I read One of Us this year based largely around BookWol’s review she wrote a while back. The review really stuck in my mind because she described it as such an emotional rollercoaster and one line, in particular, kept this book circulating in the back of my mind.
One of Us is the most powerful book I’ve read in recent memory. — Bookwol
I was super excited to start this one and I got everything and more than I was expecting out of it. This is a story about the “others”, those born on the unfortunate side of social acceptance.
I plan to read more of your books… are all of them this sad? Should I prepare myself?
[laughs] It depends which one. I write in several genres ranging from WW2 submarine thrillers to comedic sci-fi/fantasy to dark fantasy, horror, and apocalyptic fiction. The latter tends to be, well, dark! In each, I explore a big theme that offers a mirror for the reader, who is invited to reflect on how they’d react in the same situation. In One of Us, the reader reflects about the ways in which prejudice affect human relationships, while in Suffer the Children, it’s about how far a parent will go for their children.
If you’re interested in something just straight-up an action-packed thriller, I’d suggest my Crash Dive series, which chronicles the adventures of a naval lieutenant serving in the submarines in World War 2. And if you want something action-packed but funny, there’s The Great Planet Robbery and The Alchemists.
There are big impacts with character deaths in One of Us, which kept the feeling of danger palpable. This wasn’t a book where you could predict who was going to make it and who wasn’t, and it left my heart in my throat a few times. Did you know who was going to die when you started writing it or did it come organically later?
One of Us is a novel about a town living in fear of the children at a nearby orphanage who were born with severe mutations making them monstrous. It was a rare book for me in that it really just poured out of my head. The characters, small town, and Southern Gothic vibe were a lot of fun to work with and provided rich material. As with my other fiction, I had the major plot points mapped out before I went in, but most of what happens is organic, which is to say, written as it happened.
There was one major character death in particular that was planned out, as the entire last act hinges on it. My agent and editor pushed back on that one a little, as it’s a bit upsetting and takes the book on a decidedly dark path, but in my view it was inevitable and necessary to putting the “normals” and the plague children hurtling to a violent collision.
I have family in the south and I visited them for extended periods of time in the 90s – I have to say your writing created a very believable and immersive southern atmosphere. Did you live there before moving to Canada? What motivated you to write about the south in the 80s?
I grew up in the United States and lived there until 2003, when I moved to Canada to live with my wife at the time, who is Canadian. I’d visited the South numerous times, including rural Georgia. That being said, I wouldn’t consider myself particularly informed from firsthand experience. The South represented in One of Us is a composite of research into rural Southern lifestyle and a romantic and somewhat grotesque South as depicted in Southern Gothic literature such as The Sound and the Fury and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
The result for many readers rings true, which I’m happy about, as the setting is foundational to the story. That being said, I should point out that nowhere is the intent to caricaturize the South or convey prejudice, which is a universal human trait, is somehow unique to that region. I chose the South for the setting because I wanted to write a misunderstood novel as a Southern Gothic.
As for the year 1984, when the novel takes place, I wanted to immediately convey this is an alternate world in which one major thing changed, I felt it supported the earthy, low-tech feel of the story, and I wanted to stimulate a sense of nostalgia—not for the 80s in particular, but for the past.
Sexual assault is a difficult topic to write about, it can quickly become offensive and misrepresented as far as the victim’s feelings and reactions. I personally thought the scene was well depicted and left me feeling the right kind of angry. What did you find to be the biggest challenge with this scene?
I knew going in the sexual assault scene in One of Us was risky but felt it was necessary, as this is a story about human monsters and monstrous humans, and sexual assault is part of the spectrum of human monstrousness and a frequent trope in Southern Gothic. It also allows a major character to instantly reveal something very important about herself, something that gives her extreme agency (power).
In my view, the scene had to pass several tests: Is it necessary (yes), is it gratuitous (no), is it overly graphic (no), did it motivate a man to save her or avenge her (no). These challenges weren’t particularly major as I took the subject matter very seriously and answered these questions before I wrote it. The biggest challenge was including it at all, as we live in an age where it is very easy to denounce something and create a bandwagon among people sometimes reacting to an issue rather than the work itself, which becomes a straw man.
Your kids appear to have an influence on your writing, citing them as your “source of love and angst,” and the inspiration for the WIP about the siblings in a second Civil War. How do you feel about your kids reading your books? Do you think that your protagonists will age up as your kids grow up?
My primal worries about my kids and my existential fears in general inform my darker fiction, as they are excellent fodder for authentic terror. My kids aren’t old enough to read any of my fiction, but when they are, I certainly hope they will read and enjoy it. The same goes, by the way, for anybody’s kids. Some readers mistook One of Us (based on the publisher description) as young adult fiction, but it’s not, it’s adult fiction, and while I would trust a teen to handle the subject matter and learn something from it, I’d suggest adult supervision of that process.
In Our War, which is coming out from Orbit in August, a UNICEF worker and a journalist uncover the use of child soldiers in a second American Civil War fought in the near future. As with One of Us, the story is told from the point of view of both kids and adults. The idea of using children in this story is to brutally depict the real victims if America’s cultural wars ever switch from words to bullets. If such a war were to happen here, it wouldn’t be a stately war between coalitions of states but instead more like Bosnia in the 90s—neighbor against neighbor, rural versus urban, and with average people ending up doing most of the fighting. The result is a powerful and prescient cautionary tale about the dangers of tribalization in America while dealing with other themes such how belief defines both us as Americans and America itself.
You write across a wide variety of subgenres and have released at least one book every year since 2010, with some years having multiple releases. It’s an impressive amount of productivity. How do you maintain such a high release rate? Do you have a writing ‘schedule’ where you have an allotted amount of writing time each day, or do you go through spurts?
I’m a very lucky man in that my day job (as an educator and journalist in the lighting industry) is at home, which affords me greater efficiency and productivity. I also don’t watch much TV at night. I have also been doing this long enough that I’ve passed Gladwell’s 10,000-hour threshold and therefore achieved a huge amount of efficiency in producing a polished first draft quickly. Another thing is success feeds success—it’s pretty darn motivating to write another book when the last one was published and sold well, and the publisher wants another. Mostly, though, I keep writing because I love it, and I keep writing because people keep reading it.
What’s the biggest gut punch a book has ever given you? Which authors give you the visceral feeling you give to others?
This is a good question and one that’s hard to answer offhand! The first one that popped into my head is—spoilers ahead, folks—Piggy’s death in Lord of the Flies. When the boulder crushes him, it isn’t just a moral, well-meaning (and unpopular/misunderstood) kid who dies, the intellectual argument for staying civilized dies with him. I remember that really getting me when I read it.
While I’m answering this, another popped into my head, which is Boxer’s death in Animal Farm. The biggest, strongest supporter of the Revolution is carted away to what he believes will be a happy retirement, when it’s actually the glue factory. I really admire Orwell’s savagery in his simple and brutal depictions of power. The book overall is dark and brutal because there’s no justice, no real catharsis for the reader.
My favorite books, however, punch my head far more than my gut, blow my mind with new ideas. One of the best books I’ve read recently was Naomi Alderman’s The Power, in which women discover an innate genetic ability to administer electric shock with their hands. Suddenly, women become the stronger sex, which results in a very real gender war. To her absolute credit, Alderman intelligently covers all the bases, from the cathartic justice of abused women turning on their abusers to seeing women themselves becoming the abusers. Great stuff.
Thank you for having me on your blog!