This is the first part of a two-part interview on technology and writing with Justin Hunter, author of Leaving Arizona (available for pre-order from Rhythm & Bones Press) and co-founder of SimpleID, a user engagement and retention platform for blockchain applications.

Vanessa Maki: Was growing up in Arizona the main reason for choosing it as the setting for this collection?

Justin Hunter: Absolutely. I always say I grew up hating the desert, hating the small town I grew up in. But then I left, and I miss it like hell. When I was younger and first starting to write, I was embarrassed to set my stories in the Southwest. Everything I read took place in Los Angeles or New York. I didn’t think stories could take place in border towns with less than a million residents. So, when I finally got over that and learned to love where I grew up, I wanted to make sure I brought stories to the world from a region that wasn’t very represented in fiction.

VM: “Jump” is such a great word in regards to sci-fi, technology and some queer content. What inspired you to write this story?

JH: I’ve always been fascinated by the drug trade along the border because I grew up there and I saw it, and I have always been fascinated by the idea of consciousness. I wrote so many throw-away drafts of stories about the world we perceive being nothing but a construct of each person’s consciousness. None of them worked. None of them were very fun. But then I had the idea of a drug that could give people control of this consciousness, a sort of way to jump through time through their own mind’s representation of their consciousness. I pitched it to my wife and she loved it, so I just started writing and didn’t stop until I had the first draft complete. All in one sitting.

VM: Would you classify this book as something that doesn’t settle into a particular genre?

JH: There are a lot of stories that you’d classify as crime fiction, and I think my natural inclination is to lean that way. But that said, there are stories that clearly don’t fit that genre: "The Dissociative Property" and "The Nothing" are two good examples.... What they do—at least I hope they do—is focus on humans, good and bad, and the way life’s little curves can impact behavior and a person’s trajectory.

VM: If you can choose, which pieces are your top five?

JH: I know a lot of writers might say they are all their favorites, but I think there’s clear positioning for me. The beauty is that appreciation and enjoyment is subjective, so my list is definitely going to be different from anyone who reads the collections.

1. "Miracle Mile," 2. "Seconds," 3. "How to be a Man," 4. "1000 Hours Free," and 5. "Strip Mining"

These are my favorites for a variety of reasons, such as how difficult they were to write, the metaphors evoked, how close they are to my own experiences growing up, etc.

VM: What do you consider a great story and why?

JH: To me, a great story is one that starts with people. People are complicated and wonderful and terrible. People drive every single plot mankind has ever known. So, when I see a story that claims to be “plot-driven”, I cringe a little.... People always have to be first and most present for a great story in my opinion.

VM: What was your process for compiling these stories?

JH: The writing process took place over the course of four years.... The writing process for me has never been the hard part. The hard part has always been finding the angles to tell a difficult character’s story in a light that the reader could respect and empathize with. For example, how do you make someone feel for a murderer or a closeted pedophile? Those are the hardest things to achieve in my opinion, and once you have an angle, the writing is just easy.

VM: There are many heavy topics explored throughout these stories. Did you originally want the book to have the vibe it does?

JH: That was definitely not intentional. It just sort of worked out that way. My wife always jokes with me about my writing being so depressing, and that’s sort of true. But the truth is, the difficult stories are the ones that make you think about your own life. They should make you appreciate what’s good in your life and how bad things could have been if the ball had bounced just a little different. I want my stories to leave people reflecting on their own lives, whether the topics are heavy or not.