In February, I reviewed Robert Repino’s debut novel Mort(e), which is the story of a simple housecat who has been uplifted into becoming a stronger, taller, sentient soldier for a mad Queen of the Ants and her war against humanity. And that’s only the beginning! The book is a lot of fun, so I suggest you check out my review and pick it up if it sounds up your alley. Repino has been gracious enough to answer a few lingering questions I had about the book, as well as gauging how well he’d do in a war between man and beast, and even hinting at what’s to come in the Mort(e) universe.
Robert Repino earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize among other awards, and has appeared in The Literary Review, Night Train, Hobart, The Coachella Review, and more. Repino is the pitcher for the Oxford University Press softball team and quarterback for the flag football team, but his business card says that he’s an editor. In addition to Mort(e), Repino is also the author of the forthcoming novella Leap High Yahoo (Amazon Kindle Singles).
This Nerding Life: So, when you were formulating how the uplift of the animals would work, did you make a taxonomy of which ones would be affected? In the story, we see cats, dogs, a bobcat, a pig, birds (briefly mentioned). We’re told that insects seem to not have been affected, but what about things like dolphins and whales? Reptiles? Apes? (already-tread ground, this…) The sizes of various animals would seem to make integration into society difficult, like if you had to design civic buildings for both cats and elephants. Also, while the book takes place primarily in the continental United States, would there be similar fighting everywhere else? Australia would have a good variety of dangerous animals…
Robert Repino: I suppose calling it a taxonomy would be giving me too much credit. As you note, I eliminated insects from the list of animals that would be affected by the hormone. Instead, they remain loyal allies to the Queen in their present form. Two reasons for this: first, if insects grew to an enormous size, the population would immediately crash because there wouldn’t be enough food for them. Second, the Queen’s decision to uplift the surface animals is intended as a massive experiment to see if the animals will fall prey to the same tendencies that destroyed the humans. In terms of evolution, insects are probably too far removed from humans for them to be a useful component in the experiment.
The animals I work with in my book are restricted by their location, which is hinted at as being a metropolitan area on a river that feeds into the Atlantic, somewhere between New York and DC, both of which have been destroyed. In other words, Philadelphia. So, there are pets, feral animals, and livestock associated with the region.
There is an entire world outside of this region waiting to be discovered, where different species have built (or failed to build) new societies after achieving sentience. This includes not only the other continents, but the territory under the sea. I hint at fighting in other lands; for example, in the backstory for the character Miriam, I mention that most of the apes in Africa have been killed because people mistakenly think that primates are behind the animal uprising. Anyway, I’m working on the sequel, in which the main characters will try to make contact with these other species. And, as you would expect, the results are mixed.
TNL: I had a lot of fun trying to figure out your reference points for events, characters and situations in Mort(e). I think I nailed down a few in my review, like the ’50s atomic ant film Them! and the works of Orwell and possibly Robert C. O’Brien, but were there any others you’re surprised no one’s picked up on? Any that people have been completely off-base in comparing the book to? (As I said in my review, just because someone is investigating a mystery doesn’t mean they’re automatically Sam Spade, cough Slate cough)
RR: You’re definitely right about Them! and Orwell, though I haven’t read O’Brien or the Sam Spade novels referenced in the Slate review. (Slate was very nice to my book, so they can compare it to detective novels all they want.) Publishing this book has reminded me of how poorly read I have been in so many areas. On several occasions, people have said, “Well, you must have read [insert allegory here],” and I’ve had to admit that I didn’t know what they were talking about.
I think the idea of achieving sudden sentience can be found in many bits of pop culture that influenced me. Neo’s discovery of the real world in The Matrix comes to mind. I also worked with the idea of a person sharing another person’s memories; there is, for example, an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “The Inner Light”—often regarded as the best of the series—in which Picard lives another man’s life while a mere twenty minutes have passed in real time.
I’m still waiting for some reviewer to go into detail about the religious content, which is all over the book. There are biblical passages, hymns, theological debates, blasphemy, holy relics, prophecies, references to the Islamic tradition, references to atheist/humanist thought. People have mentioned in passing that the book discusses religion in general, but that’s about it so far. (Honestly, I think your review was the first to spend more than two sentences on it.) I work in the field of religious studies for Oxford University Press, so I’m immersed in these issues. But I have to remind myself that most people don’t really care, which I suppose may be a good thing.
