Alden Bell is a Tor UK stablemate, and the author of the incredible book, The Reapers Are The Angels. Using whatever power this blog has for good, I thought it would be great to have a back and forth chat. He’s a great guy, and this was fun to do – we had a wide-ranging conversation, covering things such as his books, our writing processes, Pink Floyd and zombies and D.H. Lawrence. So, meet Alden.
Mark: First, let me clear something up. Alden Bell – now, this is a pseudonym, I take it? What was the reason for the change – did you want to embrace your new science fiction and fantasy overlords without letting on that you’d committed an act of literary fiction?
Alden: Yes, Alden Bell is a pseudonym – “Alden” being my middle name (after my ancestor John Alden of Mayflower fame) and “Bell” being the pen name that all the Bronte sisters used. And it is, actually, because I’m temporarily on the lam from “literary” fiction – but not exactly in the way you might think. I’m equally proud of both my novels, but they are just so different that the publisher believed (and I agree) that we should in some way acknowledge that they might attract vastly different audiences. My first book (Hummingbirds, written under my real name, Joshua Gaylord) is a quaint, Muriel Spark-inspired romp through the New York City girls’ prep school community. I was wary that readers who liked that book might pick up The Reapers Are the Angels and be horrified by the graphic depictions of zombies eating human viscera. While I see Reapers as equally “literary,” I have to admit that the target audience overlap between the two books might be rather narrow. Thus the pen name. It essentially says to readers, “You may like his Alden Bell books but not necessarily his Joshua Gaylord books – or vice versa.” The plan is to continue writing under both names, going back and forth between them. If you happen to like both equally, that may mean you’re my ideal reader – a group so exclusive it doesn’t even include my mother.
Mark: I can’t think of too many similarities between girls’ prep schools and zombie apocalypses, but I’m possibly showing my ignorance there! Does this mean that you are a NYC kid? That’s a city with a great literary heritage – though most of my knowledge of the place – in literary terms – stems from reading Don DeLillo or Jonathan Lethem. And although Reapers moves about the country, it still maintains a great sense of place, so has your upbringing – in NYC or elsewhere – shaped your approach to the novel?
Alden: Here’s where the truth comes out. I’m neither from New York (where Hummingbirds takes place) nor am I from the South (where Reapers takes place). Actually, I grew up in Los Angeles. All right, not even Los Angeles – the suburbs of Los Angeles. Okay, not even the cool suburbs – Orange County. So not much of my writing – so far – derives from my hometown. Although, you could say this: Everyone who lives in Orange County exists and contributes to a consensual fiction of beautifully mowed lawns and the success of the American Dream (Disneyland – the Magic Kingdom – on the horizon!) – so in a sense I was born into a world of fantasy storytelling. At the moment I’m having to psychologically re-acclimate myself to it, because in two days I’m traveling back there for my twentieth high-school reunion.
Mark: You get no sympathies from me living in Orange County, dude. But that’s an interesting disconnection between yourself and the American Dream. Whereas so many of the Great American Novels that I’ve read almost celebrate the iconic, Reapers almost came across as if you were writing the anti-American Novel – a literal and assiduous destruction of its landscape and humanity. Noting the psychology there, was that a conscious decision? Or does it come down to the simple fact that you just dig zombies?
Alden: Okay – I’m gonna to have to go all English teacher on you. There’s a great passage at the end of Gatsby where the narrator imagines the first settlers coming to the New World and finding themselves “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to [their] capacity for wonder.” What he’s talking about, I think, is the dangerous diminishment of the American Dream. It used to be about building societies up from scratch, recreating your identity out of nothing, inventing whole new worlds. Now that those new worlds are built, the only things left to strive for are vacations to Aruba and memberships to the right country clubs. Fitzgerald knew it: we still have the instinct to dream but not much left to dream for – which creates a dangerous disconnect. So the apocalypse in Reapers does destroy America, but it also resets it to its original promise. It becomes, once again, a landscape where you can build things from scratch. So it’s anti- and pro-American Dream at the same time. And the zombies? To me, they’re like cilantro – if I can figure out a way to add them into the mix, I’ll do it.
Mark: You know, that’s one of my favourite novels and I never dwelt upon that aspect. So you’re writing about that potential, which indeed adds a filter of optimism to the work. But a quick focus on those zombies – I’d be interested to see how, approaching from the angle of mainstream fiction, you view such genre elements. Are they simple tools for metaphors? Do they add depth to something you could never do in conventional fiction? Are they purely for aesthetics? I feel like I’m putting words in your mouth here! Call it the programmed self-consciousness of being a genre writer.
