Creation, Purpose, and Choice: The Millions Interviews James Wade

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James Wade, whose work has been hailed as “rhapsodic” and “haunting,” is back with his third novel, Beasts of the Earth, a book that explores trauma, love, hate, free will, and everything in between.

Beast of the Earth, set in Texas and Louisiana, weaves together parallel narratives, the first following the life of Harlen LeBlanc, a groundskeeper at Carter Hills High School, whose life is disrupted by an act of violence. The second centers on a young man named Michael Fischer, who is dreading his father’s return from prison.

Library Journal hailed the book as a “stark and chilling tale,” and Wade’s writing has been compared to that of Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor. The Millions caught up with Wade to talk about Beasts of the Earth, his literary influences, the limits of labeling fiction, and a whole lot more.

The Millions: Beasts of the Earth explores large, complex themes like fate, free will, and what it means to be human. What do you hope readers take from the book?

James Wade: It’s a tough book, there’s no doubt about it—there’s some dark thematic material, some uncomfortable questions. But I think that lends itself to the book’s ability to get inside of you and poke around, which is something I always look for as a reader and as a writer. I hope the folks who read this book will also feel it, and that they’ll let it stay with them. I hope they’ll take something from it—something beautiful or tragic or ponderous—and just grab hold of it and let it be there with them for a while.

TM: The novel weaves together two storylines set decades apart. How did you come to structure the book in that way?

JW: Initially, Michael’s journey was going to be told much quicker in a few italicized chapters sprinkled throughout the novel (much like the structure of Mr. Carson in River, Sing Out). But the more I formed his character, as well as some of the characters he encounters—particularly the dying poet, Remus, and his lover, Deacon—the more I realized it needed to be on equal footing with Harlen’s story. At that point the goal was mirroring the storylines so that they rose and crescendoed at the same pace, so that both Michael and Harlen were simultaneously faced with these difficult decisions at the novel’s climax.

TM: Your characters—both Harlen LeBlanc and Michael Fischer, as well as the characters in River, Sing Out and All Things Left Wild—could be described as tragic or broken. Can you talk a little about writing these sorts of damaged male characters?

JW: I am a damaged male character. Write what you know, right? All of my characters end up dealing with trauma. Usually an abusive parent, or an apathetic one—sometimes both. They all grow up in poverty. They all face a crisis of faith, a loss of innocence. And they’re all stuck in a world they don’t understand but have to continually try making sense of. That doesn’t feel far off from myself or many other folks who struggle with the curse of realism.

TM: How does Beasts of the Earth stand in relation to your two previous novels, River, Sing Out and All Things Left Wild?

JM: Craft-wise, it’s tighter. The word count is smaller and the plot moves quicker. Thematically, it’s similar. I don’t believe I’ll ever be able to tell a story without involving questions of creation, purpose, and choice. And while the setting is still a strong component, Beasts of Earth is a bit more character driven than the previous two.

TM: Your work has been described a Southern fiction, but also as transcending that label? How would you categorize your work? Or do you find labels like Southern fiction and literary fiction limiting?

JW: I find most labels limiting. I think the narrowing of genres into these niche, micro-genres (grit-lit, neo-western, etc.) does a disservice to readers and writers. That said, Literary Fiction, and even Southern Fiction (or Southern Gothic) to a degree, are not as narrow in scope as some others.

TM: Your books are set in striking, singular places. Can you talk a little about the role setting in your work and how a place can function almost like a character?

JW: Setting is absolutely a character, and a strong literary device. It can impact the tone, the conflict, and the themes of a novel, just like any other character or literary tool. For example, half of Beasts of the Earth takes place in the swamps of Louisiana where dark deeds are hidden by the cypress canopies and the black water, and the reader gets a claustrophobic feel in those sections. That’s juxtaposed against the wide open Texas Hill Country where the past is laid bare for the world to see. There is a strong sense of place to each one, but these settings also function metaphorically: the burying of our sins, and the subsequent excavation.

My reverence for setting means I’ve never written about a piece of land I haven’t stood on. I need to experience the country—see the flora and fauna and all that the land entails—before I’m comfortable writing about it.

TM: How did you come to writing? When did you know you wanted to be a novelist?

JW: I started out as a writer when I was a kid. Indiana Jones fan fiction. Civil War short stories. I wrote all the time. And this was really early on– six, seven, eight years old. In my teenage years I was convinced that journalism would save the world. It was during the Iraq War and I became heavily involved in politics and civil service. I pursued journalism and politics for a while in my twenties, but the vitriol and partisanship left me dejected and jaded. And then fiction tugged at my elbow. It was still right there where I’d left it all those years ago—only now I wasn’t some six-year-old prodigy. I had a lot to learn, and I’m still very much learning it. But I hope I’m able to continue learning and continue doing this forever, because now that it’s here, I can’t imagine doing anything else.

TM: Your novels have been compared to the work of Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, Larry Brown, and Tom Franklin. What books or authors are particularly important or influential to you?

JW: All of those authors you mentioned, with the addition of Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, William Gay, John Steinbeck, and plenty of other dead folks. I do read contemporary fiction, and even occasionally enjoy it. Taylor Brown and Matt Bondurant come to mind as current writers who make me jealous.

TM: Can you tell us a little about your writing process and routine?

JW: The routine was once a well-oiled machine of coffee, reading classic literature, then writing for three to five hours. Every day of every week of every month.

The last couple of years have been a little more challenging. I have a two-year-old daughter who dictates much of what my schedule looks like. Basically, I write when I can—sometimes very early, sometimes very late. And certainly not every day.

The process is usually sketching out a handful of ideas for plots—seeing how those fit into the themes I want to write about. I’ll maybe write a chapter or two and see if the character is someone I think I’d like to spend the next year or so with. Once I pick something, I make a loose outline and dive in.

TM: What are you working on now?

JW: I’m in the editing process on my fourth novel, Hollow Out the Dark, a prohibition, depression era story set in East Texas. It follows a reluctant bootlegger who is trying to protect his surrogate family and his old high school flame from local outlaws during a whiskey war.

And I’m early in the drafting process on a new manuscript that takes place on a Central Texas ranch around 1920.

Small Technologies: The Millions Interviews Todd Myers

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The latest book, Time to Think Small: How Nimble Environmental Technologies Can Solve the Planet’s Biggest Problems, from Todd Myers, the director of the Center for the Environment at the Washington Policy Center, is a call to climate action that surveys the ways that smartphones and other technologies can help the fight against climate change.
The book—which has been praised by environmentalists, business executives, and members of Congress alike—explores a variety of new technologies that can help the environment, such as Buoy, a device that tracks water usage and can remotely shut off water systems, to SeaBins, which float in marinas and have collected millions of pounds of trash.
The Millions caught up with Myers to chat about Time to Think Small, the future of the environmental movement, and what gives him hope for the future.
The Millions: You’ve spent two decades working on environmental policy, you’ve worked to save endangered species, and you have a tech background. How did all of that come together in Time to Think Small?
Todd Myers: I wrote the book to address some of the problems with environmental policy that prevent us from solving important problems like ocean plastic, climate change, and species protection. My first book, Eco-Fads, highlighted the incentives that many politicians have to choose policies that look good rather than what is most effective. I saw this problem first-hand working at a state environmental agency, but I didn’t know how to fix it.
Over the past decade I began to notice people doing amazing things using small technologies like smart thermostats, smartphones, and a fake sea turtle egg used to fight poachers. Soon, I saw examples across the globe—from Fiji to Ghana and Canada. Problems that resisted government solutions, like reducing ocean plastic, were being attacked by innovators who saw that the barriers to act had been virtually eliminated. Small technology multiplied their efforts, so just a few people could be extremely effective.
Writing the book was so fun because I got to talk to people who were innovating in very clever ways and making a real difference. There were many days where I was frustrated by bleak political news and then I’d chat with someone in the U.K. about a project to reduce deforestation and it was so energizing. I want to share that optimism with others and let them know that we don’t have to outsource environmental problems to politicians—we can act ourselves.
The Millions: What is the future of the environmental movement as you see it? What needs to happen and what do you think will happen as people look to combat climate change?
Todd Myers: Conservation technology has the power to democratize environmentalism, engaging the contributions of millions of people who would like to help the environment but don’t feel like they have the time or knowledge. By reducing barriers to information and action, small technologies multiply the power of many small actions, allowing environmentalism to expand far beyond the “movement” to everyday actions.
For example, electrical generation during evening hours is not only the most expensive, it is the most carbon intensive. Smart thermostats that use artificial intelligence help homeowners shift their energy use outside this period, keeping a home or apartment comfortable without someone having to spend time thinking about it. That reduces costs and cuts CO2 emissions.
We just witnessed the power of engaging people with simple technologies. This summer, when California was facing an energy shortage one evening, utilities sent text messages to customers asking them to turn off unnecessary appliances and energy use immediately dropped. That simple act helped prevent blackouts. Smart thermostats and other energy technologies available to consumers are far more sophisticated and can help reduce energy use every day.
These technologies are also supercharging the traditional environmental movement. The foreword of my book is written by Talia Speaker, who works on a conservation technology project supported by the World Wildlife Fund. They see the power of these technologies to address threats to wildlife and ecosystems in places where government action simply isn’t an option.
The adaptability of small, environmental technologies opens a wide range of new opportunities for traditional environmental action, environmentally conscious individuals, and even those who will take environmentally friendly actions if it saves them money.
Public policy will always be an important part of addressing environmental problems, but we now have an option that doesn’t put all (or most) of our eggs in one political basket.
The Millions: What are some ways new technologies—particularly small tech like cell phones—can help the environment?
Todd Myers: There are many examples of how small, connected technologies are already helping the environment in big ways.
Some are simple. Birdwatchers who report their sightings in the eBird app are providing extremely useful information to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that has already been used to identify and protect habitat for migratory seabirds. That data has significantly improved our understanding of bird migration.
The adaptability and ubiquity of small technology means it can be applied almost anywhere in the world. In Africa, a company called eWater installed internet-connected water pumps that provide a consistent source of clean water by charging a small fee (about a penny a day). When they break, eWater gets a signal and the pumps are fixed quickly because local workers are losing money. That predictability is powerful because people in the village can get water when they need it, rather than having to hike to a river or stream to get potentially contaminated water. Knowing your water is clean means you don’t have to cut down trees to boil the water or buy plastic bags of water, which are then discarded.
There are many other examples I provide in the book that address problems ranging from the poaching of sea turtle eggs to reducing ocean plastic and reducing CO2 emissions.
The Millions: I think people often feel powerless when it comes to fixing climate change. What are some ways individuals can help the environment?
Todd Myers: There are many, but I will offer three quick examples.
First, use less electricity between 4 and 7 pm. Electricity during this period is generated mostly by natural gas and coal plants that are turned on just to meet high demand during the evening. As a result, it is also expensive and carbon-intensive. Smart thermostats do a good job of helping keep your house comfortable by pre-heating (or cooling) your home before peak hours.
Second, reduce water waste. About 10 percent of residential water is wasted—leaks, running toilets, etc. We see the impacts of drought in many places around the world and reducing water waste would help leave it for fish, farmers, and other uses. There are technologies like Phyn that can be connected to your plumbing and track water use and use artificial intelligence and alerts you when you have a leak to quickly to prevent waste.
Finally, I’ll throw in a fun one—become like Thomas Edison. Rather than just buying electricity from a big utility on the grid, join a microgrid. In the same way Thomas Edison’s first power plants provided energy to homes in a nearby neighborhood, homes with solar panels can generate and trade electricity with their neighbors.
Distributed generation like this is more durable and can provide electricity when there are blackouts, but it is also nice to buy electricity from your neighbors from a source you know. Microgrids are in their infancy, but some of the best examples are in developing countries, where there are no other options. It is an example of the power of connectivity, that anyone can become a utility.
The Millions: What do you hope readers take from the book?
Todd Myers: I want people to feel empowered. There are more opportunities than ever to make a meaningful difference and address important environmental issues. I’ve worked for more than two decades in environmental policy and at government agencies, and what I see from the many creative and energetic people using conservation technologies is very exciting.
One of my favorite quotes in the book is from someone working on capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and turning it into products. He said that when contemplating climate change it is easy to get overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenge, but “People underestimate the power of things that start small. I prefer not to get overwhelmed.” Some of the most exciting projects started with individuals who started with a simple, local idea that scaled up.
A great deal of attention is dedicated to influencing public policy, but many policies are just one election away from being changed. Too often people think that without government, we can’t help the environment. Another of my favorite quotes is, “The man who says it can’t be done should get out of the way of the woman who is doing it.” Increasingly, people aren’t waiting for politicians to care for the planet. Small technologies offer a new method of action that isn’t contingent on election results or politicians making the right choices.
The Millions: Climate change is a politically polarizing issue—how does Time to Think Small address that polarization? And what can be done about it?
Todd Myers: Climate change is one of the most polarizing issues in politics today according to Gallup. I have friends with a wide range of views on the issue and everyone thinks they are losing. What is done by one president is undone by the next. It is hard to craft good, effective policy in that kind of political environment. If success in reducing the risk from climate change is contingent on every election going the right way, we are doomed.
The beauty of innovative environmental technologies is that you don’t have to think climate change is a crisis to want to save money by saving energy. And if a technology works for you, it doesn’t matter who is elected, you’ll keep using it and reducing your environmental impact. Innovation rarely moves backwards.
Perhaps most important is that technology connects people directly to environmental problems rather than filtering it through a political lens. People of all political stripes who care about birds can log their sightings in eBird and provide scientific data used to protect critical habitat. Rather than telling people they must act to save the climate, we can provide technology that helps save money by using energy when it is generated by CO2-free sources.
There will always be politics in these issues, of course. Sometimes that is appropriate. Much of my career has been about promoting sound government policy and working with government agencies. But technology solutions can cross party lines and continued to make progress even when our politics are challenging.
The Millions: The realities of climate change appear so bleak, yet you seem maintain a sense of hope. Is that true? And if so, how do maintain that hope? What gives you hope?
Todd Myers: Given a choice between hope and fear, I think everyone should be hopeful. Fear paralyzes. Hope inspires and energizes.
But my hope comes from the new options environmental innovation is creating. Many of the political issues I deal with today are the same I worked on two decades ago—the same arguments, the same stalemates. Innovation helps break out of that gridlock and transcend the divisive politics that make solutions so difficult, not just with the environment, but so many issues.
If the one chance to stop ocean plastic, or reduce the risk from climate change, or save sea turtles is a government program, it is a bit like putting everything on one roll of the dice. Sometimes we will win, and sometimes we will lose. The more diverse our options, however, the more likely it is that we will find a solution.
This isn’t just blind optimism. The math backs this up. There is a wonderful book by University of Michigan economist Scott Page called The Difference, about how diversity—of ideas, of perspectives, of tools—dramatically increases the chance of success.
And we are only at the beginning of realizing the potential of conservation technology. There are so many innovations to come. That is why I have so much hope.

