Fiction in a World of Fear

Tragedies like the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton bring everything to a stop. As we read the details and look at the pictures, we all pause, look around and take stock of our priorities and what we hold dear. Writers are no different, except for the work we do. We’re often in the middle of describing a particular part of the world--when another part is suddenly falling apart. 

 We polled a handful of active writers and asked how public tragedies impact their current and future work--projects that may or may not portray mass shootings. We aimed to gauge how writers deal with such landmark events in practical ways and how, if at all, their writing engages with violence in America.

 

QUESTION 1

In The New Yorker last year, Masha Gessen described the difficulty of defending the values and institutions currently under attack, because it requires “preserving meanings" and is "the opposite of imagination." She aspired to "find a way to describe a world in which... imagination is not only operant but prized and nurtured." The Monday after the shootings in Dayton and El Paso, a different writer took to Facebook and simply posted two words—"another killing"—over and over, hundreds of times. Gessen described traditionally crafted work, while the Facebook post is visceral and immediate. Where do you think your next work will land? 

ANSWERS:

[Zachary Lazar] I'm writing the most traditional novel of my life right now (though that isn't saying much).  I simultaneously have no faith in the power of novels and total commitment to the novel as a thing, an art form, something I like. Mass shootings seem to me to be one symptom among many of our culture's failure to address meaninglessness, to create meaning, and even though I don't believe there is such a thing as meaning, the active pursuit of it is essential to sanity. I just don't give a shit about social media. I guess it did good work during the Arab Spring but I think the role it plays in the U.S. right now is more or less comparable to the crack epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s.  It makes TV look nourishing.  

[Alice Stephens] While Masha Gessen talks about a literature of the future, I think Americans must still contend with the past. From Plymouth Rock to George Washington to Donald Trump, the history of America has been a narrative of white supremacy. I write to give voice to those people who have been erased from popular history, who have been sacrificed to the myth of Manifest Destiny and The World’s Greatest Superpower. Even before Dayton and El Paso, I knew it was important to dismantle the white supremacist version of American history and to tell the real story. My current project is a historical fiction novel about the six months that Japanese American artist and visionary Isamu Noguchi spent in an internment camp in Arizona. By rewriting the past to give voice to the marginalized, we can take the future back.

[David Winner] What inspires us as fiction writers can be confusing, incoherent, and often unrelated to what goes on around us, but after 9/11, when the skyline changed and the smell of burnt electrical equipment and corpses was in the air, the line kind of disappeared. After Trump’s blatant racism, a massacre of mostly Latinos/Latinas (which has a long history, I’m just learning), and another massacre in Dayton, I don’t know that I can have anything to say except to yell in a pain that feels a little like bullshit because apparently white people like me aren’t getting targeted or told to go back to our country, which for me, like so many fellow mongrels, would involve hacking myself to bits and shipping myself off to different places. To answer the question, my dream is to find some sort of story to tell about all this that would be visceral and immediate, but my only writing about it so far has been shrill, foolish, and on that tool of Russia and Cambridge Analytica known as Facebook.

[Christopher Brown] I try to use the tools of speculative fiction to tell truths that realism cannot. Or at least put a mirror up to the world that alters it enough that people can see those truths unmoored from the easy anchors of established partisan identity and biases. I think it’s an important part of the literary toolkit, especially in politically charged times. If you can write the alien, you might be able to hack the mind of the shooter—or imagine a real change in the system.

[Jon Roemer] The Facebook post reflects what I was feeling the Monday after the shootings. But the fiction I’m writing now probably won’t be read for a year or more. So I think hard about its relevance, especially if we keep rushing toward more violence. Part of the job is to be forward-thinking. Just wish I could write and publish faster. And the senseless would come to their senses. And history would stop the endless repeats.

[Phong Nguyen] In my own writing, I tend to do as Robert Olen Butler suggests and to write "from that white hot center," utilizing the subconscious and manifesting it rather than overtly tackling issues (although I respect how well it works for others).

[Grant Faulkner] I can’t remember who said it, but he/she said that creating/writing is a political act unto itself. I haven’t viewed my writing, and especially my fiction, as political in a long time, but since the primary way we connect with others, understand them, and understand ourselves is through stories, then I think that stories become more important than ever in divisive times. The “another killing” “poem,” which I posted on Facebook, could be viewed as overtly political. It could also be viewed as a jaded response to another killing. A deadening repetition that wasn’t making a political statement at all.  

