Interview: Alan Heathcock
CRAFT is thrilled to welcome Alan Heathcock as guest judge for our 2022 Short Fiction Prize. Heathcock is the author of Volt, a collection of short stories from 2011, and 40, a debut novel that publishes on August 2, 2022. Heathcock recently corresponded with our editor in chief, Courtney Harler, about how experience, empathy, and systems of belief inform his writing. Heathcock and Harler first met at Sierra Nevada University as mentor and mentee, respectively. They were happy to reconnect via email to discuss the development of Heathcock’s new novel.
Courtney Harler: Let me first say congratulations on the pending publication of 40 with MCD x FSG. With 40, you join the illustrious ranks of fiction writers with numerals for titles of their books. Here, I’m thinking of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 or Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. Indeed, a number is a bold choice for a front cover. The digits themselves seem rather ominous or foreboding, or even inscrutable, especially when accompanied by an image of an enigmatic angel. Despite the obvious (con)textual associations, how did this number present itself to you as your novel’s title? Did the number just sing to you, or did you struggle with the choice? What other promising titles did you consider, and why?
Alan Heathcock: Thanks for the congratulations. Being associated with Murakami and Bolaño, even if only by using a numeral for a title, makes me very happy. I greatly admire both as artists. For me, the title came almost immediately. I can’t remember a time I used a different title or thought of changing it to something else.
I like titles that are simple and a little odd. I want a reader to have to read the entire story before fully understanding the title, and to have the title help a reader fully understand the story. Though I can thoroughly explain the meaning of the title with depth, I’m going to have to be a little vague as I don’t want to spoil the mystery to be solved through the reading.
First, I’ll admit I love the way the numeral looks. Aesthetics are hugely important to me, and I could imagine the typography large and striking on the cover. My instinct was validated when Rodrigo Corral (the brilliant designer my publisher commissioned) sent over the mock-up for the cover. I cheered more than a little. It’s bold, clear, and unique.
In terms of metaphorical content, the number 40 is a sacred number, referenced in religious texts across a number of faiths, and prominently featured in the Christian Bible. The title is specifically an allusion to the use of 40 in the Christian Bible’s Book of Genesis, and Psalms 40, which begins, “I waited patiently for the Lord; and He inclined to me and heard me cry. He brought me up out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock and established me steps. He has put a new song in my mouth.”
I’m not a fan of epigraphs, but those few verses from Psalms would be appropriate had I decided to use one. The title, like the story, came from a feeling that we’re collectively stuck in a pit, and my desire for a new song to enter my mouth. I suppose, this novel was my attempt to rise out of the pit and sing a new song. Certainly, I had to build my capacity as a person and writer to grow into the task, and in that way the title was me consciously challenging myself to establish my steps upon a rock and sing.
CH: You tackle some hefty subjects in this novel—ones often avoided at the family dinner table these days—like religion and politics. The two, however, are inextricably linked. From debates on climate change to abortion control, religion interferes in the laws of a land that supposedly respects the separation of church and state. In 40, readers are given a vision of future extremes. Maybe it’s because we’ve known each other for a few years now and I’ve had the pleasure of hearing you read from your work several times, but even in Volt, I sensed a gesture toward faith that I can’t quite describe. There’s something, for me, in your voice, both spoken and written, that is resoundingly religious. This faith, for lack of a better term, is pervasive, yet questioning—seeking and searching, but never abandoning. I am ever interested in complex spiritual matters, particularly as they coincide with nature, and I am therefore fascinated by Mazzy as a character. Ironically, when she gains her wings at the onset of the novel, when her bodily nature morphs, she seems to lose her foundation in faith—or does she?
AH: You gave me a lot to unpack here. I’ll do my best while being concise. When I was a younger man, I seriously considered becoming a pastor. Growing up, my experience with church was positive. I had a pastor who was kind and a great storyteller, and who emphasized the congregation’s role to try and help those in need in our community. Being a Christian wasn’t a political stance, and wasn’t about proselytizing. It was about compassion and service for the sake of compassion and service.
