WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Mr. Sallis, it’s an honor to get to interview you. Sarah Janestruck something deep within me, and I loved it, just as I do your other books. It’s such a compact, compressed, piece of dynamite type of book. How do you manage to compose so much and pack it into so little without everything being crowded? What do you think is the value of a short novel as opposed to a long, sprawling epic, excluding reading time, and other basic uses?
James Sallis: Much of this comes from my beginning as a poet. Poetry’s progress isn’t logical and linear; it makes its own way by association, by cognitive, intuitive, sensual leaps, by imagery, by the rhythms and sounds of its lines. A great deal of information of every sort – emotion, connection, conflict, impression – gets loaded on. One of the things my students hear over and again is: Get as much of the world as possible in every phrase, every sentence, every line and paragraph.
The novels are in no way minimalist. For me, a novel like Willnot or Sarah Jane has the stuff, the material, of a novel three or four times its size. Every action has a history and a future; shadings of those plead to be in your limning of the present, in the heartbeat and breath of what you write. You want to get it right, get the whole of the experience, not just throw words up against it.
MT: Who were your influences? I remember hearing that James M Cain wrote to make every sentence count, and every sentence must count toward the story and the novel. What authors affected you most growing up, and books too, as well as now, those living today, and those whose legacies live on?
JS: The first fiction with which I fell in love was the first I read, purloined from my older brother’s bookshelves: science fiction. That led to my first “career” as writer, to my editing New Worlds in London, to my oldest friends, and to the books column I’ve written for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction for many years now.
The writer who first got me wondering how in the world he did it, who made me look close to try and figure that out, and who finally caused me understand that this was what I wanted to do, was Theodore Sturgeon. I go back to his work regularly. I am still amazed and empowered by it.
MT: The titular character of the novel, Sarah Jane, is somewhat forced into the role of sheriff, and also into a certain kind of destiny, or fate (there was a wise quote I heard recently, about young and older people, and the difference between destiny and fate relating to the two). Do you mind elaborating on what choices you think characters have in noir and crime fiction, and what role fate and destiny places in the genre?
JS: I dislike the term noir, which, like jazz, long ago lost its ability to signify. But if we return to the classic stamp, noir is a form in which the novel becomes the record of that utter damnation for which the individual protagonist is heading from the first page. It is, in that sense, a demotic tragedy. By contrast, the classic mystery template is socially oriented and conservative, shaped around disruption of the norm and a bringing-back to order. We say “crime fiction” now because the language cried out for a generalist term.
Rather in violation of standard novelistic practice, Sarah Jane’s early history had to be sketched, to prepare for the quite individual manner in which she simultaneously accepts and challenges her fate. Both here and in Others of My Kind I’ve become invested in individuals with truly horrible pasts – my character in Others was kidnapped as a child and kept in a box beneath a bed – who emerge as truly good people.
MT: What was writing a novel like this like? I know a lot of people must assume “Writing a short book is so much easier than writing something Proust-sized,” or something like that, but I’ve always found compacting things and making something small, and making it work and have the same effect as a longer novel, is so much tougher. What’s your writing process like, and what is writing shorter novels like for you? Are you drawn to length or do things just unfold that way?
JS: Often with students, after reading a story or chapter in which there are, say, six scenes, I’ll ask them to go home and rewrite all of it to one scene. Reject the first things that come to mind. That’s transcription, not creation; you’re mimicking things you’ve read and seen. Rethink it. How much do you need to tell? Where do you want to start? What a character notes of his or her surroundings, body language, the sound of a fly buzzing in a glass, trucks spilling waste as they pick up garbage in the alley – what might this contribute? It’s all about information, on every level.
My favorite quote concerning revision is from Jim Burke. He says he rewrites again and again, till the page fairly crackles in his hand when he picks it up. And the other half of that art lies in the reader not even noticing this because it goes down so smoothly. What Durrell called “the thread of blood from the unfelt stroke.”
MT: You also wrote Drive, among numerous other great novels. Drive was turned into a hit movie, and it has a sequel too (I’m not sure if as many people are aware of this, but go pick up a copy now, if you, the reader, have not already). What draws you to characters and storylines, and what drove you back to the story behind Drive, the novel?
JS: Lew Griffin came to life in a single story, which became The Long-Legged Fly, which then became five more novels – because I was interested in the character, wanted to know more about him. With Drive, we know the story told in the novel, and we know how Driver’s life ends, but we know nothing of what happened between. And that’s what Driven provides. In
some ways, it seems to me a better novel than the first.
MT: You also write series as well, and I’m always curious how mystery writers decide what fits into a series novel and what works as a standalone, other than really obvious things. How do we determine a certain mystery belongs in a series with certain characters—and do you begin deciding a mystery based on characters, or does the mystery draw recurring characters to the story?
JS: My mantra here is “Listen to the text,” it will tell you what it wants to be. Ideas for a story may become a poem in the actual writing, a story idea becomes a novel as you write forward into it, what you believe will be a novel (“Dayenu,” published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, reprinted in Rich Horton’s best-of-the-year science fiction anthology) finds its form as a 13,000-word story.
MT: What book or books do you hope to be remembered for most? What do you hope people—readers, Americans anyone—to take away from your work?
JS: Any of the novels will do, they’re all pretty good kids. What people will remember and take away? The intense and simple humanity of my characters.
MT: There’s been—I don’t know if I’d say an explosion—but a bit of an opening for rural noir, for Southern noir (something you’re often categorized in) and I wonder what you think the importance of regional noir is for writers and readers? What about Southern noir specifically, and how does this play into Sarah Jane and her story?
JS: Certainly a part of it is that as readers andas writers we grew weary of story upon story set in cities. Also, relentless homogenization. We see those towns, these mini-cultures, fading away, recognize that we are losing them and with them a vital diversity that formed this nation. They’re tearing down the crossroads and putting up a CircleK.
MT: Would you mind sharing with your fans what’s coming up next for you? I for one would be delighted to know anything about a future work in progress, and hope there’s much more to come in your career. Please feel free to share what you feel comfortable with.
JS: A new story collection is due from New Rivers Press early next year, as is a double volume of critical essays, combining a new edition of Difficult Lives with a new collection of essays on crime writers, Hitching Rides, from Soho Syndicate. I’m working on (groping in the dark, stumbling and recovering) two new (maybe?) novels. New stories appear and are forthcoming in F&SF, Asimov’s, North Dakota Quarterly, Interzone, Analog, North American Review, Hitchcock’s, EQMM, various anthologies.
MT: Thank you so much for allowing me to interview you, Mr. Sallis. It is always a pleasure to read your books, and I’m so glad I got to pick your brain briefly. I am so thankful for your writing, as I know it has changed my own writing, and affected the writing community immensely. Thank you so much, and feel free to leave us with any lingering questions, thoughts, or feelings. Thank you again.
JS: Thank you, Matthew. I suppose I must make a choice now: get back to work, or go play with one of the cats. I’m going to sit here a moment and think it over.
