“I Let the Characters Develop Fully Before I Went Looking for Themes”: Raymond Strom on Writing “Northern Lights”

So much literary fiction feels like an attempt to pull us into a world and convince us of certain truths. Raymond Strom’s debut novel Northern Lights is that rare book that simply unfolds, letting the beauty of the language, the tension of the story and the completely realized skin and bones of every character come to life on the page. As a piece of writing deep into a career, it would be a triumph. The fact that this is Strom’s first novel makes it something of a revelation.

I recently corresponded with Strom to discuss Northern Lights.

It’s easy to focus on the darkness in your novel, but I see a lot of light, too. Your early descriptions of Holm show a real affection for the small town, especially the diner. What was the process like for you in establishing that early tone? It feels at once very realistic but also quite warm.

I had a lot of problems with the setting and the tone until I learned to throw away my old man perspective and see through the eyes of a teenager again, innocent and hopeful. Although Shane has lost nearly everything at the beginning of the book—his uncle has kicked him out of his childhood home less than six months after the death of his father and his mother had abandoned him years prior—it is his enduring optimism that gets him through the, as you say, dark story that follows. I would certainly wallow in my own misery if I found myself with his problems, but Shane doesn’t let these things affect his outlook. He seeks and finds the good in Holm and I’m glad that’s coming out in his early descriptions of the town. It helps that the first two people he meets, the super of his mother’s old apartment building and Karen, a waitress at the diner, are friendly people that help him out—Shane hasn’t been there for an hour before he has been given a hot meal and a place to stay—and with that the diner becomes a sort of home base for most of the rest of the book.

You do a great job at setting up a core group of characters and the ways that they relate to one another and then letting those tensions unfold. Did you listen to these characters to find out where they wanted to go or did you have thematic elements that you wanted to explore and found the right vessels for those ideas?

I’ve been writing about these situations and this landscape since I was first assigned to write my autobiography in drug treatment in 1997 but, with no theme, my writing just went on and on for thousands of pages. I’ve thrown away stacks and stacks of notebooks over the years filled with sketches of these characters, other scenes, long monotonous passages that I thought directly represented real life. Eventually though, I asked myself what it was that Shane was really after, and once I figured that out, I asked how I could use all these other characters to get in his way. That was when everything began to fall into place, so I guess it was a little of both: I let the characters develop fully before I went looking for themes.

Your novel deals with some very weighty topics, such as bigotry and homophobia. Shane is a character who is androgynous and the book is pretty unflinching about how someone like him might be treated in a place like Holm. Do you think this sort of confrontational, violent attitude is prevalent throughout small towns or were you just trying to depict a specific time and place?

The late 90s were marked by (at least) three incidents of self-righteous violence that affected me deeply: the Oklahoma City bombing, the murder of Matthew Shepard, and the shooting at Columbine High School. I certainly considered those events as a part of the greater culture I was trying to portray when writing the novel but most of the violent confrontation that Shane sees is based on my actual experience as a long-haired boy in Minnesota. And though Sven Svenson, the antagonist of Northern Lights, looms large in the book with his Ku Klux Klan costume and his love for the confederate flag, I wouldn’t necessarily say that this reactionary attitude is prevalent in small towns but rather that it is common in the extremes everywhere. Sven Svenson’s group of cronies never grows to more than fifty—not even one percent of Holm’s population—and very few of those fifty are as outgoingly confrontational as Svenson. Of course, much of the town is complicit by remaining silent and allowing these people to carry on as they do and this, unfortunately, is one of the big problems with bigotry and homophobia: those of us unaffected do relatively little to protect those who are.

The novel has a very even handed attitude toward drug use, at once showing how drugs and alcohol can ruin people’s lives but also showing the beauty that can come with being under the influence, how it can open up one’s worldview. How do you find the right balance between those two ends?

I’ve had a long and complicated relationship with drugs. At age 15, I saw first-hand the effects of crystal meth on the Midwest, initially through my own circle of friends, and later through the stories of people with whom I found myself in drug-treatment facilities, so that is where a lot of this material came from. In my experience, the journey from wide-eyed wonder seeker to drug addict is a lot shorter than most people assume, especially with intravenous drugs. I was lucky in my extremes because I had people who cared about me take me to the hospital, but there are many characters in Northern Lights who have crossed that line and have no one to help them. Shane, fortunately, is jolted out of his desire for drugs by a shocking turn of events and goes back to the search for his mother, but without a purpose he may have stuck around and slowly turned into a toothless meth head, like many of the other people in Holm.

Shane’s sexuality feels fluid, as he’s attracted to both Jenny and Russell. I found this perspective reminiscent of another great debut novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon. What were some novels that influenced your approach to sexuality and romance in general?

There were a few novels that possibly influenced—I should say confirmed—my understanding of Shane’s sexuality and his attempts at romance, most notably Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Justin Torres’s We the Animals, and Amber Dermont’s The Starboard Sea. The characters in these novels must navigate their own desires while also struggling with societal and familial expectations, often assuming public poses that are at odds with their true selves. Shane picks his way through this territory for most of the book, until he returns from reuniting with his mother having come to terms with his sexuality. Two other books that I found to be quite informative, though they aren’t novels, were bell hooks’s The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love and CJ Pascoe’s Dude, You’re a Fag, both of which helped me better understand the man-to-man relationships in my novel and also the greater patriarchal forces that govern men’s behavior everywhere.


Photo: Rhe De Ville

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