Interview with Emory Wolfe
Emory Wolfe is the author of three novels: The Animals; How to Live Forever; and The Place that Cannot Be. These novels are chilling in their honest depiction of the human condition and harrowing in how far they push the proverbial envelope to get readers to think. Emory was kind enough to share some of his thoughts on publishing, creation, and what it means to be a writer in the 21st century with us.
Could you share with our readers what success looks like to you? How did you come about this definition?
Success as a writer, for me, is simply finishing the novel. And by finishing the novel, I mean leaving it wherever it is and being content with not coming back to it. Published or not published. Self-published or traditionally published. Ten drafts or a hundred drafts. Only the writer decides when it’s done. You’re always going to want to come back to it. A novel stays with you. Eventually, at some point, you just have to make it as perfect as you can and be done with it before you start butchering it. Which is a very real thing. Eventually you have to let it go. And for me, when I let it go, that’s success.
You have chosen to self-publish all three of your novels. Why did you choose self-publishing over traditional publishing? What advice could you share in regard to self-publishing?
I chose to self-publish because there are a lot of horrible things in my novels that I don’t think any traditional publishing house would be okay with putting that out there. I am attempting to write about the worst events in human history after all. I am attempting to show the darkest side of humanity, so it’s not something I ever think will be a commercial success, nor do I think it should. Can you imagine 2 Girls 1 Cup playing in theaters? I always tell people to read my stuff at their own risk. Not to say I write shock for shock’s sake, not at all, but there’s no denying there is some dark stuff in my novels, and I don’t think a publishing house would be interested in something so . . . horribly real, I guess you’d say.
As far as advice on self-publishing goes, I guess it really depends on your goals. If you really want to get your work out there, then you’re going to have to do all your own work. I would just make sure you do your research. Figure out the pros and cons for traditional vs. self-publishing, and go after what you want. And be prepared to work, either way. Fall in love with the work.
Let’s dive into your most recent work, TPTCB. While hauntingly beautiful, it is a very jarring and graphic read. The main character commits suicide early on by self-immolation after all. What led you to explore the grisly side of humanity in this work? How did you prepare for this?
To prepare for this I did a lot of research on horrible things. When I wrote my first novel, The Animals, I began writing it because I was so disturbed at seeing some of these horrific shock videos out there, and writing about it helped me navigate that confusion. I was still a Christian when I wrote that. But when I started TPTCB, it was several years later, and I had lost my faith at that point, and I knew I was going to visit that dark side of humanity again, but I wanted to approach it from a different angle. I wanted as many events in TPTCB to be based on real stories, and that’s the scariest part. I throw in a bit of fun here and there, of course, but almost all of the horrible events in TPTCB are completely real things that happened. And that’s what’s so scary, at least for me. While writing it, very often, I had to write in small segments and take long breaks. I would get really anxious and paranoid sometimes at researching something that had happened before, and just knowing that there are people out there that would do these horrible, atrocious things. I got really nauseous writing a lot of this stuff, too, especially for certain scenes, like a lot of the torture scenes, or when I describe what scaphism is. When I wrote the scene that finally reveals what happened to Emily, I actually threw up. That scene took me a few weeks to write, because it was based on a real person. I had to write it in very short segments. Researching all these things and real-world incidents was painful. Painful and sad.
What led me to originally explore all of this in the first place was a question I asked myself a lot after I became an atheist, which was, “what if you’re wrong?” I think atheists that never believed in the first place have it easy, but atheists that de-converted have it much harder. Losing your faith is not easy, de-converting from a religion is absolutely painful, probably more painful than anything else, because in a way you lose everything that you had always believed in. If you lose someone you know and love, that’s tragic, no doubt about that, but when you lose your faith, you lose this belief that you’re going to see that person again that you lost in the afterlife, which I think really takes a toll on you. But yeah, losing your faith can make you paranoid, because you’re taught you can go to hell for eternity. So, for a long time, after I had lost my faith, I kept looking over my shoulder, wondering what if I was wrong.
Eventually I concluded that any god worth his merit, any all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing god would surely allow his creation to judge the creator, after all, if that wasn’t allowed, what kind of god would that be? If I hand you my book and you tell me it’s crap, then, well, maybe it’s crap, maybe it’s not, but you have the right to at least present your case on why you think it’s crap and tell me how I could have made it better. I’m not going to send you to an eternity of hell for it. Or if I do, I’ll at least hear you out first.
But if I was going to “sue god” I would need evidence, and what better evidence is there than exploring the worst events in humanity?
Much of the narrative of TPTCB focuses on the subversion of Judeo-Christian themes, but the tone you use can't be described as outright hostile. Does this approach describe your attitude towards religion in general and Christianity specifically? Or would you consider yourself a religious person?
I think a more important question than the question “are you a religious person?” or “do you believe in God?” is the question I mentioned before, “what if you’re wrong?” That’s the question that drove me to write TPTCB. Regardless of whether you’re an atheist, agnostic, or Christian, what if you’re wrong? Yeah you might be right, and Jesus is real and I’m going to hell for not believing in Him, but . . . what if you’re wrong? And yeah, I’m an atheist and I don’t believe in god and I think there isn’t anything after death but . . . what if I’m wrong? I’m much more interested in that question. And in the answer.
So no, I’m not religious and I don’t believe in god, however, if I’m wrong, which is the more important question, I would still refuse to worship god, just like Gregory did. If I’m wrong, I would sue god, just like Gregory did. In fact, you and everyone else can count on it. In some crazy chance that I’m wrong, and you and I and everyone else end up in front of the pearly gates with Saint Peter, I’ll defend all the non-believers and take god to court. But I’m probably not wrong, and there probably isn’t anything after death, so enjoy your life.