Emily Temple on the first novel to floor me in some time (and her debut?!), THE LIGHTNESS
Matthew Turbeville: Emily! I am very excited to interview you. I really loved your novel, The Lightness, which I encourage everyone to buy many copies of. Before we talk about the book, do you mind talking about yourself as a writer? When did you first begin writing fiction, and what were your first pieces—long, short, anything—like? What helped propel you forward in the literary world?
Emily Temple: I am very happy to be discussing the book with you! And thank you so much for your support of The Lightness.
Like many writers, I started out as a reader—my parents are big readers, so our house was always full of books, and they encouraged me to read and write from an early age. I wrote little stories in the way that lots of kids do—I remember rewriting Aladdinat a very young age, deciding that Princess Jasmine should just run away from both her father and her suitor and go live in the woods with her tiger and live happily ever after. Which in retrospect is pretty on brand.
I started writing fiction a little bit in high school, but I never wanted to call myself a “writer”—I put writers on such a pedestal that it seemed impossible to include myself in that group. Even in college, as I began to take more creative writing classes and workshops, I wouldn’t call myself a writer. I might say “I write stories sometimes,” but that was about it. It wasn’t until I had a job writing for the internet that I had to admit I was technically a professional writer—and it wasn’t until I actually got into grad school that I began to admit I might be a fiction writer too.
Actually, the best thing about getting an MFA for me was that everyone just treats you like a writer for a couple of years; by the end, I was more or less convinced.
MT: Can you tell us about The Lightness? For those not aware, it’s this wonderful novel I’ve decided to describe as Megan Abbott meets Donna Tartt with a heavy dose of Sara Gran’s world building, and written in a language invented by Aimee Bender and Vladimir Nabokov.
ET: The Lightness takes place at a meditation center in the mountains—it’s nicknamed “the Levitation Center” because rumor has it, it’s the only place left in the world where levitation is possible. The narrator, Olivia, is there following her father, who abandoned her a year previous, and while she doesn’t find him there, she does fall in with a group of girls who are determined to make good on the promise of all those rumors and figure out how to levitate.
However, since plot descriptions alone rarely give a real sense of a work of fiction, I’ll also say this: it’s told in a discursive, referential way, pulling in facts, fairy tales, Buddhist traditions, television shows, and Broken Social Scene lyrics, among other things. I wanted the narration to reflect the fact that this is something Olivia has been going over in her mind, again and again, for many years: this was my solution.
MT: What authors were really important during your formative years and which helped shaped you most? I know you love Nabokov—and please elaborate on how you began loving him, if you’d like, as we’d love to hear. I read Despair once to impress a boy, and weirdly (the book, not the boy) reminded me of your novel in ways. What living writers inspire you most, and do you feel there are any authors or books that don’t get enough attention or recognition?
ET: I love Despair. And yes, I love Nabokov in general—I discovered Lolita as a teenager, and I remember being so enchanted by what it was possible to do with language. He’s a writer who you can tell has perfectly calibrated every single sentence, and the result is really astonishing. There’s no laziness. There’s just this thrumming intelligence underneath everything. I remember reading a list of Geoff Dyer’s writing advice long ago, and one of his tips was “Don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov.” Unfortunately, I do not follow that tip.
As far as my formative years—well, it depends how formative you’re talking. I was raised on Maurice Sendak and then later I became obsessed with Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons series, in which Princess Cimorene runs away from her palace to become a dragon’s princess, and absolutely will not allow herself to be rescued. But once I started reading books for adults, I’d definitely say that besides Nabokov, Italo Calvino held the most sway.
The list of living writers who inspire me is miles long and ever-updating, but certainly includes Maggie Nelson, Steven Millhauser, Helen DeWitt, Anne Carson, Renata Adler, N.K. Jemisin, Aimee Bender, Akwaeke Emezi, Diane Cook, Kelly Link, Helen Oyeyemi, Kathryn Davis, Carmen Maria Machado, Amelia Gray, Susan Choi, Jenny Offill, and Raven Leilani, whose forthcoming debut Luster is probably the best book of the year. I could go on. And of course there are so many books and writers who don’t get enough recognition—for instance, why wasn’t everyone climbing all over each other to celebrate Adam Ehrlich Sachs’ The Organs of Sense last year? It was so good, y’all. Why aren’t Susan Steinberg and Renee Gladman and Kathryn Davis and Fleur Jaeggy and Andrés Barba and Mary Robison and Marie Redonnet household names? I mean, I know why, considering who the household names actually are these days, but I still would like to register my complaints.
MT: What is your writing process like? You have a very busy day job, so I can’t imagine you making time for writing, and yet there’s The Lightness. Are you a morning, noon, evening writer? Do you have any particular quirks, or are there things which might ruin an environment or how well your writing is flowing?
ET: I usually write in the morning, in bed if I can get it (if my husband is still asleep, I make do with the couch). I started this book in graduate school, with plenty of free time and open mornings, but I finished it while working at Lit Hub, which meant waking up at 6am every morning to write before going into the office. It has to be quiet; I can’t write to music or television or construction (bird noises are ok). I also wake up on some days and don’t want to write, and I have decided over the years that this is fine. I almost never get anywhere by forcing myself to work. I write on the days when writing feels possible, and when it doesn’t, I let myself off the hook and spend some extra time reading something good.
MT: I remember watching Sabrina the Teenage Witch as a kid, and seeing her levitate in bed as the first sign of her powers. Similarly, in the horror film The Witch (we were just discussing the main actress, I believe), she finally ascends (literally) as a witch at the end of the film (SPOILER, SORRY). What do you think levitation means to women, excluding obvious metaphors? How do you think it plays into where women stand in society today, and what it represents for women in and outside of literature?
ET: I find levitation as a trope really fascinating, because it’s used so often in popular culture, but it’s almost always as a signifier—it’s used as shorthand, primarily for three things: power, control, and ecstasy (sexual, emotional, or otherwise). There aren’t any stories that really revolve around levitation, and it’s almost never used as a plot point—even in The Lightness, the girls are uncomfortably aware of the fact that levitation really shouldn’t be an end in itself. But it is this pervasive sign of something bigger. It’s a kind of visual and emotional shorthand for all of the things that women most want, and have been long prevented from owning.
MT: There’s a great twist at the ending. I won’t spoil that, but when writing the novel, did the twist come first or the novel? Was there a lot of research involved to build up to this twist? It really stunned me (and on my third or fourth reread, in a car with my mom on audio, my mother as well). I’d like to note that as a crime writer, it’s really hard to surprise me, and this novel did that many times over.
ET: Good! And if you’re asking about what I think you’re asking about—it didn’t come until about half way through the process. In early drafts, the book ended in a much different way—a much more expected way. But that was boring, and (hopefully) I fixed it.
MT: There’s a lot of religion and philosophy featured in the novel, and I’m wondering what your connection might be to these things—forms of things, philosophy, etc? If I’d had to write your book (which I couldn’t), I feel this would be one of the hardest parts for me to incorporate, and yet you do so amazingly.
ET: What you’re looking at is a series of connected, hours-long, internet rabbit holes. I feel like I’ve been doing the research for this book my entire life, by simply being curious about the nature of the world, and the nature of our perceptions and our consciousness. As I wrote, I gave myself license to stop anytime I lit on something interesting, or something that I thought might have more to it, and just start looking into it. That took me to quite a number of places, only a few of which are actually in the book at this point.
