WRITERS TELL ALL
Meredith Davidson & Matthew Turbeville: Ruth, I am so excited to talk about your novel. I was hooked from the initial description, and I couldn’t stop reading and rereading as I went on. I find folklore, family legends, the histories we carry from our ancestors so intriguing. Why do you think these things are so important to people, and can you point to whether living with a legacy on our names, or superstition, or lore effects life for the better or worse?
Ruth Gilligan: Wow, talk about a big question to start us off! But a good one, definitely. And thank you so much for reading (and rereading) the book, I’m thrilled you enjoyed it. Needless to say, I also find these layers of belief completely intriguing. There’s this thing we call Religion with a capital ‘R’, then there is the slightly less official or formal realm of folklore slash superstition (although I have all sorts of thoughts about who gets to decide the cut-off point between these two) and then, as you mention, there are the family stories and traditions that get passed down from one generation to the next. I think in many ways, all these layers can offer roughly the same kinds of rewards and restrictions – whether it’s comfort and continuity, a sense of higher purpose, or whether it’s a stifling or prescriptive presence, as if your life choices are being dictated in all sorts of damaging ways. I have definitely experienced all those facets of faith at some point in my life.
MD/MT: What first interested you in family traditions, lore, history, and legends? What about different regions of countries or parts of the world change the way we view these different aspects of life and the past?
RG: I grew up in Ireland, which of course is known for being a fiercely religious country, but amidst all the talk of Catholicism and Protestantism, there is also this lesser-known realm of Irish folklore and superstition which, for many, is still alive and well. And what’s fascinating to me is that it’s not an ‘either or’ situation – plenty of people can have a house decked out with crucifixes and sacred heart statues, but also still believe in fairies and pagan rituals. For some that might seem contradictory, but as I mentioned before, I think the lines between these beliefs – or types of belief – are so nebulous anyway. There’s no logic and that’s the messy, beautiful point (and indeed, that’s the messy, beautiful starting point for a novelist).
MD/MT: One character, Una, wants to perhaps become a butcher, but is limited by her sex. Obviously, this should be viewed as form of sexism, but what does it say that patriarchal values, control, and lineage shapes Una so much from a young age, and how, if at all, might she and other women be able to step outside this?
RG: What does it say? It says welcome to Ireland, where the Guinness is good and the patriarchy is alive and well! I’m being facetious (slightly), and obviously times they are a-changing, but historically – and this goes back to the ‘fiercely religious’ thing – women and women’s bodies have been treated pretty appallingly in my country. The Church has so much to answer for and, like I said, progress is definitely afoot (see the historic result of the 2018 abortion referendum), but there is a still so much residual trauma – and rage – from the manifold ways in which Irish women have been systemically suppressed.
MD/MT: What was so important about setting this story during a certain time period, possibly other than issues dealing with Mad Cow’s Disease?
RG: The novel takes place over the course of a single year – 1996 – which, for me, was such a crucial pivot point in Irish history. As you mention, it was the year of the Mad Cow Disease, or BSE, crisis, but it was also the year in which Divorce was finally legalized in Ireland; the year the first gay kiss was shown on Irish TV (homosexuality had been decriminalized just three years previous); it was the year the Celtic Tiger began – that huge economic ‘boom’ that ultimately propelled Ireland onto the global stage. The millennium was around the corner, the Spice Girls were on the radio – there is a narrative of progress on the air; a sense of leaving the past, and the old ways, behind. In that way, it felt the perfect setting for the book and all the tensions I was interested in exploring.
MD/MT: Why is Ireland a land rich with legends, and what other countries do you feel are so involved with history and lore? What countries would you like to read about in a book like The Butchers’ Blessing? What countries are underrepresented in this sense, essentially?
RG: Oh Jesus, so many of them! All of them! But fortunately, more and more gorgeous novels are offering insights into these rich traditions. A Girl is A Body of Water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (set in Uganda); The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht (set in the Balkans); anything by Helen Oyeyemi – from Cuba to Nigeria to the UK, she braids a whole host of histories and folklores into her work. I’m always excited to see where she takes us next.
MD/MT: What role does sexuality play within this world filled with something akin to magical realism, as many critics compare this in a very positive way to Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife? I don’t want to reveal many spoilers, but how do you feel the Butchers might represent or work as a catalyst for the awakening of someone’s sexuality, and also why this character might or might not feel tied to the land of his birth?
RG: Ha, I didn’t see your Obreht reference before I typed mine. Great minds and all that! In response to your question, I think that so much of folklore and myth is about shapeshifting and fluidity; about metamorphosizing from one state to another (or perhaps, residing somewhere in between the two). This is something I love about Daisy Johnsons books (her short stories Fen or her novel Everything Under), and it’s something I definitely explore in The Butchers’ Blessing, both in terms of gender and sexuality. Regarding the character you’re talking about, he doesn’t necessarily see himself in the legends of his homeland, so he turns to the Greeks, immersing himself in their ancient tales instead. Again, this adds another layer to the novel, and shows how everyone finds their logic – or at least, searches for it, desperately – in a different place, a different set of narratives. I just hope his dreams of escape really do come to pass…
MD/MT: Where did the Butchers come from? What were they originally, if the idea of the Butchers have changed at all as the novel evolved, and what do you feel was necessary to change or reevaluate when shaping the book?
RG: This is a great question, mainly because I’ve been fascinated with how much the Butchers’ source has been discussed – or, more specifically, the question of whether or not they are made up. I like to think of them less as an invention as an amalgamation – when I was researching the novel, I came across so many different traditions and superstitions connected to cattle, most of which I had never heard of before. So I ended up pulling them all together to create this group of eight men known as the Butchers who wander the countryside enacting these ancient practices.
I only discovered really late into the editorial process that my British editor fully thought the Butchers were ‘real’. I suggested tweaking something about them and he looked at me horrified, like ‘you can’t do that.’ So then I explained; he was flabbergasted! But I think it raises all sorts of interesting questions about what is ‘real’ and what is ‘true’ – both in fiction and in folklore – and where we like to draw the line between.
One thing my editor did help me to reevaluate was just how key a role the gender stuff played in the novel – obviously I knew it was there (there was no doubt in my mind that this would have to be a group of eight men, not women), but I hadn’t fully thought through the implications of that, especially for the wives and children of the men involved. That was where some of the novel’s main tensions arose.
MD/MT: My own family is filled with lots of history and lore and curses. On top of being related to the family Tess is supposedly descended from in Thomas Hardy’s famous novel, I have researched that our first English ancestor (we are originally French, if I recall) was known only as the Demon. A lot of this, along with other things like mental illness, which is its own sort of curse, have shaped how I view my world. Do you ever feel like histories of the past, perhaps prophecies, curses, things we are expected to be or do actually shape or limit us as humans in our lives, whether on a daily basis or throughout our lives as a whole?
RG: Wow, that’s amazing! Tess & the Demon would be an excellent title for a family memoir… As mentioned above, I absolutely think these things shape us, for better and for worse. It’s all to do with self-fulfilling prophesies, and this exists on a super micro/intimate scale, and also on a societal one too. We are all raised on comments like ‘people in our family don’t do X’ or ‘little girls don’t do Y’ and so much of one’s life is spent trying to figure out which of those comments are helpful and which are a total hindrance (to put it mildly).
MD/MT: What books shaped you as you grew up, as you became a writer, and as you shaped this novel in general? What books do you feel influenced you the most and what book might The Butchers’ Blessing be in conversation with?
RG: In terms of this novel, the books of Evie Wyld and Sarah Hall were hugely influential. They are both British women who write these strange, dark, elegantly-structured novels steeped in a kind of gothic atmosphere, simmering with feminist rage (the same can also be said of Jesmyn Ward’s masterpieces). In terms of the book being in conversation, I was also hugely conscious of John McGahern and other (male) giants who make up the traditional (male) canon of Irish rural fiction. There is much to admire about these books, but also much to write back against (as showcased best, of course, by the inimitable Edna O’Brien).
MD/MT: What writers do you feel need more recognition, and which novel would you recommend to another writer, a reader, or anyone for any reason—perhaps it’s a favorite novel, or a novel you feel could change the way someone thinks. I always view books as the greatest gift, especially when a person is seriously taken into consideration and the gift giver provides a book they feel matches the recipient perfectly.
RG: I appreciate that I just mentioned her, and I also appreciate that she is hardly an unknown entity, but I really think we should all be shouting Evie Wyld’s name from the rooftops a whole lot more than we currently do. In terms of recent novels, again I know it won a huge award in 2019, but I am still struck by how few people have read Idaho by Emily Ruskovich. I think it is exceptional.
MD/MT: What do you want The Butchers’ Blessing to say to the world? When you look at what you’ve written, this beautiful novel you’ve likely slaved over, if a reader reads the book and enjoys it, what is one thing you hope the reader takes away after finishing the book?
RG: “Wow, you were right – the fact that I’m a vegetarian had zero impact on my enjoyment of this book.’ (I get asked that question an awful lot).
MD/MT: Tananarive Due said recently that in writing a horror novel, she could not write a character who didn’t want to survive, or want something, and actually be successful in writing a great novel or story. While The Butchers’ Blessing isn’t horror, which character do you think wanted something the most, and did you ever find it difficult to separate yourself from the characters and give them obstacles? So many authors I know have such a hard time putting their characters through any sort of hellish experience, which can be detrimental to writing in my opinion.
