Novelist Rumaan Alam refuses to be confined to one race, gender, or sexuality when he picks up the pen. In his newest novel, Leave the World Behind, he slides easily into an array of personas, which proves that when it comes to the end of the world, we all pretty much all freak out the same.
Alam’s third novel features an omniscient narrator trundling us along as a white middle-class family heads to Long Island for a week at a stunning Airbnb. Amanda, Clay, and their teenage children have just reached that sweet spot of vacation stupor where they’re perhaps starting to get bored, when the owners of the house — a wealthy, older black couple — return in the middle of the night with some troubling news: The entire East Coast is experiencing a blackout and there’s no real explanation.
Amanda and Clay are suspicious of the couple — Ruth and G.H. — but since we can see into everyone’s heads, we know that the older folks are telling the truth: It’s their house and they don’t know where else to go. What could be a simple tale of racial tensions — given the white couple’s distrust of the black couple — changes course, however, as more and more signs that something is amiss come to light. Massive herds of deer seem to be migrating out of the area, a chilling sound rends the sky that leaves everyone reeling, and, horrifyingly, Amanda and Clay’s son starts losing his teeth.
A slim novel, Leave the World Behind nevertheless packs in the horrors, leaving the characters — and readers — terribly aware of their own mortality. As such, it’s already one of the most talked-about books of the fall; it’s a finalist for the National Book Awards and was optioned by Netflix (before release). The upcoming film stars Julia Roberts as Amanda and Denzel Washington as G.H., who Amanda rather racistly compares to Washington in the book — in part because they share a last name. Mr. Robot‘s Sam Esmail will direct.
Rolling Stone spoke to Alam about his writing process, bucking expectations, his inexplicable fear of plane crashes.
When did these characters first make themselves known to you?
This particular book began with setting, more than people. The house that appears in this book is based quite specifically on a house my own family had stayed at on vacation in 2017 in the sort of like uncool — not uncool, but a part of Long Island where you can’t buy a luxury car, you know what I mean? We had this really beautiful house for the week; I can remember it even now.
I’m face-blind. I have a lot of trouble describing what a person looks like because I don’t really see people’s faces that clearly. But I have a very good memory for spaces and places and I remember that house with a real specificity. I knew I wanted to write about that place. And I knew that I wanted to write a book that was what we call “domestic” — in this case, in a very literal sense because the book is so preoccupied with the house itself — but just push through to use the house or family life to say something about, you know, everything. Society, the culture, our politics, the state of the planet.
So, the people, I don’t know how the people arrived in my mind. I need people to lend the story some sense of momentum.
You tell this story from so many different viewpoints. Are you pulling from your own experience? How do you get in this many head-spaces?
I do the same thing as anyone does, which is to write from the perspective of your own self because that’s all you have; all you have is your own self. So even if you’re trying to challenge yourself to write and about opinions or ideas that are not your own, you’re still always mitigated by your own experience inside of your own body, because that’s all you’ve got. So even though I jumped from head to head to head, they’re all in some way me, because that’s the act of writing fiction. It’s just sort of projecting into someone else, but you can’t ever really do that.
I think we make too much in the contemporary reading culture of writers being afraid to go across what we understand is different in terms of race or identity or gender or sex. I don’t know how different our interior minds are from one another. If you’re possessed of mind, you kind of know what it is to be possessed of a mind. And if you’re doing it in good faith, if you’re not writing a book to satirize a kind of person whom you have decided arbitrarily to hate, then that’s a good exercise, right? Like if you’re writing like a racist book, then you’re just a jerk. But if you’re trying to understand how other people who are different than you might think, well, I mean, isn’t that what we want from fiction, A, and, B, don’t we all kind of think more similarly that we might be willing to allow?
There’s a lot of pressure in publishing, it seems, to write about experience — especially if you’re a minority.
What’s interesting to me artistically is specifically to ignore that particular burden or challenge or whatever — that expectation that writers who are brown, in my case, or are gay, also in my case, have to write about those issues. It’s boring to me. It’s an unimaginative expectation. Like, I was never a teenage girl, but I want to believe that I was able to think about — not all teenage girls because you can’t reduce that, you know — but the specifics of the teenage girl depicted in this book. Isn’t that what we should be asking fiction to do? I understand why contemporary readers resist that in service of fairness or in service of the literature that is more reflective of the populace, I just am not sure that this particular rule of writing exactly who you are is the most useful in terms of getting out the literature that looks the way that this country looks.