MT: Did any parts of the book feel personal for you, or did you ever think “I’m totally disconnected from these characters and this story” only to see yourself in the book later? What was the hardest part of the book for you to write?
ET: Here’s the flippant answer: All my high school friends keep asking me who the girls in this novel are based on—everyone wants to be in a novel, I guess—and I keep having to disappoint them, because . . . they’re all me. Or at least they’re all aspects of me. Sorry, guys.
The less flippant answer is this: One of the emotional centers of the novel is that of a girl grappling with religion, but most importantly belief—everyone around her seems so sure (whether in their belief or in their nonbelief), and she never is, and never has been. That’s a very personal thing for me, someone who grew up with Buddhism but was never sure to what degree it would be important in my life. I’m still figuring that out, and writing this book has certainly helped me get closer to the answer. So that was hard to write, and to get right.
MT: I’ve been discussing place in fiction a lot lately, and here we have this phenomenal setting, but outside of the plot, how do you think it plays into the novel? Feel free, if you’d like, to let readers know what the setting is like, and I’d love to know if you think this novel could have happened anywhere else, this story exist in any other place?
ET: Everything in this novel sprang from the setting, which is basically a distorted, elevated version of Karmê Chöling, a meditation center in Vermont that I visited with my family every year for a decade while I was growing up. It was my favorite place in the world, a place that felt filled with magic and possibility and the barest danger; when I started thinking about what kind of novel I would write, I started there.
MT: There’s a lot of blood in this book (don’t worry, I’m not heading down the traditional association with periods and coming of age). The protagonist has a complicated relationship with her parents (blood) and also how the protagonist and her friends use blood to get what they desire. Do you think violence is necessary for a bildungsroman involving young women? I think of The Member of the Wedding, Bastard Out of Carolina,Girls on Fire (by Robin Wasserman), and if you consider her a young woman, definitely Tess of the d’Urbervilles. What are your thoughts on blood (and any sort of violence) in coming of age stories?
Do you think blood, like fire, can be cleansing?
ET: All change is a kind of violence. You have to destroy, or at least maim, what you were before. I’d never make the claim that anything is necessary for any kind of book, but in this book, which is rooting around in magic and desire and old ways, it felt natural. Plus, it can make for a pretty dramatic moment in a story. (Or: “Blood is life, lackbrain,” as Spike would say. “Why do you think we eat it?”)
MT: Your sentences are Nabokov perfection, beautifully written and packing so much into half a line on a page. What’s the importance of a well planned out, perfected sentence? I’ve read the print copy of your book several times, and also the audio, and I think part of the brilliance of your novel is basking in each wonderfully crafted line.
ET: It’s all about the sentences for me. It’s the way I read, so it’s also, naturally, the way I write. I would rather read a novel about nothing in which every sentence made me stop and stare than a novel that made me turn the pages like mad. Once I’ve found out what happens, I never think about the books in that latter category ever again. The books that slay me with language, though—those I think about all the time. I don’t really even like plot. I recognize its uses but I don’t care about it. I’d rather luxuriate in the lines.
MT: What was your favorite part in writing this novel?
ET: Finding connective tissue in places I didn’t expect it.
MT: What do you ultimately hope—even now, especially now—readers will take away from The Lightness? It’s a brilliant book, and there’s a lot to learn from it in so many ways, but what do you truly hope to leave your readers with?
ET: I don’t think about this book—or any books, really—in terms of lessons, or in terms of neat takeaways. I’m sure people will take things away from this book, but when I read, I read for the moment to moment experience, not for the memory. So all I really want is for my readers to experience what I experience when I read my favorite books: tiny, ecstatic thrills of recognition or realization or pleasure as they come across sentences or scenes or moments that speak to them.
MT: Do you have a work in progress? I know you are just releasing The Lightness, but I am already ready for more. Feel free to share anything, if you do have a work in progress, as I’d love to hear more about it.
ET: I’m about halfway through a first draft of a new novel, but I don’t want to say too much! It may or may not be about a woman going blind at the end of the world. We shall see.
MT: Toni Morrison is often credited with saying something along the lines of how we should write the book we have always wanted to read but never found. Do you think The Lightnessfits this description, or is that book still to come?
ET: I think about that idea all the time—and yes, The Lightness fits that description for me, but so does my next project. I hope it will be true for all of my books.
MT: Emily, thank you so much for allowing me to interview you. It’s such a joy to be able to pick your brain. I really hope you’ll let me interview you again in the future, and I cannot wait to read whatever you put out in the world next. If you have any comments, lingering thoughts, or other ideas you want to leave us with, feel free to. Thank you so much again. Everyone, go out and buy The Lightnessnow.
ET: Thank you so much Matthew!
Carter Sickels on THE PRETTIEST STAR, an unforgettable and tremendous storm of a novel (with a silver lining, definitely)
Matthew Turbeville: Carter, it is such a pleasure to get to talk with you. I really loved your newest novel, The Prettiest Star. Can you start by telling us a little of what it’s about and what drew you to both the subject and the story itself?
Carter Sickels: Thank you. It’s great to talk with you. The Prettiest Star, set in 1986, is about Brian Jackson, a young gay man diagnosed with HIV, who leaves New York to return to the small town where he grew up.The novel examines the AIDS crisis of the 1980s through the lens of rural America. It’s about queer survival, the violence of homophobia, and about the binds and fractures of family.
When I was young, I watched an episode of Oprahabout a gay man who was HIV+, and went swimming in his hometown public swimming pool in West Virginia; when he got in the pool, everyone else got out, and the mayor had the pool drained the pool. Oprah took the show to this small town in West Virginia. The man sat on a stage next to his sisters, while people from his own town and even other family members said the most hateful, ugly things. The story stuck with me, and was the spark for this novel.
MT: You write from three points of view—three very different points of view. How hard was it to find these voices, and what problems did you find along the way? Were there any times where you considered giving up this form and trying telling the story another way, or was the story originally told differently and wound up this way?
CS: I knew early on this would be a novel with multiple narrators. Brian’s story is at the center, but it’s also a story about the Jackson family and the larger community. It took some time to find the specific, individual voices, and part of that process required just spending time with the characters and inhabiting them and getting to know them. Sometimes particular details opened up the characters to me. For Jess, it was her love of killer whales. For Brian, the music of David Bowie helped me get closer to him. For Sharon, their mother, I had to step into the shoes of someone who experiences enormous internal conflict—loving and grieving her son, but feels locked up by a cocoon of conservative values.
MT: There are so many books about the big crises in the world—the Holocaust, the AIDS crisis, multiple genocides, etc—but few feel as intimate as this. Do you mind sharing what you brought to the book or applied to make the book so heartfelt and allow this story which might ultimately have been simply tragic to be filled with a lot of joy, and hope, and yearning for learning?
CS: Thank you. Maybe that intimacy partly rises from the novel’s focus on a particular family and one man’s experience, though I hope the novel also speaks to the national crisis, to the country’s response, or lack of response, to HIV/AIDS, this is a story about a single man, a single family. The first person voices also invite a certain closeness with the characters, an intimacy. And, in response to the second part of your question, I wanted to write honestly about the trauma and grief of the AIDS crisis, but also convey the love and resilience. For me, it always comes back to my characters. If they are complicated, flawed, nuanced, then it’s more likely the book will also be emotionally complex.
