Neither of Us Likes Parties: Lynn Strong and Rumaan Alam in Conversation
On Family, Art, Work, and Alam's Latest Novel
Leave the World Behind
Photo credit: David A. Land
I met Rumaan Alam in the late Spring of 2016 at a party. Neither of us likes parties. My first book had just come out and his was on its way. We spent most of that night talking about our children. My oldest and his youngest are three weeks apart. We talked about books too, I remember, because the next morning, I was sitting, working, and we began DM’ing, I think for what turned out to be hours, about a book that we’d both read. Sometime, also in 2016, we went to the Agnes Martin retrospective at the Guggenheim. By the end of the show both of us had cried.
Sometime in 2018, I was in Manhattan and had been stood up by a student and Rumaan convinced me to come with him to see a movie—a shirtless Robert Pattinson in space with a baby movie—in the middle of the day. It was the first movie I’d seen during the day in a theater in at least a decade. We walked from The Angelika down to the Brooklyn bridge after, talking about that movie, the way Claire Denis continually subverted our idea of what was human and what was worthy, the strange way it felt uncomfortable, but also, that it was like nothing else we’d ever seen.
For the past four years, Rumaan and I have been in almost constant conversation: about books and art, but also movies, also kids and husbands, beach trips, what to make for dinner, as if it weren’t all part of the same thing always, as if we weren’t both living our lives and churning over in our heads the ways we’d put these things into our books. There’s a particular thrill in reading a book by a colleague you feel close to: with Leave the World Behind, I felt both sure that this was a book that only Rumaan could have written, and also, that it was a book he’d worked hard to get good enough to make.
Lynn Strong: This book is being talked about as a big step forward, but I also think all of writing is a pretty methodical and incremental plod. How do you place this book within the context of what you made before this? What were you trying to do that you hadn’t done up until now? In what ways is it in conversation with the books you wrote before?
Rumaan Alam: Right, you and I talk about this all the time—the imperative to progress (ideally improve) as we go. To write a book and then hopefully another, hopefully having learned something about language or structure or plot or whatever the elements of a novel are. I don’t know how to judge the small body of my own work and maybe that’s not up to me anyway, but I certainly think that a book I wrote in 2019 is the work of a writer different from the one writing books in 2015 or 2017. I wanted Leave to be different in some obvious ways: to not deploy a third person close to one or two characters but to try for narrative omniscience, to use a running clock—the book takes place over a very compressed period of time—to lend the whole thing a different sense of momentum. But I’m still fundamentally the same person, with the same sensibility, interested in the same things, so there’s a lot that ties the books together thematically. I think?
LS: Absolutely. I’m sure we’ve talked about this before, but I have this theory that we’re all always just writing the same book over and over but just shifting the particular container with which to circle or engage our various obsessions on the page. If we were to pretend a moment that this idea makes sense: what do you think are your books overarching concerns? What do you think you’re always in some way writing toward or around?
RA: Good question! Can you judge your own work in this way? I am clearly interested in family. I’m interested in the ways people perform roles dictated by class or gender or race, consciously and unconsciously. I’m interested in the distance between what someone says and what they mean, in the ways people communicate or fail to. Then there’s the small stuff—food, sex, conversation—that I love to write about and read about.
LS: A thing I thought about this read, and that actually illuminated for me some things about your earlier books as well, is that the characters aren’t quite people. And I mean this as a compliment. You’re using them, especially Amanda and Clay, to show us something about what it is to be alive right now, about what it is we are. How do you think of the idea of character and in what ways do you think the people that we form on the page are both different from and similar to the people we see walking around everyday?
RA: This is probably something I learned from you Lynn. In the work we write, the characters need to feel real, or like you can comprehend them. But they’re not real! They’re made up, cogs in a complicated system that we’ve built. Real life doesn’t work that way but the novel does, I think.
LS: This is connected, I think, to something we talk about a lot which is the sort of absurd concept of “likeable characters”. The characters in Leave, and the characters you’ve written in the past, have been accused of being “unlikeable,” and/but I would argue that’s often the point of your books: to show us all the ways we—and whiteness in particular—are unlikeable, to show the quieter and more passive ways that humans might damage and fail to see or hear one another; but then, as we both know, once you render characters this way, you run the risk of your book being dismissed or rejected or misunderstood. How do you think about walking this particular line? Why is it necessary to ask readers to consider characters they might also hate?
RA: Who is likeable? People are more complex than that! I absolutely hate this way of thinking about characters. Leave aside that “likeable” is an entirely subjective measure; a reader’s personal feelings about a made-up person aren’t salient to their experience of a book. When a character rubs a reader the wrong way, I think there’s often a discomfiting recognition at play. The reader might feel indicted. Dismissing character as unlikeable often feels to me like a particular tell. Any work of realism should attempt to capture the weirdness, the illogic, the oddity of people.