RG: Not at all, in fact, I sort of struggled with the opposite. As in, I never really thought of this book as weird or dark, partly because I am so in love with my characters that I didn’t really realise that some of the things they do may be considered weird or dark. So for example, I remember giving a really early draft to my husband to read, and he was like ‘do you really think it’s a good idea to have Úna trying to slit a mouse’s throat the very first time we encounter her?’ I was horrified slash mildly offended on her behalf, but I suppose I took his point. Now you get to hang out with her for a little bit first – you get to see the things that have shaped her and the way she is treated by the bullies in school – before she gets out her knife.
MD/MT: You vacillate between POVs so swiftly and cleverly it’s perhaps best done since Egan’s GOON SQUAD. Can you talk to us about the energy and thought put into ordering the timelines and speakers, the voices, and the reasons why the people who spoke were given voices?
What a compliment! Honestly I am obsessed with novels written from multiple perspectives; I love their structural intricacies and also the narrative pleasures that they offer – this can be in terms of the inherent mystery of how on earth the different characters are going to link up, or it can simply be the joy of getting to see the same scenario or relationship from totally different points of view. For the record, despite what some people think, I also find novels like this much easier to write – you get to stay with one character while they’re doing something interesting, and then as soon as it starts to get dull, you can switch. I am terrified by the prospect of just sticking with one character for a whole novel – I have no idea how you would keep things interesting for that long.In terms of choosing which voices would be heard in this novel, it was very important to me from the start that, even though the Butchers were the central premise, I wasn’t actually interested in following them on their travels – I was far more interested in the women and children they left behind. So that’s the reason behind Úna and Grá, a mother and daughter combo, then on the other side you have Davey and Fionn, a father and son combo, which offered a lovely symmetry. The book is so concerned with family and generations and what gets passed down, for better or worse, so the structure mirrors that.
MD/MT: It’s strange how when we were younger, we experienced this Mad Cow Disease issue that scared so many people, although not on the level of this pandemic. At the same time, or around the same time, we see Ireland in this novel and it’s so different, so far away as if we’re centuries away, frozen in our own separate times, like either our present existed or theirs did, but not possibly at the same time. Can you talk to us about the feel you wanted when writing the novel, and how Mad Cow Disease and the myth itself came together, quickly or in a slow evolution?
It’s funny trying to trace a novel back to a precise origin story, but I think for me there were two starting points that ultimately came together. The first, as I mentioned, was a longstanding interest in Irish folklore and the tension between different belief systems in a country that is so often considered just strictly Catholic. The second was a road trip with a friend of mine whose father used to be a farm animal vet. To pass the time, he started telling me all these crazy stories of things his dad had seen over the years, especially around the Mad Cow period. I found them fascinating and also couldn’t believe some of the stuff that was going on during my lifetime to which I had been totally oblivious. So I started to do some research, and then my ideas began to bleed (pun intended) into one another, until eventually The Butchers’ Blessing was born.
MD/MT: When I think of children killing animals, I remember specials on children who torture animals and kill them and turn out to be serial killers later on in life. They’re demented, strange, our abject in so many ways. But I read this novel and I am also transported to where I was supposed to go hunting for game, and when I killed my first deer at 7—something I did not ever enjoy doing—those with me tried to smear deer blood on my face. How do we create rituals to enable children to grow and mature or turn into something monstrous, and do you feel you’re addressing this in The Butchers’ Blessing? In a way, people experience the allure and repulsion of the Butchers, some separately and some simultaneously.
Jesus, that is an intense experience for a 7 year old. This might not be a direct answer to your question, but I think of all the descriptions of this novel (literary thriller, family saga, feminist folklore) the one I like most is ‘coming of age’ story. Because I think that Úna’s coming of age is at the heart of the book, but so is the country’s coming of age, or at least, its fumbled attempts to transition from one thing to another (and here I think your phrase ‘mature or turn into something monstrous’ applies beautifully).
MD/MT: Do you have any books coming out next? Anything to follow this brilliant novel? I know I would love to hear about it, as well as likely all of our readers.
So, further to my confession that single person narratives scare the crap out of me, I decided for the next book to set myself the challenge of doing exactly that. However, to circumnavigate the task a little (it’s nuts the tricks we play on ourselves as writers), I am now writing a novel with just one POV, but which jumps back and forth a lot through time. So it centres on this woman called Emily who is a sculptor and whose mother disappeared when she was a teenager, and who is now trying to decide whether or not to become a mother herself. There’s lots of stuff about art and womanhood and mother-daughter relationships; there’s also stuff about real life artists braided through as well. The working title is Umbilical and I’ve only a written a very rough first draft, but I’m enjoying it, and for now, that is enough.
MD/MT: Thank you so much for joining us to talk about your brilliant book, The Butchers’ Blessing. From start to finish, it’s this brilliant novel, a literary thriller of sorts, a saga and a coming-of-age tale, a novel about love and family and what we own of ourselves and what we have no control over. Thank you for allowing us to pick your brain and we hope you’ll come back from time to time. Please feel free to comment on anything else, and once again, it was such a pleasure reading this book and having the opportunity to experience what will likely become a sensational book read
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Caroline! I’ve been wanting to interview you for a while. I’ve read your previous books and loved them, but Providence seems like a whole new step in your journey as a writer completely. Can you tell me what initially sparked the idea for this book, and how or why you decided to pursue this novel?
Caroline Kepnes: Hi Matthew! I’m so happy to hear that. When I stated Providence, I was coming off two Joe Goldberg books that are all about the horrors of mankind, the danger of phones, books inspired by my fear that Man + technology + ego = oh SHIT! Providence shares the same theme, but it’s different in scope and atmosphere. I chose New England because I was nostalgic for my pre-internet youth. The library was closed at night, so even if there was a book you were dying to read…you had to wait. Technology lifted those boundaries and that change is still wild to me, this 24/7 access to information. By the second draft of Providence it was like okay, these characters are suffering from isolation and a sense of disconnect at a time when we are constantly reminded that we are connected. They would all possibly be better off if they let go of this person they can’t stop thinking about, but it’s not so easy. And that’s messy appealing territory to me. It’s like okay you can delete Facebook but it’s still there, which is horrifying. Yet we go through this pandemic and we’re all like socially distancing like Jon and Chloe and this is no way to live, as we know, and well…I’m happy I wrote that book when I did, when I wanted to because now it’s like…most of us are living like Jon Bronson. And that would for sure change my approach to the story.
MT: I really loved the book. It was refreshingly new and flawlessly written. You write from several different viewpoints here, so one of the first things I want to know, as a writer myself, is how you managed to tackle each of these voices and implement them in the best possible way? I’ve always admired people who write books from different first person POVs, and this certainly did not disappoint.
CK: For me, what makes the Joe books the Joe books is that you are completely restricted to his point of view. There is no escape. It’s as much about that dominating, sole perspective as it as about the story, you know? I want the reader to be stuck in his head and therefore on his side. With Providence, the first thing that came to me was Jon’s voice. Loud and clear and I was so passionate, couldn’t stop writing. But during the first draft, I was like Chloe’s voice came on strong. And the same way Joe had to be just Joe, I knew there could be no Jon without Chloe, without Eggs. I was like, It’s Martyr Wars! Eggs is al ‘Hey you kids have youth on your side. Let me tell you what it’s like to be old!’ I was nervous about this because it was so different from the You structure, but I really do believe that you gotta do the thing that scares you, that keeps you up at night.
MT: What was the hardest part about writing this book? What was the easiest? How many drafts did you go through with Providence, and what was your writing process like?
CK: The hardest part was that I wrote like 150 pages of Jon’s dreams and memories and I can be very stubborn. I did not want to cut those pages. So, I didn’t. I started writing Chloe. And as I was bringing her to life, I realized that I was clinging to the Jon pages because they were a place holder for things I wanted to show from Chloe’s point of view. You do therapy on your book, you know? I was in it with that book. I think I wrote six drafts. The easiest part was Chloe, a breath of fresh air, that and the fact that there are few things I hate more than an indoor fucking pool! And I loved writing about the city. I went to Brown and it was home for me. The Providence scenes were fun, embracing my cringey nostalgia for the slim, intimidating pages of the Dunwich Horror that stumped me in this college horror class where I was more interested in learning all the horrific stuff about Lovecraft. Another hard part was the science. I did so much research and went down so many rabbit holes about photosynthesis and I tried to squeeze it all in and it was like no. None of this goes in the book. This is not that kind of story. This is a sad love story about people who are moving from denial to acceptance of some terrible things that are out of their control. The writing process was emotional. I was so hyper-sensitive that things when I went out. The first time I heard that Hippocampus song “Way It Goes” I was at a concert. I got chills like, that achy and gut busting wailing, that’s my book!
MT: You’ve created books in the past—specifically You and its sequel—that are unlike nearly anything published in the literary industry today. What books influenced you with your previous two books, and what books have influenced Providence? Are there certain authors or books you return to constantly?
