Rumaan Alam on NPT's A Word on Words

Leave the World Behind | Rumaan Alam

Author Rumaan Alam talks to Mary Laura Philpott about his novel LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND.

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“Family life to me is like the emotional on-ramp to a text, for any reader. We’re all a part of a family. It doesn’t matter how you choose to define that. And that gives you your access into the book.” Author Rumaan Alam talks with NPT host Mary Laura Philpott about his novel Leave the World Behind on A Word on Words.

Full Interview

An Interview with Rumaan Alam

Leave the World Behind is Rumaan Alam’s third novel, following Rich and Pretty and That Kind of Mother, and it’s his first to be nominated for the National Book Award. The book has captured not only the zeitgeist of our era, but the attention of readers and book clubs across the country. For this episode of A Word on Words, Alam spoke with host Mary Laura Philpott about how this memorable and unsettling story came to be. 

Mary Laura Philpott: Hi, Rumaan.

Rumaan Alam: Hey, Mary Laura. How are you?

Philpott: Good. Thank you so much for joining us for this remote episode. Do you mind letting us know where you’re joining us from?

Alam: I am in the little tiny room that we call my office, although my dresser is right there and my desk is right there, so it sounds more grand than it is. But I’m at home, like most of us have been for quite a few months now. And I have to say, I’m kind of a homebody constitutionally. I think maybe it comes with the territory of being a writer. And really, if you have a home at all, this has not been that difficult a time for you — if you’re not a nurse, you’re not a police officer who has to go out into the world. So I’ve been at home for a while now and I’m not complaining, you know?

Philpott: Yeah, I feel that. I appreciate that perspective. Before we dive into the rest of this conversation — for readers who have not yet gotten to read this book, would you mind giving us the short version of what Leave the World Behind is about, who our main characters are?

Alam: Sure. Leave the World Behind is a novel about a Brooklyn family of four. They’re a mom and a dad, Clay and Amanda, and two kids, Archie and Rose — two teenagers. When we meet them, they’re heading out of Brooklyn to Long Island for a summer holiday. They’ve rented a house, an Airbnb, and they’re excited to do what you would do on a summer holiday, if we were not amidst a global health crisis and we were all taking summer holidays. They want to hang out at the pool. They want to go to the beach, to be together with their teenagers. And as you know, Mary Laura, when it comes to time with your teens it’s sort of like there’s a ticking clock there.

The second night that this family is in their rented Airbnb, there’s a knock on the door, and there’s an older, Black couple standing there who tell them that this is their house. They are the ones who have rented it [to Clay and Amanda] via Airbnb. And they’ve come there because there’s an emergency in New York City. There’s been a blackout and they would like to stay there. So from there . . . well, this is where I usually stop talking about the particulars of the book. Not because I don’t believe in spoilers, but because there is an experience I want the reader to have. And so what I usually say is that at this moment, the book shifts gears from being a book about a middle-class family on holiday, to being a book about people trapped inside of a home, trying to make sense of the world outside of the home’s walls.

Philpott: I like how you put that — “shifting gears.” I would love to know about the earliest seeds of Leave the World Behind and how this book began.

Alam: Sure. So, in August of 2017, my family rented a house on Long Island that was very much like the house I described in this book. It had a beautiful pool. It was in a very quiet part of Long Island. You had to turn down a funny road to get there. And it felt like we were so far away. My family lives in Brooklyn, so for my kids, nature is the raccoons that walk on top of the power lines behind our house, right? That’s nature to them. Granted, Long Island is still the suburbs, but this particular place felt really isolated, in a really beautiful light. And we had this lovely experience of having this idyllic vacation.

I was back in New York City in December of that year, staying at a home that was lent to me by the writer Laura Lippman, who is a very generous human being. She said, “Come stay at my place in New York City and write for a week,” so I took her up on that, because you’d be crazy not to. It was December, and it was a home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, very cold, right by the river. And I just found myself really wistful for this experience I had had on vacation. And I knew then — and I might have even known that August — that this was something that I would write about, that I would write about this experience of being on this holiday. But I also understood then that I wanted it to be about more than a family on vacation. And so the endeavor was just figuring out how to use the trappings of this family holiday to write a book that was about something else. 

