John Fram, author of The Bright Lands, shares his fresh and frightening take on the small-town thriller and describes what it feels like to be compared to Stephen King.
What was the inspiration for the story? Where did the idea come from and what compelled you to see it through to the end?
All my life, I’ve wanted to read a suspense novel that featured a queer hero and dealt frankly with all the pressures and pleasures of the queer experience. One morning, over coffee, I realized that after spending years away from Texas, I would still be terrified to return to my hometown, even if something desperate were to arise and my family needed my help. I began to wonder what sort of chaos my queer hero could cause in just such a situation, especially if he came to suspect his hometown was hiding something from him.
The last author I interviewed laughed when I asked if she used a whiteboard to organize her plot. So I’ll just ask, what is your writing process and what did you learn that might help you next time?
The moment I started living in this book’s world, I found so much material—and so many characters—that I went more than a little overboard with the planning and the notes. This might be shocking, but apparently it’s not a great idea to write a rough outline that’s as long as a novel itself. Even after slicing out reams and reams of material, I still submitted a manuscript to my agent that needed to be cut down by another third. It was a humbling experience, but not an entirely unpleasant one. There’s nothing quite so thrilling as throwing 20 pages of decent material in the trash in the hope that five better ones will grow in their place. It takes faith, and maybe a streak of masochism.
“I think we’re all suckers for nostalgia.”
What is it about small-town America and football that is so eminently relatable to readers?
Oh, man, how long do you have? One of the greatest pleasures I take from a novel is the feeling of losing myself in a world where everyone is getting into each other’s secrets, making each other breakfast, robbing each other blind. On a purely technical level, small towns also give us a setting that’s easy for the reader to hold in her head, so to speak.
As for football, there’s something nice about a conflict in which we know exactly who to root for. Beyond that, I think we’re all suckers for nostalgia. Who doesn’t have some latent scent memory of bleacher steel, thunder, dry grass? We all love to suspend ourselves in the past again. What better way to do that than in a novel where everyone seems like someone you once knew?
Some early critics have likened the novel to those by Stephen King. Who are your influences, what did you learn from them and if you had to compare your writing to someone’s, who would that be?
The comparisons to Mr. King are more than mildly daunting. I think he casts a long shadow over all of us, though I didn’t actually have the courage to read him until I was in my late teens (when he, of course, rocked my world). When I was younger, my two idols were the British crime wizard Ruth Rendell and the almighty Alice Munro, who can teach us more about time and irony than anyone in English. Also, what little gay boy in the sticks doesn’t identify with Munro’s moody country girls, all eager to discard their childhoods?
A few years ago, I discovered Kate Atkinson and found, in her wry English observations, the courage to write in the voice my family used to tell stories at the table. Atkinson treats her characters in a way that’s imminently Texan: She regards them with compassion, brutal honesty and a bleak, gut-busting humor. So, these days, if I had to be anybody, I’d like to be the gay son that she and Stephen King never had.
There’s an obvious theme in the book about the pressures and expectations others put on a person, especially a star athlete like Dylan. His brother, Joel, is a gay man and faces his own prejudices. What compelled you to write about those pressures, and what lessons do you hope readers might take away from this novel?
I think subconsciously I understood that these two pressures aren’t all that different, though it took me until well into the writing process to articulate it. I’m not saying that the star athlete suffers as badly as the closeted kid next door, but both can suffer incredible pain if they fail to fulfill the need their hometown has for them. Once I had that epiphany, I realized I could expand the novel to encompass all manner of “other” people who are held to impossible standards or pushed out by society: women, people of color, the poor. I wanted to make the reader feel, if only for a few pages, how terrifying it is to be different in a place that doesn’t accept you. Ideally, that reader would feel empowered to kick down a few walls wherever they live. Otherwise, they’ll at least know why the weirdos like us won’t go away without a fight.
All of the characters depicted in The Bright Lands are richly layered and authentic. Did you draw from people you know in real life to help flesh out those characters, or are they more of an amalgamation of people you’ve met?
Like a lot of authors, I’ve always felt that I can turn a little invisible when I’m around people I want to know more about. Ever since I was little, I’ve blended into the edges of rooms and grocery lanes to eavesdrop on housewives, employees and schoolmates and gather up every odd turn of phrase or token of their inner life they might drop. It’s a valuable skill. After a few years, I realized I’d seen enough people to start stitching together a few of my own.
How much of yourself do you see in your characters? Did any of them reveal any truths about you that you hadn’t thought about until you saw it on the written page?
There’s a line about midway through the book that came to me only a few weeks before the book went out on submission. To paraphrase myself, it says that shame and fear, while one can lead to the other, can never be felt at the same time. I had worked a long, long time on the scene where that line appears, and when the words finally came together, I realized that it was maybe the only thing I’d learned in the first 25 years of my life.
For the first 200 pages, your book reads like a crime novel. We have a disappearance followed by the discovery of a body. But the further you get, the supernatural aspects become more prevalent. How difficult was it to balance those genres?
In its original form, this book was . . . I guess you’d say secular: no ghosts, no whispering voices, no shared nightmares. But I saw, in looking over that draft, that the text was so filled with strange, occult imagery—a deep hole, impossibly dark, kept creeping into all my metaphors—that I just sort of gave myself over to it during the rewrites. Introducing elements of the supernatural into a book with a carefully constructed mystery at its heart posed some incredibly satisfying technical challenges (to make sure the reader never felt cheated or done over) while also allowing me to heighten the drama for all of my characters. Yes, there are some strange powers at work in Bentley, but they’re simply enabling our culprits’ bad behavior. The darkness, in short, is already there inside them.
What do you hope a novel like The Bright Lands can do for readers in a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is gripping the world?
This might sound ridiculous, but I’ve found horror novels and thrillers to be weirdly homeopathic during this massive existential threat. I think this panic is driving home to the entire (straight, white) population something that queers and people of color and women have been saying for years: The world isn’t safe, and the people in charge are not looking out for you. Where can we find a better mirror to that reality than in a brutal piece of suspense?
What’s next for you?
If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to keep telling stories like The Bright Lands: character-driven supernatural thrillers whose monsters allow us to examine the sorts of scary truths we’d rather not acknowledge.
Author photo © Luke Fontana.