October 4, 2016, marked the publication date of Anne Valente’s debut novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down (William Morrow/HarperCollins), and already the novel has been named among the “Most Necessary Books for the End of 2016” by Ploughshares Magazine and the “Best Reads for October” by Refinery 29. Valente, however, is no newcomer to success. Her recent stories appear in the Kenyon Review, One Story, and Puerto del Sol, and By Light We Knew Our Names, her first full-length collection of stories, won the Dzanc Books short story prize in 2011. Memorious happily included the final story from that collection, “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart” in Issue 18, and we’ve been fans of Valente’s ever since. This month, Anne Valente answered our questions about her novel, writing process, and some of the debut novelists she’s excited about.
The novel is historically situated in time and place—St. Louis, MO, 2003—and inflected by everything from public opinion of the war in Iraq to a mention of The Today Show’s “Matt Lauer reporting on a foul ball disruption in the last night’s National League Championship Series game at Wrigley field.” How did you determine the social, cultural, and political touchstones that populate the text?
At first, I mostly wanted to avoid dealing with the clunkiness of including smartphones and texting among this group of teenagers. But in further researching a particular time period that would best suit the narrative, I was drawn to October 2003 for everything that was happening in the world at the time: the search for weapons of mass destruction had reached its peak, and it was becoming clear that there was nothing to be found. This atmosphere of responding to fear and uncertainty with force and brutality felt right for the novel, an echo of the violence of mass shootings, and also of how I feel we sometimes respond as a nation to mass tragedy—we focus on motive and retribution, a media saturation that seeks answers and often ignores the families and communities. I wanted this background to serve as a foil for this pressing need for answers, and how as a culture we’re obsessed with shooter motive and uncomfortable just sitting with grief.
In the past you’ve described your relationship to your characters like this: “In fiction, I strive to put myself in their position—understanding their emotions, motivations, world views—but also quite literally putting myself in the world of the story and its scenes.” How did (and do) you cope when characters’ circumstances are unfathomably tragic?
For me, writing through tragedy is a practice of empathy, a way of widening my heart when it feels so easy for it to harden and shut down in the face of so much violence in our culture. In so many ways, writing is my form of coping—I feel as though I’m trying to understand a way through violence and brutality and pain and my own grief by transposing these emotions into fiction. It’s usually not an easy process, but writing is a space that I can control when so much of our world feels out of control. Writing sometimes feels like the safest space to explore what’s happening around me, and to not look away from it.
Two of the point-of-view characters, Nick and Zola, have starkly different ways of coping with tragedy. Zola finds comfort holding the pet rabbit her mother gives her, while Nick has a near-obsessive need to research and archive. How did the characters’ varied responses to trauma shape the structure of the novel?
It was important to me that each character responded to trauma differently, and grieved differently. Point of view was the main prism that opened up the entire structure of the book for me, and in alternating between a first-person plural perspective that explores communal grief and four close-third perspectives that individualize that grief, I wanted to examine what is collective when a tragedy like this happens and what is immutably singular. As much as Nick and Zola are students at the same high school and members of the same yearbook staff, having both grown up in the same community, their responses to trauma are so singular to who they are. I wanted to explore through this book how grief is at once collective and incredibly personal.
The novel’s concept and inspiration came from the short story of the same name (published in the Iron Horse Literary Review in Spring 2014). What unexpected challenges did you encounter during the process of transforming the story idea into something much longer?
I was never drawn to the idea of expanding a short story into a novel, but something about this particular narrative felt undone to me. I wanted to expand it further, and to explore in greater depth what happens in a community after mass tragedy—and especially once the television cameras pull away. The short story centered on an elementary school, which felt too challenging to explore in a novel. Children certainly have their own lives and perspectives, but I transposed the novel into a high school setting to delve into the lives of four teenagers, which felt more manageable without feeling cloying or manipulative, which I know narratives from child perspectives can sometimes be (though I have read many that have done it well). This was the main challenge. Beyond this, I found that I had a lot more to write in expanding the narrative, and that the transition flowed relatively smoothly.
How did your novel find a home with William Morrow (an imprint of HarperCollins)? And how has working with William Morrow differed from your previous experiences with Dzanc Books (By Light We Knew Our Names) and Origami Zoo Press (An Elegy for Mathematics)?
I’ve been fortunate to have excellent experiences with each of these books and publishers. I’d published the chapbook and short story collection without an agent, but had completed a novel by the time the collection came out, which attracted the attention of my agent. Things moved relatively quickly from there, and I couldn’t be more grateful for her work as well as her kindness, and for the team at William Morrow/HarperCollins. They are true champions of the book and have understood my vision for it from the beginning, which can’t be understated for how crucial this feels in putting a book out into the world. I feel extremely lucky to be working with them, and I am very grateful to have worked with Dzanc and Origami Zoo as well.
