When We Were Animals completely captivated me the first time I read it. When I was planning November's content, I knew it would be the perfect addition to our book club with its wild, coming of age theme and beautiful prose. Therefore, I was so excited when Joshua Gaylord said yes to an interview with me. I had so many questions for him because I just want to analyze the hell out of this novel (a common english major tendency).
When We Were Animals adds a fantastical spin on the pains, trials, and changes that come with adolescence, which seem to all stem from the body. What an amazing way to explore this by making these teenage characters actually run wild like animals at the peak of this change and transition into adulthood. I could go on, but I will refrain and let you read my interview with Joshua Gaylord for yourself.
I’ll be honest, I am usually skeptical about male authors writing in the perspective of a teenage girl because I fear it won’t come off as authentic. But in When We Were Animals, I didn’t have doubts for a second and really enjoyed Lumen’s character.What made you decide that this was going to be a girl's adolescent story? Can you speak to how you felt you were able to develop this voice and this teenage girl experience? Do you feel you have anything in common with Lumen?
I've written from the perspective of a teenage girl in most of my books. I'm drawn to that narrative voice because it's impossible to overdramatize the teenage girl perspective. Adolescent girls are required to perform so many roles in their lives that they run the gamut convincingly from doe-eyed innocent to snarky rebel to nerdy intellectual to superficial pageant queen to world-weary divorcee. Because of their versatility, I've always thought that they are the easiest kinds of characters to write. You talk about being concerned that the voice will come across as inauthentic--but in my experience, there are very few voices uttered by a teenage girl that don't sound authentic. They are the most versatile actors, and frequently their performances are the most poignant. But, yes, it's also true that I very much see myself in the character of Lumen. As a young teenager, I was also awkwardly intellectual, a people-pleaser at the expense of my own identity. And I also felt, like Lumen does, that if anyone were to see beneath my choirboy persona, they would find a monster. But that's a very common feeling among adolescents: that fear that the ugliness of the insides of their own brains might come to light one day--and that they will be driven from civilization because of it.
In the novel, when the teenagers breach and run wild for the 3 nights of the full moon, there is violence and sex and all kind of primitive behavior. I love this idea that teenagers are inherently feral beasts waiting to break free. Do you think the frustrations of the teenage experience stem from the kind of societal restraints of keeping them “in line.” Do you think adolescence is all about wanting to be “unleashed” but not being fully able to be?
Definitely. Teenagers exist on the margins of a number of different kinds of savagery. First of all, they are still close enough to the animalism of childhood that the taste of it remains on their tongues--even if the world is telling them that they now have to behave and put away childish things. But, at the same time, they are also starting to discover the new savageries of adulthood: social cruelty, gut-level sexuality, ideological brutality--and they are told to suppress these things as well. Some teenagers refuse to suppress, and they become rebels. Other teenagers internalize the demands to be "good," and they, like Lumen, govern themselves with the instrument of counter-savagery: shame. So she (like many adolescents) is in constant conflict between being Daddy's good little girl and acknowledging the "horrors" that are growing inside her: a shameful sexual desire, a wish to shed all the silly accouterments of civilization, a hunger to interact with the world in more dangerous and violent ways--precisely because all these new ways of expression feel more authentic and powerful than what she's accustomed to. Werewolf mythologies (When We Were Animals certainly falls into that category) are always about having a more authentic life experience than social standards will allow.
"On certain days in the spring, in late April, say, it is possible to believe what the animals believe—that horror and beauty are hearty allies, and that when you live in the full roiling of your guts it's impossible to make distinctions between them." I picked this quote because for me if tells so much about the novel as a whole. Can you talk about how beauty and horror are allies in this story? In teenage life?
