For her second novel, acclaimed writer Abby Geni dives into the complex relationship between siblings and how trauma impacts family bonds. Geni discusses her inspiration for The Wildlands and what it’s like setting out to write another novel after a successful debut, The Lightkeepers.
You write so vividly about Oklahoma, a place where “the heat baked the air into paste.” Why did you choose to set The Wildlands there?
My husband grew up in Oklahoma, and his family still lives there. By contrast, I’ve spent most of my life in Chicago, so my travels to Oklahoma always felt a little otherworldly. There’s something magical and harsh and untamable about the landscape. From my first visit there, I knew I wanted to write about it.
I also think Oklahoma often gets overlooked as a modern literary setting in favor of Texas. Texas is a big place with a big personality, and Oklahoma is sometimes viewed as a smaller, lesser version of the same thing. But Oklahoma is very much its own place, with its own climate and culture and life. It captured my imagination.
How much was your highly acclaimed debut novel, The Lightkeepers, on your mind as you wrote The Wildlands?
The Lightkeepers wasn’t on my mind so much as it has become a part of my DNA and is with me at all times. I think that’s true for many writers—each story infuses itself into your psyche, and each story informs everything else you write.
In some ways, my second novel is quite different from my first. The Lightkeepers is a slow-boiling murder mystery with an unreliable loner protagonist and an eerie island setting. The Wildlands, on the other hand, is a fast-moving literary thriller about a deeply connected family living in landlocked Oklahoma.
I learned so much in writing The Lightkeepers, but I didn’t want to use the same blueprint for my second novel. As much as possible, I hope that each new book I write will be its own experience, its own entity.
How do you balance teaching writing with preserving time for your own fiction?
Writing comes first. I mean that literally—I write at the beginning of the day, when my mind is fresh and clear. Later, when my writing mojo is all used up for the day, I read student manuscripts and prepare lesson plans. By then, I’m either blissed out after a good writing session and excited to dive in to my students’ work, or frustrated from a bad writing session and eager to focus on something, anything, else.
Also, I’ve never been someone who writes every day. Anyone who says, “Real writers should write every day” is just making up arbitrary rules. I write four or five days out of the week, then take two or three days off. My days off from writing are great for editing other people’s work or preparing for upcoming classes.
How has teaching influenced your own writing?
Teaching makes me a better writer. Writing happens in isolation, and one downside of that solitude is that you rarely have a chance to talk about the process of your work with anyone. You’re in a room alone, in silence, figuring out how to revise a tricky passage or hone your point of view or deepen your characters. Your insights are instinctive and half-formed because they’re never articulated aloud.
Teaching makes you articulate those things aloud. It makes you think in words. As I figure out how to explain something to my students, I come to understand it better. And of course, my students are brilliant and full of insights of their own.
The connection between humans and nature is a prevalent theme throughout your work. What do you enjoy about exploring that theme?
Part of my interest in that theme is happiness—nothing brings me more joy than working in my garden, walking my dog, interacting with nature in any way. And I love to learn. I never outgrew that schoolkid wonder at a new idea, a new word, a new book. Nature is infinitely complex. I’ll never be done learning about the natural world, and that learning brings me joy, too—reading about fungi, watching a documentary about rodents, memorizing the constellations.
But another part of my interest in that theme is fear. Our planet is at a tipping point. We’re in the middle of the sixth mass extinction of all life on earth. The climate is changing and changing and changing. All of it is caused by humans. If we don’t find a balance—if we don’t re-evaluate our relationship with the natural world—we’ll cause irreparable harm to our unique, inimitable home and our own species.
Which books are on your must-read list right now?
As a working mom with a young child, I do most of my reading via audiobook, since that way I can “read” while I’m picking up my kid from school or doing laundry or walking the dog. Next in my queue are Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, Atlas of a Lost World by Craig Childs and Stiff by Mary Roach. All research for my future writing!
What types of book are you drawn to? Which genres do you tend to avoid?
Sadly, I tend to avoid reading fiction, since I find that other people’s stories bleed into my own work in counterproductive ways. I love fiction, I write fiction, but very rarely am I in a headspace that allows me to read fiction.
So I read a huge amount of nonfiction. I’m always doing research for upcoming projects. I love biology, physics, geology, psychology—any kind of scientific lens I can use to see the world differently and hone my understanding of it.
What are you working on next?
A novel! That’s all I can say now. I’m incredibly private about my work, even by writer standards. But it’s going to be a novel, and I think it’s going to be good.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Wildlands.
Author photo by Dan Kelleghan.