Talking to Aaron Starmer (Author of The Only Ones)

I follow a few hundred people on Twitter, and the truth is that I can’t quite remember how they all came to enjoy my followage. So I don’t remember when I started tracking Aaron Starmer, but it was probably about the tenth time we found some common literary ground that I started to pay attention to his tweets. I’m well read. So is Aaron. We’ve read a lot of the same stuff. It’s weird how that sparks an affinity. And it’s one thing to have both read a recent buzz book in your own field, but it’s something else to find you both love The Great Brain books, Terry Gilliam, Paul Auster, old Warner Bros. cartoons and the Maine coast.

So at some point I became more aware of Aaron’s existence and that he had a book coming out the same day as my third novel — September 13 — and that, like my book, it was inspired by classic sci-fi (though a different kind of classic sci-fi) and had a cover that popped. So a casual Twitter relationship gradually became a Twitter bromance of shameless cut-of-each-other’s-jib liking.

We traded books, and we’re trading release day eve to talk about them. (Here’s the other talk.) What can I say about The Only Ones? (Indeibound | Amazon | Worldcat)  I felt sick as I read the first chapter because it was so gorgeously written and compelling. I felt the same way reading Kelly Barnhill’s The Mostly True Story of Jack. I want to enjoy my friends’ books but I don’t want them to be better than mine. I realized at the outset of these two books that I was going to have to soldier on and read a book that was better than mine. (Incidentally, it’s OK if a better book is  different from what I’m trying to do, but when it’s magical middle-grade with heartbreaking narrative touches, I feel it in my marrow).

I think Aaron’s book is better if you don’t know much about it, but he has a good knack for making a fairy-tale narrative feel real, with just the right descriptive touches to make it vivid. Then those little touches end up being relevant. A flag pole rattling in the wind turns out to have a Jolly Roger, a secret sign to the book’s hero, and a theme that’s evoked through the book. Masterful storytelling. That’s how they do it. Maybe the description gets put in on the last draft, but it *feels* like it’s been planned all along.

So that’s my non-review of this strange book, which you should know nothing about going into it. Don’t read any descriptions. Not even the jacket copy. Besides spoiling the book, reading anything about it might give you the wrong idea.

And here’s my conversation with Aaron.

Aaron, thanks for sending me this remarkable book and thanks for dropping by the old blog for a conversation.

Thanks for having me. I’m honored, humbled…and a little bit nervous. I’ll try my best not to ramble.

So how would you finish this sentence? The Only Ones is for fans of _______.  You’ve been doing a list of 99 inspirations on Twitter, maybe one or two of those come into play?

That list was a way to keep me on Twitter every day, starting conversations with people with similar tastes. But it also became a way to examine and catalog the origins of the story. My first inspiration was a painting of a boy on an island in Maine, looking out on the sea. And my original intention was to write a modern fable about that boy and how he sets out into world, only to find the world is no longer there. It was supposed to be short and simple. But an empty world begs to be filled and soon images and dialogue and ideas from all my favorite things were shouldering their way in. The Little Rascals. Paul Auster. Pulpy sci-fi and horror. So I guess it’s for fans of hybrids and collages, of potluck fiction. I love genre fiction, but I don’t have the discipline to write pure genre fiction. I just borrow what I can, and try to make it my own, and hopefully it results in something unique and compelling.

Amazon has the book listed under the category “visionary and metaphysical.” Did you mean to load the book up with meaning or did you just mean to tell a story? How do you feel about it being described that way?

I’m okay with it being categorized that way. It’s vague enough to make sure the book isn’t pigeonholed as dystopia or paranormal or even sci-fi, because it’s not really any of those things. Telling a good story was always the most important goal. Hopefully some people come away from the book thinking about how they approach relationships and faith and community, but I didn’t try to bury any hard and fast lessons or universal truths. I don’t know. The English major in me is sure to object and point out my spiritual beliefs banging their drums on every page. But I’m not about to incriminate myself here!

Speaking of visionary and metaphysical, I snickered at a little dig against a classic of the genre which I won’t name here. Are there any books of that nature that do stand out for you?

Like countless nerdy and reflective teens, I was drawn to satirical takes on metaphysics. Douglas Adams. Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan and Cat’s Cradle. And that tone certainly still seeps into my work. I can’t take these things too seriously because it’s all so abstract and ridiculous. Wondering about existence and space and time and all that is also ridiculously fun, so I also can’t discount the appeal.

Your book The Only Ones and my book The Tanglewood Terror come out the same day from imprints of Random House. Both of our books have pigs, the state of Maine, startled raccoons, and classic sci fi stories within the story. But there’s a heck of a lot more than that going on in The Only Ones. Rube Goldberg machines and prophecies and elaborate puzzles. Lots of nice touches and curiosities. Did these come to you as you wrote, or did you begin with disconnected ideas that gradually came together?

