How Do You Get Your Life Together When the World Is Falling Apart? Ling Ma’s New Novel, Severance

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At the beginning of Ling Ma’s debut novel, Severance, Candace Chen is too distracted by office politics and her relationship with her boyfriend to focus on the mysterious illness decimating the human population. Then, for a while, she’s in denial. Long after her colleagues become ill and disappear, she continues to show up at the New York publishing house where she works in the division that produces Bibles. When Candace finally faces facts, she must decide what to do next. Suspenseful, darkly funny, and often deeply touching, Severance tells the story of her journey toward an uncertain future.

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Read an excerpt here.

Once Candace leaves a deserted New York, she falls in with a group of survivors on their way to a place their leader, Bob, describes as “the Facility.” (Just wait until you find out what the Facility is.) Along the way, they encounter several people dying of Shen Fever, all of whom exhibit a telltale symptom: zombie-like repetition of their daily routine. The infected sit in front of televisions and appear to laugh but never get up. They starve to death even as they place plates on a table, lift empty forks to their mouths, pick up the plates, and start over, for hours that turn into days and weeks. “They may appear functional and are still able to execute rote, everyday tasks,” the public health warning explains, but it’s those tasks, done obsessively, that show the sick are doomed.

In 2015, Ma won the prestigious Graywolf SLS Prize for an excerpt of the novel-in-progress that would become Severance. The finished book delivers on the promise of that early chapter. (Read a review in BookPage.) Estelle Tang of Elle called it, “a satirical spin on the end times — kind of like The Office meets The Leftovers.” In an A.V. Club review, Samantha Nelson proposed a similar combination: “While technically post-apocalyptic fiction, Severance shares as much with Then We Came To The End, Joshua Ferris’ meditation on the failure of an advertising agency, as it does with The Walking Dead.”

Halley Parry, the first Parnassus bookseller to fall in love with the book, convinced several other staffers to read it by describing it as, “sort of a millennial version of Station Eleven.” So we thought Halley would be the perfect person to ask Ling Ma a few questions about it. Here’s their conversation:


How did the character of Candace first come to you?

200063038.jpgLM: All I had in mind at first was an office employee who was frustrated by work. And I knew that her line of work was coordinating the manufacture of Bibles in China. It’s a strange job, because isn’t the manufacture of Bibles using the low-wage workforces of other countries inherently anti-Christian? How do you reconcile those elements? But most people, I believe, don’t look at how their job contributes to larger systemic issues. It’s not that they can’t, but it’s easier not to think about it too deeply. The same with Candace Chen. Even if her job is not her passion, she settles for the conciliatory enjoyments of her job.

On one level, this is an eerie apocalyptic story, but it could also be categorized as satire. Did you set out to write satire, or did that element evolve as you wrote?

LM: To be honest, I didn’t set out to satirize so much as straight-up reflect what I saw was happening in the world. I didn’t feel like I had to exaggerate that much, if at all. Overseeing the manufacture of books, including Bibles, in Asian countries was a job that I actually held. And, more broadly, when you read the news or keep up with current events, reality has already jumped the shark. Not to put too fine a point on this, but it feels like society is already collapsing into a black hole of its own ridiculousness. It’s important not to be numb to that.

What books did you read or think about as you were writing Severance

LM: One book I kept thinking about was Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. It’s about a butler at an English estate, but I think of it as an office novel. Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Most anything by Kafka, including his journals in which he despaired over how his job took away from his writing time.

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I love the way this book is organized — the sections are so brilliantly woven together. Tell us about your writing process. Did you write scenes in the order in which they appear in the book?

LM: I didn’t have a plan or much of an outline, just a general idea of the arc. I would write the scenes that I was most excited by first, even if it was out of order, and then see how it all came together later. The idea was to write what felt the most urgent first, and let those serve as the guideposts for how to organize it.

Let’s talk about malls. Part of Severance is set in a mall, and I found it extra creepy. Were you inspired by a particular place?

LM: Ha, I love this question! I spent my teenage years in Topeka, Kansas, so I probably spent the most time at Westridge Mall. This is before online shopping really took off. During that time, the mall was like the nexus of social life. I remember getting candy at Mr Bulky’s, incense at Third Planet, body glitter at Gadzooks, and clothes at the Gap. I remember watching this Gap TV commercial and being really excited by khakis. In some ways, the mall served as an indoctrination ground for teenagers becoming consumers.

Growing up in a place like Kansas, sometimes it felt like the only way to participate in culture, or to express yourself culturally, was by the consumer choices you made. Like, there was a difference between wearing one brand of clothes versus another. What we didn’t fully register is that many of these brands were being manufactured at the same low-wage factories of China and other countries. I don’t know if that still registers.

The mall that appears in Severance is probably more like an amalgamation of several malls I’ve experienced. But of all the malls in all the world, I have spent the most time at Westridge Mall.

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The Mall at Green Hills, across Hillsboro Road from Parnassus. Probably safe in an apocalypse?

Weirdest thing you’ve ever witnessed in a mall?

LM: In most recent memory, I’d say the strangest experience was at this designer outlet mall in Virginia, near where my family lives. I went with them to the Black Friday sale on the night of Thanksgiving. It’s pretty big, sprawling one-level complex featuring J Crew, Coach, Michael Kors, Nike, North Face. What was striking was, during that Black Friday, the entire mall was filled with immigrants looking for midnight deals. They were from the Middle East, Asia, Africa. There was a line, organized with a velvet rope, outside Kate Spade, and another line outside True Religion. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a scene that literalizes the American Dream so succinctly.

Routine and mundanity are such huge themes in this novel, especially for the infected people. (Those are such haunting images, by the way.) In fact, Candace is so afraid of breaking from her routine at the beginning that she ignores the apocalypse happening around her. What do you think routine does to people? Are we slaves to it?

LM: I think routines are really comforting. And they’re important to achieving any type of goal, including writing a manuscript. But sometimes we fall into the routines for the sake of routines. It has the potential to numb you.

And finally, we love to ask: Favorite thing about bookstores?

LM: Independent bookstores are probably the least capitalist stores that exist. It is one of the few places that you’re allowed, if not expected, to take your time to browse, without the immediate pressure to buy. As a result, I have also discovered many writers and thinkers and artists this way. They are my favorite place to loiter!

Get your copy of Severance in-store or online at Parnassus Books.

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The End of the World as We Know It: A Few More Literary Tales of Post-Apocalyptic Survival

9780316250832California by Edan Lepucki
Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
The Passage trilogy by Justin Cronin
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Stand by Stephen King
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim