Interview with Joshua Gaylord, Author of When We Were Animals
Also by this author: When We Were Animals
I am very excited to have Joshua Gaylord, author of WHEN WE WERE ANIMALS, join us today for a Q&A. For those that missed my review, this is one of my favorite recent books. I read a quite a few books a year, and it is always refreshing when I encounter one that just feels so different. There’s a magic to the main character that is hard to get across and I really feel there is much more to this book than it’s ability to scare or disturb. So, I was delighted to get the chance to ask the author a few questions.
Red Moon meets The Virgin Suicides, WHEN WE WERE ANIMALS is an inimitable combination of an all-American coming-of-age story and a supernatural transformation legend.
“For a long time, when I was a girl, I was a very good girl.” And so begins Gaylord’s modern gothic of a girl’s gritty, mythic, and violent coming-of-age. WHEN WE WERE ANIMALS is a dark, provocative journey into the American heartland and the unpredictable and biting hearts of teenagers.
When Lumen Fowler looks back on her childhood, she cannot imagine how she became a kind suburban wife and devoted mother. In fact she never thought she would escape her small and peculiar hometown. WHEN WE WERE ANIMALS is Lumen’s confessional: as a teenager she fell beneath the sway of her community’s darkest, strangest secret. For one year, beginning at puberty, every resident “breaches” during the full moon. On these nights, adolescents run wild, destroying everything and anyone in their path.
Lumen resists. Promising her father she will never breach, she explores the mysteries of her community’s traditions and the stories erased from the town records. But the more we learn about the town’s past, the more we realize that Lumen’s memories are harboring secrets of their own.
Welcome Joshua, I have really enjoyed reading When We Were Animals and am excited for you to join us today!
First, I want to bring up that you have written the Reapers trilogy under the pen name Alden Bell. The first book, the Reapers are the Angels was a 2010 Phillip K. Dick nominee and a ALA Alex Award winner.
[interview_id][/interview_id][interview_q]What made you choose to publish this under your own name (or the Reapers under a pen name)?[/interview_q][interview_a]Actually, the decision to use a pen name wasn’t really mine. My first book (Hummingbirds) was a contemporary New York girls’ school novel, which was published under my own name; and when I decided that my second book would be a post-apocalyptic Southern Gothic zombie novel (Reapers), my agent and publisher decided that it would be best for me to use a pen name. Their thought was that the books were so different (in subject matter, in style, in tone, in everything) that fans of Hummingbirds might be positively repelled by Reapers—and vice versa. So it was decided that I should write under two different names: one for my more realistic writing and another for my horror/sci-fi/supernatural writing. When We Were Animals, I think, is halfway between Reapers and Hummingbirds. To be honest, the borderlines between these things feel awfully indistinct to me—so I leave it up to better minds than my own to decide what name to put on the cover. [/interview_a] [interview_id][/interview_id][interview_q]I love Lumen’s character; even her name is beautiful and unique. I was fascinated by how Lumen would define and redefine herself based on literal definitions of her name. Did you select her name specifically for this purpose (all the meanings it can have)? And if so, did you have to search for a word, or did you have the name Lumen in mind from the very beginning?[/interview_q] [interview_a]Her name was mostly a happy accident. I think I must have had it lodged in my head from Julia Stiles’ character on Dexter. I liked the idea that the word “lumen” refers to light—and my protagonist struggles with lightness and darkness throughout the book. The other definitions of the word (which I don’t want to spoil for those who haven’t read the book) were discovered after I was well into the process of writing—at which point I felt particularly lucky to have stumbled upon such a gorgeously nuanced name. It’s fascinating to me that one word can have such disparate and overlapping definitions: one so ethereal and the other so physical. I like how her name changes meaning over the course of her young life—just as she has to reckon with the transformation of her identity.