MT: Growing up, I was always afraid I’d get AIDS. I’m gay, just like the protagonist of The Prettiest Star, and also obsessive compulsive, admittedly, but this goes beyond that. I was conditioned in a small town to think AIDS was automatic: you have sex with a man, you get AIDS (just pass by the HIV illogically, pass by protection, pass by everything). It’s one of the reasons I hid who I was for so long. There’s a similar feeling in this town, and it’s so frighteningly familiar, even if the events in the book took place before I was born. Can you tell me about the stigmatization of gay men, AIDS, transmission, and how this has affected our country in your own way? Why was this so important to address?
CS: I’m certain many queer people who grew up during the 80s and maybe even the 90s experienced a kind of collective fear and shame. The government and the media used a homophobic framework to talk about AIDS, and people with AIDS were stigmatized, blamed, and abandoned. That’s what we saw all around us. If you were a kid during this time, you were likely terrified to come out. I believe this country still has not faced how queer people and people with HIV and AIDS were treated during this time—the intense cruelty, the failure to take care of a vulnerable population.
MT: I was drawn to the grandmother character in the book, who loves her grandson so intensely. Normally I write these characters off, but she feels so genuine. Is she based on someone, or a group of someones? I love that unlike novels from earlier this year (and the previous decade), the women aren’t perfect, but they are amazing, and sometimes vicious, sometimes destructive, sometimes powerful, and sometimes vulnerable, but they feel real and like women I want to know and women I want in my life. How do you manage to write outside yourself and also create a story for these characters to not just survive but thrive? It felt like a coming-of-age story for so many people.
CS: Thanks. I loved writing Lettie’s character. She’s very different from my grandmothers in terms of her personality and physical appearance. But, I was very close to both my grandmothers, and I’m sure my love for them influenced Lettie’s character. She’s the only one in the family who isn’t ashamed of Brian. When he was little, she took Brian with her to sell Avon, or encouraged him to twirl around the house singing Dolly Parton. One of the joys of writing fiction for me is getting the opportunity to walk in others’ shoes and inhabit their lives, and that I want the reader to feel this way too—to fully experience and get to know these characters .
MT: What was the hardest part of writing this book, both emotionally and mentally? What is your writing process like in general? Are you a morning, noon, afternoon, evening, night writer? Pen, typewriter, computer? Do you have any strange or interesting writing quirks?
CS: One technical challenge I had was writing multiple first person narrators; I wanted each of the voices to sounded unique and particular. I paid close attention to particular word choices and syntax for each character, but also listened to their deeper, interior voices.
I write in the mornings on the computer, but I also fill up “novel notebooks,” where I collect my questions, thoughts, and ideas about the novel. I filled up four of these while writing The Prettiest Star.
MT: How do you view revision and rewriting? There are many writers who hate it, and some who absolutely love it. What advice do you give to young and aspiring writers who are reading this now?
CS: I’m one of those writers who believes much of the writing occurs in the revising and rewriting – when I’m shaping the story, sentence by sentence, I’m learning what the story is about. I tend to prefer revising because I find it less daunting than facing a blank page, and by the time I’m revising, I usually possess a clearer understanding of where the story wants to go. I encourage aspiring writers to be bold and ruthless in their revision. You may need to change the point of view or verb tense, or cut characters or plot lines. Listen to what the story wants and needs, and it’s okay to let go.
MT: Who are the writers that shaped you in your formative years, and who do you think are the best writers now? Who deserves more attention than they get, and who do you feel are the writers often overlooked or not read enough these days?
CS: Queer books that came out in the 90s were certainly formative – Jeannette Winterson, Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin, Michael Cunningham’s novels. There are many fantastic queer authors who’ve influenced me, and it’s such an exciting time for queer writing right now.Carmen Maria Machado, Melissa Febos, Ocean Vuong, Paul Lisicky, Garth Greenwell, Brandon Taylor, Andrea Lawlor, Chelsey Johnson are just a few of the many authors whose work I love. I highly recommend two recent, fantastic debuts: Passing With Careby Cooper Lee Bombardier and We Had No Rulesby Corinne Manning.
MT: Are you working on something new now? When can we expect something new from you? I know it’s early to ask, but I’m already addicted. Do you have a work-in-progress and, if so, would you share anything about it?
CS: I’ve started a new novel, but it’s still too early to talk about, and I have a few essays and short stories I’ve been working on.
MT: Thank you so much for allowing me to pick your brain. God, this book is amazing. I advise everyone to pick up a copy of The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels immediately. Carter, if you ever need a proofreader, or just someone to cheer you on and read everything you write, it’s me. Please feel free to leave us with any thoughts, suggestions, feelings, or otherwise. I am so thankful I’ve gotten to interview you, Carter.
CS: Thank you so much, Matthew! I appreciate your support.
We Got to Talk to Omar El Akkad about his origin story and becoming a writer, AMERICAN WAR, and a future fairy tale that's sure to be a best-seller!
Meredith Davidson/Matthew Turbeville: Omar, we are so excited to interview you. We loved American War and have read it multiple times. Before we dive in, will you give us some history about your life as a writer, how you came to be a writer, and what publishing your first book—the struggles, the low points, the successes—were like?
Omar El Akkad: Thank you very much for your kindness. I was born in Egypt and spent the first sixteen years of my life in the Middle East before my family migrated to Canada. Later, in my thirties, I moved to the United States when my wife found work there. As someone who can’t really point to anywhere on a map and say, definitively, “This is home,” I took refuge in fiction from a fairly young age. Before American War, I wrote three other novels in my spare time while working as a journalist. None of them were any good, and I have no intention of trying to get them published, but I think of them now as a way to build the muscles. I wasn’t going to try to publish American War, either, and for months it sat on my hard drive, until one day I had a bad experience at work. I had one of those days that I think a lot of journalists go through, where you feel like you’re not doing much more than re-writing press releases. So I decided to take a chance and send the manuscript to a literary agent I’d met in passing many years earlier. To my utter shock, she decided to take me on as a client. She sent the book to Sonny Mehta, the late President of Knopf, and a couple of months later he bought it. This is not, generally, how the process works, and in many ways I won the lottery by getting a chance to work with one of the greatest editors in publishing history on my debut novel. I’m not sure I’ll ever have an experience that overwhelmingly positive with any of the books I publish in the future. It was, much more than a function of my talent, just immense good fortune. That’s not to say the process doesn’t entail all manner of valleys, and certainly I’m one of those people who instantly forgets any compliments about their work but obsesses endlessly about every criticism – and there’s been plenty of valid criticism of American War, a novel that is not by any means apolitical. But for the most part, publishing that book was a cascade of good fortune, certainly more than I deserve.
MD/MT: What books shaped you in your formative years? What books and authors do you love most now and do any influence your writing? Are there any authors or books you’d like to see gain more recognition?
