Interview by Misha Rai
Anne Valente’s debut novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, is forthcoming from William Morrow/HarperCollins in October 2016. Her first short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names, won the Dzanc Books Short Story Prize and was released in September 2014. She is also the author of the fiction chapbook, An Elegy for Mathematics.
First of all congratulations, congratulations, congratulations on the book! This is such a beautifully written and necessary novel that unflinchingly looks at a very destructive and devastating subset of American life, something that shockingly continues to occur even now: shootings at schools and universities. What drew you to this subject matter? What kind of research did you do and how much did you do? Are you the kind of writer who has to finish their research before they can begin work on a project or do you research as you go along?
Thanks so much for these kind words, Misha. I’d actually been working on short stories about St. Louis, where I’m from, when the school shooting at Sandy Hook happened in late 2012. I began working on a short story about a school shooting in St. Louis because I kept thinking about the families in Newtown after the media began pulling away. I did finish the short story, but felt like a much larger narrative could be explored. So I began working on a novel, something I’d never done before, and did a good amount of research before I began writing – about mass shootings, and also about October of 2003, the time frame where the novel is set. But I kept researching while I was writing. This is probably not the best writerly practice, but I often research not only while I’m working on a project but while I’m actually writing, with a browser open just in case. I’m not very good at going back and filling in the details, so I usually incorporate them as I work.
Oh I totally identify with the latter, I’m very much a browser-open-just-in-case sort of person too. Talking about openings or beginnings, in many ways the first few pages of the novel sets the narrative up to be a mystery story, and trying to figure out what or who is causing the fires makes it one, but it also works away from the whodunit genre and takes a closer look at the inner workings of the narrators and this community in the aftermath of these tragedies. What prompted you to have the narrative lean more one-way as opposed to the other?
In watching how the media covered not only Sandy Hook but so many other mass shootings, I grew tired of the incessant focus on the shooter’s motives and the need to solve, as if solving would change the fact that people were gone and families were grieving. There was less focus on the families themselves, and I wanted to look at how a community reacts, rebuilds, or doesn’t rebuild at all. The fires do serve as a way for the characters to focus their grief, and to funnel their pain into solving, but I wanted to explore the need to find answers when so often there aren’t any. There is so much unknown in violence and in the way that grief works, and I wanted to sit with that lack of knowing instead of our culture’s push to solve and move on.
Running concurrently in the novel are other news of the world—baseball, the kidnapping of Daniel Pearl, the invasion of Iraq, questions about Weapons of Mass Destruction etc.—that seep into the narrative, more tangibly with the literature Matt’s mum is reading, and I couldn’t help think if the purpose of the more graver, political pieces of news in the novel was not just to remind the reader that there were other, bigger tragedies at play but also that this school shooting, so devastating, so close to home was something that took a very uncertain time and made it unbelievably unbearable. Also, the deployment of news in the novel is necessary to the plot, and it made me reexamine the interplay of news, a domestic and international tragedy unfurling at the same time, through the lens of your novel. That was disquieting. Was that part of the response you were looking for from a reader?
Initially, my main impetus for choosing a time period in the early 2000s was to set the novel in an era when we weren’t so acculturated to mass violence, and to 24-hour news, and quite possibly to numbness. But upon researching further into this window of time, 2003 became a relevant backdrop for the narrative. George W. Bush’s search for weapons of mass destruction was at its height, a search that ultimately found no answers, or at least, not the answers Bush was looking for. This push to know, and to press for false knowledge at any cost, felt connected to this narrative, as did a spinning cycle of news that inevitably absorbs then forgets this mass shooting. So much of what was happening in the United States and in the wider world at that time felt distinctly about power, which isn’t all that different from the violence we are seeing today, but I saw connections between the kind of America that Bush was pushing upon the world and the forceful violence of mass shootings, as well as connections between the uncertainty of that post-9/11 era with a pressing need to find answers at any cost.
O.K. You mention power and mass violence and mass shootings and one word comes to my mind when I think of the world of this book: bleak. I guess my next question is: how did writing this book, with its very bleak subject matter of school shootings, impact you? The first person plural POV, though inclusive and beautifully rendered, is also relentless, so were there times you had to step away and do something else?
