Lawrence writer Bryn Greenwood’s novel All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is a love story between a grade-school girl and a drug-running biker in his twenties, set on a meth-making compound in the rural Midwest.
Since it was published in August, the book has drawn intensely mixed reactions from readers, some of whom are revolted by the relationship at its center and others who are moved by Greenwood's ability to write so authentically about such a difficult subject.
Greenwood recently spoke with me on KCUR's Central Standard. Below are some highlights of that conversation.
How do you describe All the Ugly and Wonderful Things?
"My go-to phrase is that it’s a book about a lonely girl and a lonelier man and what they do to form a family. Which apparently turns out to be problematic for a lot of readers."
When these two people meet, the girl, Wavy, is how old?
"She’s five and has already seen a lot of things. She knows a lot more about the world than most people do. Her father is a drug dealer. Naturally he’s also a user. Her mother is a drug user. She’s surrounded by people who work for her father, various hangers on. There’s always a constant element of chaos. She doesn’t know where food’s coming from, she doesn’t know who’s taking her to school, any of those things."
Your writing style is very short chapters from different characters' points of view, so readers get into the minds of all of these people. It really gave me empathy for some very unpleasant people.
"Her mother is top of the list. I deeply sympathize with her mother, who does have mental illness, whose husband is abusive, who is in a constant state of depression. She’s a terrible mother because of the situation she’s in, because she doesn’t know how to deal with this responsibility she has, and the result is that she doesn’t really take responsibility.
"On the flip side, one of the main characters of the book, Kellen, is essentially a bag man for Wavy’s father. He’s a drug dealer, he’s not a great person morally speaking, if we want to look at that way – he’s done a lot of bad things. But I totally sympathize with him. He’s a young man when the book starts, he’s come from an abusive childhood, he doesn’t know what to do with his life. He’s just trying to make the best decisions he can."
Kellen is the love interest.
"I never think of him that way, but I guess some people do."
The book takes place over about 15 years. We watch Wavy grow, and her feelings intensify. She knows exactly what she wants. I’ll go ahead and say I was pulling for her, even as I was feeling uncomfortable about my own feelings. Were you trying to do that?
"When I’m writing stories, I always think of them as investigations. I’m asking questions, I’m trying to figure people out, trying to figure out what’s happening and why. And with Wavy, a lot of the investigation is about, What do you do when you’re eight years old and you have so much chaos in your life and you don’t know who’s going to take care of you?
"In this case it turns out to be this completely random, drug-dealing guy, who looks around at her life and thinks, ‘This is kind of bad, I don’t like this.’ He comes from a place where he doesn’t really know how to raise a child, so he approaches it as equals: Here’s someone who needs my help; I’m going to make sure she has new winter boots – he’s doing all the practical things that he can see need to be done.
"To Wavy, she’s getting the message from every corner of her life that, What do you need to take care of you? You need a man. So naturally she attaches herself to Kellen and decides that he’s going to be her man."
Why did you decide to investigate this question?
"It’s one that exists. I just read in the news something really horrible about a this little girl named Victoria Martens whose mother was a meth addict, and her mother’s boyfriend raped Victoria and murdered her with her mother there in the room encouraging him. These are things that do happen to children. So my investigation was how do you make contingency plans when you’re a child in this situation?"
A couple of weeks ago you wrote a blog titled “For people who hate my book.” What did you tell them?
"I essentially told them that if you hate my book after you read it, that’s totally cool. But if you decide to hate my book before you read it, that’s just ignorant. Which maybe sounds harsh, except that I get a lot of hate mail. I get about 15 or 20 emails a week from people telling me that I’m subhuman garbage. Which doesn’t really bother me, because they don’t actually know me and most of them, honestly, I don’t think have read the book, which I think is problematic.
"They’re basically trying to re-try me in the court of Lolita. That’s a book that’s doing a lot of complicated things people maybe aren’t comfortable with. I hope that’s the same reason people hate my book: that it’s doing things they’re not comfortable with, which is asking us to essentially inquire into issues like consent and child sovereignty."
Say more about child sovereignty.
"We’re sort of starting to discuss it as a culture, but when I was growing up you could do pretty much do anything you wanted to your own kids. There was no notion that children had the right to say yes or no to anything."
Getting back to Lolita, how much did you have it in mind?
