An Interview with Katie Coyle, Author of Vivian Apple at the End of the World -The Toast

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vivianappleI first encountered Katie Coyle’s fiction in her story “Fear Itself” (published by One Story), which features teenage girls being stalked and emotionally abused by a possessed wax figurine in the shape of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This is not the kind of story one takes lightly: it’s creepy, it’s strange, it’s totally absorbing. And so I was thrilled to learn that Coyle’s debut Young Adult novel Vivian Apple at the End of the World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 6, 2015; published in the UK by Hot Key Books as Vivian Apple Versus The Apocalypse) would soon be released in the U.S. The book follows seventeen-year-old Vivian Apple and her best friend Harp on a post-Rapture (or, as Vivian suspects, post-“Rapture”) road trip across America, in search of some answers. It’s a satisfying follow-up to “Fear Itself,” full of mordant humor, well-drawn characters (who feel very real despite their unusual circumstances), and even a renovated wax museum. As I read Vivian Apple, all I could think was: More Katie Coyle. Always a good thing. This interview, conducted via email over the course of several weeks, proceeds from that idea.

Adrienne Celt: Just to calibrate us as conversational partners, I must first ask you to name your favorite incarnation of the Doctor from Doctor Who, and describe why.

Katie Coyle: I fell in love with Doctor Who via David Tennant, whose spiky hair and aggressive scenery-chewing I found hard to resist. But if I’m being completely honest—and I feel like this is a somewhat controversial opinion at this particular juncture—my favorite Doctor is without question the Twelfth and current incarnation, as portrayed by Peter Capaldi, who is the angriest sexiest skeleton of a stick insect I have ever seen. I like him because he’s kind of creepy and bug-eyed, which is my type in men, and he’s rude, which is also my type in men, and I am so charmed by Peter Capaldi’s documented history of outlandishly nerdy Doctor Who fandom. My one wish is that Steven Moffat would retire and let me take over. I feel strongly that I could write Doctor Who scripts that would do justice to the skills of this dreamy Scottish grasshopper.

Your novel, Vivian Apple at the End of the World, has what seems like an unusual publication story for American debut novelists: it was first published in the U.K., by Hot Key Books, as the winner of their Young Writers Prize. Can you talk a little bit about what inspired you to enter the contest, and what that’s been like as a path to publication?

I first started writing Vivian Apple as a short story in my MFA program, and had completed a rough draft of what would turn out to be the first chapter before I realized it could be something a lot bigger than what I had planned. I only wrote short stories in grad school, but I put that chapter away with the thought of maybe returning to it someday and turning it into a novel.

Then, around the time I was set to graduate, I happened to see a post on Neil Gaiman’s tumblr about the Young Writers Prize—they were looking for unpublished novels written by unagented writers between the ages of 18-25. It seems a lot like sheer luck now: I happened to see that Tumblr post, I happened to be 25, I happened to have this idea sitting around, I happened to be about to graduate and have no job prospects whatsoever for the rest of my life. I was feeling pretty hopeless as I was finishing up by MFA—I’d spent three years there and taken out a modest but not insignificant amount of loans, and all I had to show for it were eight somewhat polished, very weird short stories that I knew would never translate into a living wage. So I decided to take a shot at the contest.

I submitted the first chapter and a synopsis at the end of May 2012, found out that I was on the longlist in September, submitted the completed first draft of the book in October, was informed that I was a winner in February 2013. Within a year, I’d turned from this person who feared I’d wasted a huge amount of time and money on a writing degree, to a woman with a book deal. So while I don’t know that I can confidently recommend MFA programs, I do wholeheartedly endorse entering contests. And reading Neil Gaiman’s tumblr.

One reason I’m struck by the fact that your Vivian books are coming out in the UK first is that they’re so particularly American—your vision of the Rapture emerges from an evangelical, pro-America religious sect that I would almost call a cult, except it’s too far-reaching for that. The Believers, as Vivian and her friend Harp call them, interweave consumerism and regressive gender roles (both of which are unfortunately prevalent parts of contemporary American culture) into Christianity, following a charismatic leader named Beaton Frick (who seems to me like a celebrity mash-up of L. Ron Hubbard and Ronald Reagan.) My question is, did the specifics of this religion emerge out of your idea for the book, or vice versa? What was the genesis of the story? (And did you have any trouble getting the editors at Hot Key to buy in?)

