Lost Everything’s Brian Francis Slattery on Why He Wouldn’t Do His Omni Homework
Brian Francis Slattery’s new novel is described as an “incandescent and thrilling post-apocalyptic tale in the vein of 1984 or The Road. In the not-distant-enough future, a man takes a boat trip up the Susquehanna River with his most trusted friend, intent on reuniting with his son. But the man is pursued by an army, and his own harrowing past; and the familiar American landscape has been savaged by war and climate change until it is nearly unrecognizable.” This description gave me what I thought was a brilliant idea: why not ask Slattery to write a list of reasons why the novel was actually upbeat, a chance to focus on small victories, perhaps. But Slattery had other ideas, being a bit of an iconoclast… - Jeff VanderMeer
Three Reasons Why I Didn’t Complete the Assignment by Brian Francis Slattery
Lost Everything, as the title implies, has a pretty sad premise. In it, the America we know is visited first by climate change, and then the political and social fallout that follows—the massive instability that, I think, could happen when the land, sea, and air change dramatically. When cities that used to be there aren’t any more. When things don’t work any more, at all. When plants don’t grow where they used to grow, and new plants and animals move in. When, as George Carlin said would happen at some point, the world decides to shake us off like a bad case of fleas.
The original assignment for this piece was to come up with five to ten reasons why Lost Everything is actually kind of upbeat, despite its premise. But I discovered that I couldn’t do it and say anything that felt remotely substantial. So I’m cheating by changing the question. Here, instead, are three reasons why I couldn’t do the original assignment, which hopefully will reach the same end.
1. I actually tried to write a serious book. This is the third book I’ve written with apocalyptic themes, which, when I think about it now, is kind of crazy; seriously, I’m just not that intense a guy. When Will Hermes generously reviewed my first book, Spaceman Blues, in the Village Voice, he appreciated the book’s sense of humor, but wished that once in a while I’d take the dark themes more seriously. I dodged that request in Liberation, my second book. In Lost Everything, I decided to take him on. That said, the book (I think; I hope) isn’t a recipe for suicide. There are jokes, music, and parties, too. It’s about people who want very much to live, though the world they live on is making it pretty hard for them.
2. I’m too close to the material. Unlike [my prior two novels] Spaceman Blues and Liberation, which I wrote pretty fast, Lost Everything took a long time to write. It’s about upstate New York, the place where I grew up, and I’d been trying to write about it for years, to capture something about what I think I saw going on there. For whatever reason, I couldn’t do it until now. Maybe I just had to fail at it several times first. Maybe I just had to live outside of it for as long as I’d lived in it. Who knows? Getting to the bottom of why, in this case, is probably impossible, and even if it isn’t, the answer probably isn’t very interesting.
But if Spaceman Blues, Liberation, and Lost Everything came from the same place—the same set of questions, preoccupations, obsessions—then finishing Lost Everything was like scraping out the inside of a melon for the last of the pulp, down to the rind. There’s a lot of satisfaction in having finished it, along with the immense gratitude for the constellation of lucky stars that let me publish a third book. But there isn’t enough distance between me and it for me to see it for what it is, its balance of darkness and light, or despair and hope. You see it better than I do. Which is a great way of getting to my third point.
3. My opinion of my own book is irrelevant. I’ve loved reading reviews of the books I’ve written, from professional reviews to comments on Amazon and Goodreads—even when they’re negative—because I think readers’ reactions to the books are way more interesting than my own. Some readers seem to dislike Lost Everything quite a bit, or think it’s really depressing. There are readers who can’t quite engage with it. Their reactions are valid and valuable. But there’s also a group of readers that the book reaches; it hits them the way I was hoping it would. Their reactions remind me all over again why I write books in the first place, and it sounds so simple and trite when I spell it out, but that doesn’t make it less true: I write books to connect with people, to make the tribe a little bigger. I want to meet you all, really, to shake hands and talk, to hang out, say hello again and again, so we all know each other as well as we can.