"I didn’t have Lolita in mind at all, because Lolita is clearly intended to shock and titillate and make us incredibly uncomfortable because it’s about a narcissistic pedophile. I didn’t intend at all for my book to shock or titillate. I’m more of the mind that: There are people who’ve lived this life, I have lived portions of this life, and they don’t see it in fiction."
What elements of your life are in this book?
"My father was a drug dealer when I was a kid. We always joke around that he was ‘the Midwest methamphetamine Al Capone.’ He ran one of the largest meth production and distribution businesses in the Midwest. If had been legal he would be a billionaire. So I’m very familiar with the way that life works, with the meth ranch in the country and the hangers on and drug-fueled parties.
"Also, and this was the thing that made me more comfortable investigating all of this, when I was a very young woman I had a series of probably ill-advised and certainly illegal relationships with much older men. When I was 13, I had a 28-year-old boyfriend that I was crazy about. We had a crazy amazing love affair that I almost can’t talk about to people because people shut down. People go into fight-or-flight mode over that topic. They say, ‘You couldn’t possibly have consented. You were a victim.’ It’s really disempowering to have somebody say to you: ‘You were a victim,’ when you, yourself, are like, ‘No, I was a totally a consenting, willing participant.’"
Were you aware at the time that it was illegal?
"Oh absolutely. Because that was almost the first thing he said to me: ‘Hey, I really like you, but no, because you’re, like, 13.’"
And you said what?
"I said, 'Yeah, but, you know, it’s not like anybody’s going to find out.'"
Did anybody find out?
"Not really, no."
How long did this last?
"About two years. After that I dated a guy who was only 10 years older than me. Eventually I worked myself around as an adult to marrying a man who was younger than I was. Maybe I got that out of my system."
Was this book a way for you to – I don’t want to suggest that you’re processing your own life –
"Oh God, yes I am. Aren’t all writers?"
Well, one wants to ask a fiction author about the art of fiction, as opposed to the influence of autobiography.
"I assume all fiction writers are, on some level, processing things. It’s just that your goal is to process them enough that the end product does not in fact look like a memoir or an autobiography, which I don’t believe my book does in any way, shape, or form.
"And part of my investigation is about how, because we want everything to be black and white and to protect children, we have really black and white laws. Which is good. We need to have laws that are black and white because there are systems in place to find the gray areas – we have judges and juries and prosecutors and defense attorneys to produce gray within the black-and-white laws. But the law is not necessarily morality. We know it’s not. After all, slavery used to be legal. It wasn’t moral; it was legal. I feel the same way about issues about children’s capacity to consent to things. We know what’s legal, but it’s also worthwhile to investigate how little right do we give to children to say yes or no?
"One of the things I find interesting about this is, I only get hate mail about two things. I get hate mail about Kellen being fat, and I get hate mail about the relationship between Wavy and Kellen. I never get any hate mail about the fact that, at a certain point in the book, Wavy’s father attempts to force feed her, pretty brutally. It completely violates her consent, it completely damages her sense of bodily sovereignty. I don’t get hate mail about that. Why? Because do we accept that that’s OK?"
Looking back, do you think you were really truly able to consent to your relationship at 13? Are there times you think maybe you were a victim?
"I don’t at all. Part of that has to do with whether the people around you respect that consent. At 13, the man I was involved with absolutely respected that. Anything I said no to was off the board. It was very much a case where I called all the shots. Because he knew that if I wasn’t calling the shots, he was definitely doing something immoral, he was definitely taking advantage of me if I was not the one to say yes or no.
"And when I grew up, when I hit 16 – the age of consent in Kansas – I discovered that most men didn’t care whether I consented or not. Once it was legal, there was some presumption that I would consent. And I went on to college and my adulthood, and met so many women who had been coerced or bullied or outright forced to have sex. And a lot of them did not consider that they had been assaulted. For a lot of them, it was their boyfriend or their husband who had done this to them. And because it was within the bounds of a relationship and it wasn’t a stranger raping them, they were kind of OK with having had their consent violated because it’s so common in our culture.
Do you ever get love letters?
"Oh yeah. That’s the nice thing. That’s the reason I don’t think I ever let the hate mail hurt my feelings. I get letters from people who say, this book was so beautiful. I get letters from people who say, I was in a relationship when I was 14, that was consenting, and this made me feel better about it after a lifetime of being ashamed."
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.