by Silver Webb
Janet Rendall is the author of “Blue Brain Terrain,” which will be published this June in SB Lit Jo. I knew virtually nothing of Janet before I opened her submission email and fell into a complex story about a future where engaging too deeply with your senses might just be cause for extermination. Or, as Janet says, “During the 1990s, in the so-called “decade of the brain,” I became fascinated by that three-pound organ and how scientists saw it as our new and unlimited frontier. I wanted to explore what might happen if the feared artificial intelligence destroyed part of the world and to fight back, the human brain was enhanced. What could go wrong?”
When I interview Janet, possibly I am expecting a wild woman, an iconoclast, perhaps someone who keeps a binder of conspiracy theories by the bedside. I instead hear about a childhood that is surprisingly picture perfect. “I was born in Hollywood, back when they used to call it a city. I lived there until seven, when my parents moved to the very first track homes in West Covina, three streets all pretty much identical and we had a baseball team on each street, a close-knit neighborhood. That was back in the day when moms used to make popcorn balls on Halloween. Now you can’t ever hand out something home-made.” She mentions that this innocent time is reflected in her book TubeLight. Although she is quick to assure me that unlike the main character’s mother, her mother was not an alien. Her mother, in fact, graduated from Graceland College in 1932, in a time when it was not all that common for women to go to college. Janet went to the same college, but then transferred to San Jose State to study occupational therapy.
What to make of this bright imagination and practical career? Her friends would say she is “a nurturing person, warm, but someone who thinks outside the box and tries to inspire people to do the same.” Let us turn to my standard, prescriptions of the zodiac. Janet is a Sagittarius, and in the Chinese zodiac, a Horse. A Horse is energetic, warm-hearted, and positive. A Sagittarius is philosophical, a traveler, extrovert, and enthusiastic. Which pretty much means that Janet is a ball of energy. In fact, she just returned from a travel adventure in Africa.
When I ask what kind of a writer she is, Janet reveals that it takes her a long time to write a story, that she is an organic writer who is guilty of the same thing we all are: the crappy rough draft. “I am driven to write,” she says. “I try to write every day. Sometimes it takes the form of trying to prepare something for a blog. So if I’m not writing a short story or working on a novel, I have to write something. I lose myself in the writing, lose total track of time, which is a good thing.” When I ask if she is ever satisfied with her writing, she laughs. “No! I always think that I could be better and a lot of times it’s really hard for me to let go of it! I go back and fiddle with it and sometimes that doesn’t really make it better. I guess most writers feel that way. And if they were to go back and look at previous work they’d want to rewrite it.” She participates in a writing group regularly and counts Matt Pallamary, Dale Griffiths Stamos, Karen Ford, and Donald Maass as teachers and mentors who have encouraged her to write.
When I ask her about the writing process for “Blue Brain Terrain,” she says, “With this particular work I find myself being too left brain because I’m trying to make sure it has some scientific basis. This has been the most challenging thing I’ve ever worked on. My two novels were more historical. Route 66 to the Milky Way was set in 1949, and TubeLight is set in 1968. This new story is speculative. I wanted to leave it open-ended, with the idea that the future is open and we don’t really know what exactly is going to happen.” “Blue Brain Terrain” plays with the dichotomy between purely cerebral characters, who have “evolved” past the point of relying on their senses. But the story is also populated with sensual characters with “synesthesia” or meshed senses, who might be able to taste color or hear textures. Janet says, “I thought this would make for a really fascinating character where they’ve intentionally tried to enhance all the senses, so they’d be super creative, which a society might need…but not too many…that would be dangerous.”
When I ask how she wants people to feel after they read “Blue Brain Terrain,” she says, “I hope that they will feel interested and also challenged a bit to learn more about the brain. The brain is the final frontier. But I’m also hopeful that even if future societies make mistakes, they’re made by people who are trying to help things along, even if they get it wrong. I also feel that Ebol [the main character] is able to get away, because he’s a survivor. The underdog has a chance to live, even in a society where he’s beyond hope.”
This leads to my trickiest and final question. “Which sense could you live without?” She thinks about that, and says, “I wouldn’t want to give up vision, hearing, touch…maybe smell. Since it’s integral to taste I’d be a lot thinner! Maybe that’s why I elected to pick that sense for this story. It is the most basic of the senses.” But I promise that all of your senses will be engaged and rewarded when you read “Blue Brain Terrain” in Volume 1 of Santa Barbara Literary Journal, out on June 1, 2018!
Janet Rendall has received several writing awards from the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference and many practice awards from the American Society of Hand Therapists and the Occupational Therapy Association of California. Route 66 to the Milky Way is her debut novel, TubeLight is her second. She is currently writing an anthology, or possibly a novel, on the brain. You can visit her at www.janetrendall.com.