In conversation with Drew Zeiba
Interview with Richard C. Morais
Richard C. Morais is an award-winning novelist, business journalist and biographer. He is the author of the New York Times and international bestseller The Hundred-Foot Journey, a novel about an Indian chef who conquers the rarified world of French haute cuisine. In 2014 Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey released The Hundred-Foot Journey as a popular film starring Helen Mirren and Om Puri.
Little A, the literary imprint of Amazon Publishing, published his third novel The Man With No Borders on September 1st, 2019. It can be purchased on Amazon hereor at independent bookstores, a list of which can be found here.
Nick Rice is an executive director at a global wealth management firm in New York, specializing in communications on sustainable and impact investing and a wide range of other financial topics. He was formerly an award-winning business journalist.
NR: You’ve published a novel entitled The Man With No Borders at a time when people in many parts of the world are looking to reassert theirs. What were the personal circumstances that inspired the novel, and how did these broader themes play into it?
RCM: People are trying to reassert their borders precisely because borders are not holding. You're talking about the reactionary force to the new, borderless reality that we live in, and it's not just national borders that are porous or have outright collapsed - industrial borders, psychic borders, physical borders, and sexual borders have also shifted and become less defined. So I wanted to paint the picture of a new man, in this case a private banker called José Maria Alvarez de Oviedo, who, at the end of his life, was struggling with the fact there was no country that could contain him, no "walls" of interior behavior that held him in check. The story then became about how he needed to get back to some sharply defined "place" and family code that did hold special meaning to him. But this is all very high-minded. There was also a very personal element to this decision, conscious or not. Two years after I started writing The Man with No Borders, my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and, similar to what happens to José, I painfully witnessed the borders of my father's mind collapsing. So the book was also a way to process and grieve my father's disappearance from this world.
NR: José grows up in a conservative family in Franco’s Spain - an environment where traditional borders and boundaries are largely respected. Later, he marries an American, moves to Zurich and establishes his own private bank. Other restrictions that govern his behavior start breaking down from there. What do you feel are the key tipping points in this transformation? As a Portuguese American who grew up in Zurich, how much of his story do you identify with personally?
RCM: Driving José's journey into both public empire building in private banking and into the "underground" in the backstreets of Zurich - and ultimately his transformation during the course of the book - are profound wounds and hurts that he has buried deep and kept secret. I have found, both personally and as a former editor of a Barron's magazine for wealthy families, that family secrets live on and fester, generation after generation, until they inevitably force their way to the surface. That's what happens in José's case.
This is the most autobiographical book I have ever written, but perhaps not in the way the casual reader might think. The specific circumstances of the Alvarez family and the traumas they go through are unique to them, but I do identify very much with the higher truths they reveal and that fiction allows you to explore - in this book, the complexity of father-son relationships; the powerful bonds that can exist between brothers; the painful truth that we usually wind up hurting the people we love most; and how the search for meaning in life doesn't end until we take our last breath, as the process of aging teaches us.
NR: Your response brings up another important aspect of the novel - it deals largely with male characters, be that José, his father, his brother, his three sons, or other men he has dealings with over the course of his life. One of the key activities over which the men bond is fishing. Why did you choose fishing to explore the relationship between them? Is there also a broader metaphor here?
RCM: My father was a world-class fly fisherman. They used to call him "The Professor" in Iceland due to his extraordinary salmon fishing skills, and the story of José's father fishing in Franco's shadow, to get the second best fishing in all Spain, is actually a true story. My father did just that when my family was stationed in Spain and Portugal in the 1950s and 1960s. Fishing was in fact a deep bond that I shared with my father, more so than my brothers, and he and I fished all over the world until shortly before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. For his 80th birthday, for example, I took him back to Newfoundland and Labrador, where Dad came of age, and we went back to some of the rivers of his youth. Some of my happiest moments with my father - some of the happiest moments of my life - were on just such fishing trips.
Fishing is an ideal metaphor and catalyst for this story, partly because fishing is about confronting life and death, which is exactly what Jose must do as his life draws to an end. When fishing, you literally must face the fact a beautiful being is giving its life for you to live. It's a humbling and life-appreciating aspect that is rarely acknowledged about how fishing can make some people a little better. But fishing can also bring out the worst in men, me included. It can bring out your greed, male competitiveness, a lust to kill, all these aspects of your primitive self that are there under the civilized surface and hard to face and acknowledge.
I in fact have a lot of trouble fishing now because Man has overfished almost all waters, and I am revolted by what we - and that includes me - have done and where we have wound up. We have gorged on nature's abundance and are now paying the price, which is also an important societal theme of this story. So fishing came naturally to me as a subject, because of my family history, but it also seems to work in this book on other levels as well.
