Debut novelist Brian DeLeeuw just published In This Way I Was Saved, a chilling mystery that is also a sublime work of fiction; a terrifying genre tale that is also a look inside the author’s worldview. (Think human porosity, epic loneliness, and tyrannosaurus spit.) DeLeeuw, currently working as an editor at Tin House, talks to longtime friend Eva Hagberg about coming up with ideas, writing what you know, and the existential crisis of solitude.
Flavorpill: I’m sorry to ask this question, but the premise of your novel is so unusual that I just have to. How did you come up with the idea?
Brian DeLeeuw: I had two ideas simultaneously. I wanted to write a short story from the point of view of an imaginary friend (and I don’t know where that idea came from.) And at the same time I had this image or feeling of a summer town in winter, a place that’s completely out of season and abandoned, temporarily. I fused the two, and had this idea of a boy and his imaginary friend on a winter beach in a deserted town. I wrote a short story around that mood and that idea.
In the original short story, the imaginary friend who’s narrating is likable and mild-mannered, and he’s sad as he fades away from the child who doesn’t need him anymore. It’s this melancholy story, and it didn’t really work, I was trying to stuff too much into it. It was sort of wistful and purple and not that exciting. I thought it’d be that much more interesting if the imaginary friend fought back and wanted to survive – and that was too much to fit into the short story. So I was trying this experimental point of view, and also trying to capture this kind of melancholy mood.
FP: I’m someone who has a slightly antagonistic/skeptical relationship with my own existence, but I have to admit I never thought you’d have these ontological fears. Something I really loved about the book was how well you portrayed a true existential crisis.
BD: The Alvarez quote at the beginning gets to the heart of that — “When I’m alone, I stop believing I exist.” For me that means a whole lot of different things. That’s one reason Luke creates Daniel in the first place — he’s so alone and so lonely. The only person really in his life is his mother, who is distracted (to say the least.) Loneliness is certainly part of it.
FP: Did you have to make yourself really lonely while you were writing the book?
BD: You’re alone when you’re writing. And I was an only child growing up. Although my parents were very much in my life in a way that Luke’s parents were not. Even then, though, as a child, you spend a lot of time in your own head. Certainly I exaggerated it from my own experience. But it’s mostly made up. It’s pretty much all made up.
FP: You made it up so accurately, though. I was talking to our Whole Five Feet-writing friend Chris Beha about creating worlds, and about using as much of what you know to set the scene so that you can really focus all your creative energies on the story. But then you and I had that conversation once about your frustration reading novels that were essentially memoirs of looking out over a parking lot. I remember you saying something like “That’s why we’re fiction writers! So we can make things up!”
BD: You need to have a firm grasp on the setting of the story. It’s one thing to make up characters and situations, but for me to start writing about a place that I’ve never even been doesn’t work. All the settings in this book are places I’m very familiar with. Chris is right – it’s that foundation, the setting where the story’s going to take place, that I think should come from your life in a way. It doesn’t have to be where you grew up; it could be where you do research, which is what I’m doing for my next book. I think those details are very real, but then I grafted fictional characters on top of that. I just love that you can do absolutely anything [in fiction] if you do it well.
That’s what frustrated me when I started working at Tin House as an editor and reading through a lot of submissions. And a lot of people weren’t using their imaginations very well. Writing as a form of confession or catharsis or whatever very rarely works, and most of the time it doesn’t. The reason you’re calling something fiction is that you have a little more freedom and can make it more interesting than everyday life, because that’s kind of boring. That’s like one twentieth of the people who write memoirs or who write extremely autobiographical fiction. If I see fiction that’s not flexing imagination at all, it can be disappointing because there are so many possibilities. Chris is right, you have to ground it in something… lived. Although I don’t know if that’s the right word. Something real? But then I’m thinking even more fantasy-based stories can work really well. For me at least, with this book, no matter what crazy things happen, they happen in places that I know very well and that I think I can portray pretty realistically.
FP: One of the things I noticed was done so well – and that had a big shift from the earlier draft I read and this final version – was the pacing. How did you work with that?
BD: Pacing comes out of editing. I wrote the first draft extremely quickly – I was just trying to get my MFA thesis done. I was required to turn in chunks of pages every week, and I just went forward and didn’t look back much at all. I was just concerned with getting to the end of the plot. Between the second and third versions is where I dealt with it the most. It’s very hard for me to deal with that as when you’re writing it out for the first time, you can’t see which parts should be faster or slower. Once you have the whole picture, you can say “I want to speed things up here, slow things down here,” and that’s in the editing and rewriting process, the proportions of the scenes and what gets a lot of attention. I wasn’t sure about that until after I’d seen the whole thing. When I wrote it at first everything it got equal weight, so you can end up with some flat pacing. It’s only later that you shape it and that you think about it as a whole…
FP: Are you ever sad to lose scenes or sentences?
BD: Not really. You just have to. You have to get over your preciousness and believe that you’ll be able to write another good sentence later. There was one paragraph at the end of Chapter 1 that I cut and put back in five times, and it got cut after galleys. That was probably the only one I struggled over and, of course, someone probably just read the galley, but I thought about it for like a month. That one, just to say what it was, makes Claire behave in a more extreme way very early on in the book, so it might have been predisposing people to think she was crazy. I ended up taking it out, but literally other than that paragraph I wasn’t too concerned with cutting anything. It’s not because I was attached to the sentences, it was just necessary for it to function.
FP: You mentioned something about a next book. What are you working on?
BD: I don’t want to talk too much about it. I wrote a chunk of it last winter, and then I’m going to come back to it. I think it will take place on the fringes of the medical world, but I don’t want to say too much more than that.
But I’m doing one; it’s happening. It’s probably going to be pretty far off in subject matter, but pretty similar in tone and style. We’ll see.