A Devotee of the Interconnectedness of Time: A Conversation with Ariel Delgado Dixon
Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You is the propulsive debut novel from Ariel Delgado Dixon, and a haunted and complex story about two sisters who are largely self-raised and must navigate their young adulthood under the shadow of their chaotic childhood. Told in multiple timelines, the novel follows an unnamed narrator and her obsessive younger sister, Fawn, as they grow up in an unfinished warehouse north of New York City with their itinerant and neglectful mother. Left to their own devices, the girls must contend with teenage crushes, a local pervert in a van, and a dismembered foot, as well as the increasingly apparent fact that something is very strange about Fawn. When a neighbor’s house burns down and almost kills two people, the girls’ mother decides she can no longer handle caring for the narrator and sends her to the Veld, a rural rehabilitation center for troubled teens. But the cruel and misguided treatments at the Veld only drive the narrator deeper into herself, and ultimately, back to her troubled past.
In prose that is dark and mesmerizing and colored with all the giddy highs and razor-sharp lows of adolescence, Dixon’s first novel is a chilling meditation on sisterhood and familial bonds that can be stronger than blood.
It was my pleasure to speak with Ariel Delgado Dixon about the Troubled Teen Industry, creating realistic characters through specificity, and transcending beyond the trauma plot.
The Rumpus: What was the seed for this novel? Can you tell us a little about its conception?
Ariel Delgado Dixon: I always knew I wanted to write about the dark, covert world of the “Troubled Teen Industry,” because my best friend spent many years inside it. She always had the wildest stories, equal parts tragedy and absurdity, and I was drawn to those margins. She’s seen many extremes in her short life, and yet remains a total badass—one of the liveliest, funniest people I’ve ever known. I got to thinking about the sort of character who might wind her way to and through such an institution, and ended up writing the first hundred pages of the novel as my MFA thesis at Boise State.
Rumpus: That’s fascinating. I also know someone who went through the Troubled Teen Industry and has struggled to write about it for many years (and isn’t it chilling that that’s even a thing, and that we both know someone who lived through it?)
Your main characters are sisters, and there exists a magnetic pull between them, even as they continue to hurt each other and run from each other over the years. At one point the sisters meet a pair of twins, and one sister sort of catalogs all the supposed special powers that twins share—the ability to read the other twin’s mind, for instance, or to feel their pain. There is an expectation that siblings share a bond beyond blood, isn’t there? In many ways I feel this novel explores the limits of that bond. Would you agree?
Dixon: I definitely agree. To me, the yoke shared by siblings is a fraught mystery, and a major animator of this book. In most cases, siblings originate from the same pool of nature and nurture—the same DNA swirls around, the same general principles of parenting apply—and yet, they may wind up polar opposites. I thought about that a lot while writing. In the more extreme case of the narrator and her sister Fawn, I described them as overlaid transparencies, or photo negatives of one another. They share an originating seed, and many of the same impulses, but diverge in their own ways that challenge societal acceptability, and what is or is not forgivable. Anyway, twins freak me out. I liked having a little pedestal in the novel to wax on about their uncanniness.
Rumpus: The novel hops around, time-wise. Sometimes we’re in the present where the narrator is trying to start a new life with her girlfriend; sometimes we’re back in Veld, the teen rehabilitation center; and sometimes we’re in different episodes from the sisters’ childhood. Was this a structural choice you made from the beginning or was this something that evolved over time?
Dixon: I worked with this structure from the beginning. I am not someone who feels obliged to chronology, for better or for worse, and I felt that the narrator’s life had been hacked into different eras by different traumas. The era of childhood, the era of Veld, the era of flailing young adulthood. I think the main events of each era are linked, the way a past, present, and future can be tethered by butterfly effect. I wanted a dizzy, trick mirror effect from the cascading timelines. That felt right for this narrator.
Rumpus: It does feel right for this story and this narrator, and it makes complete sense that you knew you wanted to structure it that way from the beginning. The story moves forward logically, if not chronologically, and doesn’t feel like things were put out of order arbitrarily.
Your characters are all very psychologically complex and have incredibly rich inner lives, whether we get access to them or not. How did you go about getting deep inside your characters and getting them to reveal their secrets to you?
Dixon: Probably a mix of planning and spontaneity. There might be a defining gesture, mannerism, or image I have in mind for a character, or a set of actions—but once they’re in play, more possibilities and subversions spring up. This becomes a Choose Your Own Adventure process, until you find a combo that feels true.
When I teach, my biggest hobby horse is specificity. I think about how to make each character, minor or major, as specific as possible. To me, this is how to make a character real. Even boring people are specifically boring.
