Over here at Ginger & Champagne, we would not call ourselves very tech savvy. We basically know how to work the Internet and GIF keyboard and that’s enough for us. So, color us excited when we saw Sarah Archer’s The Plus One all over Instagram!
The book tells the story of Kelly, a Silicon Valley robotics programmer who is working on a new Artificial Intelligence device called Confibot. Only her family doesn’t really care about all of that. They care if she’s going to have a date to her younger sister’s wedding. Kelly, on the other hand, does not care about that, but is getting annoyed at her mother’s persistence. On a whim, she quietly slips into work on a weekend and fixes both her mother’s problem…and her own.
What follows is a story about confidence, love, understanding and never hiding the truth. Kelly discovers that isolating herself with her not-so-great tendencies and personality traits is no longer benefiting her. The only way she’s going to find out what’s waiting out there for her is to just do it and put herself out there.
We loved The Plus One so much and were so excited when author Sarah Archer decided to talk with us! Keep reading for all of the juicy details of her debut novel.
Congratulations on The Plus One! How does it feel now that it’s out in the world?
Thank you! Since this is my first novel, it still feels surreal when I see the book in a store, or when a reader who I’ve never met tags me in a picture with it. It’s scary to put something as personal as a piece of writing into the world for strangers to see. But at the end of the day, that’s my goal as a writer, to put stories out there that can enter other people’s lives and hopefully impact them in a positive way. So it’s extremely rewarding as well.
What’s the reception been like from readers?
It’s been amazing to hear lovely reactions from so many readers! I’m glad that many people have said they were entertained by the story, but especially gratified by those who have also said that they were also moved by it, or provoked to thought. I won’t give away spoilers about the ending, but I’ve heard particularly strong—and mixed— responses about that.
It’s also been fascinating to hear the range of reactions to the notion of a character building her perfect partner. Some people are scared about the future potential of AI; others say “Where can I buy one?”
You sort of take everyone’s dream of being able to build a man and built a story around that. What was the catalyst for The Plus One?
It wasn’t taken from my real life, though many people have asked—no swarthy robot lovers here, sorry. The idea came to me out of the blue while my mind was wandering one day as I sat in traffic. At first I thought it could be fun to write a comedy that was a female take on the 1980s movie Weird Science, where two teenage boys build their perfect woman. But I quickly realized that this needed to be more than the story of one night of crazy hijinks. I wanted my protagonist to have a real relationship with this robot, and see where that would take her and how it would change her. Robots are fascinating in their own right, but also for what they teach us about ourselves as humans, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to explore that.
How much research went into this? So much of the science is so precise!
I had so much fun researching this project! Aside from reading articles and Googling, I was fortunate to speak to several different scientists about their work in robotics and AI. They gave me some great insight into how they think about their work, how they interact with other team members in their jobs, and where they think robotics is heading. There are some fascinating theories out there about AI, and I enjoyed incorporating bits and pieces of those into the book, though I tried to focus just on what was relevant for Kelly’s journey.
If you ever want to tumble down an internet rabbit hole, try Googling super-intelligent robots, or companion robots, or theories about AI. I was excited about what I learned, but also terrified. But of course, maybe that’s just how I felt in this version of the simulation.
How does Ethan contribute to Kelly’s personal growth? Do you think she could have learned similar lessons from a human boyfriend?
When we first meet Kelly, she’s very self-conscious. Since she initially views Ethan as just a machine, he’s the boyfriend around whom she can totally be herself—she doesn’t care what he thinks. She’ll wear whatever, say whatever, eat whatever. But as time goes on, she learns that being her true self can actually be an attractive thing to a partner, and then, more importantly, that it’s its own reward. I think it would have been hard for Kelly to be so comfortable around an Actual Human Man, so the fact that Ethan is a robot definitely helps her out there. For all of us, the less you have to try to change or conceal yourself around a person, the more you know that person is someone you need in your life.
Do you think fully robotic significant others are something that will become mainstream someday? Could this potentially be a good thing, or are there too many drawbacks?
Honestly, I would not be surprised if that happens. We’re already taking steps there, as we incorporate technology more and more intimately into our lives, and learn to see AI entities as beings (“Hey Siri!”). I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. Intelligent robots can teach us a lot and make our society healthier and more productive in so many ways. Companion robots can be a wonderful source of social and intellectual stimulation for the elderly. Just watch videos of elderly dementia patients cuddling with Paro, the robotic baby seal, if you want a good cry.