CK: Stephen King always and forever because of that intense joy you can feel in his storytelling, like he is so fucking happy to be getting this down on the page for you. That’s a very specific power that has always meant a lot to me. Whatever you want to call it, childlike joy, heat, urgency, it’s that crackling sensation that the person behind these words is locked in. Fucking love that feeling! I always go back to The Street by Ann Petry. Oh that book makes me feel alive and it’s this powerful read-me-now-or-else kind of intensity to her style. I love Anne Tyler, Joyce Carol Oates, Edwidge Danticat, Elizabeth Strout and Phillip Roth. I read Prince lyrics a lot too. And I open random pages of Brian Hiatt’s book about Bruce Springsteen songs. I like lyrics, tiny stories. It helps me figure out the drive in my long stuff to look at tiny divine things. I’m inspired and influenced by things that feel divine, where I catch myself reading something special—the screen door in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” or the drowning in Flesh & Blood or the Whitney Houston part of American Psycho or the racing the blossoming peach passage in Beloved--and I know that I will remember this forever, this work that is so purely from this on person expressing themselves in this powerful specifically them-ish way, is a part of my brain now. I think about that experience and I write my stuff until it feels like it’s a tiny bit closer to maybe just maybe being that way for someone else.
MT: Did you ever find yourself surprised to be writing a book like Providence? How long did it take to write, and did you ever question yourself along the way? What was your favorite part about writing this book, and what was your least favorite part in writing this novel? Was there a particular character’s voice you liked or disliked?
CK: I wasn’t surprised because I’ve always liked to get weird. I wrote a lot of short stories with kooky, unexplainable phenomena, like this one about a children’s librarian who has a freak medical condition where she starts talking about of her vagina. A very short story! I love the weird and I bet a lot of writers would say you do the weird thing that you can’t stop thinking about or else it gnaws at you. I had been doing research, I was in the early thinking stages kind of circling Providence and Nashua, thinking about why Lovecraft was so fucked up, about why Providence is so cool, why New England and horror just go together, but I didn’t have the story. Then one day I was driving into a mall that I hate in LA and I almost had a car accident. I shrieked, it was so close and it was my fault. I was shaking. I heard Jon Bronson in my head and I didn’t go in the mall. I turned around and drove home and wrote the first chapter. In the beginning I also wrote Magnus’s side of the story. The psychopath kidnapper had become my comfort zone, but over two years it was like no, Providence doesn’t need or want his perspective. I have never written a book where I wasn’t questioning myself. Every writing day I go from the high to the low over and over. Climbing out of that low is so often where I figure out how to fix things. As for favorites…I love Crane Coma Florie. And Eggs. There’s a lot of my dad in him, so that was cathartic. And it makes me happy that American Splendor and the Kiwis with the Grown Ups 2 podcast and Hippocampus all made the final draft. I’m really bitchy with myself about the pop culture stuff. It has to prove that it belongs in there or it’s gone!
MT: What do you think, as a genre, of supernatural mysteries and thrillers? What are your favorite examples of these books and what books or authors would you refer new readers to, or writers who are trying to attempt similar books?
CK: I think it’s because of the way my family was, we had every kind of book everywhere all over the house, but I think of the author as the genre, you know? People who read my books can find lists of all the books and authors I mention in my books. Read em! Paul Tremblay and Kim Liggett are two authors who know when to slow down, when to fly. There’s specific magic in the way tense moments play out in their books. Gabino Iglesias draws pictures with words. Wendy Walker is your very smart, intuitive best friend who’s telling you a story and she knows how your mind works. Bassey Ikpi’s memoir is thrilling and supernatural with language and it makes me want her first book of fiction. Alma Katsu’s middle name is atmosphere. Perfect Days by Raphael Montes is so fucking out there that I was a little scared to meet him in person but like most people who write sick stuff, he’s grounded and sweet. Read The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood and let it blow your mind out of ooh…the water! The North Water by Ian MaGuire is a this-is-how-you-write-action book, bleak and meaty. C.J. Tudor books make me feel enthralled in that late night supposed to be sleeping kind of way. The Iain Reid book you know is I’m Thinking of Ending Things and it’s dizzying, terrific. But did you read his nonfiction book The Truth about Luck? It’s about his friendship with his grandmother and it’s exciting to know that these books came from the same brain. I say when you love an author, read all of their stuff and the stuff they go on about too.
MT: How have you felt being praised by not only critics, but by Stephen King himself? When was the moment you knew “I’ve made it”? How has that changed your life and affected the way you not only work, but view the world?
CK: I get to use the word amazing because it is truly amazing to know that Stephen King read your book and was pretty rocked by it. I first had that “made it” feeling when I found out You was being published and then when people started reading it, it was this heavy, slowly building wave of whoa…people are really reacting to Joe. It’s changed my life in the sense that it’s really fucking awesome to have an audience, to have people a few mils away from my home making a TV show based on my books. That’s wild. And then I open my Word document and go back to writing because the one thing that doesn’t change, there is no way around it. You don’t get to be like yay I wrote unless you write. I have an addictive personality and I make sure that the addition continues to be the writing itself. Getting to make stuff up every day for a living is a dream and I’m grateful that I didn’t give up.
MT: Many people view this as a sort of crime novel. I would love to hear who your favorite crime writers are working in the business today—especially women crime writers, as the genre becomes more and more of a woman-centric business.
CK: I just found an advance edition of Laura Lippman’s first book and I read the promotional copy and it was like yes, publisher, you were right to be so excited. You knew what was coming! That jacket copy felt prescient for women in the business of telling tight, insightful stories of violence. There are so many fabulous books out there right now and last year in pre-Covid times, I got to go to Bloody Scotland and meet Lucy Foley and Shari Lapena and Ruth Ware and Sarah Vaughn and many others I admire. And two brilliant women writing great dark things to watch: Ani Katz’s debut A Good Man is phenomenal and taut. I can’t wait to see what she does next. Lindsey Cameron’s Just One Look is coming in 2021. My kind of book. Sick, funny, brilliant with Mike White vibes and just fucking fun.
MT: How do you feel about women in the literary world? To me, it seems like women are progressing forward, if not wholly taking over the industry at this point. More and more women and other marginalized people are getting their chance at grabbing their own piece of the pie or place at the table. How do you feel marginalized people are affecting the literary community in general, and what do you think things will be like in the years to come?
CK: There is a long, embarrassingly overdue sense of change with marginalized people flourishing while certain others who have long been at the table know that they can’t get away with that thing they said or did a few years ago. And that’s good. That’s progress. But it’s also like how are we fucking there yet? I went to high school and college in the 90s. Everyone I knew and respected was reading things written by people who were “different” because of fucking course we wanted to learn about the world. Otherwise, you’re saying only you and people just like you in certain surfacey ways are legitimate and relatable and how gross and sad would that be? What a boring way to live. I’m happy for kids in the “margins” who want to write and be in the business of storytelling because right now, if I were in their shoes, looking at authors shining in the hellscape of 2020, I’d be like wow, that table is looking more reflective of the tables in my daily life all the time and if she can do that, I can do that. So that’s a big win for the future.
MT: You have a very large fan base, and I’m aware that’s an extreme understatement. What has been your favorite reaction to your books, with fans either speaking to you in person, or writing in private? How do you feel you are influencing fans and writers alike, and what would you like to see come from your writing in an effort to change our country or even the world?
CK: I truly don’t know where to begin. Even before my book was published, when there were advanced copies floating around, I was so excited that whatever it was about the book…it was reaching people in this way that made them feel very verbal and enlivened and how cool is that? I buckled down and wrote a book to bring myself and my family back to life after some terrible stuff, and that’s the magic of writing, when the thing that made you feel good as a writer translates into the reader. Yay! I get these notes from people who tell me about why this writing speaks to them, means something to them, got them out of some kind of emotional jam and that’s the best. I love it. I’ve heard from people in recovery, people in abusive relationships. And then I hear from people are into reading because they want to write and my stuff entertained them and now they’re finally writing the thing because they feel empowered. And then there are the people who haven’t read in ages and they could get into something I wrote and now they are back on books and just yayayay you know? I love that electricity. I miss book events. I miss casual conversation because I love those interactions. I miss a balanced life and I can’t wait when being together to celebrate a new book is a thing we can do again. A change I’d like to see…I would love for my books to make people excited about books in general. And also, writing these books makes me super self-aware of the way I am around people, and what I might not know about people I’m interacting with. So I hope that it’s that way for readers, that when they close one of my books and go back into the world with all the real people, they are a little more hyper sensitive to the mysteries of humans.
MT: Speaking of our country, which of your books might you recommend to the current president of the United States of America? What book by another writer—or story, poem or poetry collection, essay or essay collection, etc—might you recommend to the president, and could you explain why? What do you think he would learn from these pieces?
CK: I think a lot of people would agree when I say that we are done trying to reach that man. Next!
MT: What is a dream book you’ve always wanted to write, or have you already written it? Is there a certain genre or book you’d like to make, and are there any genres you’d like to mix together? Toni Morrison, among other luminaries, has said write the book you want to read. What book do you want to read, and will you write it?
CK: That Tonti Morrison quote is so important. You was not the first book I ever wrote, but it was the first time I was like fuck it, no more trying to sound like an “author”. I was always me in my short stories, but I had the novel on a pedestal and I got self-conscious when I thought about a novel. And then with You it was like fuck it. That quote about writing originally, that advice I’m always drunk raving about, it’s time to put that into daily practice and be totally engaged and expressive in and yes, sometimes, embarrassed about what I am doing right now. Now, it’s a daily wellness check with the work in progress. I make sure that I am writing the book I want to read as I write it, and I am happy to say that right now, that book is You 4.
