Miles, the main character in “It Could Never Happen Here,” secretly writes movies in notebooks, and the movies he writes star his classmates. Does this echo your own high school experience? Did you have secret notebooks?
I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I did. I had binders full of these movies—plot descriptions, casting choices, much like Miles. In fact, I think I still have them in a box at my parents’ house in Alabama.
I was a pretty solitary person in high school. I wasn’t really bullied, and I had some friends at school, but outside of school I mostly just stayed at home and did my own thing. Which is probably why I’m a writer in the first place. All that time to think up stories. But it didn’t stop at movies. I played (and still play) tennis, so back then I created an entirely fake professional tennis circuit, with hundreds of tennis players, complete with tournaments, rankings, matches, all of which I kept meticulous track of. I know that might sound crazy, but these things kept me sane and happy, I guess, and sowed the seeds for my future creative endeavors.
Miles is drawn to Kat, in part, because he was fond of Kat’s now-dead boyfriend, Jeff. Would you say the story is about a triangle, in that respect? Or do you see it more as a portrait of Miles at this time of his life?
Perhaps both, but I for sure see it as a triangle. Miles felt a connection with Jeff, and I think that’s why he reaches out to Kat. Kat becomes his connection to Jeff. I think, initially, he wants to get answers about Jeff’s last night alive, but then he realizes that really doesn’t matter. What matters is forging this connection.
If you were the school’s counselor, how would you assess Kat’s state of mind / demeanor? At times she seems like a grieving, nice girl, and at other times she comes across as someone who’s aspiring to be difficult.
As a counselor, I would probably assess her as someone in mourning, someone who just needs time to deal with her feelings. And Jeff’s death has forced her to retreat inward, because his death brought certain demands and expectations of her, in a weird way. Everyone wants to know how and why the accident happened. And everyone wants to know if she’s okay, etc. She’s a figure of fascination, and she doesn’t want to be one, so she just shuts herself off from everyone. That’s the way she deals. The same with Miles, I suppose—he elicits attention, but not the kind he wants. And he deals with the pain of isolation by creating these elaborate movies in his head. So you have these two characters who are very withdrawn and closed off who end up changing each other, for the better.
Without giving away too much, did you ever play with the idea of having Kat know more about Miles’s friendship with Jeff, or more about Miles, in general?
In an earlier draft, she knew about his friendship with Jeff. But as I revised the story, that felt false and wrong. Because I think if she’d known about it, she would have been more resistant to opening up to Miles. Also, I realized that Miles’s friendship with Jeff was his special thing that he could store away and protect from being polluted or ruined by the outside world. One of my first boyfriends was a guy who was very much in the closet. And there were frustrations and annoyances about that. But part of me loved the purity of it—we lived very much in our own little secret world when we were together, and no one on the outside could touch us. I think that’s how Miles ended up viewing his time with Jeff—as his own secret, better world.
What are you working on now?
I turned in a draft of a novel a few months ago, and I’m still waiting for notes from my editor. I know it will probably need a few more drafts. It’s very dark and writing it has been emotionally draining, but I’m excited about it. It’s different from my first novel, and I like that. I never want to write the same book twice. I’m also starting to think about the next novel. I have to think about ideas and characters and plots for months before I start writing. But this is the fun part, when you can envision this awesome idea before the reality of the hard work bursts your bubble.
What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
I’ve gotten some great advice over the years, and here are the things I always like to pass on: One, read, read, read, as much as you can. That’s the best education. You can’t be a serious or good writer unless you read widely. And reread. Go back to the books you love. Two of my favorite writers are Alice Munro and Anne Tyler, and I’ve read some of their books over five times.
Two, write the novel (or story) that you’d want to read yourself. Otherwise, why bother? We have enough crappy books (and stories) in the world.
Finally, don’t sit down to write thinking you’re going to churn out perfect, beautiful pages and sentences. That will stifle you. Just spit it out. You’ll have plenty of chances to go back and make it better.