Alden Bell is a pseudonym for author Joshua Gaylord. His novel The Reapers Are the Angels won a 2011 Alex Award, YALSA’s award for books written for adults that have appeal for teen readers. The Reapers Are the Angels is set twenty-five years after a zombie apocalypse has decimated North America. It follows fifteen-year old Temple on a road trip of sorts as she flees enemies (both living and undead) and deals with her unhappy past. Josh agreed to answer some questions about his inspiration and writing process, and his answers are below.
1. First, congratulations on your Alex Award, and for being nominated for a Philip K. Dick Award! The Alex Award is given by YALSA to recognize adult books with appeal for teenage readers. Part of the appeal of The Reapers Are the Angels is Temple, the fifteen-year old protagonist. Why did you choose to feature a teenager as the main character? Do the students you work with as an English teacher influence your writing?
There are a lot of reasons I chose a teenage girl for my protagonist. Some of my reasons are lofty and overly intellectualized (teenage girlhood as a symbol of incorruptible purity of spirit)â€”and some are mundane and rather embarrassing (Temple is based, somewhat, on one of my favorite warriors: Buffy). The fact is that I wanted to see a teenage girl do things that are normally the domain of boys and men. I’m tired of watching men ride up on their steeds and heroically save the day. Even though Temple does all the things we might expect a clichÃ©d zombie-killer to do, it’s refreshing for me to see a girl do them. Sometimes a gender switch is all it takes to transform the ordinary into the unexpected. As a teacher of rather insulated and well-to-do New Yorkers, I don’t think any of my students contributed much to the character of Temple. On the other hand, the great thing about teenage girls is that they cannot be over-dramatized. They are naturally melodramatic. So Temple’s epic sense of drama is, in certain ways, related to the life-and-death dramas that seem to happen every day in the buzzing minds of my female students.
2. Alden Bell is a pseudonym, and your first book, Hummingbirds, was published under your real name. Why the pseudonym for The Reapers Are the Angels?
My publisher and agent both thought it would be a good idea to have a different name for my second book because it is so different from my first. There was a concern about alienating my audience. If a reader liked my first book (about prep school girls in contemporary Manhattan) and went to pick up Joshua Gaylord’s sophomore effort, they might be disappointed (or even appalled) to discover zombies consuming viscera and dangerous girls wandering wastelands with gurkha knives and handicapped men. In other words, it seems like the audiences for the two books might be so different that they deserved different personalities. The hope is that I will continue publishing books under both names, and while you might like the Alden Bell books, you might not like the Joshua Gaylord booksâ€”or vice versa. Of course, my loyalty goes out to those readers who like both. To those generous readers, I owe bucketloads of gratitude.
3. I love the novel’s title – it does a great job of capturing the novel’s blend of horror and hopefulness. Can you tell us how you chose it?
I’ve always liked full sentence titles. I Capture the Castle, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Everything that Rises Must Convergeâ€”these are terrific titles, pregnant with meaning and portent. And this book felt like it called for that kind of heftiness (which, no doubt, could be mistaken for pretension). But I also wanted something biblical, because of Temple’s irrepressible faith. Despite my own atheism, the thing I admire most about Temple is her religiosityâ€”her unwavering belief in a God who, from the looks of it, has all but abandoned the world. Also, I like the implication of the Bible quote, which suggests that the reapers (the zombies, the ones who take full advantage of what the world has sown) are actually the closest to God.
4. Zombies are very popular right now, but your novel isn’t a typical horror novel. What inspired you to write about the living dead?
I’ve always loved zombie storiesâ€”ever since George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. One of the things I like most about them is their facelessness. It’s very difficult to give zombies personality (though some have triedâ€”unsuccessfully, to my way of thinking). Unlike vampires or werewolves or other monsters, zombies are only really effective in quantity. You have a horde of zombies or you have nothing. That leaves all the personality to the other characters. The question in a zombie story is never â€œWhat will the zombie be like?â€ The question is always, â€œHow will the character respond to the zombies?â€ I guess for me, liking zombie stories is the same as liking postapocalyptic fiction. Zombies aren’t so much characters are they are settings. And who wouldn’t want to put on a play in front of a lumbering, oozing, carnivorous backdrop as that?
5. The Reapers Are the Angels reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s work (it’s like The Road with zombies! And maybe a little less depressing). In other places, I’ve seen it compared to work by Southern Gothic authors William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. Who are some of your biggest influences as an author?
You’ve hit the nail on the head. McCarthy (though more Blood Meridian than The Road) and Faulkner are the two primary literary influences on Reapers. Others include Mark Twain, Zora Neale Hurston, and more contemporary authors like Tom Franklin, Daniel Woodrell, William Gay. Reapers is deeply influenced by the Southern Gothic genre as a whole. I just love that sense of crumbled majesty, the glory of once great pasts now broken and haunted, that fixation on the graceful and the grotesque. For me, there’s nothing more beautiful than this particular strain of American literature. Faulkner in particular. I think everything I write is informed in one way or another by Faulkner. Hell, everything I think is informed in one way or another by him. He’s like a dybbuk in my brain.
6. In addition to being an author, you’re a high school English teacher. Does working with teenagers every day influence your writing?
I really love teaching. Part of me always wanted to be a teacher. I can’t imagine a better job than being asked to get in front of a group of people every day and talk about why you love literature. And, yes, I think the teaching does creep into the writing. Mostly in the form of lines or phrases that get lodged in my head because I teach them every year. For example, the term â€œmeatskinsâ€ in Reapers actually comes from a book I’ve taught over and over to my high school juniors: Their Eyes Were Watching God. In Hurston’s book, the terms just refers to â€œpuny humans,â€ but I always loved that strange phrase of hers: â€œmeatskins playing around the toes of timeâ€â€”and it stuck like a burr in the back of my brain because I would revisit it with a new class every year. And while I was beginning Reapers, there it was, the term, like a blossoming thing that had been planted a long time before.
7. I loved The Reapers Are the Angels, and I’m excited to read more of your work! What’s next for you? Can you recommend some great books by other authors to read in the meantime?
The next Joshua Gaylord book I’m working on is called Frontierland, and it’s about an aging beauty queen and a twelve-year-old tomboy who find themselves thrown together in Orange County, California, in 1975. The next Alden Bell book is about the life of ghosts in modern day Manhattan. They’re both still in process, so it’ll probably be a while before you see either. In the meantime, I would recommend Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohioâ€”both of which I only recently read, and both of which make me wonder why people don’t talk about them constantly. Amazing books that have suffered some diminishment in the cultural consciousnessâ€”both which deserve to be rediscovered.
Thanks again to Joshua Gaylord for stopping by! If you haven’t already read The Reapers Are the Angels, be sure to check it out – it’s a wonderful read!
-Emily Calkins, reading All Unquiet Things