Philpott: Was it always going to be called Leave the World Behind

Alam: No, this was an extremely difficult title to land on. Really, extremely difficult. Editors, in my experience, have a very complex relationship to the title. The title has to hold a sense of the entire book, right? But it also has to be the thing that greets the reader walking into the library. It has to have that sense of immediate communication. It has to have a specificity so that the reader who does walk into the library can see it, remember it, and then three weeks later say, “Oh, you know what? I want to read that book with that title.”

I knew that I wanted the title of the book to be drawn from the language of real estate. In the book, the context in which the phrase “leave the world behind” is used is the Airbnb listing for this house. I spent so very long reading real estate listings, trying to find a phrase that held the idea that was right for this book. I turned the book in . . . probably in March? And I don’t think we had a title until October. Yeah. A long time. 

Philpott: Well, I love where it ended up. 

Alam: Thank you. I’m very fond of it.

Philpott: I also love what you said earlier about shifting gears. This book felt unsettling to me in a variety of ways — one of which was really delightful, which is that it felt like you had taken some of the conventions and expectations of different kinds of books and sort of stirred them together. I would chuckle on one page because you’d made some fantastic, spot-on observations about these people. And then on the next page, my heart would start pounding from suspense. And I’m wondering, would you say that you designed this book to operate within multiple genres at once or to sort of defy genre altogether?

Alam: I would. I think that’s a very astute observation. When people talk about genre, especially the genre choices inside of this book, what you usually are hearing readers say is stuff about the thriller and the way that the book has a momentum — or stuff about horror and the way in which the book is reliant on fright. What you hear less of, or what I’ve heard less of, is the way in which literary fiction is itself a genre. The biggest genre I’m working with is actually literary fiction, because I’m taking the conventions of whiteness, of middle-class respectability, of people who care about their professional life, of people who are negotiating their sex with relation to their professional ambition, who are thinking about what it is to be a parent or thinking about what it is to be a spouse. These are the conventions of the literary novel as practiced by basically every literary writer we could name in this country. And so to me, that suggests that that is more codified than people are willing to allow — that just as horror relies on the jump-frights or, you know, just as the murder mystery relies on revealing who the killer is, literary fiction relies on these things too. And so I was having a lot of fun using those conventions.

Philpott: Amanda and Clay obviously are not real people — they’re characters you invented — but suspending that disbelief for just a minute: I wonder what would be your relationship to Amanda and Clay? Are these people you laugh at? Are they people you feel a kinship with, or that you feel similar to or different from?

Alam: I don’t know if any writer could engage in the long leap of faith that is a novel to write about somebody whom they disdained. You have to spend a lot of time with these fictional people, pushing them, nudging them around the page. I don’t know if your kids are too old to have had this toy, but there’s a toy called a Hexbug . . .

Philpott: Yeah!

Alam: So this is how I think of writing a novel: The Hexbug is this little mechanical toy that sort of vibrates around the table and you redirect it and you can build these big mazes for them. And that is what these characters are like. They’re like Hexbugs. I could not keep the Hexbug on the track if I didn’t care about the Hexbug or if my only purpose was to laugh at them.

I’m not uncruel to them; there are moments in which I reveal them to be as I think they probably are. There’s a complexity with respect to Amanda’s opinions about race that’s unflattering. That’s not a nice thing for her to think. It’s not a nice thing to show. There’s a lot of conversation among readers, especially online, about likability when it comes to character. And my response to that is usually that I don’t know anybody besides Sally Field who strikes me as very likable. I don’t think that’s a useful metric of how people are.

We are all likable at times. We are all unlikable at times. We all want to do good things and then fall short constantly. And so the people in this book, I don’t think they are bad people. I think that they are people like me, people who want to do good things and fall short constantly.

Philpott: Yeah, I’m not very interested in people who are 100% likable.