Alden: As a writer of fiction, literary or otherwise, I don’t actually view genre elements as any different from other made-up elements. Whether I’m inventing the details of a girls’ prep school on the Upper East Side or inventing the details of a zombie-infested post-apocalyptic America, those processes feel the same to me. Granted, one may require a greater imaginative effort than the other, simply because I’ve seen more prep schools in real life than I’ve seen post-apocalyptic Americas. But I think that’s also an advantage with genre fiction. Sometimes the obligation of accurately portraying something everybody recognizes is a dull chore. I welcome the opportunity to generate something brand new. And, yes, the zombies are metaphorical, but so is everything in fiction. Hell, so is everything in real life. But I would also turn the question back onto you. You create vast gorgeous landscapes that are much more fantastical than anything in Reapers. What draws you to fantasy as opposed to gritty realism? Do you ever, in your writing, feel the lure of the “real world”?
Mark: Part of me thinks, What else is left to tell in a fiction that doesn’t incorporate elements of the fantastic? Sometimes I think secondary worlds provide huge amounts to be explored, and it’s always frustrated me that, in a genre where you can literally do anything, so little is explored. In essence, with secondary world you’re writing some kind of psychological geofiction, though I’m not sure that covers it. Perhaps I enjoy the hyper-hyperrealism of it all, the exaggeration of theme or character. But to be honest, I feel for the fantastic to work, it has to be – ironically – filled with a huge amount of realism. Some readers simply can’t accept too much strangeness in a novel – even of another race or species entirely. There’s an immediate block to their understanding.
And I’m also drawn to writing in this genre because of the way readers treat the literature. When you’re starting out writing, you want to be read, and you want people to talk about your books – it calls to that ego within all writers – and I always maintain that other genres, literary included, will never attain the level of fandom found in fantasy and science fiction circles. Perhaps I’m biased, because I certainly came through as a reader of the genre first. So what about you – did you read science fiction and fantasy when you were growing up, or are you relatively new to the scene?
Alden: I understand the frustration you’re talking about. The one thing I can’t understand is how some readers (and some writers, for that matter) have this fast corpus of limitless stories before them – stories in which literally anything is possible – and all they want to see is a reflection of mundane reality. On the other hand, as you’re saying, a story has to create its own laws, its own standards and realities, and remain true to them. So there’s still a version of realism that needs to be in place.
And I think you’re right about the ego of the writer needing to be fed. It’s also one of the reasons some people (like myself) become teachers. I gotta have that audience! The great thing about being a teacher is that they’re literally a captive audience. If they get up and leave, you get to give them an F.
Actually, I didn’t read a huge amount of sci-fi and fantasy growing up. What I did read was a lot of horror (Stephen King, Peter Straub) – and some of those, like The Stand and The Talisman, edged over into the SFF world. More recently, I became interested in those geeky cyberpunk novelists like William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and Richard K. Morgan – probably because I’m fascinated with the notion of human-machine interfaces. But I’ve never been what you might call a connoisseur of sci-fi or fantasy. Still, I admire tremendously what fantasy writers (like yourself) are able to do: that kind of ground-up construction of worlds is an awesome feat.
Mark: It’s interesting you came from the horror branch of the genre, though not surprising I guess, given the content and vibe of Reapers. I don’t think there are many advantages of literary taxonomy, but would you say those horror writers influenced much of Reapers, or were there mainstream authors at play? When I was reading it, I was reminded of writers like Cormac McCarthy – your prose really reminded me of his evocative yet minimalistic style.
And while it’s on my mind, are you an author who absorbs the work of others you’re currently reading? I often wonder whether being a teacher amplifies or lessens such influences. I have to be really careful about what I read, or at least very self-aware, because I sometimes find an echo of it sneaking in my own work. It’s probably why I refuse to read Dan Brown – well, one of many reasons, of course.
Alden: I’m sure that Stephen King had something to do with Reapers. At the very least, he taught me how to write effective grotesquerie. But, yes, I think you hit the nail on the head with Cormac McCarthy. He was a huge influence on the narrative style of the book – along with other writers of the Southern Gothic genre: Tom Franklin, William Gay, Daniel Woodrell. Behind them all, of course, is William Faulkner. Faulkner is my cornerstone. Reapers is loaded with pretty overt references to him.
And, yes, I really am quite susceptible to the styles of books I’m reading. That’s one of the reasons Hummingbirds is so different from Reapers. One day I’m reading Muriel Spark, the next I’m reading Cormac McCarthy. Especially when I’m at the beginning of a novel, I try not to read anything that will derail the style – at least until the book is sufficiently established. I once got on a Virginia Woolf kick in the middle of trying to write something – and the story wound itself into such knots of internal monologue that I had to abandon it entirely.
