Cicadaphobia

It's not exactly every 17 years!

The Cicada Survival Guide

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Imagine cicadas carry a deadly venom that they can pass on to you through an open wound, contaminating your blood and making you itch, grow unusually long and sharp nails, emanate a pestilential odor, literally lose your sanity and run into the wilderness, where they’ll eventually find you and gather en masse on your decaying flesh to suck the blood and pus out of your self-inflicted scratches until you die. Imagine this venom comes from a fungus infected with a virus that the Soviet Union created 35 years ago and left behind in Afghanistan. Imagine a Secret Service agent responsible for security at a meeting between the first ladies of the US and China contracts the virus during the Brood II cicada invasion in the Washington, DC metropolitan region…

No, this isn’t a cicada nightmare that I had last night… It’s the plot of a book that the author, Northern Virginia-based “programmer by day, writer by night” Marcus Eigh, gifted to me, after finding Cicadaphobia through Twitter. He didn’t say much about the story, other than promise that it would help me with my fear of the insects, and, maybe, even change my outlook on them. I never say no to a free book — even a self-published story written by an obscure author. I’m always curious to see what writers can come up with. So I downloaded it and read it in one sitting. Did it change my outlook on cicadas? No. (I doubt anything would.) Did it help me with my fear of them? Oddly enough, yes, it did. I think it was somewhat cathartic to read about a guy itching from a virus he got after being attacked by a mighty swarm of cicadas in an old-fashioned wrought-iron cage elevator while I was also itching all over from my own anxiety in anticipation of the beasts’ emergence!

I was impressed with the author’s imagination and his ability to mix scientific facts about cicadas with science fiction, political intrigue, subtle humorous commentary, and even cicada recipes! Yuck! (Yes, as interludes between chapters he offers cicada recipes of his own concoction). The plot is strong and it makes for a good thriller. My only qualm is that it feels a little rushed — and, after talking with Marcus, I learned it actually was (he wanted to publish it before Brood II emerged and didn’t have much time to polish it). The writing falls a little flat sometimes and I remember catching a few minor mistakes. The style could use some editing and finessing; the storyline could be expanded and the scenes made more memorable with the addition of details in the descriptions of people, places, and events; the characters need to be fleshed out and given more distinctive voices that really set them apart from one another (especially because each of them is the narrator of a different chapter). But, if we consider that the writing style of many bestsellers is, alas, very far from sublime, it is safe to say that this is definitely a great start! I think this story has commercial appeal and I could totally see it turned into an action movie where the cicadas are rendered with special effects like the Na’vi people in Avatar! Now I can’t wait to read the sequel (this was only the first of three installments…)

I was really curious to know what inspired Marcus to write this story. Was he afraid of cicadas? Did he like them? With all those recipes thrown into the story, did he enjoy eating them? Why were the recipes there in the first place? So I decided to interview him for Cicadaphobia and share his book through the blog. It makes for a pretty good read during an invasion of cicadas! I’m really loving how these ugly beasts inspire artists and writers to create…

Tell us a little about yourself. Your Twitter account says you’re a “programmer by day and a writer by night,” but your website states you used to write poetry back in China. How long have you been writing? Would you be a full-time writer if you had the opportunity?
I was born and grew up in Communist China, where the wise (high school faculty and parents) coerced smart kids to major in science and engineering, and stay clear of liberal art majors, which were believed to corrupt the impressionable and lead them to run afoul of China’s one-party techno-dictators. I won a first-place literature award in a prefecture-wide competition when I was a high school freshman. I was considered talented but, ironically, my high school advisory committee twisted my arms to shoot for a engineering major. I got accepted into China’s number one engineering school, the equivalent of MIT, Tsinghua University. Once there, I realized it was the wrong path for me; I secretly wanted to be a writer. I published a significant amount of poems in popular magazines, of which one I remember paid me fairly handsomely — enough for me buy a four-piece meal in Beijing’s first-ever KFC. Unfortunately, I was not bad enough to fail at Tsinghua and I graduated. By then China was on the most brutal capitalist path, and literature seemed to be just morphine for the disenfranchised. Poets couldn’t get laid. But any schmucks with a pair of imported Nike could.

