Writing the Secret Language of Friendship
Rebecca Kauffman, author of ‘The Gunners,’ talks about creating friendships on the page
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
When I reunite with my friends from college after a long absence, I’m always astounded by how quickly we’re able to revert back to the easy jokes and comforting familiarity of our youth together: we call it the friend shorthand.
The friend shorthand is a common phenomenon that most people can relate to, but I’ve always wondered: can that bond still exist after an extended period of time, say, 10 years? What if one member of the group isn’t present? Does that change the dynamics of the friend group? What magic chemistry bonds a group of people together in the first place?
These questions and more are answered in Rebecca Kauffman’s novel The Gunners, which flashes back and forth between a group of childhood friends during their formative years and when they reunite as adults for the somber occasion of a comrade’s funeral. As the secrets from the rift that separated the group are revealed and reckoned with, the reader begins to question exactly how our interpersonal morals shape our friendships and our lives.
The author and I spoke about her construction of the novel, the nature of friend reunions, and the age old question: can people change?
Rebecca Schuh: The Gunners got me thinking about how social groups form. How did you go about creating a friend group on the page that felt authentic to real life?
Rebecca Kauffman: Mikey is the heart and soul of the book to me, and I felt strongly that he needed to be a good kind person with a good kind heart, that was the character I wanted to celebrate. I had a disagreement with my agent about that, she pointed out that that didn’t sound like it would make for a very interesting protagonist. I would tend to agree, but I dug my heels in and insisted on writing him that way because I wanted to celebrate a good brave heart even existing in a heavy and sad person. So in creating Mikey as a reserved, full of self doubt but supremely kind and giving person, which he doesn’t even recognize about himself, I wanted to surround him with people who were very different and would pull out different aspects of his personality.
That’s not to say that any of the other characters are bad people with bad hearts, but they might be incredibly bombastic or aggressive. So to differentiate each character from the next was both necessary, narratively speaking, and fairly real, drawn from my own past experiences and memories of my own little neighborhood crew. We were a rather diverse group of kids when it came to personalities.
RS: Did any of your friends inspire the characters or the dynamic of the group?
RK: Definitely the dynamic more than specific characters. I grew up in very rural Northeastern Ohio, all farmland. I grew up in a triplex with my immediate family, my grandma lived in the middle unit, then at the far end my aunt and uncle and their two sons who were very close in age to me. I also had a sister who is two years older than me. So the four of us were very close, totally inseparable companions. We had some sort of rowdy neighbor boys who were equally scary and thrilling to me. They would sometimes sort of join our little band of adventurers. We ran wild through the fields and the streams, we had a pond we would fish in.
We were pretty wild kids, but the setting of The Gunners is of course different and the individuals are quite different. The dynamic of total exuberance, having a little band of every day playmates, that was a direct connection. You don’t second guess yourself and your personality and intellect the way that you start to in adolescence and all that. I think there’s something purely joyful about that dynamic.
To be a good friend is to care for another person, to be vulnerable with them, to accept them for who they are, to help them be the best version of themselves, and ultimately, to be kind.
RS: I was thinking about how with adult friendships, you’re like okay, what do my friends and I have in common? What are we centered around? Is it a job? Mutual friends? So often as a kid, you’re just thrown together into this exuberant play world and then watching how those relationships grow and change. What did the characters have in common versus what was circumstantial about their growing up together?
RK: Despite growing up on the same block, so sharing [similar] socioeconomic status for the most part, each of those households was very different. I picture Alice’s household with her older brothers as being super loud and chaotic and messy and fun, constant arguments, constant fun, whereas Mikey’s home was silent — I picture his home being almost tomblike in just how somber his father was.
I imagine the individual home lives being different and fostering different kinds of energy. In Mikeys case this sort of devolved into questioning himself and this deeper heavier burden of who am I andow do I belong in this world? Versus Alice, for example, I don’t think those questions would have occurred to her at a young age. Maybe not ever.