Mark: I’m glad I’m not alone on the absorption front – and I’m sorry to say I chuckled at the fact that Virginia Woolf killed your novel.
You mentioned you teach – how easy is that to fit in a word-heavy job both day and night? I mean, I work full-time on top of the writing, and have only recently got to the point where I’m on top of everything, but you must find it hard if you teach English – where you also deal with words, non-stop. And I also want to know – do the kids think it’s a-ma-zing that you’ve written a zombie novel? Do you swagger around in front of the class, all cool and sophisticated and writerly?
Alden: The most difficult part is grading papers. There’s nothing that will take the edge off your writing like reading a stack of unenthusiastic high school interpretations of Wuthering Heights. That’s why I tend to do most of my writing on the weekends when I can purge myself of that flurry of language. The thing with writing only on the weekends is that you have to be very diligent about it. I create a schedule myself. Twelve pages per weekend: four pages before lunch each day and two pages after. Do you find you have to schedule yourself like that?
As for the students – unfortunately, most of them seem to take my books in stride. I’m not sure if they’re just too jaded to be impressed by such things or if they don’t like to humor me – but starry-eyed admiration is certainly not something I’m getting. They’re odd kids: none of them seem terribly interested in zombies. I don’t quite understand that.
Mark: I love finding out about how writers work. Secretly, nearly everyone has a fetish for technique, I’m sure of it. When I started out, I was assiduously reading up Hemingway’s novels (not that you’d guess from my prose now) and I stuck to something that he said. It was more or less to write a thousand words a day, no more, no less. If you’re going really well then stop, because you’ll be able to pick things up the next day easily. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it means that I do a little each day, and I don’t panic about getting behind with the word count. I also try to imagine certain scenes when I go for a light run – which is great for untangling plot knots. Hemingway also wrote standing up, apparently, but there’s no way I’d be doing that.
Kids today, eh? But you’ll know this better than most, I guess: are younger readers gradually losing interest in literature? I know you always read articles about online gaming or cinema or whatever eating into their reading time. You’re on the front line. Should we be worried?
Alden: Sometimes it does feel like today’s teenagers have so many other stimuli that (perhaps for good reason) occupy their attention that books tend to take a backseat. But every time I find myself thinking that way, I feel terribly old and codgery. I like to think more optimistically about things. I like to imagine that for every skill or proficiency lost from one generation to the next there’s another proficiency gained somewhere else to compensate. I can’t text at light speed with my thumbs. The youth may not be reading, but they have incredibly agile thumbs.
Happily, I don’t have any kids of my own, so I don’t have to worry so much about the future of the next generation. But I’ll keep my fingers crossed for everyone else’s sake.
Mark: I always wonder how things differ between the educational systems in the US and the UK. Do you get to teach the books you yourself enjoy, or is there a set list from which you can pick and choose the best? If you could have it your way, which books would you want the next generation to read? I think if I was going to pick this, it would have to include a more contemporary slant – I mean, it’s great to know the classics, but do a lot of modern texts get ignored?
Oh, and if the kids have been rude to the teacher, I’d make them read D.H. Lawrence – for all sorts of reason
Alden: Because I teach at a private school, I have the advantage of being able to teach what I want – which is a real luxury. And I agree with you about the contemporary slant. My ideal curriculum is one that features a perfect balance of classic and contemporary. Certain books just never seem to get old. I could teach Gatsby every year for the rest of my life. The same is true of Chaucer and Heart of Darkness and Dubliners. But I love the idea of tempering those heavy duty classics with things like Raymond Chandler and Phillip Roth and Daniel Woodrell.
We recently started a program for seniors at my school where they take a semester of “mini-courses” – classes that only last two weeks each and offer a huge range of topics not normally taught. I’ve taught mini-courses on subjects as disparate as graphic novels, Pink Floyd, Busby Berkeley and Buster Keaton. It’s immensely gratifying to teach high school students about Pink Floyd – though I always wonder if they’re coming to my class stoned for the occasion.
As for D.H. Lawrence – I remember reading him when I was a teenager looking for all the dirty parts he had a reputation for. I was deeply disappointed. I remember thinking: “Where’s all the sex? This is just a bunch of flowers!” I felt betrayed.
Mark: That’s a luxurious position to be in – and it must be wonderful to guide younger readers through literature, especially considering how personal the art form is. I’m a huge Pink Floyd fan – lucky enough to have seen Roger Waters gig with Nick Mason, but not enough to have seen The Wall tour. How did you get into them? I think I discovered them when I was 17, probably just the right age. And I felt they had surprisingly literary lyrics, too – they dealt with the big themes so effortlessly.
