When we overlook writing as an act of labor, we tend to forget the hard work that goes into it, the long periods of time it might take, and the toll it takes on the body and mind. For Jason Allen, author of the forthcoming The East End (Park Row/HarperCollins Books), the work behind this debut novel meant years of intense dedication, balancing his time spent writing with his studies and his teaching and tutoring loads. Going off the buzz behind the book’s release, though, it seems the labor will have all been worth it.
In The East End, Allen zeroes in on the collisions between the working and upper classes in the cordoned neighborhoods of the Hamptons. There’s Corey Halpern, the high schooler helping his family by working for the rich elite of Long Island’s South Fork, and who now breaks into their unused mansions at night for kicks. There’s Gina, his mother, who’s spent much of her life in servitude to the upper class, and her billionaire employer, Leo Sheffield, whose secrets wouldn’t be accepted by his own family or his prying neighbors. On the night before Memorial Day weekend begins, these characters’ lives are forever altered by a terrible accident, and Allen’s explosive writing allows us to watch the fallout with front-row seats.
Allen and I had the opportunity recently to converse by email and dig into topics like themes of addiction and recovery in his work, the shitty jobs he and his characters have had, and, of course, Elmore Leonard.
The Rumpus: I wanted to start by talking about how your personal experience informs your novel. At much of its core, The East End is about class divide: between the working class characters like Corey and Gina and upperclass socialites like the Sheffields. What was your experience growing up in the Hamptons like? Was it similar to the world you’ve painted in the novel?
Jason Allen: I had the strange perspective on class divide, as you might imagine, after growing up working class but also working for some of the richest people in the world. My background was a lot like the teenaged character, Corey, who is a working class kid in the Hamptons who longs to be somewhere else, to escape the island. My friends and I were the creative misfits, most of us from broken homes, and we all worked long hours for the rich. We rewarded ourselves most nights with heavy drinking and a variety of drugs. We also developed strong opinions about class, that’s for sure.
The fun part about writing Corey was to allow him to break into mansions like the ones where I worked for carpenters or landscapers, and where I cleaned so many swimming pools. My mom raised my brother and I on her own, and eventually she became the caretaker for a summer estate in Southampton, which was owned by an incredibly wealthy family. Although my mother is nothing like the Gina character in most ways, her job and the estate where she worked became the basis for Gina’s job and the main setting for the novel.
Rumpus: When I was reading through the book, I noticed how careful you were not to paint all the upperclass characters in broad strokes. Leo, for example, despite his surroundings (and what he’s done to acquire those surroundings) is a complex and sympathetic character.
Allen: I’m so glad you felt that way about Leo. I’d say the most challenging aspect of the novel was to complicate Leo’s inner world, to give him an intense conflict that, hopefully, would enable readers to empathize with him. It would be too easy to write a two-dimensional billionaire villain. So I forced myself to consider why I would care about him, and then it hit me: he had been in the closet all his life, his thirty-year marriage was a lie, and when he travels to his Southampton estate with a much younger man the day before his wife and grown kids are due to get there for Memorial Day weekend, I realized that he’s come to a breaking point. He can no longer live the giant lie, and yet, because of the abuse suffered from his father when he was very young, he still has no ability to step out from the shadows. It turned out that I cared about Leo, even felt bad for him, and that was a huge surprise. But that’s when fiction is truly gratifying—when the writer or reader can empathize with someone with whom they have next to nothing in common. But then again, at the most basic level, we have practically everything in common because we’re all human. We all feel the same spectrum of emotions, just for different reasons, and no one is either good or evil, just flawed to various degrees or in various degrees of pain.
Rumpus: The depth of Leo’s denial of his true self fascinated me, and when I realized the source of his denial was his fascistic father, I ended up caring deeply for Leo. Getting into that, as well, you pull a damn slick juggling act of balancing each of the main characters’ voices in their respective chapters: Corey, Leo, Gina, and even Angelique, who witnesses what happens on the night when Leo comes out to the estate. Was it your original intent to make this a multi-PoV novel, or did you have a single narrator in mind?