NR: These different attitudes to fishing and the environment are a source of intergenerational tension in the novel. José’s son Sam is also a financier but focused on funding the fight against overfishing - a problem to which José himself has contributed. Sam helps José understand how to break down traditional boundaries between managing a private business and addressing public concerns. As a financial and business writer, do you sympathize with Sam’s approach?
RCM: Totally. And thanks for the important question. While I was doing some research for the book, I stumbled across an ancient Spanish proverb that I put in the mouth of José's river guide, Felipe. "'Take what you want,' God said. 'Take it - and pay for it.'"
This is where we are now - at the start of the paying phase - and there is a profound battle for our future being waged across the globe. It's not just between resurrected fascist ideals and the classic democratic order, it's between a powerful, growth-at-all-costs consumerist legacy and a sense we need to husband and value more the deeply stressed nature that we still have. When I was young, I totally believed the myth of "limitless" abundance, which has fueled so much reckless consumerism. I don't anymore. We have to start husbanding and valuing more the precious nature still with us, and, luckily, there is a new, brilliant generation coming up who understand this at a profound level. I'm totally with them.
Where I part company with a lot of left-wing idealists who think similarly about our imperiled earth is that I strongly believe that market forces, investment capital, human ingenuity and appetite for risk must play its key role in this transition to a more sustainable future. We have massively reduced car emissions precisely because there were people willing to invest in new technologies. It's clear, in this race against time, we need more individuals and institutions investing in service technologies that will help clean up and restore balance to our poisoned and denuded oceans - not less.
In this battle of ideas for the new world order and what we might call "earth-investing," José's oldest son, Sam, became my vehicle. In this case, my imagination had him create an impact-investing fund that helped convert frigid arctic rivers, since warmed up by global warming, into new spawning grounds for wild salmon, in effect using capital to support nature even while climate change wreaks its havoc. He is, in his way, fighting the good fight.
It's a nice fantasy. Maybe, with divine grace, that impact fund investing in salmon rivers I imagined will one day come true.
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. Jon Roemer and David Winner 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.
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." On Facebook the Monday after the shootings in Dayton and El Paso, a different writer, Grant Faulkner, 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?
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.
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.
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” that Jon mentioned, 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. I haven’t resided consistently in the U.S. in many decades, but where I live, in Europe, the fact that America has suffered under and will continue to suffer under a shocking and relentless onslaught of preventable mass shootings by assault weapons manufactured for military purposes is one of those oddly “American” things, in other words, one of those many phenomena that defies reason. Surely there are steps that can be taken to prevent mass shootings; other countries, for instance Australia, have introduced strict gun regulation and seen violent crime drop dramatically. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the so-called Port Arthur massacre of 1996, in which a man with a semi-automatic weapon mowed down 35 people in minutes. Overwhelmingly, Australia decided it had seen enough carnage and deemed the event intolerable enough to change its gun laws, and did so pretty much immediately; after the Christchurch mosque shootings earlier this year, New Zealand followed suit. So why haven’t we?
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.
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?
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 or narrowly dated.
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, some 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.
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 Godfather great 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: Yes, the United States has always been violent; violence is what we, in effect, hail from: violence against the Native American population, violence against slaves, the violence of Manifest Destiny, violence against the working poor, violence against people of color. We glorify our outlaws, all our Bonnie and Clydes, Billy the Kids, and Jesse Jameses; our culture celebrates those who go out in style. The epidemic of mass shootings is a part of our heritage. The man who carried out the mass shooting in El Paso admitted he was targeting Mexicans; he sees himself as a patriot, a lone hero, and whether he denies it or not, he is a vigilante in the service of Trumpism willing to pay the price of incarceration or death to fight for what he believes in. And in this he is no different from the fundamentalist militant, the terrorist jihadi.
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.
Do you think violence in headlines impact readers' sensitivities in fiction? Are you trying out different modes or styles as a result?
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.
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 become 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.
