On the evening of March 19, I interviewed D. Foy at BookCourt. The topic of conversation was, primarily, his new novel Made to Break, the story of five friends embroiled in a series of toxic friendships who are forced to confront unpleasant truths about themselves when a trip to an isolated cabin goes awry. It’s a tense, harrowing read that both subverts expectations and does interesting things with structure. Sometimes horrific, sometimes visceral, and sometimes unexpectedly funny, Made to Break stands as one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, and Foy’s candor in person echoes his clarity as a writer. An edited version of our conversation follows.
There’s a fair amount of horror imagery in this book. When I was describing it to a friend, I said, “Well, this group of friends go to a cabin in the middle of nowhere, and bad things start to happen.” “So it’s horror.” “Not really, no.” But clearly, you’re making use of some of the devices of horror: there are knocks in the night, there’s a giant, mysterious stranger. How long into the writing of this did you realize that it would have these nods in the direction of one thing, but would not necessarily embrace that?
This is what happened. I have this group of people who are in their mid-thirties, and they have the emotional wherewithal of fourteen-year-olds. They are all manqués of some sort. Lucille, one of the characters, she’s had ambitions to be a painter and has failed and has taken a corporate job. That’s the ostensible reason for why they have come up to the cabin: to celebrate her new job. These characters have all failed, and they’re all really vicious, and they’re all really bitter. What they’ve done, typically, is–they can go and run up and stick a shiv in their ribs and run back to a safe distance and snicker and smirk and not have any responsibility for what happens.
I wanted to get this group of characters and put them into some sort of matrix where they’re forced to confront each other, and have all of those layers that they’ve put up and all of those guises that they’ve put up stripped away. I thought of this idea of putting them in the cabin. At that point, I didn’t think of it as being a horror story. What happened was–I still didn’t know where I was going in the composition of the book. This was pretty early on. I had them two of them go out into the storm to get some ice, and I realized that I needed to trap them. The road couldn’t be accessible. And this is 1996; there’s no technology. They’ve got no cellphones, no gizmos, there’s nothing like that. They get into a wreck. And all of a sudden, this guy Super comes driving up out of the dark. He just appeared, the same way he does in the book, in my head. He just appeared, and it was at that point that I realized that I had this trope going where–okay, you take this group of people and you bring them up, and you get them locked up there, bad stuff is going to start happening.
Once I realized that that was there, I wanted the parody of a horror trope like that to emphasize the absurdity of the situation they were in. That was, I guess, what I locked on to. I’m also interested in the macabre and the occult, witch doctors, that kind of thing. And so this character, Super, assumed that kind of role in those ways as well.
When I was re-reading it, I noticed references to Nosferatu and Lestat; a character talks about not wanting to see their face in a mirror… There are definitely some nods to vampires in this book; you were talking just now about the characters bloodying each other.
I never thought about those references, but–I watched a lot of that stuff as a kid. I watched a lot of that, and have always been into it, and read horror novels growing up, Stephen King especially.
They are, in a sense, vampiric. They suck each others’ blood dry. They’re takers. But they’re also empty of life, and can’t really see themselves in mirrors the way vampires can’t. AJ says, “I pulled down the visor to hate my face in the mirror.” They have no perspective, is what it is.
You mentioned before that the novel is set in 1996. If this novel was set now, there’d be that question of, “Well, why don’t they just use a cellphone?” Was that the only reason that you set it in 1996, or were there other considerations as well?
Well, I wrote this book in 1998, so that would be a good reason why I set it in 1996. I wrote the first draft of this book in 1998, and it just happened to be that there were no cellphones at that time; people were still getting used to email, as ridiculous as that sounds. There wasn’t any more to it than that. But I’m glad that I did.
All of these characters have very long, very tangled histories–have any of them appeared in other things that you’ve written?
No. They’re just in this book. Do you want me to talk about them?
Yes, definitely. I feel like their storytelling about their histories is such a big part of this book…
You kind of have to talk about their histories. It could be a one-act play on a single stage, is the way it could roll. You could quickly get stagnated if I kept it just to that present action. It’s part of the way that I control tempo and dynamic and the actual plot that is in the book. I’m interested in the plot of the day, as opposed to a Pynchonian or DeLillio-esque plot, that cover vast systems and vast spans of time, that sort of thing. The characters themselves are all based on people that I knew–I don’t know them any more–they were all at least as vicious as the people who were in this book. In different ways, but very vicious. I ran with them; I escaped them, and then I realized that I escaped them. Once I’d done that, I became obsessed with what it means to bond with people like that, and how people that have this overt sense of loathing for one another would actually stay together for such long periods of time. That was my interest, when I started writing the book.
