The Secret History of UFOs Over ’90s Chicago: A Conversation With Margaret Wappler


Neon Green, the debut novel by Margaret Wappler, opens with a portrait of the Allens, a happy family living in the suburbs of Chicago in the mid-90s. From there, she proceeds to test that family in nearly every possible way. Questions of idealism, of legacies, of stifled lives and fidelity all come to the foreground in this novel. Also, there are UFOs–in this slightly altered version of the recent past, flying saucers are a part of everyday life, and one ends up parked in the Allens’ yard, acting either as a catalyst for the tension that emerges or as a strange mirror of it. I talked with Wappler about the roots of her novel, creating a familiar but slightly adjusted past, and more.

You’re based in California, and your novel is very much about the area around Chicago. Was it difficult to write something with such a specific location when you weren’t physically there?

I think writing about a place that you lived in for a long time that you no longer live in is a great way to visit in your mind. I go back to Chicago a couple of times a year, so it’s still fresh in my mind, as far as things like what the light looks like and the kind of density of the city. There are certain things about a city that you pick up on when you visit. But obviously, a lot has changed about Chicago and the suburbs since the 90s.

I would sometimes look at old journals that I kept at the time. Just listening to music could bring me back to a certain kind of feeling. I was really into the idea of capturing the kind of quietude that people experienced back then, before the internet. At night, in particular, when you were a kid and it was after school and you’d just come home from a friend’s house and you were just kind of tooling around in your room. That kind of feeling, I really had a lot of affection for, and wanted to go back to it.

Was this novel always going to be set in the mid-90s, and in a slightly altered mid-90s?

I knew it was going to be set in the mid-90s because I really wanted to have a time where the internet was right around the corner, but it wasn’t really in effect yet, and therefore the characters couldn’t get much information. They couldn’t have access to as much information as we have access to now. We’re living in this time that’s an absolute glut of information. Back then, I feel like if you didn’t know about something and you wanted to know about it, it was much more difficult. You had to go to the library, for god’s sake! I feel like there was more mystery that was preserved back then.

Mystery was an important element to me, particularly in this book. I really wanted it to be intact–to not have the mystery penetrated too much. And of course, I was writing this story about a spaceship landing, and it’s happening in the 90s. I didn’t really question it. It’s funny to me later, when people would say, “Oh! It’s an alternate history.” I didn’t even think of it that way, because nothing else about the 90s was different in the book. I worked really hard to keep everything else basically the same.

You have a reference to Fugazi in there, and I kept wondering if, in this timeline, they had written a song alluding to the existence of UFOs. Though that might be me delving into writing Fugazi fanfiction set in your novel’s world…

I went through the Pixies’ catalog in particular, when the daughter, Allison, is listening to it. Not that this is hard to do with the Pixies’ catalog, but I picked the song that had some kind of space talk in there. I wanted it to riff on what was going on.

You talked about the use of mystery earlier. One of the subplots in the novel concerns just what, exactly, is going on inside the UFO that lands in this family’s backyard. Did you have the arc of that in mind from the beginning?

I experimented with different things about the spaceship as far as them having access inside of it and/or something coming out of it. I wrote a few scenes both ways. I knew in my heart that these just weren’t the paths I wanted the book to take, but I felt that I would be remiss if I didn’t try it. When I tried it, it felt like it belonged to a different book to me–it wasn’t authentic to the rest of the story. I know that some other writer, given the specs of this book, would have done that, and done it wonderfully. But it wasn’t my direction; it wasn’t what I wanted to do.

You juxtapose a very unreal experience within the novel with another very realistic, very emotionally harrowing plotline involving the family. Was contrasting the uncanny and the more realistic something that you were planning?

I did want to marry those two feelings. I find that when there’s a science fictional concept in a book, it isn’t always spoken about in direct emotional terms. It’s usually used to crack open some philosophical concern, to pose questions about what the future will be like and if we can still maintain our lives and connections as we know them.

I think all of those questions are smart, and I wanted to have all of those questions in the book, but I also wanted to have these really baseline daily questions about how we connect with the people around us. How much do we know about a fellow family member, and how much are we projecting onto them? I find families really fascinating. All of them–every which way that they get formed, blood, biological, community, whatever. Each unit has its own rules, and its own microcosm. The mysteries of daily family life are just as big to me as anything we can imagine about the future.

Was finding the right balance between the two difficult for you?

It was a hard balance. Most of the time, when I was revising the book, I was constantly playing with that balance. Sometimes I’d push it more towards the spaceship and realize it was not right on the end, and I’d push it more towards the family drama, and it would feel lopsided. It was a tricky balance, but it was important to me to have both of them coexist. I think the biggest priority was to have the two reflect upon each other. One informs the other, so what’s going on with the spaceship informs what’s going on with the family in certain ways.

in the middle of the book, when the family story starts getting more harrowing, it definitely felt like I was taking a big cruise ship turn in the oceans of this book. I really love books that take big turns like that, where I don’t see it coming, but when it’s happening, I think, “Oh! It was there all along.” That’s what I attempted to do.

