer are the same anymore. Right now, I have to give myself a whole day and just see how far I get, so I have to tell myself, “Today is a day I’m just going to work on this scene or think about this character’s motivations and just write about that for the majority of the day.” I also like working in coffee shops — right now my favorite coffee shop to work in is Black Sheep. I went to a reading at Amherst Books a couple days ago, and the writer told us one of his best pieces of advice is to every so often change one thing about your routine so you don’t get blocked or bogged down, so I’m trying to change up where I write frequently.

Q: If anyone reading this is inspired and wants to write a novel of their own, how do you recommend getting started?
A: If you have an idea you’re passionate about and you want to write it, you should definitely just go for it. For me the summer was really great, but also being able to build this into my curriculum through “Writing the Novella” and the special topics class was really helpful because working on the book was then doing my homework.

Q: When you do finish this, what do you think the next step is?
A. I would love to have a reading with friends, so they could all hear it and I could hear their thoughts, but after that I would love to send it to publishers.