Alam: I tell you, I don’t think you have been since you were probably four or five. When my kids were very small, we would read those Richard Scarry books — these wonderful little adventures of, like, mother pig wearing her apron and all of that stuff. And even at five, they lose interest in that particular mode of storytelling because they know that it doesn’t contain any depth. It doesn’t contain any reality. There’s a reason that children the world over read scary folktales, because even young minds understand that the world is more complicated, and they want to see the unhappy ending or the person who makes a mistake. All of mythology is about people who make mistakes and are punished by it. I think that that’s a very appealing way of thinking about the story itself.

Philpott: Speaking of kids, the kids in this book add so much. I mean, both in terms of the occasional little streaks of comic relief, but also they add so much to the horror. And I’d love to know about how you developed these characters. Why teenagers versus little kids, why a boy and a girl, what went into that?

Alam: Thank you. Um, I think it’s extraordinarily difficult to write with accuracy about young children, because young children are not governed by adult logic. Their perspective on the world is very skewed and very hard to inhabit, at least for me as a writer of fiction, because it’s almost like the truth is stranger than fiction, right? The way kids see the world is so bizarre and so informed by their own individual psyche that it’s very hard for me to fictionalize. 

The children I’m writing about are on the cusp of adulthood. You’re not really an adult and your brain is still growing until you’re 20. Their logic is still childlike, but their bodies are adults. So I get to kind of fudge it. I get to have it both ways, I guess, sort of treat them as adults but also show them as not thinking the way the other adults in the book do. There’s a lot of interest in this book in talking about the human as animal. I think that the human is maybe its most animal, without all of the niceties of society, when it is a child. Even when it is a child of 16 or 13, there’s still a relationship between the intellect and the intuition or the body. That’s very different from what happens as you grow, you leave these things behind, you learn how to take care of yourself. And so I think that’s very interesting, this liminal state, this interstitial state between being a child and an animal and being an adult and a different sort of animal.

Philpott: I will say, as a parent of teenagers, when your children get to the age where they’re about to go off into the world without you, it’s a new kind of horror that is different from all the previous horrors that come with parenthood. I love that you made these teenagers and not little kids, because it kind of pinpoints a part of parenthood that I think is unique to having teenagers.

Alam: Thank you. I mean, upon its shift in register, the book becomes very interested in the climate, for example, and the question of what’s happening to the planet that we will leave our children. Obviously, everybody who has a newborn or an infant or a toddler is very deeply invested in that child, but you’re dealing with a situation in which you can kiss a skinned knee and mollify them. It’s harder to pretend with older children that the world is not changing around us. And I think that’s why we’ve seen a lot of environmental advocacy in particular, in the hands of very young people.

Philpott: Yes. I want to talk about the cycle of shame and reassurance in this story, where these people go back and forth between, “Oh, it was so bad that I said that,” or “I feel so bad that I thought that,” but then they immediately go to, “But at least I didn’t say this. I didn’t say that.” And I’m wondering, how does that cycle reflect your view of human nature?

Alam: I think that the people in this book, who are faced with real uncertainty about what’s happening outside of this house, spend a lot of time focused on things that are immaterial. They’re talking about whether they are suspicious of one another, whether or not that has to do with race. They’re trying to insist that it doesn’t. All of these things are a distraction. I don’t think that race is a distraction in this culture, but I do think that it may have overtaken the imagination when it comes to talking about what really are the pressing issues of the moment. They’re intertwined to be sure. Race is not as simple as I’m making it sound, but what the people do in this book strikes me as a lot of what we have done in this society, which is talk and talk and talk and fail and fail and fail, and also consume and consume. They’re trapped in this house. They don’t know what’s happening to them. And their response is to eat all of the food and drink all of the alcohol.

Philpott: Speaking of consumption and that misplaced faith in things — things that we think can save us or that we think make us safe — I have to ask: Have you made any pandemic purchases, any gadgets or clothing or prepper materials?

Alam: No pepper materials, because to me, that is the ultimate delusion. Of course, I am an American and this is our culture, a culture of consumption. I bought a wifi booster for the upstairs of our house so that we could all be on our Zoom meetings simultaneously. I probably bought stuff for the kitchen, because I’ve been cooking even more than I already did.