LS: I’ve been teaching Ferrante lately, and re-reading Leave, I thought a lot about Days of Abandonment, both how the objects ground us but also how they further exemplify the absurdity of any of our relationships to feeling tethered to any actual logic or solidity. In novels, it’s meant to be our job to ground the reader in the worlds that we’ve created and objects can be so useful to do that, but, as in this book, you begin to upend or implode that reality: how did you shift the book’s relationship to objects? How did you keep the reader inside the world, even as it began to fall apart?
RA: I don’t like to think of this book in terms of trick, but it certainly is doing a bit of a seduction at the outset, lulling the reader into thinking it’s one thing. And maybe the object is the tool I’m using: place, and food, and the physical space, which is far more well defined than, say, the way the characters look (which is something I almost never write about, because I’m face blind and all people kind of look the same to me). What ultimately happens in the book does make the notion of possession or material wealth—so important in the early pages of the book—seem absurd. This is accomplished, if it is at all, I guess, by thinking about the physical space they inhabit: the house, which is a haven when we first see it and something like a trap eventually.
LS: I wonder if we could talk more specifically about this idea of both haven and trap. I feel like that’s a useful way to describe the house in your book, but also, the domestic space as a landscape for a certain type of fiction. This space can be incredibly useful and productive narratively, but it is also often diminished and feminized. What has been useful to you about inhabiting mostly domestic spaces in your fiction? In what ways (if at all) do you think it’s hemmed you in?
RA: In some way the explicit endeavor of this book was to challenge that notion that the domestic is “small.” I wanted to write a domestic novel that engaged with questions of global import. And it’s very literal here because the book is so interested in the house itself, really underlining that this is about domestic space. I’m not sure why this is of interest to me, but it is! Houses are important in all three of my novels. Maybe it’s because I like houses, could it be that simple and dumb? Anyway, I don’t feel hemmed in by writing about this sphere; I find it liberating. If some want to perceive this as minor or feminized (or want to understand those two terms as somehow synonymous), that is their loss.
LS: I’m cheating a little here, but I know pace was an important consideration for you here, and I know the Goodreads ladies have complained in the past about your previous books’ relationship to plot, so, what did you do to engage with that particular narrative tool with this book? How has your relationship to plot shifted over the years and what did you read or do differently this round that helped you re-consider this book’s architecture and movement?
RA: I’m the egomaniac who cannot stop myself from reading what people think of my work. There’s not a lot to learn there, and anyway, I don’t think writing a book is like writing a sixth grade essay, in which you might try to recall a teacher’s feedback and improve your writing. But yes, I wanted to try to write with a more defined sense of plot, even if I’ve never quite understood readers who yearn for that above all else. I love meditative books where nothing really happens! But I wanted to write a book where something happens, where a lot happens, and it happens over a very defined timeline. I’m not sure I can articulate what I did differently to accomplish this, beyond to say that I thought about it a lot—keeping the chapters taut, choosing detail thoughtfully, keeping the writing fixed in scene and action more than rumination or description. I don’t know what I read that helped inform this—as you know I try to read widely. Perhaps reading Stephen King helped; perhaps reading Patrick Modiano did. I’m not sure.
LS: You read your Goodreads reviews but you’ve also spent a good amount of the last couple of years writing criticism. How has that informed what you’ve made in your own work? In what ways are you better for it?
RA: I have spent a lot of time looking at books by writers better than me—Zadie Smith, Ben Lerner, Hari Kunzru, Lorrie Moore, Patrick Modiano, Deborah Levy—so it stands to reason I’d learn something by osmosis, never mind by trying to think through these books critically. It’s hard to say what lessons I took away from these individual works but maybe it’s a matter more of the attention required when reading closely and then writing about these works. If I can’t say how I’m the better for it, as a writer, I can say I’m the better for it as a reader, maybe as a human being. The particular gift of reading.
LS: I feel like we have to end on a question about Right Now, but I also feel like we can’t possibly talk about Right Now because we’re too enmeshed in it. Instead, I want to say that while many people have talked about how scary and how prescient this book is, I also find it incredibly elegant and hopeful. Is that my own deluded read or do you think it’s in there? Where does hope live for you right now?
RA: It’s elusive, but I do think the book has a sense of optimism in it. Did you ever read Margaret Atwood’s trilogy of Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAdam? It’s a series that sees the death of humanity itself. Yet! At the conclusion, there’s the suggestion that those who survive—genetically engineered organisms—discover language. That a way of our being might perish, but art itself might survive. I’ll take optimism wherever I can find it.
Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind is available now from Ecco.