Tom McNeil is the author of “Top of the Heap,” and the next
victim author in my interview series.
Where did you get the idea for your story?
I started writing “Top of the Heap” around 2002. At the time, I had read several articles on the Internet by futurists claiming that, because of the rate of advancement of medical technology, immortality might be just around the corner. I wanted to write a story based around an idea, in the classic Sci-Fi sense, and I latched onto the idea of immortality. Similarly, articles about climate change were also hard to avoid. It seemed natural to set a story about an immortal at some time in the future, and a future in which some type of climate change even had happened only seemed logical.
Thinking more about immortality, I asked myself what an immortal life might be like. What would a person do once they had earned enough money to never have to work again? Wouldn’t they get bored? Not to give too much of the story away, but thinking of answers to that question was the spark that led me to write the story. During the writing process, I fleshed out more of the characters, gave them a history and incorporated that into the “Top of the Heap” giving the main character, Dale Medici, more of a motivation than just boredom.
Do you plan to write more stories in that setting or with those characters?
I am toying with the idea of writing a novel about Dale Medici. There were a few ideas that I had for “Top of the Heap” that I liked but just couldn’t fit in. After I finished it, I realized that a third idea that had been bouncing around in my head (a civilization with no fossil fuels) would fit perfectly in the future world described in the short story, and once I made that connection, I was flooded with new themes, ideas, bits, scenes, characters, and an overall conflict. I even came up with a title – “The Lost Art of Making Fire.” I’ve never even attempted to write anything that long, but I feel motivated to at least give it a try.
What was the appeal of Sojourn for you?
The Fear The Boot Community. Dan, Ryan, and Laura were all incredibly supportive and helpful. For me, they took a lot of the fear and guess work out of the process. I think all writers fear rejection, but the way this project came about lessened that fear quite a bit for me. Also, being a collection by lots of different writers with varying styles and subjects reduced the pressure quite a bit. I realized that if I made “Top of the Heap” the best story I could, some readers would like it and others would not —and that’s fine. In fact, that’s a good thing. Fiction should be written with an intended audience in mind.
What was your favorite part about writing for the Sojourn anthology?
The editing and, in my case, re-writing process was fun, once I got to it. It was great to get honest feedback from someone that was not a best friend or family member. Honest feedback is essential. Laura was especially helpful in getting my story finished.
Did you learn anything while writing your story, if so, what?
The story is more important than your ego. I’m 49. So, sometimes I have to fight off the feeling that I am older and wiser than everyone else—because it usually isn’t true. When I first brought “Top of the Heap” to a writer’s group meeting/online review session and read it out loud (and I’m sorry, I do not remember who was there), the almost universal feedback I got was, to paraphrase, “we love the idea, but the way you told the story stinks.” Faced with that, I felt my ego well up, and I almost withdrew thinking that maybe I was not a good fit for this. But, in a rare moment of maturity, I decided to take a step back and try it “their” way—which basically meant re-writing the whole thing. I had a lot of roadblocks and false starts, but once I got the first re-write done, I realized they were right. It not only became a much better story, but it allowed me to add more material than the original version had.
Is there any trivia or behind-the-scenes information about your story you would like to share?
It takes place on an island in the Saint Lawrence river. I used to go to that area on vacation with my family as a kid, so I described it as a combination of how I remember it and how it might be different in the future. Also, there is a pun, sort of, in the narrative pretty early on, but no one has ever pointed it out to me. It might be too subtle. I keep waiting for someone to send me a “I saw what you did there” comment, but so far—nothing.
What was the biggest influence on your story?
I am a fan of classic science fiction, particularly Isaac Asimov and Fred Pohl. Their stories were always based around a fantastic idea or concept and how people would react to it. They wrote stories that challenged you to think, and I wanted that feeling in “Top of the Heap.” Hopefully, that came through to at least some of the readers. I think my dream job as a writer would be to write episodes for an anthology series like “The Twilight Zone” or “The Outer Limits.”
Is there anything else you would like to talk about?
I just want to thank Dan, Ryan, and Laura for everything they did on this project.It was great working with them, and I look forward to working with them again on Sojourn Volume 2.