Skip to main content

Interview: February 14, 2019

Normally we think of cats as having "nine lives," but what if there were an alternate universe where humans actually did and each life "number" corresponded to certain social privileges? That is the premise of Zach Hines' 2018 dystopian debut NINE, wher in an alternate world startlingly close to our own, humans have nine lives. As you shed lives, you shed your awkward phases: one death is equal to one physical and mental upgrade. Julian’s friends are obsessed with the idea of burning, but Julian is determined to stay on his first life for as long as he can. His mother burned too fast and inflicted a debilitating rebirth sickness on herself. But when becomes a target for Nicholas, the manipulative leader of the Burners, the school’s suicide club, he uncovers suspicious gaps in the rebirth system. Along with a group of student dissenters, Julian sets out to find answers and is soon on the verge of exposing the greatest conspiracy ever unleashed on the world. Our reviewer Jena Brown had a chance to talk to Zach Hines about his dystopian novel, from parallel universes to world-building to the possibility of a sequel. Keep reading to check out what Zach had to say! NINE is a dystopian written in an alternate universe rather than an altered timeline. In this world’s past, a meteor changed the trajectory of humanity, giving them nine lives. Where did the idea for this plot line come from?

Zach Hines: The concept of rebirth has always been fascinating to me. Existentially, it is a very attractive idea, but it seems hard to square the idea of rebirth with what it would actually mean in the physical realm. How could you separate your essence from the physical boundaries that it operates in everyday? Are you something more than just your body? This is how I first started thinking about the idea of rebirth --- in terms of its contradictions.

Another frequent thought of mine is that a lot of the world really is a total crazy miracle --- the idea that there is even life at all in the universe, let alone that we should be conscious enough to experience it and question it, that’s amazing to me. Cosmically speaking, life is very precious and rare. But our society has been constructed in such a way to totally obscure this fundamental truth. For far too many people, life is an awful grind of work, aging and decay. Lives are taken callously and with malice across the world every day. I thought --- man, if that’s how we treat having ONE life, then how messed up would the world be if we had multiple lives?

I thought how oppressive would it be to be a single person in this society at their most vulnerable moment, a teenager --- this is the time when you become disillusioned to the big fictions of the world. What if you were a teenager in a world that was even more callous toward life than our present reality is? And what if you are convinced that life was more precious than your society tells you it is? What if the very foundations of this society seemed nothing short of horrific to you? This was a very rich and seed to use to begin to write a novel. 

TRC: Using a parallel universe as the setting for a dystopian is unique. Usually a dystopian shows us a future where our own world went wrong, where you show us a present alternative. Why did you choose to write in a parallel world versus a different history of our own?

ZH: I wanted the dystopia in NINE to be as true to real life as it could be --- the world in NINE is clearly a morally decadent place that can’t possibly survive in the long term. But, like our world, everyone in that society just goes about it day to day without questioning it. The authorities struggle harder in NINE to sugarcoat the true picture of the world, but I was surprised how easy it was to fit this world building into the current structure of our world. If our society was built around the idea of killing yourself multiple times to get anywhere, then I bet most people would be doing it without question, and you would be a freak if you didn’t.

The dystopia in NINE is a warped version of our world, but it is only very gently warped. The society in the novel is, like our world, consumed with growth at all costs. A consumption-based society, like ours, is just a constant drumbeat of more, more, more. There are awful consequences to this: pollution, overcrowding, disease, etc., and this is all around us today in our actual lives, but we are very adept at ignoring it. We don’t want to think about where our iPhone comes from, we don’t want to think about the actual price of flying tomatoes across the globe, we don’t want to think how it’s possible that a hamburger is less than $5. 

TRC: This world is very intricate. The ideas of upgrading bodies with every life, being eligible for certain colleges, jobs or housing based on your life number. Not to mention the lake and how that entire rebirth process works. How did these details emerge? Did you have these ideas when you sat down to write, or were they an evolution as you wrote? What was the biggest obstacle you faced trying to bring this world to life?

ZH: I spent a great deal of time on the world-building, including the metaphysical extra-dimensional pseudo-science about how rebirth works on a molecular level, and I built out an extensive history of geopolitics since the comet event split the NINE timeline from our world. But at the end of the day, I didn’t want to show all of this in the novel. I wanted to present the world-building “through a keyhole.” I wanted the characters to accept this world as it was and not spend time deconstructing how it came to be. After all, this is how most of us operate everyday: we accept reality and don’t question it.

That said, the world-building is there in the details and margins. It is meant to be glimpsed “through a keyhole,” and it is meant to be mysterious. I know some readers would prefer to have the world explained to them, but I left enough details in the story to suggest a pretty clear broad strokes picture of the world-building. I wanted the details of the world to live and grow in the reader’s imagination because then it could take on more of a mystery or a shape based on the reader’s own life experience. This is how we actually process history everyday: we repurpose it to fit our narratives. This was maybe a risky decision from an authorial point of view, but I wanted to give the reader’s imagination enough fuel to start creating their own story for the details of the world’s history.

TRC: In regards to power and corruption, the idea of having nine lives gives those themes a more sinister edge. Similarly, the themes of hope and the value of life are also more immediate and apparent. What was your biggest worry when deciding to use death, and in particular suicide, in driving this world forward? What did you hope readers will take away from your book?