In my late teens, when I was deciding if I should apply to Seminary and pursue becoming a pastor, I began reading the Bible seriously, and on my own. I distinctly remember when it all kind of crumbled for me. I was talking to a guy I knew, who was also considering Seminary, and who I thought of as thoughtful and intelligent. We were debating the issue of gay marriage. I was for it, and he was against it. I held my own, and eventually he got frustrated and said that he just believed God made Adam and Eve as the first people, and they were man and woman, and that’s how it should be. It went off like a bomb in my skull. I couldn’t deny that I didn’t actually believe Adam and Eve were created by God, that they were the first people, or that they were people at all. To me, it was just a story. I then had to admit to myself that I didn’t take a lot of the stories in the Bible as literal. Noah didn’t collect up two of every kind of animal. Jonah wasn’t swallowed by a whale. Samson’s hair wasn’t imbued with divine power. On and on.
I decided I couldn’t in good conscience go to Seminary. This left me adrift for a few years. I stopped attending church. I started writing, searching for some moral truth found in places outside of organized religion. And, to be clear, I missed church. I missed singing the hymns, the organ song, the way the light washed through the windows of the sanctuary on Sunday mornings, and the quiet contemplation afforded to me while listening to a sermon. After a while, I started reading the Bible again, and decided it didn’t matter that I couldn’t take a literalist stance. I loved the stories of the Bible, and still do. The stories in the Bible are full of magic and struggle, warfare and triumph, horror and love, great wisdom and great poetry. The Bible is a strange and fascinating book, brutal and beautiful, full of philosophical contradictions and complex characters. As much as anything, I still see myself as a writer of secular bible stories.
That leaves the big question: do I believe in God? The answer depends on how we define God. If we’re talking about an omnipotent Odin-figure in the firmament, then no. If we’re talking about any personification, then no. But if we’re talking about that thing inside me that yearns to recognize and lessen the suffering in the world, then yes. If we’re talking about the awe I feel while looking out over the ocean at dawn, or up at the stars on a clear night, or of the smallness I feel while confronted with a great storm or raging wildfire, then yes. If God is the love I feel for my daughter, then I believe in God. I would love to have my beliefs simplified, as they were when I was a child, but both the scripture and the world are confounding in their nuances and contradictions.
Now I’m bound by no church. I am bound only by a feeling. A shrieking inside me that we are failing each other. That we were born into a failing world of people who can’t seem to move away from trajectories of destruction. Iniquities and hatreds persist. Poverty persists. War rages on. That feeling inside me is rage, but also love. The rage is disappointment. The love is hope. All of it is undeniable, seemingly laced into my DNA. There are times I wish all of this wasn’t inside of me, but I can no more control this feeling than I can control the rain. So…I put all of this inside of Mazzy, who from the first moment of getting her wings is inspired and terrified, compelled and confused, by the unanswerable questions of faith and by the weight of what her wings might mean to her, let alone to the world at large.
CH: Modern cinema, with its pleasures and pitfalls, plays an interesting role in your novel. Characters are actors, and actors are characters. As a reader, it’s hard to know whom to trust. Even Mazzy, the Angel of the new “independent Nation of 40,” our protagonist and heroine, has her “own spurious skin to don.” We as readers must accept that appearances can be deceiving—but I know that you also strive for clarity in your work. From a craft perspective, how do you balance intrigue with clarity?
AH: Over the years, I’ve read a lot of mystery novels, and watched a lot of mystery shows. My favorites are those that tightly follow the “detective”—the reader, the viewer, only knows what the detective knows when they know it. The audience never knows more than the detective. The intrigue in these stories is built by having the detective wade through suspects who are dishonest and clues that are misleading, peeling away layers of deception and misunderstanding to get to the truth.