The idea initially grew out of the Harold Camping rapture prediction(s) of 2011. On the day he first claimed the Raptured would ascend, I read a kind of jokey, totally chilling article about a family where the parents genuinely believed the end was near, and their children did not. I found that tension really interesting from the perspective of the kids—what would it be like if these people who have invested in so much in your future suddenly believe you don’t have one? In the early stages, I didn’t really put too much thought into what the fictional religion of the book (the Church of America) would be like. But I happened to be writing it in the summer and fall of 2012, leading right up to the presidential election (I love that you saw L. Ron Hubbard in Frick, because I had him very much in mind, but in my head he always closely physically resembled Mitt Romney). So it’s possible that some of the political positions I find repulsive (Corporations are people! Women are not! This is a Christian nation!) seeped into my concept of the movement Vivian sets herself in opposition to.

To follow that up: one of the core elements of Frick’s religion is a belief in American exceptionalism—Frick’s God decides to Rapture the American Believers as his chosen people. Do you have any sense of what might have been going on in the rest of the world before and after the book’s Rapture event? I imagine a lot of snarky news commentary, especially in the lead-up.

This is explored in a bit more depth in the sequel, but essentially I imagine the rest of the world rolling its eyes at us. Especially England. Canada would probably feel very superior, too.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to tell you that I adore Vivian’s best friend Harp, in all her messed-up glory. You do a great job of capturing the semi-romantic, all-in feeling of a new (especially teenage) friendship, but I’m curious what made you decide on that particular element of the Viv/Harp dynamic (i.e., why did you make their friendship so recent, instead of something long-standing?)

For me, the relationship between Vivian and Harp is the central love story in the book—any and all of their male admirers are very much background players. I approached writing about their friendship as I would a romance, and saw the most dramatic potential if they were in that initial flush. They’ve been friends for less than a year when the novel begins, and they have fun together; they’re intrigued by each other; they enjoy the dynamic they’ve created, wherein wild Harp draws Vivian increasingly out of her shell. But they still don’t know everything about each other in the way best friends do, and they struggle to let themselves be vulnerable around each other, which becomes more of a problem as the world falls apart around them and they begin to run out of people to trust. I thought it would be more fun to write inside that tension than to give them the comfort of an old, established friendship. The book is also about Vivian’s transformation into a bolder, braver person, and so it made sense to me that she would not have always had Harp as a best friend—presumably, if they’d been friends since childhood, Harp’s pluck would have rubbed off on Vivian a little earlier.

Yeah, let’s talk about that: Vivian undergoes a great transformation over the course of the book, from somewhat meek to fairly badass. (Sidebar: I found her earnest desire to please adults very relatable. I had a lot of that in me as a teenager.) At one point (without giving away who or why or when) she even beats the living dickens out of someone! For me, that was a moment when the book almost turned towards a kind of horror—not so much because of what Vivian does, as why. In your mind, is that a moment that emerges more out of Vivian, or out of the story?

In stories, there are things that happen to your characters and things that your characters make happen. In Vivian Apple, there are a lot of circumstances beyond Vivian’s control—the Church and its influence, her parents and the decisions they make—but pretty central to the book is her desire in the first chapter to become a braver, bolder person. So I think I’d say that I started with the first level (a Rapture is predicted, Vivian’s parents disappear), and then let the second level (Vivian’s decision to take action and search for answers) guide me through to the conclusion. The moment you’re talking about comes close to the end of the book, which I wrote in more or less chronological order, and it’s probably the most dramatic moment of Vivian’s transformation. The Vivian who has it in her to try and hurt someone in a fit of anger and grief is not the Vivian who stammers her way through the first chapter. But I’m glad you spoke of that moment in the context of horror, because it was important to me that Vivian’s ascent into badassery not feel too easy or too triumphant. Vivian chooses to act in order to uncover the truth, and in doing so she becomes her own person, but even as she succeeds there are vast emotional and physical consequences.

