Fiction in a world of fear
By Jon Roemer & David Winner
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.