There is, so often, a phantom book lurking behind a published novel. I know mine are haunted in this way. And so sometimes, when people ask how long it took to write Family of Origin, I wonder: Should I count the two years I spent writing the phantom novel that came before? I think the answer might be yes.
What happened was that I tried to write a postapocalyptic novel. I wrote almost 200 pages and extensively researched both Shakespeare’s comedies and robots (don’t ask) to do it. Novels have died later, and more tragically, than this one. The world goes on. Mine did.
But I’d felt drawn to postapocalyptic dystopia because the horrors of being a human in the world, in our particular time and space, were starting to press in upon me. And before you think this was all about Trump, no, this was 2013. I was bummed out during the Obama administration because the news, and the state of the world, seemed so dire. And all the doom and gloom I mainlined from the news, from my colleagues, from my friends, from Floridian students, was enough to make me want to write what the world was going to look like when it all, inevitably, went to hell.
And that was the problem, I think.
The book I was trying to write was a postmortem for mankind. In taking things all the way to the post-apocalypse, all the questions that drew me to the genre (a genre I love) were fait accomplis. There was nothing on the line — I was just rubbing the reader’s face in how deeply we’d failed.
Are the catastrophists the most honest among us, or the most foolish?
When I tossed out my old novel, and made space in my heart and hard drive for a new one, the project that germinated wound up engaging some of the same worries and questions that the first project did. With one key difference: in the new book, Family of Origin, the world isn’t over… but it’s about a group of scientists who think it is. I had to take a step back from the end of the world and take a look at myself and ask: What does it mean for a person to get so low that they give up on the world? Who is the person who feels that way? What kind of story would they tell about their life and reasons for doing so?
There is a movement of scientists in the book called The Reversalists who believe that evolution is “running backward” (spoilers: they’re wrong) and are hiding out on a remote gulf coast island trying to prove it. In creating them, I wanted to find a way, not to explore all their terrible catastrophic possibilities for our future world, but to instead take a hard look at what it means to live in a world where so many people willingly engage in doom and gloom ideas about the future, albeit during a time when our everyday reality does little to dissuade such thinking. What does it mean for a generation to come of age in this climate? How does one fruitfully or even happily live in it? Are the catastrophists the most honest among us, or the most foolish? What shape would stories from such catastrophists take… and what shape would a story take that could talk back to such closed-circuit narratives of doom (spoilers: funny ones)?
My first shot at answering these questions comes in the book’s opening paragraph, which includes a list of things the characters are trying to forget while on vacation, because they have the privilege of looking away from them. The list includes big important issues like climate change and white supremacy and tiny self-involved personal struggles like overfull inboxes. And this book is about our relative capacities for forgetting and ignoring in a lot of ways. Leap’s Island, the fictional spot where the Reversalists are camped out, hiding from the world with their misanthropy, is a place with a long history of sheltering escapists.
It was the site of an agrarian commune in the 1970s, and before that a glamorous hotel for the wealthy in the 1960s, and before that, a site of colonial violence perpetrated by people who thought their right to escape warranted the displacement of native peoples. Each generation who lives on Leap’s Island uses it as a way of forgetting, or ignoring, the problems and needs of the world. And in this way, the Reversalists, and many past generations of Leap’s residents, are a species of Lotus-eater.
That’s why I needed to write the phantom novel that came before Family of Origin. I needed to engage with my own worst doom and gloom impulses, and then call myself out on them. The Reversalists, after all, hope that if they can gather enough evidence that the world is over, then they won’t be on the hook for trying to solve its problems. It felt important to me that I not let myself off the hook in the same way, even if what I was writing was fiction. And so I tried figure out how to write a book that engaged the world we’ve got, by first writing one that dismissed it as a wash. I needed to locate the island I was hiding on before I could figure out some way to leave it.