(We’re in for another round of Variant Bonus Features! I’m blogging 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.) THESE BONUS FEATURES ARE WRITTEN ASSUMING YOU’VE READ THE ENTIRE BOOK, NOT JUST THE CHAPTERS MENTIONED. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.
–I’ve heard people hypothesize about this nighttime lockout: that the school must be using this time to make repairs or install new cameras or something similar. My answer to that: very probably. I didn’t have anything specific in mind, other than the outdoors experiment about how the students would divvy up the sleeping bags and how they’d handle pressure. Everything about this school involves putting the students in difficult situations that will cause conflict; They want the students to have to deal with conflict, either through negotiation or fighting, because they’re testing the androids’ ability to interact with humans–and so much of that interaction will be emotionally-charged.
–Even though I played my share of paintball as a teenager, I watched a TON of Youtube videos while writing this book, and was surprised to see that the sport had changed significantly since I used to play–the main difference being the speed at which you can fire (modern guns are much faster than when I used to play). (When I used to play you could use a pump action gun and still be able to compete. Now, guns are fully automatic. It’s crazy.)
All of the games they play–Search and Rescue, King of the Mountain, etc–are all real games that paintball clubs use, and the three-person squads (Lily in front, Benson in the middle, and Mason in the back) are very common; I watched a ton of tactical videos showing how those three people move and interact. I hope it translates accurately onto the page.
One of the main things I was trying to convey in this first paintball game was that Benson was in over his head. There were rules, both written and unwritten, and he didn’t understand them. He was a fighter, but all of his fighting skills were useless to him in this situation. And he was physically lost, making desperate, foolish attempts to win. It’s all a microcosm of his situation at Maxfield.
–All the names in the graveyard are the members of of my writing group: “Heather Lyon” is Heather Moore and Annette Lyon; “Jeff L.A. Holmes” is Jeff Savage, Lu Ann Staheli, and Michele Holmes.
–Two interesting things are revealed about Curtis in their discussion before the party: first, he tries to coax Benson to go to the infirmary because “You’d like the girl who works down there. Blond, cute.” But that girl, Anna, is a member of The Society, so we’re seeing that Curtis isn’t as strict about the gang lines as any of the other leaders. (Or, he knows that Benson won’t do anything about it, so it doesn’t matter.) Second, we see that Curtis seems perfectly contented to be dating–and encouraging others to date–despite the fact that the first thing we see from him (in Chapter One) is an escape attempt with Carrie. He seems to be a bit of a contradiction, like he’s not sure whether he should be staying or escaping, or if the gang boundaries mean that much to him.
–The scene with The Society taking Walnut to detention was added late in the writing process. I wanted to more strongly convey that notion that they were not just strictly obedient, but that they were viciously intolerant of those who broke the rules. There are two snippets that I think work particularly well: the first is “‘Come out, come out, wherever you are!’ a voice called, playful and evil’, and the second is “The Society marched triumphantly past me, laughing in frenzied delight. Isaiah was at their head, quiet but proud.”
In both of those lines we see that there is more to the society than merely enforcing rules. They take pleasure in it–and they firmly believe that detention means death. Isaiah is darkly pious in his role as the leader.
–I love the conversation with Becky. Although I didn’t think about it consciously at the time, I love that she is verbally distancing herself from The Society (saying that she’s not involved with Security, that she hates that contract), but she’s also distanced herself in her dress and grooming: instead of her perfect hair and makeup she has wet hair and a towel, and instead of the dress-code shoes she’s wearing flip-flops. It makes her seem more human than usual.
The fact that she then continues (in the stairwell with no cameras) to persuade Benson to stop trying to escape indicates that those sentiments are truly coming from her, not the school or The Society.
–Everyone in Havoc goes by a nickname, and there are two possibilities for the meaning of Skiver: first, there’s a British slang definition where skiver means slacker. Second, skive means “to cut thin layers off”, and skiver means “one who skives”. While either definition works, I had the second in mind, mainly intended to reflect his sniping and constant little cutting remarks.
–One of the most important points of the book is reflected in Curtis’s words when Benson asks about the school killing people: “I’ve never seen a body, you know. I mean, other than the war.”
It’s often been said that zombie movies aren’t about the zombies as the real villians; zombies are just the terrible catalyst that bring out human nature’s worst in people. In zombie movies, more characters are usually killed by other characters–fighting over guns or resources or leadership–than are killed by the zombies themselves. That was something I wanted to bring out in Variant: the school never kills anyone–at least, not that we ever see. The school is the terrible pressure that brings out the worst in people, and the students kill each other.
–In the comments section on Wednesday, reader James asked “Why did you decide to make the Benson a foster child? As someone who grew up in foster care I find it a bit confusing and occasionally offensive the sheer number of foster kids and orphans in fiction (often times simply because the author thought it was ‘more interesting’)”
When I started writing Variant, I had only one concept in mind: I wanted to write a story where there were no adults at all. That led me to create Maxfield, and build the setting and the villain. And when it came time to develop a protagonist, I always look for the type of person who would have the most conflict with the setting. So, I wanted someone who would push hard against the strictures of being fenced in–someone who would fight against the rules. In developing Benson’s backstory, I decided to make him a lone wolf–the type who loved sneaking out at night and being alone. The plot also demanded that he didn’t have any strong connections to family or friends (because that’s the type of kids that Maxfield targets, so no one notices they’re missing). I debated making him a runaway, or homeless, but decided on a foster kid because I wanted him to always be constantly on the move, to never settle down anywhere.
I realize that I don’t paint his foster life in the best of lights, but it was never my intention to disparage the institution of foster care. On the contrary, I think it’s very valuable, and I know many very loving foster families. But this fit the plot I wanted, and especially the formation of Benson as a character. I hope that makes sense.
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