At the climactic moment of James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man", the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, is walking on the beach and trying to decide whether to go into the priesthood or to pursue a secular vocation as a writer. He sees a young woman standing on the shoreline and is struck by her beauty. Something about her leads to an epiphany within him. She seems to contain all of life--its rises and its falls, its successes and its failures, its ugliness and its glory--and he is moved by the totality of it. He imagines failing. He imagines falling, sinning, rising again from that sin into redemption, then falling again--and it's all gorgeous to him. After this experience, he decides to become a writer--because he wants to celebrate all aspects of life, not just the sanitized parts of it. There is no holiness without corruption. The holiness that grows from a seed of corruption is the most touching kind of holiness. And vice versa. I guess this is all just a very pretentious way of saying something simple: only the dullest kind of person wants life to point one way, upward to heaven. Teenagers, who are unafraid of melodrama, know this inherently to be true--and they spend a lot of time trying to find the language to express it.
What are some of you favorite coming of age novels that truly encapsulate the adolescent experience for you?
At the top of my list would be Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Spark pulls no punches. She manages to express some really awful things in the most charming and dainty ways. But also: The Death of Sweet Mister or Winter's Bone, both by Daniel Woodrell. The southern gothic and adolescence go together like cookies and milk, and Woodrell proves that. Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms and Carson McCuller's The Member of the Wedding. I seem to be particularly enamored with people coming of age in the South. Megan Abbott's The End of Everything, which offers a particularly dark, Freudian perspective on the burgeoning sexuality of young teenage girls. Judy Blume gives us one of the healthiest perspectives on coming of age in Forever, and V.C. Andrews gives us a deliciously unhealthy perspective in Flowers in the Attic. I could make this list pages long, but I'll end with Charles Portis's True Grit and Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle--which are both lush portraits of tough, dangerous young women.
Do you have a special writing ritual? What does your writing process look like?
I'm very ritualized in most of my life--and that carries over into my writing. Since I'm a teacher, I tend to write mostly on weekends and during the summer. On my writing days, I get up and go straight to the computer and plant myself in front of it until I've produced two pages. Then I give myself a little break--maybe get something to eat, check my email--and then I go back to writing and turn out another two pages. Then I go to lunch where I have a sandwich at Subway and do a little reading. Afterward, I come back and write a final two pages. The rest of the day after that is mine to fill as frivolously as I like. After six pages, I feel like I've earned frivolity. I think I write best in the morning, because that's when I'm most awake. And, before I go to sleep at night, I try to think about what I'm going to write the next day--just to get the gears turning. This is mostly a superstitious ritual--some part of me believes that if I plant a seed of narrative before I fall asleep, it will somehow foment fertile narrative in my dreams.
Can you share some of the most helpful writing advice you have received from other writers? Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
I've wanted to be a writer since I was in ninth grade; that was when I had an amazingly influential English teacher. Before that, I was going to be a computer programmer--so I'm glad something came along to change my course. The best writing advice I've ever received or given is this: Write what you want to read. Write what you would write if you were going to be the only reader of it (because you might just be the only reader of it). The worst kind of writing comes out of writers trying to game the system, trying to capitalize on what they see as current literary trends, trying to write to the tastes of a particular publisher or magazine or audience. You're a reader. The ideal book for you to read is one that hasn't been written yet--because you're the only one who can write it. So write it. Then, even if it never gets published, even if it sits in the bottom of a drawer forever, you've accomplished something for yourself. It's something you can be proud of.
Are you working on anything new right now?
I'm finishing up a memoir about my young life as a "sensitive boy." It might be called Sensitive Boy. I thought it would be interesting as a gender case study to look at my own alienation and insecurities growing up and feeling like I never quite fit in with other boys. This is the first piece of autobiographical work I've tried to write, and I'm not confident about it. It's fascinating to me, of course, in a narcissistic way--but I have a hard time believing anyone else would be interested in reading it.
What are you currently reading?
Right now I'm reading a book by Luis J. Rodriguez, called Always Running. It's a memoir of his young life as a member of the violent East L.A. gang culture. Talk about adolescents expressing themselves through violence: this book would actually be a very good companion piece to When We Were Animals.