WRITERS TELL ALL
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.