Your One Story piece, “Fear Itself,” also showcases the vengeance and violence that can live in teenage girls, hidden under a vulnerable or sweet veneer. (Which is sort of a step beyond the Buffy paradigm of victim-as-vanquisher, and on to a victim who has her own dangerous power.) Is that something you actively pursue in your writing, or just a subconscious interest that emerges through your particular protagonists?

I think I might come across as a far more reasonable person if I told you that teen girl vengeance was a theme that just started cropping up naturally in my work, but the truth is I make the conscious decision to explore it every time I sit down to write. Teen girls wreaking havoc in the face of individual monsters and hateful sociopolitical systems is very much my wheelhouse. That’s largely because I like teen girls. I’ve been one. And I know that during the time I was a teen girl, all my teen girl friends were interesting, complicated people: we were funny, creative, political, warm, cynical, intelligent, hard-working, and inexplicably passionate about the 1992 Disney musical Newsies. I think all adolescent girls contain these multitudes.

But still the same tired stereotypes persist (and carry over to the way we talk about grown women): girls are dumb and slutty and dramatic and irrational. I know I internalized a lot of that stuff when I was young and let it affect the way I acted—it was important for me at that time to behave in ways that could never be construed as typical. For a long time, the highest compliment a boy could pay me was, “You’re not like other girls.” Now, I find that so infuriating—why wouldn’t I want to be like other girls? Other girls are amazing!

I think a lot of the time I’m starting from a place of anger on behalf of my younger self, a girl who worked hard to limit myself, to make myself smaller, so that boys would want to hang out with me. The characters I write tend to be girls who have tried hard for a long time to act in a similar way and are forced by circumstance or pure exhaustion to snap and start fucking shit up on a grand scale.

Interestingly, I think that’s an area that Viv has one up on Harp in badassery terms, even from the beginning. Harp is a little more willing to roll with the bullshit that guys in her life come up with (even if she sees it as bullshit), whereas Vivian is more guarded. Was that an intentional choice, or just a natural effect of their different personalities?

Yeah! Well, I think a couple things are going on there. I wanted Harp to be a badass, but I didn’t want her to be flawless. To me, the most compelling Strong Female Characters are the ones who don’t have all their shit figured out yet—Buffy is a big one, and Veronica Mars, too. So part of it was that I wanted Harp to be a bit aggravating at times in her decision-making. But I think it’s born out of their personalities, as well, and their personal histories. Harp is someone who has maybe always had to look for validation outside of her home, which was fairly strict, and so she might overlook a lot of bullshit if it comes with love and attention. She acts first and thinks later. And Vivian, when the book begins, has always flown under the radar. She’s not used to attention from anyone, let alone boys, so it made sense to me that she’d be a bit more skeptical of anyone who expressed interest in her.

Can you talk a little bit about why it was important to you to write repressed femininity into Frick’s religion? Your female characters are strong and complicated and sometimes jerks—not very repressed, even when they’re Believers. But that felt like a very believable addition to a religious order. Why do you think that is?

Probably just because that’s already a facet of so many religions. For me the two disparate threads of the book—Vivian’s nascent badassery, and the reactionary Church—came together when my husband and I took a cross-country road trip and spent a couple hours in Salt Lake City. We wandered around the grounds of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints for a while, and found all these statues of the founders of the church grandly founding the church. These statues had plaques identifying the men and their great deeds. There were also statues of women—no names, no plaques. Always surrounded by women. In the statues the men were individuals, and the women were symbols (specifically of wifehood and motherhood).

Then I thought a bit about the religion I grew up in, Catholicism, which is growing increasingly tolerant of gays and lesbians but is still horrified by the notion of a female priest. I don’t actually believe that any religion is inherently evil in the way my fictional one is, but I do believe that there are many which openly posit the role of women in this life to be different from, and lesser than, the role of men.