Rumpus: That’s really well said. When you talk about specificity it makes me think of Rochelle [the narrator’s girlfriend] and her obsession with cataloging her life inside spreadsheets, like she’s hoping she’ll collect so much information that eventually she’ll reach some kind of data nirvana. She felt like a perfect embodiment of the idea of the quantified self. Was there a particular character who was hardest to write?
Dixon: Though I do not share the same impulse to self-quantify, I do have a soft spot for Rochelle and her many spreadsheets.
I think the trickiest character to figure out was Fawn. In some ways it was straightforward—she has some of the usual markers of a budding psychopath—but it wasn’t until later in the process that I figured out what she really wanted, which is the same thing the narrator wants. To possess someone or something unequivocally, irrevocably. Really, to not be alone.
Rumpus: Throughout the novel you do an incredible job of creating a palpable sense of menace hanging over all the characters. You’re reading and just waiting for something God-awful to happen! From a craft perspective, can you speak about how you did that, how you tightened the narrative strings to such a high pitch?
Dixon: There are a couple different answers, I think. There are the smaller technical choices—deciding where to break a chapter, or conjuring a certain atmosphere through image and sensory detail. I think the narrator’s first-person point of view, as she recollects the past while managing the ongoing, unresolved present, makes tension by contrasting Then and Now. Also, since there are three timelines—hometown adolescence, Veld, and the present—each has its own unfolding arc, so even when you cut away from one, you are thrust into the conflict of another.
I should also be honest and say that since this was my first venture away from short stories, I was keenly aware of a novel’s length, and conscious—maybe too conscious, sometimes—of lulls or indulgence in the narrative where a reader’s attention might wander. Whatever got to stay on the page had to earn its keep in some way, by advancing plot, character, or at least mood. I think that can build a kind of momentum.
Rumpus: That makes me think of the Kurt Vonnegut quote about how people in your story should want something all the time, even if it’s a glass of water.
Was it difficult to transition from short stories to the novel?
Dixon: I prefer the roominess of novels, the longer runway. But I did have to reimagine my approach to editing. With short stories, I’d read a draft aloud from the beginning until I hit something that didn’t sound quite right. I’d edit, return to the beginning, and start again. That just wasn’t possible with the length of the novel. I do miss the quicker dip of a short story, though.
Rumpus: And speaking of editing, I’m always curious to hear how different authors approach revisions. Some revise one craft element at a time while others tackle the whole draft at once. What was the revision process like for you? Did anything surprise you during your revision process?
Dixon: I took a Sheila Heti online course in January and she seemed so masterful with all her spreadsheets and productivity tracking apps and draft breakdowns. I really admired that. But once again, I do not possess this organizational impulse, so sometimes editing can feel less systematic and more like feeling my way through the dark.
On one hand, revision is as important as the generative process—and can be creative and sexy and surprising. Sometimes you find breadcrumbs you didn’t even know you were leaving. Patterns, set-ups, unexpected ways to close loops. You don’t really know what you have until you finish a draft, step back and survey, cut cut cut, rearrange, etc. It’s like an excavation of the generative subconscious. What’s sexier than that?
On the other hand, revision is hell. Especially with a novel. There are so many threads to keep track of, threads with different pacing, threads with different degrees of importance, conflicts, characters. It’s a long con. Lots of balance and agility required. And in the case of the novel, you have to read through the manuscript an unnatural amount of times. It’s easy to lose gas and let your eyes glaze over.
Rumpus: What excites you about fiction right now?
Dixon: Personally, works in translation (new and old) have been my most exciting encounters in recent memory. Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo, Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, Out by Natsuo Kirino, which was recommended to me by my agent, who is full of keen suggestions. One of my all-time favorite novels is The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa. Reading translated work nudges me to loosen up and experiment, and that there are infinite approaches to narrative.
Seeing more queer stories out in the wild is also exciting. Stories that go beyond coming out narratives or queer suffering are welcome additions to an ever-evolving canon. Like everyone, I loved Destransition, Baby by Torrey Peters, in addition to I’m Not Hungry But I Could Eat by Christopher Gonzalez, 100 Boyfriends by Brontez Purnell, and My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland—to name only a few.
Rumpus: Are there any works you see your novel in conversation with?
Dixon: This is a good question, but it’s hard to answer. While I was writing the novel, I was not thinking of any other novels in particular. There were certain literary titans whose work I returned to for encouragement, in this case, the holy white woman trinity of Joy Williams, Rachel Kushner, and Jennifer Egan.
But, there were other works that were stabilizing for me, and that I was inspired by and referenced overtly or obliquely. An album by the Ghetto Brothers, called Power Fuerza. The band has a fascinating backstory and for a long time their sole album was lost. They were involved in the Puerto Rican nationalist movement in the Bronx during the late sixties/early seventies. Also hugely important to me was the photography of Jack Delano, who took stunning photos of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans in the forties and fifties. And, notably, a work I do feel this novel is in direct conversation with is the absolute classic teen TV series Dawson’s Creek, which I was obsessed with growing up and, for better or worse, gifted me a huge hunk of my early vocabulary. The TV show that the narrator of the novel is obsessed with is inspired by a few peak-WB network teen dramas that I adored then and now.
Rumpus: I’m so glad you brought up music. Music suffuses the novel in really beautiful and stirring ways. Your narrator is haunted by this record recorded by her father before she was born, when he was in a band called Playa Mala. Were Ghetto Brothers the inspiration for Playa Mala?
Dixon: Absolutely. Back in 2012, I’d read an article about this pioneering band of New York Puerto Ricans and their lost album making a resurgence after being out of print for some forty years. I wound up doing a real deep dive. They were leather-clad gangsters, neighborhood peace brokers, soldiers of the diaspora, and also just love-crazed rock boys with rhythm who sang from the balcony of their apartment in the projects. I love that record. It really has range. You can hear all the influences of sixties and seventies rock with a totally unique island flair. It’s badass, vulnerable, inventive, and ultimately a call to action.
As for its influence on the book, I liked the idea of this found document being a touchstone for the narrator, and that you can imbue meaning all your own into artwork, that it can impart and yet remain opaque.
Rumpus: That’s very true. The minute art leaves you and moves into the public space I think as a creator you sort of lose ownership of the work—it now belongs to everyone who loves it and makes it their own.
One thing that stayed with me was the phrase, “Live in the hurt,” which was the mantra given to the sisters when they were in the Veld center. Can you tell me what that phrase means to you, and what you think living in the hurt has done to the sisters?
Dixon: I think this phrase sums up Veld well. In its most benevolent interpretation, it’s about processing trauma, parsing its consequences, and not trying to outrun it. If you face it, you may be able to change, grow, etc. But of course self-knowledge and recovery are not straightforward processes. Acknowledgment of hurt you’ve experienced and/or caused is not interchangeable with healing from it. At Veld, rehashing your trauma is a kind of currency, it’s a way to stay out of isolation, or a way you might bargain for your freedom. If you don’t play the game and “live in the hurt,” you’re punished. This is not going to produce a healthy result.
The effects of this ideology are front and center in the narrator’s life immediately post-Veld, in New York, where compulsive behavior dominates her day to day—in her obsessive approach to romance, in overspending, in her paranoia. She mentions this paradoxical “longing to be consumed.” Probably the most obvious example is returning to her hometown of Deerie and pursuing the woman who lives in her childhood home. That is quite literally living inside the hurt of the past.
When I was thinking about ways to end the novel, I thought about generational curses. When you have set up shop in your trauma and hurt, when you have lived in it for too long, when you’ve defined yourself by it—how do you imagine a future beyond?
Rumpus: This also makes me think of Parul Sehgal’s recent essay on what she terms, the trauma plot. I think living in the pain was exactly what she was arguing against. Would you agree?
Dixon: I know this was a contentious essay, at least in Twitterland, but I thought it was stimulating, and I certainly see correlations here. I mean, revelations exhumed from the past that still cast influence on the present? That is a major gist of the novel, and a reason it’s structured the way it is—to signify the butterfly effect from past, into the present, into the future.
Like I mentioned, I am not someone who feels obliged to chronology, so I am not particularly concerned by the (sometimes traumatic) past weightily informing or coexisting in the present. For better or worse, I am a devotee of the interconnectedness of time, and of the subliminal and unconscious powers of past experience. Those are fascinations I can’t seem to escape in my writing. And, this is a novel whose major throughline is Veld, and the Troubled Teen Industry. People generally don’t move through a space as specific as that without a meaningful trail leading to and away from it.
I don’t disagree with Parul Sehgal here. Not really. Some books will utilize this form because it’s the best one for the story they’re telling. Some books will utilize it because it’s a popular contemporary convention. Whatever the reason for engaging in a “trauma plot,” you still have to make it work on its own terms. I think Sehgal is noting and elucidating a surge in this convention, some of its pitfalls, and where it has gone off the rails. Sounds like the job of a critic to me.