Thursday, July 30, 2009

Read the Book: The World Beneath

Years ago, I reviewed Aaron Gwyn's dark, quirky collection of short stories set around a fundamentalist community, Dog on the Cross, for my column in the Boston Globe and raved about how inventive it was, how the author got at the heart of how people grapple with afflictions of the soul and the body. It was one of my favorite books of the year and it was a finalist for the 2005 New York Public Library Young Lions Award. So of course I was interested to see that Aaron had a new novel out, The World Beneath. Sparer in language, it’s even more powerful and haunting-I was stunned. The book intersects two stories--one about a missing, haunted fifteen-year-old boy, and the other about an Iraq war veteran who becomes obsessed with a mysterious, bottomless crevice in his backyard. So I had to talk with Aaron.

Often, writing a second novel after a successful first one, is fraught with all kinds of anxieties. What was it like for you?

It was a grueling process. There were periods of great productivity where I’d get a lot of material in a relatively short time, and then months of creeping along at a snail’s pace, or worse, sitting around doubting the project altogether. When my agent told me he sold it to W.W. Norton, I felt like someone had lifted a piano off my back.

The whole idea of the bottomless crevice, which figures symbolically and literally in the plot knocked me out, and made me obsessively aware of the ground beneath my feet. It’s the stuff of horror films, yet it’s presented so matter of factly, that it becomes all the more unsettling. Where did that idea of this endless crevice come from?

That’s a great question. I wish I could answer it. The truth is, I don’t know. It’s just something that came to me. The first thing in the whole project that came to me, actually. There’s no precedent for it that I know (in terms of a news story or an actual geologic occurrence). I found out in researching the book that such things can happen (collapsed oil wells, etc.), but the idea was just there one day. It’s probably the one thing in the book I can’t account for.

Your prose is diamond-cut: hard-edged, spare, but each word seems burning from within. Who have your writing influences been?

Thankfully, I can answer this one. Beckett’s fiction had been very important for me. Particularly his “trilogy”: Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. Cormac McCarthy has affected all writers of my generation and Faulkner, all writers with a Southern bent. I would also have to say that playwright David Mamet is probably more of an influence than I’d even like to admit, and I feel like I’ve learned a tremendous amount about dialogue from studying his plays. I could go on to list a host of others, but I’ll only add that Denis Johnson is a writer who I greatly admire and it’s nice to see him finally getting the attention he deserves.

The book moves effortlessly from the past to the present, in and out of characters' heads, and uses two powerful parallel stories, one about a damaged Iraq war veteran, and the other about a troubled teenager boy. It all feels surprising and yet inevitable. So of course, I have to ask you about the process. What was it like writing this novel? Are you an outliner or did the book generate as you went along?

The section with the veteran and the hole was the first I wrote and was, in the beginning, going to be the entirety of the narrative. About 75 pages in I realized I was basically trying to write the novel from the perspective of the “villain” (a word I use very loosely…perhaps “antagonist” is better). That’s when the other story, that of Sheriff Martin entered. As I began to work with his arc, the two plotlines began to weave together in a way that felt really organic to me. I almost feel like I can’t take credit for that. I understand that to some reviewers the structure seems elaborate and complex, but that happened to be the way the narrative forced itself on me. I couldn’t really conceive of another way of structuring the book. I find it of interest how many reviewers comment on the structure. For some, it’s the best thing the book has to offer. For other, it’s a liability (i.e. one review called the book “uneven” because of the narrative sequencing). It seems that’s an element of the novel people really love or hate.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on my next novel and my next story collection. The stories have been finding good homes. Two have been in McSweeney’s, Esquire took another this spring (it’s entitled “The Gray” and those interested can access it free online at, and another (the strongest, I think, so far) is coming out in the October issue of The Gettysburg Review. I’ve been going back and forth between the novel and the collection as ideas come to me.


Jessica Keener said...


Congratulations! I love the cover of your book. Evocative--And great that you're placing your stories, too.


Clea Simon said...

Sounds fascinating, thank you for doing the interview Caroline.