Since Apocalypse fiction, from The Walking Dead to Emily St. John Mandel, isn’t just a phenomenon for younger readers, what drew you to writing YA? (The first piece of your writing I ever encountered was in One Story, and though the characters are mostly in high school, I wouldn’t call it YA, and it isn’t in One Teen Story. So I know you can go both ways.) Do you think there’s a difference between writing for young readers and adult readers, outside of marketing?

I don’t really put a lot of thought into the term “Young Adult”—my writing is always going to be for anyone who’s interested in reading it. The fact that it’s usually going to be about teenagers, though, means that it will probably marketed to them most of the time. (Personally I think “Fear Itself” could go either way—if you’d handed that story to Teenage Me, I think I would have felt incredibly understood). I’m drawn to writing about teenagers because I have more fun writing about them than anyone else. I have more fun reading about them, too. YA literature tends to incorporate humor, wonder, and warmth in a way that a lot adult writing strives consciously to avoid. When I was in school for writing, there was a certain type of writer (often white, often male) and a certain type of story (usually about war and/or adultery) that was treated as important, “real” literature. But it didn’t resemble me or my life or the lives of anyone I know; it didn’t make the world feel big and fascinating and incredible in the way, say, Harry Potter had. All these scolding thinkpieces about YA treat it as a given that fun has no particular value in literature. And I just can’t be persuaded that that’s true.

Your second Vivian novel, Vivian Versus America, just came out from Hot Key. Congratulations! At what point in the writing process did you know that you were going to have a sequel on your hands? 

It was a very conscious choice from the start to end the book in an ambiguous place. I figured either Hot Key Books would be interested in a sequel, which I wanted to write, or I could spin the ending I chose as being super-artsy.

Vivian, who is overall a cynic about Frick, has a great shiver of belief on Rapture Eve. Was there ever a point, while you were writing, in which you believed the book’s Rapture might (in the world of the book) be real? (We don’t have to include this if you feel like it’s too much of a spoiler, but I’m curious.)

I don’t think I could have written this book if there wasn’t a small part of me that believes literally anything to be possible. I think that’s kind of a key component of fiction-writing in general—you have to have at least the capacity to turn off the part of you that is reasonable or rational if you want the story you’re telling to be even slightly fun.

Just a couple more questions. You say that you ended your MFA with “eight somewhat polished, very weird short stories” – was “Fear Itself” one of those?

Yes! “Fear Itself” was the first story I wrote in my second year of grad school, and it was a kind of turning point for me in terms of what wanted my writing to be. In my first year of grad school, I struggled to produce anything I felt truly proud of, because there was such a disconnect between what I wanted to write about (i.e., weird shit happening to teen girls) and my sense that what I wanted to write about was not literary enough to warrant attention in this program for which I was paying a lot of money.

The summer after my first year, I had the freedom to read whatever I wanted, and found myself gravitating toward a lot of young adult stuff. I happened to pick up Kelly Link’s collection Pretty Monsters at the library—I don’t know what made me pick it up; I’m not sure that I’d ever heard her name before—and it just knocked me out, basically. The stories were so funny and weird and different from anything I’d ever read before, and they were beautiful. And they were about girls and girlhood in a very specific, unabashed way. When I went back to school in the fall, I gave myself the okay to write what I really wanted to write, and the result was “Fear Itself.”

Related: did you continue to work on short fiction while you were writing Vivian Apple, or are you a one-project-at-a-time kind of person?

I tend to focus on one project at a time. I have a pretty short attention span and when I remove myself from the voice or the world of the novel, it takes me a while to find my way back in.

Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t gotten to? Who is your favorite character on Twin Peaks? (Mine is a tie between Agent Cooper and Major Briggs.)

God, there are so many. Agent Dale Cooper is a personal role model in terms of his kindness, thoughtfulness, and pie consumption. Nadine Hurley is kind of hard to resist in that she is super-strong, has an eyepatch, and is obsessed with hanging curtains. But right at this moment I have to say my heart belongs to Gordon Cole, David Lynch’s own character. I just watched the episode where he falls in love with Shelly the waitress and it moved me in ways I can not adequately articulate.

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