So I put my dream of literature aside and got an MBA; then tried my hands in business; then immigrated to the U.S.; then got married and had kids. Life has given me plenty of excuses not to re-visit my dream, until one day, I read Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. I realized that I could die early, just like Ivan Ilyich did, and I would have nothing to show that I lived, in terms of my literature dream. That put the fear in me. And we humans are mainly motivated by two things: fear and greed. Greed is easy to acquire. I believe we are all born with it. Fear is different, it has to be put in us by something. In my case it is The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which I consider my spiritual treadmill. I have to keep running in terms of writing in order to stay alive.

So yes, I hope someday I do not have to earn a living and support a family by writing computer codes. I don’t hate it and I am good at it. But, like Anton Chekhov (who was a physician) said, creative writing is my mistress. I have so much lust for her.

How’s your relationship with cicadas? Are you terrified, disgusted, just moderately annoyed, or do you like them?
We did not have many toys to speak of when we were kids. As a result, we played with animals a lot. One of my brother and I experimented with a lot of insects. Cicadas were kind of on the boring side for us; we chose to chase dragonflies as we could tie a thread to one and let it fly around like a personal “drone.” We worshiped praying mantises, as they were agile as acrobats. Our favorite insects to ingest was silkworm pupae — those in between a worm and a moth, fairly dried in their cocoon. They had a powdery nutty taste. Kind of like roasted chestnuts.

What inspired The Cicada Survival Guide? There’s a whole lot going on in it: Scientific facts about cicadas but also a lot of science fiction, political intrigue, echoes of the Cold War, and even cicada recipes! How did you get the idea to mix all of this in your story?
I heard about Brood II cicadas only about a month ago. I immediately wanted to write a fiction story about them. I just thought it would be fairly opportune as many people would be talking about that subject and be interested in a far-fetched story. Cicadas themselves have a fairly boring single-track life cycle, despite their horrific impression on some people and their insanely biblical population. So I had to throw in a lot of intertwined intrigues to make their existence relevant to us behind the obvious. The obvious being what everyone already knows — the ones that would get in your cars when you drive, the make-you-cringe crushing sound when you step on them, etc. I want the horrors they bring about to reflect our own wrong-doings. Hence the legacy of Cold War, the bad karma of man’s relentless, surgical modifications on nature, the rivalry between nations… I do the narratives in a switch-hitter fashion as I want the perspectives to be more personal and realistic. I want people to feel they are thumbing through a weekend edition of newspaper, where they could find a murder story on one page and a commentary next to it; then a fancy recipe on the next page…

Are the cicada recipes in the book your own?
Yes, the recipes are my own creation/imagination. I am pretty good with Sichuan, Japanese, and some Cantonese cuisines. I seem to understand chemistry between spices well and the effect of heat and timing well, too. I am a Double Sauté expert. I even wrote a short story called Double Sauté and the editor nominated for last year’s Best of the Net award.

Would you recommend your book to those who have a phobia of cicadas? Why?
Yes I would. A good read distracts you. When you are engrossed in a fictional tale of cicadas, you are not in fear of the real shrieking ones outside.

When will we be able to read the sequel of the book?
I think I will put the sequel out before the end of the cicada season, which is around June 20. That is the benefit of self-publishing. It can be lightning fast.

Are you planning on submitting the book to a publisher? Or will you continue to self-publish?
I think this book is already spoiled from a conventional publisher’s point of view. From my perspective, it would never have made it to the market in time if I had chosen to submit it to a publisher. As I mentioned, from conception to the publishing of the book, it has been a swift, albeit intense process. I’d say the whole process took about a month. But I did not create all segments of the story from scratch. I started writing in the middle of 2011 and sold about a dozen short stories to different magazines in 2012. But I wrote many more short stories than I sold. Some of them are waiting to be double sautéed, others are still traveling in the magazines’ submission-rejection maze; yet some others are just incomplete sketches. Some of these raw materials found their way into The Cicada Survival Guide.

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