Collaborative Effort: The Millions Interviews Felicity Aston

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In Polar Exposure: An All-Women’s Expedition to the North Pole, author, speaker, research scientist, and polar explorer Felicity Aston gives readers the inside story of her 2018 Women’s Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition, from the creation of her team of 10 women, to their preparation in Iceland and Oman, to the extreme conditions of the Arctic.

The Millions caught up with Aston to talk about the Polar Exposure—which Publishers Weekly called “a page-turning tale of adventure” in a starred review—the expedition, climate change, and what’s next for her.

The Millions: How did the all-women expedition to the North Pole come about?

Felicity Aston: In 2009 I put together an international team of women from across the Commonwealth to ski to the South Pole together. The experience was so rewarding that a decade later I repeated the process but this time chose to gather a team of women from across Europe and the Middle East in order to focus on the relationship—or lack thereof—of women between those two cultural regions and to ski to the North Pole.

TM: Before the expedition, you and your team—some of whom had never seen snow before—trained for two years. Can you describe what that training was like and what it accomplished?

FA: We trained first on the glaciers of Iceland and later in the Arabian desert. The two environments actually had a lot in common as training destinations. The routines and practical skills of an expedition are almost identical in both locations and dragging a sledge over sand is very much like dragging a sledge over snow—but importantly, in the dunes of Arabia we became familiar with the same element of uncertainty we would experience on the Arctic Ocean. In Oman the sand dunes are unmappable so each day as we left our tents we didn’t know what obstacles we would face, how far we would travel or how long it would be until we pitched the tents again. This is exactly the case on the unmappable ice of the Arctic—you never know what each day will bring.

TM: The book is structured so that each member of the team tells part of the story. How did that structure come about and why?

FA: The expedition placed an emphasis on cultural understanding and the importance of the collaborative effort, so it felt natural when it came to write about the experience that we should continue that ethos and write it together. It was a huge task for our editor/publisher to meld nine voices to create one narrative but with untold hours of effort I think the result has produced something unique and very special—an expedition account in which we hear a true team perspective, one that reflects the often confusing and challenging dynamic of being part of a group.

TM: What were some of the highlights of the expedition? What were the biggest challenges and lessons learned?

FA: The biggest challenge of the expedition was getting it off the ground in the first place. It took two years of preparation and dedication to get us to the start of our expedition and a lot of sacrifice on the part of every team member and those that supported us—in our families, in our work. Perhaps most wonderful of all, people we have never met supported us through various crowd-funding campaigns in the very early days before they had any reason to believe in us. Without them, the expedition would never have got to the position to be able to attract the sponsors that are the critical piece in the expedition puzzle. It’s a real pleasure to be able to send many of those early supporters a copy of the book so that they will know what a difference their belief made and what grew out of their support.

TM: What are the 10 women who went on the expedition doing now?

FA: They are climbing mountains, leading expedition ships, forging careers in their own fields, furthering scientific knowledge, empowering communities, writing books, broadcasting and more—each of them continue on their own chosen and inspiring journey. Many have since become mothers (one a grandmother) which adds another dynamic.

TM: As you were making the trip, was the current climate crisis on your mind? Did you encounter evidence of global warming?

FA: You don’t need to travel to the Arctic Ocean for evidence of global warming. Every person on the planet is, right now, experiencing the consequences of global warming. The evidence is right on your doorstep, no matter where you are on the planet.

TM: Given the realities of climate change, are you hopeful for the future of the planet? 

FA: Of course. We already know what the problems are and in many cases we already have the solutions. All we need now is the will to put those solutions into action—and with urgency.

TM: You’ve skied across Antarctica, travelled to Antarctica, been to the north pole. What’s next for you?

FA: I continue to put together ambitious expeditions for the future. As in the past, each expedition presents new challenges for me, answers a different curiosity. My focus now is on The B.I.G. (Before It’s Gone) North Pole Expedition, a ski to the North Pole in which we aim to collect snow, ice and water samples to be analyzed for different forms of pollution, particularly black carbon, airborne microplastics, and heavy metals. The resulting data will possibly answer questions about the future as well as the past of Arctic Ocean Sea Ice.

A Natural Wonder: The Millions Interviews David Alexander Baker

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David Alexander Baker’s The Lost Continent: Coral Reef Conservation and Restoration in the Age of Extinction explores one of the planet’s most fascinating and highly threatened biomes. While acknowledging the impending climate catastrophe that coral reefs face, Baker writes with a sense of awe for nature’s beauty and hope for its future, reflecting on his own diving expeditions along the way. We talked with Baker about his work as a documentary filmmaker and media production team leader at Oregon State University, the importance of biodiversity, and how we all can help conserve the planet’s coral reefs. 

The Millions: What was the genesis for The Lost Continent? What led you to write this book, and what was its path to publication?David Alexander Baker: A few years ago, I made a documentary about the decline of coral reefs called Saving Atlantis with my filmmaking partner, Justin Smith. The aim was to raise awareness about the pressures driving the destruction of reefs, as most of them are caused by humans. After 90 minutes of content was edited down from hundreds of hours of interviews and footage, there were stories we left on the cutting room floor and tangents we hadn’t explored. I thought a book would be a great way to deepen my understanding, explore new narrative threads, and get the topic in front of a wider audience, because the problems facing corals aren’t going away. Oh, and I also needed an excuse to dive on more reefs—they’re simply the most stunning landscapes one can imagine.  

TM: Your background is as a science documentary producer—what led you to start diving?DAB: I never know what sort of film project will come next. My production team works with scientists on the grant cycle: a researcher proposes a project to an agency like the National Science Foundation (NSF) and waits to see if it gets funded. One requirement of the NSF is that the scientists are supposed to communicate the impact of their research on society. That’s where my team comes in. We do that storytelling to explain what’s happening and why it’s important. So we pitch films to accompany these large research grants. About a quarter of those project proposals end up getting funded, and that’s when we get the green light for a film.In the case of diving, my partner Justin met a coral researcher at a cookout. We drafted a concept for a series of short films, submitted the proposal and then forgot about it. A year later, the scientist emailed us—the project had received funding. We were to accompany her team to the South Pacific, Australia, and the Red Sea to document their work studying the coral microbiome. That’s when she told us that we needed to learn how to dive if we wanted to film below the water. Neither of us had ever so much as pulled on a wetsuit. And the budget wouldn’t allow us to hire an underwater cinematographer: we had to do it ourselves.So, we started training. We had to become certified science divers to accompany the team, which is a pretty advanced level. We had just three months. And it was the Pacific Northwest. In the winter. All through that ordeal we were freezing in the bottom of the Puget Sound in leaky rental wetsuits, wondering why anyone would ever take this activity up as a hobby. But then we earned our credentials and I remember very vividly plunging into the water above my first massive reef wall in the Red Sea, and it all came together: the warm water and the spectacle of corals. Diving opens up an entirely new universe. It’s transformative.

TM: In your adventures diving, what was something surprising that you witnessed or discovered?DAB: To me, biodiversity is the most staggering thing about coral reefs. 25 percent of all marine species spend time on coral reefs, even though these ecosystems take up less than 0.1 percent of the earth’s surface. And you only truly understand this if you look close and can hover in one place for a long time to study the details. From the fish to the algae and the myriad invertebrates all the way down to the microbes, there is more diversity of life in a square meter of coral reef than just about any other system on the planet. They’re called the rainforests of the sea, but in truth corals are much more ancient forms of life than even the flowering plants that make up the rainforests. And hovering in the clear water where reefs thrive, you can see fish threading the branches and worms dancing through the grooves. It’s a staggering variety of living shapes and colors. Coral reefs are impressive in their massive size—some are hundreds of miles long. But it’s the detail that’s really surprising.

TM: In The Lost Continent, you say that the Varadero Reef in Colombia is the most fascinating you’ve ever seen. Can you talk more about why?DAB: Varadero is located in the Caribbean Sea at the mouth of Cartagena Bay. It’s one of the most polluted spots around. It’s covered with a cap of murky sediment that flows out of a 500-year-old shipping canal built by the Spaniards. Corals usually don’t like turbid water. They thrive in clear water, and the farther away from people, the better. Reefs all over the Caribbean have been hammered by human pressures for decades. Corals have bleached, been overfished, dumped on, ripped out and dynamited. Florida reefs have about 2 percent of the historic coral cover remaining. Even the magnificent reefs in Belize are at around 17 percent. But Varadero has 80 percent coral cover or more. I’ve never seen anything like it. 

When you dive on Varadero, you submerge through this cap of murky water, but all that sediment stays at the top few meters. Then the visibility clears up. So as you slip down, you see this vast landscape of unexpectedly healthy corals open up beneath you. The cap of murky water does strange things to the light. And the shapes of the coral colonies are odd: they have the radar-dish growth forms of corals that live in much deeper water. One theory I’ve heard is that the murky water shields these corals from light and tricks them into behaving as if they’re much deeper than they actually are. Somehow, this has allowed them to thrive in this unexpected location right next to a major metropolitan area and surrounded by shipping lanes. With enough research, we could learn some secrets from Varadero. The frightening thing is that this reef has been threatened by development. I hope the Colombian government understands that Varadero is a natural wonder unlike anything else on the planet.

