Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Music of Echos: A Conversation with Maxwell Neely-Cohen, author of Echo of the Boom

On the second page of Maxwell Neely-Cohen's epic debut, Echo of the Boom, a ten-year-old character muses, "It's the air that tears you apart. Not the fire, but the boom. Then there's the debris, the shrapnel, the fragments; they rip into you at high speed. Finally, as if you're not in enough trouble already, you have to land somewhere." If I had to summarize Echo of the Boom, it would be with those thoughts. Neely-Cohen's bordering-apocalyptic tale is one that starts out with the whims of adolescents, but crashes along, building speed, needling you, then ripping into you, and ending with echoes, which are so much more damaging than the boom. The storyline follows four youths, navigating a world of anxiety and neurosis, in a sense, what it means to be a teenager in modern times. I was fortunate enough to get to ask Neely-Cohen some pointed questions and his responses can tell you more about the essence of his novel than any book review or copy. Hang on. It's a wild ride....
Steph Post: Echo of the Boom has been described as "equal parts Gossip Girl and Gravity's Rainbow." If that description alone doesn't intrigue readers, I don't know what will. Do you think this juxtaposed comparison is accurate? If you had to choose two other books/shows/films/works of art to juxtapose in a comparison to Echo of the Boom, what would they be?

Maxwell Neely-Cohen: The truth is I said that line to my publisher once as a joke, and of course it ended up on the flap. I do though think it’s a little bit accurate in certain ways, maybe more accurate than a lot of people (and even I) might realize. On my book tour a reader said to me that “the book is a midpoint between those two worlds, and thus isn’t really particularly like either of them, but the direct center on the spectrum between them.” And maybe that’s right, but what’s hard is that there aren’t very many actual serious readers of both those works, so who knows.   
It won’t surprise you that I spent way more time thinking about comparisons to music, technology, and video games than I did to books, but I guess I’ll say Echo of the Boom is like if White Noise was genetically infused with the content from every teenage tumblr on the planet.
SP: As always, I'm interested in craft. Four different story lines, built up around four different characters, are running through Echo of the Boom and they are balanced and handled with a delicate precision. What was your process for creating, placing and then intertwining the four narratives? Did you write each one separately and then blend, or did the form of the novel occur in a more linear fashion?

MNC: It took me a few years just to figure out how to write all four and keep it all straight. I ended up writing each separately three-fourths of the way through, and then blended them all to that point, then wrote the ending, then rewrote and resequenced at least 100 times. But the book changed very violently between versions, right up to final editing for publication. The early drafts are a totally different entity, which is less balanced and more sprawling, but allowed much more contiguous time with each narrative. But it turned out that speed was a friend to the narrative, so it went in that direction.
SP: The four main characters- Efram, Molly, Steven and Chloe- are all in various stages of adolescence. Yet while the characters are teenagers, and much of the book is an exploration of shifting adolescent society, I didn't get the sense that this was a young adult novel. Is your ideal reader an adult or a teenager? Do you think there needs to be a delineation between adult and young adult novels?

MNC: It isn’t a YA novel, though many teens have read it. As your question guesses, I really don’t like that delineation, or genre hierarchies in general. I think teenagers are capable of reading things that we do not encourage them to read. And I think that certain works of science fiction or mystery or even YA are actually great high-level works of literature, yet don’t get that credit. I don’t have an ideal reader, I’m happy when anyone reads it, but I did get a kick out of certain teenagers liking it, it was good to know I wasn’t totally full of it.
SP: So much of what is happening in your novel, from the pop culture references to the apathy and anxiety of your characters, is distinctly, and purposefully, of the moment. This is a post-postmodern work, raising urgent and relevant questions through the trials of teenage angst. Could Echo of the Boom have been written in any other time period? Would readers of fifty years ago have been able to relate to the neurosis of its pages?
MNC: Weirdly enough, I think the geopolitical elements would pose greater issues to a reader 50 years ago than any of the youth culture stuff. And those are the components which would have been impossible for me to write in any other time period. But even that said, I actually think we have always had a really high capacity for the alien in literature, and I think it would be readable. In fact I have a crazy theory that the further back in time you go, the more any contemporary work would still “work,” because its difference would be less of an issue the more alien it becomes.
SP: I was listening to an interview with Emily St. John Mendel, of Station Eleven fame, the other day and the concept of our current preoccupation with the apocalypse and the dysfunction, if the not the end, of humanity was raised. It does seem that quite of bit of current literature is exploring these themes. I'd take it even further, though, and say that much of these "end-time" ideas are being played out in some form with stories lead by teenagers. (everything fromThe Hunger Games to Divergent to The Fifth Wave to, of course, Echo of the Boom) What is the connection here? What is going on in the world that is herding these two elements together?
MNC: Emily and I once actually had a conversation about this, about how (as she has often discussed) at every point in history, humans were convinced the world was ending. My novel really was an attempt to figure out the connection between contemporary teenagers and the theoretical apocalypse. The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Fifth Wave all probably exist in the world of Echo of the Boom. In many ways it’s a commentary on the real things driving those obsessions. I think that coming of age in a time where you are statistically least likely to be a victim of violence, yet have access to infinite violent narratives (both real and unreal), leads to a certain interest in the apocalyptic. You can easily start to think it’s all or nothing. But the young interest in the apocalyptic (an interest which I think has waned with generational turnover) was really motivated by wish fulfilment. To a lot of kids (and adults), the apocalypse sounded fun and meaningful, not to mention a circumstance where they might be actually valued.
SP:  Echo of the Boom is divided into seven sections and each section begins with a strange pairing: a passage from The Book of Revelation and a song lyric (everything from Miley Cyrus to Modest Mouse). What was going on in your head here? You were a DJ at one time, so the inclusion and influence of music makes sense, but how did you choose specific songs, and then specific lyrics, to line up with prophetic Bible verses?

MNC: I just tried to find lyrics that I felt were saying or in conversation with what the bible verses were saying, the opening of each of the seven seals, as a way of melting it into the context of the book. But yes, it’s basically just me DJing the book. One friend asked me if I needed to write the book as a final way of escaping that part of my past, and maybe that was part of it, but it’s hard for me not to soundtrack everything I write, and in this case, it actually made sense to do it literally.
SP:  Echo of the Boom is a massive debut, in a year of massive literary debuts. What did you read over the past year that has had an impact on you? What literary works are you most looking forward to in 2015?

MNC: It was a great year, and in truth I felt most affected by fellow debut authors, some of whom I would be lucky enough to meet. Jen Percy’s Demon Camp, Lacy M. Johnson’s The Other Side, David Burr Gerrard’s Short Century, Will Chancellor’s A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall, Ales Kot’s Zero, and Mira Jacob’s The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing all stayed with me.

There’s a lot of journalists and essayists who I can’t wait to see what they do in 2015. Durga Chew-Bose, Rembert Browne, Katie J.M. Baker, and Ta-Nehisi Coates to name a few.
SP: If you had to push one author on me right now (and yes, I'm asking you to do so!) who would it be? Who should I absolutely be reading at this moment?

MNC: Chelsea Hodson (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
What did I tell you? Now that you have some idea of what you're dealing with, make sure to pick up a copy of Maxwell Neely-Cohen's Echo of the Boom. Keep reading, keep reviewing, keep supporting authors!

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