Story behind Life on the Preservation by Jack Skillingstead

Around 2005 I wrote a story called "Life On The Preservation" and sold it to Asimov's Science Fiction.  I think it was my fifth or sixth sale to that magazine.  The idea came to me after seeing the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day, the one in which Murray finds himself reliving the same day over and over until, I guess, he learns how to be a good guy and gets the girl.  The movie was funny, and at times kind of touching, but what stuck with me was the basic situation.  How would it be, how would it really be, to live the same day repeatedly into infinity? And what if you were the only one who knew the truth? A few days later, lying on the sofa reading, I suddenly put my book down and pictured the city of Seattle enclosed under a gigantic dome. From the outside the buildings were visible, as if seen through thick, wavy glass -- like if you sawed one of those Japanese floats in half.  It was a tantalizing image, though not especially original.  I day dreamed on it for a while and came up with the idea/image of a teenager, some kind of rebel, launching himself across Puget Sound in a rowboat, maybe departing from Blake Island to make the illegal crossing.  Because under that dome a city of several hundred thousand souls were unknowingly trapped in a kind of living diorama or museum that only very rich people in the future could afford to visit in order to experience the world as it used to be.

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For a few weeks, that's all I had.  But it wouldn't go away, and so I sat down one afternoon and started writing it out, discovering the details as I went.  The story changed quite a bit, and it was more straight up science fiction than what I was accustomed to writing, but when I finished I was quite happy with the result.  The work had gone smoothly and didn't require my usual round of obsessive rewrites.  

After "Preservation" appeared in Asimov's it was picked up by two Year's Best anthologies and fell just a few votes shy of the Hugo ballot.  It even generated some mild interest from Hollywood.  All that was great, certainly more than I'd expected, but something else happened, as well, which eventually set me on the long road to the novel Solaris Books is publishing at the end of May. 

In 2006, at the Nebula Awards in Tempe, Arizona, a famous writer critiqued the just-published short story.  We had been kicking around the idea of  maybe collaborating on a story of our own.   "Preservation" was in the issue of Asimov's that everyone at the Tempe event received in their goodie bag.  The Famous Writer read it, and when he saw me the next day proceeded to tell me where it fell short.  His objections only made sense in terms of a longer narrative arc than "Preservation's" six thousand words encompassed -- at least that was my opinion at the time.  He wanted background information and world building outside the dome that I had failed to provide.  The critique was delivered verbally and in the company of the editor who bought the story.  I think some of this was a matter of establishing who was going to be in charge of the upcoming collaboration, and I didn't mind.  It was kind of flattering, if you want to look at that way.  After all, I was a relative nobody.  Anyway, the collaboration never gelled, but I continued to think about "Life On The Preservation," and I began trying to answer the questions brought up by the Famous Writer.  Eventually, I realized I had a novel.

Except I didn't.

The novel I pictured was essentially a direct expansion of the short story, a tale of survivors and alien invaders and a teenage girl who falls in love with an illusion.  What I discovered as I tried to develop and stretch this situation was that it would not sustain my interest.  It worked at six thousand words but not ninety thousand.  Oh, I could have made it work, but the result would been forced and ordinary.  The main strength of any writer is his own peculiar brand of originality.  Writing is hard and life is short.  Why waste months or years working on a novel that any competent craftsperson could produce?

So I turned back to the methods I had learned over many years of short story writing.  I let go of my control freak ideas of what "Life On The Preservation" was supposed to be about and allowed it to become what it was about.  If originality is a writer's main strength, then the unconscious is the source of that originality.

It can be messy, though.

"Life On The Preservation" required many drafts over a period of years.  I was looking at some past interviews I did, and there's this one from September 2008, in which I state that I was working on the "...last draft..." of LOTP.


The truth is, I didn't finish the last draft of the novel until September of 2011.  If I thought I was on the last draft three years earlier, that means I had already been working on the material since at least 2007!  At least.  But for me it was worth the effort and the time (though I'm grateful that my next novel required less than eighteen months to complete in final draft).  Along the way my unconscious delivered up ideas, images, and twists in the story I hadn't even suspected were there and would never have written, had I stuck to my original more rigid approach.  My life changed in critical ways during the writing of this book, and those changes informed the narrative.  My characters, Kylie, Ian, Zach, Venessa and Charles Noble each learn what I learned myself: You live in the world you imagine.

Jack Skillingstead
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