The Rumpus Interview with Maxwell Neely-Cohen

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Earlier this year, I got to be one of the blurbists for Maxwell Neely-Cohen’s Echo of the Boom. Mine went like this: “The four teen survivors and survivalists at the core of Maxwell Neely-Cohen’s debut novel are at once terrifyingly wise and authentically self-absorbed. Steeped in both the pop milieu of this minute and the prophecies of 2,000 years ago, Echo of the Boom is the spiritual prequel to The Road that we never thought to ask for.” But still—I had questions.

The author and I discussed smart teens, furious parents, YA tropes, the intersection of video games and literature, messy early drafts, how our screens change how we see the world, and the apocalypse.

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The Rumpus: Probably because it’s a newer genre, I don’t see as many literary writers subverting the YA genre the way I see them subverting zombie novels, sci-fi, and fantasy. What YA tropes were particularly useful for you to play with?

Maxwell Neely-Cohen: It was fun to take certain stock character ideas, like the queen bee or the troublemaker, and just completely unbind them from the demands most YA novels place on them and be allowed to get away with it because I was writing “literary fiction.” To allow them to be self-aware, fully empowered, even divinely empowered, and not butt up against some overbearing defined evil or the awkwardness of adolescence. To really let all hell break loose by just unleashing them on the world. And in that, there was a greater subversion, in that the four main characters weren’t primarily constructed so people could relate to them or like them. That’s the one YA pseudo-tenet that I consciously made an effort to blow to smithereens. The four do not always feel human, and they are not always supposed to. Some readers strongly dislike all four of them, and are relieved when they get far enough to realize they aren’t attempted everyteens but something far from it, the complete opposite in a sense.

I also tried to play with a sort of YA metafictionalness that seems to be absent from both YA and literary fiction—which is that so many contemporary teens have consumed tons of YA. It informs their world, how they act, how they analyze, how they talk, how they represent the narratives of their own lives. And that’s something that the few teenage readers of this book always mention to me but no adult has seemed to notice.

Rumpus: How do you think YA has shaped actual young adults? My first guess is that YA probably normalizes a lot of the darker, shittier, more embarrassing aspects of being a teenager, since it tends to present those aspects so fearlessly.

Neely-Cohen: It is absolutely true that YA has normalized whole tracts of adolescence, almost to a point of being trite or cliché. But I think the primary result is YA has dramatically influenced how younger people construct narratives. There’s adoration, discussion, and knowledge of fictional characters in a very unusual way. There’s camaraderie around these invented idols experienced by millions of young people at the same time in a way that was usually reserved just for movies or music or video games. I can only compare it to how the generation of young British men who fought in World War I were particularly fluent in certain traditions of poetry and the heroic conceptions contained therein. Hundreds of thousands deep, they had their own language and references, which show up in their letters, and later their literary works—a common ground, which means a common tongue. I also think YA has made kids less susceptible to adult lies. There’s a degree of ingrained bullshit detection that is quite pervasive. And I think, all in all, that’s a very good thing. It gives me hope.

Rumpus: How independently or concurrently did you write each character’s section?

Neely-Cohen: At the very beginning I tried and mostly failed to write them all at once. Eventually I settled on writing each one independently two-thirds of the way through and then blending them and then writing the end and then rewriting the entire book. But even then, the book had to be completely resequenced a number of times.

Rumpus: Did you plan at the outset for the book to have set pieces the way that it does? I’m thinking particularly of Efram’s expulsions and how nice it is to return to one of those scenes once the pattern has been set.

Neely-Cohen: Yes, certain patterns, like Efram’s scholastic journey, were absolutely planned from the outset. Same with Steven’s travels and Molly’s education or training or whatever you might want to call it. But the details were never set—just the skeletons. Filling it in so it worked took a great deal of time.

Rumpus: Were you working on the book pretty consistently through the years?

Neely-Cohen: During the four years it took to write it was consistent in that I at no point abandoned it for something else. It was, however, a very chaotic process, and figuring out how to write it was as hard as writing it—how to keep four threads in my head and still make it function—and in the end, there was no consistent solution. The way I worked on it shifted all over the place. I wrote in different places, different formats with different strategies. I just kept going until it worked.

Rumpus: Every novelist, even maximalists, needs to find ways to shrink down the world of their novel. You mentioned elsewhere that you consider the apocalypse a form of containment, a way not to worry about what happens to each of your four teen protagonists after the novel ends. Can you tell me a little more about that?

Neely-Cohen: The book was always such a sprawling disaster, so having a prevailing pre-apocalyptic overtone just really helped to keep everything under control. What’s interesting is that this control came less from some concrete absolute world-ending event—which, to be fair, isn’t exactly how the book ends—but rather each character’s particular relationship with the assumed possibility that the world was going to end. It allowed me to just define them within those terms, within that version of their journey, and get rid of everything else.

Rumpus: How many gallons of water do you think I ought to keep in my home at any given time?

Neely-Cohen: In reality I am no survivalist, but the one thing I am pretty good about is water. According to the experts, having at least a gallon per person per day is a pretty good rule. So for your average just-in-case natural disaster needs, I think it’s a good idea to have three gallons on standby. I had five or six gallons huddled away before Hurricane Sandy, and it ended up being pretty crucial once our half of Manhattan lost power for a week.