But I’m so mindful, and so much of the book is thinking about this, of the ways in which our impulse toward buying and spending are a fallacy. You know, I think about after 9/11, the federal government’s response was to issue a check to every American taxpayer. It did, in fact, inject cash into the economy — that’s the strategy. But then you’re dealing with the maintenance of a system that has very little to do with how Americans are actually thinking and feeling about the world. It’s very difficult. I mean, we’re in this moment right now where the government has, for the last year or so, been inattentive to the realities of working people in this country. I do wish the federal government had issued checks to everybody that would have changed something, but it would simply have reified that all we are expecting of ourselves is to go on Amazon and spend our money on things.

I’m not suggesting that I don’t do that. I do do that. (Although I don’t buy books on Amazon, to be clear!) We’re trapped in the system. We’re parts of a system that we did not design. And, as with Amanda in this book, responding to the presence of Black people with uncharitably racist thoughts, that’s not forgivable, and yet at the same time, it sort of is forgivable. If you are the product of the system that has taught you, as a white woman, that you are meant to fear blackness, especially masculine blackness, from the time you are a child, and it has taught you that using television, one of the most powerful tools we have, well, how can you possibly resist that? How can you possibly fight against that? It’s not easy to do.

Philpott: I talked about this a little bit with both Brit Bennett and Jenny Offill, whom we’ve had on the show — novels keep coming out lately that feel eerily timely and accurate, but which were written, or at least started, years ago. It makes me wonder if writers are particularly attuned to certain things before other people are. What are your thoughts on that?

Alam: I don’t know if it’s that writers are more attuned than other people. I think we’re all attuned equally. I think the task of the writer is what you’re describing. Art is an antenna, and we have all felt, I think for a long time, that reality is slightly out of step. Somebody my age might say that has to do with 9/11. Somebody my parents’ age might say that it has to do with the Vietnam War or with man walking on the moon. Somebody my grandparents’ age might have said that it had to do with who knows what: women getting the vote, England leaving India, England coming to India. That is how history functions — it functions as a series of disruptions, and people are left to decide how they’re going to make their way in the world they now understand differently. 

I haven’t read The Vanishing Half yet, but Jenny Offill’s Weather is an excellent example of what you’re describing, because it is a singular consciousness grappling with the impossible intellectual challenge of thinking about what’s being done to the planet. And it’s so very similar in some ways, in its explicit concerns, to my book. And I don’t know Jenny! I mean, I’ve met Jenny this year, but I didn’t know her at the time that I was writing this book.

Lydia Millett’s novel, The Children’s Bible, which is an extraordinary book, is also very similar to my book even in terms of some of the plot. It’s about people on vacation, about their children negotiating a changing world. I mean they’re different books — I don’t want to offend Lydia by talking about her book in relationship to mine — but there’s a shared concern in Lydia’s book and Jenny’s book and in my own book. And it suggests to me not that we are more sensitive or better than the average person, it just suggests to me that we all have the same job. We’re three people with the same job. The job is to commit what we’re all feeling to the page. And then usually what happens with art is that it emerges into the culture and we pinpoint things, like, oh yes, this is telling us something about this moment. Weneed that. That’s what we want out of a book. We have had a fraught year, politically and culturally. I think people have a desire to say, I need something that explains to me what’s happening in this moment.

Philpott: I’m so glad you mentioned Lydia’s book. I don’t know if you can see behind me, but I’m in a room with a whole bunch of bookshelves and I tend to group my books according to books that I feel like would be friends with each other or somehow related. And I would absolutely shelve Leave The World Behind with Lydia’s book and with Jenny’s books. I think I would also put it next to The Shame by Makenna Goodman.

Alam: I loved that book! Oh, thank you. That’s so cool.

Philpott: I’ve also been thinking about literary heritage and the books from the past that go into the books of our time. And I’m curious about books that you’ve consumed in your life that you feel like went into Leave The World Behind.