MT: How does the revising process work for you? In addition, how did obtaining an agent and working through the literary industry turn out for you? Have you found yourself traveling down an easy road to publication and later praise and much success, or has it been a long battle hard-won?
CK: I feel like you can’t do this if you don’t learn to enjoy rejection in all its forms and use it to grow and get better. I write every book a few times, and often my editor will do that brilliant thing of knowing what worked in the first draft, what I need to pull out of the second draft and so on. It’s like you make one part of it sing and then you want everything to sing like that but sometimes you get carried away and try too hard. And that’s where editors are gold. I have always had the same approach since I was a teenager. I put my head down and work as hard as I can and write and write and write. And then I lift my head up and reach out to everyone I’ve ever known like CAN YOU READ THIS RIGHT NOW. I’m not exaggerating. In high school I entered the Sassy Magazine fiction contest. I was obsessed with the magazine and I called 411 to get the phone number and cold called an editor to interview her for my high school newspaper…and ask if she read my short story yet. Such a little asshole, yes, but I feel like you got to have some Tracy Flick in you to get somewhere. I got an honorable mention and a typewriter in that contest, but the real prize of course was the positive reinforcement for light stalking AKA networking, journalizing. Years later in LA, I was a journalist and after the interview I would shut off my tape recorder and be like Hey do you want to read my script? Eventually I got an agent through a friend of a friend. It can’t be said enough: If you want to be a writer you have to write a lot. And I heard the word no a lot. Most people do. That’s where it’s always good to be in this because you love doing it more than you love hearing the word yes.
MT: What is the most difficult thing about writing, whether in the actual creative process or editing, or what might follow?
CK: Not writing is the most difficult and necessary part of writing. When I’m full steam ahead and up a 7 like super in it and productive and then it’s 1 PM and there are so many hours ahead and the fucking sun shines and I feel too only half on the planet to drive and my brain is buzzing and I go be a human but soon, no matter how good things are going, the panic comes that tomorrow morning I will wake up and not be able to do what I did in the morning and the whole not writing part of the day can be a bit long and gritty especially in these solitary times. Fun cycle!
MT: What’s next for you, Caroline? You’ve got a big TV show in the works with a trailer already set up, and you seem to be churning out books quite quickly. What is the next book (or otherwise) you’re planning on writing?
CK: It is so nice to hear you say that because it doesn’t feel quick to me, you know? So, thank you! I am just tweaking my first draft of the fourth You book. It’s due this month and then I’ll take a breath and go back to a book I put aside a couple years ago. It was a luxury for me that I got to put that draft in a drawer and let it sit there while I worked on the books. It’s really hitting me that wow, I wrote a couple drafts of that book and now we get to have a reunion!
MT: Thank you so much for speaking to me, Caroline. It has been an immense pleasure not only to be able to ask you questions, but to read and become an enormous fan of your books. Please leave us with any thoughts, comments, suggestions, remarks, or otherwise. We love hearing from you, and look forward to hearing anything you might have to say in the future.
CK: Thank you so much, Matthew. It’s a pleasure to talk with a fellow writer. I thank you so much for reading my work and having such interesting things to say. I can’t wait to talk again, which is more motivation to keep writing, so thanks for that too!
Matthew Turbeville: Micah, I love love love These Violent Delights and really think it’s so thought provoking and really opens up a lot of room for discourse, discussion, and understanding. Can you talk to me about the concept and development of the novel? What was your writing, rewriting, and revision process like?
Micah Nemerever: Thank you! I’m so happy to talk with you.
I’d been playing with similar plot ideas to These Violent Delights for a very long time, since I was a teenager myself, but nothing quite gelled until I conceived these particular characters in about 2011. I spent a lot of time doing written doodles about them, and I thought I had a handle on how to turn them into a book—and then I started writing my MA thesis concurrently and I learned that no, actually, I had no idea how longform writing worked. Then I started drafting the book in earnest in 2013, still with only a hazy idea of what I was doing. I had to teach myself how to write a novel by trial and error. The first draft took three years, and then I rewrote it almost from scratch, which took another year and a half. It was a long, long process, and I’ve had these characters in my head for so long that I’m a little bereft to be done with their story. I was obsessed with them. I could never have finished the book if I wasn’t.
I actually found the second draft to be more enjoyable than the first, even though it was more technically difficult. (Or maybe that wasthe reason. I do like a challenge.) I had to get the first draft out to see what shape the book ought to be—partly by looking at a lot of the first draft and going “god, nope, the opposite of this.” Analyzing the first draft also helped me pick out the plot and character threads that didn’t quite integrate with each other at that point, but that had the potential to do so. The second draft was an incredibly fulfilling experience, because I got to take this absolutely chaotic first draft and impose order on it. Which sounds a little megalomaniacal now that I say it.
MT: This book is clearly influenced in part by books like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, but I’d love to hear about your own influences, what books really have spoken to you over the years, led you to These Violent Delights, and which books and authors you feel are undervalued and need to be read more.
MN: I’ve realized that my influences run a little older, which feels really appropriate for TVD, since it’s sort of an old-fashioned book in many ways. Patricia Highsmith was a massive influence, both on the pervasive fraught queerness and on the way I structured and paced the plot. I spent a lot of time thinking about The Picture of Dorian Gray—that intersection of gay desire and erudite aesthetics and moral crisis. Brideshead Revisited is definitely threaded through TVD in many ways, as is Wuthering Heights. Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman influenced me a lot during revisions in particular—it may be my all-time favorite book, and ever since I read it I’ve been yelling at basically everyone I know that they need to read it too. (Speaking of which, you should read Hangsaman, it’s queer and beautiful and devastating.)
Then there are the nonfiction influences, because I went to grad school, god help me. Nietzsche, Foucault, even some of the psychoanalytic theory around dialectical identity formation. And at one point in TVD Julian tells Paul that “Arendt is mandatory,” which feels more true every day.
MT: The book deals so heavily with issues of homosexuality and culture years ago and now. I love when the protagonist thinks about touching the objects belonging to a homophobic person, somehow tainting them out of spite. I have always felt the same way—like I’m somehow tainted by being gay. What do you think this book says about homosexuality, queerness, and how it fits in the crime canon?
MN: I really enjoyed working out Paul’s acceptance of being gay—it’s a process he never quite completes, but he shifts away from his insecurity and resigned self-disgust early in the book, and ends up becoming sort of defiant. He’s so alienated from the outside world already, and I think his eventual resentment of heteronormativity is a natural extension of that. I especially love that scene you mentioned, because it’s so rooted in the defiance he’s embraced. He’s this queer working-class Jewish kid surrounded by rich WASPs at an awful party, and he knows they think his very presence contaminates them, so he just runs with it. Adopting this fuck-you attitude toward heteronormativity is one of the positive developments Paul’s character undergoes in the book—and god knows most of his character development doesn’t take him in good directions. I’m proud of him for growing in this way, especially in a time when homophobia was even more prevalent than it is now.
Julian is an interesting case because he’s one of those gay kids who never really had the option of being in the closet, even in an environment with lower awareness that homosexuality even exists. Everyone around him kind of knows, even if they don’t know they know. He moves through the world as an obvious outsider, and he has to maintain his physical safety by playing it off as enigmatic superiority rather than letting people identify his queerness as the thing that makes him different. I think he’s defiant from the start, because he has to be.
MT: There’s a sort of love story in the novel—and I wonder, looking at the relationship between the two main characters, if you think love or obsession plays more into crime fiction and in this novel, or if it’s more complicated than that?
MN: I think for Paul and Julian, love is inextricable from obsession. Paul in particular puts Julian on a pedestal, and aspires to become him to the point of wanting to merge with him—there’s a pattern of imagery in his internal monologue about devouring him, dissecting him, so that he can understand him perfectly enough to absorb him. For various reasons at this point in his life he doesn’t know how to love without grasping too tight. And I think Julian enjoys the fact that Paul is obsessed with him. When I was planning the book, one of the things I wanted most was to tell a story about sincere love. Their deepest flaws feed off each other, but so do their best traits. But the boys are both seventeen in the worst way—and Paul is coping with a lot of recent severe trauma that has affected his ability to trust anyone, much less someone as mercurial as Julian is. So it’s a greedy, selfish love.
MT: Going back to issues with homosexuality, how do you think queerness adds to issues of desperation and obsession, and do you think this can be remedied in society and literature? Do you think this is a part of why and how the novel plays out?
MN: Oh, absolutely—especially for Paul. He’s at the age where he’s desperately trying to form an identity for himself, and he can’t see any healthy archetypes that he can model himself after. He has all these self-improvement projects that he uses to try and shape himself into a functional person, but he has no clear vision of what that would look like. It’s this aimless, desperate grasping for something, anything, he can use to anchor himself as a person. Julian is the first queer person he’s ever knowingly met, and he’s so adrift that he clings to Julian’s model of personhood with both hands.
