Anne Valente on a Community in Grief

A new novel looks at the aftermath of a school shooting.

Anne Valente’s new novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down (William Morrow, 2016) tells a slant of reality by looking at a community reeling after a fictional mass shooting. The shooter is dead, his murders an irrepressible public memory. The carnage occurs in Lewis and Clark High School in St. Louis, Missouri. The event is senseless, and everyone is left to pick up the pieces, since the shooter can’t answer for his actions.

Gun violence is a hard issue to talk about in America, let alone write about. We need books like Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down to infiltrate our everyday routines. Still, writing the introduction to this interview proves challenging. Anything I say here could divide readers, and I can’t know whether I’ve asked enough questions of the material.

Valente — the author of By Light We Knew Our Names, winner of the Dzanc Short Story Prize — isn’t prone to dance around difficult conditions, and Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down is up to the task. Originally from St. Louis, Valente is on faculty in the Creative Writing and Literature Department at Santa Fe University of Art and Design. I corresponded with her by email over a couple of weeks spanning the beginnings of our teaching semesters.

Jason Teal: Reading the acknowledgements is interesting because the original publication credit goes to Iron Horse Literary Review for the short story “Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down.” Can you talk about why you were compelled to push the scope of this narrative from a few pages to, then, hundreds?

Anne Valente: I never thought I’d be a writer to expand a short story into a novel, since almost every story I’ve ever written has felt like its own contained world. But after writing the short story, which was focused on an elementary school instead of a high school, I felt like there was so much more to explore. I’d written the short story in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, and after no gun legislation changed despite so many heated debates and so much news coverage, the short story felt unfinished. I wanted to further understand a community’s rebuilding and if rebuilding is even possible, beyond the twenty pages of a short story — and beyond the brief eye of the media that so quickly pulls away from mass tragedy. A novel felt like a better terrain to delve into these questions, and a high school better suited to exploring the individual lives of those affected.

JT: Speaking of community, how did you decide on the yearbook staff as taking focus amid other candidates, including surviving faculty and family — even the shooter himself? The point of view, a roving first-person plural that splinters into close-third in the character-building chapters, seemed especially potent.

AV: Point of view was one of the most crucial aspects of craft for me while writing this book — not only for how to best approach this story, but for the politics of storytelling and who controls a narrative like this. I absolutely knew I did not want to focus on the shooter, not even in speculating throughout the book on motive. We see so much of this in media already, and so much less on the families, the community, the friends and siblings and partners. A yearbook staff that both experienced and didn’t experience what their classmates went through felt apt, in grappling with the question of what is and isn’t theirs to mourn, and also what memory means and how we make sense of violence and the past. A yearbook is about memories, and presenting the best possible version of those memories, and I was interested in so many weeks and months of moving beyond this terrible event, and what memory could possibly mean in light of an event where there is no best possible version. I alternated between the first-person plural and the close-third point of view of these four main characters because this allowed me to contend with how a community mourns — what is everyone’s to mourn — and what is singularized and personal in a mass experience, the individual’s unique response to violence and mourning.

JT: St. Louis, too, is vividly drawn for readers. In one scene we find Zola observing the ritual of cicadas in beautiful detail, recalling their specificity to the region:

A Midwestern sound … A sound that had marked every year of her memory. A wave of noise as August burned off into September, then louder still as autumn deepened into October … They were everywhere. On the news, in the grass, clinging to the sapling branches of trees … Zola had listened to their sound each summer, a drone stretched through the screens of her bedroom windows, a sound that summoned the coming of fall.

You are from the area. Do you think the setting contributes to the response of the novel — to outside events and actions in the book?

AV: I hadn’t written much fiction at all about St. Louis before working on this novel, a place I knew intimately by growing up there. But in writing away from myself by writing about a kind of violence and communal grief I’d never experienced firsthand, I made it more familiar to my own understanding by setting it in a version of St. Louis I knew well. Beyond setting’s relationship to content, however, the landscape of fiction has always been extremely important to me as an element of craft. I began writing this book in the West, at a time when I was greatly missing the Midwest, and finished it back in the Midwest at a time when I was greatly missing the West. These characters are as attached to St. Louis, a place that marks their childhood and their home, as much as they need to leave it for what’s happened to their community, and how violence has altered their understanding of where their lives began. In some ways, this novel’s setting is a meditation on the ways that a landscape can break your heart. For me, it is a love letter to St. Louis as much as it is a backdrop for the community.

JT: Was it difficult writing four unique characters grieving altered communities? Did one student come more naturally than the rest?

