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An Interview with David Arnold, author of The Electric Kingdom

David Arnold is one of those writers I rely on. From his debut Mosquitoland through his last book The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik, he never fails to impress. His books are smart, and his characters are fully alive and fully interesting. He's a writer who thinks, or he's a thinker who writes? Whichever it is, he's a writer who makes books that shine, that make you ponder the big questions, and that somehow convince you there is great beauty in the world even in the darkest circumstances.

His latest, The Electric Kingdom, arrives next week (2.9), and it is next-level. To get a copy and to enjoy what will undoubtedly be a lively and thoughtful conversation, grab a "seat" at the Virtual Launch event at Parnassus Books on Feb. 11. Arnold will be joined by fellow YA-genius Jeff Zentner, and it is sure to be magical.

SBW: Your work is never simple, but The Electric Kingdom brings a new level of complexity, taking a fairly common idea (the world is decimated by a plague and here are the survivors) and making it anything but common. How did this story come to be? Did it evolve or spring fully formed, Athena-style, from your head?

DA: I first had the idea back in Fall 2013. At the time, I was a stay-at-home dad of a one-year-old, trying to be present for him, while putting the finishing touches on my first novel, and fielding calls from our realtor. And so of course, that’s when I had the shiny new idea: There once was a family who lived in a boarded-up farmhouse in the middle of the woods. (Oh also, this farmhouse had a bell tower. Because of course it did.) From the conception of The Electric Kingdom to its publication, I would write and publish three other novels, quit my job, move to another state, my wife and I would buy a house, and our son, who’d been born, like, yesterday, would become, impossibly, almost nine.

There were countless inspirations along the way: the work of Helen Lundeberg, Ted Chiang, Emily St. John Mandel, Jóhann Jóhannsson and Hildur Guðnadóttir; the view from the top of a mountain in Maine; a wooden board in my office with a painting of a ship at sea. Some ideas sprout wings overnight; others need years in a cocoon, developing gangly limbs in the dark, fumbling around, never quite sure when or how to be born. This was definitely one of those gangly ideas that evolved over a long period of time.

SBW: How nervous are you about releasing a plague story during, well, a plague?

DA: I wouldn’t say I’m nervous. Certainly, there was a lot of thought and discussion around timing—back in March 2020, when quarantine was just starting, I did call my agent and suggest the possibility of pushing back the pub date. (It had already been set for February 2021 by then.) And I think if I’d written a book about a pandemic, I would have insisted on pushing the date. But part of why I love post-apocalyptic fiction is that the story isn’t about the apocalypse—it’s about what comes after. The Electric Kingdom takes place twenty years after the apocalypse, so it doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on how the world ended, instead centering those who survived, and how they navigate the new world. In that sense, the book offers quite a bit of hope (I hope), which I think the world can use right now.

SBW: I’m curious if you had a reader in mind for The Electric Kingdom. As a teacher and then a librarian and now a reviewer, I’m often thinking of who each book is for. With Mosquitoland, for instance, my mind jumped instantly to a list of readers who would LOVE that book (they did, btw). Noah Hypnotik got a little harder for me, in part because it is so smart, and I know plenty of smart teenagers, but a lot of them feel they can’t spare the time to read deeply. Sitting with The Electric Kingdom, I’m wrestling with a similar set of questions. Those kids are out there, but still busy, right? So who are “those kids” to you, and how do we get them into this book?

DA: This question is always a struggle for me. My answer has evolved through the years, and there’s no reason to think it will stop evolving anytime soon, but here’s where I am at the moment: my goal is to write the best book I can. It takes years for me to write a novel, and I don’t generally think about the audience until much later in the process, and even then, I’m thinking about things like accuracy and research, representation and authenticity, and even a satisfying resolution. Maybe I should consider age, but the truth is, I don’t. I think this partially stems from a pet peeve of mine, which is when I read a YA novel by an adult author I admire, and I can feel them writing down to the audience. (To be clear: this isn’t a blanket statement. Many adult authors write brilliant YA novels!)

I’m not saying every book has to challenge the structure of storytelling or shake the foundations of literature; some of the more brilliant novels are brilliant in their quiet simplicity. For me, the problem is when I can feel an author giving less than their best, their fullest, their most. I don’t know if this answers the question or not, but I try to focus on channeling my best, my fullest, my most into every book, and then trust the experts—publishers and librarians, booksellers and teachers, bloggers and parents, heroes all—to know which book goes with which reader.