It’s obviously an ongoing problem in real life, even now, and I don’t think the solution is as simple as offering queer role models. Paul would be alienated from a “role model” for the same reason I was as a teen—a positive role model might endure external hardships, but it doesn’t give you a way to account for internal weakness and vulnerability, especially the kind of anger you feel as a lonely teenager. Paul is drawn to Julian not just for his apparent wholeness and confidence as a queer person, but also for his disdain for mainstream society. Shaping himself after Julian is a way to accept his own anger—the problem in this particular case is that Julian doesn’t lead that anger in a healthy direction, and their relationship encourages Paul to become more and more angry rather than try to process it.
MT: What was your biggest struggle writing this novel, and what did you delight most in writing this novel?
MN: The thing I struggled with most was pacing. I had no instinct for it when I started writing. I had to develop an instinct through close study of books whose pacing I admired, and a lot of absolutely ruthless culling of segments of TVD that didn’t advance plot or character enough to justify their presence. I don’t believe in universal writing advice, and I love a lot of books with unconventional or even nonexistent pacing—but for me, and for the kind of writing I do, I have to maintain pacing by deciding that every single scene needs to either move the plot forward or reveal crucial character development. (Both, ideally.) There were so many scenes in the first draft that I loved for various reasons, but they didn’t meet the parameters, so they ended up on the guillotine. Especially for a fairly long book, there was no way to maintain the necessary mood and tension without being merciless with myself. I think it gave me a much better sense of pacing for my future projects, but it was hard-won, and I had to be truly terrible at it for a long time.
The things I enjoyed writing most were arguments and confrontations, which is one reason pacing was so crucial. I love writing moments where the tension snaps and everything finally boils over. Those are some of my favorite scenes in the book, and for different reasons all of them were exhilarating and shattering to write. But they are absolutely reliant on the rest of the book maintaining its momentum, and I had to kill a lot of darlings to ensure that those key scenes could be the payoff moments they deserved to be.
MT: In your own words, why do you think These Violent Delights had to be written? What do you hope readers take away from this novel?
MN: Honestly, so much of the reason TVD was written was that I was using it to process the memory of my own teenage anger. Especially how guilty and afraid I was about feeling anger at all—because I grew up in the Columbine generation, hearing from all angles that being angry or misanthropic or bitter about bullying made you a physical threat to the people around you. I could never understand the mass-shooter kind of violence, even at my angriest. But I still believed that my feeling rage at all was dangerous somehow, because society told me it was, and I was obsessed with the fear that under the right circumstances I too might become violent.
The protagonists of TVD have motives that my adolescent self would actually have understood—I felt love with the same gut-deep intensity that I felt anger, and in some ways it felt just as dangerous. Paul and Julian represent a kind of violence I feared I was capable of (though now I don’t think that I really was). Writing TVD was a way of processing those fears in retrospect, through these two characters that I came to love deeply and view with intense compassion. What they drive each other to do is monstrous, obviously—but I love them, in a way I was never capable of loving myself as a teenager, and writing the book helped me look back on my younger self with more empathy than I did before.
Writing the book was a cathartic and very personal experience, and until pretty late in the game I didn’t think it had much chance of being published at all. But it has turned out to resonate with readers who experienced similar anger or similar toxic relationships, and this is so touching and humbling that I can’t begin to articulate how it makes me feel. I hope the book can provide some readers with a similar catharsis to the kind I experienced while writing it. I hope they come away loving the characters as much as I do, even though what they do is unforgivable.
MT: Beyond college being a place of self-discovery, of freedom, what about the campus setting and the college life allows for crime to occur?
MN: For Paul and Julian, at least, I think college offers a rarefied environment that turns tangible moral reckonings into abstract theory—an opportunity to be performatively intellectual. The boys do have different levels of understanding about the degree to which moral theory affects the real world; Paul is attuned to systemic injustice in a way Julian has never had to be. But there are a lot of other ethical thought exercises that follow them home from the lecture hall without ever becoming quite real to them, and a lot of the decisions they make are rooted in theory rather than in real-world consequences. And of course they are both privileged to attend college at all, especially at a point in history where this wasn’t yet just the expected thing to do after high school—I think a lot of campus crime novels, this one included, are suffused with that privilege and the sense of intellectual superiority it can impart.
MT: Was this book a reflection on any other experiences in your own life? You don’t have to explain explicitly but I keep reading the book over and over and think, “God I’ve felt this” and “God, I’ve thought this,” and, “YES QUEEN I HAVE BEEN THERE.” Is there anything you’d like to talk about how reality might affect creativity?
MN: There’s definitely a lot of lived experience in there. I was, shall we say, a very specific kind of teenager—there’s actually a lot of my adolescent self in both the boys (Paul’s misanthropy and insecurity, Julian’s bitter pretentiousness). And I think a lot of queer people had a formative young adult relationship where they yearned to become the other person as much as they desired them. You just want to merge with them, maybe eat them a little bit. It’s a raw vulnerability that opens you up to an incredible amount of pain. So much of being a young queer person is grasping for an identity in a world that pretends you don’t even exist, and it makes you so susceptible to a certain kind of toxic codependency, especially if the other person encourages your worst instincts.
I don’t want to let my younger self off the hook here. I think that as imbalanced as the power dynamics can be in this kind of relationship, there is culpability on both sides for what you choose to do to impress each other. The real-world consequences in my own situation were minimal, mostly just interpersonal fallout. But I know I brought out the worst in this other person, even though I idolized them. The situation gave me a glimpse of the worst parts of myself, a capacity to be cruel that I then worked hard to grow out of.
TVD is in many ways a reckoning with the messed-up kid I used to be. The book ramps up that teenage cruelty until it reaches this catastrophic intensity, a worst-case scenario of what a toxic romantic friendship can become. And I love the characters so deeply, despite the terrible things that they do, that writing the book gave me a lot of retrospective compassion both for my teenage self and for the other person in that relationship. We were both such a mess, and our worst qualities fed off each other. I’m glad we never killed a man, at least—small favors.
MT: Do you think the novel could have taken another direction? Do you think there could have been a different outcome or ending?
MN: It took me a long time to settle on the book’s ending, which is funny, because in retrospect it feels like the only possible outcome for these characters and the choices they make. I went through so many other ending ideas, and none of them felt quite right until I landed on this one. They all felt rushed, or pat, or like they didn’t develop the characters as much as they deserved. This is the only ending that felt right, and it’s honestly one of my favorite parts of the book.
MT: Heartbreak is a blazing fury of sorts, and I can imagine the disastrous and disturbing ways I could act under circumstances, as well as other people too. I can’t decide what kind of heartbreak would cause me to act the most violently, most catastrophically, but I am so interested in your thoughts on this issue.
MN: One of the things I always need to know about a character—and this was especially important to this book—is what they fear most on an emotional level. Especially if a character is going to have a fatal flaw, for me it has to be rooted in that deepest fear. Without getting too deep into plot details, both Paul and Julian have weaknesses that stem from their most profound fears, and it is this fundamental frailty that propels them toward violence. In TVD’s case, the question I asked myself was how each character could be hurt by the other in a way that would hit them on a primal level.
It’s trickier to be introspective about this, since self-analysis is so different from building an imaginary human being from scratch. But for me, I think, the most dangerous kind of heartbreak would be a loved one being disgusted by the vulnerability I had trusted them with, and using it against me out of contempt. This is highly specific for a reason, and the times I’ve experienced it were the times I felt most as if my anger would destroy something fundamental about me. A lot of people react similarly to romantic infidelity, or to different varieties of emotional abuse. What I fear most is being regarded with contempt by someone I trust. Everyone has a type of intimate betrayal that would hurt them more than any other, and I think those are the moments that introduce the most primal volatility.
MT: If you had to sit at a dinner table with four authors to talk about your novel (and maybe theirs too, but most specifically yours) who would you choose, and why would you choose them? Would you hope to learn from them, to teach them, to just engage in conversation? Living or dead!
MN: Oh gosh, I’m always so bad at this question because I’d also want the authors to like me personally. (This is why Patricia Highsmith is not invited, because she was notoriously cranky and I’d absolutely get on her nerves.)
I’ve always felt Oscar Wilde would be a fantastic dinner guest, though, and there’s definitely a bit of Dorian Gray running through TVD. Emily Brontë might be fun, because Heathcliff and Cathy were hugely formative to my interest in obsessive love stories—I know she’d probably glower at me suspiciously all through dinner, but I don’t think I’d take it too personally in that case. Shirley Jackson would be fabulous, mostly because I want to vibrate with emotions at her about Hangsaman. And I would love to talk with Donna Tartt about how class aspiration functions in her work—in The Secret History, certainly, but also in The Goldfinch. We have very different approaches to class dynamics, and my use of class in TVD was partly in conversation with hers, so it would be an interesting discussion.
MT: is there a new work in progress? How long do we have to wait before another great and brilliant book from you?
MN: I have a few things in development, and I’m looking forward to diving into them in earnest once all the (wonderful, terrifying) publication chaos dies down. One project started out as a novella but is turning into a short novel. It’s a queer love story between two troubled teenagers, though it otherwise doesn’t have much overlap with TVD—it’s sort of literary horror, set during the late Bush years, so there are a lot of themes around class and religion and internalized homophobia. And body horror, because that’s how I roll, apparently.
