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.