D.H. Lawrence – as it happens, I live fairly close to where he was born, about ten miles away, and the countryside which he describes so vividly can still be seen. But surely you’ve blushed at Lady Chatterley’s Lover? You’re made of stronger stuff, clearly.
It would make an interesting point actually – what books have forced a physical reaction out of you? I remember reading Nabokov’s Lolita, and on several occasions I had to put the book down – because Nabokov was doing all the things he was meant to so very well, and he disgusted the reader so effectively with his depictions, yet you had to keep reading to enjoy his prose.
Alden: Pink Floyd – they’re one of those bands (along with Genesis, Jethro Tull, ELP, King Crimson) that inspired me to start writing at a very early age. As you say, there’s something very literary about prog rock from the 70s. They don’t shy away from melodrama and theatricality and the invention of whole musical worlds. Those bands always filled me with wonder for the epic magnitude of human invention. Songs like skyscrapers: if you can write a twenty-minute song, why not do it? Just for the feat of the thing.
As for D.H. Lawrence – my youth was spent laced with bona fide VHS porn, so his metaphors struck me as just a bit quaint.
And I like your question about literature that inspires powerful, almost physical response. Lolita definitely has that effect on me. And certain books with an affinity for the grotesque. I just recently read Tobacco Road and kept thinking to myself, “What? Did I just read what I think I did?” I like books that push boundaries of morality and decency.
But there are also a number of books that affect me powerfully in another way: they make me weep every time I read them. Like The Dead and To the Lighthouse. How about you? What are your weeping books? Or are you one of those soulless readers who never cry?
Mark: I honestly – genuinely – can not remember a time where a book has made me cry (or at least, not for the last ten years or so.) Films, can make me weepy, but not books. I don’t know whether that’s because I find it hard to distance myself from the creative process – I’m always looking at how certain things are being done so I might learn myself. I like flicking back to see how a character developed, or seeing where the reader bought into certain emotional revelations. Whereas with a film, I tend to surrender myself a little more. Sure, I can look for neat narrative tricks, but by and large I find myself completely open to the director’s suggestion.
No wait! I do remember when I was 12 years old, I wept at a scene in – and I can’t believe I’m sharing this – a Jeffrey Archer novel. These days he’s busy enforcing his reputation for general sumbaggery, but he had a period where, as a Tory MP, he was churning out political thrillers. When I was 12, I loved thrillers, and there was a scene in Kane and Abel where a girl was raped, and I felt terribly sad for her. If I was reading that novel today, or at any time in the last ten years, I would probably openly burn it for so many reasons, but yes, at the time it made me weep.
What? I was 12. I didn’t know any better.
But anyway, do you find you’ve a different approach to reading since you became a novelist? Are you more understanding towards certain themes?
Alden: I know exactly what you’re talking about. One of the most fundamental texts to my development as a storyteller is John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse” – which describes the painful catch-22 of getting so close to literature that you can’t appreciate in a pure way anymore. He talks about becoming fascinated with the behind-the-scenes workings of stories to the degree that you can’t just sit back and let the story take you for a ride. And he concludes with this unique tragedy: most writers write books because they can imagine the book that they themselves would most like to read – but having written that book (their ideal book), they are in no position to actually read it in any authentic way. Sad.
But I guess that’s also an answer to your question. Yes, as a craftsman in the field, it’s hard to read a book without noticing all the little gears and levers that make it work. That provides a great deal of pleasure (if you have the mind of a tinkerer, which I do), but I frequently wonder what books would look like to me if I weren’t so fixated on deconstructing their operations. On the other hand, this focus makes me a very wide reader too. Because I’m more interested in form than content, I read books that intrigue me because of how they were written rather than what they’re about. So I find myself reading about everything from itinerant farm workers to artificial intelligences. I guess you could put it this way: I’ve always believed that stories should take a backseat to storytelling.
Mark: I’m going to have to pinch that last line and deploy it in conversation. And I think I’ll have to look up that book by John Barth – that sounds a potent concept.
You know, this is a heck of a conversation – and I know I could ramble on about this for many hours. But this is going to be posted online, and people have a much shorter attention span on screen! So, are there any final thoughts you have about the book – what do you hope people will take away from reading Reapers?
Alden: What I enjoyed most about writing the book – and what I hope readers will enjoy most about it – is the sense of unfailing optimism about the world, no matter how miserable and blighted it seems to be. The book is tragic in all the ways you might expect, of course, but there’s an underlying hope that feels like it triumphs by the end. I like that. I’m a sucker for the bittersweet ending.
And this has indeed been a lovely conversation. We’ll have to continue it some day – offline and in a bar somewhere.