[/interview_a] [interview_id][/interview_id][interview_q]This book reads very well as a standalone, but I am still curious, are likely to see any more of Lumen or her town? [/interview_q] [interview_a]It’s hard for me to imagine another Lumen book. Because Animals is written from two different time perspectives (young Lumen and adult Lumen), the narrative feels to me completely bookended. She’s changed as much as she’s going to change in her life. I think a book is really and truly done when you realize that any other stories you have to tell about a character would be repetitious—and I’m hyperconscious of never wanting to string along my characters into a series of books that tell the same story over and over to the point of exhaustion. So if I were ever to revisit the setting of Animals, it would need to be from a very different angle. [/interview_a] [interview_id][/interview_id][interview_q]Do you have any other projects planned or currently in the works? [/interview_q] [interview_a]The book I’m working on now is a period piece. It takes place in Orange County, California, in 1975. The narrator is a mute 12-year-old boy who falls in love with a girl who may or may not be from the future. [/interview_a] [interview_id][/interview_id][interview_q]With any author I enjoy reading, I’m always interested to hear about their favorite books. Could you share what your favorite authors as an adult? [/interview_q] [interview_a]My favorite genre is the Southern Gothic. I can read Faulkner over and over without ever getting tired of him. But also: Cormac McCarthy, William Gay, Tom Franklin, Carson McCullers, Daniel Woodrell, Erskine Caldwell, Flannery O’Connor. In my lifetime, I’ve only ever been a resident of California and New York, but there’s something about Southern literature that inspires me. I like its ostentation, its grandiosity, its theatricality, its dark humor. But I also love a very different brand of literature: the playful postmoderns: John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon, William H. Gass, Italo Calvino. They are also ostentatious (and probably too big for their britches), but less serious and more trickstery. Somewhere in the intersection between these two sets of authors is where my literary tastes are most satisfied. [/interview_a] [interview_id][/interview_id][interview_q]And maybe who was your favorite author or what your favorite book was from your childhood? [/interview_q] [interview_a]That one’s easy: The Phantom Tollbooth. As a kid, I was completely taken with the way Norton Juster made abstract notions (mathematics, English grammar) into concrete characters and objects. I loved imagining a world in which the combat between words and numbers (a conflict to which I was always sensitive) was made literal. Also, throughout most of my childhood, I lived more in books than in reality—so Milo’s journey into text was more meaningful to me than it would have been if I had been someone who had either friends or a desire to be outside in the sunlight.[/interview_a] [interview_id][/interview_id][interview_q]And lastly, because we all love talking books, I’d like to ask a question I ask of pretty much anyone, author or not: What are you currently reading?[/interview_q] [interview_a]Richard Ford’s collection of stories, Rock Springs, is a book I’m loving so much that I’m reading it extremely slowly. I only allow myself to read a story from it every now and then—because I never want to be finished with it. So, between those stories, I’m also reading a couple other books: Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel, Seconds, which is a kind of modernized monkey’s paw fable, and Daniel Woodrell’s The Maid’s Version—because everything that guy writes seems effortlessly perfect.[/interview_a]
Thanks you so much for taking the time to answer my questions today!
Joshua Gaylord grew up in Anaheim, California, and currently resides in New York City. He’s the author of one previous novel, and under the pen name Alden Bell, two horror novels, including The Reapers are the Angels. He received his Ph.D. in 20th century American and British literature from NYU, and has taught both at NYU and the New School.
More Praise for WHEN WE WERE ANIMALS
“WHEN WE WERE ANIMALS conjures the dreamy satisfaction of revisiting the cult horror movies of your youth—things are familiar but they resound in new and unexpected ways, revealing subtle depths and poignancy. This is a dark, inventive and absorbing story, fittingly theatrical. It disturbs and entertains in equal measure.”
—Benjamin Wood, author of the Costa-shortlisted The Bellwether Revivals
“Admit it: you remember an animal time in your own life. And if you think you don’t, Joshua Gaylord and his book will lash you with it. WHEN WE WERE ANIMALS has the power to creep you out and, yes, turn you on.”
—John Griesemer, author of Signal & Noise
“There’s no stopping this bizarrely fascinating journey of dark self-discovery.”
“Gaylord spikes his fitfully lovely language with noisome noir details.”