Eric Barnes on His New Dystopian Novel

May 15, 2018

Once more jumping from the television screen to the pages, WKNO-TV's Behind the Headlines host Eric Barnes has come out with another novel The City Where We Once Lived. The book depicts an abandoned city where people choose to live. It's divided by the north and south end; as the novel unfolds readers learn the history of the city as well as the complicated, dark past of the characters. A prequel, Above the Ether, is set to be released in March 2019.



Darel Snodgrass: This a dystopian novel. Set in the near future, something has sorta fallen apart. 

Eric Barnes: Yeah, it’s about a city that has been abandoned and the people who choose to live there. There has not been a plague; there has not been a war, it’s just -- you know as I was thinking about the book, and I was writing the book, it was almost as if New Orleans did not come back from Katrina. Or, if Detroit didn’t make it through its fiscal crisis... I wanted to make it more sorta what kinda choices these people choose to live there; they could cross the bridge and live, basically, normally but that choose not to.  

Snodgrass: And, the city is divided...

Barnes: Yes. There is a whole thing of the north end and south end of the city. The south end, being more of the suburbs, and the north end, being more of the old, original city—cut through with a highway, which is true of many American cities that were cut through. You know, in Memphis you get the I-40 going through it and thankfully not going through the park and Evergreen, and so on. In Seattle, where I grew up, the highways kinda cut the city up and so that is a big part of it. They are isolated by this highway that was built.  

Snodgrass: This is told through the eyes of one particular character. 

Barnes: The narrator has chosen to move back and runs a newspaper and is mourning the loss of things, which kinda become clear. His story sorta unfolds over time, over the course of the book. But, much of the book he tries to just go about and run this little paper, and write articles about the history of the city. He will pick a building or a library, and there is always a beautiful architecture and history. He will write about that. Then again, a series of things begin to happen in the city. So, he gets into less historical news and more into the news of the day. They become targeted by the people on the outside.  

Snodgrass: As it turns out, things are not going well for people in the south end of the city, which is supposedly the prosperous part.

Barnes: Right, so I’ll say it’s an allegory. And, the folly of suburban solutions and leaving cities behind and just that is the way you’re going to solve all your problems. It’s just that both have to work together. Strong suburbs help inner cities and strong urban cores help suburbs. And cities that balance that best do best.

Snodgrass: Metaphorically, though, some of this is about Memphis. 

Barnes: It is in a sense. I have lived here 23-24 years now and I love the city and all its complexity and all its problems and all its great things. Obviously on the show Behind the Headlines and in the paper, we focus a lot on city issues and city building issues that Memphis has gone through in the past 10 - especially the past 5 years - all these kinda interesting rebuilding itself. All of that was in my mind, definitely, but I did not have an intentional city in mind. There are influences of Memphis but there is evidence that it is not a certain city out there. 

Snodgrass: What pushed you into this book?

Barnes: Back in the early '90s, Rolling Stone magazine did a photo essay on the fall of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. It was this beautiful photography, of incredible architecture and streets that were filthy and it was almost like a snowstorm because there was so much ash from the nearby factors and the coal power plants. It was exposing the folly of how the Soviets had really abused Eastern Europe, European cities, and countries. I’m fascinated by the combinations of a beautiful landscape with this kinda awful industrial structure put on top of it. It also has its own sort of beauty.  

Snodgrass: Your next book is coming out in March, a prequel?

Barnes: The next one is about the world around this abandoned city and how it is going on normally, but not really. And, then it combines a little bit with this one. It really is happening at the same time as this one but for simplicity, we are calling it a prequel. It’s called Above the Ether

The City Where We Once Lived

By Eric Barnes

Arcade Publishing, $24.99

The book is available at various Memphis bookstores.  For more information on Eric Barnes and his novel, visit