TM: More than half of the world’s coral reefs have been destroyed in the past 50 years due to climate change. What specific forces have conspired to decimate coral reefs, and how have you witnessed examples of this devastation firsthand?DAB: There are natural processes that wear down reefs: storms, waves, changes in weather like El Niño and La Niña events. And corals have evolved magnificently to grow and rebuild after these natural pressures. But humans have changed the game by altering the climate through the burning of fossil fuels. This warms the ocean and the carbon is making the water more acidic. Corals live at their thermal threshold, and if it gets too warm for too long, they will bleach and often die. Increasing acidity can weaken their capacity to build their stony skeletons.Industrial scale harvesting of fish also takes a toll. If you remove all the herbivorous fish that keep the plants in check, then algae can take over and choke out the corals. Pollution and nutrient runoff from rivers harms corals and feeds algae, turning reefs into slick, green muck. Climate change supercharges storms and makes them more violent and frequent, grinding down reefs to the point where their natural recovery can’t keep pace. Resort developers will sometimes smother reefs with sand to make a beach or even dump construction debris right on corals. The pressures are legion. But the good news is that we’re causing most of the decline. So that also means we have the power to stop it. We can control these pressures through our actions, if only we can muster the political will.TM: Often, conversations about conservation focus on individual behaviors, like not using plastic straws or driving a hybrid car. Lifestyle choices are important, but the actions of large corporations, which have a much larger impact on the environment, rarely receive the same scrutiny. (One study even posited that just 90 companies are to blame for most of climate change.) What sort of larger scale changes, besides just recycling our soda cans, would you like to see to safeguard our planet? DAB: The fact is that we all will have to alter our behaviors en masse if we want to save stony, reef-building corals from extinction. They’re the canaries in the coal mine of climate change. So there are lots of individual things we can do to contribute to solutions that might save them. We can eat lower (and healthier) on the food change, which means more plants and less meat. We can bike to work, put up solar panels and everything you mention to control carbon and pollution. But the problem with making the solutions a matter of individual responsibility is that it lets large institutions, like governments and corporations, off the hook. There are forces that love it when we squabble and count each other’s carbon while they continue to chase easy profits.So ultimately, we need societal change: a transformed energy and economic system, protecting and restoring natural ecosystems on a global scale and ethically addressing the world’s exploding population. None of these things can be accomplished by individuals. We need a mass movement and a groundswell of support for making sweeping changes. And I think that’s where my little piece of the puzzle comes in. If I didn’t believe that narrative, storytelling, and imagery can help move the needle in building support for such change, I wouldn’t be in this line of work. Corals can be the characters in the story about what we need to do on a global scale to stave off biological collapse.TM: The Lost Continent takes readers to reefs around the world, from the Caribbean to Red Sea. Though many readers might not live anywhere near coral reefs, you make the case that they are still pertinent to all of our lives and deserve our protection. Why should everyone care about coral reefs, regardless of where they live?DAB: Half a billion people get their only daily protein from reefs. And many commercial species we eat use reefs as nurseries. We need them to feed us. The good news is that the solutions that will save corals are also those that can protect all life on our planet, including our own. Biodiversity loss is happening in terrestrial as well as marine habitats. Ecosystems from wetlands to forests and rivers are vanishing. The very systems that provide our food are imperiled. Coral loss has been involved in all the major mass extinctions over hundreds of millions of years. These animals are telling us something important through their struggles. By making the changes needed to protect them, we’re helping ourselves. If they collapse, other systems will follow, and the future will be bleak for our own species.

TM: The Lost Continent is divided into three sections, the last of which is called “Searching for Hope.” It’s often hard to be hopeful when it comes to matters of the environment, and especially coral reefs. What gives you hope?DAB: This is the biggest challenge when it comes to covering environmental topics. How do you communicate the urgency and the dramatic scale of the losses without turning people off or giving in to despair? Chris Johns, the former editor-in-chief of National Geographic Magazine, calls it, “balancing the wonder with the worry.” So in that sense, the wonder—the sheer beauty and the ingenious functioning of these elaborate ecosystems—gives me hope. Corals are animals, but they have symbiotic plants living inside of them, and together these tiny life forms undertake the largest construction projects on the planet—rocky structures that put the Manhattan skyline or the Great Wall of China to shame. And there’s wonder in the corals’ resilience. Varadero proves that. They can surprise us, if we give them space to evolve. The corals of Varadero have lived with humans for 500 years, and they found a way to adapt and thrive right alongside us.And finally, there are the people working on solutions. Humans are the problem, but we are also the great hope. For this book I interviewed so many scientists, activists, fishers and indigenous community leaders who are paving a path forward with hard work, traditional knowledge, research and education. The human capacity for empathy, drive and creativity is boundless, even in the face of such long odds.

All Stories Are About Change: The Millions Interview Catherine Ryan Howard

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Catherine Ryan Howard’s latest novel Run Time, out now from Blackstone, follows Adele Rafferty, a struggling actor who is ready to abandon her dreams of stardom when she gets a last-minute offer to star in a horror movie called Final Draft. But she soon realizes not everything is as it seems, as life on the film set starts to mirror the terrifying events in the script. A CrimeReads Most Anticipated Book of Summer 2022, Run Time is a high-concept thriller that blurs the boundary between fact and fiction.

Howard is the author of several thrillers, including The Liar’s Girl and The Nothing Man. We talked with Howard, who lives in Dublin, about Run Time, her career trajectory, and how women writers are pushing the thriller genre forward.

The Millions: Let’s start at the very beginning. Prior to writing full-time, you worked as an administrator for a travel company in the Netherlands and a front desk agent at Disneyworld. How did you decide to make the leap and start your career as an author? What did that journey look like?

Catherine Ryan Howard: I always wanted to be an author, ever since I was old enough to figure that authors existed and books didn’t just appear. But although I talked about it a lot, read all the “how to” books obsessively, stalked published authors (ahem), I never actually did any writing— which, it turned out, is a crucial part of getting published. (Who knew?!) So instead I spent much of my 20s having adventures abroad, and ultimately I ended up working in Disneyworld in Florida. When I got back to Ireland in 2008, I wrote a memoir about the experience and self-published it two years later. An article about a Disney cast member (DisneySpeak for employee) disappearing from a Disney cruise ship led me to researching maritime law— which basically makes a cruise ship the perfect place to get away with murder—and in the summer of 2014 I finally finished a draft of what would become my debut thriller, Distress Signals. I drew up a list of agents, followed their submission guidelines to the absolute letter and, finally, one of them took me and my novel on. It was pre-empted in a two-book deal five days after it went out on submission, and two of those days were Saturday and Sunday—so very, very exciting and totally surreal at the time. It sounds straightforward in hindsight, but I wasted a lot of time not writing, primarily because it was nicer to stay in the place where everything I wanted might yet be mine rather than write something, submit it, and find out it was never going to happen. I had to get past that fear, which took a while.

TM: You’re quite prolific: since 2016, you’ve published six novels—that’s a book a year! How do you maintain this kind of literary output? Do you find the writing process gets easier with each successive novel? 

CRH: My last book, 56 Days, which was set during Ireland’s first lockdown, from March to May 2020, was a really interesting experience for me because when it was published in August 2021, everyone was aghast at how quickly I’d written it and how fast my publishers had got it on the shelf. But I wrote it on the same schedule as I wrote all the others. The real-life events in 56 Days just exposed that. Writing is my full-time job. It’s my only job—I’m childfree and making stuff up is what I love doing more than anything else in the world. If it took me longer than a year to write a novel, that would be weird. A few months back I posted on Instagram that I was starting a new book, and someone commented, “You’re already writing another one?! You’re a machine!” But when your spouse gets up on Monday morning to go into work having just done a full day of it on Friday, you don’t say, “You’re going in again? Today? You were just there!” This is my full-time job; I act accordingly.

The process does get easier in some ways, but writing a book is still bloody hard work. I usually start by letting an idea percolate and take shape in my brain, which looks a lot like re-watching things on Netflix and shopping for stationery. Then I superfluously color-code an Excel spreadsheet and use it to plot out the major twists, turns and reveals. Then I start writing, starting slow but speeding up as I go. I almost always write three drafts, and each draft is like a brand-new book—I say I have to write three books for every one. For the first and second drafts I’ll start with a blank document and start typing from scratch but when it comes to the third I’ll go into the existing document and make changes. Then there’s usually a polish after that, draft 3.5. The whole thing takes approximately 12 months from beginning to end, but I do a lot of my percolating while I’m putting the finishing touches like copyedits or checking page proofs, to the previous book.

TM: Your debut novel, Distress Signals, was a bestseller on both sides of the pond. Were you surprised by its immediate success? Did having a bestselling book right out of the gate create any sort of pressure for you as you began writing your next books? 

CRH: It was technically a bestseller but in a blink-and-you’d-miss-it way, and it was a long (long) way down the list. To be honest, the year my debut novel came out was the worst year of my life. I know that sounds very #firstworldproblems, but I’d desperately wanted this thing since I was 8 years old, finally got it at 33, and it looked absolutely nothing like I’d imagined or planned or dreamed about. And that was devastating. Publishing pushes the narrative that debuts make a splash and then it’s all downhill from there. But my last book, 56 Days, was my most successful by far—and it was my fifth. And some exciting things I can’t talk about yet have just happened, right after I submitted my sixth novel. Now, in hindsight, I’m delighted my career has followed the trajectory it has, each book doing a little better than the one before, because I appreciate every success so much more, and I think—hope—that consistent, organic growth is a much better recipe for career longevity than a splashy debut you can’t possibly top. It didn’t feel that way back in 2016, though.

TM: Just days before Distress Signals was published, you were taking the first of your second-year exams at Trinity College Dublin. What was it like publishing your first book while being a student? How did you manage the competing demands? Did being a student prepare you at all for being a bestselling author, or vice versa?

CRH: I was a mature student, which I think you call non-traditional. I was a 32-year-old freshman. I had dropped out of college first time around, and I’d always regretted missing out on the college experience and also feared that there were serious gaps in my reading. In January 2014, I decided I needed something in my life other than waiting for a “yes” from an agent or an editor, so I applied to study English at Trinity College Dublin, renowned for its beautiful library and educating all of Sally Rooney’s characters—and Sally herself. Knowing then that my free time was going to be seriously squeezed, I finally finished my novel a couple of weeks before orientation. Six weeks later I got an agent and six months after that, I got a book deal. I still had three and a half years of the degree to go and, by then, I’d realized that, really, I hadn’t missed out on anything. I didn’t enjoy the vast majority of the books we studied, and I found it really weird that the whole business of publishing seemed to be invisible to everyone. For instance, we spent hours discussing a certain book as if it were some seminal, groundbreaking text when I knew it was merely a series of newspaper columns that some agent or editor had had the bright idea to collect in a book and slap a price-tag on. It wasn’t canon, it was commerce. But no one wanted to acknowledge that. But I’m glad I went because I might never have finished my novel otherwise, and I really benefited from a couple of modules where I got to write under the supervision of established writers who really made an impact on me and how I work, like Ian Sansom and Carlo Gébler. And anyway I couldn’t have broken my dad’s heart twice by dropping out of college again.

As for managing competing demands, it was simple: I never read anything the whole way through and I wrote all my essays in all-night caffeine-induced fever dreams in the hours before they were due. I also had a memorable exam in post-colonial literature where I was so hungover after a few days of book-launching that I almost skipped it, but then downed two espressos, ate an avocado with a spoon and, in the exam, pretended that I was running out of time by making my writing messier and messier until I switched to bullet points because I didn’t have the energy to do any more than that. But I got a 2:1 in that exam and I got my degree so, hey, it worked. (Sorry, TCD!)