In your 2014 Fiction Spotlight interview with our contributing editor Barrett Bowlin, you mention being “pretty obsessed with science, nature, and biology,” something that shines through the story “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart” (Memorious, Issue 18) and spills into the novel with the lines: “How the octopus brain held half a billion neurons, more closely linked to humans than to the cuttlefish and snails that shared its DNA. How under pressure the octopus could transform its short-term memory to long-term recall, a response similar to human fear.” How did your research experience differ between the novel and the short stories?
The process was very similar in terms of the direction the research took me. Science and biology remained front and center in the research of this novel, just as in the past. Short story research has steered me toward octopus biology, echolocation, aurora lights, and so many other natural phenomena. For this novel, in addition to research on how a community responds to mass tragedy, I also researched chemical and biological responses to fear and trauma, as well as the particulars of fire science and crime scene investigation. This research was much more detailed and involved than researching for a single short story, but my brain took me in very similar directions in terms of subject matter.
You’re prolific and efficient, having written a collection of ten stories during the year you drafted Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down—all while teaching. How did you do it? Specifically, what’s it like to connect deeply with so many narratives and characters?
I’ve always viewed writing fiction as a job, so I’ve worked on it as much as I work on teaching—my full-time profession, but one that is dependent on my creative work. It’s never really worked for me to wait for inspiration. I feel like I become a better writer the more I write, so I made myself write every day while working on Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down to stay within the narrative’s world, but also to keep drafting and revising until the pages were what I wanted them to be. I’m very particular and discrete about my time during the academic year—I compartmentalize everything, focusing only on the classroom when I’m there, and zeroing in on my writing each morning before I go into work. The stories I wrote while working on the novel were all about St. Louis, which helped me take breaks from the weight of the novel’s content while also delving further into the novel’s setting. I don’t know if I’d multitask in that way again, but at the time this helped me deepen my understanding of the place I grew up, from a fictional remove. In terms of connecting with so many narratives and characters, it’s a great question and one I haven’t thought much about before—it seems overwhelming to be delving into that many narratives at once, but I guess I sometimes feel deeply empathetic with people on the street even if we’ve never spoken. Perhaps that is part of my “job” as a writer too—to feel connected to a multiplicity of lives, even if all at once.
What question about your novel do you wish we would ask, and will you answer it for us?
Question: In Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, how did you decide upon the structure of so many fires? Where was the line for you in determining how many to include, and whether any of the families’ homes would be spared?
The house fires begin to affect the families of those who were killed during the shooting, and though this question came up in revision—the possibility of redemption, and the possibility that perhaps some of them survive—sparing anyone didn’t feel right for this novel. This was in part because one of my leading questions in writing this book was whether any of us survives this kind of grief, and I don’t know if we ever do. But I also think fiction can be a space of extremes and of exposure, when so much of the violence in our culture is already extreme but sometimes unexposed. I felt similarly about writing “By Light We Knew Our Names,” the title story of my collection, where every single woman in an Alaskan town is abused by men. Early responses to that story were, Could it ever really be this bad? And I wanted the response to be yes—it can be, and it is. At the time, I felt that misogyny was so invisible in my world, and I wanted to explode it on the page and create this atmosphere that felt claustrophobic to the reader, where no one could escape seeing this kind of brutality. I feel similarly about the number of fires and the unrelenting nature of grief within the novel, which I know isn’t for every reader. But I’m not sure what it will take for us to reckon with the inherent violence in our culture, and if burning everything down is the only way to take notice.
Finally, what’s in your reading queue now? Are there fellow debut novelists our readers should be looking out for?
It’s been a fantastic year for debut novelists, and I absolutely loved Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and am readying to read Sarah Domet’s The Guineveres and Brit Bennett’s The Mothers. In terms of my reading queue, I can’t wait to read Randa Jarrar’s Him, Me, Muhammad Ali—I absolutely adored her novel, A Map of Home—and a few non-fiction books, including Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction and Colin Dickey’s Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places.
Wendy Oleson’s chapbook, Our Daughter and Other Stories (winner of the 2016 Rachel Wetzsteon Chapbook Award), is forthcoming in the spring of 2017. Her recent stories appear in Quarterly West, Normal School, New Flash Fiction Review, and Carve Magazine (as the winner of the 2015 storySouth Million Writers Award). She lives in Pullman, WA and Los Angeles, CA and teaches creative writing for the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension.
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