Interview: Dystopia in Utopia: Brian Pinkerton, Author of The Nirvana Effect


Author Brian Pinkerton is a lifelong resident of the Chicago area, growing up on, as he puts it,Bozo’s Circus and Ray Rayner…Creature Features and Cubs baseball.” With 12 novels under his belt, his work has extended to the science fiction, horror, and mystery genres. His latest work, The Nirvana Effect (Flame Tree Press), finds myopia in a tech utopia, addressing virtual reality, social media, and the barriers they remove and put up at the same time. I spoke with him about his writings and what the city of Chicago has brought to them.

Provide a little background info about yourself. Whatever you'd like to share.

I’m a long-time Chicagoan. I’ve lived in the suburbs or the city most of my life. I was born in Evanston. I grew up on WGN’s Bozo’s Circus and Ray Rayner, and graduated on to Creature Features and Cubs baseball, back when Wrigley Field only had day games. Later, I was into the whole Wax Trax! scene, Metro, Medusa’s, and Neo. I worked downtown in the Loop for eight years.

The only extended period I’ve been away from Chicago would be my undergraduate years at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. I attended graduate school at Northwestern and studied Integrated Marketing Communications, when I lived in Rogers Park. The city is in my roots.

What brought you to writing? Was it something you always wanted to do or a later-in-life discovery?

My dad has an audio recording of me from when I was 5 years old, proclaiming, “I’m going to be a book writer!” I guess I already knew at a young age. I’ve always been attracted to stories and storytelling. My mom was a high school English teacher. When I was very small, I used to scribble on the papers she was grading to make my contribution. I loved libraries and bookstores. I still have vivid memories of the annual book fair at Greenbriar Elementary in Northbrook. I was equally fascinated by the writing and the illustrations. Maurice Sendak was my favorite, along with Jack Kent.

One of my earliest ambitions was to be a cartoonist. I loved tackling blank paper with a pen. My cartoons were long, comedy-adventure stories, rather than comic strip gags. Eventually, I started telling stories without the drawings. I would get impatient with the drawing—it couldn’t keep pace with the story in my head. Some of those cartoons would begin with careful artwork and get progressively looser and sloppier as I became more caught up in the momentum of the narrative. By high school, I was writing quirky novellas and short stories. It got more serious in college, when I took undergraduate classes of the Iowa Writers Workshop and won first prize in a local literary magazine. One of my professors was the fiction editor of Esquire magazine. He liked my literary attempts but groaned when I wrote “genre” fiction.

Speaking of genre fiction… You shift between mystery, horror, and others. Do you have a favorite or do you love all your literary children equally?

I like to mix it up. When writing, my biggest worry is boring myself. If I’m not interested, I’m not motivated, and it’s a slog. I like genre hopping to keep the stories fresh and different. I don’t have to write these books. It’s not my day job. It’s recreation.

Shifting between genres is probably not the smartest marketing move. I don’t know if the thriller fans follow me to horror or the horror fans follow me to science fiction, so I might be restarting a readership base every time I switch things up.

Regardless of genre, my books have a common thread. They all feature ordinary people encountering something extraordinary that pulls them out of their mundane lives and sends them on a path of adventure and self-discovery. Maybe it’s my way of living vicariously through fictional characters.

I also blend genres a bit, so it gets even more blurry. My science-fiction novels The Nirvana Effect and The Gemini Experiment are set in the near-future. One is a dystopian horror story, the other is an A.I. thriller. I wrote a science-fiction time travel book, Time Warp, that’s actually a psychological drama with no science fiction or time travel. It threw all expectations out the window. The readers were either enthralled, bewildered or pissed off.

What motivates you to write?

For me, writing a story is like going on a vacation. I can go anywhere, meet fascinating characters and have an incredible journey. I plot out stories like people build trip itineraries. My imagination is a hyperactive playground. I don’t think I could turn it off if I tried. I love creating stories and sharing them with others. If someone posts a review on Goodreads or Amazon that says they got a kick out of one of my books, it makes my day.

Brian Pinkerton

Your newest book The Nirvana Effect is a trip through a technological dystopia. Tell us about it.

The Nirvana Effect is a dystopian story about society crumbling under addiction to virtual reality when true reality becomes unbearable and people choose to live their lives in escapism.

The book is my reaction to the intrusion of technology in every aspect of our lives. We can now experience life without ever leaving our homes. With a few quick taps, we can have all our meals and necessities delivered to our homes. Our entertainment is streamed to our personal devices. Our social interactions take place remotely on social media, where algorithms put us in a cocoon of interests and beliefs that mirror our own. We work from home on laptops and engage on Zoom.

The Nirvana Effect takes it one step further where we’ve ditched the physical world almost entirely to thrive in the comfort and convenience of virtual reality. Instead of an iPhone in our hand, we’re equipped with computer chips in our head. It’s not that farfetched. Elon Musk is experimenting with brain chip implants. Mark Zuckerberg is building a metaverse. At what stage do we make the transition from harnessing technology to technology harnessing us?

At what point do we move all of the pleasures of life to the Cloud? What happens when we no longer require any true human interaction? Do we become less human?