Now, I’m not out there trying to de-convert anyone, as crazy as that sounds. I don’t think the world is ready for everyone to be an atheist, in fact the opposite, I think a lot of people need the idea of god, and probably will for hundreds of years. I don’t want to appear hostile towards Christianity in my novel and outside it, or any other religion, but it’s a tricky line, because I don’t want to appear hostile towards believers, but I do want to poke them with that question I think is so important. I want them to really ask themselves what they would really, truly do if they discovered their beliefs were wrong. Would their morals change? What are their morals really based on? Because if they are based on that they don’t want to go to hell and the bible says these are the right morals to have, well, I don’t think those are good reasons. Going back to this important question on what if I’m wrong, what finally helped me sleep at night, what finally helped me stop looking over my shoulder, was knowing that if I was wrong, I wouldn’t change any of my morals. What I perceive to be right is not based on any outside circumstance. So again no, I’m not religious nor do I believe in God, but I know I could be wrong, and I’m okay with that if that’s the case. Whereas my argument is, I have the upper hand against believers, because I know first-hand that if a believer loses their faith or discovers they are “wrong,” all of their morals suddenly come into question.
The voice you employ in TPTCB is so clinical, so detached, that while readers will clearly feel a great amount of sympathy for Gregory and the other characters, there is a sharp divide between audience and narrative. Was this separation intentional? What, if anything, did you want your audience to feel or think because of or in spite of this distance?
If you dance around the flames long enough, eventually you’ll get burned. I don’t want to burn anyone. But they should know there is a fire.
Backing up to your second novel, How to Live Forever, I felt that you very accurately explained in the narrative how characters often have a way of wrestling control away from the author. Is the rebellious nature of characters something you wanted to delve into with this work? Or were you trying to say something else?
Honestly, I love Kurt Vonnegut and the way he used author insertion, so I stole that from him. I tried it in my first novel The Animals and have been doing it ever since. But to answer your question, no, I wasn’t trying to delve into explaining this tug-of-war between characters and the author, for me, my characters make their own decisions completely. It sounds a bit crazy, and I’m okay with that, but really I have no control over what my characters do or say most of the time. All I really do is start something, I put a character in a situation, and then they themselves get out of it, or try to. The way characters interact with me in my novels is a product of this method I have, this decision to let my characters have their own decisions. The protagonist of How to Live Forever was just as surprised to find himself a character in my novel as I was surprised at finding myself the author of the book he was in. I know that sounds a bit nuts. But I don’t know. That’s just the way it is. I get a little lost sometimes.
There is an image that you use in both HTLF and TPTCB, that of the impossible orange suitcase. This suitcase works so perfectly in both works as an image and really speaks to your ability to not only craft breathtaking fictional worlds—complete with their own laws of physics—but also to subvert audience expectations by juxtaposing the outlandish and fantastical with the wholly real. Where did this suitcase come from? And is it likely to show up in your next book?
When we met the first time, and you mentioned this to me, I honestly hadn’t realized I had used the same prop in both novels. So to be totally honest, I’m not really sure where it came from. Some of the themes in my novels are the same or run together from one novel to the next, and I guess, like here, you don’t notice it until a reader like yourself points it out.
I can tell you however about the color I chose for the suitcase. Van Gogh once said “orange is the color of insanity” and there’s something about that quote that really resonates with me. In The Animals, the color orange was definitely a theme I tried to incorporate it into the story, and I think the color orange bled over into my other novels, and at some point that turned into the impossible orange suitcase.
Yes, the impossible orange suitcase is making an appearance in my next novel, you can count on it.
As an author, you seem to want to always go deeper, to use your fiction as a vehicle to force your audience to think critically and philosophically about a wide range of topics. When you first sit down to write, are these topics already in your head? Do you actively want to explore philosophy through fiction, or is it a happy accident?
I would say both, an accident and on purpose. I start off with a question, there’s always a question, a big “what if?” And then I try to answer it by writing about it. So initially yes, I try to explore philosophy through writing, initially it’s on purpose. But as I’m writing and trying to answer this question I had, these characters eventually make their own choices, so I have no control over it, and then eventually they force me to pursue the answers for other questions that they bring up, which would be the accidents. So yes, I do try to actively bring philosophy into my novels, but just at the start. I’m not sure sometimes if I attempt to write about philosophy or attempt to philosophize through writing. They are the same thing to me.
Finally, you quite literally wear some of your influences on your sleeves. You have several tattoos, including one of Friedrich Nietzsche’s face on the back of one of your hands and the words “Read More” across your knuckles. What other literary tattoos do you sport? Do you feel like writers are going the way of the rock star, getting inked to tell their personal stories? Or is it just becoming more and more socially acceptable to be inked and writers are just following a general trend?
Some others I have are “and so it goes” on the side of my hand, from Vonnegut of course, and the first sentence to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, “Howard Roark laughed” on the side of my arm. I definitely do not feel like writers are going the way of the rock star. If anything, they are being shoved aside by professional YouTubers and Twitch streamers and Instagram models. Not that that’s a bad thing, it’s just the way things are. Writers are solitary by nature, I think, so it’s okay.
I think everyone gets ink for different reasons. I do think tattoos are becoming more and more socially acceptable, but I can’t speak for anyone else why they get them. The reason I personally have these tattoos are for motivation. When I get down on myself, it helps to have something that inspires me right there on my hand. The only tattoos I regret are my Christian tattoos though. If you’re going to get tattoos, word of advice: don’t get religious ones. You may think it’s something that’s never going to change, I didn’t, but you never really know. A lot of people see all of my Christian tattoos (I was a real Jesus freak a long time ago) and say, “Oh wow, you must be pretty religious. . . .” I always answer, “how much time do you have?”
Interviewed by Jay C. Mims