When We Were Animals by Joshua Gaylord (aka Alden Bell) just came out this month, and he was kind enough to stop by and answer my questions. Also, we have three copies to give away to three lucky US winners (courtesy of the nice folks at Mulholland Books), so be sure to enter to win at the bottom of the post!
I adored The Reapers Are the Angels, so I was very excited to hear about When We Were Animals. Will you tell us a little bit about it and what inspired you to write it?
I was a very good kid. I got excellent grades, I was polite as hell, I was respectful and sensitive, I did all the things I was supposed to do. But the things going on in my head weren’t nearly as angelic as my outward behavior would lead you to believe. That’s the conflict I explore in this book: the main character is a classic “good girl,” Lumen, who is forced to confront and reckon with the darker side of her personality. In many ways, this is a traditional coming-of-age novel, though maybe more morally ambiguous than most. It’s a convention of the genre to trace the downfall of youth from innocence to corruption, but what I’m particularly interested in are the questions we’re sometimes afraid to ask. What if we like the corruption more than the innocence? What if trying to remain innocent or good runs counter to our nature? What if the world around us doesn’t want to recognize our badness? And, ultimately, is it possible to tamp down that corruption that bubbles up within us, or does it stay with us forever?
Did you do any specific research for the book?
The character of Lumen is an inveterate bibliophile. She’s constantly looking things up in encyclopedias. So I had to do some odd bits of research to keep up with her. I found myself getting acquainted with the lives of saints, the mathematical equations for luminous energy, the coming-of-age practices of various cultures, among other things. Research is not my favorite part of writing, though, because I get so engrossed in that process of discovery that I lose whole days to it—and usually it only translates into a paragraph or two of flavor text in the final novel.
When you start writing, do you already know how you’re going to end the book, or do you just let the narrative take you were it will?
I usually have no idea how the plot itself will pan out, but I do have a sense of the emotional arc. I know where I want my protagonist (and others) to begin and end. I’m more motivated by tone and psychology than by plot events. So even from the very beginning of the book, I might have a sense that in the last few pages I’ll want this particular character to end up seething with anger, or rapt with despair or suddenly rapturous with joy, or whatever. Then it’s just a matter of connecting the dots between the first emotional state and the last. I’m never particularly tied to my plots, so as I’m writing I’m always willing to swap out certain events for other events—as long as the emotional currents remain the same.
You have a Master’s and a Ph.D. in English, but have you always wanted to write fiction? Will you tell us more about yourself and that progression?
Being a writer was always goal number one. Being a teacher was a close second. So it seemed like those higher degrees were the way to go for the accomplishment of both. Though even if I weren’t going to be a teacher, I think I still would have gone the Ph.D. route rather than the MFA route. I took a bucketload of creative writing classes along the way (both undergrad and grad), and I always felt like I learned more about writing from my literature classes than my creative writing classes. I do think that writing workshops are amazing for motivation and feedback—but it was reading the literary “greats” that most influenced me on the level of craft. You read Joyce and Faulkner and Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Shakespeare and Sterne, and what you discover are not rules that govern and restrict writing but rather the infinite possibilities that exist in narrative storytelling once you gain enough confidence to throw all those rules out the window.
What’s one of the first things you remember writing?
It must have been somewhere around third grade. I started a “novel” called The Devil’s Pit. It was about these people who go camping in the San Bernardino Mountains and stumble into a tunnel leading to hell. I illustrated it with a picture of a hole in the ground. I think I wrote about a page and a half of that book before I abandoned it. It still exists in a box that, when I was a pretentious teenager, I labelled “Juvenilia.”
What are a few of the authors or books that have inspired you the most, in life, and in your writing?
All of my writing echoes, in one way or another, William Faulkner. In a world of modest writing, I’ve always been inspired by Faulkner’s willingness to be grandiose and theatrical. In terms of music, I’m a fan of progressive rock (Genesis, Jethro Tull, Kansas and the like), and I would go so far as to say that Faulkner is the prog rock of American literature. Many teachers of writing tell you to write about what you know; Faulkner tells you to write with impunity about the unknowable. The other influence on When We Were Animals was V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic: that young Victorian-sounding girl-voice guiding you, skipping all the way, straight into depravity. So, yeah, Faulkner and Flowers in the Attic. That’s the unholy marriage that describes the inside of my brain.
If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
James Joyce’s Ulysses. Actually, I feel like every time I read it I am experiencing it for the first time. That’s also why it’s my desert-island book. If you fall into the well of Ulysses, you get to enjoy clawing your way out for the rest of your life.
What are you currently reading?
Board Games that Tell Stories by Ignacy Trzewiczek. I always knew that computer games had incredible narrative potential, but I’ve recently become fascinated with board games and the communal stories that get spun as a result of playing them. Many games have a campfire quality: they ask participants to play roles, to conjure long, winding stories, to imagine and invent whole worlds whose laws are foreign yet specific. At the moment, my board game shelves are filling up more rapidly than my bookshelves.
What’s next for you?
My next book takes place in Orange County, California in 1975. There’s a mute boy and a girl who may or may not be from the future. That’s about all I know so far.
Keep up with Joshua: Website
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About When We Were Animals:
A small, quiet Midwestern town, which is unremarkable save for one fact: when the teenagers reach a certain age, they run wild.
When Lumen Fowler looks back on her childhood, she wouldn’t have guessed she would become a kind suburban wife, a devoted mother. In fact, she never thought she would escape her small and peculiar hometown. When We Were Animals is Lumen’s confessional: as a well-behaved and over-achieving teenager, she fell beneath the sway of her community’s darkest, strangest secret. For one year, beginning at puberty, every resident “breaches” during the full moon. On these nights, adolescents run wild, destroying everything in their path.
Lumen resists. Promising her father she will never breach, she investigates the mystery of her community’s traditions and the stories erased from the town record. But the more we learn about the town’s past, the more we realize that Lumen’s memories are harboring secrets of their own.
A gothic coming-of-age tale for modern times, When We Were Animals is a dark, provocative journey into the American heartland.