On Writing Darkness and Violence in the Lives of Teenagers
Robin Wasserman and Nicholas Mainieri Talk Craft in Their Recent Novels
Robin Wasserman: Good morning, Nick! If we were having this conversation in person (and, given your proximity to beignets, I truly wish we were), you’d see that I’m chugging coffee like a maniac. You’d also see that I currently look pretty sunshine-y. (Am wearing hot pink shoes.) I’ve noticed this tends to surprise people, who seem to expect the author of the (I’m told) dark and twisted Girls on Fire to be a little more… well, dark and twisted. And maybe, underneath the hot pink, I am, because to me the novel doesn’t seem particularly dark at all. So, first question: Would I be similarly surprised to meet you? The Infinite, in addition to being gorgeously written and smash-your-heart-in-a-million-pieces sad, is pretty dark itself. In the spirit of imagining our first meeting as an actual meeting, I’m curious whether people have an expectation of how dark and/or twisted you’ll be, and whether you defy it. I’m even more curious whether you think of yourself as having written a dark book or whether you’d resist that characterization? Which may also raise the question of what we talk about when we talk about darkness, so . . . go for it.
Nicholas Mainieri: Robin, you’re telling me you’re not covered in Satanic pentagram tattoos?
I’m a generally sunny guy, I think. I’m not toting around gold-plated Kalashnikovs or sporting narco neck tats. I do hope I’m lucky enough to discover whether people expect me to be twisted—that’ll mean some people have read The Infinite.
I don’t see Girls on Fire as such a dark book. Neither do I see my novel that way. No doubt—bad things happen. Part of my job as a writer is to plumb darkness, looking for light. It might seem meager when found, just a pinhole, but the fact of its existence can come close to eclipsing the dark. If not, it’s enough to swim toward. Stories happen for me in the tension between despair and the will to keep going. I’m preoccupied with dark things in the sense that they offer routes toward something useful. And working through them is a compelling challenge, itself. I might come across as a sunny guy (in person at least, ha!) because of coming to delicate terms with these things through writing. What we talk about when we talk about darkness is something else, always. What do you think? Dark for dark’s sake seems like an odious kind of sentimentality.
RW: I don’t think I know you well enough yet to disclose any hypothetical pentagram tattoos, but as my hypothetical Magic 8 ball might suggest, Ask Again Later.
My take on sentimentality (even the odious kinds), is deeply informed by Leslie Jamison’s effort to reclaim that concept—here, at Literary Hub, and more thoroughly but less internet-accessibly in “In Defense of Saccharine(e).” In the latter, she takes up the question of “our uncomplicated capacity for rapture, the ability to find our whole selves moved by something infinitely simple,” and lands here: “I want us to feel swollen by sentimentality and then hurt by it, betrayed by its flatness, wounded by the hard glass surface of its sky.”
In a way, it’s a useful articulation of what I hoped to do with Girls on Fire: reckon with the appeal of darkness for darkness’ sake, the sentimental vision of violence and pain. I see this romanticizing impulse as characteristic of a certain kind of adolescence. The girls of Girls on Fire want to believe they’re living in a heart of darkness; their story tracks the collision of these fantasies with actual trauma, their discovery that real pain follows no narrative arc, possesses no beauty. I say “a certain kind of adolescence,” because something else I’ve been wrestling with is the question of privilege, specifically the privilege to romanticize darkness. Morgan Jerkins raised this powerfully in her essay about “the literature of bored white females [spiraling] into chaos and break[ing] out from their comfortable privileged lives.” She writes:
In my position as a black female reader, I pour into stories and leave them feeling more stupefied than full, wondering if boredom in literature is another form of white privilege—one that women of color cannot access as society’s direct adversaries. Therefore, they need to struggle in a multitude of ways that serve as a background for further intersectional study. For white female characters, I am not so sure: their destruction is described as one of their own volition. It is a destruction in which a world wants them to exist, a world in which they are the standard for beauty, purity, and innocence, and they reject that world by disappearing. For women of color, it is the opposite, and that makes all the difference.