AV: It was a challenge to imagine four distinct lives and the nuances of their experiences — both in response to grief, but also in what their lives looked like before this tragedy happened and how those concerns are still central to them. As my editor astutely suggested in revisions, these are characters who are shaped by collective grief, but they are also four teenagers who have their own lives and teenage concerns. It was as much of a challenge to write four different takes on grief as it was to write how each of the four managed their sorrow alongside the everyday conflicts in their individual lives — for example, whether they felt guilty for still feeling caught up in their high school relationships. I don’t think one student came more naturally than others, but I did want to make them distinct enough from one another — in their hobbies and activities, but also in their modes of processing the world and what is happening in their community. I think the greatest challenge was sanding the edges between passages of pluralized narration and more individualized third-person narration, and bridging the collective experience to the specific experiences of these four characters.

JT: Fire, in more than one way, plays a big part in the book. I don’t think naming arson will spoil too much. So, researching arson for the book, what most surprised you about fire?

AV: Research has always been one of my favorite aspects of writing — a way of learning so much about the world that I don’t know. For the novel, I checked out a number of arson and homicide investigation textbooks from the library, and I also found research articles on fire science. As a writer, I feel like I’m always stumbling upon connections between seemingly disparate topics — either a self-fulfilling prophecy, or else proof that everything is connected if you find the right constellation. What struck me most about researching fire was the surprisingly beautiful and poetic language used in these textbooks to describe burning: that two stages of fire eruption are smoldering and free burning, or that specific gravity is a substance’s weight in relation to the weight of water, or that the term for a substance’s flash point shifting from a solid to a gas is sublime. To me, all of these words also felt right for describing the process of grief.

JT: I like that you’re thinking about grief as its own language. Was this part of the motivation for writing the lyrical chapters? They read so audibly.

AV: At first, I think I was using the shorter, lyrical chapters as a means of conveying information that might sound forced in the mouths of characters, but I also know I’m a writer drawn to lyricism, and also to shorter forms. Before writing Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, I wrote a chapbook of flash fiction and a short story collection, and even in a novel was still drawn to condensed language. I wanted short, concentrated sections that communicated sorrow in a mode beyond linear narrative, since grief is so often anything but linear. But I was also influenced by Mikhail Bakhtin’s literary theories of heteroglossia and polyphony. I’m really not much of a theory person at all, but I’m drawn to Bakhtin’s idea that novels are spaces for multiple voices, and for characters with their own subjectivities — that the author’s voice isn’t an objective stance but instead takes a backseat to the multiple perspectives that emerge within a novel. It sounds almost ridiculous to say, but I really didn’t feel like the authoritative, guiding hand in this book. Even going back to the politics of point of view, and whose grief is whose to mourn, for this novel it felt right for a multiplicity of perspectives and voices to come through — the collective point of view and the individualized third-person narratives of these four main characters, but also the outside voice of the newspaper, the television, the police and their diagrams, and these more lyrical sections. If the main chapters are a linear narrative, I also wanted more timeless, varied voices in this novel within these shorter sections. This felt right not only for privileging multiple voices, but for the ways in which grief bends and breaks a sense of linear time — and for the ways that grief yearns to reverse and stop time.

JT: I’m keen to understand if writing the book gave you space to grieve this kind of tragedy? When violence happens locally, the impact is of course devastating, but fictionalizing such a community heavy document is an important task. What new perspectives did writing about this difficult subject offer?

AV: This is such an important question, and one I honestly struggled with in writing this book. Much like the collective-first perspective of four yearbook staff members who experienced this in their school but didn’t experience violence directly, I grappled — and am still grappling — with what is and isn’t mine to grieve. This didn’t happen at my high school. This kind of violence hasn’t happened to me directly. As a fiction writer, I build narratives beyond autobiography. But I’ve still felt devastated each time a violent shooting occurs, in high schools and everywhere else, and have felt ashamed by that devastation — that my grief is nothing compared to that of the families and communities who have directly experienced it. Even though this book is fiction, it also isn’t fiction. It could happen anywhere. Our access point for tragedy is so often through our television and computer screens, but this shouldn’t be an excuse to separate ourselves from the pain of others — to simply shut off the television and perform the act of disavowal, that because it’s happening there it can’t be happening here.

Our access point for tragedy is so often through our television and computer screens, but this shouldn’t be an excuse to separate ourselves from the pain of others.

This book was one means of imagining a community after the television cameras pull away, after media decides there is no more story to tell. In my immediate world, I don’t know how the families in Littleton are doing seventeen years after Columbine, or how a community in Charleston still grieves a year later, or how and if a nightclub in Orlando rebuilds. We have so little access to others’ lives beyond the glare of a television, so little means of knowing the process of grieving and the attempt to move on. We can only imagine, an act of empathy, and this is the same foundation of fiction. Our imaginations are of course faulted, filled with assumptions and cultural biases, so I couldn’t rely exclusively on my imagination: this book addresses such a difficult subject, as you say, and I had to research and inform that imagination. I hope informed imagination is what creates the empathy that our world — and our creative work — so desperately needs. Writing this book was one way of trying to access what happens after the media stops telling us a particular story, and to look beyond what our televisions tell us.

