M.H. Mead is the pen name of the writing duo of Margaret Yang and Harry R. Campion, authors of FATE’S MIRROR, THE CALINE CONSPIRACY, and most recently, the Motor City techno-thriller TAKING THE HIGHWAY. Detroit has become a commuter nightmare of dystopian proportions that gives us “fourths,” professional carpoolers needed to fill a car so you can ride in the HOV lane, and computer-controlled traffic patterns. As a fan of speculative fiction, science fiction that considers the issues facing humanity today and in the future, I enjoyed “Riding Fourth,” the short story set in the future of TAKING THE HIGHWAY, so I invited Yang and Campion to belly up to the bar.
Harry & Margaret: The Detroit of the future is a newly-evolved model of prosperity, but that prosperity is fragile. A ring of poverty circles the city like a noose, which makes commuting from the suburbs into the city a dangerous prospect, unless you’re on the highways. Since every highway is restricted to cars with four passengers, those carpools who come up short hire professional hitchhikers—fourths—to round out their carpools. The city needs fourths. Fourths need the work. It’s an easy way to earn some extra cash.
Or to end up dead.
Someone is killing fourths and the only one who can stop the killer is jaded homicide detective Andre LaCroix, who moonlights as a fourth himself.
TP:I’m a total motorhead, though my mechanic skills peter out after electronic fuel injection came around. I drove a ’65 Mustang ragtop in college–bought with my own cash after paying tuition, mind you–and I love a well designed car, whether it’s ’70s Detroit muscle or my Mini Cooper turbo. What are your favorites?
Harry & Margaret: We test-drove lots of contemporary American power to see which one we thought would become a classic. Which car of today would be considered a desirable antique in a future of smoothly plastic electric cars? A friend took us for a ride in a Viper, but we had to pass because it was only available in manual transmission. It was too much to ask that our hero be able to drive stick in that world—alas. Although we loved the Mustang and the Corvette, we came back to Dodge for the Challenger. Andre and his brother share a bright red, 2008 Challenger, inherited from their father. The brothers constantly fight over who gets to drive it, even though it’s too valuable to be driven at all.
TP: In “Riding Fourth” you make it clear that Fourths are second-class citizens. We like to think America is a classless society, but that’s only because it’s taboo to talk about it. And your car says the same things about you in America as your schooling and accent do in England. What inspired you to make a car-less underclass for this novel?
Harry & Margaret: We’re big fans of science fiction novels that focus on the cultural impacts of new discoveries and evolving technology. Detroit has been saved by shrinking its footprint, but that makes the commute there and back again from the suburbs a tricky thing. People will hire fourths only if they have to. Since you don’t want just any stranger in your car, fourths have to look good, act polite, and charm instantly. Our fourths are day laborers with the wit of Oscar Wilde, gigolos with the sophisticated charm of James Bond, and they are constantly clawing for respect. Sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t.
TP: “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.” That’s from Flannery O’Connor’s WISE BLOOD. But I also like “Nobody walks in L.A.,” by Missing Persons. We have it on the jukebox. You got no wheels, you got nothing. Tell us a bit about Detroit. I haven’t been there for decades, and residents have a love-hate relationship with the city. What made you set it there?
Harry & Margaret: The Motor City hates the hate when it comes to public transportation. The unspoken undercurrent is “anyone not buying a new car as often as possible is part of the problem.” At the same time, cities often have islands of safety surrounded by lakes of poverty. We just took both things to their logical extreme. Honestly, the most science-fictional aspect of the entire book is the new prosperity of Detroit. In our imagined future, Detroit is a great place to live, work, and even vacation. One of our favorite scenes in the book is when Andre, working as a fourth, is picked up by a family of tourists. Their outsider’s view of Detroit really shows how the city has changed.
TP: I was sorely disappointed that it wasn’t like ROBOCOP described it, when I visited. New Jersey has the same self-deprecating sense of humor. What are some of your favorite movies? They don’t have to be about cars or Detroit.
Harry & Margaret: We could probably carry on entire conversations using nothing but movie quotes. THE PRINCESS BRIDE has the best lines. “Have fun storming the castle!” and “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means,” and “I do not think you’ll accept my help, since I am only waiting around to kill you.” We also love little Ronald Ann in A WISH FOR WINGS THAT WORK. Her simple, “Uh-huh, save it,” speaks volumes.
What’s even more fun is quoting lines from really bad movies. Bruce Willis in STRIKING DISTANCE, half-shouting, half-whining, “I’m trying to solve a murder, here!” cracks us up every time.
Harry & Margaret: We could take the easy way and name car songs like “Highway to Hell” and “I’m in Love With My Car” and “Pink Cadillac.” But you know what would be even more fitting? Classic Motown. Our near-future Detroit has a lot in common with the Detroit of the 50’s and 60’s. It was a time of prosperity, of population growth, of optimism. Yet, there was an undercurrent of poverty and inequality that exploded a few years later. Things were good on the surface, not so good underneath. And yet that music—The Supremes, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye—is music everyone knows by heart.
TP: I tried collaborating on a story with a friend of mine, but I found it very difficult. Then again, I’m a brutal editor. For the record, “Riding Fourth” didn’t make me reach for my red pen. I really enjoyed it, and I look forward to reading your novel. What is it like collaborating on novels, like you do? How do you not kill each other?
Harry & Margaret: It starts with respect. We were classmates together and beta readers for one another long before we were collaborators. We have confidence in each other’s opinions, so if one of us says, “This is a problem,” we know it is. We often differ about the best fix, but the trust and respect means we will eventually find a way.
Do we ever want to kill each other? Heck, no! We’ve had a few serious disagreements, but 99 days out of 100, this is the most fun we’ve ever had writing.
Margaret: I don’t really care what’s for dinner, as long as there is key lime pie for dessert. Just like that character from “Dexter,” If I had the perfect slice of key lime pie in my stomach, I could die happy.