OEA: I grew up in Qatar, a country that had essentially very few bookstores or libraries at the time, and where imported books, movies and music were routinely censored. As such, I didn’t really ever get a chance to choose which authors or genres I wanted to explore – I simply read whatever I could get my hands on, whatever a friend or relative managed to smuggle into the country from an overseas trip. I remember picking up a Stephen King novel at a too-young age because I was caught by the illustration of a skull or blood or something similarly gruesome on the cover, and subsequently devouring most everything else of his I could get my hands on. I remember Little Women having an outsize impact on me, because it was the first book I read, outside of the supernatural of fantastical, that depicted a life – on both an individual and wider cultural level – so entirely different from mine, so much so that I’ve been terrified of re-reading that book ever since, in case I find out I now can’t stand it. I felt and now feel the same way about The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. It was only after I moved to North America that my access to literature suddenly widened, a million doors all opening at once in the halls of my local library. Song of Solomon was a life-changing novel, as was every other Toni Morrison book I went on to read. The work of James Agee was a heavy influence, especially the reportage of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which the is the book that most impacted my thinking while I was writing American War. Agee’s only novel, A Death in the Family, which depicts the familial impact of a father’s death and which I read shortly after my own father died, is on a sentence level the most beautiful book I’ve ever read. More recently, I’ve come to greatly admire a number of writers who are my contemporaries, though I use that term only as it relates to age – they are all far more talented than I am. Garth Greenwell is the finest writer working in the English language today, I think, and his newest collection, Cleanness, contains a short story called The Little Saint which stands aside Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno and Tillie Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle in the pantheon of the best short stories I’ve ever read. There are so many writers I think deserve far more attention than they receive, including the poet Sam Roxas-Chua, who manipulates the visual dimensions of text in the most profound ways. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer whose work has received too little attention in this country, is a writer of fierce power and a razor-sharp sense of humor. Her last novel, This Accident of Being Lost, is a masterpiece, and her newest novel, Noopiming, due out later this year, is unlike anything else I’ve ever read. There are a number of contemporary Arab writers who likewise receive almost no attention in this part of the world, but should. Basma Abdel Aziz is a tremendously insightful Egyptian writer whose book The Queue, about the bureaucratic nightmare that takes place should a state succeed in crushing a people’s revolution, should be required reading in 2020 America. Khalid Khalifa, a Syrian writer, has written beautiful, heartbreaking books about pre- and post-revolution Syrian life, most recently Death is Hard Work, and before that No Knives in the Kitchens of this City, a novel I think is a masterwork, even though I’ve yet to convince anyone I know in this country to actually read it.
MD/MT: It seems like young female protagonists bring something to speculative/apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic literature which adult and young male protagonists cannot. What are your feelings on this, and why did you choose a female as the primary character to live out a great part of this civil war?
OEA: My emotional education has come, almost exclusively, from the women in my life. As such, I find myself gravitating to female central characters as the emotional prism through which my stories pass, which is not to say I have any right to do this, or that I’m doing it properly, it’s simply the orientation my life has taken. In the case of American War, a book largely about radicalization, I wanted to veer away from the overwhelmingly male prisms through which such issues are discussed in the world, in part because I was more interested in the emotional component of radicalization, and also because – and I know I’m a hypocrite for saying this, given how overtly violent the novel is – I wasn’t that interested in centering the physically violent component of radicalization, which I feel is tied with a masculine flavor of toxicity. I had already been thinking about the world of American War for more than a year when Sarat Chestnut showed up in my head. But once she did, there was no doubt the book would be hers.
MD/MT: How do you manage the news of the day and does it ever affect your writing? Do you draw from the real world writing fiction? How do you retain a clear vision and purpose with your writing when we know so many writers are urged to be topical and fit into what’s popular in the fiction market? How important is it to you to be relevant—do you write for yourself, for readers, or for critics?
OEA: I steal almost everything in my fiction from the workings of the real world, in part because I spent a decade working as a journalist. That said, a novel is a slow slog through time, and it takes many years between when a book is conceived and when it reaches the world. In the case of American War, I simply got lucky – a book very much concerned with the war on terror years just happened to come out in a moment where it could be read as a prophecy of how the Trump years would end. This has been great for my book sales, but in truth I had no idea Trump would win, and the novel was completed before he even declared his candidacy. With my next novel, a book about refugees, I’m likely to experience the opposite phenomenon, given that the world will be three or four global crises removed from that moment by the time this novel shows up next year, and everything that isn’t happening right now will feel like ancient history. Regardless, though I set my books in the present or the future, I’m almost always writing about something that already happened. Relevancy is a crap shoot – even the publishing industry has no idea, most of the time, what’s going to sell. You may as well write what moves you, say the things you need to say.
MD/MT: Do you think futuristic and speculative literature like American War has a purpose in mobilizing people, and if so, how? Did you start writing this novel with the hopes of changing minds and perhaps changing parts of the world?
OEA: I always hope to change minds, and I hope the book is read as an indictment of endless war and the privilege of looking away from the suffering of others. I hope it forces readers to confront the immense violence so often carried out in their names, but from which they are lucky enough to maintain great distance. But I don’t measure the success or failure of my novel, or indeed any novel, by whether it manages to change people’s minds. Orwell’s books are no less masterpieces because nobody listened, and we still march toward the dystopian surveillance state. Morrison’s novels are no less masterpieces because America has yet to rid itself of its endemic institutional racism. Conversely, Atlas Shrugged is no less of a garbage fire because hyper-capitalism prevailed. Writers should try to change the world, but the writing is to be measured on its own merits, not the willingness of the world to listen.
MD/MT: Was there anything you read or experienced that propelled you to tell this story when you did? What was the reason for the story to be told when it was written and published? Why do you think it resonates so much with people?
OEA: The story I always go back to is a memory I have of watching an interview on one of the cable news networks, many years ago. A foreign affairs expert was being asked about Afghan villagers protesting against the US military invasion, and why it seemed these people hated America so much. The expert noted that sometimes the US special forces will raid these villages, looking for insurgents, and that during these raids they will sometimes ransack the houses or hold the women and children at gunpoint. “And you know, in Afghan culture, that sort of thing is considered very offensive,” he said. I remember thinking, name me one culture on earth that wouldn’t consider that sort of thing offensive. That’s when I first started thinking about taking the defining markers of these conflicts and recasting them in the heart of the empire, and the idea behind American War was born. In truth, when it came time to publish the book, it benefited greatly from the phenomenon of a fractured America, as seen through the prism of Trump and this ugly resurgence of overt white supremacism as a governance and election strategy. It’s certainly not a blockbuster book, but I think the folks who’ve gotten something out of it have read it a variety of ways, from a dystopian thriller to an anti-war polemic to, simply, a novel about the many meanings of survival and loss.
MD/MT: You intersperse narrative chapters in American War with fictionalized excerpts of nonfiction documents, written several years from now. While writing, did you write these and insert them chronologically, or did you compose them outside the story and place them in after the narrative was already constructed? What does your structural composition process look like?