[Andrea Scrima] This is an issue I’ve thought a good deal about in my work. Every country harbors its own particular brand of craziness, and seen from the outside, it’s easy to detect irrational, potentially psychotic phenomena when they belong to someone else… As an American living in Berlin, I’m not only seeing an increase of racism and bigotry in the U.S., but a rise in right-wing populist movements across Europe. I’m currently finishing a second book in which each of the young characters is traumatized in a different way. These are very personal, psychological stories, set against the oppression of the East German communist state, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the misguided policies put in place after German Reunification. The social and political realities of contemporary America, however, are never very far away. You can shed new light on things when you deflect attention to another time and place. And so I’m using a diptych structure, fragmented narrative, and interwoven timelines to reflect both the larger dire realities that determine our lives and the interiorities these give rise to, the places we escape to in our minds. 

 _________________

QUESTION 2

On what level does the epidemic of American public violence affect you as a writer? Is your writing engaging more with public violence and its consequences or the social divisions around them? Or is it more important to you to explore less public realms?

ANSWERS:

[Alice Stephens]

In a very quotidian way, the epidemic of public violence has made me feel more vulnerable. I was at the Asian American Literary Festival the day of the Dayton shooting. Even before I heard the news of this second mass shooting a day after El Paso, I remember thinking that the festival was the perfect target for a high body-count hate crime: a large gathering promoting diversity, celebrating ethnic identity, and dedicated to intellectual thought. All things white supremacists hate. 

It’s not hard to see how mass shootings have become epidemic in a country that has long fetishized guns and vigilante justice. The American—and indeed the human—story is essentially a narrative of violence, with the victor typically depicted as the hero. As a writer, I am interested in telling the victim’s side of the story. I find much more power and beauty in the narratives of everyday resistance than those of glorious conquest.

[Zachary Lazar] Violence (and public violence) have been main themes in my work for a long time. I think one of the things I've been trying to do in my writing is to remind people that America is actually a violent place, whether it's people killing each other for money or alienated white men shooting people for no reason at all. But violence is fundamental to ancient stories like Greek epics and tragedies, Shakespeare, the Bible, etc. Central. We experience violence in a way specific to our culture, our time and place, and I think one of the problems we face is that mass shooters are using automatic weapons in an irrational, maybe even erotic way, while people who use guns as hunters or hobbyists might not really even understand what I mean by that. I mean that a gun is a tool for most people who use guns, while for a mass shooter a gun is a fetish. They don't use shotguns or grenades. They use the most phallic weapon available.  

[David Winner] Well, the violence in El Paso and in Charleston several years ago was about social divisions involving race, and, as a white writer, I’ve tried to sort of turn the volume up on the white racial conversation that I sometimes hear around me so more people can tune in. In my last novel, Patricia Highsmith appears as a character along with a version of Ripley, and I tried to expose their imbedded racism. In our weirdly bifurcated era, many get away easily with sexual abuse, violence, and extreme racism, whereas books and speakers get “cancelled” for relatively minor offenses. Writers like Highsmith are still widely read, largely without comment or criticism from their readership, and I don’t want us to forget that emblematically in one Highsmith book, a “sympathetic” character bemoans ’70s New York City being somehow destroyed by the same people of color now being driven out of historically black neighborhoods by real estate speculation.   

[Christopher Brown] My writing has always engaged with public violence, through a dystopian lens. I think that lurking behind the Second Amendment debate is the third rail of our politics—the way our national creation myths founded on armed revolt infiltrate our heads at an early age and pollute how we think about our politics and our communities. Exploring those themes through fictional laboratories is a healthy thing. But I don’t know if it offers much of a fix for the immediate insanity.  

[Jon Roemer] Evoking less public realms feels more important than ever. I think the trick is imbuing them with the horrible new normals without being ham-handed. In fiction, it’s difficult to reflect a world that’s already been reflected repeatedly, to exhaustion, in the always-on media. Fiction thrives in nuance, and I hope that sort of subtlety can show pathways through divisions. 