TM: Run Time partly takes place on the film set of a horror movie called Final Draft. What led you to set the novel within the world of movies? What kind of research into the process of filmmaking to bring Adele’s experience on set to life?

CRH: My brother John is an actor and he was in a 2016 independent Irish horror movie called Beyond the Woods, which was shot at an old farmhouse in the seclusion of the Irish countryside in the dead of winter. He told me that one of the first things the crew had to do was visit the local police station to warn them that if someone called to say they’d heard screams coming from the woods in the middle of the night, it wasn’t someone getting murdered, it was just them filming. I immediately thought: but what if it was someone getting murdered, and they were just using the movie as a cover? That’s where the idea for Run Time originated.

As for research I relied mostly on John’s experiences in the industry—particularly for the scene at the beginning where Adele, the narrator, auditions for a painkiller commercial—and on another friend of mine, Caroline, who has been an actor and a screenwriter and on sets for a lot of her adult life. I made things easy for myself though because, without spoiling anything, only a small portion of the action is actually a film being made. When it came to the ins and outs of shooting scenes, set-ups, etc., there is literally nothing anyone does for a living that someone hasn’t made a very helpful instructional YouTube video about, it seems.

TM: Many of the Run Time’s most compelling moments of horror unfold as Adele realizes that her life on set has begun to mirror the sinister events portrayed in the script. The fact that the novel revolves around the filmmaking process creates such fertile ground to explore themes like artifice, performance, duplicity, fantasy. How did you want the novel’s setting and theme to complement—or perhaps bristle against—each other?

CRH: I don’t really consider themes when I sit down to write. They tend to organically emerge and evolve over time. With Run Time I realized early on that what I was really writing about in this novel were the dangers of wanting something too much. When I got the phonecall that someone had offered on my debut novel—at 12:59pm on Monday, March 23, 2015, yes I do know the time down to the minute thanks very much—the overriding emotion I felt was relief. I had finally done the thing that I had been trying to do all my adult life. The next thing I felt was absolutely certainty that I never ever wanted to want something that badly ever again—because what happens if you don’t get it? The #LifeCoachesofInstagram would have us believe that it’s just a case of write it down, make it happen, or dream, believe, achieve, but the reality is most people do not get the things they dream of having. So at what point do you give up? How do you turn off the wanting? And what if what you want is a book deal or an acting role, something that could happen at any moment, without warning, changing everything? How do you truly stop wanting that? What if you can’t? And what if the wanting gets in the way of you making good decisions and, you know, living life? That’s the journey Adele, Run Time’s narrator, is on. Obviously there are parallels with my own experience—I’m very, very lucky I got the thing I wanted, because I just can’t imagine how I’d have coped with not getting it. I still don’t know how not to want it. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else but this.

TM: What did the process of writing Run Time look like? In terms of plot and character, how much did you already have planned out before you took to the page?

CRH: For me, plot is character, and vice-versa. I don’t see how you can separate the two. The plot tends to come to me first, and that naturally generates the people the plot will involve. For example, if you decide to write novel about someone stuck in a cave for a week, and then you decide that that person is one of the world’s most experienced cave divers, you’re really going to have dig for the drama. But what if they’re claustrophobic, can’t swim, and have never done anything more risky than mixing drinks? Now you have a story. And if you do it the other way around, if you start with the risk-averse non-swimming claustrophobe, you’ll be asking yourself, what’s the worst thing that could happen to them? What’s the biggest obstacle I could throw in their way on their journey to becoming version 2.0 (which they must do; all stories are about change)? And back into the cave we go.

In terms of planning, I usually plot out the main beats of the story on an Excel spreadsheet, just so I have some goalposts to aim for along the way, and I always know what the “truth” or the big reveal is and I work backwards from there. Writers who plan in advance (plotters) tend to get a bad wrap from those who don’t (pantsers). There’s always an inference that plotting in advance is somehow less creative than those who just sit down and start typing. But we’re all doing the same thing: at some point, we have to figure out what the story is. Some people do that in a first draft, but I do it in a spreadsheet just before I start writing that. There’s no right way to write a book, only the way that works for you.

Run Time was a bit unusual in that the full screenplay for Final Draft, the movie they’re shooting in the novel, is inside the novel itself. I had a lot of fun writing that, especially because in the world of the novel the screenplay is written by someone without a lot of success or experience so that was my get-out-jail-free card if it turned out to be absolute rubbish.

TM: Many readers might associate the thriller/crime genre with male writers like David Baldacci, John Grisham, Dan Brown, Lee Child, James Patterson—the old guard. But women writers have been major players in the genre for decades, as well as pioneers in reimagining what the genre can be. As a woman writing thriller/crime novels, does gender play any role in your work? Are there any tropes employed by male thriller writers that you are looking to reimagine? Are you ever aware of certain expectations being placed on your work because you’re a woman?

CRH: Yes, those names continue to sell well to their established readerships, but the freshest debut among them is from 1998—Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress, and that’s only his debut if we discount his co-writing 187 Men to Avoid: A Survival Guide for the Romantically Frustrated Woman in 1995, which I don’t. Even though 1998 still sounds recent to me it’s actually a quarter of a century ago, so that group is hardly a barometer of the crime/thriller zeitgeist. They don’t tell us where the genre is now or has been recently, and they cannot tell us where it’s going.

The future is most definitely female—and the last couple of decades have already been that. Today’s bestseller lists are dominated by the likes of Ruth Ware and Lucy Foley, both of whom are just getting started, and the most mega-selling titles in the genre in recent memory, Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train—which each sold approximately 20 million —have been by women too, namely Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins. Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing has been on the bestseller lists for so long it’s grown roots; it’s a murder-mystery, essentially, so I think we can claim it too.

Then there’s the likes of Lisa Jewell, Tana French, Flynn Berry, Laura Lippman and many, many more, consistently hitting lists, getting TV adaptations, winning prestigious awards and elevating our expectations of the genre with their incredible writing. The most exciting, original and, yes, thrilling crime/thriller novels I’ve read in recent years have all been by women—books like True Story by Kate Reed Petty, Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka, and My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. What male writer is pushing at the boundaries of the genre and playing with its forms and conventions in even half as exciting a way? I can’t think of one.

Meanwhile on this side of the Atlantic, women dominate the genre so entirely that a panel of Irish crime/thriller authors is notable if it includes a man and, since its inception in 2009, Crime Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards has been won 11 times by women but only twice by men. To my knowledge the only book to fit firmly in the commercial end of the crime/thriller genre ever to be longlisted for the Booker is British crime writer Belinda Bauer’s Exit, and it was when another female crime-writing star, Val McDermid, was called to the judging panel. As I type this, there are five crime/thriller novels in the Irish top 10 and only one of them is by a man, John Grisham, at number seven. But sitting pretty at number one, having sold double what he did, is Karin Slaughter. And I haven’t even mentioned Patricia Highsmith, Agatha Christie, or Ruth Rendell yet, to name-drop a canonical few. I’d like to retire the claim that men dominate this genre. Because they don’t.

As for expectations, I can only say what I expect from my fellow female crime/thriller writers: authenticity. Men have a very different relationship with fear. For them, it’s a worst-case scenario, an outsized nightmare that almost certainly won’t happen. For us, it’s something we live with on some level all day, every day, and have since we were teenagers. It’s so engrained in our brain stems that we don’t even realize how many everyday decisions we make based on it. We don’t walk lonely paths with our earbuds in. We’re careful with the information we share online. We know to avoid that shortcut home after dark. We pick a quiet carriage on the train, but not the quietest one in case something happens and we need help. We text our friends to let them know we got home okay. Our relationship with fear, therefore, is a much more intimate one. That’s why we have so much so-called domestic noir, where the threat is coming from inside the home, or maybe even from the other side of our bed. Men just don’t experience the world in that way; their fears feel a bit exaggerated to me, unlikely to actually effect the average person. And, increasingly, female writers can be relied upon to foreground the victim’s experience, even in novels that are ostensibly about serial killers, Notes on an Execution and These Women by Ivy Pochoda being great examples. I suppose, as a female crime/thriller writer, that’s always on my mind: that even when you have a male killer and might even include chapters from his POV, these are ultimately his victims’ stories, the women’s stories. They should be told accordingly.

Laughter Is the Truth: The Millions Interviews Nora Zelevansky

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Nora Zelevansky’s latest novel, Competitive Grieving, out in paperback from Blackstone on TK, follows Wren, who is reeling after the sudden death of her best friend Stewart. Daunted by the intensity of her grief, she does whatever she can to avoid facing reality—namely, dreaming up the perfect funeral plans for everyone she meets. But when she is tasked with taking care of Stewart’s estate, she can no longer hide from her loss as she reflects on—and discovers new things about—Stewart’s life.

Zelevansky is also the author of the novels Will You Won’t You Want Me? and Semi-Charmed Life. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Vanity Fair, Elle, and elsewhere. We caught up with her to talk about parenthood, self-help, artmaking, and the personal story behind Competitive Grieving.

The Millions: The impetus for writing Competitive Grieving was very personal for you. Can you talk a bit about that?

Nora Zelevansky: In 2017, a year that was tumultuous for many of us, one of my best friends from childhood died, a friend who I considered like a kindred soul. (That’s not usually how I express myself, but, in this case, it felt true.) He was charismatic and gifted at everything and had experienced a moment of notoriety as a musician, so many people felt close to him. In the aftermath of losing him, I watched (and, okay, sometimes participated) as people behaved not at their best, clawing for a kind of recognition of their significance to him. Of course, the only person who could really confirm or deny any of it was him—and he was gone. I became fascinated by the whole phenomenon and, one day, announced to another mutual best friend that I was going to write a book called, Competitive Grieving. For maybe two minutes, I was kidding. And then I realized I wasn’t.

TM: The novel’s protagonist, Wren, feels so fully fleshed out. Did you find you were infusing any parts of yourself into her character as you wrote her? Did she come to you fully formed or did you discover her as you wrote?

NZ: Thank you! I guess, as a writer, you always infuse some elements of your own worldview into your characters, unless they’re so drastically different from you that you’re envisioning your opposite. I tend to give them exaggerated versions of my flaws (at least, I hope they’re exaggerated). Wren’s habit of planning strangers’ funerals does mirror a habit I have of imagining strangers’ love stories and my own funeral, actually, but I don’t struggle with the same issues as she does in relationships. Maybe, in some ways, all of my characters are Sliding Doors versions of me. I never write with an outline though, so she definitely wasn’t fully fleshed out at the outset and came to fruition as I went along—and was even more fleshed out after my many, many edits.

TM: Though its subject matter is serious, and it certainly strikes darker chords throughout, Competitive Grieving is at its core a comedy, as well as a love story. How were you able to balance the novel’s shifting moods and genres, tackling grave issues while maintaining a sense of levity?

NZ: For me, humor is a gigantic coping mechanism. The most important one, maybe. Especially in dark times (the last few years in the world, for example), I need those moments of levity to keep me afloat. And I like to read that way too, especially lately. I need bursts of light to balance out the dark, an edge of hope to keep me going. So, it was natural for me to approach the idea of grieving with comedy. I find those moments—when you’re reminiscing with friends about someone you lost, for example, and all burst out laughing about some flaw that he had—to be the most authentic and cathartic. Laughter is the truth.

TM: In addition to being a moving story, Competitive Grieving contains a lot of insights that readers can apply to their own lives as they grief. How do you feel fiction might be able to help us lead better lives in a way that is unique from, say, self-help literature?

NZ: I’m not a reader of self-help, though I’ve spent many years covering wellness and editing wellness content. I think it’s totally possible to find solutions via those types of books, but nothing is one-size-fits-all. Sometimes, assuming that there’s one surefire solution can put pressure on us to fix ourselves and make us feel like we’ve failed if it doesn’t help. Stories, on the other hand, contain multitudes. Whether fiction or memoir, to be able to read about someone else’s experience and perhaps relate or commiserate is invaluable. To be able to laugh and cry at someone else’s journey, with someone else, when perhaps you’re working through your own personal issues, is cathartic. Of course, fiction has the added benefit of wish fulfillment, if the author so chooses. In grieving through make-believe, everything can wind up okay in the end.

