They’ve survived the folly of mankind for eons. They’ve seen it all, from the building of the pyramids to the rebuilding of a Caribbean island’s economy. When the outbreak of a disease threatens to return the island to poverty, and human depravity takes hold, a bunch of witty, philosophical cockroaches watch from the taxi cab where they’ve made their home.
Through these oddly charismatic narrators, Alice Hatcher explores the depths of the human experience. Her novel, The Wonder That Was Ours, won the 2017 Dzanc Prize for Fiction. Thin Air’s Trevor Warren had the opportunity, during Alice’s visit to the Northern Arizona Book Festival, to ask her some questions about her debut novel.
Origins of the writer are as important as that of their work. You mention in your interview with Zona Politics’ Jim Nintzel that your experiences as a child caused you, at a young age, to confront the tension between race and class, and that this had left an indelible mark on you. In a time when this is still a poignant social issue, can you write a little more to the impact that your Chicago upbringing had on the interwoven class and racial themes in The Wonder That Was Ours?
I always hear stories about white people suddenly realizing they have a racial identity, becoming aware of their privilege and feeling self-conscious of their own, and not just others’ color. For better for worse, I was always racially conscious. I should say “for worse,” since I gained my awareness hearing loads of garbage growing up, and no one should be exposed to racist ideas at a young age. I grew up in the sprawl outside of Chicago, but I had relatives who either lived in the city or had been part of the “white flight” from the city. So often someone would say “pass the salt” and then launch into a long speech of the “there goes the neighborhood” variety. Introducing a young child to hatred—closing a young child’s mind with fear—is a form of abuse.
As a little girl, I heard loads of garbage about women, too. Let’s just say I grew up in a very patriarchal family that had its roots in Chicago’s South Side, with all the ethnic and racial consciousness that goes with that, and with all the Archie Bunker variety of cultural conservatism I now see as a real sickness. Mercifully, I gained an alternative view because of my grandmother, a compassionate person who didn’t carry hatred around in her heart, and my aunt, the first open feminist in my family. Both my grandmother and aunt modelled kindness and commitments to equality that I will never forget.
In your paper, “The Metamorphosis of Graham Greene,” on the development of your six-legged narrators, you mention “putting on masks and role-playing” in order to enrich opinionated, omniscient narration and to distance yourself from the narrative. I can only imagine what this entails when placing yourself into the sewers and air vents, as it were, of your cockroach consorts. And it is such an ingenious way to approach difficult social topics such as suicide, racial tension and human violence.
Were these topics that you had intended to explore in The Wonder That Was Ours from conception? Or did they develop while you were imagining the (very literal) “fly-on-the-wall” style of narration?
The earliest draft focused almost exclusively on the personal stories of Helen and Dave, two Americans who get kicked off a cruise ship: in Helen’s case, for attempting suicide, and in the case of Dave, a crew member, for sleeping with passengers. The novel originally started off with Helen and Dave sitting on a pier at sunset, shortly after being led down the proverbial gangplank. I was interested mainly in how two strangers would interact after experiencing something traumatic and humiliating, when they had little but shared misery in common.
Shared difficulty can bring people together, but it can also drive people apart if they see each other as ugly reminders of something they would rather forget. I wanted to explore what might make two people either shun or embrace each other in a moment of pain and humiliation. Helen and Dave couldn’t just go straight to the airport, or the novel would have ended on page. 10, so I had them go to a hotel to spend a night drinking to forget. Once I quarantined the island, with a deadly virus as the pretext, the novel ended up becoming a “closed-room” drama of sorts, in that island’s tiny size makes it impossible for Helen and Dave to avoid one other.
Characters sometimes appear and take on a life of their own, and very quickly, my secondary characters—Wynston, the taxi driver who picks them up at the dock, and Tremor, a bellboy tormented by his uncontrolled seizures and spiraling anger—took over the story and became the two most critical (human) characters. I fell in love with Wynston, a bookish guy who spent his childhood reading dusty books in the island’s tiny library, and with Tremor, who reminded me of my younger self.
Once I quarantined the island, I realized economic hardship and civil unrest would likely follow, given the island’s hand-to-mouth economy. Suddenly, I had a diverse ensemble cast facing civil breakdown and experiencing mistrust fostered, not only by a mysterious virus and fears of contagion, but also by social disparities and historical legacies. As the novel’s themes evolved, I started exploring the ways characters maintain compassion and empathy when so many social, historical, and cultural forces are working against it. I wanted to think about how humans, being social creatures, overcome mutual mistrust, fear and aversion to one another. I became more interested in collective trauma than in individuals’ personal traumas, recognizing that individual and collective traumas are often inseparable.