[Phong Nguyen] I think my engagement with the epidemic of public violence in America is more evident from my editorial work than my fiction-writing. I am working on an anthology tentatively titled “Best Peace Fiction” that compiles literary responses to acts of war and violence (forthcoming from University of New Mexico Press), and I have put together features on Morality and Fiction, as well as Fiction in War, for Pleiades. Anne Valente or Wendy Rawlings or Rebecca Makkai are good writers to check out. They have written explicitly about mass shootings in their fiction.

[Grant Faulkner] In my fiction, if violence or commentary on divisiveness enters into the story, it’s via the subconscious and in a somewhat random fashion. I remember an era, way back in 1989 or 1990, when Thomas Wolf wrote his big piece on the need for great social/political/realistic novels in the Atlantic and Harper’s, and it seemed like novels could and should be part of a contemporary political conversation in the way they were in the time of Zola. But Wolf was wrong. Times are different and novels serve a different purpose. Violence and the need for violence, the celebration for violence, are all great topics, but they have to be told slant. 

I recently heard someone say that what made The Godfathergreat was that it told the story of America as a gangster story. We are a nation of gangsters in many ways. I can’t write novels like that, but they provide a better lens on American history than most novels.

[Andrea Scrima] In my first book, A Lesser Day, one of the leitmotifs is the narrator sitting at a desk and cutting photos out of the newspaper. It’s the ’90s: the photos are of Bosnian refugees unearthing their dead to take them with them as they flee; Indonesian riots against the ethnic Chinese population; a group of young Palestinian boys holding up a sea of identical posters of Arafat. The narrator is an artist; she describes the photographs painstakingly in words. The implication throughout the book is that a nearly unrelenting human history of violence determines the essential context in which our psyches form and in which any art is conceived or made; the only thing that’s changed is our immediate electronic access to it at all times, and the danger that we will eventually become so numb to atrocity that we’ll no longer recognize ourselves. 

______________

QUESTION 3

Do you think violence in headlines impact readers' sensitivities in fiction? Are you trying out different modes or styles as a result?

ANSWERS:

[Alice Stephens] It’s amazing to me how people who enjoy a good evisceration in a superhero action movie can be so deeply offended by real-life violence: the people who write in to the paper to protest the photo of Alan Kurdi’s tiny, lifeless body washed up on the shore; the parents who want to ban I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings from school reading lists; the readers who complain that a description of plastic surgery in my book Famous Adopted People was gratuitously violent (ok, that’s not real life but the depiction of rhinoplasty was accurate—I did the research!). 

I’m fascinated by the self-serving lies people tell themselves as they go about their daily lives. Of all the species on this teeming planet, human beings are the only ones endowed with the capacity for introspection, and yet most people prefer to look everywhere but inside themselves. In these turbulent times, when humanity seems to have lost its collective mind and the dire effects of climate change haven’t even started to kick in, it is more urgent than ever for writers to hold a mirror up to society and ask that people take a good, hard look. Of course, you can’t force people to read your work. But at least you know that you weren’t silent. You’ve broadcast your truth, and it’s out there for readers to find it.

[Zachary Lazar] Along the lines of my last answer, I think my writing has often been an attempt to render violence in language that reminds people that it is shocking and ugly, not romantic, as in the movies. I also try to explore the psychology of people who commit violence, so that the reader has to see the perpetrator of violence as a recognizably complex human, not a "monster." I’ve spent a lot of time with incarcerated people, some of whom are close friends, and it has taught me how little choice some people have when it comes to perpetrating violence, as well as how unusual it actually is for someone to  a mass shooter. On the latter subject, I want to just give a shout-out to Deb Olin Unferth, whose short story "The First Full Thought of Her Life" is one of the most profound things I've ever read about the alienated young men who find themselves pointing a rifle at strangers.

[David Winner] A recent Hollywood shoot-me-up got delayed in part (I would imagine) because the violence has reached so many people that many of us are probably only one or two steps removed. (A dear friend’s mother taught a child murdered in Newtown.) In a work I’m just finishing, one of the characters enjoys gun ranges. Having never shot, I went to one in Manhattan. The really unpleasant place with NRA stickers everywhere implied to me that the large-seeming gulf between shooting your BB gun at some cans out back and mass murder at the mall may be smaller than we think. Affected by the Trump administration and the shooting, my already dim view of guns is growing ever more vitriolic, and my character is changing along with me. 

