Story Behind the Story: “The Remainders” by Nicola Hayden

Our June 2018 edition went into the future, showcasing a number of stories set somewhere in the years to come. One of the breakout pieces was The Remainders, a dystopian about two sisters trying to escape a war-torn land. After reading the heartbreaking and haunting tale, we had some lingering questions. To remedy this, we spoke with author Nicola Hayden in part four of our ongoing Story Behind the Story interview series.

Spoilers ahead.


Defiant Scribe: The thing about The Remainders is it’s such a limited cast—really, Cass and Alice are the only two main players. Everyone else is either in the background, or, like Ryan, limited to a cameo. Was that meant to illustrate how desolate the country is, or just to emphasize the dynamic between Cass and Alice?

Nicola Hayden: A little of both. It was very intentional for there to be limited interactions between Cass and Alice and any outside people, because they really are on their own. They’re on their own in the sense that the country’s been destroyed and most people are dead or dying, and they’re on their own in the sense that they’re all the family they have left. So there needed to be a real feeling of isolation. They’re each others’ entire worlds. And getting to focus on them, pretty much exclusively, made it easier to explore their bond.

DS: And, of course, that made the ending hit all the harder. I noticed a big theme of the piece was sacrifice: Cass continually forgoes eating to feed her sister, she returns to a place she’s afraid of in order to get help for Alice, and then in the end, she sacrifices her own wants in order to give Alice a chance to survive. Why was sacrifice such a big motif?

NH: Well, the story I wanted to tell was about family and love—selfless, unconditional love. Cass is a character who would do anything for Alice. She won’t sleep, she won’t eat—she’d die, she’d basically kill herself, before she let anything happen to Alice. And that’s not only because she loves Alice and is basically a surrogate parent to her, but also because Alice is really the only piece of her mom and dad that she has left. So sacrifice came very naturally with all that. I knew from the beginning how the story would end, and knowing that, it was easy to build up to it in a way that would make the resolution seem logical. I didn’t want it to come from left-field; it had to feel like, “Oh, of course that’s what Cass would do.” So really, all of those little breadcrumbs—Cass not eating so she can feed Alice, Cass going back to the encampment for Alice, Cass not sleeping so she can keep an eye on things—all of that was foreshadowing, preparing the reader for that ending.

DS: A pretty gut-wrenching ending, too. But then, that very last line—it seemed suddenly much more hopeful. You even said Cass felt “lighter” as she walked away. What were you meaning by that?

NH: Well, the whole story was pretty bleak, and that ending was a dreary one. So I wanted for the final few lines to at least be a little more positive, to kind of look up and away from all the doom and gloom—because really, the ending was as good an outcome as Cass could’ve hoped for. And that’s what she’s feeling, in that moment: a lot of gratitude and relief that Alice is going to be okay. As long as Alice is all right, she will be, too. And also, she’s experiencing some freedom for the first time. Finally, she can let herself cry all she wants. She doesn’t have to worry about Alice seeing her. And that was also a callback to the beginning, when she worries about Alice seeing her burst into tears and has to reign in her true feelings.

DS: It’s never revealed in the piece what happened to Alice and Cassandra’s parents. Did you consider addressing that?

NH: I didn’t. In my head, I just figured they were victims of the strikes Cass talks about. No further explanation seemed required. I did, though, want to mention them briefly just because it felt natural for Alice to ask questions about them, and I wanted to establish that they were good, loving people who Cass speaks of often and fondly.

DS: Trump’s name is never said in the piece, but his shadow looms large. I couldn’t help wondering, did you deliberately choose to center the piece around a woman of color and girl of color since they are disproportionately affected by men like Trump and Republican policies?

NH: That had something to do with it, yes, but it was also more than that. Asian people are ridiculously underrepresented in movies and TV—across all media, really. And, when they are depicted in American shows or films, it’s usually a one-note stereotype: the brainy math/computer geek, the hot, often-fetishized girl, or the tiger mom, to name a few. With Cass and Alice, I really wanted to explore two sisters who love each other, and you pretty much never see a story like that where the sisters are Asian. You don’t see a lot of American movies or TV shows about love in Asian families. What they show you instead are Asian parents pushing their kids to take piano lessons or perform in spelling bees—things like that. They leave out the tender moments, the human moments, in favor of reducing Asian people to cartoons. I wanted to do the opposite of that.

And then, at the same time, it also made sense to focus on a woman of color because the story’s never-seen, never-named villain is an enemy of women in general and women of color in particular. If Cass was real, she’d be the type of person who’d suffer in Trump’s America. So the fictional Cass suffers in the fictional version of America that I wrote about. It makes sense, and it was definitely something I thought about when I wrote the story.

DS: It’s not immediately made clear that the story is set in America—in fact, that isn’t explicitly stated until pretty late in the piece. Why did you wait to reveal the location?

NH: I wanted to paint this portrait of a war-ravished hellscape of a country. Everything’s ruined, few people are alive—it’s a mess. When you picture that, you’re probably not picturing America. I feel like, since America has flourished for so long and is this shining example of a “first-world country,” people forget how delicate everything is. They take for granted how quickly things can change, because they’ve had it so good for so long, America starts to seem indestructible. So, I guess I wanted the reveal to be surprising. I wanted [the reader] to be thinking of a disaster zone—whatever that conjures in their head—and not necessarily be aware that this is America. I also wanted to flip the script a bit, by casting Americans as refugees while the rescuers are the ones from some strange, nebulous foreign land. My ultimate hope is that it makes readers think about just how dangerous it is to elect to office someone unfit for the role of president, and that it makes them remember that any country can be destroyed. America’s not immune. And then, also, I wanted to suggest to have some compassion for refugees, because if things were different, Americans could be the displaced victims of war we see on the news. Americans could be the ones in need of aid and rescue. What then?

Read the entirety of our June 2018 “Into the Future” issue by clicking this link.