ZH: On one level, suicide in NINE is metaphorical. In the novel, you need to trade in your lives to advance through society. You need to be on a certain life number to get into college, to get a mortgage, to get a job. This is like how, in our actual society IRL, we ask our young people to make enormous sacrifices to pay (exorbitantly) for college or to dedicate the entirety of their lives to their job/career. We don’t get nine lives in real life, of course, we only get one --- but that one gets chipped away and drained very quickly, and if you don’t pay attention to it, it will just slip away from you.

On another level, death is very real to these characters, even if they do come back to life. But new life is not as simple and easy as the regime in the novel promises. New life is not free of consequences --- the process is brutal, frightening and bewildering. Even when you come back, you are not the you of your previous life. You are different, altered and sometimes this is subtle, and sometimes this is painfully apparent, like how Julian’s mother came to forget who her own son was. At the end of the day, death is a horrible thing in NINE. Julian is right to never want to die, and life should be preserved and fought for at all costs.

I hope readers walk away from the novel thinking about how life is precious and should be cherished and treasured every day, and that nothing our society asks of you is worth forsaking your life for --- even a small aspect of it. When you read about people in their final moments, their regrets are almost always to have lived more. They are never regrets about their exams or their careers --- they are always regrets about the life they had lost along the way. Our actual world IRL would have you give up your life for college, for your job, for your “future” --- but don’t do it. Just don’t. Live! This is the only life you get. 

TRC: Julian goes through a really transformative arc. He loses quite a bit every time he tries to compromise to do what he thinks is right, or to help the ones he cares about. And in the end, he even has to compromise in order to save the last person important to him. Can you talk about his journey and how you think a teen will relate to Julian and his choices while they read?

JB: It’s very hard to be a teenager in America. Growing up, the stories you receive paint a very vivid and real picture of how the world “should be,” and as you get older, it becomes clear that these stories are just myths. They provide a little guidance, but they are not an accurate view of the world --- no, most people will not grow up to be president, or CEO of a big company, or a famous actor, or whatever. This can be incredibly disillusioning to realize. But it can also be empowering --- because as you start to learn all the ways in which the promises were false, or that the system is broken, you become hopeful that you can fix it.

This is where Julian is stuck --- in the space between disillusionment and hope. In the character of Cody, Julian finds someone who is all-in on the hope side of things --- Cody thinks that a group of teenagers can tear down an evil regime that has been operating for hundreds of years, even if the odds are overwhelming. I think what Cody wants to do is incredibly noble, but it is also incredibly unrealistic. It’s possible Cody can succeed of course, but if she were to do it, it would require everything of her --- all of her time and energy. She would need to forsake her loved ones and dedicate herself 100% to the cause. It’s true that maybe at the end of the day, she can win and make life better for lots of people --- that’s a possibility for Cody because she has no real attachments to this world. She has no one she cares about enough to displace her all-consuming goal.

But not so for Julian. Julian has a very real responsibility --- at the end of the day, Julian’s little brother has no one but him. For Julian, a noble goal of regime change cannot displace the immediate welfare of the person he loves the most. This is a painful moment that comes with its own disillusionment --- the disillusionment of the heroic --- but it also comes with its own hope: the small, good things to make life better for those who need you. My hope is that a lot of young people can relate to this predicament. 

TRC: At the core of your book is the theme of pressure. Peer pressure, social pressure, family pressure. I found it fascinating that while Julian is trying to rebel from society, he also feels enormous pressure to conform. Why did you choose to explore this idea of pressure in the context of mortality?

JB: There’s this idea that “peer pressure” is such a fundamental part of being a young person. Yes, that is absolutely true --- but I don’t know why people think it goes away when you get older. It doesn’t go away --- it just gets more insidious. Think about the reasons you really have the goals you have. Ask yourself if those goals really matter to you in a vacuum --- or if they only make sense in the context of what other people are doing and wanting in life.

Pressure, of course, can also be a good thing --- it can really get you motivated to accomplish some stuff --- but it is always worth questioning it and examining where it comes from. I think peer pressure is just so fundamental to the human experience, I can’t imagine it going away even in the context of having multiple lives. Peer pressure is the glue that holds together society.

TRC: One of the main plot lines regards the Burners Club, essentially a suicide club for teens. To understand the nature of this world, there are numerous death scenes. Were you concerned with readers seeing these scenes as a glamorization of death? 

ZH: This was always going to be the trickiest part of the novel. I wanted the death scenes to be true to life, like something that reckless, ridiculous, stupid teenagers would actually do --- but I also wanted to show the brutality, futility and waste of it. I think having the book through Julian’s eyes really helped make this balance work. In many of the death scenes, the students in the Academy take it as a joke, but not Julian. He sees how brutal it is. And as the story progresses, toward the end, we see other key characters responsible for so many of these “joke” deaths being tasked with carrying them out in a much more aggressive manner --- and when we are in their POV, from behind their eyes, there is no joke about it at all. It’s just brutality. Striking this balance was definitely a challenge, but Julian was there to help me. 

TRC: The book ends with questions answered, but hints at things still up in the air given the politics at large. Are there plans for a sequel, or to expand on this world in the future?

ZH: There is a sequel that I have in mind, and I would love to revisit Julian, Nicholas and Molly --- a lot of surprising things happen to them, and the world also evolves in a very dangerous and unexpected way. But at the moment, I’m focused on a new, rather ambitious series that is also set in an “alternate present.” I’m very enamored with this new series and I’m excited to get it out into the world. But soon I hope I will be able to get to work on a possible NINE PLUS ONE!