Q&A with Robert H. Cloake

Don’t miss out on Robert H. Cloake’s, “Fear of Missing Out” [in our January/February issue, on sale now!], or on our chat with him, in which he reveals the three separate ideas that became this story, the particulars of his writing process, and what he’s learned from his various careers.


Asimov’s Editor: How did this story germinate?

RHC: In “The Fear of Missing Out,” three things I’d been toying with separately came together in a spontaneous and happy fusion.

First was the idea of a technology for generating an automatic personality that could maintain social activity while the user does other things. I’ve had this speculation on a list of story ideas for a long time, and I like to collect instances from newspapers and history that pertain to or preview it—for example, when someone’s social media account, partially automated, continues to post after they die. Recently I enjoyed what Kelly Robson—as a bit of background world-building in her richly imagined novella, Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach—did with a similar idea. Her story made me feel ready to write my own automatic personality story.

After I sat down to do something with the auto-personality idea, I asked myself what sort of character would plausibly get themselves tangled up with such a technology. And I thought of a second idea—Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It’s on another list I have, this one full of myths and narratives I’ve enjoyed and would like to riff on. So in “The Fear of Missing Out” I ended up creating a reverse Jekyll/Hyde character: one to whom his “natural” personality seems monstrous, while the personality that technology allows him to adopt, and which circumstances increasingly force him to rely on, is the one he and others prefer.

Having these first two ideas, I was immediately reminded of another—of something that’s interested me since I came across it in my graduate school philosophy reading: ego-identity. Ego-identity is the perception most people have of internal continuity and coherence, the identification with themselves that allows them, for example, to recognize their own memories. It seems to me that any story of the type I was dreaming up would necessarily involve a confrontation with the fragility of ego-identity. Many of my favorite bits in “The Fear of Missing Out” explore what the technology under consideration would do to a person’s ego-identity.

Once these three ideas had accumulated, the story practically wrote itself.

AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?

RHC: Not really. For the most part, my stories are attempts to imagine my way into minds and personalities unlike my own.


I work best if I frontload structural considerations, writing down questions and answers to myself about the plot and characters of a story idea until I have a general sense of its outcome, major turns, and central themes. I formulate that conception in a small paragraph of instructions to myself, and sometimes in a scene list or a brief outline, and then I draft straight through the story, secure in the knowledge that I can focus on language because the larger patterns have been sorted.


AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?

RHC: “The Fear of Missing Out” is an allusion to the expression “FOMO.” I won’t belabor the irony, which should be apparent to anyone who reads the story.

AE: What is your process?

RHC: I work best if I frontload structural considerations, writing down questions and answers to myself about the plot and characters of a story idea until I have a general sense of its outcome, major turns, and central themes. I formulate that conception in a small paragraph of instructions to myself, and sometimes in a scene list or a brief outline, and then I draft straight through the story, secure in the knowledge that I can focus on language because the larger patterns have been sorted. When I make myself take the time to go through this process, generally the stories come out pretty well and don’t need a huge amount of editing. Unfortunately, I often dive impatiently into drafting without having thought through my story, in which case it takes many drafts, and sometimes many years, to arrive at something good. “The Fear of Missing Out” was a smooth experience, because I took my time thinking it through before I started writing.

AE: What other projects are you working on?

RHC: I always have half a dozen stories underway, and I’m also working on a novel—since it looks like we’ll be mostly stuck avoiding social interactions for reasons of public health throughout 2021, I hope to get a lot of writing done.

AE: What are you reading right now?

RHC: For a book club with some fellow speculative fiction writers, I’m reading Tana French’s latest mystery novel, The Searcher. For my own education, I’m reading The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff. And for pleasure, I’ve been reading C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen, as well as a wonderful anthology of Italian short stories edited by Jhumpa Lahiri, and the notebooks and travel journals of the Swiss poet Philippe Jaccottet.

AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?

RHC: I have been a hospital orderly, which convinced me I would prefer a job where I could sometimes sit down. I have been a college lecturer in philosophy, which informs my choice of topics and tendency to push my stories in the direction of thought experiments. And I have been a journalist, which taught me to ignore my literary vapors and get on with the writing.


AE:
How can our readers follow you and your writing?

RHC: Come visit me at www.rhcloake.com


Robert H. Cloake is a writer living in Pittsburgh. With a background in academic philosophy, he uses his fiction to explore the ethical and ontological problems of truth, human personhood, and aesthetic value. As a longtime reader of speculative fiction, he believes that the most significant thought experiments take the form of stories. His work has also appeared in Interzone and Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

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