OEA: I originally didn’t intend to put them in the novel. It was simply my way of keeping track of all the moving parts of this invented world. I spent a decade as a journalist, so I’m fairly well-versed in this kind of institutional composition – government documents, legal writing, bureaucratic double-speak. I would create these documents to keep track of key dates and events. It was only later in the process of writing American War that I realized I could insert them into the narrative and get an element of texture that I otherwise couldn’t produce. There are actually quite a few more that never made it into the book, some of them fairly convoluted, with footnotes and references and what not. During the re-writing process, I moved them around quite a bit, even though the rest of the narrative I wrote pretty well start-to-finish in the order it appears in the book.
MD/MT: This book feels wildly relevant and topical to the current moment, even more so than when it came out in 2017. How, as an author, do you prepare yourself to see your work expand beyond its original expectations? How do you witness your work extrapolate through history in real time and what does that mean for you? When writing fictionalized works and actions which changed certain aspects of the future, were you aware your novel would do the same in the real world?
OEA: I subscribe to Borges’ view that the writer’s intent is subservient to the reader’s impression. It just so happens that a book I finished in the summer of 2015, a few weeks before Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy, came out two years later in a wildly different political climate (or, at least, a political climate wherein America’s ugliest face was free to shout what in previous years it may have only whispered). And so I’ve had to deal with this overwhelming impression among my readers that I wrote an attempt at prophecy, when in fact I see American War not only as a book about this country’s future, but about someone else’s past – I don’t think of it as a novel chiefly concerned with America, so much as the consequences of what America has done to and in the world.
MD/MT: This story is set in a near-future American South. Why the American South over any other region in the United States and how does this inform your story? What drew you to writing about the South in the first place, and how much research did you have to put into writing about a future which could possibly take place?
OEA: I spent about a year researching the places in which the book is set, mostly so I had a good sense of the landscape I planned to obliterate in the novel. Hardly any of the places in which American War is set appear as they are today. I’ve superimposed massive geographical change in the form of warfare and climate change. But I wanted something of the land as it is, so I spent a lot of time in places such as southern Louisiana. I think I’m drawn to the South because it reminds me in certain ways of the part of the world where I grew up, the Middle East. There’s a kind of ingrained violence of warped remembrance, an almost optional relationship with the truth of history. All these things felt similar to me, even if the specifics are wildly different. To be perfectly honest, the last thing I was concerned with was whether any of what takes place in American War could plausibly happen in the future, at least in any literal sense. I don’t think the events of American War are how a second civil war would go down. It’s hard to even think in those terms, because every day I wake up in this country I’m faced with fresh evidence that the first civil war never ended.
MD/MT: In writing fiction that takes place in the future, what do you feel is the value of providing a recognizable setting for modern readers (perhaps an evolution of places they are currently familiar with), as opposed to a renamed or nameless land not specific to an existing or familiar place? If this was a completely different and fabricated world, do you think it would have the same impact it does today?
OEA: A lot of what I do as a writer is dislocative. Privilege is in many ways a disease of perpetual forgetting, and the central trick in a lot of my fiction is to take what the privileged class can forget without consequence and relocate to a narrative setting where the markers of place fight against that forgetting – these drones are bombing yourtown, this agent of the state is torturing yourneighbor, this injustice targets yoursociety. In that sense, if I had written the same book a hundred years ago, it would have been titled British War. What matters is not to depict some pathway to an American future, but to invert the agency of American calamity, to make the bad things that happen all the way over there happen here – and in doing so, hopefully make it a little more difficult to ignore, to forget.
MD/MT: American Warat times feels a bit like a frontier story, or perhaps the reverse of a world that evolving but in many ways shrinking and, in doing so, limiting the characters. What does frontier mean when the land has already been claimed and discarded? Can land be reclaimed, now or in the future, or even in your novel?
OEA: Certainly, in a very real sense – one our interpretation of time makes us particularly bad at grasping – land can be reclaimed. A couple hundred thousand years ago, the place we call Florida was twice as wide. All that land is underwater now, the sea reclaimed it. The very notion of a frontier is, at its core, an ordinal thing – on this side of the line is us and on the other is them and if one of us is not better than the other, why even frame the world this way? It is a matter of historical record that the United States is a country that gained its geographic expansion aided by the fruits of genocide and its economic expansion aided by the fruits of slavery. In my mind, the frontier story serves a vital purpose in offsetting the immense and terrible weight of these crimes, because it imposes on the whole undertaking a kind of temporary wildness, wherein any crime is only a momentary lapse of judgement in a state of otherwise perpetual innocence – yes, we wiped out that village and enslaved those people but it was all so chaotic in these places where our civilization and their savagery collided and once things settled down we went back to being good. It is a storytelling tool that persists to this day – almost every American book and movie about the Iraq invasion is in its own way a frontier story. Jack Nicholson’s monologue at the end of A Few Good Men is a frontier story. James Baldwin once said of difficult books: yes, it might hurt you to read it, but it hurt me more to write it. The mediocre frontier stories – which as far as my limited reading goes, I’ve found to be the majority – do the opposite. They placate a certain kind of reader, and placate the writer even more. I’m all for anything that obliterates this particular use of the form, or at the very least inverts it.
MD/MT: Have you listened to the protest album by ANOHNI, HOPELESSNESS, she depicts how these stories—war stories, youths involved in war, the lasting effect it has on the young people—all beginning with the deaths of family members, significant family members like parents or siblings. Why do you think this is so important in pushing the narrative and life of a character forward?
OEA: There’s a track on that album titled, “Why Did You Separate Me from the Earth?” which is a thing that can be said about the effect of brutality long before the brutalized are physically separated from the Earth. A lot of what we call injustice takes place along the axis of agency – the basic human need to have some say over the things we do and the things done to us. To take away someone’s agency is to create a vacuum anything may then fill – fear, anger, violence. One of the most admirable aspects of American history is the extent to which its most brutalized communities have overwhelmingly responded with calls to justice rather than violence in kind. I hope that measure of goodness, our capacity to respond from a place of love, is stronger than the forces lined against it, but I don’t know if I’d be able to maintain that emotional posture after watching my loved ones killed by a drone or a special forces sniper, my community wiped out by war or the ruin that follows war. I don’t know how others order their lives, but my personal ordering has always reacted to the lives of the people I love. I know of no other way to move a life forward, not simply when talking about the ugliest of our human faces, but all of them.
MD/MT: Can you tell us if you’re working on anything new, and if so, would you share any information on the work-in-progress? American War was and is a major success, and I know anyone reading this would love a teaser of what’s to come!
OEA: I submitted my new manuscript to my editor a few days before the country went into Coronavirus lockdown. It’s a repurposed fairy tale, very short and very much unlike American War. I have no idea if readers who liked my first novel will like it, but it’s the book I felt compelled to write in the moment I wrote it. It’s tentatively due for publication next year, but of course I have no idea what future calamities the world has in store for us between now and then.
MD/MT: Omar, thank you for allowing us to interview you. We are such big fans of your writing and we can’t wait to see what you come out with next. We’re so thankful we got to pick your brain, and feel free to leave us with any lingering questions or thoughts, comments or otherwise. Thank you so much again, and we hope everyone will go pick up a copy of American War and read it as soon as possible. The few who haven’t already, we mean.
OEA: Thank you, I really appreciate you taking the time, and the thoughtfulness of these questions.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia on gothic romances, STATION ELEVEN, horror writing, and what people need to understand about Latin American Writers (She's so brilliant!)