Alam: So many. I mean, this is such a big, big question because there’s a way in which all I have in terms of schooling is what I’ve read and in which I rely on the example of other, better writers to understand what it is I’m trying to do on the page. Specifically, with respect to this book, I wanted to capture a particular feeling of pure, abject horror about what will happen to our children. Stephen King owns this territory, and there’s a reason. So I read Pet Sematary. I hadn’t read Stephen King as an adult. I think I had read him as a young adult, so I hadn’t read him in a long time. And I chose Pet Sematary because it’s very explicitly about a parent losing a child. That book is insane. 

Philpott: I read it when I was eleven.

Alam: I don’t know what your parents were doing letting you read that! It’s truly terrifying. And what’s scary about Stephen King’s work, at least in my opinion, is not the monster. It’s what you understand it to represent. And especially with that book, the scary element is not the notion of ground that is so enchanted it can bring someone back to life. That’s not scary. What’s scary is thinking about what it is to lose a child and how losing a child would make you do something that you know to be absolutely deranged. So I learned a lot from reading that book and seeing how he deals with the relationship between the device that is scary on the page and what is scary, what the button is actually pressing in the psyche about what’s really scary to us as human animals.

I thought a lot about movies when I was working on this book. I thought a lot about this movie by Michael Haneke called Funny Games, which almost treats the notion of violence as a joke. It suggests that violence is lurking under every beautiful moment in life. It’s an extraordinary movie and very tense.

I also thought a lot about drama. I thought a lot about Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee . . .

Philpott: Yes!

Alam: . . . in which people are having this sort of convivial experience of drinking too much and talking to strangers. And there’s a sense of menace that’s very hard to figure out, and the play answers what that is in a different way than my book does. But there’s just this tone of something off underneath the proceedings that look really happy.

Philpott: I’m glad you mentioned drama. I know this book is being developed for the screen. I kept feeling like, as I was reading it, I could picture it on a stage. It felt so much like a play to me.

Alam: Yeah. That’s funny. My agent had exactly the same response. I think what you’re talking about is the fact that the location doesn’t really change. They don’t really leave the place. And there’s a sense of you as the reader being trapped with them, in exactly the way you might be if you were watching a play. And a great play like Virginia Woolf or like [Yamina Reza’s] God of Carnage can make you feel like you’re sort of uncomfortably in this room with these people doing these strange things. So I think maybe drama is a better analog than cinema because cinema doesn’t quite work that way.

It was a great privilege when I was selling the rights to Sam Esmail, the writer and director who’ll make the film, to have this conversation with him and to talk about Funny Games and just to hear him respond as another artist who works in a totally different medium.

Philpott: That sounds really fun.

Alam: Oh, it was really — I can’t even really believe that it happened. You know, I can’t even really believe that I got to have these conversations with someone who I think the world of. Yeah, it was so much fun.

Philpott: Do you know if you’ll continue to be involved in the film project?

Alam: No, I won’t. Sam is a brilliant writer and director, and it really should be in his hands and not mine. I would be the apprentice on a project like that. I don’t bring anything to the table in terms of skillset. The book is done. He has what he needs, and I have so much faith in his ability to make something extraordinary. I don’t know if you’ve watched Homecoming, which is a show he made with Julia Roberts, but the particular tenor of that show is just so similar aesthetically to how my book works — this idea that there’s just this creeping sense of menace in everyday life. It’s a really beautifully done piece of work. I can’t wait to see what he and Julia Roberts do with this material. 

Philpott: As Leave The World Behind has blown up in terms of readership, I have found myself having that smug feeling like you get when everyone discovers a band that you’ve been following for a while. I find myself wanting to go, “Oh, but were you there for Rich and Pretty? Were you there for That Kind of Mother?” I’m wondering if you could place this book in terms of where it is in relation to the books that came before it and in your journey as a writer — and maybe hint at what’s next for you.

Alam: Sure. My first two books I thought were so different, but I realized with the benefit of hindsight how similar they are in their concerns. They’re both very much about the intimacy between two women, and two women who have some very significant difference between them. In Rich and Pretty it has to do with the differences of class and physical beauty, but they have this very close friendship nonetheless. In That Kind of Mother it’s about the relationship between a woman and her nanny. They’re separated by class, the particular power dynamic of being a boss and an employee, and they’re also separated by race.