TM: Since the start of the pandemic, the experience of grief has become ubiquitous, whether people are mourning the loss of loved ones or mourning the loss of milestones or mourning the life they thought they might have. Although you wrote the book before the pandemic, this is the world that Competitive Grieving was published into in 2021. How did you find that shaped readers’ reception to the book? Were you at all surprised by the newfound resonance it took on given how the world had changed?

NZ: Were it not for the 2020 election, which created a kind of publishing blackout except in specific sectors, Competitive Grieving would have been published that fall. I’ll be honest: I was initially bummed about having to wait so long to see it all come to fruition. But it turned out to be the most amazing blessing. The book came out when the world actually needed these kinds of stories, and it became a small part of what I see as an incredibly important conversation about grief. One silver lining to the pandemic’s horrible toll has been a new kind of openness about loss, a dispensing with taboo, and I am so honored to be part of that discussion on any level. One of the greatest rewards of this book has been having people reach out to me to share their own competitive grieving stories. It’s something I never anticipated and has meant a ton to me.

TM: Last year, you wrote an essay about the challenges of grieving while being a parent. In it, you talk about how you found sharing stories about loved ones with your children as a way to communicate your grief. Sharing stories is, of course, what writers do. Did becoming a parent at all change you as a writer or impact your writing? Did it shape Competitive Grieving at all? 

NZ: Becoming a parent definitely changed my writing routine, I’ll say that. I used to think I needed some kind of immaculate setting in which to write—only first thing in the morning, only with the right cup of tea, only before anyone spoke to me, only when the moon was in Sagittarius and waning (just kidding—I don’t even know if that’s a thing). But, when that became an impossibility, I changed my tune. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention (no pun intended). Before I had children, I remember stressing aloud to my father, who is a visual artist, about having time to write once I became a mother. He said, “You can’t believe how much you can get done in a short amount of time until you have kids.”

TM: Two of the epigraphs that preface Competitive Grieving are attributed to Groucho Marx and Katherine Hepburn—so it’s no surprise that in college you majored in film and visual art. How do you find your knowledge of film and visual art shape your work as a novelist?

NZ: Both mediums are so inextricably linked to my being at this point. I grew up on the Upper West Side with a visual artist father and contemporary curator mother. I spent my early childhood running around performance art events in Soho when it was still a dilapidated pit (which is to say, there was not yet a J. Crew), and wandering MoMA’s galleries alone while the museum was closed to visitors. My parents’ friends were all freaky but serious artists and writers. And my older sister was born obsessed with performance and currently runs a theater incubator called The Mercury Store. So discussions around this kind of creative work—and even having “important work”—were the entire backdrop of my childhood.

As for film, I worked as a development exec in LA before I became a writer and married a filmmaker-cum-graphic novelist. Even my in-laws are documentarians! So, my intense exposure to all of this art (high-low and in so many forms) no doubt shapes everything I do from the ground up. Honestly, the really crazy thing would have been if I became an accountant or corporate lawyer. That would have been more lucrative, in retrospect.

TM: You wrote two novels prior to Competitive Grieving, Will You Won’t You Want Me? and Semi-Charmed Life. How did the experience of writing Competitive Grieving compare to your previous novels?

NZ: The year I started writing Competitive Grieving was so overwhelming. Trump had just taken office, I was pregnant with my second child, I had a toddler, my best friend died, my uncle died, I had a big birthday (don’t worry about it!). That’s all to say that I have little to no memory of writing this book. Maybe it’s because it was so linked to my mourning process too. I wrote my first novel during National Novel Writing Month and, for me, the best process is still always to dump a first draft quickly, so I can go back in and get to the nitty-gritty. I do know that, because of the circumstances of having a newborn and a toddler, I wrote this one in small chunks—even writing an entire chapter on my phone in the car on a road trip while the kids slept.

TM: Do you have any recommended reading for those working through grief right now? 

NZ: I think different people probably need different things, and at different points in the process. I do think there’s such thing as too soon. When feelings are so raw at the beginning, I imagine most of us need to hide in distraction and escape—anything but thinking about the actual loss. But, whenever one is ready, some of my person favorite books about loss are This Is Where I Leave YouBeach ReadThe Year of Magical ThinkingA Man Called OveThe Great Believers, and, most recently, Crying in H Mart. The J.D. Salinger short story “A Perfect Day for Banana Fish” is maybe my favorite of all time. Again, for me, a mix of humor, pathos and raw honesty is the pinnacle.

Black Landscapes: The Millions Interviews M Shelly Conner

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M Shelly Conner’s debut novel everyman, out now in paperback from Blackstone, tells the story of Eve Mann, whose quest to learn about her past launches a multigenerational story set against the backdrop of the American South and the Great Migration. A temporally vast exploration of identity, inheritance, and liberation, everyman puts Conner in conversation with such literary forebearers as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. We talked with Conner about the journey to publication, the personal inspiration behind the book, and negotiating the oft-competing demands of academia and literature.
The Millions: What was the genesis of everyman? Can you walk us through the journey from the novel’s inception to its publication?
M Shelly Conner: My mother, a retired Chicago public librarian, has always been a curator of our family history and stories. Collecting everything from obituaries to census records, she’s traced our maternal ancestry back to the early 1800s. I’ve always felt an incredible sense of pride in the repository of information that she’s gathered for us. As a young Chicago public school teacher, I wanted to share that experience with my students. I knew they wouldn’t get as far as my mother had, but I hoped that they would gather enough information from their relatives to feel their place as part of something bigger and unique to their lives. I was unprepared for some of the pushback they received from their families. I thought of the decades that my mother spent interviewing relatives and combing through records and wondered why some would work just as hard to do the opposite. Who are the names that are erased from family bibles? What are their stories? I wrote the majority of everyman as my dissertation during my PhD program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It took an additional three years of revisions before I secured an agent, but it was acquired by a publisher rather quickly.
TM: You’re known as a multi-genre writer. Do you gravitate more strongly toward certain genres or find certain genres harder to tackle? Where does the genre of the novel fall for you? 
MSC: I’ve written more pieces of creative nonfiction than any other genre. It’s probably because there’s a quicker turnaround to publication. I spent years writing in various genres by taking advantage of immersive experiences: playwriting with Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater; sketch writing with The Second City theater; scriptwriting for television and web series opportunities; and most recently, writing a podcast episode for America’s Test Kitchen. I’m fluent in various storytelling genres, but fiction has always been my native tongue.
everyman took 16 years to come to fruition. It was my longest WIP even as I explored the other genres. I’ve now started my next novel and it feels strangely wonderful to write at this level—as a published novelist. All of my novel-writing skill set emerged through everyman. I’m finally getting the opportunity to apply those skills, as well as incorporate new technologies in creating new work.
TM: Eve, around whom everyman revolves, is such a well-rendered and dynamic character. When it comes to your characters, do you have them fully developed in your mind before you set pen to paper, or do you learn about them as you’re writing? Do you think any parts of yourself spilled into Eve?
MSC: Thank you for that. Eve thanks you for that. My characters are developed in my mind as far as traits, identity, their main goal/need, and their main conflict. But they definitely grow and teach me about themselves as I write them. If I’ve set them up with strong initial development, their subsequent thoughts, choices, and actions flow so freely at times that it feels like dictation.
Eve contains parts of myself—as do all the characters. People’s choices are based on their circumstances. In order to write empathetically, I first start imagining myself in different circumstances. Different parentage, lineage, geographic location, gender, orientation, et cetera. Eventually, you come to have a character that isn’t so easily recognizable as yourself, making choices that you would never dream to make in unimaginable circumstances. And yet, I do imagine them.
TM: Though part of the novel is set in Chicago, much of everyman feels like it belongs to—and pushes forward—a large and rich canon of Southern literature. The novel’s prelude, for instance, begins with a reflection on Southern life: “Small southern towns change slowly… It’s best represented by the southern drawl, like golden honey dripped onto biscuits.” Were you at all conscious of other writers and novels of the American South, of how the region has been traditionally portrayed and how you wanted to depict it? 
MSC: At the time of writing it, most of my literary inspirations were products of the Great Migration, like myself. Our parents had left the South, yet we remained connected to it through stays with relatives in the South, our continued traditions, and our cultural continuity. everyman is a love letter to the home-south, Chicago’s southside, and the Great Migration that connects the two.

Toni Morrison’s parents were from Alabama and Georgia. Her novel Song of Solomon—a strong influence for everyman—is a reverse migration narrative. Milkman’s journey of self-discovery is geo-genealogical, like Eve’s in everyman. An early literary inspiration was also Zora Neale Hurston, and not just for her storytelling and multi-genre work. She was a fierce advocate for Black southern stories and dialects when other Black writers were distancing themselves from it and proving themselves capable of standard English. As Morrison notes, “The very serious function of racism is distraction.… Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do.”
From Hurston to Morrison, we’ve seen what happens next. Black stories gain value but become represented by non-Black curators in major institutions like academia and publishing where there are shortages of actual Black people. I wanted to portray the South as I know it—as its grandchild. As the one who spent summers on her grandmother’s porch in Memphis. I wanted to capture so many nuances in the novel and dig beneath what has become cliché notions, one of the oldest being that the South is so slow that it is actually backward. So the very first paragraph tackles that notion and, hopefully, renders it beautifully—even seductively.

I didn’t know it at the time, but writers like Kiese Laymon, Regina Bradley, and others were doing the same thing—rendering nuanced Black landscapes of the South. Bradley’s work Chronicling Stankonia does this through the lens of Outkast and southern hip hop. It uses a key moment when the Atlanta-based rap duo Outkast upsets the traditional NY/West coasts rap landscape by winning Best New Rap Group at the 1995 Source Awards. Group member Andre 3000 famously said, “The south got something to say.” And it still does. Especially from Black folk. Even those who grew up bouncing between it and Chicago like children in dual-custody households.
TM: Kiese Laymon said that it “feels like Morrison and Walker guided the hand of the characters” in everyman—an incredibly high compliment! You were obviously conscious of Walker’s influence, as the novel begins with a quote of hers. In fact, each chapter begins with a different epigraph; one is from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, another from Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust. How did you channel all these influences into the writing of everyman? Who are some of your other literary influences?
MSC: Being likened to my greatest early literary influences (Morrison and Walker) by my greatest contemporary influence (Laymon) is mind-blowing. At times I can’t tell whether I channeled them or they channeled me. In any case, I am a grateful devotee of such communion.
I read Invisible Man as an undergraduate at Tuskegee University. To read such a powerful work in the place of its own inspiration activated something within me. Writing everyman was the nexus between my literary influences and my own experiences. Other early literary influences are Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Cherry Muhanji, Edward P. Jones, and Audre Lorde. My contemporary influences are Kiese Laymon, Deesha Philyaw, Dawnie Walton, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, and Robert Jones, Jr. to name a few of the many whose works have really informed my writing in recent years. I want to name them all and hope to have a chance to do so. Because there are so many of us that are doing the work and not being featured.
TM: You currently work in academia, as an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas. How do you negotiate the dual, and sometimes conflicting, demands of working in academia and writing literature? How do you negotiate your professor-self and writer-self?
MSC: I went into academia for the purpose of merging those aspects of self. I believe in the cyclical nature of learning and growth—one moves from novice to practitioner to mastery as best demonstrated by teaching and learning new insights from those with whom you’ve shared your knowledge, thus completing the cycle of learning craft. But that’s very philosophical. In reality, there are demands in academia that sometimes conflict with my writer-self. They sometimes even conflict with my professor-self. Academia is very much a business of education that neither my professor- nor my writer-self is predisposed to entertain.
Yet it’s where I must be for the work that I need to do. It’s not just about reaching a certain level of professional recognition. It’s about ensuring that the works of Black writers, Black queer writers, and marginalized voices are in these spaces and are being taught by those of us with these experiences. Compared to the dualities that I experience as a Black queer woman marginalized in academia, the writer-professor negotiation is negligible.