The other novel is going to be a beast. “Going to try to keep it under 700 pages,” that kind of beast. It’s set in the eighties and has a lot of thematic undercurrents around the AIDS epidemic and political paranoia, which feels increasingly more timely, unfortunately. It’s about an insular family of chess prodigies—it has a timeline of about a decade and an ensemble cast, so it’s got a lot going on. (The outline is four pages in Excel, god help me.) I’m really excited for this project, but it’s hugely ambitious, and I want to do something tighter and squirmier before I scale up in such a big way.
MT: Micah, thank you so much for letting me interview you. This book is going to shake the world. I sure hope so. And I hope you loved talking with us. Please leave us with any lingering thoughts, questions, ideas, input. I am so thankful to get to talk to you and I wish you the best with this book. It’s lightning.
MN: The pleasure in all mine. I’m so excited for the book to make its way into the world, and I’m so glad it resonated with you.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, David. I think that I have always been fascinated with other cultures, other people (not necessarily of different races, but really anyone who isn’t like me), and I’m so happy that especially in the crime community we are beginning to spread out and people who aren’t white men are able to have a voice. Your voice is especially strong, riveting—I can’t get over your book. It’s an astounding tour de force that tackles so many issues so elegantly while also keeping us glued to the page, wondering what will happen to Virgil and the people around him. Can you tell me a little bit about your background with writing and how you got started as an author?
David Heska Wanbli Weiden: Well, I’m just so deeply honored by your words and your praise for Winter Counts. I’m thrilled that you liked Virgil and Marie’s story! As for my start in creative writing, I’ve always been obsessed by literature, even as a little kid. I grew up in a pretty impoverished family in a rough neighborhood in Denver, and we didn’t even have a library anywhere near us. But, we had a Bookmobile that came to my elementary school every Friday afternoon. I’d check out around eight or nine books, and tear through all of them that week before returning to get more the following Friday. I knew, even then, that I wanted to be a writer. But I didn’t have the framework or resources to understand how to do that, as neither of my parents graduated from college. Watching my family get torn apart due to a lack of money, I made the career choices that so many poor kids make—be cautious, get educated in a field that pays decently, don’t take risks. For me, that meant getting trained as a lawyer and then moving to teaching at a college. But, about ten years ago, I decided to go ahead and follow my dream, even if it was fifteen years too late. I enrolled in the MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, studied there for three semesters, and later transferred to the brand-new MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico. These schools gave me the tools that I needed to learn my craft, and I was fortunate to sign with a literary agent—the amazing Michelle Brower—during my last semester of my MFA program. Michelle was wonderful in helping me revise and shape Winter Counts and then finding the perfect home for it with Ecco/HarperCollins.
MT: What were the novels you read that were your truly formative novels? What novels do you feel shaped you and your writing and your writing style? What novels and novelists (and really all writers) do you read today and love and recommend to our readers?
DHWW: As a kid, I loved genre fiction immensely. Science fiction, crime, horror—anything that told a compelling story and kept me glued to the page. In college, I drifted away from genre work and began reading literary fiction exclusively: John Updike, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Don DeLillo. I always loved Louise Erdrich’s books and have reread some of them five times or more (The Round House!) I should also note that I recently had the privilege to meet her and she’s one of the nicest and kindest people around, and I’m tremendously honored that she provided a blurb for Winter Counts. Anyway, the return to genre fiction for me came when I read Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. That book absolutely blew me away, and I realized that a writer could tell an amazing story while developing complex characters and exploring challenging themes. Today, we’re blessed with so many talented writers who combine a page-turning story with terrific prose, imagery, and characters. A few writers I’d recommend are Benjamin Percy, Attica Locke, Craig Johnson, C.J. Box, Lou Berney, Steph Cha, Brandon Hobson, Stephen Graham Jones, James A. McLaughlin, and T.C. Boyle. I’m lucky in that I’ve been able to meet a good number of those authors, and I can tell you that they are not only terrific writers, but great people as well.
MT: Why did you decide to write Winter Counts? It’s such an important novel in so many ways, a book that is so entertaining, but in many ways timeless, and I have to wonder when you decided, Yes, it is necessary for me to write this book now. Not when you had the idea, although feel free to elaborate on that too, but when you decided the book was necessary.
DHWW: Winter Counts was originally a short story that I wrote way back in 2011. I published it in the magazine Yellow Medicine Review in 2014, but the character of Virgil stayed with me. To be honest, I was somewhat scared at the idea of writing a whole novel based on these characters, but the idea just grew larger and larger in my head until I decided that it was time to expand the characters and the themes. Part of my decision to finally sit down and write the novel was the increasing amount of drug abuse occurring on the Rosebud Reservation. There are many, many houses on the reservation that are abandoned because they’ve been used as meth houses. I hope this book can shed some light on the broken criminal justice system on many reservations today as well as the scourge of narcotic addiction that’s destroying so many lives in Indian country.
MT: Were there any parts of the novel particularly hard to write about? I know some authors get particularly attached to their protagonists—I’m guilty to that—and it’s hard for us to make them suffer and provide obstacles for them to overcome (although somedays, when we’re pissed off, we’re ready to throw all the obstacles their way). How do you feel about Virgil, and how did you develop him as such a tough character with an amazing voice?
DHWW: Thank you for those kind words! I love the character Virgil, and the hardest part for me to write was his backstory—his tragedies and missteps. But I knew this was necessary to depict, so that he could move forward with his character arc. As for his voice, I did what so many writers do—like an actor, I tried to channel his worldview, his mannerisms, and his style into a distinctive cadence and perspective, and I hope I succeeded.
MT: I normally save this question for last, but do you have a work-in-progress currently, and will we see more of Virgil and his world? I really need to know this.
DHWW: Yes, I’m happy to share that there will be a sequel to Winter Counts, also published by Ecco. I have the broad outline of the story but am filling in the gaps right now. Stay tuned! Also in the works is a collection of essays on Native American issues. Although fiction is my first love, I really enjoy creative nonfiction as well, and I’ve published a few essays, most recently a piece—“Carlisle Longings”--in the literary magazine Shenandoah, which is about my grandmother’s time at the infamous Carlisle Indian School. I’ve also written a children’s book, Spotted Tail, and hope that I can write another one of those as well.
MT: I won’t ask big questions about the country or world, but what do you hope readers take away from the novel outside of an incredibly immersive reading experience? Why would you recommend the book to people outside of being entertaining?
DHWW: This is such a great question. Outside of (hopefully) being a page-turner, my desire is that readers will take away some knowledge about the shameful political situation on many reservations, where the federal authorities are refusing to prosecute a huge number of criminal cases, resulting in violent offenders being released with no punishment at all. And beyond that, I hope that readers learn about the incredible resiliency and character of the Sicangu Lakota people. Our nation is not often depicted in fiction, and I hope I’ve done justice in my portrayal, showing the humor, generosity, and spirit of the Burnt Thigh people.
MT: I’m queer, and when I was younger I read that—I believe—it was Michael Cunningham who said he didn’t want to be called a “gay writer” or “queer writer.” Do you think there’s a danger in being grouped into a certain type of author, or a certain group of authors, or do you think it’s effective and positive to be categorized this way? In my mind, there might be pros and cons.
DHWW: This is an interesting question, and I’m not sure that I completely fit in any one group. I know that I’m viewed as a Native writer by some, but I also get tagged as a crime writer and a children’s book author by others. And there are some folks who only know my academic writing and aren’t even aware that I write fiction. I don’t really mind any of these labels, as I use my experiences as an American Indian, lawyer, professor, and father to inform all of my work. I suppose the danger is that bookstores may not know where to shelve Winter Counts, a literary thriller set on the Rosebud Reservation. Should it go in the Native American, crime, or literary sections? My suspicion is that most will put it in crime, which is completely fine with me. Those are my people!
MT: I remember at one point you talk about Sioux vs Lakota, and to me it seems like so much about culture, the needs of a group of people, and the ways we relate to others can be lost in translation (especially when we don’t want to participate in learning about others). Do you think, in the novel, any of Virgil’s troubles relate directly to this idea of being lost in translation, or hearing what we (white people) want to hear? Did you ever feel pressured to write a novel not for you, but a book that white people would want to hear, like when Marie says “Sioux” instead of “Lakota”?
DHWW: Wow! I’m so thrilled you picked up on that. Virgil is an iyeska, which is a Lakota slur for half-breed. He exists in several different worlds but doesn’t always feel that he fits in anywhere. As a writer, I relate to this same dynamic, of course. I definitely struggled over how much context I should provide for non-Native readers, and whether our internal divisions and problems would be of interest to anyone who’s not Lakota. In the end, I decided that I would write as truthfully as I could about Native life while also being respectful and positive. I did make several decisions early on, such as the choice that my main character would not be an alcoholic, as I didn’t want to feed those stereotypes. In the novel, Virgil acknowledges past problems with liquor, but he doesn’t take a drink in the book.
MT: What or who do you feel is missing from the crime community, or literary community as a whole? What do you want to see written, and who do you feel needs to be heard more?
DHWW: I think it’s an amazing time for the crime fiction community. There are so many formerly marginalized voices that are now being heard. I’m a member of the group Crime Writers of Color, and it is filled with established and emerging writers who are telling stories in a new way and from new perspectives. And not just in crime, but there are wonderful new writers in various genres across the board, not to mention the explosion of talent in literary realism from new voices. I hope that this trend continues and becomes the new normal. As for what still needs to be heard, I’m hoping to read more crime fiction from emerging Native writers. There are nearly 600 Native nations in the United States, each with a different history and perspective, and I hope those unique stories get told.
