An interview with Alden Bell

Alden Bell lives in New York and has, for the past ten years, taught high school English there. He graduated from Berkeley with a degree in English and a minor in creative writing and, in 2000, received his Master’s and Ph.D. in English from New York University (specialising in twentieth-century American and British literature).

September 3, 2010 will see the publication of The Reapers are the Angels (Book of the Month – August 2010), Bell’s debut novel and a poetic and haunting look at life in a post-apocalyptic world.

Alden kindly spoke to Fantasy Book Review in August 2010, shortly before the book’s UK publication.

We loved The Reapers are the Angels, so did Speculative Horizons (1), Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review (2), Steve’s Fantasy Book Reviews (3) and (4). It is not often that a debut novel receives such an overwhelmingly positive response - have you been pleased with the novel’s (very) early reception?

Pleased isn’t the word. Ecstatic is more like it. As a writer you spend a lot of time creating and inhabiting a world that is deeply personal and completely insular. By the time you finish a book, you’re just so close to it that you have no idea how other people will respond. I know that Reapers was a labour of love for me, but I was trying to manage my expectations when it came to reviews. What’s most remarkable is that readers seem to be liking the book for the same reasons that I like it myself—which is deeply gratifying.

Many of the best authors are - or have been - teachers. Why do you think this is and what skills and knowledge has teaching given you that you have been able to transfer over into your writing?

That’s a fascinating question; I never really thought about it before. Maybe it has something to do with performing. Even though it’s not staged, writing is a kind of performance: you create a story, deck it out with all kinds of ornamentation, try to get the characters to do what you want them to do, and then put it on display for an audience. And teaching is a kind of performance, too. Teachers (good teachers, at least) have to be natural storytellers. They have to sell ideas to an audience—usually a very tough audience. I know that when I’m teaching a particularly difficult book, say Heart of Darkness or To the Lighthouse, it requires an extra effort of storytelling on my part. I have to participate with Joseph Conrad and Virginia Woolf to create that world and make the students see how beautiful a world it is after all.

When your characters speak there are no quotation marks to signify a beginning and end, nor do you take the opportunity to suggest to the reader the manner in which sentences have been delivered. I have never seen this before but I thought it worked amazingly well. Can you tell us why you chose this approach to the dialogue?

I wish I could take credit for it as an innovation, but actually this style of dialogue is common to Southern Gothic literature. If you look at some of the great contemporary authors of the genre (Cormac McCarthy, Tom Franklin, William Gay, Davis Grubb), they almost never use quotation marks. Because I see my book as being even more a part of the Southern Gothic genre than the zombie genre, I tipped my hat to those other writers stylistically. But also, what I like most about the no-quotation-mark style is this: it elevates dialogue to the level of exposition. Too many times we feel like dialogue is ghettoized in those little marks (and we excuse its lack of elegance in favour of its accuracy to mundane life)—but when I read a book without quotations marks, it frequently feels as though the writer is crafting the dialogue with the same fine attention to artifice that he/she uses for the narrative proper.

Why is it that a post-apocalyptic setting appeals so much to so many? The Stand and I am Legend are loved by millions - what do you think this says about the human psyche?

I think the cultural fascination of post-apocalyptic literature has a lot to do, interestingly enough, with a longing for freedom and potential. Even though these stories are filled with landscapes of barren despair, nonetheless there’s always a subtext of starting over with a fresh slate. The stories are always much more about building than falling apart: so you get movies like Dawn of the Dead, which is a kind of wish-fulfilment fantasy of being the only person in a massive shopping mall. I think that to a lot of people beset by a world in which they feel oppressed, commonplace or simply unnoticed, the idea of being a survivor of apocalypse gives them the hope of self-reinvention. As a reader of such stories, you begin to imagine all the things you could do in that vast emptiness. That’s why I spend so much time on Temple’s appreciation of the beauty of the devastated world around her: I think she understands better than most the silver lining of the apocalypse.

The Reapers are the Angels had a very singular and final feel to it. This stands out in a publishing world awash with the franchise, the trilogy and the series that never-ends. Did the final page mark the complete closure of this story?

Honestly, I would love to come back to this place and these characters. But, you’re right—this particular story is done, and I wouldn’t want to attenuate it by writing more of the same. It’s heartbreaking for me to leave it behind. Then again, I think sometimes heartbreak is the point: I’m not one of those readers who believes that all of my wishes should be granted by the author as though he/she were a genie. I like an author to withhold certain things from me—so I try to carry that over to my writing. I’m not saying that I’ll never revisit this particular mythology—but rather than I’m not so interested in creating a franchise out of it. Even the term “franchise” makes it seem like fast food, doesn’t it?

Many authors say that they either write to music or have certain popular songs or classical music playing in their heads as they write. Did you find that The Reapers are the Angles had its own personal soundtrack?

I find it difficult to write with music in the background—but, yes, there were certain songs that echoed through my head as I wrote the book. It’s rather obvious, but I couldn’t get that Cranberries song “Zombie” out of my head. But the true aural background I imagine is a very quiet, minimalistic one. Wim Wenders’s movie Paris, Texas is one of my favourites, and it has a fantastic, simple guitar soundtrack by Ry Cooder. That’s the kind of music I imagine in the background of Temple’s journey across the southern states.

The book’s ending is sombre, yet perfect. Was it the only possible end (in your opinion) and is this how you like the books you read to end?

I do think that every page of the book, in one way or another, leads to the ending—so it’s hard for me to picture it ending differently. Personally, as a reader, I’m partial to endings featuring anti-climaxes. I love it when a narrative builds toward an expected conclusion and then subverts it at the very end—which gives you, the reader, a feeling of thrilling weightlessness, as though a rug has just been pulled out from underneath you and you are suspended at the moment of falling. I like a book that builds to an epic climax, that forces you to widen your perspective to take in the entire world—and then shows you, at the last minute, how small everything actually is. I adore that diminishment from the epic to the miniscule. I won’t venture to say how my book compares on this scale, but those are the kinds of endings I like when I’m reading.

What does the remainder of 2010 hold for Alden Bell?

I’m currently working toward the conclusion of my next novel, Frontierland, which is about suburban living in 1975 California. It features a 12-year-old tomboy and an aging beauty queen who get tumbled together in an attempt to escape from the confines of sub-suburbia. While it won’t have any zombies in it, the book will certainly feature my on-going preoccupation with frontiers of various sorts: marginal cultures, lawless living on the edge of society, the creation of one’s own identity in a constantly changing world.

Links to reviews mentioned in first question.


Alden Bell biography
The Reapers are the Angels book review