Find That First Sentence: The Millions Interviews Christopher Amenta

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The Cold Hard Light, published this week from Blackstone, is Christopher Amenta’s debut novel. Set in Amenta’s hometown of Boston, the novel follows Andrew, who goes by H—a new father who becomes obsessed with the man who assaulted his sister. The drama plays out amid the indignities of urban life, touching on racial and economic injustice as well as H’s own thirst for vengeance. The result is taut and gritty—a heavy dose of reality and scathing indictment of American cities. We talked with Amenta about the journey to publication, writing high stakes for his characters, and how his bike rides through Boston shaped his writing.

The Millions: The Cold Hard Light is your debut novel, so I’d love to start by asking you about the path to publication. What was the book’s genesis? What was the publishing process like?

Christopher Amenta: I began working on a version of this book in 2010. I’d had the idea to write about a young man who became obsessed with the guy who had assaulted his sister. However, I couldn’t seem to find the right tone or the right character to put at the center of this story. I put the idea aside for a few years. Then, in November 2017, shortly after a gunman murdered 60 people at a concert in Las Vegas, I started working again. I finished in March of 2020, a few weeks before George Floyd was murdered. The Cold Hard Light isn’t a novel about mass shooters or racially-motivated police violence, but tragedies similar to—and all together unique from—these two were happening throughout the years that I was writing. Some of my frustrations and anxieties and questions began to seep into the work.

When I finished, I passed the pages to my agent Christopher Vyce at the Brattle Agency. He and I had been working together on another manuscript, and he immediately began to pitch this new book. We got a few rejections, but Blackstone Publishing acquired the book in early 2021, less than a year after we put it up for sale. I was extremely lucky to sign with Christopher, and he deserves all the credit for matching us with Blackstone. Years ago, he was good enough to read a manuscript of mine from graduate school, and we’ve been working together ever since. The pages we delivered to Blackstone were pretty polished, and though we went through an editorial review process, the team didn’t request any significant changes.

From there, it’s been a surreal year and a half as their team has designed a beautiful book jacket, reviewed and edited and strengthened the prose, enlisted the very talented Chris Ciulla for the audiobook, and began connecting me with readers and outlets. I’ve been incredibly lucky. Many, many terrific writers never catch a break. I’m grateful to the people who have taken a chance on this book.

TM: What is your process for writing fiction generally? Do characters come to you fully formed, or do they reveal themselves to you as you write? How and where does a story start for you?

CA: I do my best writing when I can find that first sentence that sets the tone and gives voice to the work. But that’s not to say I sit around and wait for one sentence to arrive. I usually take a lot of missteps before things come together. I’ve changed narrators. I’ve tossed off entire drafts and entire novels. And, in the case of The Cold Hard Light, I put the idea down for about five years until I could hear it more clearly in my own head.

I like to chase the characters across the page. I tend to learn, through writing, how they talk and what they might do. Some of the best moments in this novel, I think, are passages I didn’t plan to write and bits of dialog or action that seemed to spring from the characters themselves. The good stuff surprises me. And it’s only after a first draft that I can step back and start to understand what the book’s problem is, where all the little devils are, and whose soul is at stake.

TM: You’ve previously published several works of short fiction—how does the experience of writing a novel compare to short stories? Are there unique challenges to each? Do you prefer one over the other?

CA: Great short story writers are able to distill a whole life into a few pages so that the reader steps away knowing that nothing will ever be the same. A novel achieves a similar result, but the pressure is really on in the short story. Lots has to be done by implication. What happens, I think, becomes critically important. Conflict and resolution have to come in scenes because we haven’t the time or space to expound. I still have plenty to learn about the art of writing short stories, though I’m not sure I would return to the form any time soon. I prefer to write novels. The stories that seemed to turn out best for me started with a very clear sense of character and voice and a very well-defined problem that I could explore. I’ve brought that framework to writing longer fiction.

The novel works by addition, so starting in the right place seems important. This is partly because it takes so long to write. I work in the mornings, before heading to my office job, so The Cold Hard Light was assembled in something like 45-minute increments over a stretch of years. Each day’s work depended on what preceded it. Once I had it all down, I leaned on the skills I developed while working on short fiction to refine the book into something more focused. The Cold Hard Light deals with a single narrative arc and a handful of characters. The questions that are being asked in the first chapter are being answered in the final pages. When I was revising the book, I would create a new blank document for each chapter and try to form each segment into something like a short story with a setting, a few characters, and in which something irrevocable happens that steers the book onward. This process helped tighten the story into the novel it became.

TM: I think a lot of readers might be surprised by how many iconic novels are, like The Cold Hard Light, set in Boston—Infinite JestThe Bell JarWalden. Do you see your novel fitting into a larger canon of Boston literature? And how do you approach the work of conjuring place, of honoring a city’s specificity while exploring universal experience?

CA: There are so many great novels set in or inspired by Boston or New England, all of which are to be admired and many of which I could have learned from. For me, though, the most instructive examples came from books that, regardless of setting, conjured a specific tone and employed a contained, dramatic arc. Mine is a gritty, little thing that had to feel real—not just that it could happen, but that it might be happening right now, somewhere nearby, for all we know.

Setting was an important part of making this world feel lived in. I borrowed a lot. It’s wonderful to be in a city like Boston where so much is happening, where there’s interest everywhere. When I was writing this book, I was riding my bike to work on a route that cut right through the neighborhoods in the novel. I noticed places and people and interactions. Watching and listening gave the book its specificity, but what makes it feel universal, I think, is how H feels about this setting. Boston had been his home, and then it changed, and he’s surrounded by evidence that it continues to change right around him. He doesn’t recognize anyone, anymore. He feels like an imposter. That’s something that anybody in any place can relate to. So though this book is about a Boston that’s inspired by what I saw and heard, the reader is hopefully experiencing a sense of alienation which we all have felt at some point in our lives.

TM: Boston is more than a setting for the novel, it’s also your hometown, so you have a unique perspective in terms of portraying the city authentically—as well as critiquing some of its faults. The Cold Hard Light deals explicitly with the inequities of urban life, racism in the justice system, and gun violence, in Boston and in the U.S. as a whole. How did you approach writing from this vantage point and about such urgent social issues? 

CA: These terrible headlines were everywhere when I was writing. Another mass shooting? Another Black man murdered by police? Whatever nonsense was happening in the White House this week or that. On every street corner I saw cranes and development. Every ad was for luxury condos. When did we all start demanding so much luxury? I’d see these massive SUVs rolling through the city, in which gig workers were shuttling around the business class. Everybody had their faces in their phones all the time.

These things are part of everyday life in this city and in countless others. Some may seem benign, others are outwardly nefarious, but they all seemed of a piece to me. If I was going to set this book in Boston, and I wanted the story to feel real, then I needed to try to capture how these circumstances would matter to someone like H, someone like Billy, someone like Williams. It became clear to me that a city like this could stack up on a person, could start to feel lonely and inescapable, could make a person feel like they’d be lucky to get out alive. I was always trying to work from that point of view, which belonged to my characters, as I was writing about this city in this country.

TM: One of the challenges of writing a novel that contains social commentary is how to balance story and critique. How did you approach this balance when writing The Cold Hard Light? And how do you think fiction can deliver social commentary differently from nonfiction? 

CA: Flannery O’Connor wrote an essay in which she argues that the task of fiction is to tell “how some specific folks will do.” This feels like the right way to go about it. I think it’s risky to start writing fiction to try to make a point. But if you start writing about people and what they might do, perhaps some wisdom or truth asserts itself. In the case of this book, if those people are inhabiting a world that resembles our own, that’s troubled by some of the issues that we deal with, then, suddenly, the story can contain a critique. That’s nice. It feels organic and, therefore, more true.

I don’t think anyone would be interested in an essay from me about a broken criminal justice system or the absurd relationship this country has with its guns. I’m certainly not an authority on any of that. But I did think I could write about a couple of people bumping into each other as they try to make their way through a world where unequal and unreasonable circumstances can lead to extreme behaviors and violence. And the result is pretty dark. But maybe that’s appropriate, especially if some readers get to the end and think more critically about how an America like the one in the novel might drive some folks to live and behave as these characters do.

TM: The Cold Hard Light is characterized by a tense and gritty realism—characters confront job insecurity, postpartum depression, violence, incarceration. What draws you to writing in this mode rather than, say, more escapist fiction? What value do you feel readers derive from stories that closely mirror reality—even, perhaps, uncomfortably so?

CA: I like to read stories that are tense and gritty and realistic. One of the advanced readers, author Thomas O’Malley, called the book Doestevskian, likening H to a modern day Roskolnikov, and another, author Jack O’Connell, wrote that the book reminded him of George V. Higgins and Raymond Carver. These comparisons flatter the novel and are more than generous, but I saw those blurbs and thought, yeah, that’s the sort of thing I was hoping this might be.

When I finally finished writing the book, I handed the draft to my wife—who is always my first reader—hangdog. It’s not a lot of fun, I warned her. But at the end of the day, I wasn’t trying to write something fun. Not everybody gets the opportunity to say something. Were I to get mine, I ought to stand up and speak clearly. If this novel feels tense and gritty, and if its world seems authentic and familiar, and if you believe that these characters might exist and behave as they do, then maybe there’s value in reading and feeling a little uncomfortable. Escapist fiction can, of course, be as beautiful and powerful and transformative as any realism, but it’s just not where my interests lie.

TM: You received your MFA in fiction from Boston University, so I’m sure you’re asked not infrequently to weigh in on the great debate about the value of an MFA. What was your MFA experience like and how do you think it shaped both you as a writer and your writing career?

CA: I owe the publication of this novel to the MFA program at Boston University, without a doubt. There, I learned several invaluable skills, the most important of which, and arguably the least cited in the great MFA debate, is the ability to read my own work as another might. Like everybody else, I went into the program thinking I would learn to write great, important things. Thankfully, I was quickly relieved of that misconception. The program I attended focused on writing a lot, as clearly as possible, in a very short amount of time. Through that process, I learned about craft. I feel as though the program rinsed my prose clean. One of the critiques of the MFA is that everyone comes out sounding the same, but I don’t think that’s right. My education helped me distill and clarify my writing, and then, in the years since, I learned how to layer voice back in—not mine, but that of my characters. Learning the craft gave me a very good foundation.

But the reading is the useful part. You spend all your time critiquing others’ work. Your own writing gets dinged around the room while you sit there and bite your tongue and wait for your turn to defend your own poorly realized vision. That’s good stuff. It helps you learn to write for an audience. If it were up to me, I’d make the fiction workshop a requirement for all first-year college students because it’s in there that the writer begins to work on behalf of the reader. And that’s the big thing I got out of the MFA. Before I went into that program, I would read fiction and ask, “What does it mean?” Now, I understand that the right question is, “What does it do?”

The MFA doesn’t work for everyone. Don’t go in expecting a big break right away. Don’t spend very much money on it (unless you’ve got it). But, if you can do it like I did—find a well-funded program, work while you go to school, take on no debt, and practice what you learn for years, seriously, after the fact—then I doubt you will regret it.

TM: You’re currently at work on your second novel—is there anything you can share about it? 

CA: I’ve finished a novel that’s set in the fracking fields of North Dakota in the dead of winter. It follows a young father, separated from his wife, as he tries to cope with the very difficult, very lucrative job of being a roughneck. It seems like an interesting place to focus some attention right now as we perpetuate our dependency on fossil fuels.I also started working on a novel that tells the story of an emergency room nurse who, exhausted and emotionally drained from the pandemic, quits her job, and moves in with her boyfriend, an eccentric, brilliant, and very successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur. I’d read about a number of wealthy individuals who bought up helicopters and land in New Zealand so that they can live off the grid when global warming finally and at last results in mass migration, food scarcity, war, and suffering. And I thought: how callous. I wondered what’s going on in the heads and the hearts of these people. So I thought I’d dive in and see what I could find.

