Thursday, July 7, 2022

Alan Drew

Alan Drew is the author of the critically acclaimed novels Gardens of Water and Shadow Man. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. An associate professor of English at Villanova University, where he directs the creative writing program, he lives near Philadelphia with his wife and two children.

Drew's new novel is The Recruit.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The working title for the novel, going back to 2017, was The Supremacists, but as the book went through the editorial process at Random House, we ultimately landed on The Recruit, which I think feels a little more intimate, a little more personal. The title focuses readers’ attention on the central antagonist in the book, the troubled teenaged boy, Jacob Clay, whose indoctrination into a white supremacist group and the racist violence he commits, drives the plot of the novel. It also suggests, I hope, an exploration of how such a kid can get pulled into a domestic terrorist group, something that was really important to me. The book is a thriller and a police procedural, but creating strong characters is central to my motivation to write, and I wanted to try to understand what might cause a young man—emotionally, socially, infrastructurally—to believe in such hateful ideology strongly enough to take violent action. While the novel takes place in 1987, Jacob Clay could be the Buffalo terrorist or the El Paso murderer, and the lies he believes in the novel are similar to the lies that motivated some QAnon followers to attack the Capitol on January 6, 2020.

What's in a name?

With the protagonist, Detective Benjamin Wade, I wanted a name that sounded classically American cop/sheriff/cowboy, but which also suggested some softness, a vulnerability about him since he has an emotionally troubled history. Benjamin resonates with a sense of boyishness for me, and I wanted to hint at a kind of emotional arrested development with Ben—at least in the first Ben Wade book, Shadow Man, when he is forced to face his troubled past. But there’s a bluntness to Wade, something no-nonsense and tough about it, a name like a punch, and I liked the way it sounded next to his softer first name.

With Jacob, I wanted the irony of a white supremacist kid carrying one of the oldest Jewish names, and his ignorance of the history of his own name. And Clay, which in retrospect might be a little heavy handed, to suggest that he’s a vulnerable child that can be molded by the people—good or bad—around him.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

My teenage self would be surprised that I would/could write a novel at all—and he would probably be doubtful, even with the name on the spine, that I did write it. I was not a particularly good student, didn’t do much writing or reading, and the idea that I would ever take on the task of writing a novel would have seemed impossible to my teenage self.

In terms of the subject matter in The Recruit, I think my teenage self would recognize much from his childhood. I was seventeen in 1987, just two years older than Jacob Clay, and the world I grew up in was very similar to his. Rancho Santa Elena is a fictional version of Irvine, CA, my hometown, a master planned community built for white people to escape Los Angeles. When I was growing up there, it was a sort of white ethno-state, like many American suburbs/exurbs are even today, and you breathed in and internalized a certain racial social order, one built on social segregation and the fear of people of color.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I don’t find it particularly difficult to write the beginning of a novel (except for sitting my backside down to do it), though what I think is the beginning rarely ends up being so. What I thought was the beginning of The Recruit is now more than halfway through the narrative. I’m mostly a write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of guy, which makes for a messy process. I want, as much as possible, for the plot to develop organically, not only out of the investigative elements, but also out of the actions characters take to deal with their own internal conflicts. That said, I tend to have a rough idea of where I think the book is going and have numerous imagined scenes when I begin writing. The trick is the connective tissue between those scenes, and, for the most part, I rarely land at the end of a book where I thought I might when I began writing.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I think every writer puts elements of themselves into their characters. Authors create their characters after all, and the degree to which our characters come alive, I think, is the degree to which we connect with them, understand them, even the antagonistic characters--which can be a little emotionally dicey at times. Jacob was a difficult character to write, since I felt a need to humanize him, connect with him, even as he takes horrible action in the novel. Not to make him sympathetic, but to not simply dismiss him as being evil. He wasn’t born evil. He was formed into a person capable of evil action. So the question for me as a writer is how did that happen? To answer that question, I think, demands some kind of connection, some understanding. It can be uncomfortable, though, to try to create such characters in such a way.

Ben is me in many ways. Sometimes he’s my fantasy me--when he’s being a tough guy, when he takes down some bad dude. But some of the emotional things he struggles with are elements of me, particularly in Shadow Man. What happens to Ben in that book did not happen to me, but I understand what it is to be groomed by an abusive authority/father figure, so I get what he struggles with in that book—and the lingering struggles he has to negotiate about his self-worth, his identity, etc.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I used to be an oil painter, so my writing, I think, tends to be very visual, maybe even cinematic. Since I don’t paint anymore, the description in my novels sort of fills that need for me. I also sang in choirs from elementary school through college, so music is very important to me—in life in general and in my writing. Sometimes in the editing process I get frustrated with line edits that compromise how I hear a sentence in my head or suggestions that upset the rhythms in a paragraph.

I’m definitely influenced by film—something that always feels like a bit of a dirty secret to say. One of my favorite films is John Sayles’s Lone Star, and I thought about that film a lot while I wrote Shadow Man. Another film that sits deep with me is Chinatown—the noir beauty of it, the very dark secrets exposed, the beautiful and spare jazz soundtrack. There’s something very literary about that film I just love.
Visit Alan Drew's website.

My Book, The Movie: Shadow Man.

The Page 69 Test: Shadow Man.

--Marshal Zeringue