[Christopher Brown] I think we all hunger for more hopeful futures, in fiction and in real life. The novel I am working on now is my attempt at an American utopia—a compromised and imperfect one, built from the ruins of a nation torn apart by fights over diminishing resources. And part of the key to making a world like that work is bridging the gaps in understanding between members of feuding factions. Writing stories about peace is challenging in a narrative form driven by conflict. I suspect that at the heart of these incidents of real-world violence one would find a more internal kind of conflict, problems of profound alienation. That’s something contemporary fiction is uniquely well-suited to explore. But that territory is a scary place to go, kind of the dark web of human empathy, and I’m not sure any of us really want to visit it, when we can fight it in real life. And perhaps the real place to start would be a literary takeover of the first-person shooter video games that are the training grounds for everyday American evil—hack those narratives, and you might really be onto something.

[Jon Roemer] Not sure at all about readers’ sensitivities. I always think my assumptions are old-fashioned. But I like the idea of experimenting with styles, especially if it brings a different contour to assumptions. I might not be the right guy for that, but I might try anyway. 

[Grant Faulkner] Yes, I think violence in the headlines affects many people’s sensitivity to violence. One of the best books I ever read about violence in art was a critical theory book on violent dialogues. Can’t remember the title of it, but it analyzed the strains of violence in the dialogue of playwrights like Mamet and other contemporary playwrights. The speeches in Glengary Glen Ross are as violent as any mass shooting. The words are meant to humiliate and kill in a way bullets can’t. I love how stories like that take a cultural emotion and dramatize it without having to name the catalyst for it all. Any of those washed-up salesmen could grab a gun and go into a mall because they’ve become so helpless and without recourse. 

[Andrea Scrima] I don’t think any of these events or anything we say or write about them will affect readers in the thrall of guns and what they represent in our culture; while literature can do an enormous amount to shed light on the darkness of the what and why, our books are simply not read by the kind of minds we’re talking about here. 

Contributors’ bios:

Alice Stephens’ debut novel, Famous Adopted People, was published in 2018 by Unnamed Press. She is a contributing editor to Bloomand writes book reviews and a column, Alice in Wordland, for the Washington Independent Review of Books

 Zachary Lazar is the author of five books, most recently the novel Vengeance.

David Winner has written two novels: the Kirkus-recommended Tyler’s Last and the Gival-prize winning The Cannibal of Guadalajara.  His work has appeared in The Kenyon ReviewThe Village VoiceThe Iowa Review, FictionBookforumand other journals. He is the fiction editor of The American, a magazine based in Rome, a contributing editor for Statorec.comand frequently contributes to The Brooklyn Rail.   

Christopher Brown is the Campbell and World Fantasy Award-nominated author of Tropic of Kansas and Rule of Capture. He is based in Austin. 

Jon Roemer is publisher/senior editor of Outpost19, an award-winning book publisher, and author of the novel Five Windows. He is based in San Francisco.

Grant Faulkner is the executive director of National Novel Writing Month, co-founder of the online literary journal 100 Word Story and author of several books including Pep Talks for Writersand the flash fiction collection Fissures.

Phong Nguyen is the author of The Adventures of Joe Harper as well as two fiction collections and is editor-at-large for Pleiades. He is based in Warrensburg, MO.

Andrea Scrima is the author of the novel A Lesser Day,which has also been published in German.She received a writer’s fellowship from the Berlin Senate for Cultural Affairs and is currently completing a second novel. Scrima writes literary criticism for the Brooklyn Rail,Music & Literature,Quarterly Conversation,and other publications. She is a columnist with 3 Quarks Dailyand contributing editor at Statorec

 

 

 

Interview with Martin Wilson


Young Adult novelist Martin Wilson grew up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where much of his fiction takes place. His first YA novel, What They Always Tell Us, was the winner of an Alabama Author Award and was a Lambda Award nominee. His newest one, We Now Return to Regular Life, is a profoundly darker story, a look at what happens to a family and several communities when an eleven-year-old boy named Sam is kidnapped, held hostage for three years by a much-older man, then returned. The ensuing narrative plays out through the eyes of Sam’s sister Beth and Sam’s former friend Josh, and shows the very-current topic of being an “ally” in a fresh way. It has added immediacy when put into the context of recent, real-life, years-long abductions. 

