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