Q&A With Kevin Shay

  1. Randall Knight is a children’s puppeteer and performer who’s on a cross-country tour trying to get his friends, family and even his ex-girlfriend to come to terms with what he believes is the end of civil society: Y2K. It’s safe to say that Randall is obsessed with Y2K. Where did you get the inspiration for this character? Did you experience Y2K fear in the same way that Randall does in the novel?

    I went through a brief but intense period of paranoia about Y2K in around the same timeframe as the first part of the novel, late summer and fall of 1998. I never embraced Y2K to Randall’s extent, or ran around trying to warn people about it, but I did have an “awakening” along the lines of his, beginning with a scary article in Wired. I eventually managed to get over my fears in somewhat the same way as Randall does, mostly by staying offline and keeping busy.

    As for the character himself, I had a vague, unrelated idea for a story about a guy who travels around replacing the Gideon Bibles in motel rooms with something else. There’s that line in “Rocky Raccoon” about Gideon’s Bible. And there was a beloved music teacher and puppeteer at my elementary school who had a puppet named Rocky Raccoon. So that was the genesis of Randall’s profession.

  2. Despite Randall’s fervent pitch he gives his loved ones about the realities of life in a post-Y2K world, nobody seems to care about it. In fact, they all start to worry about Randall’s mental health instead. In your research for this novel, did you discover anything that would have made you consider going off the grid for Y2K? Did you find out anything that really made you feel like we had avoided a disaster?

    Much of my “research” had already happened long before I started writing: My firsthand experience, prior to the rollover, of the paranoia and the online Y2K subculture. And when the big day arrived, it instantly became clear that the predictions of the doomsayers were not just wrong, they were (as a young woman Randall meets would put it) totally and completely wrong. So when I sat down in 2002 to investigate Y2K in retrospect for the book, I wasn’t asking “why didn’t terrible things happen?” so much as “why did anyone ever think terrible things would happen?” I have several lengthy answers to that question, and maybe the whole novel constitutes one, but suffice it to say that I think the whole episode had as much to do with psychology as with technology.

  3. The End as I Know It is a road-trip novel that aptly captures distinct parts of America in detail. What other road-trip novels or movies influenced this aspect of the novel?

    I can’t recall having any specific road-trip stories in mind while working on the book, other than maybe (because Randall is a folksinger) the Woody Guthrie autobiography and biopic Bound for Glory. The protagonist of the typical road novel or movie wants to reach, if not a location on the map, at least a single concrete goal—to find, deliver, or retrieve some object, person, or piece of information. Or else, as in the On the Road model, you have someone wandering indefinitely to wherever the wind and substance abuse carry him. Randall knows where he needs to go, but it’s to multiple destinations, and without a clear notion either of the desired outcome or of where he himself might end up at the end of the trip.

    You could almost think of the first half of the book more as a “serial homecoming” story than as a road story, because each stop on Randall’s itinerary represents some important part of his history. In this regard, while writing, I sometimes found myself thinking of High Fidelity—not a road trip per se, but you have a narrator who’s made a list of people from his past whom he must revisit in order to understand his present self and move forward from it. Of course, Randall is unaware that this is the true goal underlying his Y2K mission.

  4. Randall loses most of his valued possessions during the course of his trip. He decides to buy a laptop (to continue his Y2K research and outreach) from a guy he meets online—and then in person at a coffee shop in Roanoke, VA—named FlockWatcher. FlockWatcher gives Randall pause. Though Randall likes that he appreciates the severity of Y2K, he also sees that maybe he’s not a kindred spirit when FlockWatcher says, despite his fear of Y2K, that he wouldn’t mind watching “the immolation of some urban jungles.” How would you characterize the community of people who believed in this problem?

    People came at Y2K from several disparate angles, making it unusual as end-of-the-world movements go. Most apocalyptic rhetoric tends to come from one side or another of the political spectrum: “Terrorists will kill us all” from the right, “climate change will kill us all” from the left. With Y2K, yes, there were a certain number of rabid Clinton-haters and ultra-libertarian long-time survivalists like FlockWatcher, yet you also had a sort of crunchy contingent who saw it as a crisis but also as an opportunity for a positive spiritual awakening for humanity—the Utne Reader put out a survival guide. There were a lot of software developers, of course. And Gary North, the real progenitor of the Y2K-bug-as-global-crisis meme, was a Christian Reconstructionist.

    So it made for a few strange bedfellows. But on the other hand, it’s important to realize that many of the people who were deeply concerned were ordinary families and individuals from all walks of life, who never thought they had it in them to buy into something like this. That’s why I wanted Randall to come across (at least in the beginning) as relatively sane and levelheaded apart from his specific obsession—he’s not the guy you’d expect this to happen to.