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 Rossare 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. Indeed, modern America’s quasi-religious adherence to the firearms provisions of a Constitution written in the immediate aftermath of the colonies’ liberation from British rule is reminiscent of the Christian fundamentalist belief that every word in the Bible is literal truth. We are a country not of rational thinkers, but of believers. And given the divisiveness of the current political climate, we have far more to fear than the inevitable and miserable continuation of assault-weapon massacres in America’s shopping malls, clubs, schools, and other public spaces. If the day arrives when lone white disaffected—and poorly informed—young men feel the call to unite and form militias in a more organized, disciplined, and concerted effort to “serve” their homeland—and if the violent undertones of the current administration’s Delphic utterances persist—I fear we will witness even more extreme consequences of what it means to adhere to the provisions of a document for whose periodic updating its authors made explicit provisions to meet the challenges of a future they could not, in their wildest dreams, imagine. Because while the US Constitution is a marvel of political and revolutionary will to create a democratic, more just society—these were, after all, minds honed on the principles of the Enlightenment—the political geniuses of the thirteen colonies could hardly have foreseen present-day America: its gigantic wealth, gigantic waste, or its deep, and possibly incurable, psychic wounds. The authors of the Constitution did not envision young men purchasing war-grade weapons at their local Walmart; nor, for that matter, did they envision Walmart. Yet while Article Five provides for altering the Constitution, given the power of the gun lobby and the NRA in the U.S. today, it is unlikely that an amendment proposal would receive the two-thirds majority it requires to be ratified. Thus, while it’s theoretically possible to alter the Second Amendment to reflect the reality of 21st-century America, in practical terms, at least in the current political climate, the country will have to look for other, legislative means to amend a political system in stalemate and to dig its wheels out of the bipartisan muck it’s stuck in and restore the government’s ability to serve a deeply divided country in the way its founders envisioned.
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.
Zachary Lazaris the author of five books, most recently the novel Vengeance.
Alice Stephens’ debut novel, Famous Adopted People, was published in 2018 by Unnamed Press. She is a contributing editor to Bloom and writes book reviews and a column, Alice in Wordland, for the Washington Independent Review of Books.
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 Review, The Village Voice, The Iowa Review, Fiction, Bookforum and other journals. He is the fiction editor of The American, a magazine based in Rome, a contributing editor for Statorec, and frequently contributes to The Brooklyn Rail.
Christopher Brownis the Campbell and World Fantasy Award-nominated author of Tropic of Kansas and Rule of Capture. He is based in Austin.
Phong Nguyenis the author of The Adventures of Joe Harper as well as two fiction collections; he is editor-at-large for Pleiades. He is based in Warrensburg, MO.
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 Writers and the flash fiction collection Fissures.
Andrea Scrimais 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 Daily and contributing editor at Statorec.
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
MH: If you could change one thing about publishing, what would it be?
CB: That's easy. The percentages. Instead of 88% straight, upper middle class, Judeo-Christian white women—65% straight white women and the rest a complete and shifting mix of gay men, men of color, gay men of color, queer and trans men and women of all colors, straight women of color, people with disabilities. Muslim women and men, Buddhists, others, just for starters. Give us 35%. Do even that and we'll start getting somewhere.
The dynamic between light and dark is also important in how I edit the texts, in terms of what’s going to follow. I put a lot of weight on getting the balance right. I’ve always been fascinated by a passage from To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, when the artist Lily Briscoe talks about composing her pictures. She says that shadow here needs light there, and she realizes in a sudden insight that she has to put the tree in the painting further to the middle. And that’s been my guideline, really, for how to compose: I have to put the masses in the correct balance, and there has to be a center.
What kind of writing excites you?
I am excited by writing that functions at once as art and philosophy, and that works carefully and in an unexpected way at the level of the sentence. I am excited by writing that jokes compassionately and writing that I am on the very edge of understanding, that oscillates in and out of clarity, and that can’t be exhausted in a single reading or even multiple readings, and that takes formal chances.
What are you working on now?
I’m always working on a few projects at once so I never get bored. Lately I’ve been switching between novels and screenwriting. I have a series of Sci-Fi-ish books I’ve been writing for years about a cult in the Ozarks, along with a YA time travel book and a YA novel set in the grunge 90s. I’m also collaborating on a Sci-Fi script based on the Malaysian flight that disappeared and a TV pilot that reimagines Norman Mailer as a P.I. I also just finished a draft of a script set a hundred years in the future about a Trump-like villain as our President. Wait, did I say the future? I meant now.
I’m working on two projects. The first stars the only character I’ve ever created vaguely based on me. The protagonist of Enemy Combatant, a braver, stupider, more fucked up version -- crazed by substance abuse and rage against Bush, Cheney et al around 2004 -- runs across evidence of CIA secret prisons in Georgia (the country not the state) and Armenia and with his even more deranged old friend tries to release a prisoner.
S.D. If you could change one thing about T.V. what would it be? N.A. The lighting. 85% of the lighting on TV shows is awful. It looks like the inside of a Walmart. Part of the problem is that it's just shot so fast there isn't a lot of time to do meticulous lighting. On Hannibal we had a great DP and it looked beautiful.