The Los Angeles-based psychologist's debut offering 'The World Wasn't Ready For You' is raking up good reviews with its 'Black Mirror'-style short stories
There's a new out-of-the box thinker on the block — and on bookshelves.
Los Angeles-based psychiatrist Justin C. Key, 36, just released his debut offering, The World Wasn't Ready For You. The book, published Sept. 19 from Harper, is full of mind-bending, thought-provoking short stories and it's generating significant buzz in the fantasy world.
"It's really a love letter, both to speculative fiction, which I grew up reading and loving, and also a love letter to the Black community," Key tells PEOPLE of the book, which is enjoying positive reviews in its first week.
According to the book's starred Kirkus review, Key "shows throughout these eight stories the range and ingenuity of such grandmasters as Ray Bradbury, Robert Sheckley, and Theodore Sturgeon, with whom he also shares acute empathy for human vulnerability—even when, as in the poignant title story, an extraterrestrial race is involved."
The title story posits a father of a mixed-species child who struggles with the need to prepare him for a society that will be prejudiced at best, and deadly at worst. "It was one of the hardest stories for me to write," says Key who shares two sons and a daughter with wife Johanna. "Being a father of Black children in America, raising them while processing fears of them growing older and being demonized or thought of as a threat."
It's one of many real-life scenarios Key reimagines in futuristic fashion. A lifelong sci-fi fan, the Stanford grad remembers not always seeing himself reflected in the books and shows he loved.
"I loved Stephen King, Harry Potter, Michael Crichton, even Goosebumps," he says. But even as a kid he noticed, "the default [protagonist] was always blonde haired and blue-eyed. Even when I started writing early on, that's who my characters were as well. But I grew up in all-Black communities. It wasn't until I reflected and was like, 'well, wait. Why am I writing this way?'"
Another part of his experience he pulls upon is the knowledge he's gained as a psychiatrist. "I consider myself a therapist who can prescribe medication," says Key, who earned his M.D. from Mount Sinai Medical School and studied psychiatry at UCLA’s Semel Neuropsychiatric Institute.
"I see people who suffer from depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, ADHD, addiction, the whole gamut," he adds of his work at Regeneration Psychiatry, the private practice he runs with two former classmates. "It's really hard, rewarding work."
That said, he's extremely careful about the way his work informs his writing. "I knew early on that I had to be mindful about not having it intersect too purposefully," he says. "When I'm with my patients, I'm with them for them. thinking about their best interests. I'm careful about not letting it inform me too much when I go home and write."
Still, he adds, "the experiences I've had as a doctor in medicine, seeing the latest technological advancements, where we fall short, I'm able to take all that knowledge and put it on the page."
The World Wasn't Ready For You is the first of two books from Key under HarperCollins, with the next being a novel currently in progress. Soon, his writing will also be featured in Jordan Peele's upcoming book Out There Screaming: An Anthology of New Black Horror, publishing Oct. 3 from Random House, just in time for Halloween.
"It's really cool to be a part of that," says Key, who thought up a new concept — what if people could be used as a form of living art for others to enjoy? — for Poole's creepy compilation. "I haven't met [Poole] yet, but the fact that he even knows my name is really exciting," he says.
In all, "This is a really awesome moment for me," says Key. "Something I've dreamed of when I was a kid, perusing the aisles in bookstores. Now to be on bookshelves, seeing the reception of my book and the reviews, it's feeling like the start of a long, prolific writing career."
The World Wasn't Ready For You is now available from Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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