Rumpus: You recently wrote an article about video games for The Millions that concludes, “With works both new and old, the literary community is in the unique position to take a role in an adolescent art form’s coming of age. And if game developers were to start directly pursuing writers with backgrounds outside of their comfort zone, the result could be an era of unprecedented collaboration and innovation for not just one industry, but two.” And now, in the spirit of putting up or shutting up, you’ve commissioned indie game developers to create games based-on or inspired by Echo. First, what about Echo seemed ripe for game spinoffs? What can you tell us about how the project is going? And how do you see the games fitting into or existing apart from the world of the novel?

Neely-Cohen: I actually had the idea just as an independent idea—to invite a small group of indie gamedevs to read a novel and make little games based off of it—and applied it to Echo of the Boom just because I could. I think really any book, any inspiration works really well with the modality of a game jam. That said, Echo has a lot of fodder for different sorts of games because the four narratives cover such breadth.

The games project has been super interesting, especially to see different approaches, interpretations, and results from the same source material. Developer Fernando Ramallo, in collaboration with musician Jukio Kallio, created a super abstract, artistic first-person exploration game. Farbs experimented with a web-based platform to remix lines of the book into what is almost poetry. Zach Lazarus took a specific scene from the book—Efram playing assassins—and made it into a retro-style shooter that looks like something from the Nintendo era. Observing each dev’s process in reading the book and coming up with their own idea and process was just incredible. Those three games are up on the website now, and three more from three other developers are on their way, so it is still evolving. I’m not sure how it will all fit into the life of the novel once they’re all finished. At the end of the day, it’s really just a fascinating experiment.

Rumpus: There’s a scene in the novel that juxtaposes a character’s web browsing with her apocalyptic visions. Later, that same character uses video games to try to obliterate her visions altogether. What do our screens and the apocalypse have to say to each other.

Neely-Cohen: For most of us, the apocalypse exists more on the screen than it does in reality. In way this isn’t anything new. For centuries, aside from books, we primarily defined how the apocalypse might look in terms of the visual art of the day. Images like those from Durer or Dore were adopted into nightmares and fantasies.

And now, that happens through screens. We have all seen more fake CGI images of nuclear explosions than we could ever see real ones. And even looking at thousands of archival photos of nuclear tests on a screen is certainly not the same as witnessing a nuclear test in person, let alone a nuclear attack. The screen and the networked computer is a filter, but also a tool for uncovering or entertaining information that is forbidden. And this is especially true if you are young.

Rumpus: Because the fourths of this book are so different from one another, I’m immediately tempted to try to draw some parallels. The main one I came up with: Each of them possesses a brilliance that scares adults to death. What do you think it is about a brilliant teenager that is so terrifying?

Neely-Cohen: Well, in this book, they’re all sort of scary completely separate from their age. Fear was the primary way, especially towards the beginning, that I could suggest something was off or different about them as beings. And it had to come from adults.

That said, I am constantly amazed at how terrified adults are of children. J.G. Ballard, who raised three kids by himself after the death of his wife, once had this amazing observation about witnessing the fear, terror, and rage he saw on other parents’ faces when they were picking up their kids from school. He thought most parents were jealous that their children were more beautiful, smart, and poised than they were. That parents just couldn’t deal with that reflection. I think he was right, and still to this day, I grimace whenever I hear anyone talk about teens or kids as dumb or reckless or any of that other patronizing crap.

Rumpus: “Beautiful, smart, and poised” could describe all four protagonists but none more than Chloe. Could you talk a little about how her character came about? You mentioned the queen bee trope that she fits into, but her technological mastery and her ability to stay many moves ahead of everyone else in her life makes the Mean Girls trope seem almost quaint. The queen bee also tends to be portrayed as enjoying her royalty, but from Chloe I sense none of that.

Neely-Cohen: Chloe came out of a simple what-if, which is, What if someone was actually playing high school as an elaborate game? What if they were trying to attain power and rule not out of social conditioning or latent emotional needs, but because it was the only reasonable way to construct meaning? What if they had total distance from it, and they spent their evenings reading Machiavelli—or at least Wikipedia entries on Machiavelli—to get an edge? All the characters are attempts to mess with certain teenage tropes, so Chloe fits into that in that she operates so very differently than your typical queen bee. Most of all, strictly speaking, Chloe herself is not actually beautiful. She even at a couple points talks about how high school social structures don’t accurately judge physical attractiveness, how the popular kids are never ever who a shallow New York fashion editor would pick for a photo spread. She only seems beautiful because the system, one that she is more or less running, has arbitrarily assigned her that association. And no, Chloe doesn’t enjoy any of it. It’s just that, in her mind, she has absolutely nothing else to do. It’s fulfilling a purpose, a fate, a job, an identity.


Gabe Durham is the author of the novel Fun Camp and the editor of Boss Fight Books, a series of books about video games. He and his projects have been featured in The Onion A.V. Club, Nylon Guys Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, BuzzFeed, and Kotaku. He lives in Los Angeles. More from this author →