The Magical and the Mundane: The Millions Interviews Alanna Schubach

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Alanna Schubach’s debut novel The Nobodies, out June 21 from Blackstone, tells the story of Jess and Nina, two best friends with a secret: by touching their heads together, they can swap bodies. This supernatural power allows them to inhabit each other’s lives; self-conscious Nina can enjoy Jess’s bold and assertive persona, while Jess revels in the safety of Nina’s stable family. But the ability to body-swap also brings to the fore questions of intimacy, trust, and betrayal and puts the mechanics of female friendship under a microscope.

Schubach’s short stories have appeared in Shenandoah, the Sewanee Review, the Massachusetts Review, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. We caught up with her ahead of the publication of The Nobodies to chat about composite characters, the drafting process, Elena Ferrante, how to juxtapose the magical and the mundane, and much more.

The Millions: This is your debut novel, so I’d love first to start by asking you about your path to its publication. What was the novel’s genesis, and how did it come into being?

Alanna Schubach: The novel began as a short story, specifically the section that takes place when the main characters, Nina and Jess, are in high school. The story began at a point when they’d already been using this secret power to swap bodies and building up a lot of baggage around that for some time, and ended with a rupture between them. When I shared the story with my writing group, the reaction was unanimous that there was a lot more to explore, enough for a novel, which I had also sensed but felt intimidated about, so that gave me the push I needed.

The writing of the initial draft took about three years; I was juggling multiple freelance writing and teaching gigs, so I had to carve out little snatches of time and sometimes it was a struggle to stay motivated. Doing a writing residency helped, and so did the encouragement of my writing groups. I was very lucky to be connected with my agent, Robert Guinsler, who wholeheartedly believed in the novel and was not deterred when quite a few publishers passed on the initial submission. I was also fortunate to win an emerging writer fellowship with the Center for Fiction, part of which included being paired with a professional editor, Meg Storey. I asked her to evaluate the manuscript, because the feedback from publishers who passed was all over the map. Meg understood what I was trying to do with the story, both practically and thematically, and came back with a really insightful and thorough developmental edit. I did a substantial revision based on that, and then Robert took the novel out again, and finally, a few months later, it found its home at Blackstone. My path to publication is a story of both my perseverance (or stubbornness) and very good luck in finding the right people at the right time. And also of the support of family and friends, without whom I’d have thrown up my hands and given up at some point.

TM: The storytelling device of the body swap been explored by such writers as Anne Rice, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, H. P. Lovecraft, Mary Shelley, and Julio Cortázar. Did you read any body-swapping stories while you were writing the novel? Why did you feel this device was vital to telling Jess and Nina’s story? Did you at all want to turn it on its head?

AS: Funny you mention Anne Rice—I had forgotten about her body-swap novel, but I did read it years ago. I was a huge devotee of her Vampire Chronicles series when I was a teenager, so it’s possible that was in the back of my mind. Speaking of vampires, there’s an episode of Buffy­—which I was also obsessed with—in which Buffy swaps bodies with her nemesis, Faith. I remember being really affected at the time by how Faith reacts with rage and horror when she’s confronted with her own image, Buffy in her body. Something about that rang true to me, that if we could perceive ourselves from the outside, closer to how others perceive us, it would be very destabilizing.

I didn’t read any body-swapping stories while I was writing the novel, but I did read the work of a lot of writers who blend or defy so-called realistic and genre fiction, like Kate Atkinson, Ted Chiang, Brian Evenson, Kelly Link, Helen Oyeyemi, and Karen Russell. Also Kobo Abe, Italo Calvino, Shirley Jackson, and Ursula LeGuin. They all opened my eyes to the capaciousness of fiction and its ability to exist outside traditional categories. I think by not reading fiction specifically about body-swapping, I wasn’t preoccupied with adhering to or defying its conventions and could focus on what made sense for my story.

TM: The conceit of The Nobodies feels very much in the tradition of magical realism, in that the narrative is very realistic, with fully fleshed out interpersonal relationships. Yet this supernatural element is organically woven into that narrative. Can you talk a bit about where you situate the novel within—or outside of—the constraints of genre? Was magical realism at all on your mind?

AS: I try to avoid thinking much about what my place might be within a larger tradition—ultimately that’s out of my hands. And during the writing process, I had a lot of uncertainty about whether I’d finish at all, let alone how I’d classify the novel. What I did consider important to the story was that Nina and Jess’s power be limited—that it be a miraculous, incredible secret, but also a closed system. They can only swap bodies with each other, and no one else ever seems to notice when they’ve done it. It was also important that they wield their power within an otherwise recognizable setting. This contrast seemed to me the way to capture that feeling of sharing a private, magical but also claustrophobic world with the person you’re closest to. And I found there ended up being some drift between the supposedly “magical” and “mundane” elements of the novel. The more the girls use their power, the more matter-of-fact it felt; the more I dug into the book’s “realistic” settings and situations, the stranger they became to me.

TM: The Nobodies is set against the vibrant backdrop of New York City, as so many great contemporary novels are. It’s a cliché now to say that New York City is basically a character in the story—but it never fails to be an interesting character! How does the city factor into your novel, and how did you want to depict it within the vast canon of literature set in New York City?

AS: My perspective on New York City may be a bit unusual as far as NYC-set literature goes, because I grew up on Long Island, about 30 miles from Manhattan physically, but light-years away culturally and temperamentally, it often seemed to me as a kid. New York City was not so much a glamorous, fantastical, far-off dreamland but a real place I traveled to on the Long Island Rail Road and was desperate to get to permanently. And when I did get there, it felt like I’d made the right decision, but it wasn’t like the city had just been waiting for me to arrive. I had plenty of fun, but it was a slog for years to just scrape by, and there was also the strangeness of living there in the aftermath of two disasters, 9/11 and then the financial crisis. It was important to me that the slog of it came through in the novel, and the sense of being totally unremarkable in a remarkable place. Nina and Jess share an incredible power, and they expect that it’s going to unlock the city for them, that they’ll rise to power within it, but they don’t. They don’t have money or connections; they’re not part of any exciting scenes. They muddle through, too. And there are other settings that are also significant to the novel, which jumps around in time and space: Long Island, where the girls grow up, and Japan, where Nina moves at one point. I hope these locations also feel real enough to be like characters unto themselves.

TM: The relationships in the novel feel so authentic, so fully fleshed out and lived in. Did you draw any aspects of the novel, or its central relationships, from your own life or experiences?

AS: Another way in which I’m very lucky is that I’ve known my two closest friends since junior high and high school, and we’ve maintained a bond with enough room to allow us to grow individually and together in all kinds of ways. A relationship is like a life, in that it goes through many phases. Fortunately whatever periods of tension we’ve weathered together have not been nearly as dramatic as what Nina and Jess go through, but the ups and downs, and some of the ways my friends have challenged or encouraged or surprised me, did serve as inspiration. I drew upon my experiences for probably all the relationships in the novel, with parents, teachers, boyfriends, co-workers, et cetera, but they’re never as simple as one-to-one analogues for real-life ones. Characters are composites of aspects of many people, real and imagined. And there’s probably at least a bit of me in every character, because I don’t see how there couldn’t be—they all came from me, my particular lens on events, interpretations of behavior, and imagination.

TM: In recent years, the subject of female friendships has finally been treated as worthy of literary attention and exploration, thanks in part to authors like Sally Rooney and Elena Ferrante. How would you describe your approach to writing about female friendships—what, for instance, makes them different from other kinds of friendships?—and how do you feel about the long overdue literary attention now being paid to them?

AS: For a period of my childhood I was only friends with boys. I had a falling out with some girl friends and decided girls were too complicated and unpredictable. Of course boys are too, which I eventually learned. But generally, I think women are better at maintaining relationships long-term, because they’re allowed access to a broader range of emotion and a deeper intimacy with each other than most men are. This may be changing; young men now may feel more able to be vulnerable and confide in each other than they used to. But when I was coming of age, it was way more common to see (ostensibly straight) girls in intense entanglements with each other that were not quite the same as heterosexual romances.

I think the shadow side of that infatuation is jealousy. There’s the external pressure of male attention, as both a potential threat and something to compete for. And there’s the belief you can easily succumb to: that your friend already has whatever seems to be missing in yourself or your life. Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels loom large in terms of depicting this, as does Sula by Toni Morrison. What I wanted to do in my novel was take that jealousy and apply it to this magical device of body-swapping: what would happen if you could step into your friend’s skin and take what she had for yourself, literally possess her? Would that finally make you complete and worthy?

I’m glad female friendships are getting their due now. There’s way more to explore. I hope that we can also honor, in literary and other artistic depictions, the positive role female friends continue to play in each other’s lives as they age. Even if you’re married, have kids, whatever, those relationships remain unique and important, and there is room in our lives for them.

TM: In the novel, you explore the depths and gradations of betrayal, which is often viewed as quite a cut and dry action. How does the story of Jess and Nina complicate common notions of betrayal, and how did you approach writing about betrayal with nuance?

AS: In a workshop, another student who read an earlier draft of the novel told me she saw Jess as evil. I was horrified to hear that! I hope at this point that isn’t the takeaway. To Nina, Jess often feels challenging and antagonistic, but Jess probably feels that way about Nina at times too. From each of their perspectives, they’ve been disappointed, failed, maybe even betrayed by the other. But even the most straightforward villain doesn’t believe they’re the villain. They have elaborate systems of justification in place for their actions and, if you look close enough, comprehensible reasons for their behavior, as we all do. The person I am when reading or writing feels like a better person than who I am moment-to-moment in the everyday. I’m able to extend to characters a level of understanding that’s difficult to deploy with real people in real life, who I can’t observe in the way that fiction allows.

TM: Last year, you were a fellow at the MacDowell Colony, where you worked in a cabin previously occupied by such writers as Ann Patchett, Karen Joy Fowler, and Lynne Tillman. What was that experience like? Did you work at all on The Nobodies while you were there?

AS: I had already finished final edits on The Nobodies by the time I got to MacDowell and was working there on a second novel. MacDowell is so legendary that I kind of couldn’t believe I was there, among very seasoned artists and writers whose work I admired. After an initial period of feeling out of my depth, being in that cabin helped me locate the faith in myself that I could do this again, finish another book. A friend recently shared with me something Neil Gaiman said about how writing a book only teaches you to write that one book. So each time you start a new one, you once again have no clue what you’re doing. But the fact that MacDowell seemed to believe I was capable made me think that I could figure it out.

Always Present, Sometimes Deadly: The Millions Interviews Matt Bondurant

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Matt Bondurant’s latest novel, Oleander City, published earlier this month by Blackstone, vivifies a lesser-known but vital piece of American history. In 1900, the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history converged on Galveston, Texas. In response, Clara Barton and the relatively nascent Red Cross traveled to the Lone Star State to provide relief, and famed boxers Joe Choynski and Jack Johnson crossed the color line in a match to benefit the recovery effort. Against this backdrop of tragedy and tumult, Oleander City traces three intersecting lives, each subject to forces beyond their control. Bondurant, whose previous novels include The Night SwimmerThe Wettest County in the World, and The Third Translation, weaves together each story with characteristic sophistication and intricacy, as historical figures and fictional characters collide amid the chaos of unprecedented natural disaster.

The Millions spoke with Bondurant about his research process, the moral obligations of novelists, and how historical fiction can help bridge the gap between the past and the present.

The Millions: Oleander City is based on the true story of three lives converging in the wake of the 1900 Galveston hurricane. How did you discover this little-known piece of history, and what drew you to it as a story worth novelizing?