And then when you re-encounter them as adults, by that point they have all gone down very different paths and the only common ground seems to be the past. I wondered if the past alone was enough to continue to unite them, and I don’t know that I have a clear answer. I would like to think yes, that’s my hunch, but I don’t ever set up to answer everything in my fiction.
RS: I was thinking about the phenomena where you reunite with friends you haven’t seen in a while and there’s this kind of magic that happens, slipping back into these patterns of behavior and speech. How do you think it’s possible that people are so easily able to slip back into old patterns that haven’t been alive in years?
RK: I think it’s instinct to a certain extent, if you’re a somewhat perceptive person you understand how your behavior is going to impact the people around you and what is going to create the best results. Writers in particular tend to be quite sensitive to that as fairly observant people in general. I feel that very acutely, it’s not something I’m super proud of — but I know that I can really quickly sort of transform myself based on past experiences with people and what I know would make them happy, what will make the dynamic the easiest between us. There’s something very natural and very human about that on the one hand, but on the other hand, I don’t know that I like my ability to do that all that much. There’s something that feels like it might be a little bit manipulative.
RS: That’s really interesting, I’d never thought about it that way before but that makes a lot of sense. Do you see one character as having more of the ability to shift the dynamic of a situation?
RK: Alice is definitely in control of pretty much every situation. Every scene where she’s present she’s controlling things. A review came out a day or two ago that pointed out that Alice isn’t just trying to be in control for the sake of being in control, but she tries to control things because she wants to pull things out of those around her. And I think that’s true, I wasn’t consciously writing towards that but I definitely think she has this amazing ability to pull other people out of their shell and force them to become vulnerable which ultimately, especially in Mikey’s case, allows him to at least see the possibility of a happier life and a happier way of fitting into the world than he would have come to on his own. It’s not really his choice. She forces that upon him, forces him to become vulnerable with her, but in my opinion it’s positive.
RS: When Mikey and Alice are alone, they talk about whether or not people can change. Do you believe that people can change?
RK: That is the question that made me write this book, and I don’t know. I probably entered into this book with the opinion that at their essence people don’t change, they can’t change. I don’t know that I feel that way now, but I also don’t know that I could firmly come down on the side that people do change. We alter our behavior to suit the people around us. As you grow up you start to notice things that you do and don’t like about yourself and you try and improve upon yourself, hopefully, but there’s a very base impulse that exists within each of us.
We alter our behavior to suit the people around us.
RS: I don’t know either. It’s a crazy thing to think about. Throughout the novel the characters are coming to peace with death in their own ways. Of course they’re attending a funeral, but there’s also the quote where someone says “sure, death’s a little scary, but life is the real bitch.” What was your process of bringing the characters to their individual realizations of death?
RK: That was Alice, quoting her own grandmother at the end of her life. I think probably all these characters would agree with that to a certain extent.
I would say that partly my decision to create an ensemble cast here is my interest in the fact that I think a lot of people I know, and I’m certainly guilty of this myself, think that their lives are in some way unique or their pain is in some way singularly profound. I just don’t think that’s true. We all experience joy and loss and pain at different stages but I just don’t think there’s that much that differs in human emotional landscapes from one person to the next. So I think having these characters hearing one another’s stories and what has burdened them in the ten years, that they’ve sort of fallen out of touch is one way for them to get out of that narcissistic impulse to think that somehow our individual pain is more profound. So I guess it’s not speaking super directly to questions of life and death but recognizing what is shared between us is an important part of the process of grappling with morality.
RS: Near the end of the book, there’s a line: “Mikey wondered if having a dear friend, and being a dear friend, might be almost as good as being a good man.” Do you have think that being a good friend is almost as good as being a good person?
RK: What does “being a good person” even mean? To be a good friend is to care for another person, to be vulnerable with them, to accept them for who they are, to help them be the best version of themselves, and ultimately, to be kind. Ideally you apply those qualities to everyone in your life whether or not they are a close friend.
I believe being a “good person” is completely meaningless outside the context of how you treat people. So treating everyone as a friend — with kindness, generosity, vulnerability — in my opinion far outweighs any other sort of way we might be tempted to quantify or define “goodness.”