I know that the domestic is my beat. That is what I’m interested in. I’m interested in the life of the family. I’m interested in homes. In fact, in Leave The World Behind I wanted to make that explicit. It’s a book that’s so interested in the house in which it takes place and the material trappings of that space. To me, the domestic is a genre that is deployed with a lot of volition. It’s applied to work by, you know, Alice Monroe. Alice Monroe is the best example, right? She writes the domestic. And then there’s this sense that Jonathan Franzen, another great example, writes the social novel. But really what we’re talking about is the difference of sex — because Alice Monroe writes about history and time and Jonathan Franzen writes about family life. In fact, his two best novels are extraordinary novels of family life. The latter, Freedom, is an extraordinary novel about being a mother. But because he is a man, I think there tends to be this presumption that it is a big social novel and it has significance. Whereas because Alice Monroe is a woman — granted she did win the Nobel Prize, so this kind of levels the field a little bit — but there’s a presumption that those stories are small. They’re also physically small. They’re short stories. So there’s just this assumption or this relationship between domesticity and insignificance . . .

Philpott: Do you see how hard I’m nodding right now?

Alam: I mean, this is something that my peers, all my colleagues who are women know this, and they litigate this in their work all the time. All the time. And family life to me is the emotional on-ramp to a text, for any reader. We’re all a part of a family. It doesn’t matter how you choose to define that. That gives you your access into the book. We are no longer in a moment in history where our great artists are reckoning with the second World War. We are talking about the contemporary reality, and the way to get at that, I think, is via the family. Many of our great writers of this moment do that. And it is not insignificant. So I really wanted to continue to explore the domestic because it is what is what interests me artistically — but I wanted to really show in this book a very literal sense of punching right through the house to show you the world, to show you its relationship to the larger world.

Philpott: I love it. Okay. We are almost finished. This last little bit is the lightning round where I’m just going to ask quick questions and you say the first thing that comes to mind. 

First of all, since this is a book about a vacation gone very wrong, when it comes to getting away, are you a beach person, a mountain person or a somewhere-else person? 

Alam: Beach. No question.

Philpott: As a reader, do you read one book at a time or do you have multiple books going at once? 

Alam: Multiple books.

Philpott: When you finish a writing project, do you start right in on the next one or do you need a little buffer in between?

Alam: It’s a little like getting that last drop out of a lemon that you’re juicing. I don’t actually think you can do it, or I don’t think it’s profitable. So I usually do give myself the opportunity to do something else for a little while — to watch movies or to go to a museum or just, you know, take the kids to the park and be engaged in that for a little while.

Philpott: That sort of gets at my next question, which is: What is something that you do in your life that is the least like writing?

Alam: Cooking. I love cooking. At the end of your effort, you have something useful.

Philpott: What was your favorite book as a kid?

Alam: Harriet the Spy. Extraordinary book! One of my favorite books as an adult, too. 

Philpott: What’s one of your favorites to read to your children?

Alam: Oh, gosh. You know what I read to my children that I loved reading to them so much? Abel’s Island by William Steig. I love that book. 

Philpott: Okay. Last one. Where and when do you write?

Alam: I love this question, because it gives me the opportunity to say something that I feel like is not said enough. I have a very good friend who I think is one of the best writers alive, who described to me writing her last book, while pregnant with twins, in the front seat of her car. I think that writers have a tendency to over-mysticize or over-pathologize, the work that they do. FedEx drivers don’t have to check in with their inner muse and say, “Do I feel like going out and delivering these packages today?” So I don’t like to say, “Do I feel like doing it today?” There are days I don’t feel like doing it. Don’t get me wrong. But I wrote this book and revised this book on the subway, in the dentist’s waiting room, sitting on the floor of my kid’s school waiting for parent teacher conferences. You do it when you can. And I think it keeps you honest about what you are doing.

Philpott: Agreed. Rumaan, thank you so much for joining us. 

Alam: It was such a great pleasure.

Rumaan Alam Recommends

A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet
Collected Stories by Shirley Hazzard
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Memorial by Bryan Washington
Self-Portrait by Celia Paul

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