Conversations Between Friends: Aaron Burch and Austin Ross
Aaron Burch and Austin Ross first became acquainted when Burch accepted one of Ross’s short stories at Hobart in 2018. Here, they discuss Ross’s debut novel, Gloria Patri, which deals with the aftermath of religious extremism and domestic terrorism. Naomi Becker and her mother, Ruth, are forcibly confronted with both their family’s dark past and its uncertain future when Richard and Solomon Becker—Naomi’s father and brother, respectively—die on the same day. Richard’s isolationist and extremist views led to the dissolution of their family, but what have they become as a result? As Naomi and Ruth embark on a cross-country road trip to collect the remains of the two men, they learn of Solomon’s ties to a vicious underground militia and become entangled—along with an old childhood friend, Andrew Cook—in a dangerous world of violence and paranoia.
Aaron Burch: I’m curious about the genesis of this book. In part because I’m always curious where/how/when a book starts, but especially because I believe this is something you’ve been wrestling with for a while. What can you tell me about the origins of this book?
Austin Ross: I’ve been trying to write a version of this story for about fifteen years. Or, I guess I should say, “these characters,” as the story itself has changed so much in that time. But the idea was to write something about this family. Growing up, I knew several families who shared some similarities with the Beckers, and the idea of exploring what this life of isolationism looked like behind closed doors really intrigued me. There’s certainly a very personal element to this book, but I’d never actually finished any of those earlier drafts, so it never really felt like the book was completely working. It was only when I stumbled across the idea of the father and son dying on the same day that the story seemed to coalesce. From there, I started wondering: how did they die? Which then led me to the idea of the son being shot by the FBI, which led to the idea of introducing these militia extremists. This was back in 2019, so groups like Proud Boys and Oath Keepers were certainly on my mind. I’d been wrestling for a while with the connections between these violent extremists and American exceptionalism, and this bizarre form of American Christianity that has developed in some circles over the past four or five decades especially but actually has been around for a long, long time. And, to be clear, this novel is a repudiation of everything these extremists stand for. There’s a great book out just recently by Wesley Lowery called American Whitelash: A Changing Nation and the Cost of Progress that asks similar questions to this novel: How did white supremacy seem to come raging back to life in America? How did we get here, and what’s next?
All these ideas had been percolating in my head for a while and—like a lot of the rest of the country—I’d been forced to more seriously evaluate them in light of these recent developments. And it gave the novel some propulsion that it was lacking before. It helped me realize that while I love those sort of quiet, introspective novels about a single family, I’m not particularly good at writing them. I need some more plotty elements to really get things moving, and adding the militia gave me some clear North Stars I could work toward.
AB: I definitely want to dig into more specific stuff about the book and circle back to some of the 2019-ness of it, but the idea of loving one kind of writing but maybe not being particularly good at it especially strikes a chord. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I spent a lot of my younger writer energy wishing I was an edgier or more experimental or just weirder writer, whatever that means, but I think the more I’ve leaned into this writing that more straightforwardly explores joy, that’s earnest, that is nostalgic (hopefully) without being saccharine or sentimental, the better (and more unique) a writer I’ve become. Can you identify when you realized some “more plotty elements” helped you really get things going and what that meant for your writing?
AR: It really came about out of necessity, though perhaps it should have been more obvious to me from my short stories, which tend to be somewhat fast-paced. For this novel, I was on a (self-imposed) deadline, because in 2019 I also went to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and met an agent there who was really interested in the book. They loved my pitch and emailed me a few hours after our meeting to say they’d read the sample story I’d given them (the Nixon one!) and loved it and really looked forward to the novel. I was on a mission to finish this book so I could send it off to them. (As you may have guessed, that didn’t go anywhere, and they totally ghosted me after I sent it to them—I’m actually shopping around an essay about this experience, but it was pretty traumatic, if anything related to writing and submitting could be said to be truly traumatic—and I was debating giving up on not just the book but on writing in general.) But anyway, as I was writing the book, I found myself increasingly drawn to adding in more and more complications because it made me want to write more, which helped me finish the book. An example of this is the missile silo that the militia uses; that was taken from a real-life incident I read about regarding an LSD operation in, I think, Kansas. I thought it added this bizarre flavor to the book and decided to throw it in, but then I had to explain how they found it and why they decided to use it, etc.