  5. What was your writing process for this novel like? How did you manage to keep the story so light when Randall was obviously so devastated?

    I had some sense of the broad shape of the book before I started, and then did a beat-by-beat outline of a given chapter before writing or rewriting it. Since it’s a road novel, geography and timing dictated the flow of the story to some degree, and a lot of the revisions involved shuffling chapters around and rearranging Randall’s itinerary. I spent plenty of time with MapQuest and a 1998 calendar.

    As for the tone, I didn’t set out to write a comic novel, and in fact I think there are quite a few darker parts. But maybe the simple fact that Y2K already came and went, and you as the reader know Randall is wrong, is what allows you to react to something like his on-stage breakdown as humorous rather than horrifying.

  6. It’s such a shock for the reader when Randall’s family and friends stage an intervention for him, however nutty he’s been. Obviously the intervention doesn’t work (since he moves out to Texas with a bunch of other Y2K survivalists), but what do you think Randall really needed from them? What would have been more effective to get him to listen to reason?

    One thing I wanted to avoid was introducing a mouthpiece character who would lay out some long, coherent explanation, written with the benefit of my own hindsight, of why things would turn out fine. Instead, each time Randall actually manages to discuss Y2K with someone, he sort of gets a fragment of the answer, and usually not explicitly.

    I don’t think very convincing arguments against doom and gloom were even available at the time. Not because there weren’t any to be made, but because spending time constructing a case for why the world will not collapse a year from now is something most smart folks are disinclined to do. Which is part of why Randall becomes so convinced—he can’t find any Pollyannas online who sound as compelling and passionate as the doomers. Why? Because nearly all the people who didn’t see much reason to worry simply went about their business; they didn’t analyze the situation in depth or post their conclusions to Usenet. That’s why you heard things like “Well, nearly all the programmers in this discussion group think it’ll be bad, so it must be true.” The discussion group is for programmers who think it’ll be bad. The other ones are busy programming.

    In other words, Randall would never listen to anyone who hasn’t done at least as much research on the subject as he has, and nobody would bother to do that unless they were inclined to believe it in the first place. So the intervention is pretty much a non-starter.

  7. The late nineties seem so far away, but when you read The End as I Know It, it really hits home how different we’ve become. How would you say the country and people have changed since 1998?

    It’s funny, I put a moment into the book where Randall watches CNN reporting on the Democratic victory in the midterm elections. Lo and behold, here we are again.

    But yes, after September 11th and six years of the Bush administration, we do seem to be in a different place in many ways. The tendency, then, is to look at Y2K and say it happened at the end of an era. However, I think it also marked the beginning of one—the era of the Internet as a primary source of information for the masses. Y2K can be seen as the first big Internet-driven social phenomenon. As such, it presaged a lot of how the country absorbed and responded to September 11th, the Iraq war, and the last three U.S. elections, not to mention various post-Y2K causes for alarm. You can go online today and find a community convinced that, say, avian flu is going to cause TEOTWAWKI, and some of what you’ll read is almost word-for-word Y2K-doomer talk, with a few of the nouns changed.

  8. You’ve also worked as a computer programmer. How did your tech background help you write this story?

    I chose not to make my protagonist a geek, fearing the story would get bogged down in the technical details of Y2K remediation, which frankly aren’t that interesting even to programmers. What probably informed the novel more than my actual coding background was nearly 20 years of observing and participating in networked communities of various kinds, from BBSes to mailing lists to Usenet to discussion boards to MetaFilter. The online world is a milieu whose details have been badly butchered at the hands of countless fiction writers and filmmakers with no firsthand experience of it, so I hope those sections of The End as I Know It will ring truer than most of the “netsploitation” novels and movies we’ve endured.

  9. Tell us more about the relationship that develops between Randall and Paige on their road trip back to New York after Randall’s stint on the survivalist ranch in Texas. Why do you think Randall is able to give up the obsession when he meets her?

    Above and beyond their specific chemistry, I think Randall feels at ease with Paige simply because she knows from the outset about his millennial worries, which might make a poor icebreaker at a singles bar.

    Throughout the book, I tried to hint at something Randall never consciously realizes or articulates—that getting dumped by his girlfriend was what really precipitated the mental state that prepared him to receive the Y2K message. In that light, it makes sense that a new romantic attachment would help bring him back from the abyss.

  10. What are you working on next?

    My new novel is about four friends who went to college together, and a life-or-death secret they’ve shared ever since. Now, ten years later, the truth behind the secret is about to come to light, and each of them has to decide what to do about it. The action takes place in New York City over the course of one long, eventful weekend.

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