Interspersed with the longer chapters are the log entries written by the family as they watch the spaceship. I found the dynamics there to be tremendously interesting to read–sometimes, the interplay was hilarious, and at other times it showed the family at its ugliest.

There are two or three ways to read the bickering that happens throughout the book. On one level, it is just funny. It’s funny on the level where–with my own family, we’ll have these ridiculous fights about who’s going to drive the car to dinner, and when we’re going to leave for dinner, and which way we should go. On another level, it’s a little darker, in that it’s a bunch of people grappling for control and someone feeling slighted and another person feeling not listened to. In a couple of cases, with Ernest, him exerting his vision of what is reality and what’s happening in his reality obliterates everyone else’s free will. I tried to make it run the gamut of being really funny and relatable in that sense. Everyone’s had those silly, inane arguments, but there can be this darker complexity to it.

Do you have a sense of where these characters’ lives took them after the period of the recent past that you describe in the novel?

I still have them all living in my head, and when I touch back with them, they’re sort of frozen in that book time that I wrote them in. With the kids, I do think about it a little bit more. I think about Allison going to art school and finally getting out of the house. I felt like she was going to break out as soon as she can. I think she’s a little more loyal to her father, and so she’d stay through high school and then leave. And I feel like, in some ways, Gabe would be the opposite, where he’d run away, but then he’ll come back in the same way that kids at that stage need to get away from their family for a while. He’d realize that it’s important to have a connection to them.

Throughout the book, there are these strange radio broadcasts that the kids begin listening to. Where did that aspect of the novel come from?

A few different things. The first address that you hear from The Book of Connections is lightly based on this radio collective, Ligna, that used to do performances where they would have a very similar type of address–“This is my voice. You’re hearing me on the radio. What does my voice sound like? What kind of meaning are you attaching to it.” I read some of their performances, and I liked the directness of it. I like how it’s direct and mysterious at the same time. That’s something I’m fascinated by in radio, that there’s an intimacy there, but at the same time, you have no idea where this voice is coming from unless they tell you. There’s something about that combination that really felt right for the book.

In an earlier draft of the book, I also had these poetic ruminations sprinkled throughout, that were from a more omniscient point of view. They were observations about the way the world works. They felt too disattached to anything, and so I converted them into this radio show and had the kids be into that. I think, when you’re a kid and you hear that kind of spooky, poetic, creative weirdness on the radio… I mean, I was attracted to that kind of thing when I was younger, and I am now.

Even something like Ken Nordine’s Word Jazz–I remember hearing that when I was a kid and thinking, “Oh!” It did stick out as being something totally different.

Where have your tastes in strange radio gone from there?

I think it’s more in terms of taking in all these different podcasts that are out there. Because I’m on a podcast myself, I’ve gotten more into it in the last couple of years. The fact that people are using it more as a storytelling medium is really fantastic. Invisibilia and shows that take reporting and turn it into something really alive and contextual and imaginative. It’s really inspiring to me. Looking at the range of it all, too–it feels alive to me in a new way.

I feel like this also ties in with Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast–you can draw a pretty direct line from that to something like Welcome to Night Vale, which I mean in a very positive way.

I’m glad you brought up the Orson Welles broadcast, because of course that was a real setpiece of alien freakout culture. I wanted to tap that reference lightly, without going too deeply into it.

Has being involved with podcasting had any effect on the way that you write fiction?

I wrote the majority of the book before I was a podcaster, so I don’t know yet. I’m working on new material now, and I think I’m too close to it to say whether it’s been influenced. I’m almost eager to give it to a friend and let them tell me if that’s the case. I do think it’s given me more excitement in terms of the power of voice. When I say “voice,” I don’t just mean the physical sounds of someone’s voice. I mean the way that one person uses language and all that that can portray or convey about their position in life, their perspective, and their point of view.

I think we’re in this time right now where we’re hearing from a lot of voices that, in the past, have been really marginalized. It’s exciting to me that a voice that maybe 20 or 25 years ago would never have been listened to as an authority on something, now is.

Do you think your fiction is at all influenced by the nonfiction you write about pop culture?

When I was writing Neon Green, I was sure to keep the pop culture references on what I thought was a useful storytelling kind of level. One thing I didn’t want to do was be littering the book with references just for the sake of references. I get impatient when books do that–it feels gimmicky. When I would bring up something, I wanted it to have a distinct tie-in or meaning to one of the characters. It was a pretty careful selection.

At the same time that I was writing the book, I was completely immersed in pop culture, as an LA Times staff reporter writing about music and film and books and TV. It was my world, 24/7. I love pop culture–I’m really steeped in it. But I also enjoy going to fiction for other ways to talk about life. What happens in pop culture is this interesting mirror of what we’re thinking about and struggling with as a culture. But then, it can’t encapsulate everything; nothing can. Fiction is this other playground of ideas and ways in which you can talk about things that we’re struggling with or grappling with as a culture.

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