I had a framework for the book. I knew how it would begin and end and at which points it would peak. The monster truck named Kid Godzilla and Felix’s wood-and-string internet were there from the very beginning. And many scenes came to me early on, like the one with the deer head and the ones in the hospital. The rest was about having fun with the characters. It’s an odd bunch of kids and with the entire resources of the world at their fingertips, it meant linking scenes and filling in details was as easy as imagining what each kid would do with an unlimited budget and without parental supervision.

The cover is great. It’s one of those covers I want to keep flipping back and looking at, as I read further in the story and understand what it is, who the figures are in the foreground, what the objects are in the background. What did you think when you saw it the first time? What can you tell us about the artist?

I am extremely lucky to have that cover. Random House had originally commissioned a different one. When they showed it to me, I wasn’t happy with it. It would have been great for another book, but I didn’t think it fit the tone and imagery of The Only Ones. I was worried it was false advertising. Authors rarely have much of a say in these things, so I didn’t know what to do. I took a shot in the dark. I asked if they would consider another cover, so long as I found the artist. They agreed, but they would make no guarantees. I reached out to an old friend from high school named Lisa Ericson. She’s a fabulously talented painter and graphic designer. We had reconnected on Facebook a year before, and she had already created my web site. So I asked her if she’d be interested in doing a spec cover. She read the book and accepted the challenge. I showed her some recent covers I loved, like Francisco Stork’s Marcelo and the Real World and Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver trilogy. I told her I was drawn to classic woodcuts and silhouettes, but also needed a creepy, steampunky and modern take on such things. A lot to ask, in other words. Within a couple weeks, she had created the cover you see now. It exceeded my expectations. I was floored by it. Fortunately, so too were the powers that be. These days, I can’t possibly imagine the book without that image.

The Tanglewood Terror has an imaginary author of classic pulp sci fi at the heart of the story. He’s not real, but he’s based on a realy author named H.P. Lovecraft who inspired the book with his own tales of creepy fungi. There’s an old sci-fi story at the heart of your book, too. I won’t say much about it because I don’t want to give anything away, but I’m curious if it’s a real story or if there’s an inspiration for that story?

It’s not one story or writer. I was more taken by the nature of those Bradbury and Heinlein and Dick stories that peppered the pulpy sci-fi magazines in the 50s and 60s. I didn’t read a ton of those as a boy, but their influence was everywhere, in TV shows I loved like The Twilight Zone and in the spaceships of blockbuster films. Of course, there’s Vonnegut too. His alter-ego Kilgore Trout specialized in these absurd and pulpy high concept tales filled with twists and ethical conundrums. The original title of The Only Ones was The Lonely Ones, which is also the name of a Bradbury story about two men stranded on a planet who see the footprints of a woman in the sand and…I won’t spoil it, but it has a gut punch of an ending. My protagonist Martin Maple is weaned on these stories. For him to believe and do and build the things he does and for him to confront all the strange twists of fate, he needs these stories in his DNA.

The word “edgy” is overused in reference to teen novels and so is the word “dark,” so I’ll say this book has a frankness to it. It’s even savage at times. That’s what reminded me of The White Mountains, which may be the most disturbing and memorable books I read as a child. Did you ever feel like you were pushing it, taking too many risks? Did your editor ever say anything, or your wife. “Aaron, this might be too much for kids.”

In early drafts of the book, the language was a bit harsher and there was more content involving alcohol and romantic experimentation. It wasn’t overbearing, but my editors thought it was best to cut it back. The book hovers somewhere on the border of middle-grade and young adult, so it was a hard call. No one wanted it to be vanilla, but no one wanted it to be exploitative. On the other hand, the “savage” aspects weren’t really questioned. I worried about them though. Those moments seemed like natural progressions in the story when I wrote them, and they were the moments that early readers found most interesting, but I had to ask myself if they were necessary. They stayed in because I think they are necessarily, or as necessary as any story choice can be. These kids are trying to create a world without consequences, but obviously there’s no such thing. The consequences needed to be real. Readers are bound to compare it to Lord of the Flies, and that certainly made the list of inspirations. But I think The Only Ones has a more optimistic view. The savagery is natural and often inevitable, but it can be overcome.

I ask this every time I interview a fellow author, but I’m especially curious to ask you because there are so many animals mentioned in The Only Ones. What’s the pet situation at the Starmer household?

My wife and I adore animals, but we don’t have space in our apartment for anything other than our betta fish Hakkon (named after a great uncle and a Norwegian king). I grew up with two Australian shepherds and a tough-of-nails swamp cat. As soon as we move to a place with a yard, there will be a beast or two in our menagerie.

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