Allen: Well, the earliest section was written in Corey’s point of view, but I quickly realized that I also wanted to get into the minds of both his mother, Gina, who is in her active addiction and eventually ends up attending her first AA meeting, and Leo, the billionaire who I would have written off as a sick self-centered greedy bastard when I was Corey’s age. So I guess I tried to make the multiple-PoV narration work from the start, even though I knew it would be a balancing act, since the individual voices and psychological worlds would need to resonate as wholly individual. It really did turn out to be a lot of fun, especially when one character has a psychological reaction to something the reader has witnessed from another character’s PoV. So many moments developed when I was intrigued by the misunderstandings, especially when someone has partial knowledge of the key death scene, and alternating bouts of panic that the reader would experience as dramatic irony. For that reason alone, I can’t imagine telling this story through one PoV.
Rumpus: Having the multiple PoVs also allowed you to show a lot of different sides of addiction and relationships with addictive substances, e.g., Gina’s alcohol and pill addiction, Leo’s drinking and cocaine, Angelique’s rejection of alcohol due to her sister’s stints in rehabs, etc. We’ve talked before about how prevalent addiction is in your work. So was this something that was essential to building the characters in the book from the get-go, or did it become part of the book organically as you were writing it?
Allen: I’d like to think the layering of substance abuse for all the characters developed organically, but addiction and recovery are topics near and dear to me, so I’m also not surprised that those themes end up in practically all of my work. One of the more satisfying scenes for me to write, the one where Gina takes the leap to finally attend a meeting, took the most revision, mainly because I wanted to convey the degree of anxiety someone in her position experiences. She’s just had a horrific run that landed her in the hospital, she’s got two sons, she knows her drinking and pill addiction are way out of control, and yet the idea of interacting with sober people terrifies her at least as much as what her life and the lives of her sons will become if she doesn’t get sober herself. I really hope readers who might have had judgements about addicts and alcoholics will come away with a deeper understanding, mainly through Gina’s experiences, both for how hellish addiction is and for how incredibly difficult it is to stop, or even to seek help.
Like Corey, I turned to alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism from an early age. And some of the best people I’ve ever known either went way down a dark, dark road, or didn’t make it. So, along with class issues, addiction will always be one of the main focuses in my writing. Thankfully, I’ve been in recovery for many years now, and no matter how difficult any day has been since, I can honestly say that I love the life sobriety has allowed me to have, and it never ceases to excite me to hear that someone else has taken the huge leap to try living sober.
Rumpus: What kept you grounded while you were writing The East End? What was the mantra or advice going through your head? What kept you focused?
Allen: I wanted each character to have so much at stake that the tension and complications and suspense would propel a reader all the way through. During revision, I kept thinking about that Elmore Leonard quote: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” I also thought about some of Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing fiction, especially the line: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” But I wanted these characters not so much to want but to need something—I wanted to explore how they act when they’re in a state of desperation.
Rumpus: You mentioned carpentry and landscaping and working on swimming pools a bit ago. What would you say, then, is the shittiest job you’ve ever worked?
Allen: [Laughs] There have been so, so many. Jeez. I guess there were certain days that were especially bad while I worked in my early twenties for a general contractor. One day, we hung that pink fiberglass insulation in an attic during the peak of summer, so it must have been a hundred and twenty degrees and all those little fibers from the insulation kept raining down into our open pores, which is the itchiest, nastiest stuff ever invented. Another time we spent the better part of a week laying down asphalt roof shingles in hundred-degree heat—that also sucked. Oh, and then there was a day when my boss, a total psycho, told me to saw some asbestos shingles off of an old house and to try not to breathe while I did it. Overall, one of my worst jobs was working at a bagel shop, though. Working the counter during holiday weekends, when there were at least fifty people lined up for hours, that was pretty hellish.
I remember seeing a work truck with a bumper sticker that summed up how the locals in the Hamptons felt each summer better than I ever could: Not All of Us Are on Vacation.
Rumpus: That’s glorious. I want that on my car now. Also, I want to get into the details of what it took to pull this book off. Can you describe some of the research you had to do in preparation for the novel? And what would you say was the most surprising bit of info you found during your research?
Allen: I did some research for Leo’s character—the CEO world—but most of the research involved asking my mom about the details at the estate where she worked to make sure I got the character of that sort of place just right. I’d worked there for one summer myself, when I was eighteen or nineteen, doing many of the tasks Corey does in the novel, but I wanted to get my mom’s perspective and include what she remembered as well. The Sheffield family in the novel is purely fictional, but the house and overall estate is an amalgam of private properties where I’d worked, redrawn from memory and spliced together. I had other conversations with my brother and friends to make sure I recalled exact locations, things like that, but almost all of the novel was derived from my own experience of the Hamptons.