The roaches were ideal narrators. They have been around for millennia and seen it all. They are omniscient, in the sense that their antennae are tuned in to other antennae all over the world and pick up satellite transmissions of all kinds. With multiple vantage points for watching humans at their best and worst, they are well-equipped to provide commentary on humans’ potential to love and, sadly, humans’ propensities for violence.
Yours is a writing style that I particularly enjoy. The attention to detail and thematic elements are reminiscent, in my opinion, of Kurt Vonnegut’s, particularly in Cat’s Cradle. As I was nearing page 100 of The Wonder That Was Ours, I learned that one of Professor Cleave’s arresting officers find, as character evidence to be used at Professor Cleave’s hearing, Slaughterhouse Five, among other allegedly subversive titles. I was curious to know if Kurt Vonnegut had an influence on you as an author. If not, who are some authors who have had particular influence over your own development as an author?
I adore Kurt Vonnegut. I have read every novel he’s written, some of them three of four times. I’ll be smiling about the comparison to Cat’s Cradle for the next year. What I love most about Vonnegut is his use of a wide-angle lens to capture the human race in all of its absurdity. In Vonnegut’s fictional universe, there is no shortage of absurdity. Cosmic forces, the forces of evolution, and massive social and economic changes buffet Vonnegut’s beleaguered characters, but Vonnegut never embraces nihilism. He had a moral center, even if he could see the absurdity underlying so many of our struggles and squabbles and foibles (and failures, perhaps) as a species.
In the same way I love Vonnegut, I love Camus, whose existentialism never led down a dead-end moral alleyway. The messages of both Vonnegut and Camus always seemed to be that, whatever the odds, and however ridiculous or terrible the circumstances, we need to forge ethical standards and make the best moral choices we can. Both Vonnegut and Camus were able to write about overwhelming social forces without losing sight of individual choices that we all make in very circumscribed situations.
I especially loved Kurt Vonnegut because of his humor. Hunted with Roach Out! and rolled-up newspapers, my cockroach narrators possess a gallows humor that allows them to survive. I sometimes feel like we live in humorless times, and maybe it makes sense. It’s hard to joke about certain subjects, and sometimes entirely inappropriate to joke about them. Like millions of others, I was moved to reflection by the brilliant stand-up routine Nanette, in which Hannah Gadsby rightfully cautions that jokes can short-circuit conversations about real pain because punch lines, by relieving tension, sometimes provide a false sense of resolution rather than open up meaningful conversation. I am very sensitive to the limits of humor, but I found it necessary, at times, to use humor in my novel, much as Vonnegut used humor in his work, always to shine light on the foibles of the human race, as a whole.
In the same Graham Green paper, you hint at a new novel involving the inventor of Roach Out. Can we get a glimpse of your new piece?
Actually, the next novel will be narrated by a biped with opposable digits, or a “hairless monkey,” to borrow a phrase from a misanthropic friend. I loved writing from the vantage point of cockroaches, to the point that I sometimes fear I will never have as much fun with a narrative voice as I did when I was writing in the voice of a cockroach collective. It’s almost with sadness that I must slip back into a human guise. The good news is that my new narrator has more than enough personality to go around, and I’m looking forward to spending time with him.
It’s way too early to reveal anything about him, or to open up what Steven King calls the “closed doors” behind which writers hide work in a fledgling state. Also, the preliminary drafts are all very, very rough.
I can say that my human narrator is no less strange than my cockroach collective, but he has the benefit of two legs and a nice suit. Graced with good looks and inherited money, he can walk through rooms without people screaming or flinching. Whereas the roaches might be physically repugnant but morally sound, my human narrator is physically attractive but morally suspect. Still, he never has to worry about being squashed or sprayed with Roach Out! In the roaches’ long view, this is all too typical. Who knows? Maybe the roaches will make an appearance in the next novel. Every mansion has at least a few cracks in its foundation, and maybe they’ll find a way into his house and shake him up a bit.
After graduating from 28th grade at the University of Michigan, Alice Hatcher turned her attention from footnotes to fiction, and has since published short stories, creative nonfiction and poetry. To the immense relief of everyone who knows her, she finally completed the 3,475th draft of her first novel The Wonder That Was Ours, winner of the 2017 Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction. She is thrilled beyond description and grateful to those who supported her while she wrote a novel narrated by a collective of cockroaches. Many thanks to the members of RAW (Readers as Writers) and Write Wednesday, two groups that have helped make Tucson the dusty SOHO of the SW.