JT: I saw your characters struggle alongside you, a similarly polarizing code of ethics, when tasked with writing yearbook profiles for students they didn’t know: Christina writes of another student, “What else is there to say?” Is there anything more for these characters to say? What is your next project about, if you don’t mind talking about it, and what do you anticipate for it, after moving away from this book?

AV: Since finishing this first novel, I’ve moved from the Midwest out to Santa Fe. Landscape and place have always been central to my writing, and I’ve found that the transition out West has inspired my writing in different ways. I’ve written and completed a new novel across my first year in New Mexico, a road trip novel that incorporates various pockets of research that are completely new to me — falconry, NASCAR, paleontology and climate change. But before I even came up with the content for this new book, I knew I wanted to write something that moves. Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down remains stationary in the fixed setting of St. Louis, which is its own wonderful challenge and was necessary for that narrative, but I wanted to try something new and see how a novel might develop differently across a variety of settings — in terms of backdrop, but also in terms of structure. Beyond a new novel, I plan to return to stories and essays here and there this year. It’s been awhile since I’ve written shorter forms, and I’m looking forward to seeing what develops.

JT: The array of names used in your fiction is of particular note — for example Zola, Wren, Betsy, and (maybe I’m biased here) Teal. Can you talk about the process of naming characters, if one exists? Likewise: Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down. By Light We Knew Our Names. Where do you find inspiration for your titles?

AV: That’s nice of you to say, because I feel like I’m terrible with names in stories, and also with titles! Naming characters is often so difficult, and I usually just allow a character’s personality to suggest the right name for them. The short story, “By Light We Knew Our Names,” was really one of the only times that I purposefully connected all of the characters’ names under the same umbrella — Wren, Kestrel and Teal are the names of birds, and these girls felt very much to me like caged birds waiting to take flight. As for the title, By Light We Knew Our Names — language that never actually appears in the story, or in the collection as a whole — felt right for a group of women who truly knew themselves by aurora light, which is to say, away from what a town of predatory men told them they were. As for the novel, I realized only after the fact of naming it that it follows the same aural, syllabic cadence of the collection’s title. In general, I’m drawn to language that has a rhythm, pulse and clear sound. With that said, the working title of my new novel manuscript is a single word. I’m feeling a little sheepish about long titles at the moment and wanted try something more clipped!

JT: The ambition of this book is impressive — it is a mystery, yet it is fabulist and experimental. The book tackles a mainstream topic, and does so with aplomb. It is also your debut novel with a major press. What advice do you have for writers facing a similar initiative? How did you keep yourself writing in the face of grief?

AV: Thanks for these kind words. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure how to write a novel when I began working on this manuscript. I’d been working exclusively on short stories for several years, but a number of things came together in my life at the time that led to working on a novel. I’d started a doctoral program, and the challenge of a novel as my dissertation was one I wanted to take on. But then I transferred doctoral programs and the transition was far more jarring than I anticipated, and I funneled that sense of instability into the stability of working on a single project, every single day. I started and finished this novel across one intense year, both in terms of the transition, the book’s subject matter, and sitting with the grief of this book every day. I think there are all kinds of ways of structuring and writing a novel, and every writer I know has a different process. But for me, this was the only way I could do it, and the second novel manuscript I just finished was written in much the same way — every day, across one year. I think I’m the kind of writer that needs this centering, and I wrote this second novel through another cross-country move and transition. Though this new project hasn’t been as heavy as writing Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, I think my mode as a writer has been to not turn away from the difficulty of the subject matter. It’s hard, as hard as watching the news and seeing yet another incidence of gun violence or police brutality, but past a point, looking away becomes harder. With this novel, and with subsequent projects since, I find that I’m often writing to sit with the grief, to allow it to just be instead of letting myself grow complacent or uncomfortable with it.

Though I know everyone’s process is different, my advice to a writer taking on first novel is to first and foremost make time for it every day. I set myself a daily word count and built a visual map above my desk for the novel’s timeline, events and researched information. Even if another writer approaches this process differently, I think it’s essential to touch upon the work in some way every day to stay immersed in the narrative’s world. Beyond that, my less tangible advice is to not be too concerned about audience or how the work will be received. I didn’t let anyone read a word of this book until I had a solid draft finished, and even then, only two people read it until my agent began sending it out — and one of those people was my partner. I was protective of it not because I was afraid of criticism, but because I didn’t want to be derailed from my own vision of the book through too much advice. It’s not a book for everyone. As you say, it’s a bit of a strange hybrid. But I wanted to make it mine instead of anticipating criticism or reception before I was even done. So my best advice for other writers is to write what you feel passionate to write, regardless of market trends or what other people might want to read — doing this helped me maintain and preserve my own voice.

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