I’m all about using whatever is necessary to keep me writing. I used to think writing had to be this tortured experience forged from the horrors of life. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve increasingly felt that writing should be fun. The subject matter might not be, and writing can be a slog, certainly, but on the whole it should be enjoyable. The chances of any of this stuff we’re writing lasting for any sort of significant amount of time is astronomical, so we may as well have fun while we’re doing it—and the work I’ve produced when trying to have fun is better anyway. For me, plot helps me write, which helps me have more fun.
AB: I love that you ended that answer with this acknowledgment. It is definitely something I’m such a big proponent of with regard to writing, and I think something we don’t acknowledge, or allow for, or talk about enough. I’m especially intrigued here because, as you note, the subject matter (nationalism, fundamentalism, violence, extremism) might not be what jumps to mind when I think of a “fun” novel. I tried to touch on this in my blurb, which I struggled with and am still not sure I quite got right. At times while reading, I didn’t really want to be in this world, but the writing is so engaging and the novel is so strong, I also always wanted to be reading it. Did you have the writer’s version of that conflict at all while working on it? If so, how did you tackle that for yourself? And, this is related but maybe a slightly different question: can you talk a little more about maintaining that sense of fun while writing?
AR: This novel was a cathartic experience for me, both personally and on a kind of macro level, so I never really felt that tension, although I certainly understand that reaction. Everything felt a little different in 2019, too—extremist groups were becoming more well-known, but we had yet to see where things were really heading. But in the four years since then, it seems like these people won’t go away, so it does take on a different light. Although I’d argue that this book is actually optimistic, or at least has a glimmer of hope at the end. I really doubted myself about adding that hope in, as faint as it might be—that this could end in anything other than more violence and destruction—but I think we’re starting to see that play out in real life with the splintering and infighting among these radical groups. There’s a line toward the end of the book where Naomi is thinking about these militia members: “They were dangerous but terribly silly at their core.” Part of me doubted whether that was really true when I wrote it, but I think we’re starting to see that in real life.
As I was writing the novel, I felt this compulsion to keep writing, which is, again, related to the aspect of fun. It’s easier for me to really cut loose and have fun while writing a short story, because it takes a lot less time to revise, so there’s freedom to introduce as many weird or dumb elements as I want; but with this book there was genuine excitement at seeing it all come together. I’ve never been a huge chess guy, but I remember going to some chess club meetings at the library with my dad for a bit, and there was this one game where I saw the book unfold in front of me—I could see ten moves ahead and knew exactly what I’d do depending on the opponent’s move. Writing this novel felt like that. I was genuinely excited most days to get back to work. The fun for most of this book was in seeing all these pieces come together. I’d been trying to write this book for a long time and had tried to write at least one or two other novels that I abandoned. To see it all fit together—to actually finish a book—was a lot of fun, even though I was writing about horrible people and some pretty dark themes. I guess I just sort of ignored or compartmentalized the depressing reality in favor of the fun of making art. But now I get to live in the depressing reality again.
AB: I’m not sure I made this connection before, but I just remembered your essay column I published at Hobart. You blended personal essays with thinking about older, paranoid thriller movies (a fave genre for both of us). There’s definitely some thematic overlap between these movies, your essays about them, and Gloria Patri. I wonder if they felt connected while you were writing them at all? I’m thinking of Stephen King’s book of four novellas, Different Seasons, and how in his afterword he wrote, “Each of these longish stories was written immediately after completing a novel—it’s as if I’ve always finished the big job with just enough gas left in the tank to blow off one good-sized novella.” I wonder if that sounds or feels familiar at all? Can you talk about your love for those movies and any connections or inspirations between movies and writing for you?
AR: There are definitely some spaces where my love of a good paranoid thriller overlaps with Gloria Patri. I got really into seventies movies in my teens, and even before then one of my very favorite reading experiences was when I was maybe ten or eleven and for some reason read The 39 Steps, which is more or less an early template for some of those paranoid thrillers. Reading that book was one of the first times I really understood that reading could be really fun. I’ve essentially been trying to replicate that feeling for a long time. One example is music. Part of what makes a great paranoid thriller is the music—the first essay in my column was about David Shire’s score for The Conversation—and while I don’t normally listen to anything while I write, for whatever reason when I wrote this novel I put the Prisoners and Hell or High Water scores on repeat to help put me in this sort of mental space. I’d get up around 4:45 in the morning and write 1,500–2,000 words a day—just me, alone in the dark and amped up on coffee, so there was definitely some jitteriness and paranoia in my system.