SBW: Can we talk about Salinger and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters?” Your twitter handle is @roofbeam, and you even have the title as a tattoo, right? I recently read Roof Beam, (and “Seymour, an Introduction”), and it has changed me. It does wander a bit, but the undercurrent of intimacy and sorrow is profound in both novellas. Seymour, especially, is covered over with so much love and pain and humor, themes that are also common in your work. So, what is it about Salinger that makes you want to write his words upon your very skin?

DA: In my mid-twenties, I walked into a used bookstore in Nashville, and happened upon a first edition of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters. On the inside page, in pencil, the booksellers had written the price: $9.95. It’s still my most prized literary possession. I love all the Glass family novellas, and I’ve spent a good amount of time wondering why. The obvious answer is, the characters are so rich and alive, you could swear they’re real. But I think what draws me to them is exactly what makes their authenticity so visceral, a thing I call “snapshot storytelling.” It’s all the tiny details we get while we’re in the story, peppered with occasional (and strangely specific) references to things that happened prior to the book’s opening, hints at things just outside the boundaries of the book, so even though we can’t see it, we feel that what we’re reading is just one event on a very long timeline.

This isn’t a new idea, and it isn’t relegated to creative writing only: in painting and music, especially, you hear artists talk about what’s not there being as important as what is. Blank space on the canvas. Breaths between notes. On a sentence level, writing is often about the words we don’t use. But zoomed out, when applied to story, the same technique can be really effective as well. And let’s not forget, that phrase is originally a Sappho poem: “Raise high the roof beam, carpenters. Like Ares comes the bridegroom, taller far than a tall man.” So yes, I did have the phrase tattooed on my arm, and yes, in part because I love the Salinger novella, but within the context of the Sappho poem, I think of my tattoo as a daily reminder of the kind of person I want to be.

SBW: I’m positive that readers of The Electric Kingdom are going to fall in love with Kit and his artistic view on this broken world. So many of the passages I marked are from his perspective, his voice. At one point, we get,

Whereas before, he had created different versions of the same thing, this was wholly new. He wasn’t sure if he liked it. But he thought it was good, maybe.

I’m struck with how familiar that feels to me, must feel to any creative, and wondered if it was particularly true for you with this new book?

DA: Oh my. I feel seen. Yes, absolutely. And to a certain extent, I feel this way with every book. Here’s this thing I spent years on, and I think maybe it’s good? I often hear writers talk of the inherent ego necessary in novel-writing—and I can’t argue with that. We are creating worlds and characters that will take you hours to read, and we wouldn’t present them to the world if we didn’t think they were worth presenting. That said, if my work is perpetuated by ego, it is usually punctuated by a question mark: Here’s this thing I spent years on, and I think maybe it’s good? This goes tenfold for The Electric Kingdom, which is a huge genre-pivot for me, and which I wrote on spec because I wasn’t sure I could do it. I’m really proud of the end result, and so glad I took the chance (and that my publisher supported me every step of the way), and so now I offer to the world this thing I spent years on, and which I think maybe is good?

And now some rapid-fire questions:

Who are your heroes?

As of this moment, Amanda Gorman and Stacey Abrams. Also, Fauci.

Who/what are you reading these days?

Something about winter always makes me want to dive into something immersive: recently, I reread His Dark Materials, which is a big favorite of mine. Other books I’ve recently read and loved include Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips, Early Departures by Justin Reynolds, and Severance by Ling Ma. Oh also! I’m ashamed to admit how long it took me, but I’ve finally gotten into graphic novels. Recent favorites include This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, Nimona by Noelle Stevenson, and Odessa by Jonathan Hill.

What else is included in your media diet (tv, movies, podcasts, albums…)?

I love good TV, and there’s so much of it right now. Recently, I’ve loved Schitt’s Creek, Devs, Search Party, High Maintenance, Succession, Raised by Wolves. I also love podcasts and have lately gotten into Dead Eyes (a brilliant examination of failure in the arts) and this wonderfully zany podcast called My Year in Mensa. On the music side of things, my favorite record of 2020 is (hands down) Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bold Cutters, which is everything I love about Fiona Apple and home recordings. I also love Andy Shauf’s The Neon Skyline.

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A rock god. (Seriously.)

What constitutes a really good day for you?

Wake up. Family hugs. Good coffee. A long walk with Benedictine monks. (I like to listen to chants while I walk our neighborhood.) Yogurt and granola. Dishes, laundry. More hugs. Emails, interviews, news, catch up. Write a little. Lunch. Write a lot! Dinner. Wine. Hugs. Read/TV with my wife. Good sleep. Rinse. Repeat. (For the record, I don’t work well in the mornings, so I try to facilitate things like walking and sleeping and dishes and emails and hugging for the a.m.)


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