With that in mind, the clarity I strive for is empathetic clarity. The writing must, line by line, detail what Mazzy is thinking, feeling, seeing, hearing, and knowing, but not anything beyond. Everything is bound to her perspective. This is a challenge as a storyteller, especially one who’s writing about a future world with mysterious factions, new technology, mythic wings, and agents who are undercover (some of whom are actors). I not only feel I’ve done my job if the reader is confused if/when Mazzy is confused, and revelations come only to the reader as they do to Mazzy, but also that Mazzy’s desire to learn the truth, as transposed onto the reader via that empathetic connection, is a big part of the suspense that drives the dramatic tension.
Making craft decisions is often not about this is better than that, but instead about what’s gained and what’s lost. The decision with this novel was first and foremost to secure the empathetic connection between Mazzy and a reader, and to use that connection to drive dramatic tension. The downside of that decision is that a reader might feel confused, and maybe frustrated, that they don’t know more than Mazzy. It requires a patient reader. I made this decision—abiding empathetic clarity—because much of the novel’s conflict is internal. At its heart, the story is Mazzy working out how she feels and what actions she takes in a time of confusion and danger and turmoil. To disengage from that empathetic clarity would be to separate the reader from Mazzy. If some narrative presence was to sweep in and let the reader know something that Mazzy doesn’t, I feel that would lessen the potency of that empathetic connection, diminish the dramatic tension (much of which is internal), and would put plot at the expense of character, which, in my view, would not best serve the story I want to tell.
CH: Let me add another layer to that previous question, in the context of the real and the unreal. It’s a kind of meta move really, to ask the reader to believe in both ancient wings and futuristic technological advances. Are you grounding the work in myth, so that the tech can take flight? (Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun.) And even amidst dystopian doom, you offer a playful quality, something akin to the facetiousness of steampunk, but with unlimited empathy and sincerity. Here I’m reminded of Rebecca Makkai’s blurb for 40, her perfectly apt references to your “original mythos” and “pen of fire.” Narrative, in and of itself, is a constructed performance: multilayered and dynamic, it requires nuance—artifice—to come to life on the actual page, much like your novel’s underground zoo and its mechanical animals. Again, from a craft perspective, how do you layer truth and untruth, the real and unreal?
AH: One of the fundamental tenets of quality fiction writing is that it’s worthy of belief. If a reader doesn’t believe in the character or world, then you’ve lost them from the start. Belief, however, exists on a spectrum. You can casually believe something, which is very different than absolute belief, with much in between the two poles. Absolute belief is where the power resides. We have to try and write the reader into absolute belief, no matter if you’re writing strictly realistic fiction, or even memoir, let alone anything with fantastical elements. The key, I believe, is giving the reader an experience.
I think the concept of “show-don’t-tell” is one of the most misunderstood and mistaught concepts in the world of writing. The name of the concept suggests that in order to make a reader believe something we must “show” them something, instead of just “telling” them about something. And there’s truth to this. If I tell you I saw a ghost in the old graveyard down the road, you may be inclined to believe me (someone who wants to believe in ghosts is already in absolute belief). It’s always easy to make someone believe something that they already want to believe, but we can’t count on that as storytellers. If I show you a video of the ghost rising from a tombstone, you’re likely to believe me more. But the only way to move someone into absolute belief is to take them to the graveyard and for them to experience the ghost firsthand.
Show-don’t-tell, by my understanding, means to allow the reader to experience the story. This, once again, comes back to empathy. If I allow a reader, through Mazzy, to experience wings emerging from her back, or to walk through a subterranean zoo, I then have a chance to move them toward absolute belief. Since we experience the world through our senses, it’s necessary to accurately employ sensory detail (the “constructed performance” you reference in your question) for a reader to not to just understand that Mazzy is walking through a subterranean zoo, but to see the animals, hear them, smell them, with all the specificity of our reality.
Outside of matters of faith (though churches go to lengths to validate Biblical stories with sensory truths, or with rituals which, by proxy, engage the senses and are meant to validate the stories), we assign belief through our senses, and this holds true even and especially when the experience is something fantastical. The idea of something isn’t enough. Or it’s only enough for someone who already wants to believe, which isn’t something we can count on with readers. The reader must experience the mythic wings through their senses. The reader must experience the technological advances through their senses. They must live the experiences of the character and experience every room and river and parade and explosion. They must experience sorrow and joy and confusion and anger as these emotional/psychological states are felt through the body. As a writer, we argue a reader into belief by making an experience that feels as real as the world in which they live and breathe.