MT: I ask this question a lot, but it’s often attributed to Toni Morrison, this quote about how you should write the novel you’ve always wanted to read but have never found. Do you feel you have written this novel, or do you feel it’s still to come?
DHWW: I’m a huge fan of character-driven crime fiction, and there haven’t been many of those written by Native authors or set on the Rosebud Reservation. So, I do feel that I wrote the book I set out to write, although it took me a while to get there. I’m happy with the way Winter Counts turned out, and I have a whole lot of people to thank for that. My agent Michelle Brower, my editors Zack Wagman and Helen Atsma, and all the folks who read early drafts, especially Ramona Ausubel, Ben Percy, Danya Kukafka, and my patient workshop colleagues at the Tin House Summer Workshop and the Voices of Our Nations conference. Of course, we’re always growing as writers, and I hope that I’ll be able to address some new issues and themes in my future work. For example, my young son Sasha was, sadly, present at a school shooting in May of 2019. He had to huddle in a closet and listen to gunfire just two classrooms away. Although he thankfully wasn’t injured, this was incredibly traumatic for my family, and I’m planning to write some nonfiction exploring this event.
MT: Was there ever a scene, a chapter, or an issue with the book that made you want to quit writing the book and move on to something else? What obstacles do you face as an author usually, whether it be creative, referring to the plot, an editing issue, or anything else?
DHWW: No, I never wanted to quit writing the book—it was a lot of fun! The toughest part of the entire process came near the end, when my editor at Ecco requested that I cut about 10,000 words from the manuscript. It was genuinely painful to lose entire scenes, but the book does read better now, so I’m grateful I was pushed in that way. And who knows, maybe I’ll be able to bring some of that material back. . .
MT: I’m really obsessed with your novel. I talk about it all the time, and I recommend it to everyone, and once I get more money, I’ll be preordering the book as gifts for holidays and birthdays for everyone. I want to thank you for letting me interview you. It’s such a privilege. Feel free to talk about any lingering thoughts, ideas, or anything else we didn’t cover but thank you so much again for the interview. I really am glad this book exists, and I’m glad you exist, and I can’t wait to read more from you.
DHWW: Thank you again for these great questions. I’m really appreciative that you read my words and that they resonated with you. We are lucky to have you in the crime fiction community!
Interview with Kelli Jo Ford
Matthew Turbeville: I’m so excited to get to talk with you about your novel, Crooked Hallelujah. First, what a brilliant title. Can you explain or hint at what the title means, and maybe how the book came to you, and briefly what you feel the book is about?
Kelli Jo Ford: Thank you so much, Matthew. I really appreciate you reading the book and giving me the chance to talk about it. The title was one of those things that just sort of came to me early on and always felt right. I was open to other titles, but none ever settled in my gut the way that this one did.
The book came about as a group of characters connected to a place that I couldn’t seem to stop writing about. I was writing stories, one after another, and they kept coming from the same town(s). Eventually it became clear that I was writing something with a larger narrative, and I decided to focus on this family of women, where they are from and where they end up. I think I was always interested in writing about place as much as people.
MT: Who are some of the authors and what are some of the books which helped shape you in your formative years? What are the books you feel have spoken to you recently, and are there any authors or novels you feel are overlooked or underappreciated and need to be more widely read? Feel free to give as many shout outs as you’d like!
KJF: As an undergrad at Loyola, Christopher Chambers directed my honors thesis. I’d never taken a class with him, but he kind of understood what I was trying to do right away. (I certainly didn’t at the time!) He gave me a wonderful list of books to read, a list of books that emphasized place, about people from rural areas, books totally changed who and what I thought literature was supposed to be about. I can’t even remember what all was on that list, in part because some of those books have become so engrained in my life. One book that I know came from Chris is The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. That book was really influential. I studied those stories off and on for years and may not have ever come across it had it not been for a good teacher who took some time to see me.
I returned to Love Medicine again and again while writing Crooked Hallelujah. For me, that book is perfect in its form. I love the short story, probably first and foremost. But I also love the way that Erdrich wove together this epic tale of people and place, using beautifully rendered short stories as fiber.
I went back to Dylan Landis’s Normal People Don’t Live Like This, a linked collection, pretty often through the years. I loved the way she was able to enter the lives and minds of the girls she wrote about and capture their culture and city in doing so. I love that book, but I haven’t heard many people talking about it.
To be honest, I have really struggled to both read and write since February. The last books I read and couldn’t put down were Miriam Toews’ Women Talking, Lily King’s Writers & Lovers, and
Megan Giddings’ Lakewood. There’s so much going on right now, but 2020 is such an exciting year for fiction. Already, we’ve had extraordinary debut novels by Alexandra Chang, Z. Pam Zhang, and Megha Majumdar. Soon we’ll be graced with books like Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden, Inheritors by Asako Serizawa, and Shruti Swamy’s A House Is a Body. I feel sure these books will find their readers. I’m definitely cheering for them.
MT: What is your writing process like—time of day, how you write (longhand, computer, etc), do you have anything necessary for a great writing experience and environment others may not anticipate or readily guess?
KJF: Before I became a mom, I wrote in long, obsessive stretches. I might not write for a while, then I’d sort of catch fire, and fit whatever I was working on into every available moment and many that weren’t available at all. I don’t have the time to work that way anymore, of course. And, honestly, I’m still learning how I write as a mom. I try to get up early and make that time sacred. But I don’t really sleep much now, so even if I get up early (easy if you’re already awake!), I find that I struggle to get much done. I guess I’m better in the afternoons, but that time is not really available to me. What I am saying is: I am having a hard time writing.
MT: Where do you think Native Americans currently stand in American literature? Sure, we have Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich, and they’re wonderful staples, but who do you think is shaping up to be the next great voice for Native Americans, and do you think room is even being made for the entry of new voices? Minorities can be silenced often even when stories, like your novel, are so essential and need to be told.
KJF: It seems like a few doors have opened to some extent, and some really great Native writers are getting an opportunity to publish books that reach a wide audience. It is a good thing that when I think of the list of folks I’d like to shout out, it gets so long that I know I’ll leave people out.
However, I don’t really feel equipped to say where Native Americans stand in literature. For one, that’s a really big question, and I’m not a scholar. And two, I’d refer people to the work that people like Erika T. Wurth is doing. Giants like David Treuer.
I don’t think any of us should have to carry the weight of being the next great literary voice for Native Americans! I hope Native writers have the opportunity to write the stories we are called to write and that those stories can stand (or fall) on their own as literature.
MT: You write through multiple points of view and you delve deep into the brains of these people, never sugarcoating anything. How hard was this, both structurally and emotionally?
KJF: Structurally, it was hard to figure out how to best tell the larger story of the book. I wasn’t always set on a chronological order. However, as I worked on revisions with my agent, it became clear (through no small amount of convincing on his part!) that chronological was the best way
to help orient readers in the multitude of voices and points of view. Emotionally, there were definitely sections that were tough. I had a hard time, for instance, during the early stories when Reney is witnessing violence. It took me a while to revise those and get them right as a result. Writing “Consider the Lilies” broke my heart more than once.
MT: What was the hardest part about writing this novel, and how long did it take you to complete it? I know most authors have a moment like this so I’ll just ask: was there ever a point where you thought you’d given up, and if so, what part of the book almost did you in?
KJF: The hardest parts were figuring out where the book started, which stories to include and cull, and how to order the stories. As for how long I worked on it, the short answer “is a long time!” The longer one is that it’s hard to say. As I sort of mentioned above, I didn’t realize I was writing a book and certainly not this book for quite some time. I would say I worked on what became the book for well over ten years. I really intentionally worked on this book for at least eight years.
I don’t think I ever seriously thought about giving up. There was at least one long stretch after grad school when I felt burned out by writing in general and wasn’t sure I understood how to approach it anymore. I took a long break, and eventually I found myself writing again.
MT: Which character were you most attached to, and upon finishing the book, which character did you miss the most, or anticipate missing the most? Do you ever feel authors can get too attached to their characters?
KJF: Interesting question! I was probably most attached to the Granny character, the child version of Reney, and Lula and Justine in every iteration. So…all of the main characters? I am not sure I am totally done with Justine and Reney, to be honest. And there was a version of the book that had a short short about the Granny character as a girl being picked up at an orphanage by a distant aunt. Though most days I am ready to move on from these characters, I wouldn’t be surprised if any of them come back and demand to be let out. I am sure that authors can get too attached to their characters and that I am certainly that author.
MT: What advice do you give to any writers who are struggling to make their names known in the writing community and become a part of this great world you’re contributing to? Are there any tips or words of advice you can give?
KJF: I’d probably give them the same advice I could use on any given day. Keep going. Don’t worry so much. Work hard and hold yourself to the highest of standards, but if you need to step away, let yourself. Have faith in yourself and whatever brought you to the work. Just try to write the very best thing you can. Spend time reading what inspires and challenges you. Spend time making your work the very best you can. Put your energy there, and allow the rest to fall into place.