Matthew Turbeville: Silvia, I am so excited to interview you, especially about your new book Mexican Gothic. Can you tell me about what attracted you to gothic novels like these (Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyrefor examples for our readers) and how you conceived this brilliant idea for a modern modernized gothic novel with its own twist?
Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Poe was the first horror writer I ever read. Afterwards, I made my way through many classic horror novels, like The Phantom of the Opera. I never much liked the other type of Gothic novels, the non-supernatural ones, such as Wuthering Heightsor Jane Eyrebecause they were too romantic for me. But I ended up really enjoying Rebecca and My Cousin Rachelpartially because there’s something perverse in them. I now understand Wuthering Heightsbetter than I did as a teenager, when I loathed it, but I’m still more of a du Maurier fan.
I used to collect what are called New Gothic Romances, which were the Gothic novels that were published from the 1950s to the 1970s in paperback form. I collected them for the covers, to be frank, because they had an interesting aesthetic: that pervasive image of a woman running from a house at night. And again, there’s an element of perversity in these books. The image on the cover, after all, is a woman in danger.
MT: The novel’s brilliant, and deals with a lot of heavy hitting issues our world’s looking at (I would say “dealing with” or “learning about” today, but I feel like both those phrases are untrue) in today’s world. One of these concepts is eugenics—I remember talking with my ex, a first generation Mexican American, about how he was mostly Native American, which is brought up early on in the novel. Not to mention, there’s been a resurgence of interest in the issue, and I have to ask if you went into this novel knowing you’d talk about these issues, or if they just came to the surface as you were writing them.
SM-G: My Master’s degree is in Science and Technology Studies and my thesis focused on eugenics and literature. I know about the topic and it seemed to fit the concept well because eugenics was a popular scientific pursuit in the 19thcentury and way into the 20thcentury. Most people think of it as something Nazis invented, but it was a widespread practice that was taken up all over the globe. Of course, the way it was applied varied by the location. Eugenics did not always deal with race – disabilities, alcoholism, prostitution and other topics might also be a topic of eugenics studies – but white elites in the USA and England were very concerned about race and also about miscegenation. Eugenics also lasted much longer than most people think and certain ideas did not die off, they simply morphed a little or were not called eugenics any more. Up until the 1970s, in the USA, people were being sterilized using laws passed during the heyday of eugenics.
MT: What do you think, with horror, suspense, thrillers, is the secret to maintaining interest in the audience, to keep the reader flipping through the pages, and powering towards the end of the novel and seeking out answers to pressing questions? How do you keep momentum going when you write? What is your writing process like?
SM-G: Horror, suspense and thrillers are not the same thing though they can sometimes bleed over. Thrillers in general deal with high stakes and are more action packed. I’m not sure what allreaders like, but looking at some of the classic Gothic horror novels you can’t rush the narrative and it’s not a high stakes game, it’s very personal, it’s one person facing against something and often someone who is isolated. The Turn of the Screwis not a spooky book because a ghost pops up every two pages. It’s a slow novel that rewards the reader who takes their time with it. Same with psychological suspense works such as She Who Was No More, which was famously adapted as Les Diaboliques. Not everyone has the patience for that but then not everyone should be reading these types of books. If you want pulse-pounding action, there’s other kinds of media that do that. You’ve got to be there for the journey, basically.
MT: This novel is so much more terrifying than so many great gothic novels, and more recent entries to the genre, like with books like the film Crimson Peak. What do you think are the scariest things to read about, and what were you most scared by growing up and, in all honesty, what are the things that scare you most today?
SM-G: The things that scare me are very mundane. Not paying my bills, getting sick, that kind of stuff. The particular fears of a writer are often dull.
MT: You work inside a lot of different genres. With the book referencing this family that doesn’t seem to be moving forward at all, and with characters who are stuck in the past and unable to really move forward, what do you think of the different genres you work with today? Are the genres moving forward, stylistically and in a diverse way, or does writing inside these genres ever feel stagnant or like nothing is progressing? I hear a lot of input on the issue from multiple writers, and would love to hear your thoughts.
SM-G: There’s a trend in publishing towards what is called upmarket fiction. It’s the holy grail. It’s a book with a literary feel but that incorporates genre elements. This is leading to a lot more blending of categories. Is Station Elevena literary book or a horror novel? In the 1980s, it would have been placed in bookshops next to The Stand. Audiences are much more permissive of this crosspollination and writers are also more interested in it because they have grown in a world in which their influences are varied. They’re taking their cues from comic books, video games, movies, TV shows, even memes. Otherwise, genres are also dividing and changing and sometimes dying (Westerns don’t have their own shelf anymore). If you’ve ever picked up a romance novel from 1977, one from 1997 and one from this year you can see they’re not the same. Evolution is never fast and furious, but books are not caught in an eternal stasis. Neither are readers.
MT: What was your favorite thing to write in Mexican Gothic? The setting(s), the character(s), any scenes in particular?
SM-G: I was trying to hit may Gothic elements and I had a list next to me, so every time I hit something it was quite fun. I don’t think I had quite enough swooning. In The Mysteries of UdolphoEmily swoons more than half a dozen times and Agnes takes at least two swoons in The Monk. But as much as I had fun using a baker’s dozen of Gothic literature, the thing I enjoyed the most was twisting things slightly askew.
MT: What were your favorite gothic novels to study for this book? Did you review them at all? And what is research, planning, and later editing like for you? Are you a morning, noon, afternoon, evening writer? What do you think is the hardest part of writing a novel?
SM-G: I write at nights, after I get back from work and finish with whatever chores I have around the house. I work on the bus, I plan dialogue in the shower, I think through plot points while I’m cooking. Writing, when you have a dayjob, is learning to use the wasted time I have available effectively.
MT: Who are your favorite novelists, past and present, the ones living today you feel are underrated, the ones you feel need more recognition, and the authors who shaped you during your formative years and made you into the writer you are today? Were there any other sorts of media which helped create you into the author you are today?
SM-G: Hard to say. I read a lot and I was a huge film buff as a kid. I watch less movies these days, but I still have a subscription to the Criterion Channel. I always liked to fish for obscure stuff, more so in the pre-Internet days because it was a great challenge. Obscure bands, obscure films, books that were impossible to find. That’s what I liked. Now, everything can be found, probably with a few clicks of the mouse. But I still enjoy kicking and digging and finding things that are a bit odd. Sometimes I become obsessed with them for a while. That happens often with old books and with music. I’ll play the same album over and over again when I’m writing. If I’m not wearing headphones, it can be quite annoying for my family. For most people, “Eye in the Sky” loses its charm after the 20thtime. But you need to be obsessed about something to write. It’s the fuel for any good writer.
MT: What do you hope Americans, readers in general take away from this novel and from your novels as a whole?
SM-G: Latin American writers are normally allowed to produce two kinds of narratives: the suffering immigrant or the quaint magic realist tale. There’s more to the world than that.
MT: What are you working on now? Can you give your fans any hint at what’s to come next? Your work is so incredibly diverse and complex, and we can’t wait to see the next book you come out with.