CH: I’ve saved my most pressing question for last: the sisters. Mazzy is driven by her need to find Ava Lynn, to protect her, to become her guardian, to give her a sense of security and family. In short, Mazzy will do anything—anything—to save her sister. That’s a powerful love, a love not unlike a mother’s for her child. This relationship, though often offstage, forms the beating heart of your book, in my opinion. When I look at the flame-red angel on the cover of your book, I don’t really see an angel, but rather a heart of blood and pulse. Mazzy may be the “child who never cried,” never expressed herself, but as a woman, she’s a sister, a savior, an earth mother. She’s pure emotion and bravery, but tethered by her fears of/for others. How did you make your way into Mazzy’s psyche, into her contrary nature? Does sisterhood form her, or transform her?
AH: You’ve nailed it. That love between sisters is absolutely the beating heart of the book. Of course, Mazzy is more than just a sister to Ava Lynn. Because of age difference, circumstances within the family, and things that happen in the story (which I won’t disclose because I don’t want to ruin it for readers), Mazzy is more like a second mother to Ava Lynn. Her love is multifaceted and deepened by the tragedy and turmoil surrounding them. To get into Mazzy’s psyche, I tried to imagine how dehumanizing and isolating it would be to wake with wings, then to be made into a symbol and seen by a large group of people not as Mazzy, but as Seraphine the angel. Through the wings and the fame, I felt Mazzy would yearn with increasing desperation for connection with someone who knows her just as herself. To return to her beating heart. This all funnels back to Ava Lynn because on top of the natural sisterly/motherly bond they share, Ava Lynn is also a touchstone for Mazzy’s fundamental humanity. In reconnecting with Ava Lynn, Mazzy can reclaim herself and be seen in her truest form—that of sister. The sisterhood definitely forms her, and as everything around her changes, even and especially how people perceive her as Seraphine, it’s the form to which she longs to return. Of course, that same longing directs much of her actions as Seraphine, so it also transforms her, as well. Her contrary nature is her born temperament reinforced by the necessities of survival, and the tension between her internal life and her public self, which is largely a performance.
The older I get the more family means to me. In all the ways in our adult lives we’re asked to perform, pushing forward different versions of ourselves for career, for friendships, or just to negotiate the trials of our everyday lives, I feel my form fading, and find comfort in my family, who see me only as me, and love me for who I am. This novel is merely an exaggeration of that same feeling. The love between sisters is the humanity for which Mazzy can fight. I’m unapologetically sincere in my belief that the great grief of the human experience is that we’re all separate, longing to be understood, and that in the absence of love our humanity withers and our destruction, both individual and collective, is imminent. My hope is that the love Mazzy and Ava Lynn share is an example that inspires us, despite our fears and contrary natures, to save ourselves and to save each other.
ALAN HEATHCOCK has won a Whiting Award, a National Magazine Award, has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Lannan Foundation, and the Idaho Commission on the Arts. His story collection, VOLT, was a “Best Book of the Year” selection from numerous newspapers and magazines, including GQ, Publishers Weekly, Salon, and the Chicago Tribune, was named as a New York Times Editors’ Choice, and a finalist for the Barnes and Noble Discover Award. His novel, 40, is forthcoming from MCD x FSG on August 2, 2022. Find him on Instagram @Alan_Heathcock.
COURTNEY HARLER is a freelance writer, editor, and educator based in Las Vegas, Nevada. She is the editor in chief of CRAFT and cohost of the podcast PWN’s Debut Review. In recent years, she’s written columns and read submissions for Chicago Literati, The Masters Review, Funicular Magazine, and Reflex Fiction. Courtney has been awarded fellowships from Writing By Writers, Community of Writers, Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, and Nevada Arts Council. Her writings, in multiple genres, have been published around the world and nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize. Find her on Instagram @CourtneyHarler.