But I would like to think that there’s something essential that makes us human that differentiates us from robots, no matter how intelligent they are. It’s like cars versus horses. Cars are faster and infinitely more practical. But horses are just… alive. They’re warm and unpredictable and have wills of their own. It’s just not the same thing. Some think that robots will develop the ability to “feel” in their own way, and maybe that’s true. It’s a topic I dove into with the character of Ethan. But I hope that inviting robots into our lives doesn’t come at the expense of the quantity or strength of our relationships with other humans.
It was so frustrating to watch Kelly’s family reduce her career successes and instead of focus on her singleness. Do you think there’s still an expectation for women to play housewife, even in 2019?
Even more than the expectation to play housewife, I think there’s an expectation for women to do both these days. You’re supposed to have a career and a family, and to excel at each. There are some women (or men) who want both, and who are able to successfully juggle the two, and that’s awesome. But if your heart is really more in one place, and you want to pick a lane and focus on it, I think that’s great too. We need different types of people in the world, following different paths. (Except maybe mimes. We could probably get by without mimes.)
Kelly’s relationship with her mom is a fraught one because her mother, who owns a bridal shop, does put so much pressure on her to find “Mr. Right.” Watching that relationship play out, and seeing how the two women come to understand each other in different ways by the end, was one of the most rewarding parts of writing this story for me.
How has technology changed the dating game for millennials and gen z-ers? Are there any positives to the digital dating scene?
While some of my friends who have been through the Tinder grist mill might not agree, I think the digital dating scene has a lot going for it. You can meet so many people who you otherwise would never have run across in “real” life. You can see different elements of their personalities online than you would immediately in person, so you might give people a chance who you otherwise would have dismissed.
On the other hand, apps like Tinder are designed to facilitate snap judgments for our fast-paced world. Digital dating allows people to “shop” for relationships in a sense, which could mean they’re narrowing in on just what they think they want and ignoring everyone else. Kelly’s story is an exaggerated version of this same phenomenon, where she uses technology to literally build her dream man. As she finds along the way, engineering your love life too closely has both plusses and minuses.
We can totally see The Plus One moving to the big screen. Who would your dream cast be?
Ooh, I would absolutely love to see either Abbi Jacobson (Broad City) or Issa Rae (Insecure) as Kelly. Both women are super funny, play awkward well, and have an innate intelligence that could make them believable as robotics engineers. Ethan would be a challenging role since the actor would have to find how to portray his “robot-ness” but also his sensitivity, and I think Robert Pattinson, Timothee Chalamet, or Armie Hammer would each be amazing in the part. And as a bonus, for Priya, I would love to see the very funny and versatile Vella Lovell (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend).
We fell in love with Kelly and Priya. Any plans for a sequel?
No plans at the moment, but I could totally see one! Who knows, five or ten years from now, there may have been all sorts of developments in robotics and AI that inspire new story ideas. I’ve also been surprised but pleased to hear a couple readers mention that they’d love a spinoff about Kelly’s brother Gary, the ex-goth who’s now a superdad to three toddlers. His world is totally different from Kelly’s, but I have to admit, I’d love to write a story about him too!
If not, what are you working on now? Inquiring minds (us) would love to know!
I’m currently working on my second novel, another romantic comedy. This one has to do with pets, so that’s been great fun to write—I love animals. I’ve got a side project in the works too, a screenplay. It’s a historical drama, completely and totally different from The Plus One, but the story just grabbed me. From time to time, I also write some random musings about writing, life, and home décor for my blog, which you can check out at https://saraharcherwrites.com/blog/.
(G&C Note: Hi, Sarah. We’re interested and ready for our ARCs.)
What were your favorite books of 2019?
I’ll give you two very different ones. The Heavens by Sandra Newman is an unconventional story about love and time travel and doom. It’s beautifully written, packed with those sorts of lines that make you think “I would never have thought to describe that thing that way, but yes, that is exactly that thing.” And I also loved One Day in December by Josie Silver (which I think came out in 2018, but which I read this year, since I’m always late to the party). This was an engrossing read based around a simple but captivating premise: what happens when the man you fall in love with turns out to be your best friend’s boyfriend? In addition to a sweet love story, the book offers a subtle, believable look at how its main characters grow up over their first decade of adulthood. Go on, give both these books a read—you know you want to!
We want to thank Sarah for giving us the opportunity to pick her brain about her amazing novel The Plus One. Get your copy today!