Absolutely. While working on this novel, I was also taking breaks to write short stories about St. Louis. I’d written a few before starting the novel and wrote a few after, and knew I was building a collection of stories about my hometown. At the time, I thought I was writing those stories to deepen my understanding of the novel’s setting, especially since I was no longer living in St. Louis while writing. But now, I wonder if I took breaks to write short fiction because I needed to step away from the unrelenting darkness of the novel’s world. I wrote the novel in a year, and it was an extremely hard year. I feel ashamed even saying that, since writing a book about the grief of a mass shooting is nothing to the lived experience that so many people have of mass violence. But I felt deeply impacted by the novel’s content, and in general talked very little about its impact.
You have already talked about this a little bit earlier on, but I wondered why the reader finds out next to nothing about the motivations of the shooter, even though he is always present, and in stark contrast so much about the survivors because there are many varied perspectives and stories about them in the novel?
We’ve seen the shooter become the center of a narrative, so many times in the news. There’s more of a pushback now against this, of not showing photos of the shooter or even saying the shooter’s name, and focusing instead on the community and families. I very much wanted to focus on the community, to push back against this notion that mass shootings are a crime to solve. Even if we determine a motive, it doesn’t bring anyone back. It doesn’t repair a community. It doesn’t fill in an irreparable hole in any home or make healing any easier. And I think sometimes focusing on the shooter and motive is a distraction, a turning away from grief. Across this novel, I wanted to be able to sit with the grief, and to not be distracted by a shooter’s domination of the narrative. I wanted the community to speak for itself, and to see what happens in the aftermath once the media loses interest and pulls away.
I was very interested in the structure of this novel, the shorter chapters and how they provided a break from the longer sections. I thought it was so smart, but more importantly emotionally poignant, to have the small eulogies—for lack of a better word—of the students who were shot mirror the struggles the four protagonists are going through, as they grapple with what has happened to them and their community at large, and write these pieces for the yearbook. Then there were the Brief History’s of’s and I was curious about where they came from, how much in those sections was factual information, how much of it was fiction, how did the combination of the both serve your vision of the story and move the narrative along?
In general, I’m interested in playing with form and structure, and I wanted to break up the novel’s chapters a bit. But the structure served the needs of the narrative’s content for me, as well as my sense of its politics. The smaller sections – eulogies, brief histories of factual information – allowed me to convey information without requiring the characters to do it. Many of these sections were researched, such as the chemistry of fire and the protocols of crime scene investigation, and I was struck by how poetic some of the language was in textbook descriptions of these processes. But I also conceived of this novel as a multi-voiced project, with diagrams and maps and newspaper articles and yearbook excerpts, and I think this ties back to your last question, which is that I didn’t want the shooter to own the narrative, nor did I want the media to own it. We’re accustomed to both of these being the case when mass shootings occur. I wanted more voices in this novel, largely because this kind of tragedy is both collective and so highly individualized – it is everyone’s grief and no one’s grief. I wanted to be able to possess a collective we but also break it apart, and look at grief from so many prisms and angles of singular viewpoints.
In an interview you gave to Midwestern Gothic about your short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names, you said (and I am direct quoting you here)—More and more, I’m interested in magical realism that builds upon the natural world. There’s so much that is strange to me about our planet and universe – that Saturn has so many moons and every one of them so unimaginably far away, that octopuses have three hearts, that the starlight we see is hundreds of years old and just reaching us now. For me, it isn’t much of a leap to create magical fiction from just how extraordinary this world can be—and I wondered when in the conception/drafting/writing of your novel you found that element sneaking into the story you were telling? I’m thinking more of the answer to the mystery behind the house fires—not giving anything away from the plot—than anything else because that does seem to lie in the realm of the fabulous, doesn’t it? I also wondered why was it necessary for you to have the answer be what it was? Why not provide a culprit to blame?
I think the fantastical was inextricable from my early conception of this novel. Wonder is certainly a part of why I trend toward magical realism, but while I was writing this novel, I became more aware of magical realism’s other possibilities – to imagine other worlds, and other histories and alternatives beyond the horrors and oppressions of our own world. The mystery of the fires felt necessary for imagining some unknown beyond the hard fact of grief, and beyond our culture’s insistence upon violence and domination. To be honest, the magic in this novel felt so much more difficult and grim than the magic in my collection. The characters do still turn to the natural world at times for solace – constellations and stars, the Midwestern fall, anything that offers them some reprieve from their grief – but beyond that, this book felt far different from my first. I wasn’t feeling much wonder at all while writing the book, though I think the connective element is still the unknown – the ultimate mystery of the fires is every mystery of this world and the human heart. Whether in wonder or in grief, the world is so unknowable and I wanted to preserve this in the end rather than offer the false resolution of a culprit.