There’s an epigraph from William Gass that opens the book. When did you decide that it clicked with the novel?
It was around the same time as the writing, I think. I was in grad school when I read the story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” and that was a devastation to me. Gass pretty much poisoned me for a while. He’s a poisonous writer, I think; he’s toxic, in the sense that he’s potent in the way that writers like Beckett are. I can’t read much of him at a time; he’s so heavy that I can only read a couple of pages at a time, and then I put him down. But he gets inside of you in a violent way, and once he’s there, you’re kind of tainted for a period. I think he was just in there, and I remember going through the story again in a class, and I saw that line. I knew that i was doing this thing, and it really resonated. I conceived of this book as a score in prose. In its working draft, it was called Mudsong. When you talk about these characters barbershopping together, and never hearing the discords in their music, and never saw themselves as…what was it? “Something cheap or silly.” That was, to me, exactly what was happening.
You said that you’d written the original version of the novel a while ago. What led you to revisit it?
I sold it. (laughs) That’s the short answer.
I wrote this book, and then I put it in a drawer, and pretty immediately started working on another book. What happened with this book was, it became a thing, for me, that I would come to in times of dearth and despair. When I felt like I was emptied out from doing something else… Those of you who are writers in here know that when you empty yourself out, that sense of worthlessness and despair comes around, because you feel like you’re never going to do something again.
So: I have this book that I would go to and get out and work on in that way, and hack at pieces of it. It was probably 375 pages in its first draft, and it’s closer to 200 pages now. I would take chunks out of it, and put it away and when I finally got it in me to start working on something else, I’d start working on something else.
What happened was: I read this book, The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich, and I said, “If these guys are publishing this stuff, they might like my book,” and that’s when I sent it to them. When Two Dollar Radio acquired the book, and I realized that it was actually going to go out in the world, then I had to align myself. I had to own it then. The book is sixteen years old, and I’ve written a bunch of other stuff since then. I’d moved away from it psychologically. In my development as a writer, after sixteen years, one would hope that one would improve, right? I think that I got better as a writer, and I was really afraid of not being able to own the book, you know? Yeah, I really wanted to sell a book and get published; this is what I’d been doing for all these years, and this is what I’m striving for. And then I had this conversation with a friend of mine; I was telling her how distant I felt from the book, and she said, “You can’t have that happen when you sell the book. You can’t go out there and act as though this book isn’t really yours. It’s not going to work for you.” I realized that I had to find a way to get back, to align myself with the book and own it.
As silly as this sounds, this idea came into my mind that this book was a teenage kid that had run away; run out into the world and gotten his ass kicked and got run over by cars and hopped on trains. He got messed up out in the world, and he finally decided to come home. When he did, he had scars and broken bones and a big scraggly beard and long dreadlocks and claws and everything, but he was smiling, and he said, “I’m home.” I realized that this book, as much as anything else I’ve written, is mine, and I had to own it. I needed to give him a bath and shave his face and trim his nails and take care of him and make him presentable for the world again. That was the process, since I sold the book, of editing the book and being with the book again. That was really transformative for me. I really like this book again. Whatever’s good in it is mine, and whatever’s rotten in it is mine, too. It’s mine, and I’m glad for that.
Have you done the same thing for anything else of yours that might be coming back into the world?
The same process happens with me. Now I have a couple of books that I’ve written; depending on how bad off I am after a project, that depends on which book I go to. If I feel better about myself, then I can go to the one I think is worst. The worse I feel, the more I go to the one I feel is in the best shape. That’s how I do it.
I wanted to talk a little about the structure of Made to Break. When you’re reading it, you get the sense that A.J. is narrating this from some distance after the events, but you’re not sure exactly when. At some point that becomes a little more clear, but there’s still that question of time between those points. Do you know exactly what happened with the characters after the events of the novel, or is it more broader strokes?
The events of the novel precipitated the end of the relationship with all of these characters; that’s what happens. These characters are no longer together in the way that they were. I can’t talk about it too much, because there’s some spoiler activity that would happen in there. But what happens is, he is telling the story from about a year and a half out, after the events have taken place. He’s driving produce trucks in the Capay Valley in California, which is just to the west of Sacramento. He’s by himself.
