“I didn’t realize how difficult it was going to be”: Lisa de Nikolits on a turn to science fiction in her latest novel, The Rage Room

Lisa de Nikolits did not set out to write a book about rage. Quite the contrary, in fact. When she sat down to begin what would become her 2020 novel The Rage Room, she envisioned a story that would pay homage to her mother.

The initial germ for the book – which in its earliest stages she thought might be called The Go-Back Time Junkies – involved a process that would allow people to return to their carefree childhoods with their parents; the conflict would arise when certain characters became addicted to the experience. “It was supposed to be something that acknowledged all the hard work that parents do,” de Nikolits says.

But as the author was turning the idea over in her mind, a strange thing happened. She began to notice the extent to which the world, or at least a large portion of its citizenry, had become inexplicably angrier. De Nikolits recalls a 2018 trip she took to Tweed, Ontario, with her husband. From the balcony of their hotel she heard someone shouting “at the top of their lungs”: “Jesus Christ! Jesus fucking Christ!” Understandably concerned, she looked around for the source of the commotion. “The person came into view and it was a six-year-old child.” Her surprise notwithstanding, what de Nikolits took away from this experience was the notion that, in her words, “everybody is angry.”

The result of this epiphany was a hard left turn for the novel, which centres on a dystopian future in which the weather is controlled by satellites, materialism and conspicuous consumption run rampant, and the antihero, Sharps Barkley, releases his pent-up fury in one of the novel’s eponymous Rage Rooms. For a fee, he can destroy objects and property to the strains of Tool, the Cult, “or, incongruously, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with a disco twist and added bass for power.”

When Sharps’s accumulated rage results in an horrific act of violence toward his family, he finds solace with a group of feminists living off the grid, who offer him a chance to go back in time and prevent the destruction of his family unit. “Sharps is this angry, quite dislikable guy who I feel a little ambivalent about,” de Nikolits says.

But it isn’t just the relatively unsympathetic nature of the novel’s central figure that gave de Nikolits pause. A prolific author with nine previous novels to her name, de Nikolits is known mainly as a crime novelist. With The Rage Room, she has taken a different path, one that leads down the road of speculative fiction. “I’m not a science fiction person, and I’m not a time travel person,” de Nikolits says. “But it was necessary for the book.”

“I think I see life in very, very noir terms.” (Photo courtesy of the author)

Time travel is a tricky subject to pull off because there are so many inconsistencies and logical traps that must be negotiated. (The old conundrum being, if you go back in time and kill your grandfather, are you never born?) But de Nikolits has found a way to put a different spin on her character’s dilemma: he jumps back in time to fix his mistake, only to find that doing things differently doesn’t matter. The same events occur, there are just different reasons for them happening.

“I think I didn’t realize how difficult it was going to be,” de Nikolits says in retrospect. “I have these ideas and I bounce from one lily pad to the next lily pad without thinking about how it’s going to join.”

De Nikolits had been interested in writing a book that shifted back and forth in time since she saw the Christopher Nolan movie Memento, but she was not convinced she had a firm enough grasp on the mechanics of how time travel would work to pull it off. She recruited a friend of hers who is an aficionado of time travel narratives and put him to work ferreting out logical inconsistencies in her story. His input, she says, was invaluable, although it did make for some difficulties as the writing was underway. “I’d send him all the bits, we’d map out [the plot]. But then the book would go in a different direction,” she says. “I would say to him, ‘But I need this to happen.’ And he’d say, ‘Well, that’s just not going to work.’ ”

While it does claim elements of science fiction, The Rage Room is not a complete departure for de Nikolits. On points, the book is a genre mash-up that marries SF tropes to a traditional noir story, an arena the author admits feels much more comfortable. “I think I see life in very, very noir terms,” de Nikolits says.

A reader of de Nikolits’s books will also notice that she sees the world in terms that are just a little canted, angled, or strange. The futuristic dystopian setting of The Rage Room allows the author full range to let this aspect of her writing loose, though it is also profound in her earlier work. She cites Salvador Dalí as an influence, in particular the noted surrealist’s idea that “form is always the product of an inquisitorial process of matter.”

The delight de Nikolits evinces in viewing contemporary reality as if through a distorted funhouse mirror is evident throughout The Rage Room, though she is careful to note that this quality in her writing is not the result of any kind of mysticism or spiritual connection to the ethereal. Quite the contrary: it is the result of a lot of hard work. “It’s not like a magical carpet ride where I just sit there and things happen,” she says. “I have all these maps up on the wall – if this happens, then this will happen. And then it keeps changing. It’s thoroughly exhausting.”

The rigour involved in keeping the many elements of her plots straight in her head and on the page involves minute planning and attention to detail, and often proves frustrating as the story develops and begins to take on a life of its own. De Nikolits declaims the idea that, in her words, “if you can dream it, you can be it,” noting that the process of writing a novel is much more tedious and quotidian, requiring a single-minded focus on story, character, and setting that allows the writer to push forward through the inevitable impediments that will occur. “I’m like one of those boring machines that they use to create the subway,” she says. “The only way out is through.”

The challenges in writing The Rage Room were so severe, de Nikolits says, that for a time she contemplated not writing another novel. “I decided I wasn’t going to write any more books, because it’s such hard work,” she says. “I’ve never been one of those people who say, ‘Let it come to you.’ I go after it.”

The sequel to The Rage Room is scheduled for publication in 2022.

“I didn’t realize how difficult it was going to be”: Lisa de Nikolits on a turn to science fiction in her latest novel, The Rage Room
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