Several years ago, Merle Drown‘s “Reunion” earned the Bartleby Snopes Story of the Month honors. Merle hasn’t slowed down much since then. With several novels to his credit, Merle has proven a highly successful author. Now he’s back with a brand new novel called Lighting the World. We were fortunate to get the chance to speak with Merle about his success and the new book.
1. Merle, you had a bit of success in Bartleby Snopes a few years ago, with two published stories and a Story of the Month award. Why did you abandon us? Just kidding, of course. Seriously though, how do you feel your early success in lit mags contributed to your overall direction as an author?
Early in my career I published some stories early, then published novels. I worked on (and am still working on) a doorstop of a work it started coming downstairs at night drinking my beer and eating my cheese and found myself taking refuge in flash fiction. I’ve published over 30 of these pieces and still write them. I am, of course, esp. proud of being in Bartleby S! One thing writing flash fiction taught me was how to shrink mss. Even the beast novel has been put on a diet.
2. Tell us a bit about what you’ve been up to since you last appeared in Bartleby Snopes. Do you still submit to lit mags?
I do still submit to lit mags. I have a number of flash fictions, which I’d like to publish. I am focused on several novels, which are in different stages. One I’m currently shopping, one is in a much earlier stage, then there’s the beast…
3. Lighting the World‘s main characters are young teenagers, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like a young adult book. How do you go about writing young characters while maintaining a voice that can be universally read?
I didn’t intend to write a YA. When I was a teen, we read Catcher in the Rye, Black Boy, Huckleberry Finn, Lord of the Flies, just thinking of them as “books,” good books with young protagonists. I think there are good YA books as do millions of readers and I hope teenagers will read Lighting the World. (My friend Jo Knowles has a terrific one out now, Read Between the Lines). Teaching high school for many years gave me experience with teenage voices and with their ability to switch lingo when necessary. Thanks for noticing that their voices are “authentic” and the authorial voice “can be universally read.”
4. How does personal experience shape the characters in Lighting the World? Did you ever think about running away from home or showing up to school with a gun?
I did run away from home, but not with a gun. I did own a gun and did hunt a bit, never so well as Wade. I never thought of taking it to school, though many of us kept tire irons next to driver’s seat of our cars. Other parts of the novel, unrequited love, conflict with parents (for me it was my father, not my mother) were part of my life, and I’d guess, part of many teens’ lives. Something we too often forget is that teenagers are idealists, who want success in some grand sense. I think of our dreams (and the “American Dream”) a la Gatsby. We want to win the Nobel Prize, become millionairs, discover a cure for cancer, play in the World Series, win an Oscar. For Wade, “doing good in the world” is a genuine goal. He will take care of Uncle Andew and rescue Maria. And like Gatsby, it was “the foul dust that floated in the wake of his dreams” that destroyed Wade and his dreams. I think this longing is common for American teens, as it was for me, and most of us learn the cost of dreams and develop the blend of realism and romanticism that allows us to survive and prosper. Few of us have to pay the terrible price Wade did for our illusions.
5. There’s a 1-star review up for the novel on Goodreads (which is completely absurd, by the way). How do these reviews affect you as a writer?
I believe everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion and to his/her own mistakes. My first novel garnered good reviews with no mud. My second was widely and well reviewed, including a starred review from PW and a fine, standalone review in the Sunday NY Times, but it had also received two zingers, including one from a small, local paper. Go figure.
6. What are you working on next?
I’m shopping Pa, a novel that is cousin to The Suburbs of Heaven, a dark comedy, Game of Thrones for the rural set. I’m revising a novel set in America’s past with some slightly non-realistic elements (a departure for me). Then I have the aforementioned monster that I want to tame or not.
Thank you for taking the time to chat with us. Congratulations on your new book, and good luck with Pa. We’re looking forward to reading it once it finds a home.