Interview: Judson Merrill


Whatever the guards sent in smells strongly of cardboard and fish. Fish. That’s a smell from back home, from when I was a boy.

The smell is so strong that for an hour I am disoriented. I have to rely on my hearing. Even my body makes a noise, like any running piece of machinery. At night sometimes I climb to the administrative wing, the top of the T. It’s quiet there and I can listen to my skin growing, sloughing off, growing. I can hear my heart pumping—that’s loud—but also my blood rushing. If I’m close enough, my noise and my body heat bounce off the walls. It’s vision of a sort, maybe like a bat’s.

In the kitchen, putting rolls in my pocket, I hear the thing they sent in after me. It scuttles past, over my head, in the ducts. It sounds like it has knives for feet. If it finds me, it will kill me.

     —from “Inside Out” (Unstuck #1)

Judson Merrill’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, dispatch, Used Furniture Review, and Stolen Island Review. He is a regular contributor to Electric Literature’s blog, and is the author of the novella The Pool.

Interview by Allie Werner

UNSTUCK:  Where did the idea for "Inside Out" originate?

JUDSON MERRILL:  The original thing I wanted to write about was a prisoner who escaped his cell but was still in prison. But I think that first draft was set in a regular, on-Earth prison. And all the stuff about his senses slowly withering, that came along as I sat there trying to imagine what it would be like to live in the walls. But, yes, originally, it was a normal prison and there was more hope that the narrator would break out. I think there might have even been a fight with the warden.

UNSTUCK:  One of the interesting things to me about the setting of this story is how many layers of imprisonment the narrator is functioning under. He's in the walls, in a prison, in a city, under a dome, on another planet. So I thought it worked very well that his "escape" basically involved moving towards a deeper interior, as opposed to escaping outside. There isn't really an outside to escape to.

JUDSON MERRILL:  Yeah. Pretty grim. That's part of why I started adding the outer space setting. His initial escape goes so poorly, it seemed like a good idea to pile on and basically make it so even a successful escape would be fruitless.  I like the idea that life in the walls might actually be the best outcome for this guy. I really like stories where people figure out how to do things, where we see someone learn about and gain control of something extreme. So I get a kick out of figuring out how someone might make a . . . maybe not a happy life, but a functional life in the walls of a space prison.

UNSTUCK:  And maybe make friends with a giant land spider.


UNSTUCK:  Speaking of giant land spiders, I'd like to talk a little bit more about the setting. You mentioned you partially chose the space colony setting to make the idea of escape particularly impossible. What fictional or non-fictional influences did you draw on while constructing the setting for this story? What drew you to a bleaker, as opposed to a more utopian, vision of space colonization?

JUDSON MERRILL:  I am fascinated by our relationship here on earth with oil. We've spent a century finding new ways to get it out of the ground. Increasingly elaborate. Now with shale gas and tar sands, we're digging up oil we never could have accessed before. I want to believe that technology can swoop in and provide clean and renewable energy, but I think human nature is more likely to steer technology toward maximizing the resources we already use, digging up more and more remote fossil fuels. So! Eventually we'll go do this in space. Or, at least, that's a useful exaggeration of our current attitude. So once I set this story in space, it made sense to me that the colony would be in the extraction business. What else could be worth the expense of going all that way? I also had a space prison I had to justify and that implied a sizable number of malcontents. And I wasn't really interested in my guy being in prison for a personal crime. That's a different sort of prison story. Something political seemed better.

UNSTUCK:  I'm going to bring up the land spiders again, because I really liked the land spiders. This story managed to make me feel sympathetic to a giant spider. Why do arthropods get such short shrift in fiction?

JUDSON MERRILL:  Yeah, the land spider's a big hit. Which is nice, because I like him, too. Over the past few months, I've wandered through several discussions about the role of animals in fiction. Are they props or people in disguise or mirrors or can they be their own characters? I'm not sure how I feel about it. I guess it's possible that in order to make a land spider interesting I just treated him like a silent person. I also suspect the phrase "land spider" just has some inherent appeal. What do you think? Can animals ever function like animals or are they always working in some other way?

UNSTUCK:  Hmm. I think especially in short fiction, every element has to be fairly carefully chosen and placed. So if an animal appears in a story, we expect it to do some sort of work for the story.  I've noticed a trend lately towards the avoidance of anthropomorphism, though, in the sense of seeing more fictional animals act like animals, even as they perform some needed role or foil for the human characters.

JUDSON MERRILL:  Ooo, interesting. Do you have any examples at the tip of your mind?

UNSTUCK:  Well, I interviewed Lindsay Hunter about "You and Your Cats" the other day. One of the things we talked about was how the protagonist is more "cat-thropomorphized" in the story than the cats are anthropomorphized. I felt something similar while reading "Inside Out." The narrator doesn't truly anthropomorphize the land spider; he avoids naming it, etc. But by living in the walls, he develops in such a way that he almost resembles the land spider. There's a great part where he notices how good the spider is at squeezing into small spaces, and it echoes his comments about his own abilities. I particularly liked how much detail went into rendering how his senses changed over time, and his reliance on tactile and auditory cues.

JUDSON MERRILL:  That's a great way to think about the story. I love that. And maybe it's why the land spider works. He has a lot in common with the narrator. Senses other than the visual are not a strength of mine. I don't usually get so grounded in smell, and feel, and sound. This story was a little challenge to myself. Take away sight and see what I had to do to compensate.

UNSTUCK:  One of the conflicts in this story relates to the dome that separates the colony from the rest of the planet. The narrator argues that lowering the dome will expose the population to a bevy of alien diseases, and his dissent is what lands him in jail. Which disease, fictional or otherwise, would you least like to catch?

JUDSON MERRILL:  I'm not sure if it's a disease or a condition, but Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva sounds horrible. Essentially, your ligaments and muscles ossify and turn to bone. I also find Ebola particularly chilling. But I would never find myself in the position this character does. I'd be out front, cheering for the bubble to come down. I'm not much of a disease worrier.

UNSTUCK:  What's the ideal hiding place?

JUDSON MERRILL:  We had a cat when I was growing up. He was always an adventurer and he went missing several times as a kitten. We'd put up posters and offer rewards, the whole deal. But he always turned up. Once, he was missing for a day and we were all getting ready to go through another neighborhood search. But before we did, and hours after he'd gone missing, I opened the fridge and he was in there. Hanging out, eating some sliced turkey, happy as can be. Pretty good hiding place for a kitten. Until the oxygen runs out.

UNSTUCK:  So, what are you reading right now?

JUDSON MERRILL:  I just finished Elizabeth Bowen's The House in Paris. I liked it very much. Great, great child characters in that book. (They can be as hard for me as animals.) But now, nothing. The New Yorker. I'm revising a novel, which normally dulls my appetite for fiction a bit. But I do love me some long form journalism.

UNSTUCK:  Where can we find more of your work?

JUDSON MERRILL:  I have an e-novella out in the ether: The Pool. You can get it at Amazon or on Smashwords. It's about some young folks working for the summer at a water park. It's got lots of drinking and sex and, for fans of the land spider, a weird, unsettling creature that takes over the main characters' lives. 

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Allie Werner is a graduate of Reed College. Before joining Unstuck as an Assistant Editor, she read slush for Tin House and interned with American Short Fiction. Her first published story appeared in Storyglossia last summer. She can be found online at A. is A. In her spare time she enjoys coffee and comic books, preferably simultaneously.