By Connor Burk
John Englehardt graduated from Bellarmine in 2005. He was kind enough to join the creative writing class via Zoom to talk about writing his novel Bloomland (Dzanc), which has made the shortlist for the Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell First Novelist Award (2020).
Connor Burk: When writing Bloomland, what were some of the obstacles in the way of pulling off the second-person perspective?
John Englehardt: Early on, I noticed writing in second person gave the narrative a propulsive quality, allowing me to speed through large swaths of time. This appealed to me because I wanted the novel to cover twenty years of each character’s life. But this speed created all sorts of problems. Those who read my first drafts often said they felt far away from the characters, that the narrator was kind of speeding down the freeway, turning the story into a blurred landscape, leaving little room for the reader to form their own opinions. In revision, I tried to combat this by slowing down and writing scenes, but I didn’t want to totally undercut the momentum. So, I tried to make sure every paragraph of summary contained an internal struggle, a moral or emotional ambiguity that filled the blurred landscape with tension.
On the sentence-level, though, I feel like writing in second person was definitely a challenge, if only to see how many ways I could avoid saying “you.” It got very repetitive, saying “you” all the time. Descriptions of nature were fun, because they offered an easy way to take a break from invoking the “you.”
Connor: Bloomland deals with a touchy subject matter and heavy themes. During the writing process how do you ensure that you deal with these issues in a sensitive and thoughtful way?
There are so many myths surrounding the phenomenon of gun violence and male rage—like the idea that mental illness is a precursor, or the whole “good guy versus bad guy” trope—and my goal was to write against these myths. It would have been dangerous, however, for me to initially assume I knew what these myths were. So, I relied heavily on advice from my peers and interdisciplinary research. I read a ton sociological studies, like Katherine Newman’s Rampage: The Social Roots of School shootings, as well as survivor memoirs, like Gregory Gibson’s Gone Boy. I sought out criticism and advice from my peers, and tried to receive those comments with humility.
Outside of workshop and research, though, it was really important for me to write from a place of shared responsibility. If I was going to write about the issue of male aggression, it was important to think about the ways in which I might be part of the problem. Are there times when I felt rage was an easy way back to feeling? Was I taught that, to become a “man” was to value stoicism, control, and disconnection? And what kind of allowances do I give to young men who avoid expressing any kind of vulnerability? Exploring these questions was how I tried to create characters who were relatable but also deeply flawed.
Connor: When a story is heavily inspired by real-world events, how do you draw a distinction between your story and those events?
John: Though I conducted a lot of research in order to write Bloomland, I also needed to put a large part of myself in each character, to draw heavily on the raw material of my life. As a fiction writer, I feel like I’m creating something new when I combine personal experience with research, but I think it’s important to use personal experience as a foundation. It felt irresponsible to make Bloomland closely resemble any historical act of violence or real place, because we are already living in enough fear. Creating the fictional town of Ozarka was one way I tried to emphasize this.
Connor: When working on a longer project such as a novel, how do you plan out the project? Are things such as scope and length taken into account early on, and is the story written chronologically or are certain parts written before others out of sequence?
John: The longer I write, the more I realize I am not a plot-oriented storyteller. The first thing that usually inspires me to write a story is a character and a setting. I look for someone whose inner identity is at odds with the world around them. Take Rose, for example. I was drawn to her because she arrives at college hoping to become a new person, but the sorority she joins puts her in a very ill fitting box. For me, this tension is what gives a story life. After I have a character and setting, I usually think hard about the story’s political or emotional backdrop, and read a lot of books related to those themes. Only after considering all this, and drafting early parts of the story, do I really think that much about plot. For me, having a specific plan is dangerous, because it doesn’t allow me to wander and discover, and if I don’t wander I’ll bore myself, and probably the reader, as well.
Connor: Lastly, what are some books you recommend to people who enjoyed Bloomland? What about those stories speaks to you?
John: There are so many books that paved the way for me to write Bloomland. The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan and The Ever After of Ashwin Rao by Padma Viswanathan are two novels that tackle the phenomenon of mass violence, that disrupt our traditional notions of individual and communal grief. Mahajan explores the aftermath of a terrorist bombing in New Delhi that kills two boys, using a prismatic point of view that enters the minds of grieving parents, survivors, and terrorists. Viswanathan, on the other hand, focuses on a psychologist who is conducting a “study of comparative grief” twenty years after the 1985 Air India Bombing. These books are amazing, and I can’t recommend them enough.
Finally, I think anyone interested in the issue of toxic masculinity should read bell hooks’ The Will to Change. It’s such a thorough examination of the way young men are taught that to become an adult is to be stoic, controlling, and invulnerable. She shows how this process of male socialization hurts everyone, including the men it promises to empower.