(As a the release of Feedback is drawing near, I thought it would be fun to go back through Variant and to discuss my thoughts about the book in more detail. I plan to blog about three chapters every Monday, Wednesday and Friday until Feedback is released, October 2nd. These blogs will be FULL OF SPOILERS, but they’ll only spoil Variant—they won’t ruin any of your fun in reading Feedback. They’ll be a little about the world, a little about the characters, and a lot about the writing process. Think of it like the Director’s Commentary on a DVD: a little behind-the-scenes look at how each chapter came to be. Hope you enjoy.) BE PREPARED FOR SPOILERS. THESE BONUS FEATURES ARE WRITTEN ASSUMING YOU’VE READ THE ENTIRE BOOK, NOT JUST THE CHAPTERS MENTIONED. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.
—The biggest thing we’re hit with immediately is the setting. I wanted to set Variant in a remote area, and New Mexico seemed like just the place. I used to live there (and I love it) and one of my favorite parts of New Mexico is how far you can drive without seeing another person. Granted, my location for Maxfield Academy is fictional, but it’s based on that idea of desolate remoteness. (To be specific, I imagine that Maxfield is nestled somewhere in the Zuni Mountains, an east-west mountain range that runs from about Gallup to Grants.)
—On the flip side, the reason I chose Pittsburgh for Benson’s hometown was twofold: first, Pennsylvania is the opposite of New Mexico, climate-wise (which added to Benson’s unease at the foreign environment), and I was also looking for a city that evoked a sense of hard-luck, unemployment, fading industrialization, and, in some ways, a dead end. Now, BIG DISCLAIMER: I totally realize that those are enormous stereotypes of the city, and I’ve already had emails from Pittsburgh residents who point out that it’s not as bad as I make it sound. But, what I was looking for was a kind of background shortcut, and stereotypes are often very useful for conveying a lot of feeling and emotion quickly. Nuance can come later as we get to know Benson.
—The girl in the window who holds up the notebook is named Sarah, and initially–through most drafts of the book–she was a hugely important character. However, when the book was in the final round of the submission process, I realized the error of my ways and wrote her out almost entirely. Aspects of Sarah live on in Lily (Sarah used to be the paintball expert) and Becky (in the latter half of the book).
—Also, speaking of first drafts: Isaiah was originally named Billy. I know–weird, right?
—Becky is one of my very favorite characters I’ve ever written. I’ll explain why in a future chapter’s Bonus Features. For now I’ll just say that this conversation delights me. I love Becky’s attitude, and how it comes across as both innocent and sinister at the same time.
—The outlandish clothing was a late addition to the book. I’d always known that I wanted kids to have things to spend their points on, but the selection was always vague in my mind. Although giving each group a distinctive look seems totally obvious, it had slipped my mind until I watched a couple documentaries about gang life and realized how much gangs adopt very hard-set customs and symbolism. It didn’t make sense for the Variants to care much, because they’re the gang that was mostly made up of misfits, but I wanted Havoc to have a classic gang look–in fact, I wanted them to have an over-the-top gang look. Most of these kids were taken into the school while they were fairly young, so their perception of what gangs look like would have been colored mostly by the media. Consequently, I have them emulating a gang stereotype, not creating a new gang persona. Only a few of them have real tattoos (like Oakland) while the rest of them have hand-drawn tattoos, and their clothes are a mix of baggy pants, chains, hoodies, and all the other classic/generic gangland clothes. (Which is why Benson, who was involved with real gangs in Pittsburgh, thinks it looks like they’re dressing up for Halloween.)
The Society’s clothes are more of a philosophical attempt to recreate a style. They hold themselves to a higher standard, and that translates to a clothing style that reflects a more moral era. I played with that idea a bit, having them select clothes from an older era, but I purposely chose the prohibition era, to denote that their puritanical streak was leading to more problems. So, they’re all in pinstripes and suspenders, and Becky is described as having fingercurls in in her hair. (The girls also all wear too much make up, as a sort of symbol of their over-the-top attempts at being proper.)
—One of Becky’s first awesome moments comes in this chapter. Becky says to Benson:
“Also, they don’t want us to chase after the car. That’s against the rules.”
“Who are ‘they’?”
Becky turned to me and winked. “Ah, that’s the real question, isn’t it?”
As we see later, Becky is not a complete pawn of the school, but everything that she does here makes her act like one. We’ll get into her motivations more later, but ultimately she’s driven by protection: she just wants everyone to be safe. This entire performance is not a demonstration that she loves the school. On the contrary, it’s a demonstration that she is trying to keep the new kid as calm as possible. She wants to go through her planned orientation and break the horrible news–news she totally recognizes as horrible–as gently as possible.
—The Four Big Rules, in case you haven’t guessed, exist so that the experiment can run smoothly. First, No Sex, which exists to prevent pregnancies, something the school is not set up for. (Some reviewers have hypothesized that it’s also because the androids are not programmed/functional for sex. I’ll leave that unanswered and up to speculation.) Second, No “Violent Fights” rules exists to keep people from finding out the truth about the androids. If, for example, the attack on Jane took place in the school building, in good lighting, then it could have been easy to determine the truth about her. While the rule appears ambiguous on the students’ end, the school has very strict definitions: any fight that could result in broken skin, compound fractures, or something that the students with the medical contracts couldn’t treat counts as a “violent fight”. Third, Don’t Try To Escape, goes without saying. It would mess everything up if someone succeeded. More likely, it would waste the school’s time to track down and capture a student that has become an asset. Finally, No Refusing Punishments. This last one is essential to the experiments/testing, because the punishments are what keep students under control. When a student refuses to play the school’s game—when they refuse to be tested—they become useless to the school.
—I also like when Benson throws Becky up against the door here, because it really clearly reveals his starting character. She’s smaller than him, and acting innocent and kind, and he still uses force on her to try to get his way (to escape). It shows that, though he may have some decent tendencies, he’s hard-edged and reckless.
—On page 32, I named Mr. Bedke (one of Benson’s former foster parents and a union organizer) after Derek Bedke, a guy I went to MBA school with and a guy who has no love of unions. It amuses me a great deal.
The Full List of Bonus Features: