In prose so minimal it could give Hemingway a run for his money, Young God charts the story of thirteen-year-old Nikki, who drives up to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains to live with her drug-dealing father. Wearing wonky cat-eyes and a hot pink bikini, Nikki adapts to a life of violence, prostitutes and black tar heroin with an effortlessness that, terrifying though it is, is fascinating to watch.
Debut novelist Katherine Faw Morris documents her anti-heroine’s rise to underworld prominence in a sparse, staccato style that punches you in the gut. Entire chapters are sometimes made up of single sentences, words that glare at you from the middle of a blank page – daring you to read on.
Nikki is the kind of character you can’t quite shake and Young God is the kind of novel that drips down the back of your throat, slowly, leaving your senses raw. Here Katherine talks to Huck about inspiration, morality and editing like hell.
When did you begin writing Young God and what was the germ that set it all in motion?
I was home, actually to get married, and I went to this waterfall everybody jumps off of. There was a girl there with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. It became the first scene in the book, basically. The girl’s name was even Nikki. I could just feel the weird sexual tension and the jealousy and it intrigued me. I started thinking about this girl, who I guess reminded me of myself at that age, and then I started writing about her. I wrote about her for five years. It was torturous and consuming and like this crazy intense love affair that is now over. It’s like we broke up and I never hear from her. Maybe she’s dead. Now I’m writing about someone else.
I was going to ask how ideas and characters evolved as you wrote, but a more appropriate question might be to ask how those things evolved as you cut, because I understand you really whittled the book down from the original manuscript. What was it that you were trying to draw out from your writing?
I cut 80,000 words. I was trying to make the book good because it was bad. It felt bad. But when I started cutting, it started to feel good. Like not just cutting, but hacking. I ended up with something anorexic and cracked-out and full of rage, which is basically what I was trying to draw out of my writing. I mean, I ended up with Nikki. This book is her and she is the book. I really feel that.
The plot was the same from the beginning. I like books with plots — and this one in particular needed propulsive action — but what actually happens is never what interests me in a book. I usually forget once I finish it anyways. What stays with me, if I really like something, is this weird, reverberating atmosphere. That’s what I wanted people to feel after they finished this book. I wanted it to infect them, in a gradual, sneaky way that they only realise later.
What drew you to the themes of violence and lawlessness? Were you aware as you were writing that readers might find it difficult to connect with an anti-heroine like Nikki? What was it like to write a novel that sort of fucks with the reader’s moral compass?
I am very drawn to violence and lawlessness in art in general. I don’t know why exactly. I feel like that’s kind of a psychological question that I don’t exactly know how to answer. I like the feeling of not giving a shit. I like the fuck-you feeling. I’ve always found it exhilarating. And that’s what violence and lawlessness is, a rejection of society. Because society is suffocating.
In life, I’m actually repelled by disruptive behaviour. I like politeness. I hate conflict. I want everything to be smooth and easy. But in art, I want the opposite. I didn’t care if readers connected with Nikki or not. I mean, you probably shouldn’t connect with her too much!
Nor was I trying to actively fuck with a reader’s moral compass because I don’t really care about morality in art. It doesn’t interest me, and when it is there, I usually find it kind of tortured and annoying. I just feel like that is one of the best and most freeing things about art. That you can throw morality out the window. And it doesn’t have to be a two-hour discussion about how you’re a horrible person or whatever because art is not life.
Young God has garnered a lot of comparisons already. It’s billed as ‘Winter’s Bone plus Less Than Zero’ and has been compared to Flannery O’Connor’s work too. I even read a review that called it ‘a kind of Appalachia Spring Breakers’. How do these comparisons sit with you? And who, or what, do you feel are your real influences and predecessors?
I mean, comparisons are good for marketing, I guess. I’m trying to think, if I had been in charge of comparing it, what I would have picked. Maybe Jesus’ Son meets Wise Blood or something. That just made me laugh. But really, I have a lot of influences. Everything from Flannery O’Connor to punk rock to Pedro Almódovar. Obviously, in fiction, I have been influenced by minimalism and dirty realism. I like precision. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Joan Didion, Speedboat by Renata Adler. But really I just like things that are good, and that can be anything.
You went to film school before you did your MFA, which is interesting because I really felt that there were cinematic elements to your writing. Would you say filmmaking has influenced the way you write?
Movies have definitely influenced the way I write. I have seen so many more movies than I have read books, for example. I do conceive scenes in a cinematic way. I see them play out in my head before I write them on the page. This is really helpful for choreography. I always know where everybody is moving and where they are in the “set” because I just watched it in my head. It’s like blocking or something.
At the same time, books and movies are intrinsically different. They just really are. A movie is so passive, so immersive, and therefore so pleasurable. And, for me, a book should do the opposite. It should make you work.
Young God is out in the UK Thursday, June 5 and is published by Granta.