Matt Bondurant: About 12 years ago, my wife was doing research for her Ph.D. dissertation on immigration through Galveston around the turn of the century. She started unearthing all kinds of interesting historical anecdotes and events surrounding the 1900 hurricane, including the boxing match between Jack Johnson and Joe Choynski. I immediately saw the fictional possibilities of this amazing true story, as it contained a lot of elements that I often work with in my fiction: challenging physical environments, athletic contest, violence, desperate circumstances, and unique historical and cultural anomalies. But it wasn’t really until I went to the Rosenberg Museum in Galveston and found the picture, which I include on the last page of the book, of Jack and Joe being released from jail—and the mysterious little girl and the old dog in the corner—that I knew this was a compelling story. Who was this girl? How did she come to be in this picture? What was her role here? That was my catalyst, the mystery that I could write toward, that faint glimmer of light on the horizon that drew me onward.

TM: What kind of research went into writing Oleander City? When writing a historical novel that is based on a true story, how do you decide which facts to keep and which aspects to fictionalize?

MB: I spent about a decade reading about the Galveston hurricane of 1900, slowly working through all the pertinent available books in my university and public library. About four years ago, I began to devote myself to boxing history, from the bare-knuckle period of the late 19th century to the rise of Jack Johnson in the early 20th century. Besides reading books, I spent a fair bit of time on the internet looking at any images and film of early boxing matches that I could find, as well as diving into the biographies of Jack and Joe Choynski. Concurrently, I read books about Clara Barton and the American Red Cross as the character of Diana began to unfold.

The decision process of what to keep as true to the historical record and what to fictionalize is difficult to summarize. I would say that in most cases it is fluid, organic. Clearly the most compelling details, like the arrest and incarceration of the two boxers and what we know about their experiences together in jail, are the things that I am most likely to keep “as is.” But even in that case, so much “fictionalizing” is happening as I attempt to portray the day-to-day moments, thoughts, dialogue, and actions of these men. So even as the basic facts of the situation are historically accurate, there is always a lot that is fashioned by imagination in a historical novel. There is really no such thing as absolute historical truth; every fact of history is at least incrementally recast or adjusted in the retelling. And this doesn’t even account for the impact of style, organization, tone, and a multitude of other writing craft elements. Then, once I have a feel for the central components of the story, I can be somewhat selective, choosing incidents that support or feed this dynamic or the plot line while leaving out others that don’t “fit” or needlessly overcomplicate or confuse matters.

TM: What about the historical fiction genre interests you?

MB: I’ve always liked the feeling that I’m learning about something, a culture, a historical moment, a person, a place, when I’m reading fiction. I also like the task of researching things that I find compelling. In fact, I would likely spend all my time reading and researching the things that interest me if I could, and as it is I take three to four years to finally put it together in a book. But most of all I like the challenge of attempting to accomplish a rendering of what the writer Tim O’Brien called “story truth”—the kind of truth that lies beyond the objective facts and actualities of a historical moment. This is about capturing the essence, the spirit of the people and the story. The history of a place and time like Galveston in 1900 is obviously massively incomplete; what we do not know far outweighs what we do. Those spaces, the dark matter between the few points of light of recorded history, is the imaginative space that I live for. My intention is to create a story that honors this time, place, situation, and people through this method—even if large parts of it are made up.

TM: At the heart of the novel is this boxing match between boxers Joe Choynski, who was Jewish, and Jack Johnson, who was Black. I can imagine in 1900 Texas, this fight took on outsize significance because of the ethnicity of its participants. Can you describe why this fight was so important and how it reflected—or perhaps transcended—the racial attitudes of the time?

MB: It was a tremendously important boxing match. Despite the fact that it is not well-known or common knowledge, many boxing historians consider it one of the pivotal matches in boxing history. The “color line” in boxing was very real and was often enforced through law and extrajudicial methods. The majority of white fighters simply wouldn’t fight a Black man. As a Jewish boxer, Joe Choynski also had to deal with enormous obstacles in his career, especially rampant anti-Semitism. But he also was well known for crossing the color line, and he developed relationships and worked with Black boxers at every point in his career. Clearly he felt a kind of kinship with the plight of Black boxers like Jack Johnson and their struggles with systemic racism.

Jack was a fairly popular local citizen of Galveston, already an outspoken young man, and Joe was a storied veteran who had been in the ring and beaten many of the best fighters in the last decades of the 19th century. So it was a highly unusual fight in many ways, but when you add in the arrest of the two combatants and the three weeks they spent in jail together, much of that time spent sparring and working out, sometimes for a paying audience, and then young Jack Johnson’s meteoric rise after this incident, you get a definite watershed moment in the history of American boxing.

The dark space, the unknown here is what actually went on in that jail cell. What did they say to each other? What was their relationship like? What did Joe teach Jack, and vice-versa? Johnson would say many times over his career that it was the time he spent with Choynski in jail that really taught him how to box, especially his defensive technique. Jack went into that fight a raw 20-year-old pug with estimable physical gifts, but he emerged as a defensive wizard who was nearly impossible to hit cleanly, combined with an overpowering physicality in the ring. Clearly this match and its aftermath had a lot to do with the emergence of the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. In this book, I tried to account for how that might have happened.

TM: White supremacists play a role in the novel’s central conflict. How do you as a novelist approach writing characters who are morally despicable, and why do you think their stories should be told? (Interestingly, the Texas Senate recently removed the requirement for public schools to teach that the KKK is “morally wrong.”)

MB: The fact is that morally despicable people are often powerful agents of history, and I feel the historical novelist has some obligation to wrestle with this conundrum. In most cases, I try to provide a compelling background or reasoning for these “villains,” though that is not always possible due to craft-related constraints, including such basic things as time and space. With three principal characters and points of view in Oleander City, plus “secondary” characters like Johnson, Clara Barton, and the Rabbi Henry Cohen, I didn’t feel like I had the space and attention to really develop characters like Craine as much as I would like. Certainly a different kind of book—a much bigger one—could do this and do this well.

I feel like I transmitted a more developed sense of the bad guys in my previous historical novel The Wettest County in the World, but the specific characteristics of that novel made it not only possible but necessary. I didn’t feel the same way here. Perhaps this is due to the level of brutality and evil in the villains, but I think it is more about perspective and focus. The orphan girl Hester provides an important perspective, so I wanted to keep a sort of childlike view of the villains, which is less nuanced perhaps. I also wanted to keep the focus on our three principal characters and hope the reader would be fully invested in them.

I also want to note that I don’t actually mention the Ku Klux Klan in the novel or use that title for the kind of racist vigilantism that actually occurred in the aftermath of the storm. People who have studied the KKK know that the movement had three principal surges in their popularity and cultural influence: Reconstruction, the 1920s, and then again in the 1950s. Direct references to the Klan aren’t really found in the research materials for the period around the hurricane of 1900. Was the KKK in Galveston in 1900? Probably, in some form or another, but it was not likely the formalized, public KKK that we know from those other periods. What we do know is that masked vigilantes on horseback—which were present everywhere throughout the South in the time after Reconstruction—were “policing” Galveston after the storm and performing extrajudicial justice. Lynchings, essentially. There is an account of the children of a popular Black preacher being killed in a suspicious manner like this, along with reports of people stealing rings and jewelry from the dead.

I think you could describe the vigilante group in Oleander City as related to the KKK or sharing similar principles, including some rituals and attire, but it is also not necessarily the KKK. Look, a bunch of ignorant bigots on horseback assaulting people of color has been around since the inception of this country, but they are not always the KKK. Does it matter, this label? I don’t know. The moral cowardice of the current Texas legislature (and unfortunately many others around the country) creates an unfortunate echo for events and attitudes in the book, and I think it is clear to any reasonable person that while progress has been made, many of the same issues that plagued our society in 1900 still exist today.

TM: I love that Clara Barton is an important character in the novel—I remember reading about her as a kid. During the events in Oleander City, she would have been 78 years old, yet she joined other Red Cross volunteers to travel to Galveston and administer relief to the storm’s survivors. How did you approach entering the consciousness of such a significant historical figure, and particularly of a woman who was running a nonprofit at a time when she couldn’t even vote?

MB: Clara Barton is one of those astonishing, larger-than-life superhero figures in American history, and it was a real pleasure to work with her character. But because of the historical spotlight on her—like on Jack Johnson—being a figure known to popular culture and with a lot already said and written about her, I made the decision (unconsciously, I think) to subordinate her position in many ways and instead focus on the completely made-up character of Diana, her assistant. So we get the view of Clara through Diana, like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. It’s a common method of displacement for novelists. This is similar to the fully imagined Hester, who is based solely on that one photo and the true tale of the drowned orphans, which gave me a lot more freedom not only to explore their lives but to present the world from their perspective.

So you might say that I approached Clara’s consciousness warily, with caution, as I did with Jack’s. I didn’t want to try and fully reimagine these major figures of history or to speak for them. Rather, I wanted to work with either fresh, new characters like Diana and Hester, or with someone like Joe Choynski, who while an important figure in boxing history remains a relative unknown to the general reader. Joe was a perfect historical novel character for me in this way—enough rich and compelling information about him is available, but he is enough of a “blank canvas” that I could impose my own imagination upon his character. Without that element, the novel turns into mostly reportage or simply an attempt to reframe historical events and people.

I hope that I was able to present some of Clara’s attitudes and feelings—about the cultural position of women, for one example—with some nuance and delicacy, indicating that here toward the end of her career, and her life, she would be engaged in a bit of reflection and perhaps even bitterness about the unequal treatment of women in the United States. I know that a central part of her character for me was formed by thinking about the anger and regret one might feel after a lifetime of selfless service to any and all who needed help while at the same time being relegated to a second-class citizen status.

TM: One of the novel’s main characters, Hester, is a survivor of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word orphanage, where 93 children perished in the hurricane. You’ve mentioned that today at the site of the orphanage stands a Walmart, where there have been reports of laughter, footsteps, and toys falling from the store’s shelves. This is a quite literal haunting—but how else do you think history can haunt us in the present day?

MB: For me the most powerful method for history to reach through time and grab hold of us is through stories, mainly narratives like historical novels and similar types of books. I know that I am haunted by McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, by Melville’s Moby-Dick, and by many other tales based on historical events and people. This is especially effective when some aspect of the book seems particularly apt for today, or some connective element clearly tethers that story to my (the reader’s) life. I hope that a tale like Oleander City has a similar effect on the modern reader, in that characters, situations, and themes in the book will resonate as applicable to our present age. Hopefully I was able to do this artfully and with some nuance, rather than clumsily announcing: Hey, racism and anti-Semitism are still a real fucking problem! I hope that these ideas don’t intrude upon the plot or characters in an overpowering way, instead functioning as something reverberating in the background, always present, always pertinent, sometimes deadly.

TM: There are so many things that will be forever lost to history—conversations that were had, relationships that were shared. Even in historical photographs, there might be people who remain unidentified. How do you think novelizing historical events can help us bridge that gap between the knowledge we have and that which we’ll never know?

MB: When my wife was working toward her Ph.D. in history, her professors would sometimes pair historical novels with the academic textbooks for the historical period of study. I think this is becoming more common, because history professors and the rest of us understand that novels and other imaginative renderings of history (including films, poems, etc.) can sometimes help fill in the gaps that persist in these stories. For example, you could read every historical document that pertains to Clara Barton yet still be in the dark about what she might have been thinking as she packed her bags, preparing to depart Galveston in 1901, her last voyage as the head of the Red Cross. What the novel can do is give us possibilities. It can provide plausible, interesting, and hopefully perceptive glimpses inside that poorly understood and recorded world of actualities.

This relates to a theory of narrative construction that I call “The Constellation of Possibilities.” A constellation in the sky is made up of singular points of light that we can see and know objectively; then imaginary lines are drawn connecting the dots and creating a new image of something, a story. So as a novelist I work from those “points” of light that we know—the boxing match between Joe and Jack, their incarceration, the tragedy of the orphanage of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word, et cetera—to create compelling and plausible narrative threads that connect them and make some kind of new, complete picture. A new story. It isn’t a presentation of objective truth; rather it is an exploration of story-truth, which as I’ve argued, along with novelist Tim O’Brien and others, is often more real, more true, than what actually happened.