It’s funny that you say that this book felt very different from your short story collection. I can see that but having first read By Light We Knew Our Names, I thought, in a very loose way—first person plural POV, elements of fabulism, setting to some extent, the bit about Starlight from the part where Zola and her mum talk, which is so beautifully rendered, etc.—Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down seemed an extension of the collection although the novel, for the most part is realist and definitely a different beauty entirely. Did you feel some of that? Or as you have already said did you imagine the novel, as completely it’s own thing?
I think my central concerns as a writer overlap in both books, the same obsessions I keep mulling over and over – magic and grief, the world’s beauty and terror, how there’s such a thin border between the two. What it means to lose one another. Ways of imagining worlds beyond the beautiful but faulted one we have. I do think there are strong connections between both books, but I think I was in a much lighter headspace for the collection than the novel. I also wrote the collection across four years, and the novel across one intense year. It’s interesting to see the differences between them, not only in content but in what those different writing conditions and processes produced, but I do agree – and hope – that both books are an extension of who I am as a human being and as a writer.
Is there interesting stuff you came across during your research but couldn’t find a use for in this book? Anything that ended up on the floor during the editing process?
I did so much research for this book, and almost all of it ended up in the book in some way. I read the Denver Post’s archive of coverage during Columbine, which helped me gain a sense of how news outlets address mass tragedy and also how communities begin to move on. I also checked out a number of college textbooks on fire science, arson investigation and crime scene examination, all of which made their way into the book. The only research that ended up on the cutting floor was the research I didn’t end up completing – I tried setting up a meeting with the local FBI branch to learn more about regional crimes becoming federal investigations, as well as the ins and outs of SWAT teams and special units, but I didn’t get very far. That was my own fault and naïveté. I thought I could just call the FBI and ask them what I wanted to know.
Oh wow! Top marks for trying to set up a meeting with the FBI regardless of the result. Oh man! Completely unrelated to that but I think just as necessary, what were you reading as you wrote this novel? What books inspired this book, whether through form, voice, narrative, or content?
I was studying for my doctoral exams at the time, so I read over a hundred books the year I wrote this novel and tailored the reading lists to my writing objectives. I read books centered on the Midwest to see how other writers wrote the region, and I also read novels that captured the more unsettling aspects of the suburbs. Perhaps the most helpful books I read, however, were a list of cross-genre books that played with form, language and content, which helped me better shape the multi-voiced sections of the novel. Anne Carson’s Nox was instrumental in looking at form and also in setting down grief, as was Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder. Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely was also crucial to me while writing this novel, in the ways it addresses grief but also media, violence and alienation.
That sounds like a wonderful reading year and those are some awesome ladies to have read. Oh and I love Rankine! The rawness in her work gets me every time. So, what are you working on right now? How does something new come to you? Are you a writer who works on various projects at one time or do you work entirely on one thing?
I’ve just finished a new novel about a road trip from Illinois to Utah. Landscape continues to be essential to my writing, and since my first novel explores a fixed region, I wanted to see what would happen in a narrative that moves across states. Though I did work on short stories while I was writing Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, I’ve worked solely on this new novel across the past year. I’ve moved three times in the past four years, and that has without a doubt inspired new ideas; now that I’m living in New Mexico, the landscape definitely influenced this new novel. Since I haven’t written short stories in awhile, I’m hoping to get back to writing a few this year, and possibly an essay or two to further rediscover the short form.
Misha Rai is the first-ever PhD in Fiction to be awarded the Woodrow Wilson Dissertation Fellowship in Women’s Studies for her novel-in-progress, Blood We Did Not Spill. She is also a 2016-2017 Edward H. and Mary C. Kingsbury Fellow at Florida State University and has been the recipient of the 2015 George M. Harper Award. Her prose has appeared in Indiana Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Sonora Review and The Missouri Review blog. Misha Rai was born in Sonepat, Haryana and brought up in India. She currently serves as Fiction Editor for The Southeast Review and as Associate Reviews Editor for Pleiades.