It’s bizarre. I finished writing The Nirvana Effect on March 1, 2020, right before the pandemic hit full force and changed life as we know it. So much of what’s in the book started happening a lot quicker than predicted—self-isolation, invasive technology, civil unrest, government mandates, mistrust of institutions, heightened tensions with Russian and China, technology used to push a false narrative, the debate between digital and tangible good. Don’t even get me started on NFTs!

Chicago turns up in more than one of your books. How has the city inspired and influenced you?

Chicago has great heart and soul. The people are pragmatic, relatable. For a writer, there’s a broad palette of colors to choose from. There’s great diversity and history. You have every type of weather. You have a wide range of urban and suburban sets to stage your action. It’s a versatile backdrop. One of my noir short stories takes place on Lower Wacker Drive. That was a blast. The location is so vivid and unusual, it becomes another character.

Los Angeles is for dreamers. New York is for cynics. Chicago is that perfect city in-between. It’s down to earth. It’s the heartland. It’s a very big city but still personable, a community with a lot of character.

Time management is also a factor. Part of it is writing what I know. Less research and location scouting means more time for writing and plotting. I pick locations I know because it helps me see the story unfold more vividly. Somebody has already built the sets. I just populate them with characters and chaos.

My books move around a lot, too. The Gemini Experiment begins in Chicago but then branches out across the country and around the world. Abducted starts on the west coast and migrates to Chicago halfway through. Vengeance takes place in Evanston, where I’ve lived multiple times in my life.

What's next for you? Anything big or even small in the works?

Last month, I handed in my new book, The Intruders, to my editor. It’s scheduled for publication in early 2023 from Flame Tree Press, same publisher as my previous two. They’re distributed by Simon & Schuster.

I’m still shifting and blending genres. The Intruders is a science fiction-horror hybrid about mysterious happenings in a small town that grow into a worldwide threat. It’s partly a tribute to 1950s sci-fi stories like The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Thing, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s also got a contemporary subtext about things that worry me today, like climate change. Any time I do science fiction, there’s a social commentary beneath the surface.

I’m also writing a few short stories. One of my earliest novels, Rough Cut, has been adapted into a screenplay by (playwright and former Chicagoan) Darren Callahan, and it’s making the rounds in L.A. Fingers crossed!

What are you reading these days, or what book or books (new or old) would you recommend to others?

I don’t always read a lot of genre fiction. I usually avoid reading novels when I’m writing. I get worried it might subliminally influence my writing—not so much the story, but the narrative voice.

My book pile right now is an eclectic mix of stuff: Ray and Joe: The Story of a Man and his Dead Friend, a collection of seriously twisted cartoons by Charles Rodrigues from the classic 1970s era of National Lampoon; The Human Stain, by Philip Roth; Blacktop Wasteland, a thriller by S.A. Cosby; A.I. 2041, a collection of short stories set in 2041 by Kai-Fu Lee and Chen Qiufab; and art sex music, the autobiography of Cosey Fanni Tutti, a controversial female performance artist and musician who was part of the industrial music revolution.

As far as recommendations, anything by Richard Matheson or Ray Bradbury. Two thrillers that influenced me a lot are Marathon Man and Magic by William Goldman. His literary novel Color of Light, is extraordinary, too.

Is there anything I didn't ask that you wish I'd asked?

In the beginning, there’s an idea. It could be a single scene (a murderer accidentally locks his car keys in the trunk with the body); a concept (mosquitoes carrying the zombie virus attacking rural Louisiana); or a starting point (fired nanny disappears with child).

Then I construct an outline around it. I use notecards so I can rearrange scenes and play with the pacing. For suspense, I map out when certain information is revealed, and for action, the rhythm for building and releasing tension. The plotting is very important to me, the story threads and continuity. Every scene card needs its own purpose and dramatic arc. It can’t just be a block of exposition. I like to end chapters on mini-cliffhangers.

Once the notecards are in good shape and tell a complete story, I start drafting. I handwrite my books on pads of lined paper, usually one chapter a week. I don’t use the computer. The computer is an endless toy box of distractions. My cartooning background has made me comfortable with composing on paper, sketching out my prose in longhand.

The first draft is in pen, it just flows. Then I go back over it and edit it meticulously in pencil. The pages can get quite messy. When I’m ready, I read the manuscript into a headset, using dictation software to flow it into a Word file. It’s also a good exercise to read it out loud, especially the dialogue, to see how it sounds to the ear. I want the dialogue to sound natural, not “written.”

Then I proof the Word file against the handwritten pages; the software is good and fast, but not perfect. I find some funny mistakes.

At this stage, I make all revisions on the PC. It’s very late into the process that I’m actually typing on a computer keyboard. So, my novel The Nirvana Effect, which is a warning about the evils of technology, was written with a minimal intrusion of technology. I guess that’s appropriate. It’s defiant.

Maybe one day computers will write novels without any human input, using formulas and algorithms and templates. You pick your genre, the computer mines everything ever produced in that genre and assembles something new from those tried-and-true ingredients. It’s automated and comfortably predictable, like a James Patterson novel. Now that’s scary!

Picture of the author
Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.