I also researched the protocol for what happens when someone is checked into the behavioral unit, aka the psych ward, and found out that Leo would have been unable to visit his friend who’d had a recent suicide attempt. Discovering that there is a no-visitor period actually created more tension for the scene when they first appear together and Leo feels the need to explain his absence.
Rumpus: Getting into the pure thick of it, then, how long would you say you worked on your debut novel? What kind of discipline did you have to exert in order to feel like your manuscript was ready to send out?
Allen: I started the manuscript in 2014, but even as I worked on it fairly consistently for the next year or two, I also edited and published my first poetry collection, A Meditation on Fire and wrote a memoir manuscript between 2014 and 2016. It took another year or so to finish the initial draft of The East End, and then I dug in for one substantial revision with my amazing agent, Sarah, during the latter months of 2017, and finished the final round of edits around January of 2018. Park Row Books, a HarperCollins imprint, bought it a couple months later.
Nowadays, I tend to go back and forth between being a disciplined daily writer and a binge writer. Since I teach at a university, some of that writing time depends on whether it’s a peak period of the semester or during a break.
Rumpus: I’m curious, too, about which authors you had to read in order to get to a point where you could write this book. Which authors (or books) have most informed your work up to this point?
Allen: Damn good question. I wish I had a great answer. I guess I’d have to start with authors like Bonnie Jo Campbell, Denis Johnson, Raymond Carver, and Dorothy Allison, who I’ve appreciated for how well they bring working class people to life. I also think Lolita might be the most beautifully written novel of all-time, despite it also being one of the most disturbing. And then, I have to admit, certain series on Netflix or HBO are masterful in their pacing and complexity and high-level tension, and they’ve definitely influenced me as a storyteller. I guess I wanted to incorporate all of those influences in The East End—the goal being to write complex characters (many of them working-class people), toss them into one tense cinematic scene after another, and hopefully do all that with language that my poet friends would think sounded nice.
During my time in the MFA program at Pacific University, I actually wrote a long analytical paper on Lolita, as well as on Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. In both books, I found that the language and metaphoric imagery reaches an almost ethereal height whenever the content of the story is at its darkest. Then it hit me that the reason this works so well is that the reader would close the book if we had to actually see Humbert Humbert’s depravity in action; we might close the book if we had to watch any number of other deeply disturbing scenes in detail, straight-on. So instead, whenever there’s a moment of extreme darkness, Nabokov and Johnson both pull us up into the ether of language or distract us by the blinding shine of metaphors like none we’ve ever encountered, and the result is that much of the darkest action occurs off-screen, beneath the layers of language, which allows us to experience the scene on multiple emotional levels. Now that The East End is completed, I realize I tried to do something similar in certain darker scenes, most often when the PoV character is in an altered state. I have to say, even though I’m so glad not to be living that old life at all anymore, it’s pretty damn satisfying to draw on my experiences with drinking and other excesses and create a scene through a drunken or drugged mind.
Rumpus: You mentioned you have a memoir in progress, too. What part of your life does it cover? Are you working on it in tandem with a new project?
Allen: Thanks for asking about the memoir. It tracks my relationship with my brother and our fractured relationship with our father, who was an alcoholic who quit drinking for twenty years, drank again, then disappeared and ended up homeless before he passed away. I also have another novel manuscript that I hope to have revised soon. It focuses on addiction and down-and-outers, and is based in Portland, Oregon, where I lived for a number of years, and it takes place during the early days of the Great Recession in 2008.
Rumpus: One last question on the book that I’ve been dying to ask: what made you give so much attention to the dead body? It’s the source of so much tension for several chapters and even has its own adventures in a few spots. When you started writing The East End, did you plan to give so much attention to this character after his death, or did the tension surrounding the body evolve as you went?
Allen: Ah, yes, the poor dead man. Each of the main characters is forced with a moral dilemma thanks to their knowledge of the body and the knowledge that others will eventually find him. The dead man’s ever-increasing significance after the opening chapters surprised me many times in the early drafts. After a while, a key curiosity had its hooks in me. I needed to understand how all of these people would deal with such a situation, a dead body hidden on a billionaire’s estate just before a whole gaggle of guests arrive for Memorial Day.
As I wrote, I empathized with the man who died, as well as with the man who mourns him, but I also loved the fact that at a certain point a dead body drives the actions of the living.