Interview by Magdalena Ball
What were the origins of American Youth?
During my first year of postgrad work I was in a fiction workshop and writing short stories about different delinquents/youths, and at some point in the workshop someone said to me, why don’t you write a novel about this. This was in the Fall of 2001, so I started. I worked on it throughout grad school and used it as my thesis, working with George Saunders, who was my thesis advisor. I then worked on it for a year after leaving grad school and tried to get it published. It was probably about 350 pages at that point, and I couldn’t really get any response. No agent or publisher was interested in the manuscript. So I went back to drawing board for another two years and rewrote it.
Have you been surprised at the wildly positive reception?
Yes. The second time I put it out, I sent it to an agent, and I was expecting it to take months. I heard back overnight, and it all happened pretty quickly from there. It was almost overwhelming.
Do you think that your work has touched a raw chord in the American (and possibly broader) psyche?
I hope so. I think there’s been kind of a much stronger focus outside of the US in Australia and Canada for example, on the issue of guns—they’ve been very keen to probe that, and on the politics in the novel than in the domestic market. In the US the gun debate has been very much on the back burner – there are more pressing issues. Things like the Virginia Tech shooting–like so much in the media – has been a tidal wave passing through to media. It disappeared very quickly in the face of Iraq and the political wrangling between parties.
I don’t evaluate it one way or the other. The different perspectives are interesting and fun and in a certain way I did compose the book with certain ideas and intentions.
The US Market has focused more on the characters and their struggle–the dramatic element—relationship between mother and son. I’ve had a lot of reaction to that.
The .22 (gun) seems almost a character in the book. It’s like a thread linking the characters, and like DNA, it goes from generation to generation, ending the book. Why does the boy hang onto it?
I think that part of the reason is the resonance that it has in his own life. Any idea of discarding it would seem odd to him. I stand by the reason given in the text, that it would seem almost sacrilegious to give away such an important artefact. The book starts with the idea of the past – that idea of Cormac McCarthy’s that we take the past with us. I think that first and foremost it’s important to recognise the truth of the past. Teddy’s mother is trying to cover up the truth; to redefine the past. But the past haunts us. Teddy is working towards the truth. This idea of the scars we take with us; his taking the rifle – he’s never going to be able to forget or change what happened in his life – it defines him as a person in this way. Keeping the gun is his way of honouring the past and moving away from his mother’s approach of pretending that bad things didn’t happen.
Tell me about the American Youth gang. There’s a kind of seductive righteousness about them. Are there parallels between Teddy’s world and Germany before WW2?
I think that the way I wanted to portray them was as representative of a conservative element in the culture that I live in. I wanted them to reflect the inadequacies/fallibility of that approach to the world – to show where that mentality and where that outlook falls short. I hadn’t looked back quite as far as WW2. Of course you can’t have a group of young boys called “American Youth” without calling to mind the “Hitler Youth”, but they were modelled on what I saw in the late 80s and 90s in the US when I grew up. We had another boom after that, and seem to have fallen into another bust. I suppose that there are similarities in the economic patterns. I think when people do feel threatened there is quite a reactionary response to that; when a culture feels threatened ot falls back on more conservative values. It goes on the defensive. I think that’s a universal thing.
Why do you refer to Teddy as “the boy” throughout most of the novel?
One of the earliest drafts was written from multiple perspectives/voices. One section in the book was the voice of the grandfather. He always referred to Teddy as “the boy”. I just really enjoyed the sound of it and tone it created, and drew that into the eventual narrative that I used which took on some things that I liked. A lot of people have said that it turns teddy into an “everyman”, and I don’t shy from that. I don’t know that I feel this now, as it has been a while since I’ve thought about it, but I in earlier drafts, I imagined the narrator as a kind of older Teddy looking back on a person that he didn’t feel he was anymore. There was this dissociation.
Talk to me about teaching. Does it help your writing or conflict?
I was given a lot of time and energy by the writers I worked with as mentors, so I feel that I have a social obligation to give back. I feel like teaching is really plays well into my writing. It keeps me on my toes, and keeps me thinking about writing in analytical and technical ways. Sometimes when I’m working with students I can see some mistakes in their own work which I also have in my work. Teaching has been very productive for me. I have also been in teaching situations where I’m doing four classes a semester, and that’s not so good, but when I’ve got a reasonable schedule it works. Some of my best writing has been inspired by my classes.
Who are your literary influences?
I’ve been compared to some people who I really respect and admire, and I’m very happy with those comparisons. As a reader, the early writers that I cut my teeth on, where I really felt the power of writing were people like Faulkner. Huxley moved me in strange ways when I was young. Flannery O’Conner. It’s hard to be a male writer and not be influenced in some way by Hemingway. Also I got to work with some amazing writers who had a very direct impact on my work. I mentioned George Saunders, who really got down and worked with me, leaving his thumbprint on me a little bit from that mentoring experience. He taught me about the efficiency of voice. Mary Karr does a wonderful job of creating real round working class characters, and helped me with that. I’ve been very lucky.
Talk to me about the filming process for “In the Tradition of My Family.” Did you get involved in that?
I didn’t have a whole lot to do with it. I was living abroad when it was made. I had to see the film as one work of art and my story as another. My thinking was that I made made this piece of art, and that was my contribution. I wanted to allow them to have that freedom. I like to watch movies, but I know very little about film and how it’s all put together. I was living in France, and the Todd Davis, the filmmaker was living in the States. The end product was not at all as I imagined it, but it was very interesting; the characters look much different than the ones I had in my mind. Todd had his own vision. We all read a story and have different mental images of what it’s like and it was very interesting for me because for a moment I got to see into a reader’s mind and how they perceive my work. It was fascinating.
Do you see American Youth as being a project that might translate well to film?
Yes. I do see it as a film. It’s very visual to me, and I’m a very visual writer. It’s always a visual image that I’m chasing, so I already see it and I think that the style of the narrative would lend it self to a screenplay. It’s all in the present tense, and I think it has lots of aspects that would work in film. There’s a little bit of violence, a little love interest, some strife. I talked to one person in NY who is interested in optioning, so we’ll see.
Is there a landscape you’re keen to traverse as a novelist?
I’ve been kind of infatuated with this concept of the suburban environment. I’m fascinated by landscapes in flux and change. When landscapes are in change there are cultures that are forced to change or to reckon with that change. The landscape of the novel I’m working on now takes place in an old farm where half of the farm has been sold off as an enormous development and the other half of the farm is limping along. There’s this enormous suburban middleclass development which is happening on one side and then a completely different world on the other. The novel takes place between those two spaces.
I’ve got quite a bit of that done. There’s pressure to hurry up, and it can be hard to work through that, and stuff like this – a lot of energy that suddenly goes into promoting. But I’ve got a respectable draft done, and hopefully it will be ready in the next year or year and a half. My contract necessitates that I get it done within 2 years and hopefully I’ll be ready before then. So I’m working on that and am always working on short stories, which give me a little break from the epic project of writing a novel. I’ve got a collection of stories ready.
About the interviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening. “It is moving and harsh and every word seemed true. I thought it was a great read.”