You’ve written about a young woman of color whose destruction is most definitely not of her own volition. The Infinite is in some ways an inverse of the above narrative. Rather than recklessly seeking out dark corners in a well-lit paradise, your protagonists seek out light in a dangerously dark world. Was this a deliberate push back against the Catcher in the Rye/Virgin Suicides school of teen angst?
NM: Thank you for asking that. Absolutely, The Infinite‘s characters—particularly Luz, to whom you refer—represent a deliberate push against that school of literary teen angst.
I’ve come to a similar conclusion as you, concerning darkness—violence, more specifically. The romantic version bears little resemblance to the real thing. The consequences of seeking it out based upon sentimental belief can be utterly crushing. From where I’m sitting, what you do in Girls on Fire with this notion is stunning. And Jamison is great. I’m familiar with what she describes as the shame of sentimentality and the failure to investigate why.
To be frank, I have a fondness for sentimental stuff. Like, I love old Westerns, particularly the ones that ply the bullshit mythos of the Old West. I love them even when they amount to little more than nostalgia for a thing that never was, for a thing that looked, felt, and smelled very different from what’s portrayed. Why do I love them if they’re not reaching beyond this? I don’t know! But I’m moved, sure enough, by the romance of expansive landscape, duels with pistols.
Conversing with a tradition requires its advancement. The Infinite is not an out-and-out Western, but I still found it necessary to subvert my romantic inclinations. Landscape and the proximity/promise of violence must exist in the narrative for reasons beyond beauty and excitement, respectively. Or else, yes, I probably am dabbling in a privileged kind of romanticism.
It’s partly in that sense, too, that I’m pushing against that familiar school of teen angst. Speaking of traditions in which my young reading self once steeped . . . I don’t intend to be disparaging. The echo of recognizable emotion can be solemn/helpful enough—like a good, angry song.
Nevertheless, if a character like Luz experiences some kind of destruction it’s not going to be by her own volition—she’s not going to seek out something with which she’s already too well acquainted. The depiction of violence on the page, and its inclusion in the narrative, has to reflect this.
RW: You don’t want to get me started on cowboys. I’m finally watching Westworld and all I can think is how furious I’d be if I lived in a futuristic world of all-immersive robot theme parks and my only option was an overpriced jaunt to the land of cowboys, bordellos, and horseshit.
That said, I encourage you to talk more about Westerns, and specifically about damsels in distress. Something that intrigued (and occasionally shocked) me about The Infinite is the degree to which you allow Luz’s encounter with violence to reshape her future. On the one hand, this seems self-evident truth: of course trauma affects us. On the other, this seems to offer an unsettling amount of power to the victimizer: should trauma define us? I worried over this with one of my own characters, resolved to neither minimize what she’d endured nor depict a young woman broken by the violence visited upon her. How did you navigate these questions, if indeed they were on your mind?
NM: These questions were very much on my mind.
First, Westerns . . . I remember catching the second half of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on TV. Story didn’t matter, just look and tone. The sharp relief of a loner crossing the desert. There might be an existential interpretation there; yet, that seems attractive because of the paring away of inessential things, which is desirable from a place of privilege, to harken back to Morgan Jerkins. The individual, shed of the superfluous, pitted against the implacable. Ah, hell—still sounds pretty romantic. The genre vibrates on an emotional frequency I like. Though, it must be fairly universal if there’s a popular show about people plunking down cash to live the myth.
But you arrive at that hard glass ceiling pretty quickly with these stories. Geography doesn’t matter. Physics rarely does. Violence is little more than a marvel. You can understand these as fantasy stories. Plus, offensive stereotypes abound. People of color don’t seem to exist. Women are treated terribly. The damsel in distress is everywhere.
In other words, a lot to subvert.
There was no way Luz’s story was going to be the damsel-in-distress. She spoke to me as a hero. Yes, she experiences terrible violence, and her course pivots in response. Two issues, perhaps: how does violence become something more than either plot point or lynchpin in character development? And, how are characters defined as rightfully more than the sum of traumatic events?