I don’t mean to suggest that this isn’t a complicated issue. It’s a complicated issue. It’s a very complicated issue, but, for my own part, I am just doing what I want to do and somehow getting away with it — or not getting away with it. I don’t know. It’s up to the reader to decide.
What’s your writing process like? Are you an outliner?
I usually make an outline after I am somewhat committed to a project. I have to have a level of commitment to the thing where I know I’m not going to abandon it. Sometimes making an outline feels making like a really ambitious itinerary for a day trip. And then you finish making that plan and you’re like, “I’m tired. I don’t want to do anything.” I’ve lost my interest, you know? That’s not how I tend to be when I travel. I tend to improvise or build in some downtime or whatever. So, I feel the same way about writing.
I think there’s a kind of writer who over-mythologizes what it is that they do and talks a lot about having the ideal circumstances — you know, absolute silence and a certain kind of pencil and a certain kind of notebook. I don’t really care about that stuff. I think a lot of people convince themselves that that is important — that those rituals are important because the work itself is difficult — but I find it much easier to just to face the work. I am accustomed to writing on the subway. I’m accustomed to writing on the way to pick up my kids to school. What I used to do last year is I would take the kids to school and then I’d go to the gym in that neighborhood and I would sit there or I would go to a cafe and revise my pages — kind of like an itinerant wandering around Brooklyn with a huge bag of paper and my dirty gym clothes.
Has the end of the world always been a fascination for you?
Well, I was born in 1977. So when I was a child, it was a different way of thinking about the nuclear threat. It was not the way that children in the Sixties would have experienced it. We didn’t have drills where we sat under our desks in the event of a bomb. What we had was this sort of abstract idea that someday a bomb would fall and reshape all of society. That really scared me.
It was a part of the culture — it was a plot point in sitcoms. Maybe a decade from now, there will be jokes about global climate change on our sitcoms, but it’s hard to imagine. That sense of the fragility of what we have made here was very scary to me. But, as I say in the book, most of our lives are devoted to looking elsewhere. We know everything that we know about what we’ve done to the world, about the risks inherent and simply walking around on the planet. But we look away from them because we couldn’t get anything done if we didn’t. I wouldn’t say I’m overly preoccupied. It’s not like I’ve read a ton [of books about the] apocalypse. But, you know, this is part of the culture.
How did you come up with the signs of the apocalypse you used in the book?
I tried to light on stuff that felt truly random and odd and unsettling. And I tried to provide things that the reader would attempt to make logical, but it’s like you’re doing the jigsaw puzzle you bought at a garage sale and you realize like halfway through it that it’s actually two different jigsaw puzzle and it’s missing like 83 percent of its pieces. I do think you can trust that information, but I don’t think you can assemble it into anything that is that useful.
And so there’s stuff about what’s happening to individual human beings. Is that useful? I don’t know. I mean, [the book] sketches out a couple of details with some specificity and those seem scary to me and also scary in a primal way. The idea of perishing in an elevator is very scary to me. The idea of parents killing their children in the bathtub is very scary, very scary. I have a very weird thing with plane crashes where I’m weirdly terrified of them. And I’m weirdly very mindful of them — like I know a lot about individual crashes. So, there’s an aside where we hear that a plane crashed and that was especially terrifying to me.
There are animals doing strange things, which is a part of folklore and myth across the planet. And not even necessarily doing strange things, but doing things in a way that implies their own intelligence or, in a way, that we, as humans, should be learning from them.
Why do you think the book is taking off the way it is?
I don’t know. I mean, I hope the one thing I can say is that I do feel like more people are reading right now because people are tired of watching everything that’s available — because most of it is terrible. I try to watch something like Succession and I feel like my eyes are gonna fall out of my head. I think at this point, everyone has seen every cultural event, television show, and there’s nothing happening right now, culturally, except for books. Books are still emerging. I’m only friends with like nerdy book people, but I do feel like people are reading. Hopefully, they’ll read my book.