Chris Panatier is joining us today to talk about his novel, The Phlebotomist. Here’s the publisher’s description:
War brought the Harvest. Willa Mae Wallace is a reaper.
To support herself and her grandson Isaiah, Willa works for the blood contractor Patriot. Instituted to support the war effort, the mandatory draw–The Harvest–has led to a society segregated by blood type. Hoping to put an end to it all, Willa draws on her decades-old phlebotomy training to resurrect an obsolete collection technique, but instead uncovers an awful truth.
Patriot will do anything to protect its secret. On the run and with nowhere else to turn, Willa seeks an alliance with Lock, a notorious blood-hacker who cheats the Harvest to support the children orphaned by it. But they soon find themselves in the grasp of a new type of evil.
What’s Chris’s favorite bit?
I knew the basic premise for The Phlebotomist before I had any idea who the protagonist would be. Hopefully they would stand away from the crowd, somewhere on the outer reaches of the sci-fi/dystopian main character bell curve, but without seeming out of left field or cobbled together like a Potato Head. My mother – a one-time writer of short fiction – was on my mind as I was brainstorming the book, and I decided one of the thematic features I wanted to include was the wisdom of older generations, and particularly that of older women. At the same time, my brain was still knitting away at a storyline that was quickly evolving into a sci-fi, horror-adjacent, dystopian tale. It was important to me that I conjure a lead who would become the hero of the story not in spite of her age, but because of it.
And that’s how I settled on Willa Mae Wallace, a sixty-seven year-old grandmother. Not your typical dystopian hero – or really the typical hero for any speculative fiction.
To support herself and her grandson, Isaiah, Willa works as a phlebotomist, or reaper, collecting blood for the government-mandated draw, known as the Harvest. And she is good at her job because she had been trained as a genuine phlebotomist back in the day. Having already lost her daughter to the Harvest, Willa is singularly motivated to protect and provide for Isaiah—down to the bright pink wig she wears so he can always find her in a crowd.
Pink hair aside, Willa is a typical senior citizen and loyal employee who takes pride in her work and in helping people out where she can. She has an old-school approach to life, which means that she walks to work rather than hiring a taxi drone, refuses tech implants, and still prefers manual bolts on her front door.
So, when it comes to the inexorable creep of technology, Willa is a bit of a stick in the mud. It’s not like she’s a Luddite—she’s not against it because of a fear it will take jobs. In her world, automation has already done that. She simply doesn’t understand the rush to adopt new advances before it is clear how they will be used. When the rest of society had willingly allowed their lives to be run from the cloud, she had looked on in disbelief, shocked by people’s blind faith that their data would always remain private, accessible, and intact. To Willa, advancing technology represents a loss of control, and having already lost her daughter, she is loath to hand any more of it over. This explains why she’s retained all of the original, physical copies of documents, photos, and keepsakes from the period of her daughter’s life, right down to her decades-old phlebotomy workbooks. Her paranoia, of course, turns out to be well justified.
Undergirding this story is the two-way street of advancing technology. On one hand, it has the potential to bring scientific progress for the betterment and convenience of everyday life. On the other, it serves to erase the practical skills and knowledge that it makes obsolete. Hmm, I wonder if obsolete knowledge becomes suddenly important in this story? *Exaggerated wink*
It is Willa’s stubborn adherence to the old ways of doing things—an otherwise unexceptional trait—that makes her, in this world, extraordinary.
Along the way, Willa finds herself in league with another older woman, a blood hacker called Lock. Working out of an attic full of arcane hardware, her ability to code and execute software hacks are a start, but can only get them so far. Her keen understanding of human nature, gleaned over a lifetime, is her secret weapon.
At the end of the day, the good guys in The Phlebotomist are not exceptional because they have superpowers, rare talents, or access to valuable resources or sacred relics. They have a chance to prevail because of real experiences and wisdom gained over decades. They are old. And that is my favorite bit.
Chris Panatier lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife, daughter, and a fluctuating herd of animals resembling dogs (one is almost certainly a goat). He writes short stories and novels, “plays” the drums, and draws album covers for metal bands.