Violence in fiction succeeds maybe as a function of setting, as opposed to plot. It’s just true that the world, for many young people, is a violent place. If setting is done right, threat pervades (and because this is craft, notes of description matter—resonating, suggesting). Violence emerges organically, randomly. We’re as smart as we can be, but sometimes things are unavoidable. It seems like an obvious fact that we don’t have to bring violence upon ourselves to experience it. If not obvious (I’m thinking of people who blame victims), it should be.
What Luz encounters is not of her own volition. The operative factor, to me, is what opposing force, already within Luz, rises to meet that which she encounters. To be honest, I thought more about letting her voice (and actions) resound as a person who has experienced trauma. I have to believe that this is a reflection of the women I myself look up to, many of whom have experienced trauma, whose voices remain strong presences for me.
Anyway, we’re always redefining ourselves, aren’t we, folding in new things, rejecting others?
All of this, Robin, before discussing how we actually portray violence on the page. What goes on the page, what stays off. What do you ask yourself when writing a violent scene?
RW: I preface this somewhat unsatisfying answer with the excuse that I’m now (several days into this conversation) typing on my phone, having fled foliage-ward for a writing retreat—said retreat-iness achieved largely by my refusal to put the Wi-Fi password into my computer. So let’s pretend I have a definitive response to all the issues you’ve raised here, both literary and existential . . . and simply can’t communicate such complex wisdom via my phone.
Far less wise or complex is my approach to putting violence on the page (here comes the unsatisfying part): I tend to make these choices by intuition. Where I do shy away from concrete detail, it’s often less about craft and more about my fears of melodrama—the moment any character pulls out a gun, I feel an instinctive stab of embarrassment on their behalf. So over the top! So flagrantly fictional! Far easier for me is the introspective reaction to violence, its emotional reality—the scenes about The Something Bad That Happens At A Party, for example (and for lack of a better spoiler-free way to describe it), are among the only pieces of the book to remain intact from first draft through final. Another way to put this: Girls on Fire depicts an adolescence as bloody and painful as mine felt—those violent feelings leap onto the page of their own accord. Actual blood requires more work.
Same question back to you, in hopes you have some concrete strategies I can steal.
NM: Those scenes in Girls on Fire—my first reaction is to be astounded that such powerful/heart-breaking/terrifying moments came out as perfect as they did on the first go. But, when you mention those emotional realities you retain from adolescence . . . I can say, Yeah, I’ve got that, too.
Intuitiveness. You’re right. The temptation is strong to try a quick theory. Considering the bad thing at the party in Girls on Fire, I think again about setting. High school parties are threatening. Drunk people who are suddenly free, for only a little while and they know it . . . Doesn’t take much for a moment to tip into horror; and this can be sensed. That’s another way of discussing tone, which is partly a function of setting (in the descriptive) but is also intuitive. We intuit that things are going wrong, slowly. So, when written, it’s probably right to linger in the internal/introspective, where time moves at a different pace.
My thoughts aren’t groundbreaking there, but whatever. I’m seizing on the intuitive because one apprehension I have about discussing violence in fiction is a fear of coming across as too academic. There’s a scene in The Infinite where Jonah, the other protagonist, meets a pretentious graduate student who has some “scholarly” opinions on Mexico’s narco wars. He delivers a pseudo-lecture on what he sees as the regenerative aspect of violence. It’s like a page out of the playbook for critical analysis of Blood Meridian. What the guy says offends Jonah, who has a deeply personal sense of violence not only as a young person but also because of what he’s seen/experienced growing up in New Orleans. The guy’s viewpoint doesn’t account for the single human being. Or even small groups of human beings—families, friends.
True horror, which is what true violence is, resists logic. We touched on this earlier. That feeling, inside, as it’s happening, opens a door that never closes. One feels like an asshole trying to frame that feeling with academic language (I do, at least, even if it doesn’t stop me sometimes). Of course, putting anything into a book is, on some level, academic. In fiction, we at least have the lens of character.
The language that approximates the truth of dark or violent experiences might best be found intuitively—central to the self and to character, mindful of the recoil in the single human heart. Maybe it is best to leave this subject there?