These sorts of movies had definitely been on my mind—you can probably see the influence of Taxi Driver or certain elements of The Conversation, for example—so that probably played into me wanting to write specifically about those movies afterward. And because I had just finished writing this novel, which has a number of personal elements to it, I think I was more primed than before to write about my own life through these essays. I’d never really thought my own experiences were all that interesting. I suppose that’s different from the Stephen King quote, just because each essay was its own piece rather than a larger project like a novella, but I can definitely see the connection.
AB: I know, for me, one of the biggest joys of working on a novel is writing about obsessions and fascinations. For Year of the Buffalo, I got to spend time reading and thinking about buffalo and what it would mean to have one; I got to think about favorite places I’ve stopped at on road trips. Ideas for the novel would often come to me while going on a run, so at one point one of my characters goes on a run. Something about shoving almost everything into my brain onto the page—all into what becomes one bigger, unified narrative—felt really pleasurable! Novels take so long and they contain so much, often anything you’re thinking about winds up in there.
AR: Absolutely. If you’re anything like me, that very first draft of a novel is essentially a grab bag of ideas and obsessions and tangents held together by chewing gum and tape. Then, it’s the process of figuring out how they all fit together—or which ones don’t fit at all. After I wrote this book, somebody pointed out that my writing tends to have a lot of birds in it, which I hadn’t noticed before but which seems to be true: just look at the cover. I’m not really sure why that is. I’m not really a bird guy, although my first job was in the mailroom at Bird Watcher’s Digest, so maybe that laid the groundwork?
There are certain pieces of this book that I’ve written probably three or four different times in different ways. The scene when Solomon stabs the pigeon with the pitchfork is one you originally published in HAD. That version differs from the one in the book, but both are based on a real story of when I was a kid and watched a friend of mine stab this bird to death in his barn. There are definitely real-life moments, too, along with general obsessions and fascinations that get crammed in there.
For this book, I knew I was writing about something I was already interested in—extremism and a particular type of American violence—but I tailored my obsessions as much as I could to suit the story. I read a ton of books on things like school shootings and militias, which sounds like it would be incredibly depressing but ended up being quite moving and helpful for the novel. I made the decision early on that I wasn’t going to include any chapters from Richard’s or Solomon’s or Amos Brainerd’s perspectives in the book, so I tried to keep the focus of the books I was reading away from the perpetrators and on their victims or family members. For example, I remember reading A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold, the mother of one of the Columbine shooters, which gave me a lot of insight into Ruth and how she might deal with both the actions of her son and the memories she still had of him. There are a lot of elements from direct sources that I picked up specifically because I wanted some guidance on how to write the book. When I get really into a novel, my obsessions tend to be pretty targeted. I’m writing one on the CIA, so my TBR pile is full of books by ex-agents, history books, overseas accounts of espionage—all subjects I’d already been interested in but wouldn’t have necessarily picked up to read without the novel forcing me to do so. That’s one element of writing a novel that I really love—it gives me an excuse to go deeper into my interests.
AB: Finally, I’d like to wrap up the interview with this: what’s one favorite phrase, sentence, or moment in the story and why?
AR: My favorite passage in the book is toward the end and a big spoiler, so I probably shouldn’t share that one. If I had to choose another line, I think I’d probably go with “And then Cain went and did a thing like that to his brother.” Ruth is imagining what childbirth was like after Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden, and is projecting some of that narrative onto her own story. That line and phrasing has remained untouched since the very first draft; one of those rare sentences that came to me fully formed and has felt too perfect to touch. I like the syntax and the feel of it, but also that it hints thematically toward what’s to come—and what has already happened up to that point. On another level, it’s always motivating when you go back through a rough draft and find a handful of moments/lines that really work. It gives you confidence that the rest of the book isn’t a total waste, either, which is always in the back of my mind as I’m revising.
AUSTIN ROSS is the author of the novel Gloria Patri (Malarkey Books, 2023). His fiction and essays have appeared in Literary Hub and elsewhere. He is an alumnus of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and is a senior editor with multiple HarperCollins imprints, where he acquires and develops a wide variety of nonfiction titles. He lives near Washington, DC, with his family. Follow him on Twitter @austintross.
AARON BURCH grew up in Tacoma, Washington. He is the author, most recently, of the novel Year of the Buffalo. A new essay collection, A Kind of In-Between, and How to Write a Novel: An Anthology of 20 Craft Essays About Writing, None of Which Ever Mention Writing, which he edited, will both be released by Autofocus Books in August 2023. He started the literary journal Hobart, which he edited for twenty years, and is currently the editor of Short Story, Long, and coeditor of Words & Sports and HAD. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Find him on Twitter and Instagram at @aaron__burch.