For a book that’s set mostly in California and Nevada, the South looms large in a lot of these characters’ histories. Was that intentional, or was that something you realized as you were writing the characters?
That’s easy enough to get at, too, because my dad’s side of the family comes from Texas, as much as I hate admitting that sometimes… The idea of living in Texas, especially nowadays, is not something I like. So they’re from Texas, and I’ve been there a number of times, and I have other people from my same family that come from Louisiana. My father, after my parents were divorced, moved into the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas. I come from a bunch of yokels, at least on one side. My mom’s side, too–they’re yokels, too, but not to the same extent.
But also, I’ve been really influenced by these Southern Gothic writers. There’s the whole Gothic thing that’s always been huge in my cultural background.
Towards the end of the book, a character makes reference to a Chris Rock routine. I remember encountering the same routine when I was younger; I wouldn’t have expected to encounter it in your book, but it seemed really perfectly suited to being there. Was that something you had in your back pocket the whole time?
All of the stuff in the novel, I had in my back pocket. When I wrote it, I had a wall, and I covered it from the ceiling to the floor with my scribbled notes. I don’t do it any more, because I hardly ever write with a pen, but at the time, I scribbled notes on pieces of paper and matchbooks and I took all of those notes and glued them up on pieces of sheet paper. I made wallpaper for the whole wall. I sat in front of this wall as I was writing with all that stuff in front of me. It was kind of like my brain being externalized; I could see this stuff, and it would be a grab basket.
It seemed appropriate to me; one of these characters says to the other, “When are you going to pop me the question?” And another one of the characters says, “If you don’t watch out, you’re going to be a little bit too old to be at the club. You won’t be old–just a little too old to be in the club.” That idea, of having gone past the point of no return and being…not so old that you’re actually old, you’re worthless to a certain segment of society, and that you can never go back, was something that I wanted to put into the story at that point. It was very much to the end, when I wanted to put it in there; it’s very much comic, but at the same time, in the context of the book, it would read as poignant as well.
There are a few of those moments that seem to come out of nowhere: when Basil produces a guitar pick that he’s planning to use as a family heirloom, for instance. It seemed touching in some ways, and very impractical in others. In the stories that AJ and Basil tell, their fathers loom large, and the notion of fatherhood comes up again and again in the novel.
You know how we write, and then we don’t really know what it is that we’re doing, and you realize that these themes are developing. I just recently wrote a book about my father, who’s still alive; it’s called Patricide. I’m interested in fatherlessness. My father, as much as he’s been there in my life, he hasn’t really been there at all. He’s a person who’s present, and totally absent. I guess I was exploring that.
At the time, I didn’t realize that I was exploring it to the extent that I was. All of these characters are fatherless, in a sense. All of these characters have fathers who are either gone–who literally abandoned them–or who have abused them or have neglected them. That’s very much there. Super is a figure who becomes a father figure in a very interesting way. He takes that role.
I noticed that, at various points in the novel, Super and Dinky both occupy this role that’s somewhat on the fringes of the rest of the group. They also both refer to themselves in the first person plural, which I found really interesting.
They do. I’m glad you saw that, because they’re actually related. That was in the first draft of the book, and I took it out, because I wanted it to be a subtextual thing. But they are related, distantly.
And they’re both veterans.
I put those things in there to put some mortar between the bricks.
In terms of the design of the book, you have these black pages in it. Was that an idea that you had from the get-go? Was it something you and your publisher both worked on?
I didn’t have it from the get-go. There was a certain point, before I sold the book, when I realized… I’m a big film guy, too. I watch a lot of movies. I realized that the book itself is very filmic. I think of it as a film along the lines of Magnolia, by P.T. Anderson. It’s an ensemble film. It’s not about one person; it’s about a group of people and how their lives are interconnected, and that it would play out like that on the screen.
When I was laying it out with my publishers… What is really, really cool is that Two Dollar Radio–they’re an amazing house; they’re run by Eric Obenauf and Eliza Jane Wood Obenauf, they’re a husband and wife. They have other people working with them, but they pretty much singlehandedly do everything. They include the writers in all aspects of the production of the book, from the writing and editing of it into the making of the book itself. I said, “I would like to have black pages between every chapter, because I would like it to be a fade to black.” I wanted the whole page to be black, but because the pages are deckled on the edges, they couldn’t run it all the way to the full bleed, so there’s this white band on the edge where you’re in the margin. That was very intentional.