SM-G: I wrote a noir that came out this year, Untamed Shore, set in 1970s Baja California and I have a different noir that my agent is trying to shop around. And I just delivered a sword and sorcery novella to a publisher.
MT: Thank you so much for allowing me to interview you, Silvia. It was so great to be able to pick your brain and learn a little bit about your writing process, your novel, and the books you love in general. Please feel free to leave us with any pressing thoughts, feelings, or ideas, and thank you so much. We love you, Silvia!
Steph Post on what it means to be a Southern writer (and what it means to those we've marginalized), religion, planning out series, and so much more--she's a genius, and the Judah series is genius. A must read.
Matthew Turbeville: Steph, it’s so great to talk to you about your books and your writing and everything else. I am and have been fascinated with the Judah Cannon trilogy. First, I love his name, but most of all I love how honest it feels—not just Judah, but also Sister Tulah. Few people—few Southern writers—write about religion in such an honest way these days, not since books like Wise Blood maybe. What do you think the role of religion is in Southern literature (and Southern noir) and why is it so essential to talk about?
Steph Post: First of all, thank you! For reading and your support. As for religion, I’m not sure I can speak for all Southern writers as a group. For sure, the South is steeped in religious tradition- I think there’s a strong level of belief, but also of disbelief, because so much of the power of religion has been abused in this region. For me personally, I have always been interested in the role religion has to control people and to create their identities, as I’ve witnessed much of this firsthand.
MT: The trilogy is great, sprawling, epic. Did you have the whole series planned out from the beginning? What was writing the series like for you? What kind of writer are you—feel free to share anything you feel comfortable with!
SP: I didn’t have the series planned out all- I only knew that I wanted to write a trilogy. Most of the planning came naturally. As I’m working through a novel, I can be very organized, but I don’t plan it out ahead of time. I like to be surprised all the way through the first draft.
MT: Who or what inspired Sister Tulah (I know I’m obsessed but, well, I’m obsessed—she’s a brilliant villain in so many ways). She’s the ultimate villain for the series, and she’s one of the best villains (and her juxtaposition against and alongside Judah) I’ve come across in years. Please tell me about her and the inspiration and what about religion and problems in the South Judah is facing and fighting against? (And who are your favorite villains?)
SP: Again, thank you! Sister Tulah comes from, again, different experiences with religion I had as a child. Control and fear can be a tremendous factor in organized religion and I wanted a villain who clearly understood how to use these elements. One of things I love about Sister Tulah is that she IS a true believer- just not in the religion she is a figurehead for. On the one hand, she’s the ultimate villain. I’ve created villains (say, Daniel from Miraculum) who have a sympathetic side to them, but Sister Tulah does not. However, that doesn’t mean she’s not complex. If you go all the way through Holding Smoke, things begin to come clear about who she is and why. Yet, she never falters in the path she’s chosen.
MT: Did you ever decide to change Judah’s path along the way? Was there anything which came up and helped you decide to switch directions and try something new, or did you always stick to strict guidelines? Was there anything about Judah or any of the other characters which surprised you when you were writing the novel?
SP: So much surprised me as I went throughout the series. I was particular surprised at how minor characters came to take center stage by the last book. Characters like Shelia, Felton and Ramey. By the end, the story is more about Felton and Ramey than Judah and Tulah and I thought that was important. In many ways, this change reflected back my development as a writer and the themes I became interested in during the four years of writing the series. For example, Ramey goes from being the tough-chick-sidekick to a woman caught by her own strength. I wanted to be able to use her in the final book to explore a different side to the ‘badass woman’ motif. And to show how complicated life can be for someone in her position.
As for Judah himself- the biggest surprise came at the end of the series. Without giving away any spoilers, I’ll just say that I didn’t know how it was all going to turn out with him until I actually wrote the ending.
MT: I come from a family of crime, so maybe I relate too much to Judah, but what inspired his family for you, and how did each character in the family—and outside the family—come into being? When killing off someone, when losing another character in another way, were you ever hurt as writer in losing them? I know I’ve tried to cling on to characters myself.
SP: Let’s just say that all of the characters are inspired by people I’ve known, but on a general level. No one is a direct inspiration, but the world of the Cannons is one that I feel a certain kinship with.
MT: Was there ever a different ending to the series? Was there ever a different fate for Judah? Do you feel—I read an author talk about this recently, and am not sure I agree—that there’s only one way a book (or in this case, a trilogy) can end?
SP: I think Holding Smoke could have ended in several different ways. Sister Tulah’s fate was always sealed, but things could have gone very differently with Judah and Ramey. I think often authors are set on an outcome when they start writing, but I don’t agree that there’s only one way a story can end. The plot of a story is built up by the choices of the characters- so change any of those choices and the entire outcome can be different.
MT: What books and movies and tv shows helped inspire this series? I’m assuming Wise Bloodand other Flannery works came into play (I say Flannery as if I knew her in a previous life and we were best friends, and I wish that was true), but what else helped inspire this amazing trilogy?
SP: The television shows Justified, Sons of Anarchy and Peaky Blinders were all inspiration.
MT: Before you wrote Holding Smoke(or released it, I have no idea if, perhaps, it was written first), you released Miraculum, a very different book from the Judah series. Can you tell me about what inspired this change (which I loved) and what brought you back to Judah for a grand, if not explosive finale?
SP: So, Miraculum was written in-between Lightwood and Walk in the Fire. I like to switch genres with every book, but I knew I had to go back to wrap the series up. In some ways, I had already veered off in another direction with my writing, but I felt I owed it to the story, the characters and the readers to give it my all for Holding Smoke.
MT: Who are the Southern writers—especially marginalized Southern writers—you read and love today who you think are the best at their jobs? What do you think are the most overlooked writers or books people need to pay attention to, in your opinion?
SP: I’ll just stick to the Southern genre here- I think everyone needs to keep an eye out for Beth Gilstrap and Meagan Lucas. They are two of the most badass writers I know and both are poised to take the literary world by storm. They’re both brilliant in their own way and are going to shake up the Southern literary establishment.
MT: Do you think you will ever visit the characters from the series again, or its world in general?
SP: Possibly the world, but I don’t think I’ll ever go back to these characters. I know when a character has gone to bed, and these have said goodnight.
MT: What is your favorite part about writing a series, about writing a Judah novel, about writing in general, other than gaining crazed super fans like myself?
SP: Ha! My favorite part is just that- the writing. Being completely immersed in a world I’ve created. When I’m really in the zone, focused, writing 6 hours a day, it’s hard, but it’s the best feeling in the world.
MT: Are you working on anything new? Is there a work-in-progress? You tend to move fast, so I’d love to know and see what’s up for you next! And I’m sure your fans and anyone reading this would love a hint at what the next great work from Steph Post will be, if you’re willing.
SP:I am Always working on something new. I’m also incredibly secretive about new work. So, I’ll just say that you can expect me to keep changing up genres in the future.
MT: Steph, thank you for stopping by Writers Tell All. I love you, we love you, and we are so thankful to have you writing today. You are such a necessary talent. Please feel free to leave us with any thoughts, remarks, lingering issues or problems or anything else, and know that we are so thankful to have read your novels so far!
SP: Thanks so much for having me! And for all your support to myself and all the authors you champion. J