Poster art for Mort(e) done in Mars Attacks! style, by Jeff Wong
TNL: How do you think you would fare in a genocidal war between humans and uplifted animals? For the record, as soon as I see a giant ant just covered in normal-sized ants, I’m using the Hemingway Solution because that’s just terrifying.
RR: Not good. I don’t know how to use a firearm, I’m not trained in hand-to-hand combat, I’m probably below average in terms of physical strength, I’ve forgotten what little I learned about living in the wild from the Boy Scouts, and I live in New York, which will probably be a big smorgasbord when the ants start to feed.
A couple of years ago, there was a fire in my apartment building, and I had to retrieve my glasses in the smoke. As a result of that, I decided to get the laser surgery on my eyes. I can now see perfectly, which I hope has slightly improved my chances of survival. So, I got that going for me.
TNL: “The Story of Sebastian and Sheba”, which comes early on in the novel and serves as the main reason why Mort(e) fights so hard later on, is a pretty beautiful examination of a marriage falling apart in dangerous times told through the perspective of an unlikely narrator. Did you have any rituals or anything that you used to get so perfectly into the mindset and perspective of a housecat examining these events? I’m reminded of Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, the writing of which found the author visiting the beach and pretending to use it as his litterbox. Anything like that?
RR: See, there’s another reference I’m not familiar with! I suck.
There was no particular movie or work of literature I read to get into the mindset of the housecat. What dictated both the writing and the direction of the story was, first, the fact that animals would be more in tune with their other senses than we would be. Thus, Sebastian is ruled by his hearing and sense of smell. Second, I wanted to have this constant tension between a feeling of wonder as the cat explores this world, and a feeling of isolation, as the cat realizes, in fleeting moments, that he is not a member of the master’s family, but is instead a mascot, a piece of property. In other words, the cat lives in a state of constant awe and constant fear and loneliness.
TNL: Going back to Orwell and Animal Farm for a moment, did you feel any pressure while writing the book to stay away from this earlier allegorical story using animals, or to kind of lampshade it while telling your bigger tale? Bonaparte the pig is a pretty clear nod to Animal Farm, but he seems more like a knowing aside than a reference. Mort(e) is also a lot more about the interplay between faith and science than the political allegory found in Orwell, but how well do you think a society of animals would function after the war?
RR: I can’t say I felt pressure to steer clear of Animal Farm. I thought that a lot of the ideas in Orwell’s novel serve as the bedrock of my own book: the folly of human exceptionalism, the inevitability of corruption, the manipulation of willing subjects in some political cause.
Whenever the allegory question comes up, I usually say that my book is allegorical, but it’s not really an allegory, if that makes any sense. In other words, the characters don’t represent particular people in the world today, but they do personify certain tendencies, from hubris to compassion to a desire to find meaning. They are supposed to be original creations with their own wants and needs, as best as I could construct them.
I was less concerned with mimicking Orwell and more concerned with borrowing too heavily from the pop culture elements that have probably influenced me too much over the years. For example, I wanted to have a scene in which Mort(e)’s commanding officer, a grizzled bobcat named Culdesac, gives the soldiers a pep talk about killing humans. But then I saw Inglourious Basterds, which has a similar scene with Brad Pitt’s character, and I had to drop it. There was no way I could write it without stealing from Tarantino’s script.
TNL: The storytelling mechanic of alternating between individual character’s histories and the events currently at hand was probably my favourite part of Mort(e), apart from the irresistible notion of a hard-bitten cat war veteran. I was particularly struck by how each animal interacted with the humans in their lives, or perhaps the absence of humans in Bonaparte’s case. Was it tough to switch between the pre- and post-uplifted animals when writing?
RR: Thank you—I’m glad that worked for you, because the multiple POV structure was truly the biggest challenge of the book. But it needed to be done. If the whole book was from Mort(e)’s perspective, then the other characters would be props for him to use and discard in his single-minded journey. Wawa, Culdesac, Bonaparte, and the Queen needed their own space so we could see what motivated them, what scared them, whom they loved. I couldn’t do that with Mort(e) simply observing them, or through some clunky informational dialogue.
It was always a letdown to finish one character’s chapter, and then say to myself, “Okay, back to Wawa,” or whoever. In order to start again, I would have to read the last chapter from that person’s POV and think about it for several days, until I realized I was talking to myself in that character’s voice. Only then could I start again. And then I’d love the process of writing until the next POV shift, when I would want to jump off a bridge.
Thanks again to Robert for taking the time to talk with me. Mort(e) can be found wherever good books are sold, like the Soho Press website.