 I spoke to Wilson last month about point of view in books, media spectacles, sex scenes in books about teenagers, and the state of YA in the South.  

 

Gee Henry: So, why do you think you chose the two characters you did (Sam's sister and his friend Josh) to narrate the book?

 

Martin Wilson: Well, when I first conceived the idea, I thought I might want to have Sam's POV. But then I realized I didn't want to go there. Other writers had gone there already--to the "victim's" POV, and they had done it quite well. In these stories, I realized you rarely heard from other people affected by the tragedy, besides the parents. And those viewpoints really were of more interest to me.

 

Yes, not having Sam's POV really increased the mystery of it for me.

 

That was the intention, I guess--that mystery that can pull the reader along. Also, I do like shifting perspectives. When I get sick of one character, then I can switch toanother's point of view. I wanted to explore what happens after the headlines fade away. So I did a lot of thinking and these characters eventually came to me. The friend who was with him the day of the vanishing, and the older sister who let him out of her sights.

 

There's a scene where the family, after Sam is returned, does an interview with a Diane Sawyer-like journalist. I know that, because of what you do for a living, you often watch human-interest interviews. Have you ever had to watch an interview of the sort that you write about in your novel?

Well, not in person—just on TV, like most everyone else. I’ve seen a ton of them, though as I've aged I watch less of that stuff. In fact, I loosely based this story on a true case, and I know the family was interview by Oprah. But I didn't watch it. I find them so awkward and awful, and I hope that comes through in my novel in that scene. 

Same. Years ago, there was this family who had lost a loved one, and they were interviewed by Hannah Storm or somesuch, and I watched it. Her first question was, "How do you FEEL?" The dead guy's brother said, "How do you THINK we feel?" After that, I've sort of changed the channel whenever I see that kind of laziness in journalism.

 

It's so true though. It's so cringe-worthy, and I always wonder why people subject themselves to it. In this case, I wanted the family to be conflicted about the experience.

 

There are so many ways to help families who've gone through such loss without having to see television interviewers try to milk tears out of them.

 

Very true. I think, for the purposes of making a dramatic story, the TV interview was the way to go. 

 

I know you live in NYC. Why do you return to the South for your fiction, do you think?

 

I think because it's the place I know best? I haven't lived there in over 20 years or so, but I still consider Alabama "home." My parents live there, my brother and his family. Also, I was in high school in Alabama, and since I write YA, I want my characters to inhabit a place I can write about with authority. I was miserable in high school—as so many people are—so this is the period of my life left such an impression on me. It’s true what they say—so many writers were outcasts in their youths. Hence that turn toward the interior—in my case, writing.

 

You know that Carson McCullers quote where she said she visited the South every now and then to renew her sense of horror? Is there anything like that for you in writing about Alabama?

 

Haha, that's a great quote. But yes, I think there's a little bit to that. Horror might be a strong word. Or maybe not. When I visit, I do live in a cocoon of sorts--just my family, who are all pretty progressive in comparison to everyone else. But you can't entirely avoid the "real world" down there. It’s bracing to encounter people who see the world so differently. Maybe that’s good for me to see? One thing that has always kind of bugged me is the politeness, the manners, the niceness. In some ways, that's great, refreshing. But often this is coming from people who hate gays, minorities, etc. So it's kind of menacing. A fake niceness.

 

I really like your fiction for the same reason you talked about just now. That it's a story viewed through the prism of a family, a community. So the reader returns to a place of looking at the South through actual people, not just characters who are simplified on TV. Simplified, condescended towards...

 

People always assume, when I say Alabama, that I grew up somewhere rural. That’s not the case at all. So in my work, I always want to show a different but real South, the one I know. I grew up in a city, not a town, not the country. Okay, it's not NYC, but as far a southern high school goes, there was diversity too. Not just racial, but economic diversity.  

 

Speaking of the South...I really love YA, but I feel like there's very little LGBT YA literature set in the South. Is that your perception, too?

