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Meet the Mind Behind the First Book of the Year Winner
Ten Questions with Bryn Greenwood
Book of the Month
Congratulations on your debut novel being named 2016 Book of the Year by thousands of BOTM members. How does that feel?
Thank you so much! It feels pretty amazing, because BOTM has just broken my 23-year streak of not winning literary prizes. The last time I won something was a short fiction prize in college, and that was pretty small time compared to this. I particularly love that it's a readers' award. I'm truly honored that so many BOTM readers thought my book was the best they read this year.
Our Judge Nina Sankovitch described All the Ugly and Wonderful Things as 'œone of the strangest but most genuine and unforgettable love stories you'll ever read'. Do you agree with this description?
I do not deny that it's a strange love story, not least of which because the central relationship encompasses a whole variety of different forms of love. It starts out with the awkward and intense love of two strangers who connect in a moment of crisis. From there it grows into an almost fraternal love, and then into that insular closeness we associate with two people being best friends. The kind of love that lets you be in companionable silence with another person, or be hundreds of miles away and still feel connected. After that, it veers sharply into the passionate love that we usually mean when we talk about a love story. I often think the book is both a testament to and a warning about the power of unconditional love, because the two main characters make some terrible sacrifices for each other.
The book focuses on an unconventional (and controversial) relationship between a young girl named Wavy and an older man named Kellen. What in particular do you think draws readers to the story so strongly?
I suspect it's the same thing that compelled me to write it. When I met Wavy and Kellen in the process of writing, I had an instant sympathy for them. He was badly injured. She was hungry. They were both incredibly lonely and I knew it had been a long time since anyone recognized their humanity. I think we've all been lonely in ways that made us feel empty and invisible. When you're that kind of alone and you find someone who sees you and cares for you without judgment or expectation, it's transformative. Wavy is a withdrawn child whose life has been narrowed by the chaos of her mother's mental illness, and the burden of raising her little brother. Kellen is an aimless thug without a future who doesn't value himself, because no one else does. Together, they become more, because of each other, for each other. She blossoms into a curious and caring girl, and he grows into someone who takes on adult responsibilities and makes plans for two unprotected children. We want transformation in our lives, and witnessing it in others is compelling.
To connect this question with the previous one, I think my book has caused controversy in part because of our generally narrow views about love. We so often think there's only one kind of falling in love, but I'm convinced there are many. Kellen describes himself as having loved Wavy the first time he saw her, a thing that scandalizes some readers, because they interpret that as him having romantic feelings about her when she's a small child. I don't honestly understand that assumption. Love at first sight isn't exclusive to sexual love, or it hasn't been for me.
You've said that the book is inspired by a relationship you had growing up. What was it like experiencing deep feelings for a much older man? Were people around you accepting of the relationship?
That relationship was incredibly liberating, because for the first time, someone accepted me for who I was. I grew up in a small town and I spent my childhood being an outcast. Even in my family I was a weirdo. Being with someone who thought I was interesting and funny increased my sense of self-worth, and made the horrible parts of adolescence seem less important. On a more shallow note: he had a nice car, no curfew, and money to spend on me. Seventh grade boys did not.
We mostly kept the relationship a secret, because we knew it was illegal, and we didn't want to lose each other. As an adult, I went on keeping it a secret, because I learned the hard way that people are comfortable judging a relationship they know nothing about. The downside of that relationship was that it gave me such high expectations that future partners often disappointed me. The upside was that it gave me the strength to protect myself from the kinds of damaging relationships so many of my peers fell into in high school and college. It's hard to bully a girl into having sex with you, when she's been in a relationship where her decisions about her body were respected absolutely.
The book takes place around a meth lab and a lot of the characters are unsavory. Your father was a drug dealer at one point -- are the characters based on people you knew?
As with nearly every character I write, they draw on some personality traits and aspects of people I've known. And I have known some unsavory people through my father's career choices. Drug dealers always have hangers on, people who simply show up and get whatever they can before moving on. So that whole environment of parties full of random strangers informed my writing. However, when I'm writing characters, it's never a direct correlation. I wouldn't take a real person and cast them in a story. It's more that I'm using bits and pieces of people I've known to flesh out characters. For example, Sandy is made up of all kinds of people. My late stepmother, who was a feisty blond. A stripper I taught in an English class, who sounded sweet as pie, even when she was being mean. Val isn't my mother; she's a dozen different women I met when I worked at a domestic violence shelter. Liam isn't my father; he's an ex-boyfriend, an old drug dealer of mine, a homeless guy who used to mow my lawn, and a professor I hated.
Some people have compared the book to Lolita, but we see a lot of differences. How would you compare and contrast the two?
I suspect people go to that comparison because my book has one glaring thing in common with Lolita: a relationship between an adult man and a thirteen-year-old girl that becomes sexual. Beyond that single plot element, I don't see any similarities. Lolita is narrated exclusively by Humbert, a middle-aged upper-class narcissist, a pedophile, and a predator. Kellen is none of those things--not even a pedophile, I would argue. He is a young man, working poor, with little education. He may fail at any number of points to make good decisions, but he is in fact trying to do the right thing for Wavy. Nabokov, brilliantly, gives us only Humbert's perspective of events, and it's pretty clear from early on that the reader should not trust his account or his motivations. Kellen is neither the primary nor the definitive narrator in my book. In fact, my reasons for wanting to give so many perspectives are related to how I felt upon reading Lolita for the first time as a pre-teen. I left it feeling commodified and deeply distrustful of men. Because Lolita is never allowed to speak, it was important for me that Wavy tell her story.
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things contains chapters from different characters' points of view. That's a popular form these days. Did you consider other structures?
Honestly, I didn't. I'm just happy that multiple point-of-view narration is popular now. Fifteen years ago, when I was sending out novels with three and four narrators, agents and editors were coming back to me and saying, "That doesn't really work for us." (A famous editor once told me that multiple narrators were "too complicated" for readers.) I've always written from multiple points of view, because I love how it allows me to reveal layers--truths that characters don't even know about themselves. I took it to the extreme with All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, which has sixteen narrators, because I wanted it to feel like a documentary. Due to the nature of the story, it seemed disingenuous to only tell it from the main characters' perspectives.
Judging from your Instagram account, you love boxers. Are they the cutest dogs?
They're not just the cutest dogs. They're the best dogs! They're incredibly loving and silly. They don't wag their tails, they wag their whole bodies. I can take the trash out and when I come back in, I'm greeted with the same level of joy that I'd get if I were gone for a month.
Our Book of the Year statue is called 'œThe Lolly' after the first book ever selected by Book of the Month back in 1926. Any idea where you'll keep your Lolly? (ed: We're still waiting for the factory to finish casting the first one!)
Absolutely! I'm very much a bachelor, and I have this classic 1960s Scandinavian bachelor entertainment center. On the top shelf, I keep a few favorite books, a fancy tequila decanter, and my motorcycle helmet. I'm pretty sure the Lolly is going to look perfect up there.
What's next for our Book of the Year winner?
There's no rest for the wicked, so I'm hard at work on a couple of projects. One is about policing, surveillance, and small town secrets. The other is about the future of sideshows and the question of what is normal? It involves a professional baseball player, conjoined triplets, and a would-be mermaid.