The postapocalypse has been very good to Oakland writer Meg Elison.
On April 24, 47North published The Book of Flora, the third volume in her futuristic "Road to Nowhere" trilogy, the culmination of a literary journey that began in her senior year at UC Berkeley.
A fan of end-of-the-world novels, Elison, 36, said in a telephone interview that once she began to track down everything in English in that genre, she made an interesting discovery: Fewer than 10 percent of the books featured a female protagonist.
"Even when (the books) do have female characters, they're incredibly chaste," Elison said. "They don't menstruate and only get pregnant when it's convenient."
She gathered a tiny pile of books where this was not the case — including work by Octavia Butler, P.D. James, and Margaret Atwood — and started asking why there weren't more examples.
"Attendant to that was a feeling of rage," she said. "And there's nothing better for writing a novel than rage."
Captured by the idea of a pandemic that wipes out most of the world's women and children, Elison put aside the idea until after finals, but then began her debut novel in an initial 13,000-word burst of inspiration. The Book of the Unnamed Midwife went on to win a Philip K. Dick Award for best science fiction paperback original and established Elison as a promising newcomer in the genre.
Elison comes by her rage honestly. She grew up in Hemet, in Southern California's Inland Empire, where her parents divorced when she was nine and her mother abandoned her when Elison was 14.
"I dropped out of high school because I had no place to live, and it's difficult to be a student under those circumstances."
She struggled with bad jobs and bouts of homelessness, but eventually found her way to community college at Mount San Jacinto and a transfer to UC Berkeley, where she served as the opinion editor for the Daily Cal and frequently contributed reviews and features to the paper.
Although she now shares an Oakland apartment with five male roommates (one her husband), Elison said the lessons from her years of homelessness stick with her.
"It made me think about morality in a more elastic way," she said. "It made me consider in what way was stealing wrong, and if you were stealing to survive did that mitigate the moral worth of it? (Homelessness) magnifies capitalism in a way no other experience does."
At Cal, she said, she was able to find outlets for her ability to write thousands of words a day.
"It got me used to the Internet Hate Machine in a way I wouldn't have otherwise," she said. "I got my first death threat when I was working at the Daily Cal."
The Book of the Unnamed Midwife was followed by The Book of Etta, in which a new set of characters struggle to survive in a world hostile to women and partially ruled by a male slaveholder known as the Lion.
The Book of Flora brings the tale begun in The Book of the Unnamed Midwife to a fitting resolution, as former victims of the Lion search for healing and redemption.
"Imagine if every Mad Max film was Fury Road," Elison said. "It's an apocalyptic adventure trilogy, where the hero is always not a man, that explores the notion of gender under conditions of extreme duress." Women dress as men for self-protection. A bisexual character switches rapidly between personae. Some men and women live in hives, where the males take a subservient role to one dominant female.
"In the wake of a plague that has killed off women at 10 times the rate of men, people have to redefine what gender means, what importance we place on reproduction and what that means to our individual and collective freedom," she said.
Elison said she hated that the post-apocalyptic subgenre put so much importance on the heterosexual breeding pair.
"In doing that, they almost erase queer people's existence. As if (by making) heterosexuality compulsory, no one is ever queer. That's just not, in my experience, what happens."
Elison views apocalyptic science fiction as a "canvas onto which we can project our own insecurities and our fondest wishes."
"There's nothing more embarrassingly telling than your personal vision of the apocalypse," she said. "I know at once, when I ask you how you think the world will end, what you're most afraid of and what you're most hopeful for."
With "The Road to Nowhere" completed, Elison said she is pitching publishers at least two new projects, a thriller and a young-adult novel.
With literary success, Elison said she has had to re-prioritize her life.
"I used to tell myself it would be enough if I were just published. My life could be over and I would be happy. And now I have to re-set that goal and decide what would be enough for my life to feel complete.
"I always have to remind myself that the clock is ticking," she said, "and there's work to do."
Meg Elison will read from The Book of Flora at Cliterary Salon: The Road to Fanfic, on Apr. 26, 7 p.m., The Bindery, 1727 Haight St., San Francisco, MegElison.com