Welcome to the Speculative Herald, Mishell! Thank you for answering some of my questions.
- For those who may be unfamiliar with the story, can you give us a brief synopsis ofBorderline?
A double amputee with borderline personality disorder gets recruited to a secret organization policing traffic between our world and a parallel magical one. Her first assignment is to find a missing fey nobleman who has vanished somewhere in Los Angeles. As she follows the trail of clues she begins to uncover a conspiracy that could lead to a war between the worlds.
- Borderlineis a combination of several unique elements: the film industry, the realm of the fey, characters with mental illnesses, and more. How did you decide to bring all these elements together in a story?
They say “write what you know,” especially with a first book, and so it began with my attempt to write about the things most familiar to me: Los Angeles, mental health, the entertainment industry. But I can’t seem to write any story without magic in it, so I knew I had to find a way to make it into a fantasy. The magical element came from something my husband had pitched to me years ago when I was trying to write spec scripts for television. He had an idea for an organization like the Arcadia Project, a sort of border patrol for the supernatural. It seemed to me, as I played around with novel ideas, that Los Angeles would be a perfect place to exist on the brink of the surreal. My brain kept playing with the term “glamour” and its double meaning of allure and magic, and how that could relate to the entertainment industry. It clicked well enough that a plot emerged.
- You’ve given your main character Millie a double whammy of disabilities: she’s mentally illanda double amputee. What was the inspiration behind your decision to create such a challenging character?
This is difficult and problematic to talk about, but you’re the first to ask point-blank, so I’ll do my best.
I knew that I wanted to write about someone who had survived a suicide attempt, because I have such strong feelings about the phoenix-like effect of hitting rock bottom and then emerging into an entirely new existence. I’ve experienced that in a less extreme way, myself. But the problem, especially with female characters, is that a failed suicide attempt is often looked upon with disdain as somehow fake, a ploy for attention. I felt that to counteract that unfortunate prejudice it had to be obvious that Millie wasn’t just “staging” an attempt for sympathy.
Unfortunately, there are only so many foolproof ways to die. I’m not comfortable with firearms, so a seven-story jump looked like the best option. A fall like that is either going to kill you (most likely) or do catastrophic permanent damage. I accepted the consequences, then did the necessary research to make that damage an integral part of her new life. People have remarked that I incorporate her disability without making her character “all about” that, and if I’ve succeeded in that at all it’s because I didn’t sit down and say, “I want to write a story about a double amputee.” She came into my head already embroiled in another story, and her injuries are something she carries around with her as she lives that story.
As an able-bodied person I ignorantly, accidentally stumbled on a truth about disability: no one’s story is “all about” that, even when it permeates every other aspect of their lives. We’re all pursuing our own goals, exploring our emotions, overcoming external obstacles at work and in our relationships. Some of us just have more baggage along for the ride than others. I guess I wanted to write an example of this idea, show that you don’t have to have every piece of a typical human body in order to live a whole life, an interesting life worth reading about for reasons other than “inspiring” people without disabilities.
- Borderline’s unexpected humor was one of my favorite elements of the story. How hard (or easy!) was it to write such funny dialogue—Millie’s in particular?
I’m one of those people who has to suppress turning everything into a joke, to be honest — one of the few personality traits Millie and I share beyond our diagnosis. That said, the jokes aren’t always good on a first pass. But that’s the nice thing about writing a novel; there’s no esprit d’escalier. If you later think of the awesome thing Millie should have said, you just… go back and add it in. There are jokes I added in even at the last-minute proofread phase. If they let me, I’d probably go in and add more. I never stop tinkering with the jokes. So it’s easy, and it’s hard. It’s easy (for me) to find the humor in everything, harder to get the timing and the rhythm of a joke right. I’ve learned a lot about this from my husband, who can nail a joke on the first pass in an instinctive way that I envy.
- Borderlineis the first in a trilogy (and thank you for that! I can’t wait to dive back into this world!). Can you give us a hint about what’s next for Millie and the gang?
I can’t say too much without spoiling the ending of Borderline for those who haven’t read it yet, but I’ll do my best. Certain questions that remain unanswered because of a choice Millie makes at the end of Borderline? Those questions are going to come back to haunt us, and it will take two more books to fully resolve that larger story arc (though each book has its own smaller arc that finishes off decisively). The next book is called Phantom Pains and, as the wordplay in the title suggests, there will be a bit of a “ghost story” feel to parts of it. It has gotten amazing reactions from all 5 of the people who have read it so far.
- Please tell us three things about yourself that can’t be found on your website.
1) I find snakes and spiders endearing. 2) I’ve been to every U.S. state except Hawaii. 3) I’m studying Russian right now to prepare for a trip I’m taking to Saint Petersburg in 2017. And yes, I’ll be doing research for a book there.
Mishell Baker is a 2009 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and her short stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Redstone Science Fiction, and Electric Velocipede. She has a website at MishellBaker.com and frequently tweets about writing, parenthood, mental health, and assorted geekery at @MishellBaker. When she’s not attending conventions or going on wild research adventures, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and children. Borderline is her debut novel.
Mishell Baker “takes gritty urban fantasy in a new direction”* with her debut novel BORDERLINE. The story’s protagonist, Millie Roper, has just lost both of her legs in a failed suicide attempt. At the lowest point in her life, a second chance gets thrown her way in the form of the Arcadia Project: the secret organization holding together the very fine lines between reality and fantasy.
BORDERLINE follows Millie’s transition from a hopeless young woman in her darkest hour, through her journey to empowerment as an investigator working as an intermediary between the worlds of fantasy and Hollywood. She’s charged with finding the whereabouts of a missing fairy nobleman/ Hollywood movie star, and quickly finds that fighting her own inner demons are the least of her problems…
Baker has created a dark and nuanced blend of fantasy and reality, while keeping her characters multidimensional and engaging. BORDERLINE is a unique and strong debut novel for Baker and promises to keep readers begging for the next installment of The Arcadia Project series.