Midwestern Gothic staffer Megan Valley talked with author Abby Geni about her novel The Lightkeepers, the power of an intriguing setting, novels versus short stories, and more.
Megan Valley: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Abby Geni: I’m a Midwestern girl, born and raised. I grew up a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan, and now I live less than a mile from my childhood home. The Midwest is my heart.
MV: At Midwestern Gothic, we’re very concerned with the influence of setting. How does the island setting of your debut novel, The Lightkeepers, shape the story?
AG: The setting is vital to The Lightkeepers. The book takes place on the Farallon Islands, which are a real chain of tiny islets off the coast of California. The archipelago is a nexus of marine life – whales, sharks, seabirds, octopuses – and an incredibly dangerous place for humans. I fictionalized the place a little bit, but mostly I stayed true to the details, which are more fascinating than anything I could imagine. For instance, there’s no pier on the Farallon Islands; the sea is too wild. People have to be transported to shore by crane. The stony ground is eighty million years old and falling apart, so it’s easy to lose your footing, fall, and hurt yourself. There’s near-constant fog and rain. There are malevolent gulls and lurking great white sharks. The islands are also the most rodent-dense location in the world, overrun by mice. In short, the setting of The Lightkeepers is essential to the menace and wildness of the story.
MV: The last time we interviewed you, it was for your debut short story collection, The Last Animal. How has your writing changed since then?
AG: I think I’ve always been a novelist at heart. When I was younger, I felt that I was practicing my craft, writing shorter pieces as I waited to become a stronger writer, to get older and wiser as a human being, searching for a story that was big and strange and potent enough to span an entire book. In The Last Animal, I organized the stories around a central theme – the relationship between humans and nature – to connect them to one another. Even then, I was thinking about how to structure a whole book, rather than individual pieces: how the stories played off one another, how together they told a greater story than themselves. Now that I’ve begun writing novels, I can’t imagine going back to short stories. I’m a marathoner, not a sprinter.
MV: In many ways, The Lightkeepers seems similar to traditional mystery novels. How does this structure work with the theme of how humans interact with nature?
AG: The joy of a good mystery comes from the human tendency to see patterns everywhere. A mystery, when it’s done right, is an irresistible puzzle box. You collect the clues, identify and discard meaningless information, make sense of all the disparate shards, and try to put them together into a whole. You want the solution, but you also want the process itself, the wonderful untangling.
Human beings look for patterns in everything. We see faces in tree bark and shapes in clouds and images in constellations. Nature is inherently chaotic in a way that’s hard for the human mind to deal with. Nature is both scary and wondrous to us in part because it’s so disorderly – no straight lines, no grids, no rules, no logic. It’s all sprawl and growth and tumble.
In The Lightkeepers, I was interested in what a traditional mystery plot would look like in a wild, chaotic setting. Miranda, the main character, is trying to put the pieces together – a suspicious death, a limited set of suspects, a plethora of motives – but she’s stymied by the danger and disorder of the Farallon Islands, the crumbling stone and wild sea and bloodthirsty gulls. Is she seeing patterns that aren’t there? Is she trying to impose a human story on a wild, un-storied place?
MV: What do you read in between your writing projects?
AG: While I’m writing, I find it hard to read fiction, since I’m creating fiction and I don’t want another author’s mind and story getting knotted up with mine. So I read a lot of nonfiction and genre fiction while I’m actively creating a new book. In between projects, I read all the fiction I can get my hands on. My recent favorites have been The Houseguest by Kim Brooks, The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Pankhurst, and Stories for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai.
MV: The main character in The Lightkeepers is named Miranda and she’s stuck on an island. This and other aspects of the novel, like her relationship with Galen, are very reminiscent of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Which thematic aspects of of the play were you trying to recall?
AG: I’ve always loved The Tempest, so I’m delighted whenever readers find echoes between it and The Lightkeepers. To my mind, Galen is definitely reminiscent of Prospero, an omniscient, all-powerful deity with a host of magical creatures under his thrall. There’s also the character of Caliban, the fish-monster who lurks around the edges of the play. It’s suggested in The Tempest that Caliban has assaulted Miranda sometime in the past, which is why he’s fallen out of favor with Prospero when the play begins. I remember reading Shakespeare’s The Tempest and being curious about Miranda’s thought processes and mental architecture. In the play, she’s so wide-eyed, so oddly innocent, yet she’s been through terrible things and lived an extraordinary life. Many aspects of her character were in my mind as I was writing The Lightkeepers.
MV: How do you approach writing a novel differently from writing a collection of stories?
AG: A mentor of mine, Dan Chaon, once told me that the vast proportion of novels in the world could have been written as short stories, and that if you have the possibility of writing a short story instead of a novel, then it’s your responsibility to do that.
When I wrote The Last Animal, people would often tell me that they thought certain stories from the collection could have been made into novels. But I knew that wasn’t true, because the stories weren’t big enough. Short stories are all beginning and end. Novels are mostly middle. Writing a novel is about finding a story with enough middle to span a whole book.
MV: What’s next for you?
AG: I’ve been working on a new novel, and I’m about to embark on a major revision with my wonderful editor, Dan Smetanka. I love the editing process, so I couldn’t be happier. The book is called Zoomania, and it should be out in the spring of 2018.
Abby Geni is a graduate of Oberlin College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as well as a recipient of an Iowa Fellowship. Her work won first place in the Glimmer Train Fiction Open and was listed in The Best American Short Stories, 2010 and 2013. Her collection of short stories, The Last Animal (Counterpoint Press), was a 2014 Orion Book Prize Finalist for Fiction, and her debut novel, The Lightkeepers (Counterpoint Press), was released in 2016 to much acclaim. The Lightkeepers was chosen as a Spring 2016 Discover Great New Writers Selection at Barnes & Noble, was the Mysterious Bookshop’s First Mystery Pick for February 2016, was long-listed for the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and was chosen by Chicago Magazine as Best Breakout Novel. Abby lives in Evanston, IL, with her husband and young son.