MT: Are you writing anything new now? Is there a work-in-progress you can hint about? We’d love to hear—I’m already a big fan!
KJF: Thank you again, Matthew! You are very kind. I have an idea, lots of notes, and a rough start for a novel. But I’ve never really written something that arose from an idea. So in some sense, I feel like I am starting all over. Don’t people say that that’s what each book does, teach you how to write anew? Fingers crossed! But, in this world of spotty paychecks, no childcare, isolation from family, global pandemic, and righteous social uprisings, I am struggling to write at all. I want to and I believe I will, but we’re just kind of getting through each day as it comes.
MT: I want to thank you for letting me interview you, and everyone Crooked Hallelujah is going to be out in bookstores soon, so please do preorder (from your local indie or whatever you prefer) and support great authors like Kelli Jo Ford. Thank you again and please feel free to leave us with any thoughts, ideas, lingering questions or issues you had, and know that we are so lucky to have you as a writer, and someone contributing so much to this world.
KJF: Matthew, I just want to say thank you. I really appreciate the work that you are doing to amplify literary voices. Thank you all for spending so much time thoughtfully considering Crooked Hallelujah and allowing me the space to think about it in new ways. Take care.
Apologies for freaking out but Samantha Downing is the biggest thriller writer working today, and she talked to us!
Matthew Turbeville: Samantha, I’m so excited to talk to you. I’ve been the biggest fan since your novel My Lovely Wife was first published, and I really feel like He Started It is perhaps the best sophomore novel in years. Can you tell me about how you came up with the idea, and without spoiling the reader, hint at how you’ve developed some of the twists?
Samantha Downing: Thank you so much, what an incredible thing to say! I originally came up with the idea when a friend told me about a recent road trip with her family. They had a bunch of problems along the way – a flat tire, a trip to Urgent Care when someone got sick, a stolen wallet. Nothing as dramatic as what ended up in the book, but it made me think about using a road trip for the basis of my next book.
MT: What’s your favorite part of writing a novels like this? I’ve had to put the book down numerous times, mainly because I’m either terrified or laughing so hard I can’t handle the book. The characters can be both terrifying and hilarious, sometimes back to back. Who are these characters, and how did you decide how to develop them and how they would fit into the novel?
SD: The characters aren’t based on anyone specific, but parts of them are. My goal is always to create compelling characters. They may not be people you love or people you want to hang out with, but I hope readers find them interesting enough to keep reading. There’s a long history of characters like this. Hannibal Lecter isn’t someone you want to have dinner with but he’s fascinating! So are Amy and Nick from Gone Girl, and Joe from You. When I’m writing, I don’t think about the characters are likeable or unlikeable at all. I honestly don’t think it matters as long as the characters are interesting.
MT: What are the books you feel helped shape the way you wrote this novel? What did you read between your first book and your second that really changed the way you wrote these two novels, and how very different they are?
SD: I’ve read a lot of thrillers over the past year. I love Kaira Rouda’s books, and Robyn Harding has become one of my favorites. The Swap was one of my favorite books I’ve read. It’s dark and creepy and everything I love! I also loved The Whisper Man by Alex North, which has a gut-punch of a twist.
MT: There’s a big issue of what a heroine is. In your mind, what do you think a heroine is, and how is your heroine different from Emma or Madame Bovary or Scarlett O’Hara? Do you feel they’re that different at all?
SD: I think the definition of a heroine has evolved over the past years. She doesn’t have to be perfect, but there are standards—specifically for women. I mention a few of them in He Started It. For example, a wife who cheats. It’s acceptable for men but not for women. For example, look at the TV show Mad Men. Don Draper cheats on his wife a lot, yet somehow it’s totally acceptable for him to be the anti-hero of that show.
Now imagine the same show with a female lead that cheats on her husband all the time. I suspect that show would never have been made.
MT: When writing the novel—and when writing any novel—how do you plot things out? Do you sort of just write, or do you plot things meticulously? The book counts down days and states, so it seems like you’d have a lot planned, but I wonder if a lot of the planning comes in revisions and rewrites. Will you tell us a little of how you work?
SD: Actually, I don’t plot at all. I don’t outline. I just start writing from chapter one and go from there. It’s an organic process for me, and that’s what makes it so fun. I discover the story the same way someone does when they read the book. Of course, that means lots of revisions but the process works for me. Outlining does not.
MT: When did you decide about the dynamics between the siblings, and was there ever a sibling you did or didn’t like? Do you go into your writing judging the characters, or are you trying to keep a distance? How quickly could you sink into Beth’s mindset, and was it hard to think outside of her own mind and thoughts or was it easy to understand each character, no matter how you the writer and us the reader get into Beth’s head?
SD: I don’t judge my character at all, nor do I think of them as likeable or unlikeable. I write them as they are now, given the background they have and the family they came from. It’s always difficult to write a book—any book, regardless of who the characters are—and I’m not sure mine are any more difficult than anyone else’s.
These characters are siblings with a lifelong history together, so once I figured that part out the rest of it came naturally. Siblings have rivalries, they have established relationships with one another. For instance, Beth’s relationship with her brother Eddie is very different than her relationship with her little sister, Portia. Creating the bonds they have, and how they affected their actions, makes writing them a lot easier.
MT: You wrote what some might call (I hope not) a #metoo novel but you never talk on the nose or use the term “#metoo,” etc. I really appreciate it (just like I do with any political or social issue) because I feel it’s so much effective when you show things—not to be too deep into spoilers, but the slamming of fists, for example—and we understand so much more than the character explaining a social justice issue to us. Did you find it hard to go deep into showing and not telling, or is this something that comes natural to you? You do such a good job of presenting evidence, foreshadowing to how a character could be and why we might fear him or her, and I wonder if this comes easy to you?
SD: Actually, I don’t see this as a #metoo novel at all! It’s funny how people interpret things differently. One of my pet peeves at the moment is calling a book a “feminist” thriller or “feminist” suspense novel. Feminism means equality. That’s it. But now, post-metoo, it’s being used to mean revenge.
Again, my focus is on the characters in the book and doesn’t focus on any political or social commentary. Beth’s reaction to things is based on what she has experience in her past, yet some women may relate to it because Beth is a woman. And that’s great. If people relate to my characters—good, bad, or a mixture—then I feel like I’ve done my job.
MT: In what ways do you really feel women are changing literature, and more specifically crime fiction? Why do you think it’s so important that we’re getting to see the points of views of writers of color, queer writers, female writers, etc? Do you think we’re getting to see different crimes, or maybe different angles of various crimes, or perhaps viewing traditional characters differently?
SD: I think everyone has a voice – all genders, all races, all religions, all sexual orientations. For me personally, it’s fascinating to read a book that comes from a completely different viewpoint or background than my own. It feels like more and more people are beginning to appreciate that there are great books written by all kinds of people, regardless of whether you have anything in common with them or not. A great book is a great book, period.
MT: You’re rapidly becoming my favorite author, but not just me. My grandmother keeps a hardcover of My Lovely Wife on her table. She tells people like her dog groomers to read the book, and they love it. My mother is very serious about our “quality time” listening to the audio of My Lovely Wife and will not hesitate to shush me if I comment on a scary or funny scene. What do you think is so appealing to, really, everyone about your books?
SD: Thank you so much! I have no idea why it’s so appealing, but I’m so grateful that it is! My Lovely Wife is a pretty dark book, so I didn’t know how many people would like it. I’m so happy to learn there are a lot of people who enjoy this sort of dark, satirical type of thriller.
MT: In My Lovely Wife, we see bonds between husband and wife, and we do to an extent with He Started It as well, but what about the bonds between siblings? What’s so interesting to you and other crime writers about family connections of various kinds, and which did you have more fun writing about and examining? Which did you feel you learned more about when you wrote?
SD: Siblings have a bond, and a shared history, like no other. You may have friends you grew up with, but they didn’t have the same parents and they didn’t live in the same house. Your siblings did. They know exactly how to push your buttons. They know embarrassing things about your childhood – who you had a crush on, who broke your heart, the bad things you got away with and the ones you didn’t. It’s really a relationship that can’t ever be replicated because it happened during your formative years, and that’s fascinating to me.
MT: What’s the most important thing you feel you’ve learned when you’ve written, and will you share it with readers?
SD: The most important thing is how I feel when I’m writing. If I’m bored, the reader will be bored. Guaranteed. That’s when I use the delete button. A lot of writers will disagree with me on that, and I know a lot of writers save everything they’ve written, even if they don’t look at it ever again. I don’t. If it doesn’t work, and I know it doesn’t work, there’s no point is saving it. Delete.
MT: Can you give us a hint as to what’s coming next? Do you have a work in process?
SD: I’m currently in edits for my third book. It’s another thriller but that’s all I can say right now!
MT: Samantha, THANK YOU so much for letting me interview you. We at Writers Tell All love you so much. I am so thankful that you exist at all and that you’re sharing your work with the world. Your novels have helped save me in various ways when I needed them, and I’m sure they will continue to do the same for various other readers. Thank you, and please, if you have any lingering questions, comments, or thoughts, leave them below. Thank you again.
SD: Thank you so much for having me! These have been really thought-provoking questions, and I truly appreciate that. You’ve been a fantastic supporter of my books and I can’t thank you enough!
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.
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.