What would it be like to know when you’re going to die?
So, you’re from Maine, and you seem to like writing about larger-than-life supernatural events. We have to ask: Are you the second coming of Stephen King? [Laughs] Certainly not, no. I grew up reading Stephen King, like most of us did. But Stephen King and I certainly don’t work in the same mode, I don’t think. We definitely share a lot of the same interests, in terms of obsessive themes, baseball, that sort of thing. But pretty much I think the only thing we genuinely share is that we’re both from Maine and we both grew up in sort of depressed rural backgrounds.
There’s a lot of science-fiction influence in the book, but it’s grounded in real theories and ideas. Have you always been interested in science? Yeah, in a layman’s sort of way. My interest in science stems primarily from reading science fiction when I was a kid. One of the things I try to do in my work is mix in elements of the genres I’ve enjoyed reading, particularly when I was younger. Part of the reason I write fiction is because I enjoy the freedom it allows. It really is, almost literally, limitless. And if you’re not going to make use of that sort of freedom, I don’t see the point in writing fiction in the first place.
The protagonist of the book is named Junior and grows up in Maine… how much of this story is drawn from your own experience? The process is so intuitive that a lot of times you’re not aware you’re incorporating aspects of your own experience until after the fact. Then you read it and go: S***, I may have revealed a bit more of myself than I wanted to. But in terms of how much of my own experience went into this book? Quite a bit. Junior’s sort of an amalgam of me and probably four or five other people, and probably 20 or 30 per cent of his personality is made-up. And that, to me, is the stuff of good fiction. If you try to hew too close to your experience, it ends up being autobiography.
Was there any particular catalyst that inspired you to write a story about whether life matters in the face of the end of the world? Well, that’s exactly what it was. It was me sitting around wondering if life really matters in the face of the end of the world. Literally everything that’s known will eventually come to an end, according to our current understanding. And that’s pretty heavy stuff. If you are preoccupied with it, or even mildly obsessed with it, it can be paralysing. This is exactly what happens to Junior. It’s just a really ham-handed metaphor for what we all deal with in our daily lives. The moment that our end ceases being abstract and becomes concrete in some way – usually, in my experience, this takes the form of the death of someone that we’re really close to. And so I thought: Well, this would be a fantastic dramatic premise, but take it to the next level – you know when it’s going to come. How does that inform the way you conduct your personal life? And I had originally conceived of the book as sort of a take on books of etiquette, that tell you when it’s okay to send a thank you card and how to throw a cocktail party, that sort of thing. And that’s where the second person [narrative] came from. This sort of a guide, the way Junior should be living his life. And then I realised that an entire book in the second person was going to be an imposition on the reader. That’s when I struck on the idea of alternating chapters – first person, with his family, and allowing people to narrate their own stories, in particular John Senior, the father.
In the book, it’s left intentionally vague as to who this second-person voice is in Junior’s head. Did you have an idea who it was when you were writing the book that you didn’t want to share with the reader, or was it unknown even to you? It’s definitely intentionally vague. And honestly, to this day, I haven’t settled on a solid idea of who or what. I think of it as a Greek chorus. I’ve always had this idea of heaven as sort of a celestial bureaucracy. I’m not much of a monotheist. The idea of a polytheistic setup really appeals to me, in the sense of layers – you remember the end of Men in Black, where it’s one universe on top of another universe on top of another universe and it turns out we’re just sitting inside this marble that’s being tossed around by this unfathomably gigantic creature? That sort of idea fascinates me, and that’s probably closest to what I was fooling around with in the book. Everything Matters! is published by Viking.