 

I would say yes. But I think that's changing. Overall, there's a ton more LGBTQ YA literature than there was even 10 years ago. My friend Chris Shirley's YA novel, Playing by the Book, and my friend Will Walton's Anything Could Happen--these are two examples of southern LGBTQ YA that are really well done. I liked their honesty and tenderness. And Chris's is maybe the first YA book I've read that really grapples seriously with Christianity and homosexuality. Which is a big thing in the south, especially. All your life they say you're going to hell. It's tough. Of course, these novels are set in rural environments. I would like to see more novels from the south that address a more urban setting.

 

You handle the crush that Josh develops on Sam, and the brief, touching, sexual encounter they share, with such gentleness.

 

Thank you! I was so nervous about that scene, but I knew something like it would be there from the beginning. Readers have taken away a lot of different takes on that scene, which I find fascinating.

 

As a member of the YA community, do you face any blowback from people who don't think there should be any sexual relationships at all in literature for young people?

 

I really haven't--not personally anyway. In fact, in my first book there were a few sex scenes that I thought might be censored, and they weren't. And nor was this one. Of course there ARE people who believe this. But I think books that don't grapple with sex honestly--I think teenagers won't let those books pass the smell test. I mean, there has been sex in YA since Judy Blume's Forever, and maybe earlier. Honest writers deal with it.

 

And what of the recently infamous YA Twitter backlashes? Vulture (http://www.vulture.com/2017/08/the-toxic-drama-of-ya-twitter.html), among many sites and publications, have written about young adult authors being dragged and publicly shamed for books deemed to have insufficient diversity and inclusion. You've managed to escape being sucked into that world? [Note: Kirkus Reviews said of this novel that “Wilson also captures the diversity of one of Alabama’s larger urban centers…Beth’s friends are African-American and Latina, and the one friend that Sam made while abducted is African-American, to name a few.”]


It's so tricky to answer this. Diversity is important to me—both in my own books and in seeing other the perspectives of diverse voices published more and more in the YA world. It’s really heartening to see the successes of Angie Thomas, Jason Reynolds, Nic Stone, Matt de la Pena, Jenny Han, and many others. Books that get a lot of acclaim but also sell. I was a white boy, but I was also gay, and there were no books for me to turn to when I was a teen that I could relate to. And I think such books can make a huge difference to young people. 

 

I guess what I find disheartening about some of the Twitter backlashes is that some of the fury seems misdirected.

 

Right now, with all the awfulness swirling around us, I really think we need to keep our eyes on the real enemies, the real threats. Not that there aren't genuine slights and grievances that should be addressed, but I find it dispiriting when people who are NOT the enemy are treated like they are the enemy. There's got to be a better, more genuine way to educate people who might be clueless about issues--sexism, racism, etc.--than to just shout and label them something they're not. I hope that makes sense.

 

It does. Why do you think writers and readers like the "changeling" story so much? Like, the trope in literature about a child who is kidnapped and then returned, changed?

 

I actually wasn't really aware that this was such a trope. I do think "missing" stories have always had some lurid appeal to everyone. The mystery in these stories is irresistible. And I think there's something compelling about exploring how such an experience would affect someone--and also affect people close to him or her.


I really like the rollout of information in the book. Like, no one in the book ever fully knows the whole story. Sam's mother, Sam's sister, Josh--they all know pieces of the story. But no one, even at the end, knows what really happened to Sam. Maybe not even Sam!

 

Yes, very true! I think that's pretty true to life, but maybe not satisfying to SOME readers. I wanted that ambiguity there--the not knowing everything. I think that's more realistic, and, in some ways, more satisfying. I want there to still be a mystery that the reader thinks about after she has closed the book.

 

So do you ever think you might chuck YA out the window and write an adult mystery novel?

 

I will probably not chuck YA anytime soon! That said, I do have a piece of "adult" fiction I'm working on (and no, not "adult as in porn!). Something very autobiographical that I may never want published, though writing it is therapeutic for me. But I love writing YA. I love writing about and for teenagers. I have more stories in that realm that I want to tell.

 

Martin Wilson grew up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where both of his novels take place. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and the University of Florida, and his work has appeared in Tin House, One Teen Story, and other publications. His first YA novel, What They Always Tell Us, was the winner of an Alabama Author Award and a Lambda Award nominee. He currently lives in New York City, where he works as a publicist at a publishing house.

Gee Henry is a writer currently living in Nashville. Find him on Twitter at @geehenry